On May 23rd Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, received an honorary doctorate at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s 125th commencement exercises. The honor recognized his work championing “Conservative Judaism in North America and Israel, making invaluable contributions to the understanding and development of Jewish law.” Read Rabbi Prof. Golinkin’s speech and see photos from the ceremony.
A Dvar Torah upon Receiving an Honorary Doctorate from JTS
May 23, 2019
By Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin
Chancellor Eisen, JTS Board members, JTS faculty, friends and relatives.
I would like to share with you one of my favorite Talmudic stories, found in Bava Metzia 85b:
Whenever R. Hanina and R. Hiyya were in dispute, R. Hanina would say to R. Hiyya: ‘Would you dispute with me? If, Heaven forbid, the Torah were forgotten in Israel, I would restore it by my pilpul [in-depth study, casuistry].’ To which R. Hiyya rejoined: ‘Would you dispute with me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax], trapped deer… and prepared megillot [scrolls from their skins], upon which I wrote the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Mishnah] to six children. And I bade them: “Until I return, teach each other the Torah and the Mishnah;” and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.”
In this well-known Talmudic tale, Rabbi Hanina represents an elitist approach; he can restore the Torah by pilpul, by his intellectual prowess. Rabbi Hiyya, on the other hand, believes that the Torah can only be preserved by Jewish education for the masses, by going out and teaching the Torah and the Mishnah to as many Jews as possible; they in turn will teach others lest the Torah be forgotten in Israel. The story continues:
This is what Rabbi [Judah the Prince meant when he] said, “How great are the works of Hiyya!” Said R. Ishmael son of R. Jose to him, “[Are they] even [greater] than yours?” “Yes”…
For me, this is not simply a story; for me this is a personal paradigm and an institutional goal. We must emulate Rabbi Hiyya, not Rabbi Hanina. The Jewish world is in trouble. Most Jews in the world, including Israel, have not received a Jewish education. I cannot retreat to my study to write purely academic articles when the Jewish world is in desperate need of Jewish education. The Schechter Institute cannot sit in an ivory tower and teach a small, elite cadre of scholars. That is why I have published hundreds of books and articles since 1984, which make Jewish law and many other aspects of Jewish studies accessible to as many Jews as possible. That is why the four divisions of The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem now teach 85,000 children and adults every year.
* * * * *
I would like to devote the rest of my brief remarks to Hakarat Hatov, to words of thanksgiving.
First of all, I would like to thank Chancellor Arnold Eisen and the Board of Trustees of JTS, who were kind enough to select me for this honor.
I want to thank God who has enabled me to do many things during the course of my life. When Jacob was preparing to meet Esau, he said to God (Genesis 32:11):
קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך,
כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות.
“I am unworthy of all the kindness… that You have done for Your servant;
for with my staff [alone] I crossed this [river] Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”
When I made Aliyah at age 17 in 1972, I did not even own a staff. I had some clothes and some books and some cassette tapes. Now, my wife Dory and I have been blessed with 7 children and their spouses and 17 grandchildren, and more on the way. And I have been blessed with a wonderful institution called Schechter, which enables me to teach Torah and publish Torah and help others teach Torah to tens of thousands of children and adults throughout Israel and Ukraine and South America. And for all this I say to God:
קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך
“I am unworthy of all the kindness… that You have done for Your servant.”
I want to thank my parents Rabbi Noah and Devorah Golinkin z”l, who gave me a very good Jewish education and served as excellent role models of what we have learned in Pirkei Avot (2:2)
וכל העמלים עם הציבור, יהיו עמלים עמהם לשם שמים
“And all who toil for the public, may they toil for the sake of Heaven.”
My father taught me that it is possible to teach 200,000 adults to read Hebrew on a shoestring budget, while my mother “Morah Devorah” taught me that teaching children ages 3-13 is just as important as teaching adults.
My brother Cantor Abe Golinkin, who is here today, has always been my teacher in all matters related to Nusah and Te’amei Hamikra/Cantillation.
I had many role models at JTS, both living and deceased:
Profs. Solomon Schechter and Louis Finkelstein z”l taught me that it’s possible to combine building a major institution with prolific scholarship.
Prof. Ismar Schorsch helped the Schechter Institute grow and prosper and was always willing to offer sage advice.
I learned much from my teachers at JTS:
Profs. Louis Ginzberg and Saul Lieberman z”l taught me what true genius is.
Prof. David Weiss Halivni combined genius with mentschlichkeit.
Prof. Hayyim Zalman Dimitrovsky z”l taught me that an expert in halakhah can also teach midrash.
Prof. Israel Francus taught me how to study the medieval Talmud commentaries of the Rishonim.
Prof. David Marcus taught me Babylonian Jewish Aramaic and Syriac, some of the keys to unlocking the Talmud.
Aharon aharon haviv, my doctoral advisor and mentor Prof. Shamma Friedman taught me, among many other things, that before you write about something, you must first read everything ever written on the subject.
I want to thank our Schechter Board Chairs, Mr. Robert Rifkind and Mr. Saul Sanders, who have selflessly devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to Schechter for the past twenty years.
I want to thank our thousands of generous donors throughout the world – including those sitting here today — who have enabled us to do all that we have done since 1984.
Finally, I want to thank my colleagues at Schechter for the past 30 years who have proven that it is possible to create יש מאין, something from nothing, or to use a phrase recited at a Bris – זה הקטן גדול יהיה, this little one will become big. May we continue to teach Torah and spread Jewish knowledge throughout the State of Israel and the Diaspora, just like Rabbi Hiyya. With God’s help and hard work, we shall continue to grow and succeed אם תרצו אין זו אגדה — — If you will it, it is no dream!