by Eric H. Yoffie
Apart from my parents, my teachers were the most important influences in forming my character and my values. The death of a beloved professor last July brought back memories of just how much he had shaped my life and helped me through a difficult time.
In 1969, a few weeks after beginning my rabbinical studies at the New York campus of HUC-JIR, I was convinced that I would not last the year. The campus was in transition. Many of its professors were nearing retirement and were set in their ways. The students were generally serious about Judaism but not necessarily about the rabbinate. For more than a few, products of the 1960s upheavals, attending the seminary was more about not serving in Vietnam than serving God and the Jewish people. Also, while the studies were stimulating, no attention whatever was being paid to matters of spirituality. Rarely addressed were the troubling questions some of us had about God, tradition, and personal faith. Daily worship was--in a word--dreadful. Moreover, since we students were scattered throughout the New York metropolitan area, community building was impossible. After 6 months, I started to think about applying to law school.
What kept me on a path to the rabbinate was my relationship with my advisor and Hebrew professor, Abraham Aaroni. I had begun studying Hebrew seriously at Brandeis University, and it was my love for this language of mystery and beauty that had drawn me to Judaism and ultimately to the rabbinate. Professor Aaroni embodied this love of Hebrew more than anyone I had ever met.
In those difficult days, he often invited me to this home, where I met his wife Celie. Seated in his living room or at the kitchen table, he shared with me stories of teaching Hebrew in small New York and Pennsylvania communities. We spent many hours of conversation--at his insistence, always in Hebrew--about the works of Ahad Haam and other Hebrew writers of the modern period. But Professor Aaroni's greatest gift to me was his willingness to listen patiently and sympathetically as I struggled with the question of whether I should become a rabbi. I would agonize, endlessly, over the God I did or did not believe in. He would hear what I had to say, but did not try to provide an answer; instead he brought me down to earth. It was not my task, he would remind me, gently but firmly, to resolve the theological issues that had troubled our rabbis for thousands of years. I needed to decide, in the face of doubts, what was the Torah that I would observe and the Torah that I would teach? What was the commitment that I was prepared to make to the Jewish people?
Professor Aaroni also pointed me to other students struggling with similar questions and suggested faculty members to whom I might talk, even though to me they had seemed unapproachable. From these encounters I learned that I was far from alone in my questioning. And since the other professors to whom I spoke frequently had very different ideas, I also learned the benefits of multiple and competing perspectives.
The most important lesson I learned from Professor Aaroni was simply this: The study of Torah, no matter how rigorous and thought-provoking, is never enough. Love of Torah flows not only from the text itself, but from the care and embrace of those who teach Torah. When I entered rabbinical school, I felt isolated and adrift. But Professor Aaroni's caring, the support of his family, and the connections that he urged upon me enabled me to find at the seminary a supportive community that heightened the joys of Torah and made my doubts bearable because they were shared. By my second year, I had put aside any thoughts of leaving.
The insights that Professor Aaroni imparted to me have guided me ever since: Struggle with theology but don't expect certainty or easy answers. Whatever your doubts, remember your obligations to the Jewish people. And, above all, find a supportive community for yourself and help provide one for others, for every Jew needs to experience Torah in a place where he/she feels safe, comfortable, and connected.
Looking back now on my rabbinate, and in particular on the last decade as URJ president, it seems to me that most of what I have tried to accomplish reflects these principles. When I am tempted to spend my time pondering the imponderables and delving into the esoteric, my memories of Professor Aaroni return me to earth. I remember my obligation to address the Torah of the everyday and the needs of Jews on the ground. My task is to help put Torah at the center of the daily lives of the members of our congregations in language that is both compelling and accessible to all. And I have encouraged them to do so in small steps, such as studying Torah for 10 minutes each day and reading 4 significant Jewish books every year.
And whenever I am tempted to concentrate too much on the needs of the individual Jew, Professor Aaroni's gentle rebuke of long ago turns my attention back to the community, the klal. Our worship initiative was created to encourage enthusiastic participation in communal prayer--which is the very heart of our collective Jewish experience. Our lifelong membership initiative was created to address such questions as: Are we reshaping our synagogues as places of kinship and caring? Are we doing all that we can to lift Jews out of their aloneness and help them establish their congregations as truly supportive communities?
But above all, I remember that my teacher was an ish chesed--a man of compassion who taught so effectively because of the kindness with which his teaching was always conveyed. In this regard, I still ask myself with regularity if I am following his example.
As one who is responsible for 400 employees and for serving 900 congregations throughout North America, am I offering my staff and constituency the patient and caring encouragement that Professor Aaroni gave me? Every day I receive a large number of e-mails and letters, some posing wrenching questions about family problems, synagogue conflicts, and personal belief. Clearly, I cannot personally reply to them all, yet I ask myself, does that then become an excuse to leave most of them for someone else to answer? And what of the students and others who request meetings to discuss career goals or concerns about the Jewish community? What about the staff and volunteers who, often without saying so, need a personal rather than a pro forma institutional response?
A confession: I remained in close touch with my teacher for many years, and after returning to New York in the 1980s, saw him frequently; but later I was "too busy" and visited him rarely. When I heard of his death, it was a terrible blow. For good reason, I felt guilty. I had not, in his final years, given him the same degree of kindness and caring that he had given me.
Since then, I have tried to recalibrate how I allocate my time and adjust the balance I must strike between my administrative responsibilities and the personal guidance, teaching, and caring that lie at the root of my role as rabbi and leader of a religious movement. I make a conscious effort to listen more patiently and carefully to my colleagues and to be more sensitive to the needs of those who, without specifically asking, may be in pain or in need of support.
"God desires the heart," the Torah tells us. From Professor Aaroni I learned that in the absence of heart, there is no Torah. Thanks to him, creating a Torah of the heart remains my aspiration, both for myself and the Movement I serve.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.