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Yale President Calls on Graduates To Commit to Tikkun Olam

‘Your purpose in life … is simply this: to improve the world’

Yair Rosenberg
May 19, 2015
Yale University President Peter Salovey addresses graduating seniors, May 16, 2015. (YouTube)
Yale University President Peter Salovey addresses graduating seniors, May 16, 2015. (YouTube)

When Peter Salovey, a professor of psychology, became president of Yale University in 2013, the school paper quickly noted that he was a scion of the Soloveitchik family, the great Orthodox rabbinic dynasty that has shaped Europe, America, and Israel. Since assuming office, Salovey has embraced his heritage–from outlining his full lineage for those interested in a comment at the Yale Daily News, to engaging in a public dialogue in March with former U.K. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. But perhaps the most Jewish moment of his presidency came this weekend at Yale’s graduation ceremonies, where Salovey repeatedly invoked the rabbinic tradition in exhorting students to commit themselves to “tikkun olam.”

In his Baccalaureate address to Yale’s graduating seniors, titled “Repair the World!,” Salovey opened with a reference to the Mishnaic sage, Hillel the Elder. “A few weeks ago, I conducted a little thought experiment,” he said. “If a graduating senior asked me to capture the purpose of life after graduating from Yale in just a few words, what would I say? What would that purpose be? Could I articulate your life’s mission as you leave Yale–on commencement weekend, no less–while ‘standing on one foot’?”

“The phrase ‘standing on one foot,’” he went on, “derives from a story about Hillel, the first century BCE rabbi and scholar. He was asked to summarize the meaning of the entire Torah, the Old Testament, while standing on one foot. His reply: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!’”

Following Hillel, Salovey proceeded to outline his own philosophy of life on one foot. “There are many perfectly fine answers to the question about your commitments after Yale,” he continued. “What I am going to suggest to you today, however, is that your purpose in life as a graduate from Yale is simply this: to improve the world. In the Jewish tradition, this is called tikkun olam, literally to repair the world.”

Salovey then invoked another touchstone of the Jewish experience–humor. “Tikkun olam is a theme and a phrase that has permeated American popular and political culture,” he noted. “American clergy–not to mention college deans and university presidents–tend to give so many sermons on tikkun olam that there is a joke about an American traveling to Israel to work in an orphanage. He is met by his cousin at the airport. After exchanging greetings, the American asks his Israeli cousin, ‘How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?’”

Salovey closed with a final reference to Jewish texts, this time to Pirkei Avot, the rabbinic moral tract. “Many of you have contributed something new by addressing niches where very little light has been shined,” he told the students. “But will these efforts be sustained after your graduation, or are they merely lines on your résumés? Will there be progress or back-sliding? Is tikkun olam ever actually finished? Is your work ever truly done?”

“Improving the world is a difficult project to take on because–unlike so many aspects of your education at Yale or of life itself–there really is no beginning, middle, or end here. There is no ‘bottom line.’ What may be most challenging is that even after a lifetime of work, further repair may be necessary. Maybe even more than when you started. My predecessor, President Richard Levin … often quoted Rabbi Tarfon, ‘It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’”

It is hard to imagine the president of a prestigious university anywhere else in the world delivering such an unabashedly proud Jewish address. At a time when the headlines highlight anti-Israel activism shading into anti-Semitism on campus, moments like these remind us just how uniquely hospitable America has proven to its Jews–a fact as worthy of celebration as graduation itself.

Watch Salovey’s remarks below:

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.