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Leonard Fein dispensed with the traditional advice to graduates in his speech at Stanford's baccalaureate ceremony on Saturday, June 14. Instead, he told three stories of what he called "holy audacity," and finished with a challenge to take a personal, audacious stand against poverty. It was a challenge that left his audience responding with long, slow, reflective applause.
Fein is a writer, teacher and lecturer who has been adviser to four presidential campaigns. He was the founding editor of Moment, considered the leading independent magazine of Jewish affairs, and in 1985 he founded Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger as part of the international campaign against hunger.
He spoke in front of Memorial Church to a sun-drenched crowd of capped and gowned seniors and their families, including Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court justice and commencement father. Breyer donned academic robes to join officers of the university and the student body in the processional and on the dais.
Robert Gregg, dean of Memorial Church, introduced Stanford's multi-faith ceremony as different from its medieval Christian predecessors, "because of who we are." Taiko drumming, joyful South African songs of praise and the processional grandeur of Handel and Bach framed a ceremony with readings from Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Ojibway texts.
Fein introduced his three stories by saying they would connect two apparently unrelated statements: a "downright scandalous" fact, and an assertion about religion. The fact: "In these United States, 24 percent of the children under 6 live in poverty. One out of four," Fein said.
"The assertion," he said, "is that religion does not come to answer our questions; it comes to question our answers."
The first of the three stories was about the biblical Abraham, who demonstrated his great piety when he showed he was willing to sacrifice his own son if God had not rescinded the command. Yet later, God informed him of plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Fein recounted Abraham's protest: "Will you really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? Heaven forbid for you. The judge of all the earth will He not do what is just?"
Pious Abraham was willing to call God Almighty to account, Fein said, "and those who have followed his example have distinguished and redeemed the history of our species."
Fein's second story moved forward to the last days of 1944, when the Nazis, aware they were about to lose the war, frantically rushed more than 100,000 Jews from Budapest to their deaths at the hands of Hitler's death machine. Another 100,000 from Budapest were spared and survived the war, mostly through the "holy audacity" of a single Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg.
Fein recounted tales of Wallenberg at work, loping in to a train station at the moment of deportation, separating out those Jews who held the Swedish passports he previously had forged for them, and then saving them, as well as the ones with "preliminary application papers" those who caught on that any scrap of paper would do. More than once, Fein said, Wallenberg "drove like a madman" to intercept a transport train, or to follow the route of the Nazis' murderous midwinter, 200-mile death march, and pluck more people out of danger.
"But, you may say, a Wallenberg, an Abraham these are giants, and the challenges they faced were the stuff of epic history," Fein said. "We? We are pygmies, and we face ordinary evils, daily insults to decency and injuries to humanity that are far easier to accommodate than to resist."
So he told the tale of 42-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the 40,000 Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama, who walked to work for 381 days in 1955 and 1956, until the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to segregate the city's buses by race.
Fein reminded the students that the Rev. Martin Luther King was no giant at the time, just the 26-year-old pastor of a Montgomery church. King responded to the original call for a bus boycott with his first political address, saying: "There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. . . . We are here because we are tired now."
The logical question most people ask themselves when they hear such a tale, Fein said, is, "What would I have done?" It is a speculative question: No one can know for sure. But Fein reminded his audience of his assertion about religion: "[It] does not come to answer questions we cannot otherwise answer; it comes to insist on questions we might not otherwise ask.
"Here, then," he continued, "is religion's most insistent, most urgent question: What will you do? It does not call for speculation; it calls for commitment, it calls for action.
"In these United States," Fein concluded, "in this year so close to the dawn of a new millennium, 24 percent of the children under the age of 6 live in poverty. . . . What will you do?"
By Janet Basu