Thank you! And congratulations Davis class of 2016!
This is my first graduation speech (though I’ve heard quite a few at this point) and I spent a lot of timing trying to come up with how I should prepare. I read famous commencement addresses - the author David Foster Wallace and H.H. the Dalai Lama used theirs to urge compassion; other writers and poets encouraged creativity, J.K. Rowling used her lecturn to teach about failure. And these are all honorable topics, appropriate for an evening such as this one, but, they were not quite right, not quite perfect for this particular gathering.
And so instead I thought back on my own Davis graduation, eight years ago, give or take a couple weeks. I sat right about there - I was cooler then, my hair was purple under my white cap - and I remember being sick of this place, and wondering how and if these past nine years would really matter. Like many of you, I was headed off to secular, public high school, and while I felt academically prepared, I could not help but ask, ‘What had been the point of nine years of Jewish education?’
I may have had a little too much attitude at fourteen, but still, this is what I want to talk about tonight - not the answer to that nearly-decade-old question (though we’ll come to that later), but rather the importance of questions themselves.
Questioning is itself a Jewish value - the classical structural unit of Torah study is the Hevruta, in which two scholars debate the ins and outs of Jewish belief. The Talmud and parts of the Torah are written in question and answer mode; we are told stories of ancestors who questioned not just the law, but God’s decision-making itself. Indeed, we gained the name “Am Yisrael” when Jacob physically struggled with God and his Judaism. Our religion is one of active engagement; we are commanded to puzzle and challenge and question in pursuit of wisdom and righteousness.
In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis identify seven traits of the wise man, which can be summed up as rules for debate: the wise man asks good questions and gives thoughtful answers - he admits when he doesn't understand and concedes to the truth. Wisdom then is not the acquisition of facts, but a discursive practice, the product of a lifetime of thoughtful questions.
In the spirit of Pirkei Avot and the Haggadah, I want to outline four kinds of questions, each of which impart their own kind wisdom, and each of which you will find necessary as you move into the world.
First, the Whats. Whats are easy; they’re how we get a sense of the tangible material world. What is this street called? What’s in this food? What’s your phone number? We need Whats to ground us, to give us our bearings so we are comfortable enough to ask harder, more opaque questions.
Next, Hows - how is this this fabric made? How is this fruit grown? How did you get here? With Hows we step deeper into the mechanics of the universe - physics is a science of Hows, but so too is empathy. Hows require us to listen carefully to another’s expertise and experience, to act as receptors of someone or something else’s truth. Through Hows, we learn without passing judgement.
Third, the Whys. Why do we read this book for class? Why do we light two candles? Why did we bomb that city? Why are our neighbors hungry? Whys require of us a deeper level of engagement- they may take longer to ask and much longer to answer. As an anthropologist, I deal mostly in Whys, the whys of culture and ritual and identity; Judaism too insists that we ask why - of our customs, of our laws, of our values. And Whys challenge us to ask the next question:
Should it be so?
The late community organizer Saul Alinksy asked us to think in terms of two worlds: the world as it is, and the world as it should be. The role of the activist - and I think, of the Jewish student - is to bridge these worlds. The Jewishness of this concept is of course no accident. If we are commanded to use our wisdom to repair the world, and if wisdom comes from questions, the questions we ask are necessarily engaged with higher purposes, with justice, and peace, and Tikkun Olam.
So, eight years, two diplomas, seven jobs, and countless classes later, I am happy to share with y’all the unmatched, indelible, and perhaps most important outcome of your Davis education: you learned to ask good questions.
Despite Mr. Barry’s efforts, you will forget the foreign policy achievements of Millard Fillmore; much to Mora Sigal’s dismay, you will lose your Hebrew vocabulary - you may not remember the periodic sign for lead, or the words to Birkat HaMazon, or your bat mitzvah torah portion, or how to tie knots in Tzitzit, but you will remember how to ask questions.
Never stop asking them. Question your teachers, question your parents, question our community, question the media, question your own faith, your own bias, your own certainties. Push back on things you disagree with, and on the things you support. Ask yourself: What is this? How did it come to be? Why is it like this? And, should it be so?
Our world is such that the answer will often be “no.” And my wish for you, Davis class of 2016, is that your questions beg more questions, that those questions propel you to action, and that your curiosity drives you to not only investigate the world, but begin to improve it, building, however slowly, the world as you feel it should be.