Maryland Graduation Speech

Finding Jewish Identity in a Secular World

May 21, 2017
University of Maryland Graduation Address
Rabbi Israel, Rabbi Backman, faculty and administrators, families, friends, guests, and, of course, members of the 2017 graduating class here at the University of Maryland – Congratulations on having reached this wonderful milestone.

The story is told of a college graduate who, upon graduation, had something of an identity crisis. He travelled to India and climbed a well-known mountain to speak to G-d. Every day, he would call out from the mountaintop “Who am I?” Every day, he would hear no response. Then, one day, his prayer was particularly fervent. Tears were streaming down his face as he cried out once more “WHO AM I?” At that moment, the skies opened up and a voice called out saying: “Who wants to know?”

This special graduation ceremony provides us an opportunity to re-phrase the question of “Who am I?” Perhaps the real question for our graduates is “How will I reconcile my identity as a proud Jew with my desire to take advantage of all that the secular world has to offer in my chosen field?”

This is a question that dates back to Abraham, the first Jew. There he was, negotiating a place in the secular world and having to face the demands of an idol-worshipping Philistine leader by the name of Avimelech. Avimelech was willing to work with Abraham; but he required one thing. He demanded that Abraham swear allegiance to Avimelech. That presented Abraham with a real challenge. On the one hand, to swear to Avimelech means swearing to all that Avimelech stands for. On the other hand, if he failed to swear his allegiance, he could have a war on his hands.

Instead, Abraham came up with an ingenious solution – He said “Anochi Ishavei’a.” Grammatically, Anochi means “I” and Ishavei’a means “I swear”. Anochi Ishavei’a, therefore, means “I, I swear.” That redundant or double “I” caused commentators to suggest a different meaning. Anochi in this context could mean more than just “I” and could actually refer to G-d because G-d opened the Ten Commandments by identifying Himself as “Anochi.” Given that understanding, Abraham worked it out with Avimelech by saying two things: Avimelech heard “I swear” and at the same time Abraham remained true to his faith by saying “I swear to Anochi – to G-d.”

Secular literature has another famous example of how to remain true to our Jewish identity. In the famous Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice, we learn about Shylock, the Jewish money lender, who tried to adhere to his faith in the midst of a non-Jewish world. We are all familiar with the famous scene in which he said “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” But before that, in speaking with his compatriots, he said “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, [and] walk with you, …, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” Said in a biblical way, Shylock was confronted with Avimelech and he said “Anochi Ishavei’a” – Even as I work together with you, I swear allegiance to my G-d and my faith.

Moving beyond biblical and secular literature to the “real world” into which you will be thrust, we see that every day another version of Avimelech is calling out saying “swear to me and all that I stand for.” Our challenge is to respond with the strength and conviction of knowing who we are.
This year in the Hebrew calendar is 5777. In Hebrew, the letters corresponding to that date are Taf, Shin, Ayin, Zayin. Those letters spell an acronym for T’hi Shenat Oze – It should be a year of strength (or courage). Here is a story that embodies that spirit of a year of strength.
Last fall, I attended a dinner program at the U.S. Supreme Court building for which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was our host. During her remarks and in an off-hand comment, Justice Ginsburg pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court always opens its sessions on the First Monday in October; but this year, because Rosh Hashanah fell on Monday, they would not hear arguments in cases until Tuesday.

To appreciate the significance of that statement, you need to know that since 1975, there has been a federal law mandating that the Court open its session on the first Monday in October. So how was it that they moved the date for oral argument? The Supreme Court is steeped in its traditions and, obviously, if any institution is going to follow the law, it would be the U.S. Supreme Court.

The precedent for this change of date was from 2003. Then, for the first time in the 28 years since the 1975 law, the Court officially moved its opening arguments from the First Monday in October (which was Yom Kippur in 2003) to the next Tuesday. So it has happened before that the Court officially moved the date for oral argument in deference to the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar. We know THAT it happened; but HOW did it happen?

I decided to ask Justice Ginsburg. After she sat at her place at the dinner, I sat next to her and asked her how the decision was made. In response to my question, she perked up and told me the story. “Several years ago,” she began, “Yom Kippur fell on the first Monday in October. Justice Breyer and I went to the Chief Justice [Justice Rehnquist] and pointed that out. We said that the Court should delay the opening in deference to the Holiday. The Chief was not persuaded. He said ‘Why should we delay? We always hold our Friday conferences on Friday, even if it is Good Friday.’ So I replied to him ‘So move that conference to Thursday; that would be fine for us.’ The Chief was still not persuaded. Do you know what persuaded him?” she asked, looking right at me. “I explained to him that lawyers wait their entire career to appear before the Supreme Court. For many of them, it is a once in a lifetime chance to argue in the Supreme Court. What if a Jewish lawyer wanted to appear in court? We should not make that lawyer choose between observing his or her faith and appearing before the Court. That persuaded him and we changed the calendar.”

I would say that Justice Ginsburg did more than just change the Court’s calendar.

When Sandy Koufax (in 1965) refused to pitch in the World Series in deference to Yom Kippur; that was a courageous act and statement of faith. Following that example, Justice Ginsburg could have said “Go ahead and hold the oral arguments; but I won’t go because it is Yom Kippur.” But she did not do that. Even Sandy Koufax did not make them move the date for the World Series. Justice Ginsburg moved the date for the legal equivalent of the World Series.

Another important part of Justice Ginsburg’s act was that the argument that persuaded the Chief Justice was not based on the needs of a specific lawyer who was arguing a specific case. It was an argument on behalf of all Jewish lawyers who then existed or may exist in the future; it was an argument based on the possibility that there might be a Jewish lawyer at some point in time who would need to appear before the Court and not be comfortable choosing between his or her faith and the pinnacle of a legal career. Therefore, the precedent was set that even the statutory First Monday in October could be set aside.

A true story of strength and courage.

Let me now invite you to my world. I am a senior partner at an international law firm. You would think that I get to control my own destiny and “call the shots.” But I, too, confront Avimelech on a daily basis.

A couple years ago, a very large and important firm client set a date for an important conference call. Ten other parties were invited and accepted. The client called to inform me when I should make myself available. It was scheduled for the second day of Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates G-d’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people.

Here is a test – go explain Shavuot to someone who does not know what it is. Then, explain why you need a second day of Shavuot and see how much sympathy that garners for your lack of availability. Suffice it to say that the client was not happy.

The client said that even if it was Yom Kippur, I was their lawyer and needed to be available if it was an important enough matter. Again, I said that I simply was not available and I offered to have one of my non-Jewish partners take the call. The client did not want one of my partners; the client hired me. The client then suggested that the business might have to go to another law firm altogether. I said the choice was up to them; but I could not be available on that day. Three years later, the client is still a client and calling nearly every day with some issue or other.

This graduation ceremony is separate from and still a part of the University of Maryland graduation exercises. It is a testament to how you can find a balance between your Jewish identity and your integration into the world at large. In this particular year – a year of strength and courage – remember what you stood for here today and use it as an inspiration for where you can go.

Returning to our opening question, we all have to ask “Who am I?” The answer “Who wants to know?” is our challenge. Avimelech is standing before us every day and is not going away. Who you are depends on who you want to be. Stay true to your core beliefs and values and you will find your way to great happiness and success in your future.

Mazel Tov and Congratulations to the 2017 Graduating Class.