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Samuel H. Adler Presents the 2018 HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation Address

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Samuel H. Adler

Samuel H. Adler delivers the address at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Graduation 

Samuel H. Adler, Professor Emeritus, The Juilliard School and Eastman School of Music, presented the Graduation address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Graduation Ceremony on Friday, June 1, 2018 at the S.H. and Helen R. Scheuer Chapel.

First let me express my gratitude to Rabbi David Ellenson, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, the Faculty, Board of Governors, the Honors Selection Committee, as well as those people who have so graciously hosted me in Cincinnati for bestowing me with this unique honor. I hope that I will always be worthy of it and I will certainly always treasure it.

Though I never met him personally, my brief correspondence with Rabbi Aaron Panken has been a true inspiration for me and I feel the tragic loss of this great leader with you especially at this occasion.

I wish to extend my heartiest congratulations and good luck to all who are graduating today with a hope you will succeed in all your future endeavors.

Since I am being awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters degree today, my thoughts have turned to the importance of the word “humane” as distinguished from the word “human,” as well as its important meaning in the world today. The word “human” simply means belonging to the human race, while the word humane is defined as “having kind, benevolent feelings and inclinations credible to a human being.” — Permit me to spend a few moments with you this morning to examine what being ‘humane’ can and must mean in our day. 

I have been a composer, teacher, and performer all my life and the most important quality in any of these fields is communication, sensitivity, emotional expression and imagination. All these traits are being minimized and challenged in our time since this is the era of the scientific or technical revolution where human qualities such as sensitivity, emotion, or feeling are no longer as important as they have been in the past. — Now please don’t misunderstand me: I am not anti-science, nor anti-technology just the opposite I realize that both science and technology have improved our lives tremendously by eradicating disease, poverty and strife to a great degree, yet science and technology have changed our perspective on the human situation.

With today’s scientific revolution the proposed formula for knowledge is:

KNOWLEDGE = EMPERICAL DATA times MATHEMATICS,

or as it is now called COMPUTATION, while the humanistic formula has in the past usually provided an alternative:

KNOWLEDGE =EXPERIENCE times SENSITIVITY.

This humanistic formula is under attack since EXPERIENCE is not included in the scientific formula but is rather supplanted by the gathering of data and mathematics. However, to be truly humane must mean rather a subjective phenomenon made up of sensation, emotion, imagination, and thought. The highest aim of humanism is that it sees life as a gradual process of inner change leading from ignorance to enlightenment by using every experience.

William von Humboldt, one of the chief architect of our modern educational system, wrote: “The aim of existence is a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom,” adding: “there is only one summit in life, and it is to have taken this message in feeling of everything human.”

Suddenly in the 21st Century feelings are no longer reliable because they are not considered the best algorithm in the world. We have developed better algorithms on Facebook, Google and so many other technologies that have established algorithms that know everything, even how you feel before you know it. They know feelings you should feel and a million other things about you that you would not even recognize.

So while a humanist would say “listen to your feelings,” the new Dataism would caution you to listen to your algorithm since it knows better how you feel or how you should act.

As a composer and perhaps as a human being with humane tendencies, I need to reject Dataism as my worst enemy.  — You are graduating today, and no matter what your professional goals are, you will be teachers of some kind and you will meet the “new thinking” head on. I am afraid it may become one of your chief challenges. Your task as teachers, clergy or scholars will be to inspire people to find their own inner feeling, to stir the imagination, and seek community in order to build a better world.

At the end of his treatise Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions are answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

In my opinion, it is for you and me in this time of general alienation to inspire and lead those who depend upon us towards a more meaningful life and we must never despair. Remember the word “education” is from the Latin e-ducere, literally, to lead forth or bring out something that is potentially present in a person. That is the main reason being a teacher is one of the most exciting and fulfilling occupations anyone can pursue.

Just before the turn of the century in 1999, the American philosopher William Barrett published a book called The Death of the Soul: from Descartes to the Computer, in which he explores and then reveals the startling contrast between intellectuals of earlier times, where minds were concerned with both the scientific as well as the spiritual spheres of thought, with most contemporary thinkers—the product of our technological orientation—who are obsessed with data and theoretical exactitudes, while forgetting anything regarding the spiritual.

In a 1968 autobiographical address called “The Coming Victory of Democracy,” Thomas Mann wrote: “No conference, technical measure, judicial institution, or even world government, can possibly bring the new society a step closer to fulfillment, if it is not preceded by a different spiritual climate, a new receptivity to the nobility of the spirit.”

In the same year, the cultural psychologist Erich Fromm published The Revolution of Hope, a book in which he described and cautioned against what he thought the next century might be like: “A specter is stalking in our midst whom only a few see with clarity. It is not the old ghost of communism or fascism. It is a new specter: a completely mechanized society, devoted to maximal material output and consumption, directed by computers; and in this social process man himself is being transformed into a part of a total machine, well fed and entertained, yet passive, un-alive, and with little or no feeling.” — Quite a prophecy! 

I have always thought that the arts can help renew the human spirit. We venerate masterpieces of the past and present in all the arts, not only because they have set a high standard of excellence but also because they express the most profound strivings of humanity.

The arts do also challenge a person’s imagination. All of the serious arts demand that the reader, the listener, the viewer, use the imagination and dig deeply into the self.

In a wonderfully insightful book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes: “Art resides in the soul and is a certain perfection of the soul. It is an inner quality that raises the human subject to a higher degree of vital formation and energy.” And in the same book he quotes the artist Micea Eliade, saying: “The man or woman without imagination is cut off from the deeper reality of life and from his own soul.” These ennobling principals can best be taught by keeping the arts in your educational toolbox.

This may be a “third rail” in our discussion and I certainly do not want to step on anyone’s toes or sensitivities, however I am deeply concerned that even in the houses of worship of almost every denomination there is quite a disregard for artistic, musical, and even poetic prayer standards in the interpretation of our great religious liturgies and practices. 

In the Jewish week, I have always been very fond of the ritual we call Havdalah. The final Havdalah blessing ends with the phrase Hamavdil bein Kodesh L’chol, to differentiate between the holy and the ordinary, the secular or every day. This differentiation has been a guiding factor in composing all of my sacred music. I am hopeful that possibly with Hamavdil or separation as a standard, that this trend towards the “unadorned” colloquial, or we may even call it Kitsch, will no longer be labeled as “sacred” by your generation.      

You are going out into this very complicated world after having completed your education. In the future, you may be teaching theology, history, literature, or language, let your syllabus not only focus on more data, but let it result also in the inclusion of humanism and the humane ideas throughout your teaching in every subject.   It is my hope that you will go out into our society with renewed ardor to nourish the spirit and promote the spiritual through upholding the highest standard of learning and bringing to all the people that you touch the message of the importance of the humane qualities, we have discussed, and which are so necessary in our time.

Appropriately I would like to end with two quotes for you to consider. The first is by the late president of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory. A week ago, before his untimely death, he addressed another group of graduates at the New York Campus of HUC and gave them this important message: “The world is especially challenging and painful” in a way that “transcends any time I have seen in my lifetime.” — “But here is the thing,” he continued, “The Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before and have lived through it, and thrive and built again, and again, and again.”

The other challenge with which I would like to leave you comes from the great dramatist George Bernard Shaw. It is advice for all of us who wish to build a better world. He wrote: “You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”

I hope you have many very lofty dreams and will work to bring them to successful fruition for years to come.

Congratulations again and thank you very much.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu