Sermon delivered by Rabbi David Ellenson at 2007 baccalaureate service
David Ellenson, president and I.H. and Anna Grancell professor of Jewish religious thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), will deliver the sermon during Colgate’s commencement baccalaureate service.
“Ordinary Ethics: To Be a Person of Refuge”
* Editor’s note: What follows is Ellenson’s prepared speech.
Thank you for that lovely introduction and for your very warm greeting.
It is a great privilege to offer the baccalaureate sermon today, and an equally great honor to have been selected as an honorary degree recipient by President Chopp and Colgate University.
I very much look forward to having the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, conferred upon me later today and feel genuine gratitude for this recognition and opportunity.
As the father of five children — two of whom have already graduated from college, one who is a junior, and one more who has just completed her first year — I believe I know the myriad of emotions and feelings, the sense of pride and accomplishment that you students and all of your families feel on this day.
This is a day in which all of you should truly rejoice, and on which all of you can feel a great sense of delight in your accomplishments.
You can now look back on what were surely four wonderful and challenging years at Colgate University.
Here at Colgate, one of America’s premier and most distinguished liberal arts institutions, you have been prepared to think critically and creatively, and you have been taught that your knowledge must be employed positively and practically so that so that you can add to the spiritual depth and the goodness of the world in which we live.
As you sit here at this moment and reflect in what I am certain is an infinite variety of ways on what these years have meant, I would urge you to think of this moment as the end of the beginning of your lives.
I call it the “end of the beginning” because you have finished an important chapter in your educational journey, and you are now being asked to consider what your life might mean and what the contributions you might make may mean to the world you are about to enter.
The institution of the baccalaureate service itself is an invitation to such thoughts.
The ceremony originated in the late Middle Ages, and is significant — even in these times where secularism so dominates — because your university, in continuing this tradition, is asserting that critical knowledge enough is not alone.
The baccalaureate originated because the founders of the modern university believed that knowledge must be linked to virtue.
The knowledge you have gained in these halls — the academic excellence that you have obtained at this university — will allow you to think critically and creatively. However, Colgate believes that that knowledge must ultimately be harnessed in the service of good, and this is why your university has maintained this custom.
The symbolic intent of the baccalaureate ceremony is to indicate to you — you who are about to leave today as alumni of Colgate University — that what counts is what it is that you will do with your knowledge as you move beyond these years.
This ritual asks you to consider how it is that you will go out and take your talents and skills and help to repair and improve a world that is so desperately in need of you and your knowledge and your virtues.
Colgate asks you to reflect for a few moments, even on this day of happiness and joy, on how you will help to change and transform the world.
It is in that spirit that I would now offer you two stories — stories I hope you will carry with you beyond this service out into the life you are about to forge.
Indeed, my hope is that these stories of people and community will inspire and instruct you as to the directions you need to take in your lives, as you move from this place, from the “end of your beginning,” as persons who were fostered in wonderful homes, nurtured by loving parents and families, and educated in the womb of this distinguished university.
May you take these stories out with you into the world so that you will remember that the ultimate purpose of the knowledge that you carry with you is to prepare you for service to humanity.
I would not be surprised if the scriptural reading that I requested be read today from Chapter 19, verses one through 13 of the Book of Deuteronomy struck many of you as odd and perhaps even inappropriate.
It deals with the Israelite conquest of the Land of Canaan, and focuses on issues of revenge and dispossession as well as justice.
However, these verses also speak of six cities of refuge that were established in ancient Israel.
God commanded the Jewish people to create such locales so that, as verse 10 states, “the blood of the innocent will not be shed.”
I asked that this passage be read today because these verses were read from a church, a Protestant Huguenot church in Le Chambon, France, in August of 1940, and the first story that I wish to share with you today is the story of that church and that community.
For these lines inspired the pastor and citizens of that community to become “persons of refuge” and my hope for you is that as you go forth from this place that the example that they provide will inspire you to become “persons of refuge” as well.
The author, Philip Hallie, a man who served as Griffin Professor of Moral Philosophy and Humanities at Wesleyan University, has told the story of this village in his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.
As he describes it, he was reading about various events surrounding the Shoah, the Holocaust, the genocide of my people, the Jewish people.
Six million of my people and millions of others were punished and put to death because they had committed one crime — they had come to be in the world, they had been born.
Their crime was their existence, and the hate that led Hitler and his henchmen to wage this “war against the Jews” and this war against all canons of morality that we have come to cherish as human beings demonstrates that human beings are capable of acts of seemingly unimaginable evil.
At the same time, persons are also capable of deeds of extraordinary goodness.
As Professor Hallie noted in his book, such deeds occurred in a French village, Le Chambon, where, in a time of obscene wickedness, persons of conscience and uncommon courage rescued 5,000 persons from Nazi persecution.
Professor Hallie was intrigued by this village and these persons, and he decided to ask and then research a question.
He did not want to know why it was that evil had occurred in Europe during those dark and devastating days.
After all, as observed in Genesis 9, “The inclination of a person’s heart is evil from youth.”
Rather, he desired to understand and transmit the answer to a different question.
Professor Hallie was eager to discover, “How is it or why was it that goodness occurred in this village and what are the lessons that we can learn from that story for today?”
Thus, Professor Hallie, the moral philosopher, who taught Kant, Hegel, and Hume, journeyed to this village, Le Chambon, to discover the answers to these questions and ultimately he produced his book, which he titled Lest Innocent Blood be Shed.
The title of this book was taken from the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 19, verse 10, that was read to you this morning, because it was this very verse that the minister in that Huguenot church read to his parishioners in August of 1940.
Le Chambon is located at a great distance from Paris in the mountainous regions of France, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in a large metropolitan area.
The leader of this village was a minister named André Trocmé, and the story that Professor Hallie tells largely centers around the figure and deeds of this minister.
Hallie informs his reader that Pastor Trocmé had been raised in a wealthy family in Paris, France.
His parents fully expected that he would one day engage in the world of commerce.
However, he elected not to go into the world of finance, but decided instead to become a Protestant minister.
He attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City and in the 1920s — after his graduation from Union — moved back to France.
His parents believed that he would then decide to occupy the pulpit of a prestigious church, perhaps in a large metropolitan area like Paris.
However, Trocmé once again confounded them and elected instead to go to this small village, Le Chambon, that numbered only a thousand persons or so — and there he served as a minister to this small, tightly knit homogeneous Huguenot community.
When the Nazis overran France in 1940, the Vichy government — the puppets of the Nazis — was established.
On the very first Sunday after the Vichy government rose to power, Pastor Trocmé rose in the pulpit of his church and with all of the citizenry of Le Chambon present, read those verses from Deuteronomy, Chapter 19, verses one through 13, that we read here at Colgate in this chapel today.
In his reading, Pastor Trocmé emphasized those verses that describe the creation of “cities of refuge,” where innocent persons could flee for protection from those who would do them harm.
He then told his congregants that it was his intention that their village, Le Chambon, follow the pattern the Bible here commanded and constitute itself as a modern-day “city of refuge.”
Indeed, he told his flock that they must become such a city of refuge, “lest innocent blood be shed.”
The villagers were inspired and moved by their pastor, and for weeks and weeks they planned to transform Le Chambon into such a city.
And the word of their intention went forth, and innocent Jews learned that that Le Chambon was set to become and in fact ultimately did become a city of refuge where innocent lives would be saved.
The story of how this city harbored and rescued over 5,000 Jewish persons remains one of the great tales of moral courage of the twentieth century, and Professor Hallie tells its story with compassion, intelligence, and insight.
In relating this tale, Hallie reports — after exhaustive interviews with the residents of Le Chambon in which he asked them what prompted them to perform their deeds of goodness — that he was, as a professor of moral philosophy, somewhat disappointed by the answers they supplied him.
For none of the people that he interviewed quoted Kant or Hume or any other moral philosopher.
None of the critical moral thinkers to whom you are exposed in a university like this one were cited by even a single resident of Le Chambon when Professor Hallie asked them to explain what motivated their acts of uncommon decency.
Instead, one citizen after another cited words they attributed to Jesus.
They said that the pastor had reminded them that Jesus had issued two commandments that were incumbent upon them to obey.
The first was, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
This meant that they were required to follow the ways of God, and imitate the attributes of the Divine.
And what were these ways? What were these attributes?
These, the people told Professor Hallie, were captured in a second saying that they assigned once again to their Messiah.
Jesus, they told Hallie, taught, “And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Of course, those of us who are Jewish and who know the teachings of the Hebrew Bible know that both these commandments are taken from the Hebrew Bible.
However, issues of correct attribution are not critical here.
Instead, what matters is that there was an instinctual goodness that informed these people, a basic decency that caused these persons — in the most horrible conditions possible — to do that which was the right and proper thing for human beings to do.
Passage after passage in this book describes the innate decency of the people of Le Chambon and their pastor who was true to his calling, and who led and taught his flock to be persons of refuge.
However, it is a particular episode in the book that has always moved me more than any other, and I would cite it to you today as I hope to tell you what it means to be a “person of refuge.”
This episode focuses not on the words of André Trocmé, the pastor.
Instead, it centers on the deeds and acts of Magda Trocmé, his wife.
As Philip Hallie describes it, the village had prepared for some time after the pastor had delivered his sermon on that fateful Sunday in 1940 to receive its first refugees, its first innocents, “lest innocent blood be shed.”
And finally, one night, as André Trocmé and others, including his wife Magda, sat in the Trocmé home, there was a knock on the door, and the first refugees who sought shelter actually arrived.
It was very late and suddenly everyone in the room froze, because each one understood that a Rubicon was about to be crossed.
It was one thing to talk about virtue. It was another thing to actually commit the act.
There was complete silence in the room, and everyone was immobilized with the weight of the deed they were about to perform.
However, at that moment, when time stood still and no one else moved, Magda Trocmé arose and calmly opened the door.
She saw a father, a mother, and a little baby, and, with a calm smile of greeting on her face, said the simple words, “You must be tired, you must be hungry. We have a bed, we have food. Come in.”
At that moment, Magda Trocmé, with such simple words, transformed herself into a person of refuge.
The moment I have described is a dramatic one, and the situation Magda Trocmé confronted is one of extremis.
Yet, the challenge for each and every one of us is to understand and recognize what it is that each of us must do when such a moment presents itself to us.
Hopefully, none of you will ever have to confront the drama and the tragedy that Magda Trocmé and Pastor Trocmé had to confront.
Nevertheless, the daily tasks that will confront you in the world mean that each of should always strive to be open to such moments of opportunity when they present themselves to you.
When that moment of transformation, that moment of being able to reach out and improve the world in which you live, presents itself to you, may you — persons now of great privilege, educated at a leading university in the United States, who have a future of virtually unlimited possibilities stretching before you — be alive to it.
May each of you be sufficiently open to such moments in your own life that when the opportunity comes, you, no less than Magda and André Trocmé, will come to transform and help to repair the world.
And this brings me to my second story.
For in offering you the possibility of being a person of refuge, I would provide you with another example taken from a different time and place.
One of my closest friends is a woman named Deborah Lipstadt. Deborah is currently a professor at Emory University and she is a great scholar of the Holocaust.
In 1993, Professor Lipstadt wrote a very significant book, titled Denying the Holocaust.
This book was reviewed on the front page of the Sunday section of the New York Times Book Review, and it naturally and deservedly catapulted Deborah to a place of international fame.
In this book, Professor Lipstadt provided a detailed exposé of those so-called scholars who contended that the Holocaust never occurred.
One man about whom she had written in this book was named David Irving.
And David Irving, himself an anti-Semite and a racist, decided to challenge this Jewish woman and he filed a libel suit against Deborah for what she had written about him in her book, Denying the Holocaust.
He had selected a British courtroom for this suit, because in Britain, unlike the United States, the onus is placed upon the author of the work to prove her words are true, and the burden is not placed upon the person who was discussed in the work to prove that what was said about him was false.
Deborah knew that David Irving had huge financial resources at his disposal and, as an academic for whom the glare and nature of a public trial was completely alien and intimidating, she was terrified for herself, not because what she said was untrue, but because she lacked the resources to combat Irving in the courtroom.
As a woman whose very livelihood depended upon the salary that she earned as a professor, Deborah wondered how she could meet this test.
After all, as a professor at Emory University, she had a schedule of classes to teach, and the trial would mean that she would be absent from Atlanta for at least four months while in London.
She would simply not be able to fulfill her duties as a professor at Emory during that period.
Deborah was justifiably worried and concerned, and Deborah spoke about this often with my wife Jackie and me, as well as with her many other friends, as she attempted to decide what to do.
At one point, she even considered — for a moment — surrendering to Irving because the dimensions and demands of such a trial seemed overwhelming on so many counts.
Yet Deborah decided to persist and have her day in court with Irving.
Not to have done so would have been to betray the memory of the very persons whom Hitler murdered.
Ultimately, justice won out and Deborah triumphed in a trial that captured international attention and that was covered on the front pages of the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post – of virtually every major newspaper of the western world.
Deborah has subsequently written a book on the trial, titled History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving that has won any number of prizes.
In the first part of her book, Deborah describes how, at the very outset of this ordeal, she went to meet with the academic heads at Emory University to discuss the many dilemmas that confronted her at that time.
She tells of how she spoke directly with the provost of Emory, and how she confessed to the provost how very worried she was about her future.
Justifiably concerned about how she would support herself, Deborah decided to suggest to the provost that she be granted a sabbatical, and she was so desperate to support herself that she resolved to ask the provost whether she could “even receive pay for my sabbatical while I am on trial in London.”
Deborah — weighed down by anxiety and care — then explained her position to the provost, and she reports that the provost, without hesitating for even a moment, then said to her — and these are Deborah’s words — “Sabbaticals are not for being on trial. We will treat you as if you are teaching your regular courses, except your venue now will be in a British courtroom.”
The provost, without even being asked or prompted, then stated, “You will teach Emory University and its students from the venue of Great Britain, from London, and not from classrooms in Atlanta.”
And finally, this provost concluded her words to Deborah by saying, “Perhaps we can even hire another individual to help instruct your courses in a daily way, while you are in London.”
Deborah, who is never at a loss for words, was rendered virtually speechless by the righteousness, the kindness, and the determination the provost displayed.
She had provided unqualified and full support — both material and spiritual — for Deborah in a single moment.
This provost, much like Magda Trocmé, confronted a person who was in great need, and, in so doing, fulfilled the words of the great first century Jewish sage, Hillel the Elder, who stated, “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish,” which is most accurately rendered in English translation as, “In a place where people do not behave as human beings ought to behave, strive simply to act as a human being ought to act.”
That provost, who served as a person of refuge for my friend Deborah Lipstadt, who made it possible for her to continue in her position at Emory with the full support of the University, later became — as I am sure some of you in this room by now suspect and know — the dean of the Yale Divinity School, and then, much to your great, good fortune, was appointed to the post of president of Colgate University — a position she has now occupied for six years.
For the Emory University provost, who responded to my friend Deborah in precisely the same way that Magda Trocmé responded to those innocent persons when they came to her home in France more than sixty years ago, was Dr. Rebecca Chopp.
Within my tradition there is a saying that you are allowed to state only a few good things about a person in their presence.
However, I could not help but think — on this occasion of the baccalaureate at Colgate University — that I should do so about President Chopp on this occasion.
You, the students who later today will receive degrees from her hands, and you, the parents, and family and trustees of the university, should know the character of the person who heads your institution and you should certainly strive to emulate the example she has set as you go about the tasks of life.
To Dr. Chopp herself, I would recite the words of blessing that Jewish tradition commands be recited before a great Sage among the nations, “Praised are You, O Lord our God, who imparts divine wisdom to flesh and blood.”
All of you should understand before whom you sit on this occasion, and how fortunate and blessed each of you is that it is Rebecca Chopp who will award you your degrees on this momentous and celebratory day.
My prayer and my hope for you on this day is that you understand that community is not created as if by fate.
Rather, God calls each and every one of you to the task of molding and creating community and the world through the ordinary deeds you can perform each day.
Like Magda Trocmé and like Rebecca Chopp, I hope you will come to understand that in the ordinary give and take, the ebbs and flows of everyday life, you have the capability of becoming “a person of refuge.”
Through your deeds, community can come to be created and life can be hallowed.
Your life constitutes a question that God addresses to humanity over and over again, and how you live — the quality of your life — is a testament to how you respond to the challenge that God poses.
Through your deeds, the knowledge that you have obtained in this university can be linked to virtue, and goodness can ultimately be present in the world.
Within classical Jewish tradition, God called upon the priests to serve as His agents, and She asked that all humanity be blessed in love.
It is in this spirit that I conclude my baccalaureate address today, and repeat in love the tripartite blessing with which the priest of old used to bless their people.
Y’varekehkha ha-shem v’yishmerekha — May God always bless you and keep you.
Ya’er ha-shem panav ei-lekha vi’huneka — May God’s countenance always shine upon each of you and be gracious unto you.
Yisa ha-shem panav ei-lekha v’yaseim lkha shalom — May God’s face always be lifted up to you, to your families, to your loved ones, to all whose lives you will touch.
And may you and they — through your actions and your deeds — come to know shalom, peace, before a God who dwells in heaven, but Whose presence, even more miraculously, can, through your deeds, enhance all experiences on earth.