On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

CJ Blog

Looking Back, Looking Forward: For My Students

/ 23 Elul 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

It’s been nearly 60 years since Marshall Sklare referred to Conservative Judaism in his pioneering sociological study—Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement—as “Orthodoxy in transition,” and almost 40 since Sklare’s afterword to the book’s second edition expressed surprise that the Conservative Movement had not only held its own in the meantime but become, by far, the most successful American Jewish denomination. I cannot make that claim today. Just as social and cultural forces assisted the rise of Conservative Judaism over many decades in the 20th century, such forces (and others, too) now help to weaken affiliation with Conservative (and other) synagogues, schools, and organizations. What I can say, however—and want to stress as we conclude this particular series of blog conversations and look forward to the future—is that Conservative Judaism now, as much as ever, has the message and the means to make a major impact on the ways Jewish tradition is taught, practiced, and revitalized in North America and beyond.
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The Value of Denominations in Judaism

/ 15 Elul 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Almost every time I speak at a synagogue or other venue about Conservative Judaism, someone asks why we need multiple Jewish denominations. We Jews are so few, the argument goes; resources are scarce. Why should our community weaken itself further by dividing into competing religious movements? Shouldn’t we, at long last, try to unite? Why can’t we just be—Jews?
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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: Read the rest of this entry »

Jews and Others

/ 24 Av 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Judaism has always sought a balance—between inward focus and outward focus, between the particular and the universal, attention to Jewish needs and attention to human needs, standing apart from the world and being an integral part of the world. The Sinai Covenant requires that Jewish attention be paid to both of these directions. On the one hand, there is work to be done on God’s earth and Jews need to join with non-Jewish allies to undertake and accomplish that work. No group can go it alone. On the other hand, Jews have always been committed to a vision of God’s will for the world that is unique. Our commitments—and the way of life that flows from them—have set us apart. As a small minority that has lived for most of our history in the midst of non-Jewish religions, cultures, and populations, we have had to take special care to guard our distinctiveness. The covenant thus impels Jews to care about and cooperate with others—and mandates, too, that we preserve our difference and, to some degree, our distance.
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Responding to Tefillah Posts

/ 10 Av 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

I want to second Barbara White’s comment that this blog has turned into a real conversation in the past few weeks—and that’s good. The outpouring of responses to my pieces on tefillah demonstrates yet again that Conservative Jews care about this subject, want tefillah to be part of their lives, and wish to see their synagogues strengthened. Thanks to all who took the time to share their thoughts.
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Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue, Continued

/2 Av 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

What shall we do to facilitate high-quality tefillah in Conservative synagogues, by which I mean tefillah that encourages encounter with God and reaches to the deepest layers of the self?

There is no one formula, of course. Jews bring different needs, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities to the synagogue. They are lifted up in prayer by more than one kind of service. What “works” for me may leave you uninspired, and vice versa. Some congregations respond to this diversity by offering a variety of minyanim on Shabbat morning, making sure to bring all congregants together periodically so as not to lose the sense of being part of a single community. The following four guidelines for tefillah seem to me essential, regardless of a congregation’s size or the style of its worship:
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Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue

/ 24 Tammuz 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Tefillah does not come easily to most contemporary Jews. Standing before God, sensing God’s presence, speaking to God, and “hearing” God speak in return: these may be the most difficult acts that our tradition asks Jewish adults of this generation to perform. I know the difficulty involved—and can attest to the reward. The blessing conferred by the effort is beyond measure.
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Responding to Mitzvah Posts

/ 17 Tammuz, 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

The vigorous and rich exchange of posts about mitzvah attests to the continuing vitality of Conservative debate on the matter. That debate is as old as the Movement, and in some sense still defines Conservative Judaism. The contributors agree, I think, that Jews are commanded in some way by the mitzvot. They accept that we do not all need to agree on the nature of that obligation or the meaning of the commandments. They all wish that more Conservative Jews performed more mitzvot with greater regularity. They recognize that Conservative Jews disagree profoundly on the source of obligation for our commandedness. It’s clear that this disagreement will not end anytime soon. I personally do not want it to end, though I wish our communities were more observant than we are. In addition to enriching our lives, added engagement with the range of mitzvot would allow Conservative Jews to worry less about differences in why we do what we do. Let me add a few more words in response to the respondents that I hope will push the conversation further.
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Mitzvah, Continued

/ 10 Tamuz, 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

In last week’s post I laid out a Conservative approach to mitzvah that accords with a Hasidic midrash on the word that Abraham Heschel liked to cite: a mitzvah is an act done be’tsavta (together), with God and fellow Jews. It joins the best of what we know to our best understanding of what God wants. Mitzvah partakes of autonomy and obligation, freedom and responsibility, the interpretations of previous generations and the innovations contributed by our own generation. This partnership, Conservative Judaism holds, is essential to extending the way of Torah into the future.
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