In an address in Memorial Church’s Appleton Chapel Tuesday, Harvard President Larry Bacow voiced his concerns about the growing inability of people to engage respectfully with those who hold different points of view, a problem he sees both on campus and in the wider world.
“How can we profess to be seekers of veritas, seekers of truth, if we shame and shun those who disagree with us?” Bacow said during the first Morning Prayers of the fall term. “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 and discourse we wish to see elsewhere?”
Bacow related a story about Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. When confronted by a skeptic who challenged Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, the religious leader responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others,” he said, distilling the sentiment at the heart of the scriptures. “The rest,” the rabbi quipped, “is commentary.”
The solution, Bacow suggested, is neither to raise the volume nor to fall silent. He encouraged his listeners to lend their voices to the urgent issues facing to the world with “thoughtful consideration” and “impassioned argument,” but to reject a sense of 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,” said Bacow, “we lose our ability to make meaningful change.”
Bacow’s theme was reflected in the service’s text and song. “If riches are a prize to be desired in life, what is richer than wisdom, the active cause of all things?” read the congregation during the responsorial. The Choral Fellows of the Harvard University Choir sang “What Is Good” by the church’s composer in residence, Carson Cooman ’04, who wrote the piece for Bacow’s inauguration. The anthem contains the lyrics “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what is required of you: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In closing, Bacow voiced confidence that the Harvard community would continue to rise to the challenge.
“Fortunately, the weakness I just described is still outpaced by one of our great strengths: bringing people together, as we are here today, who care deeply about the search for truth and who want to sincerely improve our world,” he said. “May we all see one another in that light as we embark on this important journey once again, and may we all remember the important words of Rabbi Hillel.”
The weekday service of Morning Prayers offers attendees a few moments of quiet reflection, scripture, and song before the start of classes. The tradition dates back to the College’s earliest days and features speakers from the Harvard faculty and staff and the wider Harvard community.