Rabbi Marc Baker
Head of School
Gann Academy Graduation Speech
June 9, 2013/Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5773
Friends, parents, grandparents, family members, colleagues, esteemed guests, my dear students, Class of 2013,
I want take one more opportunity to speak with you this morning about pluralism and community, makhloket (conflict) and shalom (peace).
In my weekly email a few weeks ago, I referenced an essay written by my friend, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, entitled Towards a Pluralism of Substance. He opens with a provocative question:
“Does pluralism help or hurt the goal of fostering feelings of peoplehood?” In essence, is pluralism good for the Jews?
His answer (in a classic rabbinic move): It depends. It depends on whether it is a pluralism of what Professor Susan Shevitz calls coexistence, in which we ignore our differences when they are about issues that are too uncomfortable or too controversial or, whether it is what Shevitz calls generative pluralism, which requires us to genuinely encounter different people and ideas. Kaunfer criticizes pluralism of coexistence and even suggests that being welcoming and accepting without having meaningful, critical engagement with each other actually weakens feelings of peoplehood. “Can I really feel connected to other Jews if I know deep down that we aren’t surfacing the core issues that divide us? Which family is stronger, the one that brings conflict out in the open or the one that keeps interactions limited to the surface level?”
On the other hand, Kaunfer writes that a peoplehood based on generative, substantive pluralism—on the encounter between deeply educated Jews representing a wide range of positions—is exciting. I would say it is more than exciting; it is necessary and not only for the Jewish future but also for the future of a free and democratic world.
In his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes, “At the center of America’s public life is a marketplace of ideas that only a free people could create, a vital, colorful, chaotic bazaar of religious, philosophical, political and intellectual convictions. When democracy is working as it should, it is a complex and confusing mess where we can generate advances via the creative conflict of ideas; and can still manage to come together for the sake of the common good.” Generative pluralism is the lifeblood of democracy.
To be honest, when I think of many parts of the Jewish world and our society, more broadly, I would say that even a pluralism of coexistence would be “dayeinu” – would be “enough,” and a great step forward. But, graduates, I hope you realize that you, all of us, are part of something much more here.
It started with the vision and passion of my teacher, friend, predecessor, and Class of 2013 parent, Rabbi Danny Lehmann, who founded our school 16 years ago as a model, a laboratory for the “pluralism of substance” that our world so dearly needs now as much as ever. And, while we have so far to go and so much more to learn, I hope you know that people from around the country and the world come to our school, they come to see you in action, to learn about this extraordinary experiment that we call pluralism. It is 16 years later, but you are still pioneers.
So why, if it is so necessary, is this kind of pluralism still so challenging and so rare?
One reason, which Rabbi Kaunfer focuses on, is that generative pluralism requires education, sophistication, and depth. When people don’t really understand where they come from or why they believe and do what they do, the level of engagement between them about important issues remains on the surface.
As you leave Gann today, you have so much more to learn; in so many ways, you have just scratched the surface. I hope you are going out into the world aware of how much you don’t know and thirsty to learn more. At the same time, you have dived deep, you have read, thought, debated, and written. You have examined others’ ideas, and you have formulated your own. As scholars, as Jews, as people, you have been forced to reflect on your understandings, your beliefs, and your choices, and you are emerging more thoughtful and articulate about who you are, what you care about, and why you do what you do. Your education has prepared you in ways that many are not to engage the other, to shape the Jewish future, and to participate actively in our vibrant democracy.
Lack of education is one challenge to pluralism. But I want to focus on another reason why generative pluralism is so rare. So deeply ingrained in many of us is a belief about the nature of relationships and community. And that belief comes down to one thing: makhloket (conflict and disagreement) is bad. Makhloket is negative, aggressive, something that divides people, something we should avoid.
At the heart of this belief about conflict lies the fear of what the results of this conflict might be. Fear of the repercussions of saying something that might be hard for another to hear. Fear that a relationship—with a parent, a teacher, a friend, a partner—cannot withstand the conflict. Fear that, if I allow myself to experience conflict with another’s worldview or experience of reality, I might have to change my own or, worse, give up a part of myself.
On a communal or national level, these fears translate into beliefs that, if we surface hard things, things about which we profoundly disagree, matters of substance that we not only think about with our heads but feel with our hearts, if we go there . . . our community will fall apart.
It is simply human nature to fear the conflict and tension that come from genuinely facing the other.
So, what do we do? Sometimes, we try to shut down or shut out the other by silencing, marginalizing, or defeating him. I think you’ve heard me speak enough about kavod (respect) and honoring the dignity of every human being, so I won’t spend time on that today. Instead, I want to talk about another technique that we use to avoid conflict and tension. We try to protect ourselves, our relationships, and our communities by minimizing discomfort, by “not ruffling feathers,” by “keeping the peace.”
But, here’s the problem: When we do this, what kind of peace, relationships, and communities are we actually protecting?
In a few minutes, graduates, your parents, grandparents, and all those who love you will conclude this graduation by offering you the priestly blessing, which ends “v’yasem lecha shalom – and (may God) grant you peace.” The priests bless the Jewish People with shalom and your loved ones will bless you with shalom. The midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah on these verses says “gadol hashalom – great is peace,” for it is everywhere in our tradition. We end the amidah with it (it’s the last word of the 19th blessing), and we end the priestly blessing with it. The entire Torah is shalom, as it says in Proverbs “dracheha darchei noam, v’kol netivoteha shalom – her ways are ways of pleasantness and all of her paths are peace.” In Pirkei Avot we are instructed to be students of Aaron: “loving peace, pursuing peace – ohev shalom v’rodef shalom.” Surely, we wouldn’t have to rodef – to pursue or chase after – something if it wasn’t elusive, something that regularly gets away from us.
So what is this notion of shalom, peace, that is everywhere in our tradition and that we are charged to pursue?
In his beautiful commentary on the Torah that happens to be called Netivot Shalom (paths of peace), Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, writes: “the shalom that our Rabbis placed on such a high spiritual level cannot simply mean the absence of makhloket, the absence of disagreement and conflict.” This would be a negative definition, one that defines peace as simply the absence of strife. Instead, it must refer to something positive, something larger, something higher, a shalom, a peace, a shleimut, a completion and a wholeness that can contain different forces, different values, different perspectives, different human experiences in the world.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a mystic, poet, philosopher, and in many ways a pluralist, has a stunning description of this higher form of peace.
He comments on the well-known quote from the Talmud that we read toward the end of many of our prayer services:
Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: “Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom b’olam – scholars increase peace in the world.”
Rav Kook reads the word “marbeh” not as increase but as multiply. He explains, “Some make the mistake and think that world peace will only be built by a uniform tone of ideas and qualities. And thus, when they see sages . . . engaging in makhloket, multiplying views and opinions, they think that they are sowing discord and that this discord is opposite of peace. In truth, this is not so, for true peace can only emerge through the full shape of multiplied peace, which includes all sides and opinions contained within wisdom . . .”
For Rav Kook, to be a scholar, which you all are, means to take on the ethical and spiritual responsibilities of tikkun olam, to be builders of a better world, and to do so by being marbeh shalom b’olam – by multiplying peace in the world. Not “keeping the peace” by making conflict go away. No, we need to rodef achar hashalom, to pursue with vigor this vision of true peace that contains within it the multiplicity of beliefs, ideas, and perspectives that make our human experience and our diverse communities so complex and so rich.
This is the shalom that we pray for every day when we say “Oseh shalom bimromav” . . . when we ask the One who makes peace in the heavens to bring peace upon us.
This is the shalom with which your parents and loved ones will bless you in just a few more minutes.
And, this is the shalom that you, disciples of Aaron, are charged to love and to pursue.
So, my scholars, how will you fulfill this sacred responsibility? With the tools, the habits of mind and habits of heart, that you have begun to develop over the past four years.
You have learned to move beyond what Stephen Covey, of blessed memory, calls a scarcity mentality—move beyond the belief that there is only room in this world for one person’s experience; that, if you win, I must lose; if I am right, you must be wrong; in order for your truth to endure, other competing truths must be ignored, rejected, or defeated.
You have learned to trust that there is room in our world for both you and others, for different, even competing perspectives, experiences, and beliefs about the world. There is room if you have the patience and the courage to create the space, beginning in your own minds and hearts. I know you have learned this just from listening to how many times you referenced both individual and community in your siyum.
You have learned not to let go of your passions and your convictions in the name of fitting in, nor in the face of power or of voices louder than yours; to stay true to your particular beliefs, ideas, and experience of the world; not to martyr your own integrity just to preserve a false notion of peace. I know you have learned this because, like many of your teachers and, I suspect, perhaps, even your parents, I have been the recipient of your lovingly critical feedback and suggestions. I have read your passionate editorials, discussed your Jewish futures with you on Shabbatonim, watched you take the robotics world by storm, seen you challenge guest speakers, and marveled as you have led and created programs and clubs that you believe will push our school to live out our mission more fully.
You have also learned that you can be and become larger than yourselves, that it’s not all about you, that you can get over your own egos and your own narrow lenses on the world, in service of something greater than all of us. After all, as we learned from Korach in last week’s Torah portion, it is a makhloket rooted in ego and self-service and in the fear that a win-lose mentality produces—a makhloket that is not for the sake of heaven—that is the real enemy of shalom.
Some people will tell you that our vision of pluralism cannot work and, to be honest, sometimes, it is so hard that it is tempting to believe them. Some people will tell you that to have conviction is to stake your truth claim, arm yourself for confrontation, and defeat competing views. Others will tell you not to make waves, that to be a good leader or a good friend, you should simply keep the peace.
My dear graduates, do not believe them. The future of the Jewish people, our democratic society, and the world need our pluralism and need you now more than ever.
Listen, instead, to the words of Parker Palmer, who writes so beautifully: “(Our democratic institutions, and, I would add, our Jewish institutions) need to be inhabited by citizens and leaders who know how to hold conflict inwardly in a matter that converts it (conflict) into creativity, allowing it to pull them open to new ideas, new courses of action, and each other.”
You are ready for this extraordinary task.
May your minds and hearts be strong and open enough to hold the seemingly irreconcilable diversity with which we live in our still fragmented world.
May you have the confidence and humility, the tenacity and the patience to stay in mahkloket long enough for you to transform it and be transformed by it.
May you build relationships, communities, a society, and a world where Rav Kook’s vision of shalom, of true peace will be realized.
Mazal tov, b’hatzlachah (good luck), we love you and we will miss you.