Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I studied for my D.Min. between 1988 and 1992 has named me its “Distinguished Alumnus of the year for 2017. In the photo, Dean Emilie Townes is presenting the award.
Here are my thoughts on that recognition:
When I was 15 I was walking to our synagogue in East Orange, NJ, for or annual outdoor lighting of the Chanukah, the Chanukah lamp. Walking up Main Street, I stopped in a gift shop to buy a present for my girlfriend at the time. I picked out a cute stuffed animal, and as I was approaching the owner of the store to pay at the cash register, a little girl walked in. She must have been about eleven. She was dressed very poorly and reminded me of the protagonist of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl.
She approached the counter and said to the owner, “I want to buy a Christmas present for my mother, but I don’t have much money.” The owner showed her several inexpensive items, and I saw her eyes light up at when she looked at one particular item.
“How much is this?” she asked.
When he told her, she carefully counted her money, and from her face it was clear that there was a gap between what she had and what the item cost.
To this day, I believe God put me in that store so that I could make up the difference for her. It was no great act of philanthropy, a couple of dollars at most. But the feeling was unmistakable!
That experience taught me to look for what I have come to call, “Esther Moments.”
In the Book of Esther Mordecai tells the courtier Hatach to give Queen Esther a message, that she must go to the King to plead with him to spare the lives of the Jews whom Haman, the King’s Prime Ministers, has vowed and planned to exterminate.
Esther responds that she cannot go to the King unless she is summoned. If she does—even though she is Queen—she risks death unless the King holds out his scepter to accept her.
Mordecai’s immortal response is:
“Who knows if you have become Queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
To her everlasting credit, Esther had the courage to seize her moment and do what she was in a unique position to do.
Another biblical example of such courage is Joseph. He was in Pharaoh’s dungeon on the trumped up charge of trying to seduce the wife of his master Potiphar. Because of his dream-interpreting talent, Joseph was whisked from the dungeon, given a shave and new clothes for what was intended to be a brief audience with Pharaoh to interpret the King’s dreams.
But Joseph had the chutzpah to not just interpret the dreams as requested but to actually offer Pharaoh advice as to what to do about them.
These biblical stories teach me that God gives each of us moments when we alone are in position to make a positive difference. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Will we recognize and seize our moments, or will we simply let them pass?”
The opportunity to study at Vanderbilt was such an “Esther Moment” for me.
I remember that shortly after I enrolled I had a conversation with Bill Jenkins, who was then Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor for Administration and a very good friend. “I am just doing this,” I said, “for my own enrichment. It’s not like I need this degree to get a job or advance my career.”
He looked at me incredulously and responded, “Steve, it’s certainly not going to hurt.”
He could not have been more correct.
I well remember my first meeting with Joseph Hough and the late Jack Forstman, then the Deans of Vanderbilt Divinity School. They emphasized that they never had a rabbi in the D.Min program; they wanted to be sure that I always felt welcome on campus. They then asked what I wished to study.
I responded that I did not wish to study Pastoral Counseling or synagogue organization, the curricula for many D.Min degrees. Instead I wanted to take every Ph.D. level course that I could in Hebrew Bible and write a curriculum aimed at tenth grad Confirmation students based on my studies.
With their blessing I plowed ahead for the next four years.
For my dissertation I wanted to explore—viewed through the lens of Midrashic and other traditional commentaries—the narratives from Creation to the Revelation at Sinai.
I shall never forget the day I submitted my project to Ms Aline Patte, the Registrar, who had always greeted me with warmth and encouragement. When I laid my pride and joy on her desk, she shocked me by immediately taking out a ruler to measure if the margins and page layout complied with the school’s guidelines. To my relief she smiled and said they were.
I treasure the day about a week later when I met with my wonderful Advisor, Professor Doug Knight (who I am thrilled was on hand to introduce me at the dinner) and Dean Forstman who smiled and told me, ”We really have a D.Min project to be proud of.”
I also treasure the fact that Professor Knight attended the Confirmation service at the temple based on my D. Min project.
For years I used a major chunk of that dissertation not only in Confirmation class at my synagogue but in courses that I taught at Hartford Seminary and St. Joseph College. I also used it when I conducting Elderhostel courses at my undergraduate alma mater, Hamilton College, and in several institutes that I have led over the years for non-Jewish clergy.
In 2014 I published a popular version—with several additions—of that dissertation as my first book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.
It has been my privilege, in my role as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and in my subsequent travels—to lecture on and teach the ideas in that book in more than 100 communities around the world, including the semester-opening lecture I delivered at University of Potsdam (Germany) School of Jewish Theology.
With deep gratitude to Pastor Ursula Sieg and mutual blessing edition, the Publishing Company she founded, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives has been translated into German, Russian and Spanish.
I will be ever thankful for the opportunity The Temple in Nashville gave me to study at Vanderbilt. The wisdom I gleaned from Doug Knight, Walter Harrelson, James Barr, Shemaryahu Talmon, Renita Weems, and my friend Amy Jill Levine, cross fertilized the wonderful foundation in Hebrew Bible that I received from Chanan Brichto, Samuel Sandmel, Sheldon Blank, Samson Levey, Alfred Gottschalk, and Arnold Band at Hebrew Union College as well as Nehama Leibowitz, Galit Hozen-Rokem, and Moshe Greenberg at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Fifty years after I took “Introduction to the Old Testament” and got a C minus at Hamilton College, the professor who taught the course, Jay Gomer Williams, honored me by attending the lecture I gave about my book in the college chapel. It touched me deeply when he shook my hand and said, “I may have given you a C minus then, but I give you an A plus today”
I love the Bible passionately, but I recognized early that it was neither my gift nor my destiny to expand the boundaries of biblical Knowledge. Rather, my goal, and I believe, one of the reasons God put me on earth, is to show every day people biblical stories are really our stories than can have a positive impact on our lives.
I am very grateful to VDS for this recognition and take it as affirmation that I have succeeded at least to a degree in what I believe God wants me to do.
When I enrolled at Vanderbilt, it was, as I indicated for my own enrichment with no practical advantage in mind. But Bill Jenkins was more correct than I could have ever imagined when he said, “Steve, it’s certainly not going to hurt.”