On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Speaks at the “New York Stands with Israel Community-Wide Rally”

This week, Jews in New York join with Jews in Israel and Jews around the world in beginning to read Sefer Devarim—the book of the Torah that more than any other sets forth the eternal bond uniting the people of Israel, the tradition of Israel, and the God of Israel with the Land of Israel.

The promise and dream of the Land of Israel, and what the people of Israel can accomplish there with God’s help, has inspired Jews for over 3,000 years, and still does so today, July 28, 2014, here in New York and around the world. We cleave to it in the face of enemies who do not want the Jewish people living in its homeland once again, some of whom do not want Jews to be living anywhere.

We pledge eternal loyalty to the promise and the dream, to the families of young Israelis who have given their lives—and continue to risk their lives as we speak—in this latest chapter of a long struggle. We will remember them and the millions of Israelis making sacrifices daily on the home front, the way Jews remember—not just in words or mental images, but by pursuing with all our strength the dream they share, and giving heart and soul to the fulfillment of the promise that is the State of Israel.

To those listening to our words in the State of Israel I say know that the Jews of New York stand with you at this moment as we will stand with you always. You are not alone in the face of our enemies. “The people of Israel lives” and prays in one voice on this Rosh Hodesh day that the Holy One will protect our soldiers from every trouble and evil design and cause the work of their hands to be for blessing and success and shall bring them home for life and for peace.

We shall stand with our soldiers and their families and communities always, despite political and religious differences in New York as in Israel, grateful to be alive at this unique moment in Jewish history when the State of Israel is once more alive to nourish and sustain us with its many blessings.

We shall stand with you—whether Reform or Orthodox or Conservative or any other kind of Jew; whether old or young, male or female—in a bond that is fundamental, nonnegotiable, and unbreakable, knowing that the strength and well-being of our community in New York are bound up with the strength and well-being of the Jewish communities that comprise the State of Israel.

We shall stand with you in mourning together the lives that have been lost in defense of our homeland, and in mourning, too, the innocent lives lost in Gaza because a brutal terrorist regime uses its citizens as shields and cynically exploits their suffering for political gain.

And we shall stand with you in coming months, praying alongside you for a just and enduring peace and an ultimate resolution of the conflict that has claimed so many lives.

On behalf of Conservative-Masorti Jews around the world, and our friends and family members who walk other Jewish paths, I assure our friends and family in Israel that Od lo avda tikvatei’nu. The book of Devarim commands Jews to choose life. Choose good. Choose blessing. No devarim, no words, penetrate more deeply into our hearts and souls. No devarim, no facts on the ground, arouse our commitment and resolve more than those being created and defended by our brothers and sisters in and for the sake of Israel.

Let’s promise again at this moment, each one of us individually and all of us together, that we will never cease striving to fulfill the promise and dream that is Israel.

1 Comment

  1. Soli Foger says:

    Letter to the Chancellor –
    Where is the Divinity in the Conservative movement – Is there a crisis?

    After years of attending many inspiring events at the JTS in New York, I decided last year to enroll in Context, a Jewish History course given as part of the JTS adult education program. The course is divided, where each semester a reputable Jewish scholar teaches a different period of our long and harsh history.

    While I am more of a Modern Orthodox Jew, I feel perfectly comfortable in different Jewish settings and I never forget that my road from being a secular Israeli to a more observant life started in a conservative synagogue in Haifa, where more than 35 years ago I sat next to Tani, my New York Orthodox raised wife, and listened to Rabbi Segal of blessed memory.

    Interestingly, Dr. Robbie Harris – the scholar who ran the first semester class on the biblical bronze age, served for a short term as a rabbi at the same synagogue in Haifa some years ago.

    Most of the students who attended the course were adults from different walks of life, who wanted a deeper understanding of Judaism. For some – it was their first time to study anything Jewish.

    I started my learning with enthusiasm, and appreciated the deep knowledge and scholarship that the teachers brought to the class, but I was quite surprised at the extent to which they went about nullifying any divinity to the Torah. It was Dr. Harris first, who insisted on undoing the long held belief of Moses delivering our Torah and later Dr. David Kraemer, who followed in teaching the rabbinic period at the second semester and who insisted on undoing the divinity of the Oral law.

    I truly enjoyed the material and their lively delivery, but their apparent dogma about separating the divinity of our roots has troubled me. I was aware obviously of the ongoing debate, yet the JTS position had caused me to examine the subject and to start looking further into the many related issues.

    I looked at records of Conservative Judaism’s position, and I found that they believe that the Torah is not the word of God in a literal sense. “We believe in God, and believe in the revelation at Mount Sinai. … The Torah is man’s historical record of that encounter. How much of it is exactly from God, and how much of it is our spin on things? Well, that is a subject of debate.”

    Ismar Schorsch, the previous chancellor of the JTS has postulated that Conservative Judaism is tied to “sensing divinity both in the Torah and in the Oral Law, but not in a literalist manner”.

    It left me more confused than when I started. Can we really trade authentic divinity of a direct connection with God for a second hand human transmission of God’s will? Do I want to follow 613 Mitzvoth and pray three times a day based on man’s impression of what God wanted?

    One of the main sources in the first semester course was Dr. Richard Friedman’s book “Who Wrote the Bible”. Dr. Friedman sums up a long evolution of what scholars call the “documentary hypothesis”. It proposes that instead of having one Torah, written and put together by one author (i.e. Moses), we have many documents of various sources and their authors are the real authors of the Pentateuch.

    Yes, long before Richard Dawkins brought high-brow atheism to Ted talk, there were people who rejected the gospel. Any gospel! Except that in their rebellion against one form of order, i.e. – a deity of old, they created a new form of dogma. Did they read the same Torah I read? Or maybe they missed the true understanding of the real meaning of the text?

    It is worth remembering that besides the famous internal struggle within the Jewish community that ended with the Excommunication of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza in 1670, much of the anti-divinity scholarship was championed by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen and his followers, whose Anti-Semitic views were no secret.

    The JTS has always been a bastion of Jewish education and values thus every educational institution bases its canon of teaching on scholarship but scholarship needs integrity. In science such integrity is put to test by facing opposition and in being able to replicate observations and in presenting indisputable proof. This is what the Darwinian evolution theory had to confront amidst strong theological opposition before it became evident. However, the “documentary hypothesis” has no such test and it faces no rivals. Surely there are re-evaluation of many specific theories, but at its core, it is an anti-divinity approach, claiming God and Bible to be an anachronistic sentiment with debate on nuance rather than on its main assertions.

    The reason they face no opposition is because the faith based Jewish rabbis, who understand Torah for what it is, refuse to engage in what it considers heresy by outsiders whose motives they doubt. So the scholars research, publish and debate mostly among themselves and they reduce any outsider’s claim as not serious because admission to their ranks is only by scholars. Thus faith based claims are not qualified as scholar evidence. Wow! I was quite blown away by such closed ended circular logic. So let’s look closer at what they claims.

    It is critical to understand that the “documentary hypothesis” is not based on major archeological findings or explicit proofs but that it originates from distinguishing different writing styles (J, E, D, and P) in the Torah.

    I don’t mean to debate their claims, but it will be impossible to follow it without some basic understanding. The “documentary hypothesis” suggests that the “J” source can be identified by the use of Yahweh in Gen. 2 and the “E” source can be identified by the use of Elohim in Gen. 1. The duplicity in their reference to God as both Elohim and Yahweh was seen as evidence of different authorship. In addition to the divine names, another characteristic and so called “proof” of the “J” and “E” sources were the observations of doublets within the biblical stories. Two stories of creation, of Adam and Eve and of the flood. Two versions of some of the patriarchs stories and more. These doublets, suggest the scholars, were sewn together by some redactor who joined various myths and folklore into one source that was used to guide our people.

    The question they ignore is why would a genius redactor (whose work has been the basis of most of our civilization), saw together a mishmash of versions that unsettle one another. Did he not see the contradictions? Couldn’t he settle on one name? Our scholars seem to demote this genius to a second rate editors or have they possibly been barking on the wrong tree?

    Had the rabbis actually confronted these assertions, they’d have corrected these stylistic claims and there would have been an opportunity for us to judge them for ourselves. We’d been able to distinguish between God’s attributes through its different names; i.e. the name Yahweh, which was used to portray the God of mercy and Elohim which is used as the God of justice. (We do same when we approach an authority in their different roles. Calling a Judge “Your honor” in court can change to “Mr.” when we meet them out of court). The use of doublets comes to echo other important messages which are otherwise ignored. But since the rabbis kept mostly quiet, all we have is a popularization of discoveries that are based on stylistic nuance instead. (Where is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch when we need him).

    While it is legitimate to play with different ideas and speculations, these theories are not only based on misunderstandings of the text and the fact that the Torah is not a Historical document but it is their very positions that expose their weakness.

    I realized that just as I go by both, Soli and Yisrael – as my two first names (one Jewish and one secular), so do most Jews have more than one name. If some scholar opened our records some thousand years from now without knowing about the reason for them, they’d think that there are two of me. One Soli and one Yisrael. So much for style.

    But why is it important to us? Let them think and write whatever they want. why should we care?

    These scholars tap into a natural skepticism of anything old and spiritual at a time where technology and science define the narrative. But since we are discussing transmitted faith that has survived over 150 generations, I was wondering what did the scholars suggest instead?

    I therefore asked to meet Dr. Kraemer to discuss the obstacle that I sensed the documentary hypothesis could create for authentic faith He was generous with his time even though he is a very busy professor and the head of the JTS Library. While his explanations didn’t shed a new light on my questions, it was evident Dr. Kraemer is a deeply religious man but despite his personal story, this enigma still puzzled me and it took me all these months to wrap my brain around this issue before I decided to suggest that there may be a deep disconnect in holding both claims under one roof.

    The rabbinic leaders of the early Seminary needed an ideology which could at once unite them and also to show how there could be several different legitimate approaches to Judaism. They found it in the work of Zacharias Frankel, head of The Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany, who, together with a number of other European scholars, had developed the “positive-historical” approach to Judaism. Its claim was that “if we want to understand Judaism correctly, we must study it historically”, which became the basis of a new form of Torah scholarship. But the hole in the approach is not only that the Torah is not a history book, but in that the scholars replaced an existing deity and scriptures with a new theory, but historical Judaism is not the much needed authentic message to inspire faith.

    Sure, religion is more than biblical truth. There are generations upon generations of people who carried our faith on their shoulders. There are traditions, stories, folklore, cuisine, tastes and flavors. They all create the typology of a religious life. But they hold true only to the people who are already inside the camp.

    There were giant ideologist rabbis who helped to bastion the conservative movement into what it became, such as Mordechai Kaplan and A.J. Heschel to name a few, but at its core the conservative movement did best in the post holocaust world, especially in the US, where religious Jews had to build modern lives and the only place that held the keys to both sides of the track, observance and modernism, was the conservative movement.

    But today our challenge is to attract an assimilated Jewish world. For that we need more than a philosophy that is anchored on Historical facts, Chicken soup, and a claim that we created God in our image rather than the other way around as the recent Pew Research poll showed recently the Conservative world to be in major decline.
    I suggest that besides the aggressive programing initiated by its leaders, that the conservative movement leaders take a step back and re-examine their doctrine. The depleting numbers within the conservative movement suggest that we need more than an historical narrative or stylistic based theology but an authentic religion, hopefully same as the one of our fathers, that may keep our heart in it for another 100 generations.

    It is said that Love, if analyzed, can be considered by scholars to be no more than a practical sustainable financial & political arrangement (which it often was). But if you have ever been in love, one knows that there is a magic beyond the practical, which preceded the arrangement theory. Same is with the text. If you read the text and follow the rich two millennia old exegeses, in clear understood Hebrew, you can feel the magic of the text.

    Do we think that the ‘heirloom’ was not touched by the hands of its keeper? Is it definitely possible, but no in so much that it corrupted the divine origin, which stands tall if one bothers to actually read it in its original mastered Hebrew.

    How can people under-estimate hundred generation of scholarship, who actually found the truth inside the divine text. In their amazing construct of the exegetes of the Torah, which was greatly supported by the oral law, and which has helped Israel to evolve from a tribal construct to a nation.

    More importantly, we can judge a theory by its impact on the world. According to such, the Divine Torah had inspired a world order, where Jews who carry the burden of being its protectors made vast contribution, while the descendants of WellHausen’s division of the text have merely contributed to a divisive and anti-Semitic results.
    The JTS should reconsider building its future ideology on such scholarship.

    Sometimes researchers fall in love with their theory and since the devout religious side to this heresy would not even engage in the dialog, they remained unopposed, practically running an intellectual debate without any serious challenge.

    As for a good Jewish History read without a real Torah, I know that for me, my Zeide’s Talis is important, but I cannot settle for that without the image of Moses on the mountain top and the holly people who received his divinely transmitted truth.
    Being progressive alone is not a message. My I-phone is progressive too.

    Call me an old fashioned, but maybe I am not the only one.

    Maybe the Conservative movement needs to reopen its heart to a new calling and to confront its crisis not with more progressive stands on social issues but in reconnecting to a real Torah that we can all believe in.

    Wasn’t it Heschel after all who said: “The cardinal sin in reading the Bible, is literal-mindedness”?
    Soli Yisrael Foger – Architect

    64 Hillside Ave., Englewood, NJ 07631
    Phone: 201-871-9353
    Fax : 201-871-0074
    email : theizzy@verizon.net

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