Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., President
Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati
October 3, 2021
I want to begin with special words of congratulations from Joan Pines, former Chair of the Central Region Board of Advisors—what we used to call the Board of Overseers—and Governor Emerita:
I deeply regret that I am unable to be with you in person on this auspicious day. When my doctor strongly suggested that I not travel, I strongly considered changing doctors! To those of you receiving degrees today from the Pines School of Graduate Studies, I can’t emphasize enough how proud and happy my family and I are for you. We at HUC-JIR understand that your journey has not always been an easy journey, and we understand the sacrifices and efforts you have made to reach your goals. I wish you good luck and success in your future endeavors, and ask you to please stay in touch with us at HUC-JIR. We will follow your careers with much interest and love.
Best wishes and success to all of you, and I know you will make us proud!!!
Joan—thank you for your partnership, investment and support of our students, our graduate program and our entire institution!
146 years ago in Cincinnati our predecessors brought forth Hebrew Union College into a new world called “America.” From its start, HUC was conceived in the idea that Judaism would be strengthened, not weakened, by the values of the Enlightenment. Conceived in the idea that the process of academic scholarship itself was a source of truth, that reason was the source of moral understanding, and that the value of our tradition lay not only in its intrinsic importance and beauty to us, but instrumentally in service to all of humanity.
Whether today marks the culmination of your work at HUC or is a milestone towards another degree or ordination in the years ahead, I congratulate you on your achievement. I wish you great success as you go out into the world. And I hope you will see that the intellectual values upon which our institution is based, upon which your education was based, are central to addressing some of the most pressing problems of human existence today.
This past month Jews around the world celebrated our new year, starting again the annual reading cycle of Torah. And last week we read in the poetry of our tradition the recounting of the creation of our universe.
בראשית ברא אלהים
“In the beginning, God Created heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “let there be light”; and there was light.”
From our creation story we are taught that it is through language that worlds are created. This gives rise to a sense that all the world is an illusion, a matrix, if you will of our own creation. And yet…even before God spoke we were just told, “there was darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God” רוח אלהים, God’s spirit, swept that darkness away, if you will.
In which case, light was not created through speech, but rather through the spirit, action and will that swept away darkness to discover the light that was there all along.
The words God uttered were a statement of what God’s “sweeping away” had uncovered.
Language had not created light; language was God’s dissertation God’s master’s thesis: the revelation of new truth that had been discovered, the application of language the very embodiment of reason itself.
What a powerful metaphor for your own academic achievements: that it is through, research and thought, spirit and reason that you have enabled light into our world. You enabled this not through creating a new world with your words. But through the discovery of light and truth that had been there all along.
And, for several reasons, this approach helps us pursue our highest moral ideals: Tov v’kadosh, yafeh, nachon v’tzadok, the Good and the Sacred, the Beautiful, the Right and the Just.
To do your work well you required confronting alternative ideas. And one of the great values of our program in Cincinnati with the Pines School of Graduate studies is that we intentionally bring people of all faiths to study together, building a stronger basis for mutual understanding.
We don’t trivialize those differences by thinking that “if you believe it, it must be true for you!” We are not gods, our words and will do not create universes. We use reason to sweep away the darkness to discover the truth that lies underneath. As you all have experienced from your time in the classroom and our magnificent Klau library, truth seeking requires testing one’s most cherished beliefs against a range of conflicting explanations and evidence, often ones that force us to rethink our own prejudices about the world.
So apply that idea into the workplaces you are now or will soon enter in just a few years, with a commitment to diversity and ensuring inclusive environments, with diverse people, experiences, and views at the table. For only then will our ideas about how best to allocate the scarce resources of time, power, honor, and privilege be checked and limited by our own biases, allowing us to make more just and equitable decisions. It is the application of the intellectual values of your education that can strengthen our moral world.
Using reason to sweep away darkness can also serve as a steward of your emotions particularly when it comes to moral judgement and action.
This is not always easy.
When HUC began applying a scientific approach to the study of Jewish civilization and life, and even subjecting the Hebrew Bible to scholarly analysis, it required that we used reason to overcome our emotions about what we felt was true and false, right and wrong about our holy texts.
The emotional attachment that many had to the idea that God was the literal author of the Hebrew Bible had to be confronted.
The emotional attachment that some felt to its teachings about the role of women needed reinterpretation.
And these and other learnings were deeply upsetting to more traditional views—that took a very long time and in some cases we are still struggling with them.
Our experiences remind us that just because we feel angry or upset, just because we feel outraged or offended, does not tell us what to do without the filter of reason as our guide.
For if our emotional experiences were to guide our ethical action without the filter of reason I fear we would be unable to condemn the worst societal injustices plaguing our nation and the world today. For they would be reduced to simply partisan wrangling, a conflict of one emotion against another.
After all, what is the racist, what is the sexist, or what is the homophobe, what is the antisemite but individuals who experience powerful emotions at the thought of others having power, influence, or merely recognition as moral equals.
If we let our emotions and feelings guide our ethical behavior, we would have to validate those noxious feelings as acceptable. Without reason as a filter we have no way of condemning them as unjust or wrong. We can accept that the racist and anti-semite truly feels the hate they are feeling. But it is only because we use reason as a filter that we can stand back and say: some emotions are simply not worth having.
All of which is to say that the degrees we are conferring upon you today are not merely recognition of your intellectual achievements. They are a recognition of that these achievements can help you realize our shared vision for a vital moral future. A future driven by inspiring clergy, educators, nonprofit leaders, and scholars who celebrate with individuals in times of joy, hold them in times of sorrow, inspire them towards acts of lovingkindness through learning, and help them lead moral lives with dignity, meaning, and purpose lived. Each of you symbolizes our deepest hopes for the future.
So go forth today, with the knowledge that HUC is so very proud of what you have achieved and what you will achieve, continuing to sweep away darkness, pursuing Tzedek, Chesed and Bina, Justice, Kindness and Understanding, for the sake of K’lal Israel (the Jewish people), and our entire world.