The following is an excerpt of Rabbi Malkus' 2018 CESJDS Commencement address.
This commencement ceremony is a chance to reflect on what comes next. And what comes next is big. It's new. It's exciting. But I can also imagine it makes some of you a little anxious. And that's understandable. The world beyond JDS can sometimes be an intimidating place. Especially these days, when the world feels more and more polarized. We see it manifested in government dysfunction at the highest levels. We hear it in conversations in living rooms and around Shabbat tables. We experience it when neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and those from other countries or different religions are demonized.
Today, divisions are deeper—between political parties, between nations, within religious denominations and in the Jewish community. Certain subjects feel off-limits in mixed company. Information that conflicts with strongly held views is dismissed as "fake news." And sometimes, those divisions come to our doorstep, as it did this time last year when a bomb threat was called into our own beloved school. We later learned that threat came from within the Jewish world.
Faced with these divides, it's hard to know how to proceed. And I don't pretend to have all the answers. But as a rabbi and Jewish educator, I look to our tradition for some guidance. So there is a famous passage in Eruvin, in Talmud Bavli, that some of you may have come across in your Rabbinics classes. We read that for 3 years, Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai were arguing. It was a simpler time, so they weren't arguing about tax policy or a two-state solution. While we are not sure exactly what the argument was about, it comes within a section of the Talmud that looks at what makes a sukkah kosher. Like I said, simpler times.
And in the midst of their argument, they suddenly hear a bat kol—the voice of God—declaring, "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim haim," "Both these views represent God's will." But then—and this is what I've always found fascinating—the bat kol goes on to say, "...but the halakhah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel."
Now, if you're anything like me the first time I read this, you might be wondering, "Wait a minute. If they're both right, then why is the law according to Hillel?" Well, the text goes on to explain that the law goes according to Hillel because while Shamai didn't try to understand the other side, Hillel tried to appreciate and articulate Shamai's position. Hillel even went so far as to mention Shamai's arguments before his own. In other words, the Talmud teaches us that it's not about who's right, it's about who's listening, there is a tremendous benefit to listening to other peoples arguments when they disagree with what you believe.
And here's the part where you should be feeling pretty confident. Because JDS has prepared you to do exactly that. Class of 2018, you're not only baseball stars and cross-country champions ... You haven't just won science prizes ... and written for an award-winning newspaper ... and sung with Shir Madness.
You've also learned to respect and listen to opposing views. Both Jewishly and in general, you're leaving JDS with the ability to hear different sides of an argument, to absorb opposing ideas, and to look at what you believe critically. It's one of our school's core values and maybe even the defining characteristic of JDS. In short, pluralism is in your DNA. Think about it. Here at JDS, you've studied the Arab-Israeli conflict from multiple perspectives, seeking to understand the different narratives. Through JSA and debate team, you've discussed and debated everything from NATO to net neutrality to whether NCAA athletes deserve to be paid.
And I think back to October, when the Upper School had the privilege of hosting our district's Congressman, Representative Jamie Raskin, in the Feith Beit Midrash for Mr. Bregman's Contemporary Issues class. After Representative Raskin spoke, Mr. Bregman invited students to share their views on issues that they disagreed with the Congressman about. And it won't surprise you that the class readily obliged.
So you had a liberal Democratic Congressman ... speaking in a Beit Midrash named for a prominent politically conservative JDS family ... asking students to challenge him on areas where they disagreed. Why? Because listening to other opinions and arguments sharpens your own position and, even some times, opens you up to revisit or change your approach. It creates a healthy distance between who you are and what your ideas are. As our text in Eruvin makes clear, the halakha goes according to those who are not locked in their position.
Is there anything more quintessentially JDS than that? As one of your classmates, Hannah Wandersman, wrote in a wonderful post I shared online, "Pluralism at CESJDS has allowed me to explore my own Jewish identity and has given me the option to explore different denominations and values." And you've done it studying with classmates from more than 50 zip codes ... representing countless different backgrounds and Jewish practices ... whose ideas and experiences you will carry with you on the next step of your journey.
And on that journey, I hope we all have the courage to follow the example of a young college student named Matthew Stevenson when he met another student named Derek Black. Derek was a proud and prominent young white nationalist. His father had founded Stormfront, the first and largest white nationalist website. His mother had been married to David Duke, who was Derek's godfather. Derek went away to college in Sarasota, where his fellow students were unaware that he was considered a leader of the white nationalist movement.
Eventually, his identity was discovered and the campus turned on him — until Matthew Stevenson, the only Jewishly observant person on campus, emailed Derek and asked, "What are you doing Friday night?" Derek began attending Shabbat dinners with Matthew and a handful of other students. Little by little, Matthew and Derek became friends, even shooting pool together at a local bar. Those conversations led Derek to start questioning the white nationalism he had grown up with. And because a young Jewish student approached someone whose views he considered repugnant, a young man who was the heir to the white nationalist movement—someone who had once warned of a "white genocide" and said that "Jews worm their way into power"—wrote an open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center renouncing his hateful views.
The challenge Matthew Stevenson took on was much greater than what most of us will ever face—in college or beyond. But his open-mindedness should inspire us all. Graduates, as you begin this next adventure, you have an incredible opportunity to take what you've learned here and engage others. I know we can count on you to listen to those you meet thoughtfully and respectfully, in the best tradition of Beit Hillel and CESJDS. Let those discussions sharpen your own opinions, so that you can better understand and explain what you believe and why you believe it. Remember that the different views you encounter—on some level—represent God's will ... and don't forget to have fun!
Mazal tov, Class of 2018. We're so proud of you.