On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Continuing the Conversation

/5 Sivan, 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

I’m gratified and energized by the responses—long and short, favorable and critical—to my posts thus far. Conservative Judaism needs this kind of debate and discussion. JTS will continue to facilitate it by means of this blog and in other forums, live and virtual.

Let me start with responses to my post on Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Steven Cohen wonders if limits of space or differences of perspective caused me to omit mention of aspects of Israeli reality that he celebrates. The answer is: yes and yes. One cannot say everything in the format of short blog posts. I left out a lot: my love for Hebrew; the pleasure I take in Israeli culture, especially its music; the deep happiness I feel walking the streets of Jerusalem; my joy at being part of the Jewish people’s return to its homeland after so many centuries; my pride in what Israel has achieved in a little more than six short decades of Statehood; my anxiety and fear that our enemies will again attempt to destroy what has been built; my anger and frustration at fellow Jews who claim sole ownership of Israel (or Jerusalem or its holy sites) and exclude, insult, or even attack Jews like me, as reported in Norm Kurtz’s moving story of his daughter’s experience at the Kotel.

But I think I do disagree with Steve when it comes to “lusty” enthusiasm for the fact of Statehood. I see the State of Israel as an instrument: it guards Jewish interests and Jewish lives, and it helps us to achieve a society—and a world—more in keeping with the demands of Torah. That is why I am deeply thankful for the State, without regarding it as an end in its own right. I am a religious Zionist. We Jews are thankfully bound by a Covenant, contracted at Sinai, that the State helps us mightily to fulfill.

We need to find ways of involving North American Jews more directly and substantively in the life of the State, and Israelis in the life of North American Jewry, lest our two communities—the largest in the world today—drift further and further apart. Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum eloquently stated the need for this partnership.

One way to achieve it, I think, is through common efforts aimed at building Jewish communities and revitalizing Jewish tradition. I devoted a great deal of attention in my first three posts to local community, because without it there is little we can accomplish in Conservative (or any other kind of) Judaism. That’s why it saddens me to hear, as I often do, about Jews young or old who come to a synagogue and are not greeted by the rabbi or anyone else. Or about singles who are ignored as communities focus on young married couples with children. Or about families with special needs that are not acknowledged, let alone met. We cannot do everything in our schools and congregations, I know. Our resources are limited. But we can do a lot more than we have been. And we can be warmer than we sometimes are.

We Jews—and particularly Conservative communities—do suffer from being scattered. In Jerusalem, or on the Upper West Side, one does not have this problem, but in most places it is painfully evident. It is easier to invite people home to Shabbat lunch when everyone is walking rather than getting into a car. Passing Jews on the street going to or from other synagogues on Shabbat adds to the sense that one is part of a larger, diverse Jewish community. There is no alternative to driving, given the distances Jews travel to get to shul. But we have to work all the harder to make sure the experience of community pervades the time they spend there.

Future posts will discuss in detail several essential aspects of Jewish tradition, beginning next week with Jewish learning. But I’d like to say two things in reply to respondents thus far.

One: It is not at all my experience that “JTS graduates Orthodox rabbis to serve Conservative congregations made up of Reform laypeople.” I have just finished teaching a class on Conservative Judaism to about 35 students, many of them future rabbis. They are proud and informed Conservative Jews, determined to carry on our distinctive path. And they are not bound for congregations composed of Reform Jews. I myself have visited many dozens of synagogues, Reform and Conservative, over the years. As scholar-in-residence, I got to know—and respect—many of their members. As chancellor of JTS, I have developed a close relationship with many Conservative Jews. The distinctions in overall patterns of belief and practice are usually clear, and validated by sociological evidence, even if lax observance in some Conservative congregations, coupled with greater use of Hebrew and traditional ritual in some Reform congregations, has blurred the difference between them. And if it was not apparent from my very first post where the distinction lies, it certainly will be as we go deeper into this series of essays.

(I will discuss the matter at length in future posts, as for example in my upcoming posts on mitzvah and halakhah.)

Two: But one should not expect the movements to differ on every detail. Do not place them in separate boxes, but see them as overlapping circles. We are all Jews, responsive to the same cultural currents and societal conditions. I wholeheartedly agree that Conservative Judaism has suffered at times from a lack of passion, a desire at a time of dwindling numbers to keep everyone inside its big tent, and failure to clarify what it stands for. I am determined to help to remedy that situation—and to do so without putting down other forms of Judaism or the Jews who practice those forms, and without exaggerating our differences. Let’s focus on the truth we hold, the Torah we want to teach and practice, the kind of Jewish human beings we want to be.

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