Charles Marc Edelsberg, Ph.D., Founding Executive Director Emeritus of the Jim Joseph Foundation, presented the address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's (HUC-JIR) Los Angeles Graduation. Dr. Edelsberg was also presented with the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. The ceremony took place at HUC-JIR’s Graduation on Monday, May 15, 2017 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Read his address:
And congratulations graduates, parents and friends of these newly-degreed Jewish community professionals!
President Rabbi Panken, Dean Holo, faculty, board of governors and Chairman Berger, alumni
And to the other distinguished individuals whom HUC-JIR is honoring today
I am blessed to be in your company.
Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you
On a day in which I take genuine pride being recognized by an institution that represents the reform movement in advancing principles –intellectual, ethical, moral—integral to my life and that of my family.
Let me begin by telling you that preparing a commencement address in our times cannot possibly be what it used to be.
Why? Ever present in our existence looms always the ubiquitous internet.
Search the topic “commencement address” on whatever browser you choose, and instantaneously tens of thousands links appear.
Should you happen to have a little leisure time on your hands, as I thoroughly enjoy now, you will find your way into NPR’s archive of 354 commencement addresses, available in print or video formats.
Inexorably, you are drawn into reading and viewing of speeches, say, by the witty, perspicacious David Brooks; the remarkably insightful Atul Gawande; an irrepressible Cory Booker.
You can hear or read speeches of presidents—Clinton, Kennedy, Obama; media super stars Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington; Meryl Streep; prominent Jewish figures of note Elie Wiesel, Michael Oren, and Jonathan Safron Foer.
Or take JK Rowlings’ 2016 Harvard address, a persuasively personalized analysis of imagination and failure, the video of which has been viewed 3 million times (!).
Curiously to me, Rowling has plenty of company in talking about failure as a commencement address theme. Speakers comment on failure’s certainty and inevitability; that it teaches life’s most important lessons and builds character.
Well, I am guessing this group of graduates knows how to distinguish failure from success; that you have already had encounters with failure that actually bolstered the arc of your career because you put into practice knowledge gleaned from performance you deemed substandard.
Anyway, after I twisted myself into a frenzied state of undeniable commencement speech anxiety, I fortunately realized the only plausible approach for me to take is to share what I know best from personal experience. Otherwise, how could I be credible for you, being here among fellow members of the tribe?
Yes, I mused, I can talk a bit about the future with this class of 21 accomplished graduates. Do so, I chided myself, with candor. Be direct, concise, and genuine. Keep in mind Ira Glass’s admonition that the commencement speech classically involves giving “stock advice that is promptly ignored.”
So, here it goes:
A mere 37 years ago, I prepared for defense of my doctoral dissertation. I fretted aloud to my academic advisor, the venerable Don Bateman, z’ l’’, “what in the world, Don, can the faculty representative –a professor in pharmacology, no less—possibly bring to the committee’s questioning of me?” Don chortled, and he sagely advised as follows:
“Chip, this ritual is called dissertation ‘defense’ for a reason. Particularly in the case of the faculty rep on these committees, there is one—and only one—intelligent ‘defense’ the doctoral student can reasonably give in response to questions that come from the faculty rep’s deep reservoir of academic expertise. It is this: do not answer questions and probes for which you don’t have thoughtful responses. Instead, re-direct the queries, yoking them somehow to an aspect of your dissertation study. Why? You know that subject better than any of the four professors who will be in the room.”
“The entire purpose of this rite of passage, if accomplished successfully,” Don went on to explain, “is to enable the doctoral candidate to elevate him or herself into a position of scholarly authority. And in your case, Chip, having devoted nearly a full year to intensive, in-school observation and research, none of the four of your committee members can know quite as well as you what you now should uniquely understand.”
Don Bateman was a wise man, a scholar, and a friend. He was the quintessential 1970’s professor, with shoulder-length white hair; full-bearded; a pop culture aficionado and political activist. Don’s academic integrity was unimpeachable. Above all, he was authentic.
Don taught me to be intellectually honest. He constantly pushed me to reach beyond my immediate grasp of whatever academic content I was endeavoring to learn and master. He never allowed me to feign mastery; I had to convincingly demonstrate it to him.
Graduates, for however out of fashion it may sound to you, intellectual honesty is a precious trait. I exhort you to consciously cultivate and nurture it as foundational to your professional competence.
You may know that URJ’s web site, in its section on virtues—middot—notes that “in pirke avot 6:6, we read “…royalty is acquired through thirty virtues, the priesthood twenty-four, while torah is acquired through forty-eight virtues.” Fascinating to me that one of the cornerstone life lessons I learned at a fairly young age—again, that of intellectual honesty—really does not have an exact parallel in any of these three well-articulated classical sources of Jewish values. Not that approximates of a sort don’t exist. The Jewish virtues of truth and distancing yourself from honor, for example, are suggestive of intellectual honesty, although not precisely the same. The accumulated body of Jewish wisdom is expansive and invaluable. But it turns out that good ideas can come from other sources—of all types.
I do not make this assertion glibly. It leads me to an accounting of another realization that for me has become an instructive framework for interpreting and understanding contemporary Judaism.
If you examine evaluations of Jewish education projects conducted years ago, you quickly discover that a vast majority of the assessment questions in evaluations were designed to measure how Jewishthe participants in any particular project were.
It wasn’t until Dr. Bethamie Horowitz popularized Jewish life in America as a journey and Cohen, Eisen and others began writing about so-called “hyphenated identities” and “sovereign Jewish selves” that a new paradigm for evaluation emerged. At that point, evaluation began to assess how young people expressed and enacted their Judaism—a decided shift from measurement of the extent to which Jews conformed to ultimately arbitrary indicators of “Jewishness.”
Then along comes the establishment of the academic discipline known as positive psychology. Analysis of the nature of human happiness and human flourishing fairly recently assumed a legitimate place in higher education research circles and gradually influenced how Jewish scholars think about the relevance of Judaism in contemporary society. So, in addition to continued study of both how Jewish participants are (on some hypothetical scale of absolute Jewishness) and how individuals choose to believe and behave “Jewishly,” a third frame of evaluative reference has been added to measurement and assessment: how does Judaism enable one to live a meaningful, fulfilling existence.
The lesson I offer you is that while I naturally expect you will anchor yourself in Jewish knowledge, customs, culture, and history, imagining the world you inhabit and examining in its broadest sense I believe will help to make you a better educator.
Look inward to Judaism and its countless forms of creative renewal of centuries-old rituals, for sure; but also be alert to other faith traditions, to academic disciplines you do not know well, and to fields of practice that might be foreign to you.
If you have not already done so, set yourself on a course to be insatiably curious about what I contend are liberating possibilities of mind expanding both/and, and be wary of narrow thought corridors confining you to intellectually constrained positions of either/or.
Looking to the future, what do we see? Already, our field of vision brings into focus wearable technology; automated vehicles; artificial intelligence; the proliferation of pias; 3d printers producing everything from prosthetic limbs to manufactured homes; drones transporting life-saving prescription medicine into remote global villages; on-line accessibility anytime to stellar teaching by preeminent scholars . It is a future penetrating the present with what Jonathan Safran Foer calls “the parabolic rate of change.”
In a future imagined exotically, Elon Musk sees us implanting electrodes in the brain to enhance cognitive functioning. Musk is a dreamer. He is also a pragmatic capitalist. I take his newest venture, named neuralink, and its R & D and cognitive enhancing product development seriously.
Musk’s companion traveler Ray Kurzweil envisions a future he calls the “singularity.” It is a world where humans and machines merge neurotically.
Kurzweil, incidentally, is a first generation American Jew, born to refined and professionally accomplished Viennese parents who fled the Holocaust and immigrated to Queens in New York City. While viewed by many to be eccentric in his views of the future, the fact of the matter is that Kurzweil created nine highly successful technology companies that are admired and envied by business peers as leading edge enterprises.
Yet another fellow Jew, author Yuval Harari, speculates in his bestselling book, cleverly entitled Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, that radical advances in science and technology will produce a future world populated by super-humans.
This all seems far-fetched and somewhat fantastic to me. But candidly, my generation, at some level, fears the future will submerge us and make us irrelevant.
I would say this: every tomorrow now welcomes from each today a whirlwind of technological breakthroughs and a flood of powerful new social media platforms. This innovation expands the boundaries of human existence. It democratizes access gained in nano-second speed to a universe of information unlike ever before in human history.
What roles will you as Jewish professionals and communal leaders play in creating and contouring, analyzing and interpreting our Jewish future?
Graduates—I want you equipped to become the high-impact Jewish professionals you have diligently prepared to be.
I have suggested that intellectual honesty coupled with perpetual openness to new ideas, even those opposing your own—an elu v’ elu mindset—are desirable attributes for you to ripen.
My two additional recommendations, common sensical as they are, I hope nonetheless embolden you to teach, model, guide, and lead in inspirational ways.
One of the most influential books I have read in recent years is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Schulz’s erudite explication of the nature of error put into perspective for me a life-long fascination I have had with it.
From miscalculating when I, as a late bloomer, ineptly tried to ride a two-wheeler, promptly breaking a bone in my abortive attempt to keep pace with my bike riding friends;
to reading Mina Shaughnessy’s 1979 classic Errors and Expectations—the definitive text on teaching ”remedial” composition to college students, acquainting me for the first time in my academic career to the logic inherent in patterns of error in students’ written composition;
to countless encounters I have with smart, well-meaning people who while they whole-heartedly agree that “to err is to be human,” behave with strikingly consistent, intransigent conviction that this fact of life somehow does not apply to them.
Schulz shows, with deft humor and keen insight, how remarkably easy and self-gratifying it is to saunter through life assuming that one is right about everything. She also demonstrates that failing to recognize the error of one’s ways has moral implications. “the relationship we cultivate with error,” Schulz avers, “affects how we think about and treat our fellow human beings—and, how we think about and treat our fellow human beings is the alpha and omega of ethics” (p.14).
You know how this goes. Schulz describes it as follows: “when other people reject our beliefs we think they lack good information. When we reject their beliefs, we think we possess good judgment.”
This is what Schulz labels the ignorance assumption, about which she offers this unsettling observation: “ignorance isn’t necessarily a vacuum waiting to be filled; just as often, it is a wall actively maintained” (p. 17). Further, Schulz notes that “what really gets you into trouble with a community isn’t holding a belief it scorns; it is abandoning a belief it cherishes.”
Schulz’s unpacking of error as a phenomenon that can become part of a prejudicial mythology, as is the case with the juif errant—the wandering Jew—is illuminating:
“as embodied by the wandering Jew, erring is both loathsome and agonizing—a deviation from the true and the good, a public spectacle, and a private misery. This image of wrongness is disturbing, especially given the all-too frequent fate of the non-mythological Jews: abhorred, exiled, very nearly eradicated. If this bleak idea of error speaks to us, it is because we recognize in the wandering Jew something of our own soul when we have erred. Sometimes, being wrong really does feel like being exiled; from our community, from our god, even—and perhaps most painfully from our best-known self” (page 42).
For you, graduates, the skillfulness with which you catch and correct errors your students make will determine much about the quality of your teaching. Furthermore, how you act on errors you yourself commit will have either accelerate or impede your maturing as a professional, especially relative to your social/emotional growth.
Finally, then, there is this last point. It is more an exhortation than anything else.
It took a wisp of a spirited young girl at her April bat mitzvah to help me capture this message. Dahlia’s collection of readings she painstakingly selected for her bat mitzvah service attendees to read incorporated a quote from none other than the Slippery Slope’s Lemony Snicket: “I know that having a great vocabulary doesn’t guarantee that I’m a good person, but it does mean I’ve read a great deal. And in my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil.”
No harangue from me here about wide-spread incivility, inflammatory public discourse, renascent and nefarious anti-Semitism, shocking numbers of malevolent, unspeakable crimes against humanity, and the like. Sadly, it is all too disturbingly true.
No, what I want to do is to plead the case 13 year old Dahlia passionately asserted is a bulwark against wanton displays of sinister behavior.
Simply put, graduates, keep your nose in books.
As author Barbara Kingsolver declares, “if there is danger in a book…the danger is generally that they will broaden our experiences and blend us more deeply with our fellow human beings” (p. 86 in The Public Library by Robert Dawson)
Novelist Anne LaMotte adds “reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for the people who have been broken, but who have risen up, will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truth are splints for the soul… “(p. 166 in The Public Library).
“learning, learning, learning: that is the secret of Jewish survival,” ahad ah’am exclaims.
Isn’t it so?!