Remarks Delivered at the 114th Commencement Exercises of The Jewish Theological Seminary, May 22, 2008
And now I’d like to say a few words to the newest alumni of The Jewish Theological Seminary: the nineteen graduates of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, the eight graduates of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, the twenty-four graduates of The Rabbinical School, the twenty-six recipients of master’s and doctoral degrees from The Graduate School, and—last but never least—List: the thirty-two graduates of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies.
We are proud of you. We are grateful to your families for sharing you with us and supporting you in every way possible these past few years, thereby enabling you to support and strengthen the JTS community. We send you forth today with the promise that this is not good-bye: we will keep in touch by means of our new Diane and Howard Wohl Office of Alumni Affairs at JTS. We will provide you with further learning over the years and look forward to receiving it from you in turn. For there is no doubt that the world desperately needs all the knowledge, skill, determination, and wisdom that each of us individually and all of us collectively can bring. That much is clear today, when so much else is not at all clear. I have full confidence that you can make a difference for the good. We want to be there with you when you do.
I don’t know how each of you interprets the portion of the Torah that is ours this coming Shabbat, B’hukkotai, but I read its litany of inspiring blessings and terrifying curses—the curses outnumbering the blessings by about three to one—not as a calculus of divine reward and punishment (this metaphysics, I confess, is beyond me, as it was beyond most of the commentators over the centuries)—but as a straightforward accounting of what is both possible and actual in our world.
You have heard the news this week, I know. It challenges our faith in life, let alone in God or humanity. The death toll kicks you in the stomach with its sheer enormity, and threatens to overwhelm you with hopelessness and despair. Earthquake, flood, suffering, war: tens of thousands of victims. Jeffrey Sachs reminds us that the newspapers could report a similar death toll from poverty and disease every week, every day. The situation is far worse than the curses set forth in chapter 26 of Leviticus, though the extraordinary kindness displayed in the wake of disaster and disease, and the knowledge, ability and virtue marshaled for relief and recovery, also match up to the blessings Leviticus details.
We’ve all been reminded, painfully, in recent weeks that, just as B’hukkotai insists, the tragedies built into the order and disorder of nature are either greatly improved or greatly worsened by human, all too human, action and inaction; the sort of business as usual denounced by our prophets; or the kind of altruism and pursuit of justice that our prophets extolled. The tradition we call Torah demands we pay full attention to both sides of the world’s reality and do all we can to move the balance toward the good, dedicating lives and skills to finding solutions to the problems that can be solved by human beings or mitigating the suffering caused by those we can’t solve.
JTS speaks and educates in the name of this tradition. The Torah we teach and study here commands us to love God with ALL our faculties—heart, soul, might, mind—and that means, in the first instance, loving God’s creation that way. That in turn means learning how to build and maintain communities of meaning, justice, and compassion—of faith and reason—as we work to alleviate suffering, suffuse the social and political order with greater sanity and compassion, and provide people with the rich meaning and hopeful confidence that it takes to survive let alone to thrive.
At this moment, more than ever, the world needs not only science and all it represents, but wisdom; wisdom that is rendered serious, and so keeps talk of God and faith serious, by informing itself with all the tools it can command: science, history, and the experience of people with different perspectives than ours. It takes respect for law to guide and constrain us; it takes politics—the move from Leviticus to Numbers, B’midbar, the Wilderness—for that is where we live, wilderness that is far from paradise, where we live with human beings, not angels.
We have today honored a leading scientist, a pre-eminent jurist, a great and wise scholar of Jewish philosophy and law, and a skilled, dedicated member of Congress, to symbolize the varied partners that JTS knows are needed by God and Torah in order to make God’s Torah live in this world. JTS has always embraced the other institutions of higher learning on our part of Broadway. It has insisted that we study Torah and the sciences, faith and history; that we combine commitment and criticism, fidelity to our tradition with full respect for others; that we respond both to the imperatives of God and Torah, and the imperatives of now.
We—the faculty, the administration, the many friends and supporters of JTS—have invested so much in you, our graduates, because we know that it takes highly educated and inspired leaders, men and women of exceptional ability and commitment, to help our communities meet the tests we face now and those to come. Human agency is needed to mend the world and move it slowly but surely toward redemption. It takes rabbis and cantors; educators, lay leaders and scholars who are imbued with spirit, possessed of human skills, and so learned in tradition that they can interpret it confidently in unprecedented circumstances.
We know that the way we teach you needs repeated updating to suit the new conditions in which you will work. That is why we transformed the curriculum of The Rabbinical School this year and are in the process of doing the same for the H. L. Miller Cantorial School. We owe you the best fit possible between the training you receive and the reality that awaits you beyond JTS. But we will not abandon the rigor and deep learning for which JTS is rightfully famous. We recognize that the detail of text and history may seem, on any given day of class, far from the madding real-world demands that crowd our consciousness, but experience has proved otherwise. It has shown the detailed disciplines we teach here, supplemented by others, to be a fine way of honing minds and nurturing souls, taking us so deep into Torah that we come out the other end strong enough to leap forward and leap high.
I have been attached to The Jewish Theological Seminary since childhood with the cords of instruction and affection inculcated by my teachers—individuals who were, to a person, fully engaged with Jewish history and tradition. On the one hand, committed to knowing that past in all its nuance and complexity, and also committed to full participation in the society and culture around us; open to all its branches of knowledge and the discordant perspectives of human beings from other backgrounds who bear commitments other than our own. We need those differences, voiced forcefully but respectfully. I hope you have had some experience of that in class. The full engagement with tradition and contemporary culture is for me the very definition of Conservative Judaism; indeed it is Judaism as I understand it, it is Torah. It is the major reason that I celebrate the enlarged possibilities for fulfillment of Torah presented to Jews by the existence and thriving of the State of Israel; and it certainly is the path of meaning and community taught by JTS. I hope we have taught and modeled it well.
Graduates of 2008: you leave us today with a degree in hand. I hope that you also take with you the confidence of your teachers and this institution. That knowledge can make a difference for good in this world—if properly channeled through wisdom—because you make such a difference, and that Jewish tradition, in particular, will continue to matter greatly to Jews and all humanity because of the way you walk the path of Torah and help others to walk it. If there is anything we can do to help you in this work along the way, let us know. Thank you for being here. Go well.