It is difficult to believe that tomorrow evening we will sit together in our sanctuary and celebrate Shabbat as part of the larger installation ceremony of Temple Israel’s new rabbi. Tomorrow night’s service will include not only all of you, but also our special guest, Dr. Rabbi Gary Zola, and friends and community members outside of our Jewish faith. I’m certain it will be an evening my family and I will remember for years to come. Indeed, tomorrow evening will be a very special moment for Temple Israel and for myself, but it will also mark an important moment in Reform Judaism, as the installation service will carry on a tradition more than a century old. Rabbinic installation, the formal service and ritual, is an American Jewish tradition, meaning the Reformers who came from Germany in the early 19th century began it when they began American Reform Judaism. Centuries before, in Europe, rabbis were “installed” far less often as they were given life tenure of their synagogues. In America, where rabbis more frequently served several congregations in their lifetimes, the installation service served an important purpose: to help ease the change of leadership. Because each generation of rabbi brings with him or her new visions of Judaism, ritual, education, and tradition, whether that rabbi serve for two years or twenty, the installation helps to mark that formal transition.
The installation ceremony also serves a second important purpose. Since the Talmudic times (2nd-5th century CE), a rabbi has been known as a sage, and is called in Aramaic, mara de-atra, the “master of the place.” The rabbi is, according to our texts, the prime resource in his or her congregation for Jewish law disputes, spiritual guidance, and advice. The installation of a rabbi into any synagogue or temple, today, is therefore an occasion to proclaim to the Jewish community, and larger community, that they have a new mara de-atra, a new spiritual leader and teacher who can decide matters of Jewish law with intellectual and moral confidence.
Of course, today, the leadership of a synagogue is not as skewed towards the rabbi as it was in ancient days. Today, rabbis have the privilege of sitting with lay leaders and volunteers in what we call a “sacred partnership.” True, rabbis are the “Jewish experts” at the table, as would be a doctor or a lawyer sitting with a group of lay people, but, the burden of the success of a congregation is spread among all who count themselves as leaders in the community, showing support for one another, and trusting in each other’s wisdom and entrepreneurship. Rabbis know right away, the moment they sit at the table, what kind of partnership to expect from their new congregation, and I count myself lucky to be part of a team that truly values the partnership between rabbis and lay leaders. Tomorrow night’s service, then, is not only a celebration of a new rabbi in the community but also a celebration of the success that has occurred here, and that will continue to occur, because of the dedication of all who work towards not only the survival of the Jewish community in the Greater Lafayette area, but also its expansion and prosperity.
I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night!