Chancellor Eisen: Commencement 2017

Our ceremony this morning is of course distinguished from those in recent memory by our return to Park Avenue Synagogue,  the site of many JTS commencements past, because the JTS courtyard—the site of commencements future—will soon be filled with the joyful strains of drills and jackhammers. We are rebuilding and redesigning our campus—adding a new library, residence hall, auditorium / performance space, conference facility, and indoor light court—in order to facilitate and accelerate the significant expansion in mission, curriculum, student body, faculty, public programs, internet presence, and management structure already well underway. Constructing a renewed campus is one more reminder that this year’s graduates are entering a world in which virtually every institution and industry is undergoing rapid and significant change—and in which those that do not change, or do not change quickly or wisely enough, have diminished chances of success and survival. 

Last year at Commencement I said, with no particular prescience, that “the future of our country seems to hang in the balance these days, and perhaps the future of our planet.” A year later, I think we know that this is the case. Brexit is underway in Europe, Donald Trump is president of the United States, and—more improbably, lehavdil—the Cubs have won a world series. Not being a prophet or the son of a prophet, I will not venture any prediction today on what we can expect to see between now and next year’s Commencement, let alone by the time of the JTS graduation exercises of 2022. But I cannot not devote my remarks this morning to reflecting with you, our graduates, soon to be professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community and in many other areas of society as well, on what all this change means for Judaism, and for leaders who seek and offer guidance from Jewish history and tradition in conditions that are unforeseen and unprecedented.

I begin with a poem by Yehuda Amichai, Adam Be’hayav, that in a typical Amichai gesture of cliché-busting sobriety, insists there is not “a time for every purpose under heaven”: a time to be born, a time to die, a time to kill, and a time to heal, or—the example most relevant to my life these days—“a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” There is never enough time to do the things we want and need to do, Amichai protests, and the time we do have is rarely divided neatly into distinct tasks or emotions. “Ecclesiastes was wrong about that,” Amichai writes. Kohelet lo tzadak ke-she-amar kakh. 

I believe that Kohelet got at least two other important things wrong, both of them directly relevant to the future I want to contemplate with you. 

First:  there are “new things under the sun”—in part because we earthlings now have some understanding of what lies beyond the sun and inside the DNA that shapes the brains that probe the human body, the universe, and everything else.  

What is more, I am staking my life, and you are probably staking yours, on the conviction—a fundamental conviction of Judaism, a life-blood truth of JTS—that all is not hevel, vanity and wind. What you and I do during our brief years on this insignificant planet circling a minor sun in an out-of-the-way galaxy matters enormously. I know this because the Torah tells me so. Three thousand years of Jewish history, tradition, law, and wisdom have all been founded on the conviction that human beings and the world matter enormously, must be better than they are, and can be better. That legacy helps to guide modern Jews like us through the uncharted wilderness of contemporary existence and through the more settled parts of experience too. 

JTS stakes its future on the conviction that the Torah—studied diligently, with every tool that science, art, and experience can bring to the task—provides life skills useful to everyone at any time, and does so especially to Jewish leaders charged with showing the way forward in a difficult time like this one. There are qualities of human-ness in the image of God, we believe, and a depth of character nurtured by Torah, that no revolution in artificial intelligence will ever transmit to machines. There are covenants with other human beings and with God that cannot be implanted in or deleted from the species by means of genome editing.

I mention those two recent breakthroughs, highly publicized this past year, because I suspect that they, along with global warming, will prove more consequential to Judaism and to us in coming decades than the development of household robots, drones, and driverless cars, or the assault on democratic institutions that we may be witnessing in America these days, or the all-too-familiar sufferings of hundreds of millions around the globe and here at home from poverty, disease, enslavement, and injustice. Our moral agenda is as crowded in 2017 as it has ever been. It will soon be rendered more complicated, rather than less, by the fact that computers able to translate texts with far greater accuracy and nuance than ever before, thanks to new methods of machine learning, will soon perform jobs that you, today’s graduates,  might otherwise have held. Genome editing will render you and your children immune to all sorts of diseases that currently plague humanity. It will give you the choice to add what are euphemistically called genetic “enhancements” to your descendants at will. And the very same technology, scientists fear, will expose entire populations to genetic assaults far more dangerous than this week’s hacking or Russian interference in last fall’s election. Technology as always will prove a blessing as well as a curse. What seems new in recent years is the sheer speed and magnitude of change, which hurtles far beyond the capacity of our moral intuitions or of ethical traditions such as Judaism to keep pace.

How does one navigate dilemmas like these, or assume the other responsibilities that lay and professional leadership entails in such a time? I have no easy answers for you today—this is JTS, after all, where complexity is prized because we believe that easy responses cannot possibly be adequate to the complex truths of history, texts, or everyday life. Simple answers help no one, though they may get you elected president. I want to offer three brief pieces of advice from Jewish tradition that I think are helpful guides to action and leadership in a time like ours. All three seem particularly relevant to graduates wondering how and if what they have learned over the past few years of study can possibly prepare them for the enormity of what lies in store.

Lesson number one: fear is never a good basis for leadership, and rarely a good partner to thought. Anxiety or outright fear about the future is generally held to have played a major role in the recent American election. Such anxiety is by all accounts widespread. I heard an Intel commercial last week, presumably market-tested for impact,   that said Intel is embracing the future with confidence, unlike so many people nowadays who regard it with fear. As I sat in shul this past Shabbat, I paid special attention to the countless points in the service where Jews are instructed not to fear, from opening psalms down to the very last words of Adon Olam. I take these prayers as testimony, if we needed any, that life has always been scary, and fear commonplace.  It is certainly so for many right now.

Af al pi chen—nevertheless: We meet two week before the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, with Jewish conversation understandably full of reflection about lessons learned and not learned from that event and from the Yom Kippur War that so quickly followed. One of the most important lessons that I learned from these events came with my arrival to do graduate work at the Hebrew University in 1975. The country—and pretty much everyone I met—was still recovering from the shock, loss, and trauma of the Yom Kippur War. But this was the thing: no one I met was despairing; no one was hunkering down to await the next assault, or recommending a life strategy of carpe diem in the face of all that suffering and death. Every Israeli I met, on campus or off, had very strong opinions on how peace and security could be achieved, but none doubted that peace and security would be achieved someday. Yihiye tov, they insisted. Things would be okay.

I think there is a lesson in this for all Jews who seek to follow the fundamental commandment to be holy, kedoshim tihiyu, after encounter with tragedy and death, Aharei Mot. Where once I laughed at the ready Israeli response to all questions—yehiye tov, yiheye be’seder, yistradar—I now believe this attitude to be profound,  a vital expression of the life force and an attitude that every Jewish leader should cultivate. Things will work out. They will be okay—and if not, we will deal with the situation. We can’t let fear paralyze our action or distort our judgment. Ve ha-ikar,  ve-ha-ikar, hu lo le-fahed, lo le-fahed klal. The main point is, do not be afraid. 

I cringe when I hear politicians in Israel or America recommending fear as the basis of domestic or foreign policy. We can’t live this way, you and I—not in any era and certainly not in this time of massive change.  Jews cannot live this way, and cannot lead this way, which is why we are commanded to choose life, blessing, and good rather that surrender to the curses that spell death. In the face of suffering, Torah instructs us, be compassionate. In response to injustice, practice justice. Like the sages of old, we know that one has to study the world carefully in order to help it choose life. Jews draw courage at a time of widespread fear from the knowledge that we are walking a way that sustained our ancestors through dark times and will surely sustain us in this time of so much blessing.

Lesson number two: personal integrity is the key to leadership. In my first few years as chancellor of JTS, I spoke privately and publicly to leaders in many fields, including political leaders from both major parties. To a person they all said that the crucial prerequisite to leadership is not charisma or managerial ability or luck but personal integrity. I used to wonder if that was really true. No more. Think about it: How can people be expected to stand with you, and stand behind you, if they do not know where you stand?  How can they trust you if they do not know who you are? How will you know what to do, when decision is needed urgently, time for reflection is short, and you can’t stop to test the waters or poll the various constituencies, if you don’t have deeply held convictions to help guide you and guide them?  

This truth holds even in normal times. In times of rapid, dramatic change like ours, you need people not only to follow you when you lead,  and to walk beside you, but to go out ahead of you, to places your community and your tradition need to go but which you could not imagine. They can only do that, confident that they are furthering the path on which you and they are moving, if you have held to and transmitted a firm sense of direction all along. They need to trust you, and you them. God walked with Noah, the midrash points out, but God said to Abraham: go and walk before Me.  

Jewish leaders are not merely leaders who are Jews, or Jews who lead Jewish agencies and organizations. Jewish leaders know where we come from as a people and a tradition, and where we need to be going; they feel responsibility to the ancestors who preceded us on the path and to the descendants who will follow; they know the weight of speaking in the name of Judaism, always proudly but sometimes with appropriate fear and trembling. Jewish leaders must cry out the difference between holy and profane, pure and impure, just and unjust, right and wrong, and do so with love of Torah, love of Jews, and love of God, however they understand the Highest and Most Holy.

To be clear: I do not think that it’s the job of Jewish communal leaders and teachers of Torah to become political operatives who campaign for this or that candidate or party or bill. Blurring the boundary between politics and religion will not be good for America, as it is not for Israel.  But there are moments when a Jewish leader must speak out because personal integrity and the integrity of Torah are at stake. There’s a reason why the Torah has so much to say, so often, about pursuing justice and taking care of the needy and protecting the stranger. We stand before the open ark on Shabbat morning and attest that we rely upon the “God of Truth, whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth”—and we can’t just close the ark, walk out of shul, and accept without protest the contention broadcast far and wide these days that truth is dispensable in politics and science and personal relations. Every blessing of God that we utter as Jews carries responsibilities to help that blessing come to pass. We will often fail in doing so. Hearts will sometimes be broken in the process. These are life lessons that Watson will never learn, no matter how good it is at playing Jeopardy, but that Jewish leaders must and will learn the hard day. Watson will never acquire any wisdom the hard way, through bitter experience and love, and will never have to defend deeply held conviction and faith, as you will, when you put personal integrity on the line.

Lesson number three:  you can’t go it alone, and you don’t have to.  You need a community beside you, allies from other communities who will stand with you in large battles and small, friends and partners who are different from you in large ways and small, and yet love you in that very difference. We all have these too, thank God. I want to share two opinion pieces from recent weeks that touch on this point powerfully.

The first is the speech given by President Reuven Rivlin of Israel on Yom Hasho’a, in which he called upon Jews never to believe that we are alone in the world, and never to make the Holocaust “the lens through which we view the world.” We must never forget the Sho’a, President Rivlin declares. Jews must and will defend ourselves. But we must also remember that, as Pirke Avot declares (3:14), “Beloved is man for he was created in God’s image.” This, the president affirms, “is the most Jewish, humane and fundamental truth . . . a sacred obligation that the Jewish People cannot and does not wish to evade.” I am grateful for his voice of sanity at a time of increasing chauvinism and intolerance, as I am for American voices that affirm that we must not become estranged from one another or from allies beyond our borders and overseas.

That message comes through loud and clear in Senator John McCain’s call last week for a foreign policy that prioritizes human rights—not as an idealist alternative to realism but because “in the real world, as lived and experienced by real people, the demand for human rights and dignity, the longing for liberty and justice and opportunity, the hatred of oppression and corruption and cruelty is reality. By denying this experience we deny the aspirations of billions of people and invite their enduring resentment.” Proclaim liberty throughout the land, this week’s Torah portion commands, to all the inhabitants thereof—and perhaps this year we should read the word “ha’aretz” in that verse not just as “the land” but as “the earth.” I was struck forcibly by the inspiration that Senator McCain drew from Natan Sharansky’s courage as a refusenik in the Soviet gulag, and the strength and hope he received as a POW in North Vietnam from news of Ronald Reagan’s defense of human rights. Trust in other people and other peoples, communicated across continents or across a dinner table, empowers resistance, sustains courage, and eases loneliness. 

That ezer ke-negdo trust in others to assist us is urgently important today, not only on the world stage or the national stage but in the intimacy of personal relations. Americans apparently feel more alone in recent years than ever before. Jewish institutions thrive when they nourish a sense of community by offering the sort of true face-to-face community that is needed to supplement the networks and virtual communities that have been sprung up in recent years. Thanks to Facebook, we can all friend people in new ways for a wide range of purposes, some of them noble and life-saving. At the same time, however, the number of good friends Americans report having continues to decline, and the number of college students who feel that “things are hopeless” continues to grow. 34 percent on a national survey said that sometime in the last 12 months they had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” and 57 percent that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety.” Mental health experts agree that we need to counter such feelings with real, tangible, and caring community.

When students in a JTS classroom disagree respectfully over the meaning of a piece of text or history, or listen intently and patiently to accounts of one another’s deeply held beliefs and inmost human experiences, they create precious moments of community and offer quiet testimony that each of us does not face the world alone. Nor does the Jewish people. Judaism teaches these two interrelated lessons in a hundred ways, most of them unspoken:  the fact that we need a minyan for prayer services, for example, or that the great majority of the prayers we utter are couched in the plural, not the singular, or that the Torah starts with humanity rather than Israelites—which it does, taught the rabbis, so that Jews would never think our blood is different or better than anyone else’s. The Talmud spends a lot more time debating the path to creation of just and compassionate communities than it does trying to figure out the nature of God. So will you, I predict, in your capacity as lay or professional Jewish leaders.  

Jews have always known, as a perpetual minority, that we accomplish far more with allies than we can on our own, and achieve more as a community than we can as individuals. We cannot retain the conviction in 2017 that our tradition and community still really matter, despite our being less than 2 percent of the American population,  and a mere 15 million souls in a world of seven billion, unless we stand strong and proud together, and persuade allies from other communities to stand with us.  

Let’s not fail to mention on this occasion one final reason why Jewish leadership of any sort is dependent upon community:  we all need people who will elicit, assist, and appreciate our efforts to do things better and differently than they have ever been done before.

I wonder if my friend Danny Matt could have produced his magnificent new edition of the Zohar if he was not part of a cultural community of Jews that he knew would eagerly turn to the Zohar for inspiration. I think our colleague Judy Hauptmann was well aware, as she brought new skills and insights to the study of Talmud, that she did so for the sake of a generation of Jewish women and men who cared desperately about what the Talmud would say to them if only it were permitted to hear their voices and address their concerns. I know that Jonathan Woocher’s loving attention to the failings and possibilities of Jewish education is born of deep devotion to the community of Jews that nurtures him and of passion for the new ways that we teach and live Jewish tradition. And I’m pretty certain that Charles Bronfman could not have made the tremendous impact he has on so many thousands of lives, were he not certain that he acted on behalf of a people and a tradition that stood behind him every step of the way, even when they doubted the wisdom of his path, and that others, Jewish and Gentile, will carry that path forward.

We need you, class of 2017. We, the graduates of thirty, forty, and fifty years ago, rely on you to prove us right, prove Judaism wise, through the life-testing of conviction. We need you not to be afraid. To remember who you are. To act in accord with the integrity of who you are. And to build community, wherever you go, including and engaging Jews and others who for too long have stood outside the tent. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, building on an old proverb, commented about a century ago on an amazing fact of life that keeps all of us going, and that I hope will sustain your leadership in difficult times. The world is often a swamp. We seem at times to be sinking in its quicksand. But, miracle of miracles, we survive by holding each other up.

May it be so for you for many years to come.