Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Testimonial Dinner for Senator Herbert H. Lehman, New York, New York, November 23, 1958

No assignment could give me more pleasure than to join in paying tribute to one of the world’s great citizens, one of the most eminent Americans living today, and certainly one of the most able and distinguished men ever to serve in the United States Senate. Now it is true that members of the Senate use the words “able and distinguished”, in describing their colleagues in that august body, with great abandon and frequency...

But it does not require a Senate resolution to testify to the fact that Herbert Lehman is “able and distinguished.” The imprint of his statesmanship will not be lost upon this nation for generations to come. The qualities of his leadership, the ardor of his ideals and the vast dimensions of his wisdom and interests have all made him one of the great public servants of our time.

Herbert Lehman has left several offices, as you know – but he has never retired. He has never been satisfied with the accomplishments of the past or underestimated the possibilities of the future.

This is why it is particularly fitting that the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in establishing an institute for the study of Talmudic ethics, has decided to call is The Herbert H. Lehman Institute of Ethics. In the ancient words of Rabbi Gammeon; “There are three crowns: the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels them all.” Herbert Lehman is entitled, by virtue of his education, experience and wisdom, to wear the crown of learning. He is entitled, by virtue of his service as Governor and Senator, to wear what might then have been called the crown of royalty. And by associating his name with this Theological Seminary, you are entitling him to wear, in at least honorary fashion, the crown of priesthood. But “the crown of a good name excels them all” – and Herbert Lehman is entitled to year the crown above all others. For here is a man whose good name is not limited to one state, or one political party, or to the members of one religious faith or even to the citizens of one nation. He is known and beloved throughout the world as a spokesman for the American ideal – as one whose life has been one of dedication to the great moral precepts which this institute will promulgate – who has always insisted that such principles not be merely disembodies ideals, but translated into social realities.

Those of us who sat with him in the back row of the Senate know, also, that he lived up to another precept of the Talmud, meeting the requirements specified by Judah, son of Tema: “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and strong as a lion.” I have seen Herbert Lehman “bold as a leopard” in the face of overwhelming odds – I have seen him “light as an eagle” and “fleet as a hart” as he entered Senate debates bogged down with petty arguments and narrow technicalities – and I have seen him “strong as a lion” when many around him were falling back or giving up.

Let us hope that those who study in this great Institute will take inspiration from his example and strive to live up to his mark. For, as I understand it, this Institute is not merely concerned with abstract research and ancient theories. The Herbert Lehman Institute, on the contrary, intended to make the great moral insights of the Talmud intelligible to modern man and applicable to modern problems.

You who have made this great institution possible have recognized that it is not enough merely to collect wisdom – for, in the words of Rabbi Eleagar nearly two thousand years ago: “He whose wisdom exceeds his deeds... is like a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it upon its face.”

To be sure, there will be scholars at this Institute who may wish to do no more than discuss current issues and deplore their solutions – who will prefer to confine their attentions to the mysteries of pure scholarship or the delights of abstract discourse. But “Would you have counted him a friend of Ancient Greece,” as George William Curtis asked a century ago during the Kansas-Nebraska Controversy, “who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that Greek summer day through whose hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and his three hundred stood at Thermopylae for liberty? Was John Milton to conjugate Greek verbs in his library or talk of liberty of the ancient Shunamites, when the liberty of Englishmen was imperiled?” No the duty of the scholar – particularly in a republic such as ours – is to contribute his objective views and his sense of liberty and justice and ethics to the affairs of his state and nation.

Of course, some of your students, Dr. Finkelstein, may look upon this Institute as Dean Swift regarded Oxford. Oxford, he said, was truly a great seat of learning; for all freshmen who entered were required to bring some learning with them in order to meet the standards of admission – but no senior, when he left the university, ever took any learning away; and thus it steadily accumulated. The Talmud put is another way: “There are four qualities among those that sit before the wise: ... a slave which lets out the (coarse) bran and retains the fine flour: a strainer, which lets the wine pass our and retains the dregs; a sponge, which sucks up everything; and a funnel, which lets in at one end and out at the other.” (Each of you may decide for himself what category he is in tonight.)

But we do not want from this Institute funnels or strainers or even sponges. Nor do we want scholars whose education has been so specialized as to exclude them from participation in current events – men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once remarked that he would be a better man if he knew a third subject – but he was interested in nothing but the Constitution of 1688 and himself. No, what we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge and recognize the applicability of Talmudic ethics to the problems of the world today.

For the ethical teachings of the Talmud are as vital and meaningful today as they were when their compilation was completed almost 1500 years ago. And this is not only true in our domestic laws and mores – it is equally and urgently true in foreign affairs.

The concept of “one world” may be new in this generation to some – but it is not new to the Judaic tradition. The Talmud tells us that “the dust that entered into the making of the first man was gathered by God from every land in the world”; and God created one man as the common ancestor of all, “so that the various families of men should not contend with one another”; – so that no one may rightly say, regarding another’s nation or religion or race: “My ancestors were better than yours.”

There are some who would say that ethical principles and ancient morality have indeed been introduced into the conduct of foreign policy – and to a greater degree in recent years than ever before. It is true that many of our foreign policy pronouncements on the highest level have been filled in recent years with scriptural quotations and moral imperatives. But what we must do, it seems to me, is to distinguish sharply between morality and moralizing – between the preaching of ethical principles and their actual practice. “The righteous” according to the Talmud, “promise little and perform much. The wicked promise much and do not perform even a little.”

None of us, I am sure, would use the term “wicked” to describe the conduct of our foreign policy today or those who bear that responsibility. But the gulf between words and deeds is perhaps nowhere greater than in this area of applying ethics to international affairs. I do not say that ours is an immoral policy using unethical tactics to strive for improper goals. But I do say that we have all too often failed to recognize the great moral issues that shape and shake our world today more than either the Communist or the atomic revolutions.

I do not think we have always recognized the moral principles of self-determination for those still under foreign rule. I do not think we have always recognized that equality and dignity of every nation, large or small, as we pursue a course that too often ignores their fears and aspirations. I do not think, in trying to remain aloof from the Algerian and similar controversies, in the United Nations and elsewhere, that we have remembered the words of the poet Dante: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

And finally, in devising high strategy on the brink of war, I am not certain that we have always remembered the words of the ancient rabbi: “How great is peace; for even with regard to war in which swords and lances are used, God said; ‘When you go to war, first attempt peace.’”

To be sure, we have talked about peace and self-determination for all – and the equality of nations. But, in the words of the Talmud: “It is not speculation about ethical commandments that is essential, but the practice thereof.”

I do not say that every issue in foreign affairs is a moral issue, to be decided only on the basis of what is theoretically right without considering what is possible, practical, necessary and appropriate or acceptable to all concerned. But I do say that we only deceive ourselves if we employ morality only in our speeches or, even worse, only as a weapon to suit our own needs and purposes to be used only at times of our own choosing, with those nations we think deserves it.

For the principles of justice and morality to which we re-dedicate ourselves tonight have met no sterner test than that which confronts us now. The hard, tough questions of our time is whether any free society – with its freedom of choice – its breadth of opportunity – its range of alternatives – can meet the single-minded advance of the Communists.

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where – as never before – our very survival is at stake – where we and the Russians have the power to destroy one quarter of the earth’s population – a feat not accomplished since Cain slew Abel? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction – but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the oceans and the tides, the inside of the earth and the inside of men’s minds?

In the ancient words of Rabbi Tarfon: “The day is short – and the work is great... and the reward is much – and the Master is urgent.”

Speech source: David F. Powers Personal Papers. Series 09. John F. Kennedy Speeches File. Box 31, Folder: "Senator Herbert H. Lehman Testimonial Dinner, New York, NY, 23 November 1958".