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Speech Season -- CHRONICLE Online/The WORD 05/16/24

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah


May 16, 2024

8 Iyar 5784


It’s graduation season, which means it’s also graduation speech season. Given how many middle schools, high schools, colleges, and graduate schools invite speakers to their graduation ceremonies, one must really say something extraordinary in order to stand out. Well, Harrison Butker—an NFL kicker—really outdid himself when he addressed the graduates of Benedictine College—a small Catholic school in Kansas (the whole text of speech can be found here).

Butker is a devout Catholic, and he took this opportunity to invite the graduates of Benedictine College to join him in his interpretation of religious life. He also expressed his disappointment that the rest of the country does not see things exactly as he does.

Along the way, he made a point of saying that President Biden “supports the murder of innocent babies.” He then lamented the fact that “Congress just passed a bill where stating something as basic as the biblical teaching of who killed Jesus could land you in jail.” And even though the New Testament does NOT say that the Jews killed Jesus, he clearly believes that Jews did, or the antisemitism bill passed by the House of Representatives would not bother him in this way.  

In addition, he took a few moments to address the women graduates, who might have been appropriately “thinking about all the promotions and titles you are going to get in your career.” Instead, he suggested that “the majority of you [women] are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world.”

His takes on these issues may, in fact, be an authentic representation of Catholicism. I can’t say because I’m obviously not Catholic. However, to this person of faith, it’s the kind of graduation speech that causes a listener (or reader) to ask, “What is the point of religion?”

It just so happens that this week’s Torah portion, Emor, gives a pretty good answer to that question. The text takes us on a journey through the biblical calendar, starting with Shabbat and culminating with Sukkot (see Leviticus 23:1ff).  

In the midst of all these days and dates, though, we read of one mitzvah that is not festival-related—the obligation to leave a portion of one’s field for the poor. Specifically, we may not gather the gleanings of our harvest or reap all the way to the edges of our field (Lev. 23:22). We have to leave those corners for the needy. It is not enough just to give them food to eat. The Torah says that we have to leave the corners for them to harvest it themselves with the dignity of landowner.

So, our Torah portion is focused on creating sacred time with our community while, at the same time, preserving the dignity of others. It seems to me that this is at least the beginning of a definition of religion.

The holidays that we celebrate and the customs around them are a big part of defining a particular community of faith. However, we also have an obligation to help out and preserve the dignity of others.

It seems like Harrison Butker has a strong commitment to defining what’s sacred for his community, but he doesn’t seem so interested in the dignity of others.

Religious people who disagree with Catholicism on the issue of abortion do NOT support the murder of innocent babies. Jews are not responsible for the killing of Jesus. And women who pursue careers—like Butker’s own mother Elizabeth, who is a medical physicist at Emory University’s Department of Radiation Oncology—are not in any way upsetting God’s vision of the world.

It’s fine if Harrison Butker wants to believe otherwise. It’s fine if he wants to talk about his beliefs at the graduation ceremony of a Catholic college. It’s quite another thing if he wants the US government to enforce his vision of what our country ought to be.

Fortunately, there will be many more speeches in the coming days and weeks. And, hopefully, Harrison Butker’s words will seem like the tiny corner of a great big field.



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