On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Archive for February, 2014

Marriage, Family, and Torah

I’ve been thinking about marriage since I first started thinking about what adulthood might be like. Even as a young teenager I knew that my parents’ marriage, while loving and stable, could not in many respects provide the model for my own. My parents seemed so different from me in every way imaginable: children of the Great Depression who never had the chance to go to college, Philadelphia “locals” who never wandered far from the city of their birth or feasted on the array of novels, films, and poetry that supplied my images of love and family. What could I learn from my parents about matters of the heart?

Ten and 20 years into my own marriage, which thank goodness was no less loving or stable than theirs, I often found myself on the other side of the generational divide: giving counsel to students who sought my wisdom about marriage—and that of Judaism—despite a strong sense that I could not possibly understand them. Their experience was far different than mine, their diversity of options immense and, at times, overwhelming. The women’s movement had changed marriage along with so much else. LGBT people were out of the closet. Internet dating had begun. The “hook-up culture” had taken root on campus. The divorce rate had climbed to 50 percent; couples standing under the huppah were well aware that there was a 20-percent chance they would not be together after five years.

And yet there were aspects of their situation that seemed familiar, fears and yearnings that Jewish tradition and I were called upon to address. My students asked aloud if they were good enough for anyone to want to marry (or attractive enough to find someone who was interested them). Could they be faithful to a partner, or to their own ideals. They could not imagine spending their lifetime doing any one thing, let alone doing it with one person. Suppose they or their partners changed? How could they possibly serve their own needs—and someone else’s? And how on earth could they, whose imperfections in their own eyes were so glaring, hope to do a better job raising children than their own parents had done with them. I found myself saying, never sure if they believed me, that of course marriage is hard; it takes a lot of work; the guidance of our age-old tradition has a lot to say on these subjects; and I could attest that my wife and children were by far the greatest gifts I have in this world, and that the problem with marriage, as with life, is not that the years drag on, but that they speed by much too fast.

These memories are vivid right now because, this week, I had the privilege of hosting at The Jewish Theological Seminary a conversation about love, marriage, and family that without doubt ranks among the most important discussions in which I have participated in my seven years as chancellor there. The Conservative rabbis, educators, and therapists from around the country who came together for 24 hours of closed-door conversation represented a wide variety of professional and personal experience. Indeed, what made the gathering so special from start to finish was our shared recognition that we could not discuss these matters dispassionately. The situation is urgent. So much has changed so rapidly in our lives, and the Jews who come to us every day in search of guidance anchored in Jewish tradition cannot be met with pious platitudes or outworn suggestions. And we, too, are caught up in these same dilemmas. The set of family situations represented in the room was nearly as diverse as the individuals and couples we encounter every day.

Our purpose in coming together, therefore, was not to formulate policy on vexing issues of love, family, marriage, and intermarriage, but to exchange stories, best practices, and painful lessons learned and experienced. We asked first what is new in matters of love and family in recent years? Then, how can we and our Jewish communities, guided by Jewish tradition, strengthen marriages and families in all their complexity and diversity? And then we reflected, in this context, on major issues surrounding the class of relationships that we call intermarriages. How can we relate more inclusively and compassionately to both partners in those marriages? How can we think more imaginatively about conversion to Judaism? What does Torah have to say to blessed realities such as legalized same-sex marriage that were unknown only a decade ago?

The sentence that, to me, perhaps best captures the tenor of our discussion was uttered by Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and author of the new book Love Illuminated, who joined us for the opening conversation: “Personal stories, told well, change lives more than almost anything else.” Jones contributed some of the stories collected in his book from among the 50,000 that have come his way over the years, and the bulk of our time together was spent sharing stories of pain, fulfillment, and desire that are the rabbi’s daily fare. The single woman whose parents listen patiently to her accomplishments but wonder expectantly, every time they talk, whether she is engaged yet. The husband who leaves his wife and kids for another woman and believes that his children will be happy about that development “because I am.” The parents who came to see the rabbi years ago to voice distress that their adult children had fallen in love with non-Jews and asked her to bless the unions. “That happened to me last week,” another rabbi added. “That happened to me yesterday,” said a third. The need for new Jewish language: a better word for “non-Jews” than “Gentiles.” A better term than “stepchildren.” Attempts to find a new status for unconverted parents in Jewish families that are raising Jewish children, coming to synagogue, contributing to their communities.

It is hard for some Jews to bring their relationship problems to their rabbi, and perhaps still harder not to do so: “Stories held in shame can destroy families and hurt communities.” One rabbi speculated that congregants come to him not only because, unlike the therapist, he listens to their confession free of charge, but because the need to share one’s story is well-nigh inescapable. Rabbis are also the repository of norms and values. They embody the tradition that congregants—and Jews who have not set foot in a synagogue for years—recognize as the source of Good. It is hard for bearers of the tradition to see and listen to the person before them, instead of reducing them to another instance of a category or—worse still—an exemplar of transgression. Yet rabbis at their best manage to do this every day: raising people up with Torah, helping them open their hearts to holiness and one another, binding them closer to communities, offering wisdom that is prized all the more because it bears the authentic stamp of Torah.

JTS will be convening more conversations like this one in coming months. We want to be a place where new voices are heard around the table on key issues facing individual Jews, the Jewish community, and the larger society. We want to offer a forum where Jewish leaders trust each other enough to try out ideas as yet untested. It was apparent to all of us in the room this week that such conversation has the potential to break conceptual logjams and make Judaism responsive to fast-changing realities. The combination of fidelity to Torah and the responsibilities it imposes on us, along with full engagement with the needs and possibilities of the moment, is the path on which JTS has long striven to lead Conservative Judaism. I promise that JTS will continue to do so in the weeks and months to come—and, to that end, I will be working with members of this week’s group, along with others inside and beyond Conservative Judaism, on concrete steps to strengthen marriages and families, help couples through divorce, rethink the conversion process, and engage intermarried families in face-to-face dialogue about Jewish tradition and community. “We need so much right now,” one rabbi sighed, speaking both for her congregants and herself. We are all resolved to address those needs with a loving and compassionate voice of Torah.

Educating for Human Wholeness

“As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” reported the New York Times a few months back. “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s major undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities—but only 15 percent of the students.” A principal cause of that disparity, of course, is Stanford University’s reputation in the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another, however, is the economy. It costs a great deal of money to attend a private college or university, and for many parents the outcome upon graduation must be commensurate with the investment, particularly when good jobs are scarce. I can recall many poignant conversations over the course of my 20 years at Stanford with students who wanted to major in Religious Studies or Philosophy, but were forbidden by their parents from doing so. At Harvard too, reported the New York Times, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields.”

In one sense there is no problem with this change, except the underemployment of humanities faculty and dimming job prospects for newly minted PhDs in these fields. One might argue, with some merit, that the point of a college education is to sharpen the mind, unleash powers of creativity and thought, and give students the experience of going deep into a single area of intellectual endeavor—goals that can be accomplished just as well in a biology or math major as in classics or comparative literature. And yet one can’t help worrying that the decline of interest in the humanities does not bode well for the quality of our graduates or our country. I want to explain why I share that judgment, and why I believe that the unique value of humanities education is directly connected to how and why The Jewish Theological Seminary is attempting to educate a new kind of Jewish activist and Jewish leader. The point at JTS, as in higher education generally, is wholeness. We aim at integration of the various faculties of the self in a manner that shapes integrity.

Stanford President John Hennessy, addressing the matter in a recent column in the Stanford alumni’s magazine (“Preparation That Lasts a Lifetime,” January/February 2014), cites the assertion over a century ago by Senator Leland Stanford that “The intelligent development of the human faculties is necessary to man’s happiness,” enabling a person “to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others.” That is true, I believe. The advancement of human happiness seem a far better reason for liberal arts education that includes significant work in humanities than the (no less true) explanation that the humanities inculcate skills needed “to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world,” or, worse still, that they “provide a broad range of skills highly valued by employers in every economic sector.” Does one really need an entire humanities major to develop these abilities? Wouldn’t a required course or two on the way to a major in STEM subjects suffice? Most schools and students have apparently come to that conclusion—which is why, as at Stanford, there are general education requirements in humanities but very few majors.

I think the case for humanities has to be made differently, building on Leland Stanford’s wisdom and Hennessy’s point that humanities “enrich our personal lives . . . teach us how to build on the past and construct things never before imagined.” Among the purposes of higher education, I believe, is to help a person think intelligently about what it means to be a human being (in JTS’s case, a Jewish human being). The sciences are indispensable to that task. They explain our part in the natural world, the place of our planet in the galaxy, the way our bodies work, the way we fit into the food chain, how it is that I can write this sentence and you can read it. The social sciences are no less essential. They teach us what it means to be a user of language, tools, and machines; the patterns and dysfunctions of societies and states; the distribution of wealth and resources; the uses and abuses of money, power, and influence.

Humanities disciplines have two major roles in this scheme of things. They teach us, via close encounter with and discussion of texts and historical documents, to pay close attention to arguments and insights, weigh values as well as facts, and learn from voices and experiences far different than our own. The humanities also teach us to reflect on the facts about our universe, world, society, and selves revealed by the sciences and social sciences. They give citizens the ability to weigh competing goods and obligations, and individuals the ability to think about the moral significance of sickness and disease, the religious significance of our place in the cosmos, and the meaning for love and friendship of the fact that we are bodies that respond like all other life forms to chemical and physical stimuli.

JTS has, from the outset, aimed at educating Jewish leaders——who understand the complex web of interactions linking Jewish communities and traditions to the cultures and societies of which we are a part. We do not want Jews to keep science and faith in separate pockets, carefully insulated from the challenges each poses to the other. We want to further a kind of Judaism that respects and learns from other religions, values the insights of the arts and social sciences, insists that Jewish wisdom be brought to bear on every aspect of contemporary society—and that it be enriched and corrected by other sources of knowledge and truth.

That is why the undergraduate students in JTS’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies are encouraged in a new senior seminar to integrate what they have learned in their dual-degree studies at Barnard College or Columbia University with what they have learned at JTS: linking political science with Talmud, say, or chemistry with Bible. For the same reason, students in the List College Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship are taught to bring classroom learning to bear on the knowledge gained in field placements and vice versa, putting “academia and activism in conversation with one another,as one student put it. Our cantorial students study Jewish education—not only to improve job prospects, but to bring arts and social sciences into dialogue. Our rabbinical students learn about other faiths and faith communities along with Jewish texts and Jewish history.

“The day is short and the work great.” Our Sages knew this long before the explosion and instant accessibility of knowledge made it utterly impossible for any of us to know what we should in order to achieve the wholeness for which we yearn. The quest remains as it has always been: one wants to love God and God’s creatures with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.” Higher education that integrates study in sciences and humanities can make a major contribution to the integrity of our persons.