Arnold M. Eisen, Chancellor, JTS, Shares 2015 Commencement Remarks

This is the point in JTS’s commencement ritual when the chancellor says a few words to our graduates in the presence of families and friends, faculty and staff, members of the Board of Trustees, and the remarkable individuals to whom we have just awarded honorary degrees. I like this particular JTS tradition a lot, as you might imagine. And I will take advantage of it this year to address a fact of life that JTS graduates share with the entire cohort of men and women marking completion of degree programs today—a fact of life that I hope you will engage differently because of the distinctive kind of learning you have acquired at this institution, at this unique moment in Jewish history. My subject, of course, is change, rapid change, transformational change, of the sort that has overtaken all of us in recent years. I am interested in the risks that such change presents, the possibilities that it offers, and the ways in which it can be put in the service of a precious tradition; that has changed repeatedly, and often wisely, over many centuries.

I shall approach this theme, for a change, not with analysis of a text or an event in the news but with recall of an emotional experience for which I am indebted to one of our honorary degree recipients, Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. It took place in the central room of the Core Exhibition that Barbara’s team created for POLIN, the remarkable museum of Polish Jewish history that formally opened this past fall on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. The eight galleries of the Core Exhibition tell the story of Polish Jewry in the thousand years before the ghetto’s construction, and the 70 years since its destruction. At the halfway point of the journey through that history, one steps inside a reproduction (at 80 percent scale) of the wooden synagogue of Gwoździec. You gaze up at its soaring but fragile roof, feast on its gorgeous colors and zodiac designs, and do not want to move. I certainly didn’t. The place, the moment, held me rapt.

Part of the power of the synagogue, and of the museum as a whole, is that these newly constructed buildings not only chronicle Jewish history, but carry that history forward. The museum is a major step in the revival of Polish Jewry. That was evident when members of the community gathered at the museum on the day before the dedication of the Core Exhibition. The formalities of clinking glasses and speeches by dignitaries could barely contain the high emotion of life—Jewish life—asserting itself against the forces of death on the very site where so much death had occurred. Am Yisrael Chai. I felt privileged, as I stood in the Gwoździec synagogue that day and the next, to be part of the same people that worshipped in the original, to use virtually the same siddur, to serve the same God, to study many of the same texts, and to walk a path of Torah somewhat different from those of earlier centuries—a path therefore alive for me as it was for them, but recognizably related to theirs as well. Jewish tradition, to the degree it lives today in and through us and our community, and is passed on to our descendants, live and whole, is the very opposite of a museum.

What makes it so, of course, is change, of a particular sort. The move from gallery to gallery at POLIN, and within galleries, drives home the inevitability of change,  and the possibility of continuity within change, better than any lecture on the subject that I have ever heard. Differences within Judaism and among Jews are on view throughout. So is interaction between Jews and other elements of Polish society: sometimes positive and sometimes not. Jewish history is not presented as uninterrupted suffering and loss, or as pure virtue and creativity. Because of that, I could not help thinking as I walked from room to room, and especially as I stood in the Gwoździec synagogue, how grateful I was to the Polish Jews who had shaped my Judaism in ways too numerous to count—and found myself hoping that our descendants would feel the same about our community. I want them, when they walk in our footsteps, read our texts, take the measure of our achievements, and introduce bold changes in the tradition they have inherited from us, to know enough and care enough to make Judaism a home in which they can too live comfortably and well.

JTS to my mind represents that same commitment to building a vibrant Jewish future by reaching deep, again and again, into the rich and complex Jewish past. Change is the element in which we work, the raw material out of which we fashion the next stage of Jewish history. Fear change and you are paralyzed. Surrender to change, do it blindly, ignore its dangers, make it your goal, and you are lost. Engage it inside a framework of learning and practice; respect the past enough to go beyond mere nostalgia on the one hand or slavish devotion on the other; be part of an institution where first-rate scholarship and teaching are placed in the service of transformative action and innovative leadership—and you are practicing the kind of change that has proven itself many times over in Jewish history, and is proving itself again in our time.

Do I need to convince you, graduates of 2015, that wise, learned, and loving change in Jewish tradition, in your careers, and in your lives, is inescapable right now? That our world is decisively different from what it was only a few short years ago? Consider a few facts that bear directly on your future, and the future of JTS, beginning with the powerful agent of change each of us carries around in our pockets. Apple shipped its first iPhones a mere eight years ago, when some who are graduating this morning were already enrolled at JTS. Many members in the List College Class of 2015are as old as, or older than, the Internet as we know it, which this year turned 21. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) came into the world just four years ago, when many of you first arrived at JTS. You’ve come a long way since then, and so have MOOCs. The number of universities providing them doubled this year to 400, the number of MOOC courses reached 2,400, and the number of students who have taken those courses has surpassed 16 million. Every student in every class at JTS relies on the Internet and digitization. I think I was the only person in my seminar room this spring who brought books to class, or paper. My point is clear: higher education is without doubt in the midst of massive change, and Jewish higher education has got to change with it. You and I have no choice but to change as well—and will do so, I hope—in a way that strengthens lives, builds communities, and increases the justice and compassion in the world.

That task is rendered more difficult in 2015 because the other societal context that impinges on JTS directly—the state of religion and of religious institutions in contemporary North America—is likewise in the midst of far-reaching and rapid transformation. This past week’s Pew Research Center’s report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” documented another steep decline in membership among American Protestants—eight percent in eight years—a finding consistent with trends highlighted by a number of recent studies. Americans do not flock to organizations of any sort as they used to, and when they do join, they are quick to tell anyone who will listen not to count on them sticking around for very long. The modern story, for better and for worse—and the better, where Jews are concerned, so far outweighs the worse that none of us should long for a return to medieval ghettos or early modern shtetls: that modern story is one of individuals asserting themselves against institutional constraints and inherited patterns of behavior and belonging. Postmodern selves assert sovereignty more resolutely every year, and Millennials have learned better than their parents how to use iPhones and iPads and iEverything for the enhancement of and the weakening of every we. It should not surprise us when, like other Americans, Jews exhibit “Faith in Flux”—Pew’s term—or that among us, as among Americans in general, adherents to no religious community, the “nones,” are very much on the rise.

They—we—you, JTS graduates of 2015—can no longer be compelled to practice Judaism of any sort, or belong to any community. That’s obvious. You, like the rest of us, must be persuaded—by experiences of face-to-face community like those you have had during your studies here, and by experiences of “meaning with a capital M” like those that JTS provides and which we have taught you how to transmit, with passion and wisdom, to the communities that you will lead.

Our determination to continue to train leaders like you, in a world that changes more quickly with each successive entering class, is what motivates us to rebuild our campus. Just as we cannot use the same tools of teaching and scholarship that have served JTS so well for decades, we cannot use the same facilities. We need a residence hall for the coming generations of JTS students that is not just a dorm in which to sleep, but a site of intentional community, a setting for inspirational Shabbat dinners, a magnet for students from diverse Jewish backgrounds and commitments, a space in which exciting Jewish conversations go long into the night and yield ideas and modes of practice that carry Judaism, that live, into the future.

We want JTS as a whole to be the site of such conversation among faculty and students who are drawn here because they want their study of texts and communities of the past to shape the institutions of the present and the future. Full-time faculty and students at 3080 Broadway will increasingly be joined in this effort by students and faculty beyond our walls, in person and online, as well as by experts from every relevant field of activity: ethics and the arts, law and medicine, Israel and Diaspora, clergy of all faiths and Jews of all denominations. In order to encourage such conversations, we will build new conference and meeting facilities and a state-of-the-art auditorium. We will also make a significant investment in the renewal of our faculty and offer increased scholarship support to our students. We want JTS to be a true center of focused inquiry and high-level discussion about the transformation of our tradition and our community.

Finally, we will build a 21st-century library that does far more than preserve and circulate our 400,000 books, or preserve and not circulate our unparalleled collection of rare books and manuscripts. Internet and smartphones are a great gift to learning, and they have changed the meaning of libraries without eroding their necessity or lessening their value. We expect that many more people will come to study and be inspired by our amazing library, as you have done, once it is more accessible and far more visible. There will be collaborative learning spaces, a beit midrash lined with sefarim and outfitted as a smart classroom, places to linger with a cup of coffee, and a growing stream of visitors from the diverse religious and cultural communities in our city and our neighborhood. The new JTS campus will face outward with renewed confidence, open and receptive to the world and convinced that we have something important to offer it. That, graduates of 2015, will be the latest chapter in the story of the bush that is never consumed. I trust, after years of study here, that the fire for Judaism’s future burns in you, as well, and that your leadership will bring the kind of change-in-continuity, and continuity-in-change, achieved by the five individuals we honored a few moments ago.

Bob Dylan was only partly right, you see, when he instructed my generation 50 years ago on how to act when “the times they are a-changin’.” It is true that us “fathers and mothers throughout the land,” then and now, should “not criticize what [we] can’t understand.” When history summons us, as it does again in 2015, with the planet threatened by global warming and all too many of its inhabitants mired in poverty, we must heed the call, not “stand in the doorway” or “block up the hall.” God knows—certainly we do—“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’. It’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls.” Which is why, following Torah rather than Dylan, we surely want to understand as much as we can about past change, not go the way of revolution for the sake of revolution. We must reject the wanton use of good ends to justify every means, labor with wisdom rather than anger, balance justice with compassion, be guided by wonder as well as reason, choose blessing, and always, always choose life.

This morning’s graduates prepare to leave JTS just as the Torah cycle leaves the holy precincts of tabernacle ritual, the ordered realm where purity is sought and found, and goes out into to the messier domain of wilderness. Bemidbar is where most of life transpires, and where the order of the day is to try to be good amidst the mess, and be good despite our own imperfections and those of the world. In the wilderness, all learning is put to the test. Your leadership, your lives, will be the ultimate proof that JTS matters.

On behalf of the faculty, I want to thank you for all you have taught us over the past few years. On behalf of our tradition, and our community, I express our trust that you will change the world in ways that continue to make us proud. God bless you.