On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Jews and Others: The Responses

/ 8 Elul 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

The lively exchanges of the past two weeks on the subject of “Jews and Others” stimulated thoughts, memories, and suggestions that I’d like to share to keep the conversation on this crucial matter going strong.

Catharine’s story of studying the Shema’ with Christians called to mind an experience when a JTS group visited a center for Catholic pilgrims in Israel near the Sea of Galilee. A young priest, strumming a guitar, sang out the Shema’—and my immediate response was a mix of wonderment and horror. “You can’t do that,” I wanted to say. “You can’t have that. It’s my faith credo!” I knew, even as the thought first entered consciousness, that Christians, too, include the Shema’ passage with the rest of Torah, and what we call Hebrew Bible, in their Holy Scripture. They consider themselves “Israel.” The Christian embrace of Torah has had a major, complex, and not-always-positive impact on Jews and on the world. Jews have lived for most of our history as Others to Christians and Muslims—groups far more numerous and powerful than the Jewish communities among them. There was little conversation across those divides over many centuries, except among small elites of intellectuals. Disputation and forced conversion were far more common than dialogue.

So when a Christian chants the Shema’ before a Jewish group with full respect and without any intent to convert us, or when Catharine studies the Shema’ with Christian clergy in a similar spirit, something new and important has broken into the history of relations among religious groups. I refuse to be cynical about the outcome of such dialogue. It needs to be nurtured at every opportunity.

Brian’s point about how unsatisfactory it is for Jews to refer to the world’s many cultures, faiths, and nations as “Gentiles” or “non-Jews” put me in mind of discussions I had at Stanford with “Asian-American” students about how absurd they found that category. Japan, Korea, and China, they informed me, have engaged for centuries in a cultural, economic, and political rivalry—yet there they were, along with at least a dozen other cultural and linguistic groups, lumped together by a largely white university and by government affirmative action legislation—and so by faculty and fellow students—in a label they could not wear comfortably. I could relate. I have often bristled at being described via categories like “white,” “white male,” and “religious,” which seem to leave out most of what I think defines me.

We perform these acts of labeling, I think, because we need to make sense of the world and some sense, even if distorted, seems better than none. Jews like me are aware of all that we are missing when we ignore differences among individuals or groups by settling for umbrella terms like “Gentile.” The other primary function of such categories is to sustain the internal Jewish sense of self by insisting that the boundary separating some 15 million people on one side of the line (Jews), from several billion on the other (everyone else), is worth preserving. Fuzzier and more porous borders (as between Jews and other monotheists, or between the “Jewish” sides of Jewish selves and all the other sides) are better for some purposes. The point I was making in my posting required the boundary I drew.

I’m grateful to Brian, Claudia, and Eric for pointing out how problematic such dividing lines can be for converts who live on both sides of them. The tensions you three feel and live can generate crucial lessons for the Jewish communities of which you are a part. We all tend to shut people out, and shut ideas out, lest they challenge us more than we wish to be challenged. You will resist this tendency and perhaps can help the rest of us resist it too. I treasured Aaron’s stories of what he learned from the individuals he encountered in hospital chaplaincy—and why it is important to confront others fully as who we are: Jews substantively different by dint of that commitment from members of other groups. “We put wheels on our theology and roll into a world that needs us to show up.” Exactly.

The “chosen people” idea, for better and for worse, is at the heart of that theology. (Most important things in life, I find, operate both for better and for worse. This is a feature of our humanity that transcends every division I know.) To David, who posted on this last week: I wrote my dissertation and first book on the subject of chosenness because it perplexed American Jewish thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s more than any other theological theme—and has always perplexed me. Judaism, I have concluded, can’t live without the idea but has to avoid the temptations to chauvinism, racism, and intolerance to which it and similar notions have frequently led religious leaders and teachers, including Jews.

Space does not permit extensive discussion of how I understand the idea of the “chosen people.” Suffice it to say that I hope Jews, and particularly Conservative Jews, can embrace the full import of Covenant—bearing distinctive responsibilities, beliefs, practices, opportunities, and blessings—without needing to believe that by doing so we are loved more by God or granted what God would regard as unique purchase on the Truth. As Menachem wrote, God’s infinite love does not allow for such favoritism. Nor does the share in that love that has been apportioned to Jews.

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  1. Deb says:

    Conservative Judaism is fully engaged with halakha (unlike the Reform movement) as well as academic history (unlike Orthodoxy)). It is crucial to have Jewish youth understand that the function of the Hebrew Bible is not that of history but memory. This text is not a historical but rather civilizational-spiritual record of Jewish life. Many abandon Judaism or find it unattractive when the approach is to inisist on the historicity of the biblical narrative and its “tales of wonder” or when they discover it is not a “history book” I cannot tell you how many people are caught by surprise and crestfallen when they find out at the Seder table that the exodus from Egypt didn’t really happy. Again, the conservative movement is the only religious block that has been willing to work with these different textual approaches, but it does not do so on a systematic, methodological level, beginning with children’s and youth education.  Unless we learn to instill in these modern Jews the ability to sustain and discern the methodological difference between approaching scholarly Jewish history and textual tradition I fear we will continue to lose young adults who are angered and confused as their more mature common sense feel that they have been “duped.” 

    • D** says:

      I agree with many of your comments, but I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss all of the historical aspects of the Torah.  We might look at the stories of Creation and the Garden of Eden as very poetic, fictional, or freely told versions of real events.  If the actual details are off, it’s not a big deal. 

      As far as the Exodus is concerned, I’m not so sure that we should totally dismiss it.  After all, everyone “knew” that the story of Troy and the Trojan War was just a myth–until Heinrich Schliemann and others proved them wrong.  The historical records that have been discovered in Egypt (relating to the Hebrews, plagues, and an exodus) are interesting, although I’ll admit they’re inconclusive.  Still, they shouldn’t be ignored.  There is probably still much to be discovered.

      One of the biggest problems scholars have with the Exodus narrative is the description found in Exodus 12:37 of “six hundred thousand men on foot . . . ”  This is in addition to the women, children, and elderly, which would suggest a group of two million or more leaving Egypt.  The Hebrew says, “k’shesh meot eleph,” and this is usually translated as “about six hundred thousand men.”   In our Etz Hayim chumash p.388), there is an interesting note.  The word “eleph” doesn’t always mean “thousand.”  It could also mean “clan.”  If the verse is understood this way, it would imply a fairly small group, perhaps under 2,000 people, leaving Egypt.  This is certainly in the realm of possibility. 

      • Deb says:

        I do not deny there are elements of historical accuracy but that is a far cry from teaching this material as scholarly history. We need to make the distinction between the epistemological approach of scriptures and that of historiographic approaches. 

        This is a crucial distinction that gets lost and makes one cringe to watch PhDs in sciences open wide eyes and ask with disappointment, “you mean it didn’t happen?” Equally, it makes me cringe to witness the irresponsible way in which these two approaches are combined in JTS education processes. These texts are intellectual and spiritual records of what was significant at the time-and the fact that they were canonized only emphasizes this. Yet,a gain, the Hebrew Bible is NOT history. Even Maimonides figured that one out. 

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have been teaching the Hebrew Bible to primarily Christian students for nearly 14 years.
    I have translated enough of the Scriptures that it holds a sacred and large part in my heart and soul. I do not believe or teach that Christians replace Israelites or Jews in any way. I espouse the impossibility of having a “New Testament” without the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible as a foundational basis. When I find myself in Jewish contexts, I am always wondering whether they will accept me and understand that we share some spiritual and theological beliefs in common; and that I have no desire to convert anyone, but to share our understandings and learn from each other. We have so much to teach one another if we are willing to engage in dialogue which acknowledges that both groups share some of the same texts and that we can both benefit from the enrichment that would come from such dialogue.

  3. Rabbijoshua says:

    Much thanks.  Reading the words of the past few weeks, I’m glad to see these questions being raised at the heard of our movement and, indeed, at JTS.  Chancellor Eisen, over the years I’ve tried to get a copy of my book Judaism Inside:  Reclaiming the Promise of Israel to you.  I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it.  If not, I’d be glad to send you a copy.  Rabbi Joshua Chasan, JTS ’87, American historian (U of Pgh, 1974).  Involved in interfaith work since studying for a year at Yale Divinity School, 1977-78 and directing a church organization serving older people in New Haven, CT.

    b’shalom, Joshua

  4. Adi says:

    I’m not sure why my response to what Brian said went unnoticed. It’s not that we are missing anything or ‘ignor[ing] differences among individuals or groups by settling for umbrella terms like “Gentile.” That’s not the purpose, and that’s not the result. We are, instead, pointing out difference between someone who identifies as Jewish and someone who does not, and only someone who goes beyond that to make further assumptions may be guilty of ignoring certain differences. The fact is, someone who is not Jewish – and it does not matter who you are or what you are (in fact, no differences you have can impact this) – subscribe to the Jewish belief system. And that is all this distinction is about.

  5. Elizabethardenstewart says:

    I have always believed that Christians should be taught Judiasm first.  The God of Moses is the God of Peter.  The Children of God are His regardless of whether the books of the Bible are Old or New.  Love one Another is both an Old and A New Commandment, not a suggestion.

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