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 admiring.
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 about yourselves.
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 sacred.
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 ended.
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 us.
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 180-degree turnaround.
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 ranks.
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.