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Morning Prayers

Memorial Church

Good morning, everyone. I thank you all for being here to begin the academic year in a spirit of reflection and contemplation—what a wonderful reminder of the commitments that bring us together as a community of learners.

I have learned much about Harvard since I last delivered Morning Prayers. Before my selection was announced, I felt confident that I understood parts of the University quite well after having been a student here, a teacher here, and a Corporation member here, but there is nothing like coming to know the institution as its president.

The year past brought this extraordinary place’s strengths and weaknesses into greater focus for me, and I wanted to share with you today an area in which I think we are at risk of failing one another—and failing the University to which all of us belong.

There is a story told about the great Rabbi Hillel for whom the organization on our campus and on other campuses is named. He was confronted by a skeptic who demanded that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel happily complied. His response? “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary.”

How can we profess to be seekers of Veritas if we shame and shun those who disagree with us? How can we urge forbearance and generosity in others if we are unwilling to practice it ourselves? How can we have any hope for the wider world if we cannot model in our community the reasoned debate we want to see elsewhere?

Yes, the issues we are confronting—as a University and as a nation and as a planet—need our urgent attention. Yes, they are deserving of our thoughtful consideration. Yes, they are worthy of impassioned argument. But we cannot allow them to create in us a righteousness that abhors concession and compromise. When we succumb to the lure of moral certitude, when we stifle disagreement in our community by ignoring and ostracizing dissenters, we lose our ability to make meaningful change.

In the year ahead, there will be many, many opportunities for our community to rise to the challenge of turning individual commentary into collective action, personal conviction into public action. Fortunately, the weakness I just described is still outpaced by one of our great strengths: Bringing people together who care deeply about the search for truth—and who want sincerely to improve our world. May we all see one another in that light as we embark on this important journey once again, and may we all remember the words of Rabbi Hillel.

Thank you.