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Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2004 Commencement

American University
College of Arts and Sciences
Commencement Address
Rabbi David Hartman
May 9, 2004

Although living in Jerusalem is to live beyond time, I’m going to be on time.

The theme of my talk is the celebration of diversity and of religious pluralism. As one who has written and lectured around the world on the importance of tolerance and pluralism, I’m often asked who was the philosopher that influenced your vision of pluralism? Who were your great teachers that led you in the path of pluralism? I could mention, I say, Berlin William James (?), but fundamentally, I learned pluralism growing up in Brooklyn and Brownsville and playing basketball. I don’t know if you heard about Lincoln Terrace Park, but, that’s where I learned living pluralism. On the basketball court, no one asked you what your religious affiliation was, and what your ideology was. The elbow that I used to get under the boards made no distinction of religion, faith or philosophy. I learned to worry about pluralism from my mother and father and the family. They were very deeply pious, living as Orthodox Jew to strict adherence to the law. Yet, I never heard from them any sense of negating of other people with different religious convictions, with different belief structures. I never heard from them a sense of holier than thou – that the Hartman family has the exclusive truth and exclusive accessibility to God.

When I went to live in Jerusalem, I continued the spirit of Brownsville on the basketball court. It is beautiful sometimes in Jerusalem. I remember, I was upset in the beginning- at 4 o’clock in the morning, I would hear, out of the mosques, the call to prayer; and I figured it was worth having a disturbed night’s sleep, but to listen to the music of Islam. On other days, I would hear the church bells ringing, calling people to church and to mass. On other days, I would hear people of my own faith singing the song of Sabbath. So here, I’m living in a city where fundamentally you never hear one music – one expression of conviction of faith. You live in a city, which fundamentally pushes you into living in a broader pluralistic world.

Now people say to me, why do you celebrate pluralism? I can understand you embrace it because of political expediency. But what is the value of pluralism? Do you see it as an expression of a deep religious conviction? Is it something of ultimate value? Doesn’t pluralism weaken conviction? Isn’t conviction and faith require one to have a feeling that he has the exclusive truth and the only way? Can one really be devoted and have a sense of conviction knowing that the other equally as well has value?

In my own reflection on this question that is often asked of me, people make a great mistake in identifying pluralism with relativism. They think that if you are pluralist you don’t really have serious convictions. You have serious convictions, you say, I know the truth, don’t bother me with questions.

So, in some way, I asked myself what lies beneath the whole value of living in a pluralistic world in a pluralistic cultural. Why celebrate this diversity? For me, I think the secret of America – its strength and power – lies in its celebration of diversity. And it’s giving up of a monolithic vision for all people. This celebration of diversity is a profound expression of a very deep biblical commandment. People think that the great biblical commandment is: love thy neighbor as yourself. This, I don’t deny it’s an important command. I don’t deny that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if people would implement it.

However, let me tell you about another biblical commandment, which is even more difficult to embrace and is even more important, and that is the biblical phrase: v’ahavtem et hager ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzryim – and you shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The love of the stranger, the love of the neighbor, is more simpler because it is someone who lives in your neighborhood, someone you recognize, someone you can anticipate and predict their behavior. But to love the stranger, and I would use the term not only stranger, but the other - the radical other. How do I meet the other? Why is that so significant that I have to embrace the other with compassion. What does the other do for you as a human being? The other heals you from absolutism. The other, in some way, asks you to consider your own convictions not as the exclusive truth. The other forces you to open to a critical spirit; to be able to open yourself to a world different than yourself, and to give up absolutism and triumphantism. If you embrace the other, you discover a way of liberation out of the ego’s need for the absolute. The other frees you from the maniacal obsession for exclusive truth; for one way to God, for one way to live a decent human life.

And, what makes America great is that there is room for diversity and it celebrates diversity. To live in America is to hear the music of so many different cultures, and I hear that American University is known for this. This is what makes it a great university and what makes America great. I feel secure in the world, because I know there’s a decent country in the world that is not striving to, in some way, impose one way on the world. I live in a world where there is a great country that is prepared to admit it makes mistakes. If you celebrate diversity, you accept a critical spirit.

There’s a difference between celebration of diversity and pluralism and relativism. In relativism you don’t have to explain your convictions beyond criticism. You can say, ‘I like it.’ ‘I like chocolate cake, what do you like?’ I don’t have to justify, I don’t have to give reasons. In pluralism, you always are open to the criticism of the other. In pluralism you can’t just say, ‘I like it;’ you have to present and intelligent argument for embracing your conviction. And, I say there can be conviction and can be depth if you learn to hear your own music without having to negate the other. Acclamation without negation. I don’t have to negate the other in order to affirm what I have.

And to the graduates, I can only say this: As one who lives in Jerusalem, who studies talmud and philosophy; let me tell you what one sage told his student who came to him. A sage came and he was teaching, and he was teaching different things. And, if you studied talmud, you would know, that there is no one page of talmud that doesn’t have disagreement. One says one thing, and another person says another thing. And constantly there is disagreement. So, the student came to the sage and said, ‘How can I study the bible, if this one tells me one way and this one tells me another way. This one tells me it’s permitted, this one tells me it’s not permitted. So, what do I do? How can I someway have any sense of embracing the bible as a way of life if you confuse me with some much argumentation?’ The advice of the sage was, assei leibkha chadrai chadarim – make your heart a room of many rooms. And place in every chamber the different points of view.

Listen to Hillel and listen to Shami. Know how to embrace an argument. I often told my students at university, you become a philosopher when you give good reasons for those that disagree with you. To be able to hear the validity and power of those who don’t agree with you is the surest way to develop your own convictions, which are yours.

So, to you I say, make a heart of many rooms. May God bless you with the courage to be able to live in the world with conviction, without having to say I have the exclusive truth.

Thank you.

 

American University
Commencement Addresses

President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)

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