On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Continuing the Conversation: Learning

/ 26 Sivan 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

The sting of Jordan’s post is keenly felt by me and most Jewish educators I know. He reminds me that I am speaking to a relatively small number of Jews. The great majority are untouched by Torah, unable to appreciate Jewish learning, uninterested in challenging themselves to move closer—and couldn’t care less about this community or its conversation. They can’t be persuaded by pieces they don’t read.

I could simply reply to Jordan that it was not the point of this blog to reach such alienated Jews, who are unlikely to turn to the JTS website in any case. I write for Conservative Jews who want to know more about Judaism and this particular kind of Judaism. I want especially to address the lay leaders and professionals who will in coming months make hard decisions about synagogues, schools, and other institutions that will determine the Conservative Movement’s future for years to come. But that’s not the whole story. I, like other Jewish educators, want (and need) to reach the millions of Jews outside our community’s widest concentric circles of engagement. For two reasons:

We want these potential students of Torah to hear that we stand for truths that to us are self-evident. Those truths have changed our lives for the better and, we think, can change theirs. Learning Torah in the broad sense I’ve defined—not just texts but history, culture, communities, continuities, and revolutions in Jewish life—is one of the greatest pleasures of my life and in the lives of the group we might call “learning Jews.” That was true when I was young—no doubt a major reason why I came to be a professing Jew and a college professor of Judaism. And it is true now. I have passed this joy along to many students and, I hope, to my children. But there is something else: Our community’s way of life, infinitely precious to Jews who care about it, depends for its survival on a greater number of Jews adopting that way for themselves. Communal leaders like me spend so much time and effort reaching outward because we have no choice. Preaching to the choir will not save us. We need the Jews not yet convinced that Judaism is of any value to them.

And we can’t get them by pretending to be what we are not: a fast track to salvation, a gimmicky take on wisdom, Judaism reduced to a slogan or a tweet. Life is difficult, complicated, and wonderfully, joyfully rich with nuanced folds of possibility. Our learning needs to be equal to that.

To reach Jews and others not yet committed to the work of learning, we have to adopt the great sage Hillel’s famous strategy. When approached by a person who demanded to be taught Judaism on one foot, Hillel first gave the man an attractive introductory summary of one lesson taught by Torah—do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you—and then added the really important part of his message: go and learn. Come and join us. Take life seriously enough to take learning seriously

This strategy holds for kids as well as adults. D**’s story of Hebrew school rings true. His principal was right to say that experiential learning is the key to grabbing and keeping the attention of children and teens, especially at 4:00 on a weekday afternoon following a long day of school. You can’t learn if you are bored to death. But D** is right that Torah, brought to life by relating it to experience, remains the single best teacher of Jews and Judaism, as it has been for centuries.

Adult education needs to relate directly to the lessons, usually learned the hard way, that students bring to their study of Jewish texts or history. Rabbi Amy Walk Katz makes this point eloquently. I’d add the example of last week’s Torah portion, Korah, which teaches lessons that are as relevant now as ever, and relevant both to affiliated Jews and the secular university students that Gary Katz invites to Shabbat dinner. Korah teaches us how to face death’s terrors with courage born of a firm sense of life’s goodness. It also teaches about politics, authority, and power. Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky reminds us that Torah’s timeless lessons remain timeless by being timely in this fashion, again and again. We want to learn about life as we know it—and to have that life connected to Life far larger than we could otherwise know.

We learn what we need to learn, if we are lucky and wise.

I was moved by a recent piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about his attempt, after years of writing about art, to learn to draw. He wanted to understand the craft from the inside. He found the process to be difficult but rewarding. We all know Jews who decided one day to become Jews on the inside of commitment. A chance encounter, a life passage, a brush with mortality, a new expression on the face of one’s teenager, a phrase in the third movement of a Beethoven symphony, a particularly searing sunset—any one of these could have been the prod to learning. Or a teacher, a prayer, a book.

That’s why I think fortune plays a crucial role in Jewish learning as in so many other things—though I agree with Merrill that we should also be purposeful in our learning. “Get yourself a teacher, acquire a friend,” says the Ethics of the Fathers. Teachers and friends are precious resources in life. Both result from a joining of chance and effort: friendship takes work, and so does being taught. It is hard to practice either one for long without love.

When I was 11, the son of my teacher from kitah aleph (first grade in Hebrew school)—the son was then a medical student, I think—took on the task of teaching me to chant from the Torah. The section assigned to me was the reading for the Seventh Day of Passover: Beshallah, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, including the Song at the Sea. My kitah aleph teacher, a kind and (to my eyes) very old man, wrote out for me by hand the entire portion I was learning, Hebrew and English. The gesture made no sense: he knew I owned books that contained the text. But he also knew that teaching is about far more than rational purpose. He left me an expression of his love—for Torah, and for me—that I still keep in a green binder on my shelf.

I will cherish those pages always, just as I cherish Jewish learning, and hope to follow my teacher’s example in sharing Torah, lovingly, with my students

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