Community Blog Commencement Address 2017
President Lehmann, members of the Board, honored guests, faculty colleagues, alumni and, most especially, today’s graduates, families and friends:
I’m deeply honored to be standing before you as your commencement speaker, asked to offer some words in what we might think of as a modern form of wisdom literature, divrei chokhmah. With humility, I offer you my own version of what the author of the biblical wisdom book, Mishlei, Proverbs calls
“torat imekha”- the torah, the teaching, of your mother.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was…like the present period…”
These words describing an earlier period which was uncannily “like the present period” were written in 1859, the famous opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. They still uncannily capture our experience of “the present period”, a time of profound unease and anxiety over deep divisions in goals and values. In such a time, many of us feel impelled to action, to resist what we understand to be destructive to our fellow human beings and to the earth itself and to push vehemently toward what we identify as justice and compassion in our communities and our world. Daily messages with subject lines like “Not Normal,” “Urgent Action,” “Call Now,” knock at the doors of our attention. We at Hebrew College, students and faculty, who have been devoting our time and energy to study of ancient texts, writing about them, teaching them, singing them, creating new words and new music to help them speak to us and everyone with whom we work, can feel called to respond to the deep needs of our time with an urgent re-direction of that time and energy. Eit la’asot la’Shem. It’s a time for action!
The question of whether the Judaism we study and teach is a religion fundamentally about the life of the mind and soul or the life of action has a long history. The rabbis probe it in the Talmud, in many contexts, perhaps most famously in the scene in Masekhet Kiddushin of Rabbi Tarfon and the elders debating which is “gadol”- of primary importance in our lives- “talmud”-Torah study or “ma’aseh”- action, good deeds, fulfillment of mitzvot involving all aspects of our bodily, economic and social lives. Rabbi Tarfon champions ‘ma’aseh’, Rabbi Akiva ‘talmud Torah’, but the collective voice seems to settle on the reconciling view that Talmud Torah is “greater” – because it leads to action- ‘talmud gadol sh’hatalmud meivi li’dei ma’aseh.’ Masekhet Berachot teaches in the name of Rabbi Me’ir that God urges us to learn Torah b’khol l’vavkha u’v’khol nafsh’kha with all of your heart and with your full self -la’da’at et d’rakhai-in order to know with the greatest intimacy and intensity my ways, which Rabbi Me’ir defines as the derekh that leads to good deeds and away from sin and transgression.
And yet what has endured is, as Barry Holtz has phrased it, “a fundamental tension within Judaism that has played itself out throughout the generations in a variety of ways. Is study meant to be instrumental- aimed at teaching people the proper way to act,” as is suggested by what I called the reconciling collective voice in the Talmud text? “Or is study fulfilling some other purpose, even beyond intellectual engagement?” Over and over again in rabbinic texts, we hear voices urging us to study Torah li’shma- for its own sake. A Talmudic slogan reassures us that even if our studies have been in pursuit of another goal, nevertheless we will be led to learning for its own sake- mitokh sh’lo lishma ba lish’ma. The assumption here is that Torah lishma is the truly desirable goal. Our daily prayers include the blessing “May the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the house of Israel may come to love you and study your Torah for its own sake- kulanu yod’ei sh’mekha v’lomdei toratekha li’shma.” Does this passion for Torah lishma imply that Torah study in the service of deeds in the world, even urgent work toward justice and compassion in deeply troubling times, muddies the life-giving waters of Torah, dilutes its nourishing depths into shallow puddles that too easily dry up and dissipate?
I want to suggest a way to reframe these questions for all of us, and especially for you who are going out from Hebrew College as Jewish educators, rabbis, cantors, leaders of communities. Rather than climbing a ladder with either Torah or ma’aseh as its highest rung, we have been engaged in developing and deepening a relationship- ahavat Torah- a love relationship with Torah. And I mean Torah in the broadest sense- the whole fabric of text, spiritual practices, awareness of history and culture, connection with Jewish people and with our fellow human beings of past and present generations. We learn love and express love through varieties of experience, to paraphrase William James. Inspired and energized by love, we can engage fully in even the most difficult work, while creating time and space to cultivate our relationship of love.
This possibility embedded in love of Torah is evoked in a midrash that reflects on the plight of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, who cannot even hear words of hope, let alone envision possible redemption because of kotzer ru’ach, literally shortness of breath from hard labor, figuratively constriction of spirit, inability to imagine anything beyond the harsh reality of the present. The midrash finds in the very language in which Pharaoh imposes even more oppressive labor what Martin Buber called “a concealed alternative”. In the tyrant’s words to the people: “don’t pay attention to lying words”- al yish’u el divrei shaker, the midrash finds a hint that the people had in their possession scrolls with which they would play (yishta’ash’u) from Shabbat to Shabbat: these scrolls declared that God would redeem them. As Avivah Zornberg teaches us, this notion of play with texts is very serious play. We are talking about interpretation, speculation, delight in an imagined reality offered by sustained attention to the words of Torah. This is what generates the spiritual energy essential to envisioning and working toward alternatives to an oppressive present. And this is a matter of life and death. Lulei toratkha sha’a’shu’ai, Az avad’ti b’onyi- Had not your Torah been my delight, my play, I would have perished in my affliction, as the Psalmist passionately cries out.
But when we love deeply, we also open ourselves to heartbreak. Love of Torah can include pain, disappointment, even anguish. As feminist scholar Rachel Adler, in a discussion of the stories about Beruriah, the learned woman in the Talmud, has poignantly reminded us, “those who teach us inevitably teach us themselves, since all learning flows through the medium of relationship. Our teachers bind us to them with their stories. We take into ourselves their Torah…but sometimes they break our hearts. They break our hearts when they do not see how their Torah is bounded by their context.” But, as she concludes, “our heartbreak…is part of our inheritance and heartbreak is what moves us to the work of redemption, which is called tikkun, mending. And it is on this account that the Hassidic masters taught, ‘the most whole heart is a broken heart.’”
In the same psalm I quoted a minute ago, the poet exclaims “mah ahavti toratekha/ kol hayom hee sichati- How I love your Torah/ all day long it is my study, my meditation, the theme of my speaking”- The midrash on that verse finds every dimension of our life in that love- kol mi sh’ohev et ha’torah aino ohev ela chayyim- whoever loves Torah loves life itself.
In that spirit, I want to play with a mishnah in Avot and the words of the prophet, Micah, in order to offer you my blessing: hevei mi talmidav shel Aharon, Moshe u’Miriam: – may you be among the students of Aaron, Moses and Miriam whom God sent before you: ohev et habri’ot u’m’korvan la’torah- may you love all God’s creatures by bringing them close to Torah and bringing Torah close to them.
Dr. Judith Kates is Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew College delivered this address as Hebrew College’s 92nd Commencement on June 4, 2017..