Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
Commencement Speech at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
May 2, 2013
Members of the HUC Faculty and Administration,
Rabbis and cantors marking 25 years of service,
I begin with understatement: it's a great honor for me to address you today and accept the degree just bestowed on me-the first that I have received honoris causa, and among the very few that a Jewish institution of higher learning has ever awarded to the head of a Jewish institution devoted to somewhat different notions of Jewish learning, Jewish belief, and Jewish practice. I take special pride in the fact that exactly 100 years ago, in 1913, Solomon Schechter accepted an invitation from HUC President Kaufmann Kohler to speak at the dedication of the new campus buildings in Cincinnati. He began his remarks by noting that his pleasure was not diminished by the fact of differences in outlook and observance between the two seminaries. On the contrary, he said that just as His Majesty's government and His Majesty's opposition "form one large community, working for the welfare of the country and the prosperity of the nation," so it was with Jewish theology, "there being, under Providence, room for the opposition party, which has its purpose and mission, assigned to it by history . . . For opposition there must be."
Schechter explained that he rejoiced in rather than mourned the reality of diverse convictions among Jews about how Torah should be lived and God served. He then declared, I hope with a twinkle in his eye, that "of course . . . we Conservatives believ[e] that we are His Majesty's Government and you His Majesty's Opposition." However, he at once continued-I trust without irony this time-"there are still a great many things and aims for which both parties can work in perfect harmony and peace, and unite us." Schechter discussed two such common aims: Jewish learning and efforts to increase justice and love in the world. The remainder of my remarks will enlarge on these themes. I will limit myself to three observations, all of them addressed primarily to those being awarded degrees today.
The first: let's never forget where all of us come from, the source of what unites and divides us: Sinai. More and more, as I wrestle with issues of commonalty and difference across personal and institutional divides, I find meaning and direction in Moses's parting words to the Children of Israel at the start of Parashat Nitzavim (Deut: 29:9): "You are all of you standing here this day before the Lord your God."
That is right, I believe-we are, every one of us, if we elect to place ourselves among the heirs of the Covenant. I feel gratefully included in Moses's second-person plural you, which-Moses emphasizes-encompasses old and young, men and women, rich and poor, "even the stranger within your camp." The Covenant is made with "those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day."
A chill goes up my spine as I read these words. I believe that when you or I take on the responsibilities of Israel's Covenant as contemporary Jews, however we choose to do so, our ancestors stand with us. If we live Judaism seriously, we walk with the generations by our side. It goes without saying that Jews of past generations might not recognize their Jewish ways in ours. What matters is that we do. The many paths of Torah from years past cannot possibly be the same as ours or as one another's. And yet they are, if we act to make them so through our teaching and our practice. I know for certain that substantial continuity connects Moses to Akiba to Maimonides to the Baal Shem Tov, despite and because of the immense differences among them-and I know, too, that you and I are connected to them as surely as we live Judaism for and with our descendants. Someday in the distant future, if we fulfill the callings to which we rededicate ourselves today, Jews of multiple varieties will live Judaism with and for us. They will continue in ways we can barely imagine the covenantal work of helping God bring greater justice and compassion to God's creatures.
Let's embrace the fact that our world is set up in such a way that we cannot all be of one faith, and that the Torah is written in such a way that we cannot interpret its meanings and imperatives in only one way. Thank goodness on both counts. We are enriched by the insights and efforts of faith communities that work with us to sanctify God's holy name by making the world more holy. We are certainly indebted to every Jew who takes Torah seriously, whether "secular" or "religious," in Israel or Diaspora, male or female, gay or straight-and certainly regardless of denomination.
But it also seems to me-my second Schechterian observation-that if we really believe this, in contradistinction to other Jews or members of other faith communities who do not believe it, we are duty bound to render our pluralism substantive and engage in true partnership across religious and denominational boundaries. This means challenging ourselves to understand why we believe and practice as we do, rather than continuing on our separate ways out of mere laziness or inertia. It means, too, measuring the importance of what is distinctive, making real efforts to bridge differences and-where differences are valuable-finding ways to work together across them. You can appreciate why I am so grateful for the Jim Joseph Foundation partnership that has linked JTS, HUC, and YU more closely than ever before. It is all too rare for students in one Jewish seminary to learn in depth the approach taken at other seminaries, let alone for clergy or educators to study in depth about other faiths or study with clergy and educators devoted to those faiths.
I urge us to do so, you and I, precisely as a proud Conservative Jew who believes in the value of denominational differences, and believes, too, that we should not speak of "Orthodoxy and the liberal movements," because I feel every bit as close to Modern Orthodoxy in some respects as I do in other respects to Reform or Reconstructionism.
Sometimes differences matter. I think that Frankel was usually right in his arguments about mitzvah and halakhah with Geiger on the one hand, and Hirsch on the other, and that Schechter was usually right in his disputes with Kohler and the unbending Orthodoxy of his time. I tend to side with Heschel in his critiques of Soloveitchik and Buber, though not always. It is also true, however, and no less important, that I continue to learn an immense amount from every single one of those figures and from their disagreements. I cannot imagine leading JTS without the conversation and argument that Heschel and Kaplan carry on in my head almost daily. Nor could I have done my job half as well these past six years without the companionship of HUC's president and the benefit of his experience and wisdom.
The point, fellow students of Torah, is that distinctive paths in Judaism enrich our learning, so long as we actually honor and listen to our diverse voices and do not ignore or silence dissonance. We need to demonstrate that religious differences can serve Heaven, rather than drag humanity or the Jewish People downward. Given the frequent use of God's Holy Name in our world to justify intolerance, oppression, fanaticism, and terror, this seems to me a clear imperative that teachers of Torah in our time are duty bound to embrace.
My third and final observation is, likewise, addressed primarily to the rabbis being honored today for decades of service, and to the educators, scholars, rabbis, and cantors about to embark on our shared vocation. This week's Torah portion includes the chilling warning that, if we spurn God's commandments, failing among other things to make sure the ritual observance of Shabbat leads to the ethical observance of sabbatical and Jubilee years, "Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years." Forms of the word Shabbat occur no less than seven times in two searing verses. The Talmud forcefully restates the Torah's lesson this way: "Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Israel, 'Since you did not release the land, it will release you; the number of months which you did not release it, it will release itself.'"
It's a great responsibility, in any time or place, to be the bearers of Torah. You and I have the privilege of doing so in the greatest Diaspora the Jewish People has ever known, and in partnership with the reborn Sovereign State of Israel. 'Am Yisra'el Chai. We have not only survived the onslaughts of our enemies but thrived. Our blessings are incalculable. They carry responsibilities in tow. And we have the added responsibility of serving Heaven in full knowledge that the survival of God's earth, our planet, is at risk today as never before. We know, too, that the evil manifested in bombings by terrorists, like the good manifested in those who rush to help the victims, mandate evermore dedicated teaching of Torah and evermore faithful and innovative covenantal service of God's creatures and Creation.
Such are the burdens and blessings that we Jewish educators bear today. You know that I have a special connection, by marriage, to the first cohort graduating from the executive master's program in education, as well as to the other master's students in education. Being the head of JTS, I have special feeling for graduating rabbis, cantors, and clergy of all denominations and faiths. So permit me to say, speaking heart-to-heart, soul to soul, that, in light of events like the Newtown shootings or the Boston bombings or the hundred other awful things our kids encounter on their smartphones almost daily, perhaps our most important obligation as teachers of Torah right now is to make sure our students really hear from us-not only in the words we say to them but in the examples we set for them and the experiences of meaning and community they receive in our synagogues and classrooms-the lesson that Moses taught at the very end of Nitzavim. Blessing as well as curse lies before them. Good as well as evil. Life as well as death.
We can't prove this to them. Nobody can. Those days are gone. But we can witness with all we are and do as Jewish teachers to the truth-God's truth, Torah's truth-that every one of them has the capacity to make choices for good, for blessing, and for life. We can assure our students and our communities that history matters. Every person matters. They matter, infinitely. Each of them can make a difference in the world-and already does.
It's a special gift to be able to teach this lesson and others like it in 2013, with the authority of Torah to back us up and the persuasive power that comes from teaching Torah with all our hearts and all our souls and all our diverse but partnered might. I hope that, in coming years, you and I, JTS and HUC, all of the generation that stands up for Sinai, will have many opportunities to meet in the course of shared learning, joint action, and common witness.
May God bless our work.