This is normally the point in the ceremony at which the chancellor delivers the Commencement Address. That won't happen today. Congressman Lewis has more than fulfilled the task of providing this year's graduates—and the rest of us too—with words of hope and wisdom that none of us will soon forget. So my message to the newest alumni of The Jewish Theological Seminary will be extremely brief. Its subject is what Solomon Schechter called "the charter of the Seminary," what our marketing consultants call "the distinctiveness of the JTS 'brand,'" and what I prefer to call the tasks awaiting learned, thoughtful, and dedicated Jewish leaders in 2013.
You are a diverse group: future clergy, educators, lay leaders, scholars, attorneys, physicians, social workers, businesspeople, practitioners in other fields; wives, husbands, partners, parents, and friends; citizens of a society more varied than ever before and a planet more endangered than ever before. I hope that JTS—beyond the habits of mind, skills of learning, and repertoires of knowledge you have acquired here—has helped prepare you to bet your lives on two fundamental convictions that cut across everything else we are and do: one, the immense good that individuals like you, fortified by the power of community and empowered further by the experience of shared learning, can accomplish in this world; and two, the belief that our differences, successfully bridged, make us better able to perform these tasks than any group could do acting alone.
There are many challenges to these convictions, God knows. We run into them every day. The cruel power of nature to destroy lives and the work of lifetimes in a matter of seconds was evident again this week in Oklahoma. The awful power of human beings to maim bodies and break hearts hits home for all of us this year on many occasions, in places like Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, and the marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. It seems that we cannot pass even the bare minimum of rational gun control in this country, giving ground for despair that we will get our act together on climate change any time soon. And, in the face of these and other facts of life, JTS stands for a tradition that insists—as Moses did in his "graduation address" to the Children of Israel, as they prepared to cross the Jordan and he prepared to die—that we have the power to choose good, choose blessing, and so to choose life.
There are people out there, religious people, Jews included, who insist that good lies entirely on one side of the Jewish-Gentile divide—that we have to choose between the blessing that comes from full involvement in US society and culture and the blessing that comes from immersion in Jewish study and practice; that life in this world has to be lived the way their "side" sees it, or else one forfeits life eternal. Against that we have the kind of learning that you, our graduates, have enjoyed these past few years at JTS, the kind of community we foster inside these walls, the kind of society we try to build. And we have the example of the five individuals, quite a diverse group, to whom we have awarded honorary degrees this morning, every one of whom is witness to the fact that each of us can make a huge difference in this world, each in a distinctive way, each drawing strength and direction from a particular tradition and putting those resources into the service of community, society, and world.
JTS faces another sort of challenge these days that I'd like to address for a moment—a newer and much healthier challenge—that is causing us and every other institution of higher education to question the nature and purpose of the learning that goes on. I'm speaking, of course, about Internet technology, and, specifically, about the phenomenon of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), which are already replacing live, in-person lectures on a number of campuses and soon will on many more. MOOCs are enabling thousands of people to attain knowledge and skills otherwise unavailable to them, surely a good thing. On the other hand, there are many sound educational reasons to hope that small classes like those at JTS—one-on-one relationships with professors, careful poring over texts and data—will never become obsolete.
And—my point here—there is an overriding moral purpose served by an education like the one you have received. You are leaving JTS, diplomas in hand, knowing that community is a precious aide to learning, that conversations carried directly from classroom to cafeteria are among the most important pieces of your education that 20 minutes one-on-one with a professor in her or his office can be worth more than 20 hours of class. You've learned from experience here that individuals really do matter to the public good; that significant arguments can be conducted with respect; that your words, thoughts, and relationships advance your learning. You know for a fact that the quality of your love is inseparable from the sharpness of your thinking.
Schechter liked to tie the Jewish in "The Jewish Theological Seminary" to a breadth of concern and interest, such that nothing Jewish will ever be alien to a graduate of JTS, including the larger world that has so impacted Judaism. The meaning he attached to Theological can be gleaned from his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, in which exactly four chapter titles of 18 bear the word God, and the rest pertain to what human beings should do in response to God's Presence and God's Commandments to help usher in God's Kingdom. I don't know if Schechter ever bothered to explicate the word Seminary. Its several meanings were wellknown to all in 1902: not only a training ground for rabbis, teachers (or, as in a famous line from The Mikado, of young women), but a seminar, a place where important ideas are exchanged around a table and seminal thoughts nurtured; where individuals grow through challenge, debate, and mutual support.
Let that be our shared JTS "brand," fellow students of Torah. Let's prove by our actions in coming months and years that the kind of learning we've engaged in at JTS has empowered us to embark on a lifelong, massive, open, online and off-line course in doing good. Go well.