Convocation Address

Aug. 29, 2021

Good afternoon everyone! I am delighted to participate in welcoming you to Brandeis. We looked forward to seeing you and your families last weekend, but the threat of hurricane Henri changed those plans. I hope you have had an enjoyable Orientation week despite the weather-related interference; we’re all thrilled to have you here on campus.

I want to take a moment to thank the organizers of your move-in, along with all of our staff and Orientation Leaders. We owe a great deal of thanks for the successful week to their creativity, flexibility, and positive spirit. Please join me in thanking them for all of their hard work.

It is always special to welcome new students to campus, yet this year the experience feels even more special. The past year-and-a-half of pandemic-related challenges has taught us not to take the ability to gather together in-person for granted. Yet, despite the inability to gather in large groups, to hold this kind of welcome last August for today’s sophomores, and to offer most of our courses in person, the year went far better than we could have ever hoped. The success was due to the commitment of our students, faculty, and staff in supporting one another by following all the health protocols we put in place beginning last March. It was a campus-wide effort that kept the infection rate exceptionally low. The sustained effort to follow what felt like intrusive rules in order to protect others reflects the strength and character of this community.

As our newest students, you’ve yet to experience what “normal” at Brandeis looks like, so let me tell you a little about the university and what makes it so special.

Here, you will discover a community of diverse, bright, inquisitive, energetic, and eager learners and doers. Since the university’s founding in 1948, Brandeisians have been bound by some common values: a reverence for learning, the practice of critical thinking, and a commitment to tikkun olam—the Hebrew saying that roughly translates into using one’s intellectual and material gifts to help heal the world. In joining this community, you, too, have become a Brandeisian, and as you live and grow throughout your time on campus, you will find that these values will shape not only your experience here—but also your lives well after you receive your degree.

As I said, these values have defined our university since its founding. As many of you know, and if not, you should know that Brandeis was established only seven decades ago by a small group of Jewish philanthropists from Boston, many of whom never went to college themselves. The university was founded just after World War II, on the heels of the Holocaust, at a time when many gifted Jewish students were denied entry to most major colleges and universities because of antisemitism and harsh quota systems. Brandeis became a refuge and beacon of possibility for them. Such prejudice, bigotry, and exclusivity extended to other marginalized groups as well—Black people, immigrants, those with political viewpoints outside the mainstream, and women. Yet Brandeis was, from its very first days, open to all qualified students, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, political beliefs, or any other personal marker. It was an anomaly in higher education and served as a model for others to replicate. And replicate Brandeis many did.

As alumni from the very first graduating class in 1952 have reported, corroborated by scores who followed after them, Brandeis has always been a place where students engaged in rigorous and lively debate. It was, and remains, a culture rooted in millennia-old Jewish values, many of which have become universal and part of contemporary culture. These values include an appreciation for academic rigor, critical analysis of the written word, and, most importantly, intense argumentation…but argumentation born not out of cantankerousness or simply a desire to prevail over another person’s opinion. Rather, this intense argumentation stems from a desire…a need…to discover the truth…and to better hone one’s own position through learning from dissonant views. Through listening to and understanding other sides of an argument, one gets closer to the truth. This is known in the Jewish tradition as engaging in argument for the sake of heaven.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish law, have stressed how the ability to engage in argumentation while maintaining a sense civility and graciousness is critical to the advancement of society. In the ancient Jewish text, "Ethics of the Fathers," the rabbis state quite simply:

     A controversy—or argument—for heaven's sake will have lasting value,

     But a controversy or argument not for heaven's sake will not endure.

I encourage you to keep this particular millennia-old value in mind. Brandeis is a diverse community, and you are likely to encounter people with vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints from your own. Engaging the variety of ideas, beliefs, and experiences held by others can be uncomfortable and contentious at times, but it is perhaps the most important type of engagement and learning you will do here. We live in a time characterized by intense polarization. And while it is not the role of the university to enter the political fray, it is our role to be the very best hosts for intense debate over important issues. It is our role, too, to equip you with the tools you need to think critically and to make sure there is space for civil and respectful argumentation for the sake of heaven…for the pursuit of truth. It is no accident that the university’s motto is: “truth, even unto its innermost parts” and that our seal has embedded in it the Hebrew word “emet,” which means truth.

Our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis, was a fierce advocate of free speech and wrote extensively on the topic. In one of his most influential and enduring positions, he suggested that when confronted by ideas with which we disagree, the “remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Yours is a generation that cares deeply about making our world a better place—and many of you place a particular premium on helping and empowering those who have long been marginalized in society. This is an admirable characteristic of “Gen Z” and echoes the values that inspired our university’s founding. I urge you to never enforce or condone the silence of others in your pursuit of this important undertaking—no matter how intense your disagreement with others may be. I encourage you to enter into such debate for the sake of heaven, so that you and those with whom you disagree come closer to the truth, and so that the lessons you take from such arguments will endure.

You are entering the most formative years of your life. Brandeis will offer you a vast array of opportunities to learn, grow, and change, and I encourage you to delve deeply into the interests you bring to campus today, to try your hand at things fully new to you, to become better educated in the broadest sense of the word, and to develop the kind of character that is most likely to come from learning and living in an academic community like this one.

In terms of the advice I give to each incoming class regardless of pandemics, hurricanes, or anything else going on beyond campus, I share this simple message: contrary to how it might seem from afar, or for what it might have seemed like for an older sibling of yours, the transition to college is never seamless for anybody. There will be challenges along the way, especially in these early weeks of the academic year. Please look out for one another. Lend a hand to roommates and classmates when you see they need some support; engage them with thoughtfulness and compassion.

And as you consider the possibilities ahead of you, know that the entire Brandeis community is eager to welcome you and we are here to help you get acclimated; do not hesitate to ask for help.

I am delighted to welcome each of you to Brandeis, and I very much look forward to getting to know you over the coming months. When you see me around campus, please come over and introduce yourself. And, let’s see if we can, over the course of the next four years, together argue for the sake of heaven.

Thank you.