Today, I was given two great honors by Hebrew College in Newton, MA: awarded an honorary doctorate and asked to address the graduating class of educators, cantors and rabbis. Here’s what I said:
Hebrew College Commencement Address
June 2, 2013
According to that famous Chinese proverb, “it is a curse to live in interesting times.” So we’re good, because “interesting” doesn’t begin to describe what we’re living in. These are extraordinary times for lots of reasons, but chief among them is the dizzying rate of change that is taking us, well, we have no idea where. And we all know it isn’t likely to slow down. This can be disorienting. But a curse?
No. There has never been a better time to be Jewish. Not for me and not for my daughter.
Not everyone agrees that these are the good times. There are Jews who see nothing but threats on the horizon. They advise us to circle the wagons and they presume that survival depends upon our elites, like Rabbi Shammai, who said, “One should teach only one who is wise and humble of good family and rich.”
If I quote Shammai you know what’s coming next: Rabbi Hillel said, “Teach everyone.”
Hillel rejected litmus tests for wealth, family name, and wisdom, even humility. In other words, even the dull and arrogant had a place in his classroom. “Teach everyone,” Hillel said, “because there were many sinners in Israel who were brought near to God by studying Torah and from whom descended righteous, pious and honorable people.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his wonderful short biography of Hillel: If Not Now, When, says that not only was Hillel arguably Judaism’s greatest rabbinic sage, he was also its most fearlessly inclusive.
Telushkin writes, “What shines through the teachings of Hillel and his disciples is a fundamental optimism about human nature and the capacity of Torah to affect people positively.… If Torah has something to teach the world, its message shouldn’t be restricted.”
Rabbi Hillel also said, “The highly impatient person cannot teach.”
He believed that, as important as it is for teachers to know their material, it is even more important to love what they teach and to love their students. Teachers should embody the Golden Rule. What is hateful to you, do not do to your student: no showboating for the sake of demonstrating how learned you are. Show respect by teaching to the level of your students.
Hillel said, “Teach everyone.” I would add, “Teach for the beginner. Also, teach with a beginner’s mind.”
This does not mean dumbing down; it means staying in touch with the amazement and awe of learning Torah for the first time. It means thinking outside the bimah, moving outside the comfort zone of the yeshiva. It means remembering that someone in your classroom doesn’t know the meaning of the words “bimah” or “yeshiva.’
When you don’t translate bimah, which means pulpit, you close a door just a little bit. When you don’t explain that yeshiva refers to a place of serious Jewish learning, you add a few more grains of sand to a stumbling block you can’t see. This is understandable; after years of hard work to earn your degree, you may well have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
Translate everything. This is not just for the benefit of new Jews or non-Jewish spouses and in-laws, friends and guests. This is for the benefit of Jews you think understand. It’s taken me 35 years as an adult Jewish learner to ask for translations without being ashamed.
Everyone is a beginner in some area of Torah, a word with onion-like layers of meaning. The dictionary definition of torah is: instruction or teaching. The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew bible, but Torah also refers to all sacred and religious literature: the whole bible, Talmud and all of the commentaries, the writings of the mystics, Jewish philosophy, and liturgy.
And Torah is even more expansive than that, encompassing all Jewish thought. Including Purim Torah, which includes equal parts terrible jokes, pun-filled plays, song parodies and silly sermons. We can speak with urgency about a Torah of the planet. Physics has given us a Torah of unified field theory.
A Torah of social justice includes the biblical prophets and the history of Jewish involvement in the American labor and civil rights movements.
There is the Torah of Kushner, not just Rabbi Harold and Rabbi Lawrence, my teacher. But also Tony Kushner, the playwright, who put the entire Kaddish prayer, which is recited in memory of the dead, in Aramaic, smack in the middle of Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize winning classic of the contemporary American stage.
There is the Torah of Jon Stewart, who I consider the chief rabbi of the United States. Or, if you prefer, our leading prophet, speaking truth to power with a punch line.
Too far out? Too fringy? Hey, if you don’t have fringes on the corners of your tallis, your prayer shawl, you’re wearing a tablecloth. It’s all about the fringe.
Our Torah is oceanic, with room for Hillel and Shammai, physics and physical comedy. We are all beginners.
So, dear graduates, teach Torah to everyone. Teach to beginners and cultivate a beginners mind as you teach the Torah of menschlichkeit, of being a good person; the Torah of b’ztelem elohim, of the radical equality of all human beings fashioned in the image of the divine; the Torah of tikkun olam, of responsibility and politics.
I share Hillel’s fundamental optimism about human nature and about the vitality of our vast and elastic tradition that can infuse daily life with meaning, beauty and holiness when we sit in the classroom and when we meet at Starbucks; when we stand up for what we believe in and when we bend low to comfort the fallen; when we walk down Boylston Street, and when we’re watching television; when we study together and, I pray, whenever you teach your Torah.
Mazal tov. Congratulations. Now, go change the world.