Mark G. Yudof, LL.B., Presents HUC-JIR/Jack H. Skirball Campus/Los Angeles Graduation Address - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Mark G. Yudof, LL.B., Presents HUC-JIR/Jack H. Skirball Campus/Los Angeles Graduation Address

Main Content
Friday, June 28, 2013

Mark G. Yudof, LL.B., President, University of California, presented the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Jack H. Skirball Campus/Los Angeles Graduation address on May 20, 2013, at the University of Southern California.  The text of President Yudof's address is below.

President Yudof also received the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, at Los Angeles Graduation.  Learn more.

Click here for further information about HUC-JIR Graduation and Ordination.


“Religious Integrity and Public Service”

Thank you, President Ellenson.  Thank you to the members of the Board of Governors, the Board of Overseers, the faculty, the staff, and the students of the Los Angeles School. Thank you to my fellow honorees, and to the members of the community who have joined us here today. My family and I are thankful to you for your great welcome, and for your wonderful hospitality.

Most importantly, thank you, and congratulations, to the graduates and their families. It is an honor, and a privilege, to celebrate with you this afternoon.

I realize I am just a speed bump on the way to the graduation parties, so I will try to be succinct.

Today marks the commencement of your journey as future leaders of the Jewish community.  I cannot predict exactly what the road ahead holds for you—what opportunities, frustrations, and joys await. I can, however, tell you some of what I have learned in my life of public service, and as a Jewish man. It is in that spirit that I want to share a few thoughts with you this afternoon.

I’d like to begin by telling you about a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It was written, in the early 1960s, by a young philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn.  At the time, he was teaching at UC Berkeley.

The book transformed the fields of the history and philosophy of science. I highly recommend reading it thoroughly—at some point. For our purposes, it’s a universal truth that graduation speeches do not lend themselves well to lots of erudite scientific philosophy. And so I’ll tell you about just one concept that Kuhn discussed. It is the concept of “paradigms”.

The word “paradigm” was not commonly used before the early 1960s. Kuhn’s book made it ubiquitous—as well as the companion phrase “paradigm shift”. The word “paradigm” became so ubiquitous, that in an afterword Kuhn wrote for a later edition, he felt the need to clarify what he meant by it.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “paradigm” is defined as a “model” or “exemplar”, or in some cases a “pattern”.

But Kuhn took the definition further. According to him, a “paradigm” is “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community”. 

Now, it has long seemed to me that paradigms, in the sense that Kuhn intended, elucidate the choices that have faced, and continue to face, members of the Diaspora—members like me, and like many of you.

Since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., generations of Jews have lived in communities and cultures shaped by other belief-systems and traditions. The beliefs, values, and observances of these broader, dominant cultures were not necessarily ones that members of the Diaspora shared. 

This has also been the case, at times, for members of other minority groups—whether they are racial or religious minorities, or whether they are those that adhere to different secular principles or ideologies.

The tension between the beliefs and practices of the paradigm, and those of the minority members who live within it, has long led to a fundamental question:

How do you reconcile your beliefs, your values, and your observances to those of the paradigm in which you live?

If we look to the past, we can see how others answered it:

Some people chose to fully embrace the paradigm of their broader communities. Judah P. Benjamin is one example of this. Benjamin was a gifted lawyer and orator who grew up in the antebellum South. He became the United States’ second Jewish senator. He also owned a plantation and slaves in Louisiana—a practice totally at odds with the values of the People of the Book. And when the Southern States seceded, he served as the Secretary of War and the Secretary of State for the Confederacy.

At the other extreme are those who fully reject the paradigm, or who are intent on shifting or re-shaping it—whether for religious reasons or secular, ideological ones.

Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky are two examples of this. Both tried to implement an entirely new social order, based on ideological principles regarding class organization and economic activity, in the societies in which they lived. Other examples include Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion. As the founders, respectively, of modern Zionism and the State of Israel, both men established a new paradigm as well.

There are also those who might not reject the paradigm, but who seek to clear out the underbrush—to perfect the paradigms that exist. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who led the Civil Rights movement.  Those who reformed American disabilities laws, and those who sought suffrage for women.

And then there are those in the middle, who neither reject nor embrace the paradigm. These are the people who work to resolve the tensions between the paradigm and their own core values. They include Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They include Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. He founded this very institution, Hebrew Union College, with the aim of training and educating Jewish rabbis and students for service specifically in American society.  

Since we are deep in the heart of Dodgers territory, let me linger for a moment on a person who is one of the most storied examples of this middle category. I’m talking, of course, about Sandy Koufax, the great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who also happened to be Jewish.

Back in 1965, the Dodgers rode the left arm of Koufax all the way to the World Series, where they were set to face the Minnesota Twins.

As they headed into Game One, the Dodgers realized they had a problem. Their ace pitcher would not be available. Why? Because the game fell on Yom Kippur. And while Koufax was not particularly observant, he decided he was not going to pitch on the Day of Atonement.

As you might imagine, this created quite a conversation in the country – and this was before the ESPN-era. The scribes noted that Koufax, with his decision not to pitch Day One, had made it highly unlikely that he would be available to start three games if needed.

Anyway, the Dodgers sent out Don Drysdale to pitch. He was no slouch, but on this day he got knocked around and the Dodgers lost 8-2. This prompted Lefty Gomez, the retired pitching great and all-time wise-cracker, to stick his head in the clubhouse after the game and call out to Dodgers manager Walt Alston.

“Hey, Alston, I bet you wish Drysdale was Jewish, too.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Koufax went out for Game Two, but was not his invincible self. The Dodgers lost to the Twins again. He returned to the mound to pitch Game Five—and threw a complete game shutout.

The Series was tied going into the deciding seventh game. Everybody figured Drysdale would pitch, but instead the Dodgers sent out Koufax with only two days’ rest. How did he do? Well, he threw another shut-out, the Dodgers won the series, and Koufax was named MVP.

Talk about atonement.

Now, we might not face paradigm decisions as dramatic as whether to pitch in a World Series opener. But choices concerning your own religious integrity will never go away. And you will have to decide for yourselves if you want to embrace the paradigm, reject it, refine it, or live within it while maintaining your beliefs, your values, your observances. Sometimes the choices will be easy, and sometimes they will seem extremely difficult. But they will be your choices, and as you may have already learned, that makes all the difference.

I have lived my life in the middle way of Koufax and Brandeis, of Frankfurter and Ginsburg. For me, the values and traditions of Judaism integrated seamlessly with what came naturally to me anyway—serving the public as an educator, and as a lawyer. A deep commitment to civil rights, a deep engagement with the Socratic method, and a deep respect for the Talmudic tradition have all influenced how I see the world.

My fundamental commitment to legal precedent and reasoning, to due process, and to the robust traditions of constitutional law has served me well as a leader of public universities.

This commitment has not always been without controversy, however. This has been especially true with regard to incendiary issues like intolerant speech against African-Americans, lesbians and gays, and Jews. These are the issues that tend to generate the most public attention, and criticism, for university leaders—that, and firing the football coach.

In any case, I’d like to share with you a little bit about what it’s like to manage issues like intolerant speech. Doing so lies right at the heart of both religious integrity, and public service. 

When it comes to something like intolerant speech, the charge of public university presidents is both difficult, and important.  It is to combat intolerant speech, while also respecting the First Amendment.

This charge is relatively easy to execute when it comes to outright discrimination or unlawful acts, both of which have clear legal remedies for prevention and cessation.

It is also relatively easy to do when a university community is faced with acts of physical aggression. These could range from attempts to block classrooms, to riots. In these instances, public university leaders can, and do, legally stop perpetrators from engaging in such activities.

But the law is very clear on what public universities cannot do when it comes to intolerant speech:

In sum, the content of someone’s speech does not decide whether or not they can make that speech.

Now, I am both a constitutional law scholar, and a Jewish man. I realize that the broader implications of this law are not always easy to accept.

But it is critical—it is absolutely critical—that as future leaders of the Jewish community, you remember this important point:

The law is just as powerful a tool for those who oppose intolerance, as it is for those who perpetrate it. 

Even more importantly, while intolerant speech cannot always be stopped, it can, and it must be, condemned. As I have demonstrated many times, university presidents are people too, with their own constitutional rights. They might not have a constitutional obligation to condemn intolerant speech. But they do have, in my opinion, a moral obligation to condemn it. And their responsibility will always be to speak out forcefully when any members of their community are harassed or intimidated.

This brings me to the last point I want to share with you:

Much of what will determine how you act as leaders, as citizens, and as Jews will be the circumstances in which you find yourselves. 

By “circumstances” I mean the unexpected events, the unexpected interactions, the social order of the world in which we live—all of the phenomena over which we, as individuals, have little, if any, control.

Many years ago, the late UC Berkeley political scientist Aaron Wildavsky wrote a book entitled Moses as Political Leader. (Since I am the president of the University of California, forgive me for citing two Berkeley scholars in one speech).

Wildavsky argued that leadership qualities are defined, in significant part, by the nature of the regime in which a leader is situated.  Moses, for example, had to learn to lead in a regime of slavery. He then had to lead in a regime of anarchy, then one of collective leadership (or equity), and then one of hierarchy. Different types of leadership, in other words, are needed in different contexts.

This is true for all of us, whether we are leading our own lives, leading a service, or leading large organizations.  We may not get to decide the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We may not choose the regime in which we are called to serve. But we can choose to maintain our religious integrity. We can choose to speak out against intolerance. And we can choose to live within the paradigm of broader society, while still remaining true to our beliefs, and to our values.

Please accept my most heartfelt congratulations on your graduation. It has been an absolute pleasure to celebrate with you today. I wish you all the very best of luck. And in the words of Albert Einstein, I hope you never lose a holy curiosity.

Thank you.

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 leaders to serve 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.