May 1, 2003
David A. Harris
American Jewish Committee
In preparation for this auspicious occasion, I read several commencement addresses,
both those delivered at the campuses of Hebrew Union College and elsewhere.
While reading the texts couldn’t give me a sense of audience reaction,
I suspect among the most popular commencement addresses was the one delivered
by the noted artist Salvador Dali. Let me read you the entire speech: “I
will be so brief, I have already finished.”
All graduation speakers should probably take their cue from him. After all,
when was the last time an audience complained about a speech being too short?
Perhaps you’ve heard the story, presumably apocryphal, about the commencement
speaker at Yale, who used the four letters of the university’s name as
the blueprint for his speech.
For 10 minutes he spoke about the “Y” as in youth, followed by
15 minutes about the “A” as in ambition, then 20 minutes about the
“L” as in loyalty to the institution, and, finally, 25 minutes about
the “E” as in excellence. When he left the podium, he noticed a
student who seemed particularly struck by the speech and asked what in particular
had touched him. The student replied: “How lucky I am that I didn’t
attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!”
Like many given this privilege, I simply can’t resist the temptation
to share a few thoughts, but promise not to use the letters of Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the take-off point for my remarks.
Let me first of all applaud this remarkable institution and those associated
with it—administrators, faculty, trustees, supporters, and, not least,
students, and, of course, their parents. And let me add a special word of admiration
for your truly outstanding president, David Ellenson. For over 125 years the
Hebrew Union College has made an extraordinary contribution to the life of the
Jewish people worldwide.
You have impressively balanced modernity and tradition, scholarship and service,
the sacred and the quotidian.
In a word, you have led by example.
While proudly committed to the Reform movement, you have opened your doors
to all streams of Judaism, giving true meaning to the notion of am echad, one
people. Just last year, I believe, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the Chancellor of the
Jewish Theological Seminary, stood here at this podium, while Rabbi Emanuel
Rackman of Bar-Ilan University was given an honorary doctorate.
You have opened your doors to Christian and other religious scholars as well,
underscoring the vital importance—never more so than today—of advancing
interfaith dialogue and understanding. I note the fact that the Reverend Peter
John Gomes of Harvard University addressed this graduation ceremony four years
ago, and that my friend Father John Pawlikowski of the Chicago Theological Union
was the commencement speaker at the Cincinnati graduation two years ago. And
it is noteworthy that among this evening’s graduates are two Christian
clergy from Nigeria.
We live in a world in which the jury—that’s spelled j-u-r-y, not
J-e-w-r-y—is still out on the balance of forces both within and among
religions and, consequently, whether religion as such will ultimately be part
of the solution, i.e. as a force for harmony and peace, or, conversely, be part
of the problem, i.e. as a force for division and strife. This community—your
community—has long ago taken its stand, and I for one could not be more
May your example prove contagious.
And permit me to applaud you, the graduates, not only for your impressive
academic achievements but, every bit as much, for taking a personal stand.
By choosing to pursue graduate studies and a career in pastoral care and counseling,
education, sacred music, and, of course, the rabbinate, you say something profound
You say that the work of repairing this broken world is not someone else’s
task, it is yours.
You say that in a world where self-gratification and self-entitlement are
increasingly, even obsessively, the watchwords of the day, you choose instead
to focus on those in need. You stand in stark contrast to the two tycoons in
The New Yorker cartoon sitting in luxurious armchairs, with one saying to the
other: “I, too, longed to find a cause greater than myself. Fortunately,
I never did.”
In other words, in a world in which quality-of-life issues dominate, you are
preoccupied with quality-of-living issues.
You say, in the words of Rabbi Stephen Wise, founder of the Jewish Institute
of Religion, a component of this school, that life is “not a matter of
extent but of content.”
You say that in a world in quest of the material, you are in search of the
You say that in a world focused on the here and now, you are linked to a timeline
that stretches back millennia and that you are determined will stretch forward
no less far.
May your example prove contagious.
As you embark on the next stage of your lives, perhaps most aptly described
as “a post-tuition era,” may I offer, consistent with my assigned
role, a few words of reflection.
Clichéd though it may sound, believe in yourselves and your capacity
to make an imprint on the world around you, to leave the world a better, more
humane place than you found it.
Today, quite naturally, you look ahead as you embark on your careers, but let
me ask you for just a moment to fast forward to the end of your careers—an
unusual request on this of all days, I realize—and try to imagine the
criteria you will use to assess how your professional lives were spent. In brief,
did you make a difference? Were you alert both to the opportunities and, yes,
dangers that emerged on your watch? How many times will you use the words “should
have” in your assessment?
Let me take one decisive historical reference point as illustration.
I ask myself what the Jewish world must have looked like when World War II
Think about it.
One-third of the Jewish people had been exterminated within twelve years of
the infamous prediction of American Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who said
in Time magazine, shortly after Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, that
“mistreatment of Jews in Germany may be considered virtually eliminated.”
An entirely new vocabulary of genocide had been invented to implement the Nazi
Final Solution—from Auschwitz to Zyklon-B.
The great centers of Jewish civilization and study from Berlin to Vilna, from
Warsaw to Salonika, had been decimated.
The participants in the genocide had been many, the bystanders far more numerous
still, and the blessed Hasidei umot ha’olam, the Righteous among the Nations,
so frightfully few.
As one survivor, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, said,
For the greatest part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen, there was no
ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had
no place to go, nobody to hug. Nobody was waiting for us anywhere. We had been
liberated from death and the fear of death, but not from the fear of life.
Palestine was largely closed to Jewish entry, as Leon Uris, whom you honor
this evening, has so poignantly written in his legendary Exodus, a book that
had a life-changing effect on so many, myself included, and that served as a
catalyst for the reawakening of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Thousands,
tens of thousands, of Jews who tried to make their way to Palestine were intercepted
by the British and shamefully interned on Cyprus or elswhere.
And American Jews became painfully aware of their powerlessness to influence
the course of wartime events and save European Jewry, despite the indefatigable
efforts of individuals like Rabbi Stephen Wise.
Can you imagine the degree of courage, fortitude, and faith required to pick
up the strewn pieces of shattered lives after the war and march on?
Yet there were those who somehow found the strength, forged the vision, and
navigated the turbulent waters to write a new—and promising—chapter
in the Jewish saga.
There were those who never suffered from a failure of imagination, or the
resolve to match. Speaking of imagination and resolve, Daniel Goldin, on whom
you confer an honorary degree this evening, most certainly never lacked for
either in his remarkable career at NASA.
There were those who inspired others not only by the power of their words
but, more importantly still, by the example of their deeds.
There were those who believed that the Jewish mission on earth had only become
more urgent—to bring God and humanity closer to one another; to remind
us that we are all, each and every one of us, God’s children created in
the divine image; and to recall that we have been given the gift of moral choice,
and that we must seek to make the right choices—to lift the falling, heal
the ailing, welcome the stranger, and recognize holiness in the world around
There were those who resolved that the time had come for the Jewish people
to become authors of history, and never again its victims.
These individuals, this determined Jewish people, succeeded brilliantly, beyond
anyone’s wildest dream.
Against all the odds, Israel was established and survived a crucible unlike
any other nation in modern history. And not only did it survive, it flourished.
It built an army and defended itself against those who would destroy it, defying
the confident predictions of many outside military experts.
A prospering state emerged, a democratic state, a growing state. Avram Burg,
who is receiving an honorary doctorate this evening, symbolizes the dynamism
of that state.
Distinguished universities were founded. The land was lovingly restored. And
Jews the world over felt a powerful surge of pride in a nation reborn.
Israel’s challenges, both internal and external, seem never-ending at
times but, stepping back for a moment from the daily torrent of news, its record
of achievement in state-building has been nothing short of breathtaking.
And American Jews fared remarkably well in the postwar world. They found their
footing in an increasingly open and inclusive America, and raised their voices
effectively on behalf of Israel, endangered Jewish communities, universal human
rights, and the crying need for social justice for all Americans.
Together, in other words, leaders on both sides of the ocean moved mountains.
Can you imagine? In the 1970s—and I was a witness—many Soviet
non-Jews sought to forge papers proving they were Jews, so they could attempt
to leave the country and begin new lives in the West.
Just thirty years earlier, during the Nazi occupation, to be a Jew on Soviet
soil meant almost certain deportation or death.
Just twenty or twenty-five years earlier, under the Stalinist regime, to be
a Jew on Soviet soil could have meant arrest and imprisonment on charges of
“cosmopolitanism” or other anti-Soviet activity.
Yet, by the 1970’s there were those who saw in Jewish identity a ticket
to life, an escape route from the pervasive suffocation of communist oppression.
They saw a State of Israel committed to assisting Soviet Jews to repatriate
to the historic Jewish homeland and offer them a new start. They saw the Jews
of the world using whatever political leverage they could muster to part the
Iron Curtain, and to let the Jews cross, if you will, from the Sea of Red to
the Sky of Blue. And both Jews and non-Jews desperately wanted to be a part
of this modern-day exodus.
And I witnessed it again in the 1980s, when some Ethiopian Muslims and Christians
tried to pass themselves off as Jews to escape the grinding poverty and chronic
starvation beleaguering their native land. They saw Jews being rescued and given
a new lease on life, and they wanted no less.
These two examples powerfully underscore the complete transformation of the
Jewish people within a span of but a few decades.
To be a Jew had become synonymous with life, with freedom and opportunity—a
And if that happened, it came about, again, because of the determination of
those Jewish giants—some sung, others unsung—who simply refused
to accept defeat for the Jewish people in the wake of the Shoah.
Now let’s come back to the present.
Starting next week, next month, or perhaps next year, you will join the leadership
What awaits you?
Henceforth, you will have the chance day in and day out to touch the lives
of others in meaningful ways—to awaken consciences, to stir souls, to
lift spirits, to open hearts, to expand knowledge, to fortify hope, to build
community, to pursue justice, and, in doing so, to mobilize those around you
to stand with you.
You will have the opportunity to remind fellow Jews that, as Mordecai Kaplan
said, “One cannot be a Jew without actively belonging to the Jewish people,
even as one cannot be a soldier without belonging to an army.”
But be warned, as if you needed such a cautionary note. You are dealing with
that most inexact of sciences—human nature and human relations. Still
more, you are dealing with the most infinitely complex and largely uncharted
set of issues therein—faith, identity, and spirituality.
Moreover, the world in which we live is not without its complications. Just
read the superb books and articles of Judy Miller, whom you honor tonight, to
understand how complicated a world it really is.
And for Jews these days, that complexity is especially true. As someone once
said: “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.”
We have no end of external challenges—international terrorism targeted
at the West generally and at Jews in particular; Israel’s age-old and
unfinished pursuit of peace and security in a hazardous region where the notion
of a Jewish sovereign state is still not universally accepted, much less preached
from the pulpit or taught in the schools; a growing tolerance for intolerance,
especially when it comes to Jews, and, as a result, a steady erosion of the
postwar taboo on the expression of anti-Semitism in otherwise civilized societies;
and, more broadly, a world in which too many continue to suffer from the ravages
of injustice, oppression, disease, and poverty.
As if that weren’t a full enough plate, our internal challenges are
no less daunting.
Israel still struggles with defining the elusive nature of a Jewish democratic
state; relations between Israel and American Jewry are tested by the passage
of time, as well as discontent among a sizable number of American Jews about
the handling of religious issues in Israel; the ties that bind us as Jews worldwide
are subject to the sometimes gale-force winds of narrow-minded, self-serving
perspectives; religion in America is today a buyer’s market, which provides
both new possibilities but also significant hurdles in trying to make the case
for Jewish distinctiveness and community; and Jewish demographic trends, to
say the least, do not look particularly encouraging for our collective future.
Even so, a healthy dose of optimism is warranted.
For one thing, when in our history have we ever been without significant challenges,
both external and internal? Some four thousand years have passed and, as the
late Professor Simon Rawidowicz of Brandeis University famously wrote in Israel,
the Ever-Dying People, each generation, including presumably our own, wonders
whether there is Jewish life beyond our moment in time. The answer should be
entirely obvious by now.
And for another, you, the graduates, are fortunate to be living in arguably
the single most extraordinary period in Jewish history. Even with all the very
real dangers we face, can you think of a more uplifting, more exhilarating moment
to be a Jew?
To have the twin blessings of the sovereign state of Israel and the democratic
societies of the West, led by the United States, as our homes is to be given
the gift of an unprecedented, previously unimaginable opportunity. Use that
gift wisely. Never, never take it for granted. And always bear in mind the remarkable
examples of those men and women who bequeathed us that gift. May you find strength
and inspiration in their exceptional lives.
I often think of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s description of the Jewish people:
“A people who can’t sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.”
Perhaps my most fervent wish for you is to strive for the day when the Jewish
people will finally get a good night’s sleep. On that day, as Singer suggested,
the rest of the world will also get a good night’s sleep. And on that
day humankind will have taken a quantum leap forward toward the prophetic vision
of a world at peace, a world in harmony.
Congratulations to this year’s graduates, and a hearty mazal tov to
your proud families and friends.