Larry S. Moses presented the Culmination Address at the 43rd Culmination Exercises of the HUC-JIR School of Jewish Nonprofit Management on Tuesday, August 7, 2012:
Good afternoon. Let me begin by saying what a privilege it is to address our graduates, and those of you who have gathered to celebrate what they have achieved. I have very much enjoyed working with this group of young leaders over the past two days as the Rabbi Louis Bernstein scholar, and collaborating once again with Richard Siegel, a treasured colleague. I am not a stranger to this campus, and during the course of my career I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with many of its students and faculty. As you know, this is a place of learning, a platform for building the Jewish future.
We are, after all, a people of teachers and learners. We are a people of books, and indeed we have been called the People of the Book. We are ancient and modern all at once. Standing upon the shoulders of our ancestors, for centuries we have revered learning, sanctified learning, raised it to a place most unusual in the history of peoples.
To us, learning is oxygen, books an indispensable part of our being. Through bad times and better times, we have understood that learning is our lifeline; perhaps the secret of our survival.
And we are a people who have learned how to speak to each other across centuries and across continents. We are a people whose learning has been one continuous conversation; some might say one long argument, but an argument for the sake of heaven. As Robert Kegan, an educator at Harvard University, once quipped, “Judaism is like a book club that has been going on for 3,500 years.”
Why speak so lovingly about Jewish learning, why celebrate it as we do this evening? Because learning is so central to our narrative that it may actually be the main character in our narrative. It has defined us.
I am struck by the many episodes in history when our people cleaved to learning, even when it was dangerous to do so. We recall the pivotal dialogue recorded in Kiddushin between Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva – set during the Hadrianic persecutions – when both Jewish study and Jewish practice were outlawed; and the question was posed for which of the two should one risk one’s life: “Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitzah, when the question was raised before them: Which is greater – study or practice? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. In agreement with him, all spoke up and said: Study is greater, for it leads to practice.”
And even in the darkest, dehumanizing years of Nazism, on secret corners of God-forsaken ghettos and in the concentration camps, where Jewish learning was outlawed and punishable, we still clung to learning – in clandestine schools, and at the risk of life. It was an ultimate act of rebellion, of affirmation. Books were the only weapons we had then, and we wielded them.
A personal story – one my mother told me only once, many years ago, but one of her many recollections I will never forget. My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz. She lost her parents and all but one of her 11 brothers and sisters in the camps. When they came for my mother’s family, in their small Czech village, her father, my grandfather, before being dragged out of their home, grasped a few of his “sefarim” – his books – hid them under his shirt, and he had these books with him in the transit cattle cars, and as he entered Auschwitz-Birkenau to meet his terrible death. To my grandfather, who I never met, and after whom I am named, it was clear:
if you had to leave all of your earthly possessions in one instant – all of them – but could carry only one thing in your hands as you departed, what would it be? To him, it would be Jewish books – Jewish learning – the gift of our ancestors over the centuries.
To be Jewish is to be born into a conspiracy of learning; to be engulfed by the value of learning, a life force that sits in the center of our character. Jewish learning preserved our dignity through centuries of medieval persecution. It has been our moral compass through the challenges of modernity. When we had little else, learning was the hallmark of our integrity. We had no political aristocracy, but learning has always been our claim to royalty.
And our thirst for learning, of course, has not been confined to Jewish matters only. As David Brooks pointed out in an Op Ed some years ago, we are .2% of the world population but 27% of the Nobel physics laureates, and 31% of the medicine laureates… and we are 2% of the American population but 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, and 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for non-fiction.
You who are graduating today have joined generations of Jewish learners across time and geography in elevating yourselves, in probing the history and values of our people, and the leadership and organizational dynamics and skills that will enable you to take your place within this timeless legacy. And you have positioned yourselves not only as learners, but also as the emergent teachers of the Jewish people. As teachers of our people, you carry upon your shoulders striking responsibilities, and remarkable opportunities. You walk onto the stage of Jewish history during profoundly important moments, and into Jewish communities that are struggling for new visions, renewed meaning, and entirely new organizational paradigms. I don’t think it is necessarily accurate or fair to assume that every generation has a definable, coherent voice, or a common agenda. At the same time, I do believe that new generations of Jewish leaders bring their own experiences and perspectives to the table, and see things that prior generations don’t see, and can’t see. Not to put pressure on our graduates, but you are arriving in the nick of time. These are times when the diversity of Jewish life has exploded in countless directions, challenging our community’s capacity to function more inclusively, more responsively, and with greater relevance to the emerging generations of our people.
The psychologist R.D. Lang once wrote that “the range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.” Which constituencies and opportunities do we fail to notice as a community? Who are we leaving out of our story? Who is leaving us out of their stories?
And speaking of stories, the theme of our diversity always reminds me of one of my favorites: “In the 1920’s a Jew travels from his small Polish shtetl to Warsaw. When he returns, he tells his friend of the wonders he has seen: “I met a Jew who had grown up in a yeshiva and knew large sections of the Talmud by heart. I met a Jew who was an atheist. I met a Jew who owned a large clothing store with many employees. And I met a Jew who was an ardent communist.” – “So, what’s so strange?” the friend asks. “Warsaw is a big city. There must be a million Jews there.” -- “You don’t understand,” the man answers. “It was the same Jew.”
It is not enough as a community to simply do what we currently do better, more efficiently, more passionately. It is not only a question of excellence, because sometimes we employ brilliant answers to the wrong questions. Leadership is about mustering the courage to face our most difficult questions. To rebuild Jewish life, to breathe new life into tired institutions and to have the courage to create entirely new and different institutions, your capacity to continually learn will be the most decisive factor.
Leaders learn. They study and read more than others. Without continual study, leaders lack direction and depth. On the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in a speech he was to deliver in Dallas, he wrote that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” In this sentiment, President Kennedy captured a linkage that permeates leadership education literature, and is the backbone of Jewish values. Leaders learn constantly and continually. They never let their minds shut down. To paraphrase Edgar Schein of MIT, leaders of the future must constantly seek new insights into the world and into themselves. They will have the capacity to learn and respond to the ever-changing assumptions of new generations of colleagues and constituents.
It was Eric Hoffer who brazenly, but I think truthfully, said that “in a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
This then is the challenge I share with our graduates this evening: That even as you complete your graduate training and engage in your professional work, you embrace the notion that your learning has just begun, and that it will remain central to your leadership – it will keep you
honest, and humble, and ever tuned to the changes that challenge us to distinguish between that which is precious and eternal, and that which is no longer effective and therefore expendable. The Jewish community needs your leadership, needs new dreams and visions to carry us forward.
The Torah portions we read during these waning summer weeks invoke a particularly beautiful metaphor I am drawn to time and again. Situated toward the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites look over the east bank of the Jordan River into the distance at the mysterious land of our destiny. They brace themselves for a new life experience, for even more uncertainty and change. Moses, their leader, does his best to assure them that they will find the strength to survive and thrive, albeit as a small people amid great and hostile forces. He reminds them of who they are, what they have experienced, and how God will guide and protect them. But Moses himself worries that once they enter the land they might again lose their identity, forget the lessons of the Exodus and of Sinai, and perhaps fall prey to becoming a normal, prosperous, distracted, not-particularly-special people.
And there have been many such moments in Jewish history when we have figuratively found ourselves on one side of the Jordan, gazing into an uncertain and challenging future; moments when we knew that turning back to the assumptions and practices of the past was not possible or appropriate; moments when we needed to face unprecedented challenges and muster new understandings, courage, and determination – even in the face of our fears and confusion.
Today, once again, we sit beyond time on the east bank of the Jordan River staring into a mysterious future we will need to build anew, like pioneers – all over again. May we, like our ancestors before us, lead our people forward, with courage and resolve. We honor our graduates today, and are filled with hope, as they take their rightful place, as continual Jewish learners, and as the new leaders of our people.