On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

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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.

Calling All Rabbis

I post this blog at a moment when the Jewish community in North America urgently needs good rabbis. If you are considering the rabbinate as a vocation or have toyed with the idea in the past or are open to weighing the possibility now, I hope to persuade you to do so. Of course, I’d be most pleased if you pursue your studies for the rabbinate at The Jewish Theological Seminary, which I believe offers the single best training ground for the profession available anywhere, and hope that you will find your spiritual home in Conservative Judaism, which I believe is the most compelling way to teach and practice Torah in our day. But even if you don’t come to JTS, and choose to work outside the framework of Conservative Judaism, I hope you will give the rabbinate serious thought. The Jewish community needs good rabbis across the board, on and off the pulpit, and arguably needs them—needs you—more than ever before.

Let me begin with a personal story. One day about 40 years ago, a rabbi whom I greatly respect asked me in the course of a conversation about my PhD thesis on American Judaism why I was not studying for the rabbinate.“I don’t think I have enough faith to be a rabbi,” I replied without hesitation. His response, as I recall it, was equally immediate. “Faith has nothing to do with being a rabbi.”

It took me years to understand what the rabbi, a man of deep faith, meant by that remark, but now I think I do: he was saying that I could dedicate my life to teaching the Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and representing the tradition and the community to the world at large without attaining clarity (at least at the start) about what I believed on matters such as Creation, Revelation, redemption, or whether God actually hears prayer. Rabbis are teachers first of all. Many (including about 40 percent of those ordained in recent years at JTS) do not serve in a congregational pulpit. If you are leading a Jewish organization or a campus Hillel, for example, “faith in God,” while it is certainly a major asset, might count for less than teaching ability, people skills, and faith in the potential of Jewish individuals and groups to make a difference in the world. I think the rabbi who addressed me that day wanted to make sure that I was not closing the door to a career in the rabbinate because of problems I had at that point with traditional pillars of Jewish belief. I want to do the same for you, though I will return to the question of faith in God in a moment. The years have changed me on that score, and probably will do the same for you.

So what is required of an individual considering the rabbinate? What must you profess, as it were, to join this profession? I offer four thoughts on the matter, based on a very personal reading of Pirkei Avot 1:6.

Aseh lekha rav.” Rabbis are teachers of Torah first of all, teachers of a very special sort: love of learning and teaching Jewish tradition, modeling that love, epitomizing the kind of life to which Torah calls us is as much the first perquisite of the rav today as it was in previous eras. Rabbis do much more than transmit information in a way that students can grasp. They stand behind and stand for what they teach, testifying through their every act to the enormous amount at stake in the learning and practice of Torah: not just the welfare of the individual teacher and student, but the well-being of the world. A 17th-century Puritan writer on the subject of vocation held that the first sign of a calling is pleasure and proficiency at the work. If you take deep satisfaction from the study of Torah—whether “Written Torah” or “Oral Torah” (I define the latter as the teachings and lives built up over the centuries around the core of the Five Books of Moses)—and if you want to share the privilege of such study with others; if you are (or think you could be) really good at this study and teaching; if you find that the deeper you go into Torah, the deeper and higher you are able to go into life—and vice versa—then this calling might be yours.

From the outset, JTS has prioritized several elements of learning, all of which are designed to get students to the point where they know enough about Jewish tradition and how it has developed and changed over the centuries that they are equipped and empowered to take responsibility for carrying the tradition forward, including—if need be—by introducing changes. There is wisdom for our day to be discovered in the pages and precedents of Jewish tradition, halakhah to guide us through terrain as yet uncharted, insights into God’s intentions waiting to be gleaned. That is why JTS rabbinical students learn not only text but a diverse wealth of commentaries written on the text, from ancient times until the present, and why they study not only text but context: the history of communities, institutions, and ideas that fed into the texts and followed from them. We emphasize the study of texts in their original languages so that access to the tradition is immediate and the texts make maximal impact on the learner. Our students come to understand the main lines of consensus that have kept Judaism strong over the centuries, as well as the lines of disagreement that have been sources of strength at some times, but threatened to tear our people apart at others. No question is out of bounds to our study of Torah, no area of knowledge or experience irrelevant. A rabbi needs to know how to learn and—no less important—how to teach with all one’s heart and mind, all one’s soul, all one’s might.

Ke-nai lekha haver.” For a rabbi, study of Torah is far from an academic pursuit. Jews are bound in Covenant to one another, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are here to make the world better—more just and compassionate—and Torah is the path. The conversation that we carry on in the classroom, the synagogue, the cafeteria, and the homeless shelter is the one that began on high at Sinai. Its fulfillment requires work on the ground that always takes place at eye level, face-to-face, in relationships. Rabbis are community builders first, last, and always. Community is where we live, and so where Torah must be; community gives us agency—power to do things—that we lack as individuals. It is true that the Torah provides individuals with enlightenment as to the right path on which to walk, and offers pleasures to mind and spirit—intricate logical puzzles, flights of fancy and wordplay, breathtaking insights into life’s mysteries and quandaries—as satisfying as any you will ever encounter. But, as the Rabbis of old reminded us, study of Torah—while great in its own right—is even greater when it leads to right action. The world needs to be made better. You and I need return and renewal. Every teacher of Torah needs to rise in his or her level of holiness.

Every part of ourselves—and of every member of our community—is required for the teaching we do, and that teaching takes place in word and in deed, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we sit at home and when we walk on public thoroughfares. Rabbis, as the authorized bearers of this unique learning, must draw upon all they have and give all they are to the learning, whether they are serving in a school or a camp, in a synagogue, or in an organization working for social justice; whether they are engaged in advocacy for Israel, or advocacy for greater observance. They must know how the members of their communities make a living, how they conduct their marriages and raise their kids, how the Jewish world functions (and at times proves dysfunctional). Mind is needed, but so is mindfulness. Knowledge is essential, but so too is the manner of learning. A teaching about humility, for example, cannot be delivered arrogantly; the command to pursue justice cannot be heard in a setting that is oppressive; testimonies to the joy and relevance of Torah in ages past must not be smothered in stultifying routine or deadness of spirit. God spoke to Moses face-to-face, the Torah tells us in one of its most remarkable passages, and rabbis can do no less in all their interactions with the communities they serve.

That is why JTS has made Clinical Pastoral Education an essential and required element of the curriculum. Our students spend hundreds of hours working with hospital and hospice patients, grieving with people in mourning, listening to stories of the elderly, and learning to listen to lengthy silences. Every student whom I talk to about this training tells me, and I quote: “It changed my life. Not just my rabbinate.” Any good classroom teacher learns to hear the questions that students do not ask as well as those they do. We all value this ability in our friends, and even expect it of them. Rabbis must have it as well. Leadership consists of many things, but none of them more important than listening carefully and speaking to every member of the community one-to-one, face-to-face.

He-vai dan et kol ha-adam le-khaf zechut.” Seeing the best in people is a lot harder than it sounds, particularly when one knows them in contexts that do not always bring out the best in them. Synagogue and school board meetings are one such place, from my experience; life crises are sometimes another; moments of experiencing judgment—whether by God or parents or conscience—are a third. Rabbis may figure in all of these, perhaps in a single day—and besides, seeing others clearly, free of our own needs, desires, and projections is difficult in any situation. It’s a lot easier to stand before God, and to stand before others, if we can—like the angels—be ahuvim, berurim, and gibborim: have all the love we require, think clearly and without distortion, and conquer our basest inclinations. A rabbi has got to be on top of the transference and countertransference at work with any person of authority, let alone one who represents an ancestral tradition bound up with morality and God. Gender roles will come into play. The need for a rabbi’s blessing is sometimes profound. Matters of the heart are rarely straightforward, and Judaism is very much a matter of the heart.

I think that when I told that rabbi 40 years ago that I lacked the faith needed to be a rabbi, I was talking as much about faith in myself and my own abilities as I was about faith in God. Congregants had not always treated the rabbis well in the synagogue in which I grew up. I was shy, and rather thin-skinned. Why set myself up for failure in a profession for which I seemed unsuited? You too may have such doubts. It’s hard not to, if you consider the job with requisite seriousness. How can a newly ordained rabbi guide others through life, even with the proven assistance of Torah? How can a young person counsel someone half-a-century older? How shall those untested by life’s cruelties marshal the wisdom needed to speak truth to those on the other side of pain or suffering in its clutches?

This, to me, is the wisdom of Rabbi Yehoshua’s adage in Pirkei Avot: we must judge everyone “on the scale of righteousness,” ourselves included. None of us is perfect. All of us fail at times. We miss the mark, and worse. The recognition of this imperfection in ourselves is what enables us to be helpful to others. It makes us worthy of leading them. I sometimes encounter people who claim to love Judaism but do not much care for Jews, or who profess to love Jews in general but are not generous to the ones they know well. A rabbi must love Judaism and love the Jewish people, and must demonstrate that love every day.

Demonstrations of sincere passion are more necessary at a time like this, when Jews have the option to leave Judaism behind and millions exercise that option. We often underestimate the degree to which Jews internalize the hostility directed at our people, whether this occurs in age-old patterns of anti-Semitism or newfound methods of delegitimizing Israel. Jews are admittedly sometimes hard to love (that, I think, is why Ahavat Yisra’el [love for one’s fellow Jews] is a commandment). Members of a congregation, by definition, will not be as observant as their rabbis would like (you will have made Judaism your life’s work, and for most of them it remains one of many elements in life). Students will not be studious enough. Activists for justice may seem insufficiently engaged. And your job is to elicit the best in them, ask more of them, understanding that that is exactly what they want you to do, are counting on you to do, as their rabbi.

This brings us back to the issue of faith, which Judaism has usually construed not as belief that this or that is true, but as trust that ultimately the world, life, being itself, the very foundations of what is can be trusted. I don’t have a definition of God to share with you. JTS does not have one either. How could we? Our Torah, Written and Oral, provides us with a plethora of images of God, knowing that every one of them is inadequate, but urging us to be confident that God stands on the side of justice and compassion and stands with us when we stand there. At the end of the day, the ultimate mysteries belong to God, but the revealed things given to us and our children are enough to do what the Torah requires. I believe that. I have that faith. Reflection, tradition, and experience have joined to grant it to me. I cannot prove the rightness of this path to you—no one can—but I witness to it, as you will when you become a rabbi, in part in the very title “rabbi” by which you are addressed.

It’s a real gift to be able to spend life teaching Torah, building communities and relationships, and seeing and eliciting the best of what Jews are capable. It’s no less a gift to spend several years in close conversation with men and women who share the commitment to keep Torah vibrant in our time. The Rabbinical School of JTS prepares students well for service in Conservative Judaism—the vision and institutions with which JTS is most closely aligned—as well as in the larger community. It offers the best Jewish education available anywhere, in the midst of a community that deeply values Torah, the quest for justice, and the service of God as much as you do. That is a very special thing, you know. I hope you will think about joining us.

Israel in White and Gray

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The story that dominated news and conversation during my first week in Israel this past December was the snow. A foot and a half fell in Jerusalem in the course of a three-day weekend: the most in a generation (and some say: in a century). Three feet fell in Safed. A friend in Tel Aviv got in the car with his daughter to drive up to Jerusalem and experience the novelty—and got stuck on the way, spending the night in the car before being rescued by police. The highway became clogged with abandoned cars. By the time I arrived on Tuesday, the snow had long since stopped falling, but had barely begun to melt. Streets and highways were a mess. I regretted that I had not brought boots. Everyone was talking about snow: poetically, philosophically, religiously, and always with a sense of excitement. The entire country seemed to bask in the sheer pleasure of changing the subject from the usual talk about “the situation” and “the peace process.”

The effort was not entirely successful. On the plane from New York City I read a front-page column in Yediot by Nahum Barnea—one of Israel’s finest journalists—called “Until the Snow Melts.” It began with a paean to the beauty of the landscape: “A golden sun shone yesterday on a snow-filled West Bank . . . you’d have to be crazy to think of giving up one inch of this gorgeous land, I reflected. It is forbidden to withdraw from even one meter—as long as the snow has not melted.” Barnea was being ironic, but his point was utterly serious; the very next sentence described with wonderment what had happened on the Shabbat of the storm, when Palestinian drivers were stuck in the snow alongside Israelis. “Sometimes the Palestinians helped to push, sometimes the Israelis helped . . . This was one of the only weekends in recent years when there was not a single disturbance on the West Bank, no incident whatever. No Palestinian stone-throwing, no Jewish ‘price tag.’ Another 364 days of snow, and we will have arrived at the messianic era.” [The translation is my own.]

Snow is normal for most parts of the United States. Cooperation among people of different nationalities and religions is common in New York City. Here in Israel, a different notion of normality operates on both counts. For a short while, a storm had left the country and all its problems, all its differences, covered in white. It really was marvelous to behold, even after the fact. My driver excitedly pointed out piles of snow and felled trees as we made our way slowly, ever so slowly, from the airport up to Jerusalem. My visit along with The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary to the office of MK Ruth Calderon,who spoke at JTS last year and who will receive an honorary degree at JTS this May, was rendered even more celebratory by the visage of snow a half-foot deep on the lawn outside her window at the Knesset. The beautiful Friday night services at the new Masorti congregation in Jerusalem, Kehillat Zion, were deprived of numerous congregants reluctant to take their kids out on dark, icy streets still strewn with branches, and piles of snow. And the TV talkshow Politika, of course, took up the question of who was to blame for the lack of efficient snow removal and failure to care for homebound people left for days without food and electricity. Would there be a price to pay in future national or municipal elections? Who would pay that price?

The soldier killed on the border with Gaza barely made the newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the snowstorm, though the incident became more significant as the deaths and near-deaths multiplied in the days that followed: a stabbing that seemed politically motivated; a suspicious parcel found on a bus in South Tel Aviv, with disaster narrowly averted thanks to a vigilant passenger and a driver who evacuated his bus seconds before the bomb went off; a missile from Gaza that landed harmlessly in a field; rockets fired into Northern Israel from Lebanon. This is the stuff of daily life in Israel, normal in a way snow is not. Were these isolated incidents or an escalation that will provoke a military response that may or may not cause further escalation? What would all this mean for the peace process that US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was about to arrive in Israel, is pursuing with such determination?

During my second week in Israel, the snow gone from streets and sidewalks in Jerusalem, peace and the absence of peace once more dominated headlines and conversation. “Why is it that no one here seems to care very much about Kerry’s initiative?” a friend asked the group at dinner after my first Shabbat in Jerusalem. “Is there really no chance it will succeed?” The politicians, pro and con, are keeping a low profile, for the most part; if the terrorists think there is a real chance for an agreement, bombs and missiles will likely increase in an effort to derail the process and so far that has not occurred. Extremist Israelis opposed to a two-state solution are behind the “Price Tag” movement to which Barnea referred in his column: vigilante actions designed to make sure that innocent Palestinians “pay a price” for every past, future, or contemplated attack on Israeli Jews, the price being fires set in mosques, slashed tires and broken windows, and other sorts of intimidation. My friend Gadi has formed a counter-organization that responds to the “Price Tag” gangs with visits to the victims and reassurance that Israel is a country of law and compassion rather than lawlessness. Everyone I spoke to seemed agreed that some sort of accord with the Palestinians is necessary, but disagreed profoundly on whether it is possible. Little had changed on this front since my last visit a year ago.

If anything, positions on both sides have become more strident. The minister of defense gave a speech the other day in which he declared before a group of businessmen meeting to advance the peace process that “Anyone who thinks Israel has a partner for a two-state solution is deluded.” An editorial in Haaretz responded by mocking the notion that Palestinian leaders who fail to back the Netanyahu government’s plan cannot be a partner to peace: “Those who do not succeed in getting their hands on the ‘Price Tag’ gangs say there is no partner; those who will open bids this week for building 1400 new apartments across the green line say there is no partner.” Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners during my visit—including some convicted of murder—as part of the peace negotiations. The names of the Jews they killed were read aloud on the radio, one by one. I could not help thinking that this, too, is part of Israeli reality nowadays. The moral quandaries and calculations of risk are truly awful. How many Israelis will be killed and maimed by the murderers set free that day? How many deaths will be averted if peace is finally achieved by the process that includes this release of prisoners? Will that process be set back by the additional settlement building announced a few days ago? How can one decide?

One of the things I love most about Israel is that—despite or because peace has proven so elusive—love of the country translates, time after time, into optimism made effective by creative initiatives to make things better. One of my friends has formed a thinktank that gathers Israelis of diverse backgrounds to talk past the standard positions of “left” and “right” and “center.” Politicians associated with the group enjoyed marked success in recent elections for city council seats around the country. MK Calderon, in addition to bridging long-standing divides between Hilonim (secular Israelis) and Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Israelis), is trying to deal with Bedouin issues in new ways. Almost everyone I met seemed to be active in some cause beyond the normal concerns of work and family. The day before leaving Israel, I joined a group of Ashkenazi and Sephardi “religious” and “secular” leaders from across the spectrum that meets every two weeks so that its members can pray and talk about prayer. New minyanim seem to form all the time, including in “secular” Tel Aviv. The highways are more crowded than ever. So are the roads to Judaism. This is a country on the move.

I brought Ari Shavit’s best-selling book on “the triumph and tragedy of Israel” with me to read from inside his and My Promised Land. I will discuss the book in some detail in a future blog. But I can say without hesitation, walking the streets of Israel, talking to Israelis and Americans and the Americans who have become Israelis that “tragedy” seems entirely the wrong word to use when describing Israel—in part because Israel’s “triumph” is so nuanced, so solid, so human. Little is black or white. Gray is not a bad shade at all for a country that has achieved so much against all odds and therefore takes nothing for granted. Normal is big news here, almost as big as snow. It too shall come.

Hanukkah Miracles at the White House

Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen and Pizmon at The White House

Pizmon—the JTS-Columbia-Barnard a cappella group—performing at the White House.

I was puzzled when I received the invitation from the President and First Lady to celebrate Hanukkah at the White House last Thursday evening—hours after the holiday would have ended. How would they handle this awkward ritual conundrum? Would a ninth candle be added for the occasion? Would the ubiquitous and lovely Christmas decorations be complemented by an electric menorah lit the night before and kept burning for the extra day? Perhaps there would be latkes and lamb chops on the table, but no menorah in sight (the White House is known for its kosher lamb chops, and its staff is probably aware that far more American Jews consume latkes these days than light Hanukkah candles). The solution arrived at was ingenious: the President offered brief remarks, the blessing that commands Jews to light candles on Hanukkah was omitted, a rabbi recited the blessing that thanks God for the miracles performed for our ancestors and for us, and then the group joined in a heartfelt sheheheyanu thanking God for enabling us to reach this moment. Eight candles were lit. We sang Ma’oz Tzur. Synagogue ritual committees, take note: this night of Hanukkah was wonderfully different from all others—and the innovation worked.

I found the ritual moving (and, judging by the mood in the Grand Foyer of the White House, I was not alone). It captured something both deep and joyous, enabling those who participated to step out of that particular moment and that very special place—or, better, through them—into Jewish and American centuries past and future, and even to approach the precincts of eternity. The journey was made more meaningful by having two survivors of the Holocaust light the candles, using a menorah that itself had survived the Shoah. My personal joy in the occasion was increased because the blessings were recited by Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, whose father and grandfather were also ordained at JTS. I suspect that everyone in the room was touched when our nation’s first African American president drove home the universal import of the Hanukkah story with a memorial tribute to Nelson Mandela, who had passed away a few hours earlier. No one in our time has testified more eloquently than Mandela to the power of the idea of freedom, a major theme of the Hanukkah story. Few have so dramatically moved from darkness to a great light.

The meaning of the ritual for me lay above all else in the simple fact that the congregation—American Jews of all denominations (or no denomination), ingathered from all parts of the country, comprising men and women of all ages and both political parties, among them three Supreme Court justices, a Secretary of the Treasury, and many members of Congress—were in that room together, feeling at home in our nation’s home, marking Jewish time there, joining loudly in the blessings, and giving that especially rousing rendition of Ma’oz Tzur. That got my heart pumping and set my mind thinking about how unique the American experience has been for Jews. The nation’s founding father had proclaimed, in his famous address to the Newport synagogue in 1790, that he was not there to offer toleration to the Jews of America because, as citizens of the United States, they had as much right to its liberties and benefits as he did. Now here we were, almost 225 years after George Washington’s declaration, and nearly 70 after the latest attempt to destroy our people and our faith, taking full advantage of the opportunities available in this unique and blessed country—and doing so unmistakably as Jews. ‘Am Yisra’el chai! That’s what I heard in the robust recital (from memory, no less) of Ma’oz Tzur. We are Jews happy with our lot. Against the background of Jewish history, ancient or recent, this surely counts as a great miracle.

I heard two other messages at that moment as well, both of them intended as much for the President as for the Jews in the room. We wanted the President to know—or, better, never to forget—that the incredible achievement and dedication represented in that room is powered in part by Jewish history and Jewish commitments. Those three Supreme Court justices—and many others with them—respond to the Jewish imperative to pursue justice. The Jewishly learned and observant Secretary of the Treasury knows full well that he stands in a line that goes back to the story of Joseph in Egypt (recounted in last week’s Torah portion). And this same group of Jews cares passionately about Israel and is deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear threat. The President alluded to Israel and the Iranian situation in his remarks, acknowledging that he understands the relationship between the community’s commitment to social justice in America and its commitment to a strong Israel. Hanukkah has lessons to teach on both counts. Jews have absorbed those lessons over the centuries and are proud to affirm them at the White House.

Perhaps the President, not exactly in the pit these days but also not at the height of popularity or accomplishment, took comfort in the stories of the Maccabees overcoming all odds or Joseph saving Egypt and his family from famine. If so, all the better. Hanukkah lights are meant to shine forth to all who see them, publicizing the miracles to which they testify. I went down the grand staircase, serenaded by Pizmon—the JTS-Columbia-Barnard a cappella group—reflecting contentedly that the presence of Jews and Judaism at the White House is now routine. Miracles never cease, as the Sages taught long ago, and this is one that I got to witness with my own eyes.

 

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Says L’Chaim! to Conservative Judaism in the Jewish Week

Chancellor-9_resize-approved“I’ve spent the better part of my adult life as a scholar of American Judaism, with a special focus on figures at the center of Conservative Judaism, and I’ve spent most of those years enjoying the benefits of Conservative Jewish institutions, conversations, and communities. Consider this short list: Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, where my wife and I davened for 21 years and where we celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of our children; Camp Ramah, which my daughter attended as a camper for two summers and where my son worked on staff for three; repeated experiences of emotional and spiritual support from clergy and community at moments when my family and I most needed it; a pattern of ritual celebrations and holiday observances that I shall treasure as long as I live; a kind of Talmud Torah-reverent engagement with Jewish text and history, in the context of broader ideas and learning-that to this day remains distinctive to Conservative Judaism; a fervent but critical Zionism that is no less distinctive; and, last but never least, a fulsome sense of what it is to serve God in this time and place with an open heart as well as a totally engaged mind and an enraptured soul.”

Continue reading “Let’s Drink a L’Chaim to Conservative Judaism” in the Jewish Week. 

Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations

As JTS graduates continue to take their place in the professional world and put Torah into action, the conversation that has been Judaism for millennia expands exponentially. Does what they see in the world relate to their Jewish lives—and to the current statistics they’re reading in the newspapers? How can Conservative Judaism continue to offer free, honest, open, and passionate discussion in contemporary terms?

Please enjoy a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we continue our discussion on the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

Watch “Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations”:

Conversations on American Judaism

I’m always heartened by my conversations with our JTS graduates. They are substantive and meaningful, and highlight the difference that Jewish learning makes in the world when brought to bear on important contemporary issues. Our alumni include world-class leaders who do us proud in every community and profession.

Please enjoy just a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we discuss the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

 
Watch “Proud to Be Jewish”:

Watch “‘Religious’ vs. ‘Spiritual’”:

The Meaning of This Moment

I’m honored to be here today as JTS’s chancellor to celebrate the 100th anniversary of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s activism in building Jewish communities in North America, and I’m truly excited to join you at this moment, in the midst of dynamic organizational change at USCJ that is putting us in the position to build and strengthen Jewish communities for many decades to come.

Let me confess that I asked you all to stretch a moment ago not only to wake us all up a bit more before my address. Stretching is exactly what we have to do a lot of in coming years, you and I, each of us individually and all of us as a group—stretching of heart and soul and mind—if we’re going to make our kind of Judaism compelling to more and more Jews at a time of unprecedented challenge and change. We know that absolutely nothing can be taken as a given anymore when it comes to Jewish life on this continent. Individuals and families are making choices, opting in or out of Jewish life, almost on a daily basis. The members of United Synagogue Youth sitting in the room today will encounter opportunities and choices that we and they can barely imagine today. We need to stretch to meet them where they are and will be in a set of new ways. I’ll describe three of those ways, every one a stretch, in a moment.

But before I do, I want to declare without embarrassment and without the slightest fear that someone will look back on this moment 10 or 15 years from now and snicker at my optimism, that I believe this is a great moment of opportunity for Conservative/Masorti Judaism and for the vital religious center of which we are the core. Our way of teaching and living Torah is not about to disappear—quite the opposite. I read the same news reports you do, pore over the same demographic data, share the Jewish proclivity to worry about our people’s future, and of course am not pleased at shrinking numbers and shuttered institutions. I do not in the least minimize the obstacles we face. The very last thing I want to encourage is complacency.

But remember—looking utterly soberly at the matter—we are here today as Jews, three millennia and more after the Jewish project began, one hundred years after the formation of United Synagogue, doing much better than any rational prognosticator had any reason to believe we would. The meaning of this moment is that millions of Jews on this continent are searching for meaning, and many hundreds of thousands of them already find it in the communities and conversations—the profound joy in a life of mitzvah—that we at our best provide as well as, or better than, anyone else.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chancellor Eisen in Haaretz: New Pew Report, “Reengaging American Jews—Before They Drift Away”

I was warned a few weeks ago that the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews would be cause for depression, if not alarm. The warning reminded me of the old Jewish joke about the telegram sent by one Jew to another: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Now that the details of the study are in front of us, there is certainly cause for renewed concern about the Jewish future in this country. The Pew findings do not come as a surprise, but they certainly constitute an urgent wake-up call.

The first step, of course, is to identify what is wrong, and to my mind it is not the growing percentage of Jews who identify themselves as having no religion (22 percent, similar to the figure for religious identification in the American population as a whole) or the smaller number of Jews who currently join a synagogue (under 40 percent) or even the significant spike in intermarriage. The problem is the rising number of Jews drifting away from any substantive Jewish attachment whatsoever and deciding not to raise their children as Jews. The question is whether this trend can be reversed and how.

There are several grounds for optimism. The great bulk of American Jews (94 percent) say they are proud to be Jewish. Seventy-five percent say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Seventy percent remain “strongly” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. What is more, if the negative trends on view in the study are proceeding more quickly and powerfully than we had expected, the reason is in part the vast changes taking place in every aspect of American life, and in part the Jewish community’s slowness in adapting to those changes. The fact is that while some Jews are fleeing the community, others are joining it. Many synagogues are bursting with new members, especially young families. Some camps and schools are at full capacity, with waiting lists for admission. The past few decades have seen a spurt of innovative programs and initiatives. This gives promise that more such efforts and others as yet untried, reaching more Jews with passion and depth, have the potential to stem or reverse the present decline.

In several areas, our institutions have not yet absorbed lessons that have been staring us in the face for some time. I will address two of them: the declining interest in Judaism as religion, and the exploding numbers of intermarriages.

If Jews do not want to define themselves by religion, let’s meet them where they are and recognize that they are in good company. Mordecai Kaplan wisely insisted 80 years ago—as did every Zionist thinker I know of—that we stop thinking of Judaism exclusively as a religion, and instead conceive and live it as a civilization or culture. The greatest religious thinkers of our day (Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Isaac Kook, for example) have likewise insisted that Judaism is meant to be lived in this world rather than apart from it. One does not serve God (or embrace Judaism) by withdrawing from the so-called “secular world.” Many American Jews have not gotten this message. They have never experienced high-level and exciting Jewish learning or reaped the tangible benefits of strong community or seen Jewish wisdom shaping social policy—all blessings that came my way via Conservative/Masorti Judaism. They think the point of Judaism is to be “more religious,” and have too often experienced religion as boring and removed from the life they lead. That language, and the focus on prayer, chases them away. We need more synagogues with vibrant prayer and a range of communal activities beyond prayer. And we need institutions that offer what Kaplan called “maximalist Judaism” in nonreligious forms.

We also need a new way of thinking about intermarriage. My concern on this subject is not so much that Jews marry non-Jews, but that so few young Jews are involved with Judaism and Jewish life enough to insist that the person with whom they share their lives share that commitment. I worry, too, that so few couples—whether inmarried or intermarried—want Jewish tradition and community for themselves and their children. The only means of persuasion is Jewish experience of meaning and joy, whether in camp or school, synagogue or JCC, Shabbat table or text study, in service to the neighborhood or in support of Israel. We spend too much time counting Jews, I think (numbers have never saved us), and too little time (and money) making sure that high-quality Jewish experiences are widely available in forms attractive to millennials and baby boomers, singles and couples, Jews who want spirituality, and Jews engaged by pursuit of social justice. Let’s also not be embarrassed to direct major resources toward helping Jewish 20-somethings meet one another in contexts where they fall in love with being Jewish at the same time as they fall in love with one another.

My father often repeated the witticism, “They told me to cheer up because things could be worse. So I cheered up—and, sure enough, things got worse.” The Pew report is not occasion for cheer. But neither should it cause despair. Let it remind us, once again, that old strategies will not suffice in circumstances that are unprecedented. We need a degree of resourcefulness worthy of our tradition and our people. The next population study might well bear the mark of our success.

Originally published in Haaretz.