Chancellor Arnold Eisen Speaks to JTS Graduates

It’s my privilege, before our ceremony concludes, to say a few parting words to our graduates—a kind of charge to you, our newest alumni, as you prepare to undertake the hard work of bringing what you have learned in the past few years to bear, in circumstances that are changing more rapidly and more dramatically than ever before. The future of our country seems to hang in the balance these days, and perhaps the future of our planet. Wisdom is in short supply. No pressure! But we are counting on you. Let me review several of the reasons for my confidence that you will prove equal to the challenges that await.

The first is that you’ve already been caught up in enormous change, and you have thrived. Unlike me, and most of those in my baby boomer cohort, you are actually smart enough to make full use of the smart phone in your pocket. Unlike so many people above a certain age, you seem to be at home in the 21st century and not, like me, a sort of ger toshav, or resident alien. What is more, you’ve seen yourself grow in these past few years. You’ve discovered resources and abilities in yourself that you did not know you had. You’ve engaged successfully with the new, the different, and the unexpected.

All this bodes well for the job of coping with a world of robots, drones, driverless cars, virtual reality, and the other things apparently coming our way in the next decade. Your comfort level with change will also help you to ensure that Torah speaks compellingly, through your thinking and your action, to the brave new world we are entering. You’ve studied enough Jewish history at JTS—and enough pages of Bible and Talmud—to know how much our tradition has changed over the centuries. We are here today, you and I, heirs to that tradition, and prepared to apply it to conditions and crises unlike any our people has ever known, because our sages long ago mastered the art of creative continuity, and accomplished it at times through faithful and radical innovation.

JTS has always instilled confidence in future leaders that we have nothing to fear from the fact of change or from any other fact that solid scholarship uncovers—whether the matter at hand is Jewish faith, or the authority of Torah, or the legitimacy of the State of Israel, or the possibility of authentic Jewish life in North America. You have acquired this confidence and the openness to life that goes along with it. You’ve lived change every day, inside and outside the classroom. Much of your coursework at JTS, I know, as well as your senior essays and research, projects in the field, musical compositions, and use of new educational technology, have been about the synthesis of old and new. Your teachers have learned a lot from you about how this synthesis is achieved. 

So we trust you. We trust that in coming years you will neither romanticize change nor fear it; that you will know what to affirm and what to resist; when to embrace, as Ecclesiastes puts it, and when to refrain from embracing; and, always, how to hold onto Torah as you understand it for dear life, never letting go, lest you lose wisdom and truth the world sorely needs—and lest, in the process of rapid change, you lose yourself.

You know, of course, that this moment is one of enormous transition for JTS, too. It is a time for us “to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” The Library building to my left will soon make way for a new Library, learning center, rare book room, exhibition space, auditorium and—above the Library building—a new residence hall. The courtyard in which we sit will become an indoor atrium or “light court” that will for the first time unify every route that JTS faculty, students, visitors, and staff traverse daily, providing spaces for conversation and stimuli to community that have been missing on our campus. The physical renewal of JTS will enable us to expand the renewed mission of learning, leadership, and service to the community that has found expression during your student years in a host of new curricula and programs. We believe you are better prepared to lead and to serve because of those changes, and that Judaism will be stronger because of the impact you have already begun to make.

Rabbi Elazar, were he here today, eyeing the construction fence lining this tent, might well say with added meaning in the name of Rabbi Hanina that we at JTS are doubly banim taught of the Lord, banim as students and bonim as builders. May your peace be great as you depart JTS in this turbulent time, and your strength. May you spread blessings of peace and wellbeing through all you do. Go well.