Thank you, President Ben-Sasson and Professor Cohen…and congratulations to the other honorees.
I’m so grateful to be here today to receive this Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy. For close to thirty years, I’ve had a deep connection to the Hebrew University. It’s not only home to a diverse population of some of Israel’s best and brightest students, but as you’ve heard, it also houses The Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies.
I was 15 months old when my father died. He was only 35, but he was a scholar, a teacher and a religious man, who devoted his life to education. As a young girl, I went to Yeshiva as my father had done before me. My childhood was steeped in tradition… yet I was a walking contradiction…I respected my elders but I didn’t accept things at face value that didn’t make sense to me. I always wanted to know “why?”
I remember being 5 years old in Yeshiva…we were told not to say the word “Christmas” out loud. So when the teacher left the room I would say it over and over again, while I prayed that G_d wouldn’t strike me dead! Maybe that’s why I got a D in conduct!
I remember going with my grandfather to Shul, listening to his beautiful voice, join the chorus of other voices, in prayer and blessing.
Those moments with my grandfather showed me the power of the human voice – to praise, to bless, to sing…to celebrate the wonders around us, and also, to call out when we see that the world is in need of repair.
When I was 16, wanting to be an actress, I fell in love with Ibsen, Chekhov and Shakespeare. At that time, I had no idea these were the same playwrights my father had written about in a thesis on how to teach English. That’s DNA for you! He loved literature and I think he would be very proud to know that this esteemed institution is honoring his daughter.
The last time I was in Israel was in 1984. I came to dedicate the Emanuel Streisand Building and to attend the Israeli premiere of my film Yentl, which was about a women’s desire to learn, even if she had to disguise herself as a man. I couldn’t help notice in the paper last week — for the first time in the history of the Hebrew University, this year, more women than men are graduating with a doctorate.
As students and faculty of the Hebrew University and members of this community, you understand the importance of study and the yearning for equal access to education. One of the things I’ve always admired about this university is the fact that here – women and men, Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, native born and immigrants –- sit together in classes, share the same cafeterias, learn from the same professors, and dream together of a good and meaningful life.
I wish the world were more like the hallways of the Hebrew University.
I guess I’m still that same person…still questioning…and that can get me into trouble sometimes! Only today my questions are mostly about environmental issues and equality for minorities, gays and women.
I realize it’s not easy to fully grasp the dynamics of what happens in a foreign land.
Israel and The United States have much in common…two great and noble countries…each with problems of course…but always striving to shine as beacons of hope.
It’s distressing to read about women in Israel being forced to sit in the back of a bus…or when we hear about the “Women Of The Wall” having metal chairs hurled at them while they attempt to peacefully and legally pray…or women being banned from singing in public ceremonies…but I’m pleased to read that things are changing here…repairs are being made.
I don’t pretend to know all the historical, legal or cultural details…and I know that solutions don’t come easily — as they don’t in the United States, where women are still making 80 cents for every dollar a man makes — but to remain silent about these things is tantamount to accepting them. So, I continue to ask “why?”
When I was preparing to film Yentl, I studied with three different rabbis. A feminist rabbi who took his wife’s name as well as his own (who told me that “the questions are just as important as the answers’)…a woman rabbi…and an Orthodox rabbi. I wanted to understand their different perspectives.
I was so surprised when the Orthodox rabbi shook my hand, because in my experience Orthodox rabbis don’t have physical contact with women when they meet. I asked him why he did so, and he replied by telling me something I’ll never forget. He said that, “More important than the practice of not shaking a woman’s hand, is the larger lesson to not embarrass another human being.” While I value the sacredness of ritual, I agree that kindness, generosity and human dignity, are just as sacred.
I read once that, “Tradition should be a guide…not a prison.”
Human dignity means allowing all people to have a voice.
And when we give women the opportunity to use their voices – amazing things can happen.
Which brings me to Ruth Calderon….one of your newest Knesset Members, a woman who earned her doctorate in Talmudic Literature from where else – the Hebrew University. When Dr. Calderon addressed the Knesset for the first time this past February, she used the occasion to relay a story from the Talmud as a way to guide Knesset members in their difficult work ahead.
Part way through her remarks, she was interrupted by the Acting Speaker of the Knesset – a member of one of the religious parties. His interruption, though, wasn’t to chide or criticize, but rather to add his commentary to her teaching and thus, exchange words of Torah and engage in a dialogue. It’s only through dialogue that peoples and countries can come together.
The Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus sits on the hills overlooking Jerusalem. From its height we can see a world where learning and equal opportunity are valued…where people of difference can live together in peace despite the complexities that abound…where conflicting opinions are argued with words of reason…not with metal chairs.
My hope is that we continue to work toward a world rooted in compassion and generosity, in equality and in peace. And I know that whenever we get there, the Hebrew University will be helping to lead the way.
As one of the founders of this university, Albert Einstein once said, “Example isn’t another way to teach, it is the only way to teach.”
Thank you so much for this great honor.
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