A 500-year-old, 13-page book that speaks to us today about social justice, inclusion, refugees, science and technology, and public service

By: Dr. Eric Lander
the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy

About a week ago, the Vice President’s office reached out to ask what book I would like to use to take the oath of office for my roles as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Presidential Science Advisor.

I had not previously focused on this question. But the choice represents one’s first official act in entering into a new office, and it bears some reflection.

President Biden chose a large Bible — five-inches thick with a Celtic cross on the cover — that had been in his family for more than a century. Vice-President Harris used a Bible that had belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights pioneer and Supreme Court Justice. Franklin Roosevelt placed his hand specifically on the verse in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (13:13) about the importance of charity. Congressman Keith Ellison used Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. Many people have taken their oaths of office on the U.S. Constitution.

From my own Jewish tradition, I have chosen a 500-year-old book with only 13 pages. It is a slim book that speaks volumes.

The book’s text connects to a paramount ethical obligation — one that animates all of the work of this Administration, and that is particularly relevant to my new role in stewarding science and technology.

And, the unique history of its pages tells many stories — of tolerance and intolerance, of refugees, of revolutions in information technology, and of the remarkable people who work in the federal government.

In modern Jewish tradition, one of the highest ethical obligations is Tikkun Olam, which means “repairing the world.” It is an obligation that is deeply meaningful to me and my family.

Repairing the world includes improving the human condition in any way, but especially correcting injustice against the most vulnerable through social action and social justice.

Individuals play a crucial role in repairing the world — many Americans from all traditions engage in such activities in their everyday lives. Other work needs to be done at larger scales.

Government can be a powerful force for repairing the world. At times in American history, our government has embraced this responsibility — taking steps to expand civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ equality, voting rights, health care, retirement security, support for workers, help for families, and cures for disease. Still, so much work remains to be done. The Biden-Harris Administration has made it the centerpiece of its agenda: Building Back Better is about “repairing the world” so that our country is more prosperous, secure, and equitable for everyone.

Science and technology, too — when applied with vision and optimism, with wisdom and humility, with rigor and integrity, and with a commitment to engage and serve everyone — is one of the most powerful forces ever devised to improve the human condition. It can solve problems and unlock possibilities beyond our wildest imagination. At OSTP, our mission will be to maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans. It is no small task.

Importantly, we must continue to repair the world even knowing that we will never perfect it. Still, every day, we must keep trying.

In modern Jewish tradition, this obligation is rooted in the words: “It is not required that you complete the work, but neither may you refrain from it.”

This passage comes from the oral traditions — sometimes called the Oral Torah — that were compiled 1800 years ago into a long Jewish text called the Mishnah. Specifically, those words come from an unusual section of the Mishnah, called Pirkei Avot, that is focused exclusively on ethics.

Upon reflection, the book on which I wanted to take my oath was clear.

When I perused the catalog of the Library of Congress to look for a suitable copy of the Mishnah, I was stunned to find a remarkable entry.

The entry described a 13-page fragment, surviving from a very old Mishnah. Bound in brown marbled boards, it happens to contain the entirety of Pirkei Avot.

The pages had come from the first edition of the Mishnah ever created on a printing press, operated by a Jewish printer in the Kingdom of Naples, only a few decades after Gutenberg had produced his revolutionary Bible.

And, the publication date was a fateful moment in Jewish history: the year 1492, when the Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of Spain.

As I subsequently learned, in 1492 the Kingdoms of Spain and Naples were ruled by cousins. Both named Ferdinand, they were polar opposites with respect to religious tolerance. The first established the Spanish Inquisition; the second established a haven for peoples of many faiths.

Sadly, Naples’ era of tolerance was short-lived. When that kingdom fell to the French a few years later, Jews — including the printer of that Mishnah — had to flee, becoming refugees from religious persecution.

This last part of the story, about Spain and Naples, I learned from Dr. Ann Brener, a Hebraic specialist at the Library of Congress, whom I contacted to ask about borrowing that bound fragment of the 1492 Mishnah containing the book of ethics.

Dr. Brener instantly knew the catalog entry I was referring to — because she had written it. In fact, she was the person who, in 2011, had found the uncatalogued bound pages among the Library’s holdings and brought them to light, making it possible for me to learn of the book’s existence.

So, that is the story behind my choice of book on which to take my oath for my roles in stewarding science and technology in the federal government:

  • a book that bears upon the paramount ethical obligation to repair the world, which I hold dear and which underlies the goals of this Administration and the goals of science;
  • a book that is one of the earliest fruits of a revolutionary information technology that swept the world;
  • a book whose year and place of publication speak of religious tolerance and intolerance; and
  • a book whose existence would not be known but for the work of a scholar who chose to enter into public service.

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