Commitment in a Complex World

Gann Academy Graduation  
June 19, 2011 

Graduation Speech 
by 
Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School 

 

Friends, parents, grandparents, family members, colleagues, esteemed guests, my dear students, the Class of 2011… 

When I was in college, I had a friend who loved to play devil’s advocate. No matter what topic we were discussing, we would end up in an argument. Sometimes, the argument was fun and productive. Sometimes, let’s just say, it didn’t exactly bring out my best self. It felt like we were blowing a lot of hot air and not getting anywhere. In any conversation – political, ethical, spiritual – he had a response to any argument I would make.  

Then one time the two of us had an ethical dilemma, and we started falling into the same pattern. Instead of getting baited into a debate, I said to him, “You know what, I’m not sure what I think about this. I trust your judgment. What would you do?” He paused and even looked a bit confused. I asked again, “Seriously, what do you think is the right thing to do here?” For a minute or two I could see him running through the debate in his head. “Well, if this, then this . . . but if this, then this . . .” and eventually, he seemed somewhat defeated. “I just don’t know what I would do,” he said. I have often thought about this friend and this moment, and, recently, I came across another story that helped me understand my friend in a new way.  

This is not a story that happened to me – it’s actually a story from the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4. It is the story of a Talmid Vatik – a veteran, advanced disciple of the great Rebbe Meir, a 4th generation Tanna – one of the main rabbis in the Mishnah. This “Talmid of Rabbi Meir”, we’ll call him, does not have a name in this version of the story, although there are other versions in which he is named.  

Let me tell you the context for this story. It takes place right after the Talmud teaches us a rule about lawyers in a capital case. It says that a person who cannot make 100 legal arguments for why a sheretz – a creepy crawly thing – is pure and 100 hundred arguments for why it is impure cannot make the opening argument on behalf of the defendant. This whole concept is theologically awesome, by the way. The rabbis understand that God has given us a Torah and legal system that we have to interpret. Because of this, the law can go in different directions – think of the disputes between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and all of the other makhlokot in our tradition. Much like with American law, as well, because there are so many different ways to interpret law and to apply it in any situation, the rabbis value the intellectual ability to argue both sides of a case. And that’s the context for this story.  

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Talmid of Rabbi Meir was able to make 100 legal arguments for why a creepy crawly thing is pure or impure. Apparently, however, this disciple did not know how to decide what the halachah actually was and was not able to instruct others about the law. Then, Rabbi Yaakov bar Dosai says about the disciple: That student was cut off from Mount Sinai (the place where the law, the Torah, was originally revealed to Moses and the Jewish People).   

What’s going on with this Talmid of Rabbi Meir? And what was going on with my college friend?  

How do we understand an advanced student during the time of the mishnah who could give 100 reasons why the halachah should be one way and one hundred reasons for why it should be another way, and yet, who couldn’t decide or did not know what the law actually was? And what is the connection between this shortcoming, as I think the story presents it, and the disciple being cut off from Mount Sinai?  

I’ve been so taken by this story, by the way, that I’ve been learning it with anyone who is willing to discuss it with me, including my Rabbi in Yerushalayim over the phone (who actually pointed it out to me), my Shabbat guests, and our entire faculty. So, I want to share with you three ways that I understand this character and the lessons I learn from him as you prepare to walk out into the world today. I am sure that some or all of these understandings came from the chevrutot with whom I have learned so, although I won’t name anyone specifically, thank you, and you know who you are!  

One way I read this story is as a critique of someone who knows an incredible amount but is not grounded in values. According to this reading, Mount Sinai, from which he’s cut off, represents not only Torah, Jewish Law, and the Jewish intellectual tradition but also core Jewish values that are meant to guide both our learning and our lives. Sadly, our people know too well that knowledge without morality can be a dangerous thing. Often, it is not our knowledge alone but our values and deeply held beliefs that help us make decisions about how we want to act in the world.  

A second way I read this story is as a critique of the Ivory Tower phenomenon. According this reading, this Talmid had a towering intellect and might even have been grounded in values, but he did not make the shift from head to hand. Our tradition teaches us that Talmud Torah is meant to lead to maaseh to action in the world . . . we ask God every morning in the second paragraph of the shema to “give us a heart to learn and to perceive, lishmoa, lilmod, u’lelamed, lishmor v’la’asot, ul’kayem . . . to listen, to learn and to teach, to observe, to do and to fulfill the words of Torah . . .” Learning and doing are intimately linked in our tradition . . . the life of the mind is not an end in and of itself. It can be entertaining, even invigorating, to bask in the world of theory and ideas, to explore and then revisit every perspective and every position— but, according to this reading, the Talmid was cut off from Mount Sinai because he was a little too invigorated by living in his head, in the world of argument, and never translated his knowledge into action.  

I find both of these readings compelling, but, in truth, neither helps me understand my college friend. He was a person with values and principle, not like reading one. And, he was also a person of action, engaged with the world politically and otherwise, unlike reading number two.  

So, let me offer a third reading that I think best explains my friend’s indecisiveness. This reading is about the relationship between COMPLEXITY and COMMITMENT. The Talmud celebrates this student because the rabbis knew and we all know that we live in a complex world where purity and impurity, let alone truth, justice, morality, history, reality are not black and white. Because of this, we need to refine our capacities to think critically, to analyze, interpret and evaluate, and to see things from as many different perspectives as possible. We need to accept that sometimes “Elu ‘Elu Divrei Elokim Chayim – These and these are the words of the Living God – two different, even competing values or perspectives can both be legitimate and true. I know that your teachers in every subject have prepared you to navigate a complex and nuanced world, and I think the Talmid of Rabbi Meir was very comfortable with this complexity, as well.  

So, what was wrong with him? Perhaps, he was paralyzed by an obsession with nuance and complexity, by the limitless possible ways to understand his reality and the knowledge that any of those ways might be valid and true. Because here’s the thing, once you appreciate complexity, it can be really hard to commit to anything. When these and these are the words of the living God, to actually choose one means to close the door on the other, and, when the other might also be right, dare I say might even be better, closing that door can be scary. For those of us who deeply believe and value the complexity of the world (which I hope all of you do), to commit can feel like we’re giving something up.  

So, what can we do? It seems to me we have three choices: We can reject complexity in the name of commitment. We can try to simplify things, to make things more black and white, in order to make it easier to make a decision, to know which side we’re on. Unfortunately, this often means shutting down or tuning out other viewpoints, perspectives, and even people who challenge the clarity and simplicity of our view and who might force us to accept that things are not as clear as they seem. It is easier to make choices when only one choice is the right choice.  

Or, we can embrace complexity and avoid commitment. We can stay in the ivory tower, the world of ideas, validating many perspectives but choosing none. We can keep opening doors for ourselves but refuse to close any, and we can avoid taking a stand on things because we know that the person standing opposite us has a legitimate point, as well.  

As you can imagine, while many people choose one of these two, neither satisfies me, nor should they satisfy you. For me the Talmid of Rebbe Meir was cut off from Mount Sinai because Mount Sinai represents the urgency of a LIVING TORAH. Standing face to face with God does not mean that it will be easy to interpret God’s word nor does it mean that what God wants of you will be clear, simple, or black and white. But standing face to face with God does generate a profound sense of acharayut – of responsibility – not only to think, interpret, and make meaning, but to make choices, make decisions, to act in the world and on the world. This means that you don’t get to stand at the crossroads forever – you are on a journey, and you need to head in a direction. It means that you should look at things from every angle and perspective, but then you must decide what your perspective is. Only when you are willing to clarify your values will you be willing to take a stand for what you believe in and to live out those values. We don’t have to give up complexity, nuance, critical thinking, and inquiry. They are powerful tools for making sense of our world, and they should inform our choices. But it is the choices we make that shape our actions, and it is our actions that shape our character.  

Class of 2011, when I think about the character of your class, I actually think first about the sparkling cow that is making its way around the school! When you do something, you do it loudly and brightly, and that cow reflects the same spirit that won you three color wars in a row!  

On a more serious note, I think about moments when you were not afraid to stand firm and speak loudly for what you believed in. There is no lack of intellectual power and appreciation of complexity in this class! And yet, think of the times when you have passionately held your ground or defended your values and beliefs in the face of nuanced and complex situations. At an all school debate about how we would pray on a shabbaton, where there was pressure to compromise in the name of all praying together, it was one of you who stood up and said, “I understand and appreciate other views on this, but it is important to me to pray with a mechitza in a traditional setting.” Two years later, one of you published an editorial in the school newspaper entitled, “Get a Jewish Education at Gann Academy” calling for the school to educate better about liberal, in particular, Reform Judaism. On your shabbaton this year, one of the highlights for me was a conversation with several of you about our Sefer Torah debate.   You argued with me and with each other, open to listening and learning but clear and passionate about your values and beliefs.  

We have had our share of hard conversations over the past four years. And some of you have not always agreed with my decisions . . . and I want you to know that some of my most memorable moments have been when you have challenged me, often respectfully, but always with passion, determination, love, and commitment. I want you to know that I admire you, and I have learned so much from you.  

So, Class of 2011, as we send you out into the world, I bless you with the intellect and the humility to navigate a complex and nuanced world.  May you be comfortable living in the gray, and may you stay open to and curious about perspectives, beliefs, and opinions that are different from yours. 

And, may you learn from the story of the Talmid of Rabbi Meir:  

Be intellectuals but be pragmatists and mensches, as well.  

Embrace complexity, acknowledge that more than one way might be right, good, and true in any situation . . . and then MAKE THE CALL, TAKE A STAND, AND LIVE IN THE WORLD WITH SINAITIC PASSION AND URGENCY.  

We love you, we will miss you, and we believe in you.  

Mazal tov.  

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