On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Jews and Others, Continued

/ 1 Elul 5771

Eisen podcast aug 30 by Jewish Theo Seminary

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

The search for balance between preserving Jewish distinctiveness from non-Jews and joining with others in partnership and dialogue is, for Conservative Jews, part of the larger dual commitment that defines our Movement. We are pledged to full engagement with Judaism—its practices, texts, and history—and we are pledged as well to full engagement with the societies and cultures of which we are a part.

The balance between “particular” and “universal” is sometimes difficult to locate and still harder to maintain. I offer the following seven suggestions, based on my own experience and that of communities of which I’ve been a part:

Featured Respondents

Catharine ClarkCatharine Clark

“I share Chancellor Eisen’s concern that we do not always maintain the proper balance between the universal and the particular in the relationship between Jews and Others. I also believe that implementing his third suggestion, to study other traditions, is an important corrective against weighing too heavily toward either the universal or the particular.” Read More

Menachem CreditorMenachem Creditor

“I believe that a deep sense of Jewishness should increase a person’s engagement as a global citizen. A passionate Conservative Jewish life must therefore provide a healthy launching ground for universal concern and action.” Read More

Eric Woodward Eric Woodward

“In Mishnah Sotah 7:8, we read that a king may sit while he reads the Torah, as a privilege of his majesty. King Agrippas, the Mishnah tells, would stand to read from the Torah, a sign that he considered its honor higher even than his own. And the sages praised him for this. Once, he read from this week’s parashah, Shofetim. When he arrived at the verse, “You must not set a foreigner over you [as king]” (Dev. 17:20), tears poured from his eyes. King Agrippas, who honored the Torah more than his own royal majesty, was a child of converts, who were often understood as foreign. When the sages saw this, they said to him: “Don’t worry, Agrippas: you are our brother! You are our brother!” Read More

1. Conservative Jews need to make clear to ourselves and others that we will continue to maintain both the commitment to Jewish tradition and community and the commitment to the well-being of our society and the world. Critics to our “left” and “right” often claim that these two foci of Jewish attention and resources are mutually exclusive. We must demonstrate that, on the contrary, they are fully compatible. Each strengthens the other.

Let’s affirm without equivocation or apology that we will continue to take care of Jews, for no one else will. We will build synagogues, camps, and schools, provide for elderly and needy Jews, study and practice Torah, protect our interests, guard and develop the State of Israel. All this is basic to our Judaism. But Jewish tradition also demands that we assume our share of responsibility for human beings who are not Jews, reach out to them in friendship, and join with them in taking responsibility for God’s creatures and God’s earth. This too is basic to Judaism. We value both commitments.

2. Conservative communities and individuals need to carefully negotiate that balance, both in what we say and what we do. Neither the prophets nor the Rabbis specify the proportion of energy or resources that should go to Jewish as opposed to universal causes. Nor does our tradition tell us exactly how to manage Jewish relations with other communities, nations, and religions. Resources will always be scarce in relation to what is needed. Now, as ever, the Pirkei Avot teaches that “the day is short and the labor great.” We will not complete the work, “particular” or “universal,” but neither are we “allowed to desist from [either part of] it.”

It is obvious to me (though not to Jews of purely universalist mind-set) that there can be no Judaism in the world without Jews, and that protection of Judaism—including its distinctive balance of “particular” and “universal”—requires defense of Jewish lives and Jewish interests. That is why I am a fervent Zionist. I believe that the survival and thriving of Jews and Judaism alike depend on a strong, sovereign, Jewish State of Israel, as well as a strong, active, and confident North American Jewish community. We also need to support the array of educational institutions and programs that—at a time when Jews choose whether and how to be Jews—make Jewish life attractive, meaningful, and compelling. These efforts require a huge and continuing investment of resources.

It is no less obvious to me (though not to Jews of purely particularist mind-set) that there will be no Jews in the world without Judaism, whether Judaism is defined as “religion” or as “civilization.” One of the glories of our tradition, and a feature that renders Judaism persuasive to Jews in open, pluralist, and democratic cultures such as America, is its call to join with non-Jews to build a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world. Just as Conservative Jewish individuals give time and money to support societal and global causes, so too should Conservative communities.

3. We must make study of traditions other than Judaism a regular feature of the learning that we do, and make partnership with non-Jewish groups a regular feature of social action programs. Let’s not leave the former to academics or the latter to the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council. All Jews have a lot at stake in the precious American experiment of religious, ethnic, and cultural pluralism. We need to do all we can to make that experiment a success, knowing that if cooperation and respect among religions is not achievable in America, it is unlikely to happen anywhere. Every investment made in intergroup relations at the grassroots level—by clergy and congregants, educators and teens, agencies and havurot—will be paid back many times over in cooperation at moments of crisis as well as in the pleasure of forming relationships across boundaries and differences.

4. Give our children guidance in navigating the immense challenges (and reaping the priceless rewards) of living in multiethnic and multireligious societies. We need to explain to them how, for Conservative Jews, our “Jewish” and our “human” commitments go hand in hand. Let’s not leave this for our students to puzzle out on their own—or worse, allow them to conclude that their Jewish and human sides are unrelated and so require a choice: either be a faithful Jew or get involved alongside non-Jews in larger concerns such as environment or homelessness.

5. Don’t shy away from friendships with non-Jews or alliances with non-Jewish groups out of concern that they will threaten or inhibit our Jewish commitments. Quite the opposite is often the case. One appreciates Judaism more by seeing it through non-Jewish eyes, and grasps its distinctiveness through comparison with other traditions. Jews have much to learn as well as to teach.

6. Pluralism, as it applies to Jews and non-Jews, requires a comparable level of mutual respect and cooperation among Jews of differing commitments. One can’t expect acceptance of or from non-Jews if we Jews do not afford it to one another. Jews should be able to disagree without putting each other down, and work together despite disagreement. This is very difficult for Jews to do. It is necessary now more than ever.

7. Make every single member of Conservative communities feel welcome and respected, including single Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, Jews of color, and non-Jewish spouses and children. Let them know they are valued. Assure non-Jews that they will always be welcome and that we value their contributions to our communities, while expressing the hope that they will someday choose to take on full membership in the joys and responsibilities of the Covenant by means of conversion. We owe everyone in our communities honest, forceful expression of what Jewish tradition demands of us, without fear of articulating the full measure of Jewish “particularism” that has always nourished the distinctive Jewish commitment to “universalism”—or vice versa.

This is who we are and who the Torah wants us to be. Let’s be proud of the Covenant’s dual focus, give it eloquent voice, and put it into visible practice that makes a difference to us and to the world.

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  1. Judy Shulman says:

    Arnie, I think this is a powerful essay.  I’m taking it to my Tikkun Olam committee next week.  It might help as we make plans about what we’re going next year.  I’m also sharing it with one of my kids.  Our high school grandchild “came out” last year, and your call to make everyone welcome in the Conservative community will confirm his welcome into the community.

    Thanks for doing this.  I’ve enjoyed reading all your essays.

    • Yumi says:

      Mazel TovJust stumbled aorscs our website and I am absolutely delighted that wehave a small window for Humanistic Jews in the UK at last. I look forwardto the site growing and gaining many new members. The site will hopefullyalso gain personality and personalities in the near future. My firstimpression is an informative site explaining the principles of HumanisticJudaism, but seriously lacking any direct human input. We must be braveand stand for what we believe in with people, faces and UK links.Criticism will inevitably flow from some quarters, but there are many whowill publicly support this initiative.Rabbi’s / Madricha’s questions, community news and events and on-linelearning for adults and kids are just a few of the items that would makethis site greater, as many like myself are stranded outside of Humanisticcommunities and yearn for a UK based on-line community / congregation withlinks to communal / national events.Keep up the good work. I will be joining the site from my home email. May your efforts continue to go from strengthto strength.ShalomDavePS. Problems sending email directly to your email address.

  2. Ndroth says:

    I don’t really “belong” here, as I am not a Conservative Jew; but I guess that is the point, much of what you say in this excellent essay, it seems to me, should apply to ALL Jews.
    Certainly the concern about interacting with society and the world, both social and physical, is part and parcel of Jewish teaching.  Incidentally, in connection with Rabbi Woodward’s response, I learned today of a girl from Paris whose father is Jewish but whose mother is not who has converted to Catholicism because she was not accepted in the (one presumes Orthodox) Jewish community.

  3. Helene says:

    Without a good grounding in one’s own faith, a focus on interfaith relations and holidays and celebrations, aside from being forbidden in Torah, tend to be the breeding ground for conversion through much prosthelising.  Adapting to modernity may be a focus of Conservative Judaism, but conserving our faith is also a focus of our movement.

    • 81Rebecca says:

      “tend to be the breeding ground for conversion through much prosthelising”

      I have not found this to be the case, but I suppose there is nothing to be gained by pitting your anecdotes against mine.

      However, when I look around me, I see our world more conversant in understanding and accepting diversity than it has been at any other time in its history. More importantly, I see a world that knows how to talk about-and respect- otherness with competence and ever increasing skill.

      Where the previous generation may have seen many kind-hearted, but ultimately disrespectful conversion efforts, I have experienced respect.

      To be sure, there are true Christian believers in my family, who feel their duty to proselytize as keenly as some of us feel the duty to keep kosher, shabbat, and marry in the faith. From them, I have heard (sometimes guilty, sometimes not- but always hesitantly, always with restraint) that they are available to talk about their faith should I want to, and that I am welcome in their house of worship * that way*.

      They left it at that, a one time event amidst decades of “relations and holidays and celebrations.” Their offer was not about converting me, or uprooting my life, but discharging a religious obligation as quickly and unmessily as possible.

      These friends and family bent over backwards to help me discharge my religious duties when I was more observant- despite great inconvenience to them, despite the hurt and alienation the process of understanding observant Judaism caused them. I do not regret returning the kindness they showed me by differentiating between a formal duty to an action purposefully, carefully carried out to the minimum, and one undertaken zealously, potentially selfishly.

      “Without a good grounding in one’s own faith” Not just our faith, I think. Theirs too, because identifying Threat is all in the context. Same with Friends.

    • Abdus says:

      Surprisingly well-written and ifnormtaive for a free online article.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Clarity is of the essence–To speak of ‘balance’ while prioritizing, the result of which is imbalance, compounds the difficulty in dealing with the issue.  As you correctly point out, in a time of inadequate resources to meet all needs, prioritization is absolutely necessary, and no one else is going to support Jewish causes to the same extent that Jews will. Of course we all have a responsibility to the larger community, and should respond vigorously to emergency situations.   However, I don’t think there is any justification for attempting to design a ‘balance’ between our particularism and universalism, especially with regard to the use of relatively scarce resources. Personally, I am convinced that our tradition calls for universalism primarily in the idea of building ideal institutions that can be emulated by others, and that the concept of Tikkun Olam has been twisted out of its originsl meaning, in which the ‘Olam’ referred to the Jewish community that required spiritual repair and not to the world at large. Judaism was never intended to be  a missionary enterprise

  5. Ovadiah says:

    I enjoyed both articles and appreciate the aithor’s formulation of specific areas for improvement and a basic plan for said improvement. The Zionist position of all our sects, however, must be taken in perspective. One can love Israel without agreeing with her policies just as one can support our American troops without being “for the war”. Likewise, accepting the support of everyone who “supports Israel” is a fatal mistake. If you don’t support the Jews and our faith, spend your time and money elsewhere. I’m sorry, was that too particular of me?

  6. Sbraginsky says:

    I believe it is the Jewish part that needs reinforcement not the communal part.  Too many Jews today feel closer to the “other” than to the Jew.  Too many Jews are eager to condemn Israel for its failings while excusing the U.S. or other countries’ failings.  Our first allegiance should be to our families, then to the Jewish people (and Israel) and then to the “other”.

  7. Martina says:

    Thanks for writing such an easy-to-uendrstand article on this topic.

  8. Liliana says:

    Not wrong as you seem to perceive but she draws a few shaky cnuslncioos and makes a few close to definitive statements that are not so close to definitive. Never rely on one author. KA uses Document Hypothesis in her book and I brought up the example of Abram/Abraham being mentioned by at least 2 contributors of the bible (Yawhist and Priestly) and these accounts do not necessarily match up. She draws a conclusion based on a later contributor and seems to ignore the older text 1

  9. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate
    your efforts and I will be waiting for your next post thanks once again.

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