I Will Be What I Will Be

January 10, 2015
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove - Sermon 1.10.15 - Park Avenue Synagogue from Park Avenue Synagogue on Vimeo.

In Memory of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l

It is, and will forever be, a humbling proposition to serve as a congregational rabbi in the wake of the life and legacy of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory. Rabbi Schulweis, the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Southern California, passed away last month at age 89. I cannot claim to have had a close relationship with him. I recall many Shabbat mornings in the hallways of his synagogue when I was a child on the bar mitzvah circuit, and when I was a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism, my classmates and I were always captivated by his occasional public lectures. If you have never heard of Rabbi Schulweis, his stature is best summed up in a tribute given by Rabbi Uri Herscher, who reflected:

“Harold Schulweis is a rabbi. This is a little like saying, a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin. Harold Schulweis is more than a rabbi. He is a rabbi of rabbis. He is a teacher, a writer, a poet of the pulpit, a prophet of justice, a thinker of astounding power and insight. Truly to read Harold Schulweis, to hear Harold Schulweis, is a transformative experience. He has, as much as any rabbi of our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance, and renewed purpose.” (Schulweis Eulogy, 12/21/2014)

There was a prophetic element to Schulweis’s career as a congregational rabbi. Much of what we take for granted in synagogue life was actually pioneered by him. Long before the PAS “Shabbat Supper Club,” Schulweis introduced Chavurot into his congregation – “small groups of families to share religious life and family celebrations.” It was Schulweis who long ago innovated with a “para-rabbinic” initiative whereby synagogue members were empowered and trained to support each other in times of need – the model for our own Mercaz Hesed/Caring Network and similar initiatives of so many other congregations. Decades ago, Schulweis was already pioneering inclusion efforts to welcome children with differentiated needs and their families – an effort that we are crafting in earnest at Park Avenue Synagogue today. Long before our own efforts to reach out to would-be Jews-by-Choice, Schulweis was leading the charge. Nearly two decades before the leadership at PAS announced its decision to embrace and officiate at the wedding ceremonies of same-sex couples, Rabbi Schulweis was one of the first Conservative rabbis to openly welcome gay and lesbian Jews into the synagogue. If, as the expression goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it is not an understatement to say that a good deal of North American congregational life, our own included, is a collective homage to the vision of this one rabbi.

Were it the case that Rabbi Schulweis did all these things, leading the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States for 45 years, we could – as the song goes – say Dayenu, it would be enough. But as his obituary recounts, he did so much more. In the 1960s, having heard the story of a Jew rescued from the Nazis by a German Christian, Schulweis founded what would become the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous – recognizing, celebrating, and supporting thousands of Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Many of us were in attendance last month at the packed Waldorf Astoria Ballroom at JFR’s annual dinner, hosted by Harold’s cousin, our own Harvey Schulweis. Or what about MAZON, the Jewish Response to Hunger,, an organization that asks families to dedicate three percent of the cost of weddings or bnei mitzvah celebrations to feed the hungry? That, too, was Schulweis’s idea. Some of you, I am sure, support the sacred work of Jewish World Watch, the largest grassroots anti-genocide organization in the world. Again, an initiative of Schulweis, who sought to make the Jewish post-Holocaust cri de coeur “Never Again” into a programmatic demand that the Jewish community never stand idly by in the face of contemporary genocides in Darfur, Congo, and elsewhere. (T. Tugend, Schulweis Obituary, Jewish Journal of Los Angeles)

As a gadol ha-dor, a giant of his generation, Rabbi Schulweis will undoubtedly be the subject of articles, books and dissertations in the future. It would be presumptuous, on the verge of unseemly, to try to distill such a storied career as his into a single sermon. Rather, in light of his passing, this morning I would like to focus on one aspect of this morning’s Torah reading that I believe provides a critical key to unlocking his theological and professional vision.

The scene is perhaps one of the most familiar of our entire tradition: Moses at the burning bush. God has heard the cry of the suffering Israelites and calls on Moses to go before Pharaoh to demand their freedom. Worried as much about addressing his Israelite brethren as about his anticipated showdown with Pharoah, Moses inquires of God: “When I come before the Israelites announcing that I have been sent to liberate them, who exactly should I tell them sent me?” More than anything, Moses is desperate to get God’s name, a concrete title by which God can be known. Famously, however, God deflects or rejects Moses’ inquiry, responding Ehyeh-a sher-ehyeh, “I will be what I will be.” Thus shall you say to the Israelites: “Ehyeh, ‘I Will Be,’ sent me to you.”

It is, without a doubt, an enigmatic exchange. For Schulweis it is also a critical window into the nature of God. It was understandable that Moses wanted a name, a noun, a label by which God’s being could be concretized. But as Schulweis explains in his treatment of this verse, “God is not a static noun, but a dynamic verb encompassing past, present, and future states of being.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh /I will be what I will be. “God,” writes Schulweis, “is not a subject or an object. God is known only in relationship and only in situations that bear upon man.” (For Those Who Can’t Believe, p. 136)

Schulweis advocated for what he called “predicate theology.” If God was going to reveal the truth about the divine nature, it was going to be to Moses at the burning bush. Schulweis proposed an alternative way to think about God, shifting the focus “from noun to verb, from subject to predicate, from God as person to Godliness.” (p. 133) It is only natural for us as human beings, as it was for Moses, to want to assign an identity to God, to think of God as a person or a noun. But while that is understandable, Schulweis explains, essential to our belief is “not the qualities of divinity, but the divinity of the qualities.” (p. 133) “I will be what I will be.” It is impossible to know God, but we can know Godly behavior. When we bless God for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or healing the sick, we are actually drawing attention to the human capacity for the “divine activities,” the gerunds of “feeding,” “clothing,” or “healing.” Neither we, nor even Moses, ever fully knows God, but we can come to realize the divine in human activity by way of how we relate to each other and this world. It is a theology that empowers humanity to seek to make real God’s will on this earth. “I will be what I will be.” Don’t worry so much about my name, about the nouns, God says, worry about the verbs, about making my attributes alive in this universe. Compassion, ethics, kindness, integrity, generosity – anything that elevates the humanity of another, that helps another arrive at his or her God given potential – that is Godly behavior.

Schulweis’s predicate theology is not without its flaws, but it is a theology that resonates strongly in our day and age. Tellingly, the book in which Schulweis articulates his theological position is called For Those Who Can’t Believe. Schulweis provides a template by which every human being, even those who struggle with faith, can engage in religious language and behavior. Our world provides ample reason for disbelief – where is God in sickness or in a tsunami? Predicate theology may not have all the answers, but it provides the opportunity and obligation for each of us to respond to such crisis moments with activities that restore God’s presence to this world. It is a theology that depends on human activity in that the choices we make ultimately determine the degree to which humanity experiences the divine. God is not a proposition that can be proved or disproved. God, rather, is the “good that we do” – should we choose to do it.

Which is why, I believe, there is a direct connection between Schulweis’s theology and his extraordinary rabbinic career. To build a community that supports each other in times of need, that treats every human being – straight, gay, Jew, non-Jew – as equal in the eyes of God, this is to create a community filled with God’s presence. To devote one’s energies to feeding the hungry, stopping genocide, honoring the righteous gentiles of the Shoah, these are efforts that collectively give expression to God’s will. I do hope people find God when they come to a synagogue to pray, but statistically speaking, that will not be the case for every one of us, every time. So how thrilling is it to think of a synagogue as an institutional opportunity to actualize God’s presence on earth? Schulweis’s congregational legacy is not just worthy of detached study but of enthusiastic emulation. We can and should be responsive to the issues of the day. We can and should mobilize to repair the fractures in this broken world. As human beings created in the image of God, as a synagogue charged to house God’s presence, we can and should understand ourselves as agents in making God’s attributes felt in this world.

Most of all, Schulweis’s predicate theology is a reminder that each one of us, created in God’s image, is a dynamic being who will “be what we will be.” The Exodus story, at its core, is a tale of becoming. Moses who transcends his station and self-perceived limitations to lead a nation. The children of Israel who learn to see beyond the horizon of their enslavement and into the Promised Land. It should not be missed that the antagonist of this tale is Pharaoh – whose static disposition, whose hardened heart, proves to be his undoing. “I will be what I will be.” There is something God-like about seeing yourself as capable of ongoing personal transformation, of being in a constant state of becoming. Don’t try to label me, for my today need not be my tomorrow. Growth, renewal – these are divine qualities embedded in each one of us. Whether we choose to access them or not – that is nobody’s decision but our own.

At Schulweis’s funeral service, my teacher and colleague, now Senior Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein sought to sum up Schulweis’s philosophy with one of Schulweis’s favorite parables. “When the angels heard that God intended to create man in his own image, they became jealous and plotted how to hide the divine image. One suggested hiding the image in the deepest ocean, another on top of the highest mountain, but the other angels objected that man would find it nevertheless. Finally, the wisest angel came up with a solution, saying: ‘Plant the divine image in man’s heart, and he will never find it.’” That, Feinstein concluded, “was the essence of what Rabbi Schulweis taught us … God is not above us but in our own acts and words. … Divinity is within us.” (Schulweis Eulogy, 12/21/2014)

Planted deep in our souls sits the potential to bring God into our world. We can choose, we can act, we can transform the world. Created in the image of God, we have the divine spark within, ready to be leveraged. We need to make the effort to find it, nurture it, and render it evident in all that we do. As individuals and as a congregation, may we endeavor to do so, thus not only honoring the memory of a great leader of our people, not only prompting us to live lives of constant renewal, but also committing to transform the world to be what we will make it to be – filling it with the presence of God’s glory.