On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

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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.

Israel Under Fire

The last time air raid sirens blared across Israel at the approach of incoming missiles fired from Gaza, in December 2012—a conflict that, as awful as it was, inflicted less suffering on both sides than the current war—I happened to be in Israel for a round of meetings. It felt profoundly right to be there for all that friends and family back in the States were concerned about my well-being. The friends and family in Israel who were being fired upon needed to know that the world—or at least the Jews in the world—cared about them. It was important for me to demonstrate with hugs and hurried discussions held in safe rooms that Israelis do not stand alone at moments of duress like these—a message best conveyed when, standing together physically, no words need be said. For their part, Israelis wanted Jews from abroad like me to see that life goes on, as normal as they can make it, despite the threat to life and limb. We shared a hope that their resolve would rub off on the rest of us. For we Jews all need to be in this together, and for the long haul, regardless of religious or political differences. I took great comfort in the quiet courage of the Israelis who stood beside me, and do so again this week, as Israeli troops fight in Gaza, and I sit in faraway but near-at-hand New York City.

Far away because, of course, the air raid sirens do not sound here, the television is not on nonstop with continuous coverage of the conflict, we are not on the phone day and night exchanging words of encouragement with parents, friends, and spouses of soldiers plucked from daily routines just like ours and sent to hellish patrols and firefights in Gaza alleyways. I’m proud that North American Jewish leaders are making solidarity trips to Israel, including a mission of Conservative and Masorti rabbis who are in Israel this week to offer comfort, pledge emergency financial support, and demonstrate up close and in person the concern that is keeping so many of us awake at night and glued to news reports all day. Teens on Ramah Seminar are in Israel too, along with JTS rabbinical students who arrived several weeks ago for their year of study in Jerusalem. Fate has presented them with an opportunity to be with Israelis and experience firsthand a crucial part of what it means to take part in the contemporary Jewish situation. None of the visitors, as far as I know, are asking to come home. Their families in North America are trusting that they will be well looked after (as they are), despite the war taking place a mere hour’s drive away and the missiles flying within striking range almost daily.

It seems we have made a collective decision as committed North American Jews to stand with Israelis as closely as we can during moments like this one. There seems to be more widespread recognition than ever before that our own well-being as Jews on this continent is tied directly to that of Israel. The Israeli prime minister, sending troops into battle or holding them back, has immediate impact on Jews around the world. Our role, too, carries considerable consequences. The support we provide or withhold—particularly given widespread lack of sympathy for Israel’s existential dilemmas—is critical. The voices we raise while the war goes on and when the fighting stops need to be as wise and forceful as we can make them. Our voices need to be heard.

Perhaps, too, this mutual understanding is a function of how near-at-hand the conflict has become, thanks to technology that did not exist, or was less readily available, even in December 2012. My smartphone—and perhaps yours—clicks every time a warning siren sounds over Israel’s major cities. Internet radio dials can be set to receive Israeli news bulletins on the hour. We can and do watch in real time as Hamas missiles streak across the sky and are met, in some cases, by the Iron Dome defensive shield. TVs carry live broadcasts from Israel. No more need we rely exclusively on American media to supply facts and commentary (or, all too often, jumbled mixtures of the two). Yesterday I watched an Israeli channel that featured almost-real-time footage of Hamas fighters (including some who were filmed, machine guns at the ready, piling into vans painted white with the letters “UN” on them to take advantage of the humanitarian cease-fire) and of Israeli troops on patrol, including the wounded being rushed to helicopters. The newsreel was explicated not just by the usual experts and pundits, but by Israeli reservists sharing in the studio what it had been like to be fighting in Gaza several years ago. I feel no distance whatsoever from those young men in the studio, despite the ocean separating us. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem too, Israelis watched these men on their TVs, their hearts racing at the very same moment as mine from the anxiety.

Ten days ago, as the conflict moved toward a ground campaign that most of us hoped would not take place, I met with the dozen or so Israelis who had come to North America for the summer to join the staff of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I always treasure these conversations with the Israeli delegations at Ramah camps that I visit, because the Israelis involved are often experiencing North American Judaism—or this passionate, vitally communal, Conservative-Masorti form of it—for the very first time. The discussion in Wisconsin this summer was even more intense and probing than usual, in keeping with the seriousness of the moment. There we were in a faraway corner of the Midwest, while back home for them in Israel, things were getting more and more dangerous. What were they doing here? What were we doing here?

In some ways, this Ramah experience was a microcosm for the split that divides the two major sectors of the Jewish world today. There, in Israel, Jews live as a majority, in public Jewish space and time, claim a spot on the map of the world, protect it with an army, and are Jews (though not all in the same way, and despite the fact that many Israelis deny it) simply by virtue of being who they are. Here, in North America, Jews live as a distinct minority, largely in public space and time that are (like Wisconsin) overwhelmingly not Jewish and in private space and time (like Ramah) that are. We decide, over and over again, whether and how to be Jewish; we work hard at transmitting a culture, a set of values, an idea of ourselves, a faith that cannot for one moment be taken for granted—and that in Israel, to a large extent, come with the territory.

The group got the fact that I, as a North American Jew, was living out one of the two major options for contemporary Jewish life, and they, visitors to my reality, as I had often visited theirs, were living the other option. My Jewish life is immensely satisfying and meaningful. They felt the same way of their very different Jewish life. But our story was one. Most of them knew that the weekly Torah portions we read during this period—our shared narrative as Jews—uncannily describe tensions and occasional pitched battles between ancient Israelites and neighbors who did not want them there; I suspect the Israelis remembered, from required high school reading, that Theodor Herzl had stated with eerie prescience in Der Judenstaat that the Jews, once returned to Israel, would always have enemies, just like every other nation.

That we do. Yesterday, July 20, 2014 / 22 Tammuz 5774, my email box, and perhaps yours, brought news of the death of Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav of [Masorti] Kehillat Succat Shalom in Ramat Yishai who was killed during Operation Protective Edge on July 19. There was also news that IDF–enlisted US citizens Max Steinberg, 24, a native of San Fernando Valley in California, and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, Texas, were killed as well. May their memory and that of all the others, the far too many others, who fell and will fall in this battle be for a blessing. May those who mourn them be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May peace and comfort come to the families of innocent Palestinian victims caught up in this tragic conflict. May the Israeli soldiers serving in Gaza return home safely and in one piece. And may the Jewish people be of one piece, as we work together during the war, and after the war, to bring peace to our Land.

Response to the Presbyterian Divestment from Israel

Lovers of irony might savor the fact that the vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three US companies doing business in Israel came exactly a week after news broke of the kidnapping—apparently by Hamas terrorists pledged to the destruction of Israel—of three teenage yeshiva students on the West Bank. It came at the very same time that a rival Islamic terrorist faction, likewise pledged to the destruction of Israel, was sweeping through Iraq in the wake of its capture of Mosul, leaving death, destruction, and untold cruelty in its path. Some might savor such irony, but irony requires distance, dispassion, the equanimity of a club chair by a fireplace. And that is not what most of us—Jew or Gentile—are feeling these days, as the sacrifice of countless Americans in Iraq seems for naught, the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has ended with no progress toward peace, and the lives of three kids who could have been ours hang in the balance. I’d love a little irony now. Instead, eyes open to the world, nerves on edge, heart open to those teenagers and the suffering on so many sides this week, my feelings are a mixture of sadness, pain, and acute worry for Israel, for the Middle East, for the world.

The Presbyterian vote is a minor rather than a major addition to that mix. In the larger scheme of things, I doubt it will have much effect, but it certainly did not help matters. I can understand why people who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians are frustrated right now, after years of a peace process that seems to go nowhere. I get why they feel driven to drastic action intended to accomplish what John Kerry and numerous negotiators before him could not. However, I believe that we must not let hope die: not now, not ever. That’s why I am prepared to assume that the majority of the Presbyterians who voted for divestment did so without malice. It is worth noting that the decision to divest was made by a narrow margin of 310–303 after what the New York Times called a “passionate debate”; the Presbyterian community is clearly divided on this issue.

Most, and even the best-intentioned, individuals sometimes do things that justly prompt reproach, because they should have done better. In a noteworthy sin of omission, the Presbyterian Assembly chose not to withdraw from their website the study guide issued by a Presbyterian advocacy group earlier this year, one-sided in the extreme, which is cleverly entitled Zionism Unsettled. Failure to disavow the study guide leads one reasonably to infer that some of those who voted for divestment would probably be just as happy to see the Jewish State disappear, in the hope of “un-settling” Jews not only from the West Bank but from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Zionism includes the entire enterprise of Israel. Regardless, delegates supporting the divestment resolution—perhaps the majority—fell victim to two mistakes that, to my mind, are glaring and reprehensible.

First, they apparently believed that their vote to divest was fully compatible with the other principles affirmed in that very same resolution: Israel’s right to exist, “positive investment” in endeavors that advance the cause of peace, and careful distinction between their action and the global boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. That distinction is not credible, and cannot be maintained; witness press coverage of the event and the glee of opponents of Israel who feel their cause has been boosted by the Presbyterian decision. All of us, at times, particularly when faced with difficult choices, want to have things both ways. We try to separate acts from consequences, or use the same words others use, but want them to mean something different. In this case, divestment is not supposed to mean divestment. Sanctions against Israel—and only against Israel—are not meant to signal particular animus against Israel, despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has not proposed, let alone adopted, sanctions against China, say, or Russia, or Iran—all nations widely accused of human rights abuses that far exceed those leveled against Israel.

The second problem I have with the resolution is its accompanying declaration of love for the Jewish people. “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” This despite the pleadings of rabbis and organizations who have long worked closely with the Presbyterian Church; despite awareness by the delegates that many thoughtful Jews of their acquaintance—including many who, like me, are not proponents of West Bank settlement—firmly opposed their resolution; despite knowledge by the assembly that it is condescending in the extreme to act against the stated wishes of people you profess to love, claiming to serve their best interests better than they can, and then dress up your behavior in the language of love. I certainly don’t feel loved by this resolution, any more than Jews felt loved when Christians over the centuries forcibly converted them, or when any group tells Jews, or the only sovereign Jewish State we have—one set up because our people believed that homecoming to Zion was needed not just for our fulfillment but for our very survival—that they know better than we do what is right for us, and are prepared to help us see the light by causing us suffering.

I imagine that the “us” in that sentence causes the Presbyterian Church (USA), and others too, a good deal of consternation. As I’ve just declared, I have issues with West Bank settlement, and certainly expanded West Bank settlement that has the effect and perhaps the intention of precluding a two-state solution. Many other Jews, in Israel and America, share my concerns. What is more, for religious Jews like me, the meaning of life is bound up in commitment to God’s commandments, pursuit of justice, and the increase of compassion in the world. We cannot deny that Israel is causing suffering to Palestinians right now (as Palestinians continue to inflict suffering on Israel). So why do I group “us” Jews together collectively? Why is it important not to separate Jews like me, of whom the divestors apparently approve, from Israel’s government and settlers, of whom they do not?

This is where Jews need to remind the Presbyterian Church (USA) that our covenant established and requires not only a faith but a people, a people called to follow God’s direction not only in the private sphere of home and sanctuary but in the public sphere of business, policymaking, and the court system. Zionism marks a return to a Land—and a State—to which Jewish hopes and obligations have been attached since our very beginnings. Modern life has in many cases driven a wedge between Jewish faith (always a complex matter, not given to easy dogmatic formulation) and Jewish life. But even the most “secular” of Israelis know they are caught up in forces too large for comprehension inside conventional empirical categories. History and transcendence intrude whether we like it or not, one reason that many who call themselves “secular” are now exploring new and vibrant connections to the traditions of their ancestors. Whether personally “religious” or not, Israeli Jews—and many of us here in America—know there cannot be Judaism in our day without Jews—and no Jews without some form of Judaism. We know too that there can be no survival or flourishing for Jews in our day without Israel. The Jewish people requires Israel. Judaism requires Israel.

Does that mean it requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not. The commitment to democracy that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence means that I will always strive for a just settlement with Palestinians that allows them to have a homeland alongside mine, and allows Israeli Jews to preserve the democratic character of the State of Israel. Has the Israeli government in my view made mistakes, including serious ones, in its pursuit of peace? I think it has, following in the footsteps of previous Israeli governments that have made mistakes on this score, not to mention US governments no less culpable of error. I hope that Israeli voters will use the ballot box to pressure their elected leaders to move more decisively toward peace and be more resolute in the defense of democracy. But I doubt the worldwide BDS movement, singling out Jews once again with the stigma of sin, and now joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), will do anything to advance the cause of peace. It strikes a blow against mutual respect among religious communities in America, not a blow for mutual respect among national communities in Israel or Palestine.

 

Chancellor Eisen and Dr. David Golinkin on Judaism’s Vital Religious Center

Having just celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’aut (State of Israel Independence Day), the importance of a vital religious center in Jewish life—both in Israel and the Diaspora—comes to the forefront. I would like to share a talk I gave a few months ago at The Schocken Institute for Jewish Research in Jerusalem, along with a response by Dr. David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

A Vital Religious Center in Our Days
Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen, JTS

It’s good to be in Israel again, in this library again, where a year ago Shmuel Glick opened the evening by instructing us about what to do if the sirens went off to warn of incoming Hamas missiles. A lot has changed in the world since then, including in this part of the world, even if peace remains elusive. I want to talk with you about whether recent changes in the Jewish world, both in Israel and in North America, should lead us to think differently about the labels by which Jews define ourselves and the boundaries that divide us from one another.

Specifically, I want to explore and encourage the emergence of a broad trans-denominational consensus that, for lack of a better term, I call the “vital religious center” of North American Jewish life. We have translated this term, after much back and forth, as the shvil ha-zahav ha-dati.

I believe that the concept of vital religious center is as relevant in Israel as it is in America. Indeed, the creation of this center may serve to bring our two communities closer together even while preserving denominational differences that remain important. I thank my friends David and Tovah for joining me at the speakers’ table this evening to begin a discussion that I hope and trust will continue to echo beyond this evening and beyond the walls of this institution.

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The Story of Israel

At least one thing has changed between last Yom Ha’atzma’ut and this one in the relationship between many American Jews and Israel: we have read and thought about two challenging and highly personal books that came out this year on the subject of the past, present, and possible futures of the Zionist project. Just before Passover, Ari Shavit discussed his groundbreaking book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, at a private meeting (cosponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with rabbinical students of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Yossi Klein Halevi shared the thinking laid out in his award-winning book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, at a public lecture at JTS one evening last fall. He also taught two courses about Israel and Zionism during that semester, one of them in Hebrew, to JTS undergraduate and rabbinical students. Both books have deeply affected me. I want to share two responses to them as we approach Israel’s 66th birthday. My hope is to add a small measure of optimism at a moment when yet another apparently failed peace process threatens to drown our celebration in despair for Israel’s future.

Shavit’s presentation to JTS students was far more about triumph than tragedy. He stressed the good that has been accomplished in Israel since its founding—and still is achieved daily—even while paying full attention to the existential threat that continues to hang over the State and the moral price paid at every stage of Israel’s history—including the present moment—in order to achieve and safeguard that accomplishment. No less important, in my view, Shavit put the emphasis on what needs to be done by Jews here and in Israel in order to secure the future of the Jewish State. “A new narrative is required,” he said again and again with real passion; a story about Israel’s past that points toward an inspiring future; a new way of talking about why the State came to be and why it is important (for Jews and for the world) that it continue to thrive. Exactly. Even as we continue to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and seek peace among the various sorts of Jews that make up Israeli society, let’s work on telling and retelling that story, to ourselves and others, of why Israel matters so much.

On this point, for all my admiration for Shavit’s book, I have to say that, in my view, it falls short. There is little room in Shavit’s narrative for any part of Diaspora Jewish history, except the history of assimilation in modern times and of anti-Semitism in all times. There is equally little place for Judaism in the story Shavit tells, except as the source of the language, values, and aspirations that fueled the return to Zion but now must be transmuted into a distinctly Israeli version of enlightened Western civilization. All too often, Shavit’s case for Israel—the reason why the State is needed, the cause that justifies the suffering and injustice inflicted as part of the effort to build and protect the State—comes down to the claim that ein makom acher (there is no other place). Diaspora existence, according to this version of Israel’s story, means anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, Holocaust, whenever it does not mean (outside of Orthodoxy) assimilation, intermarriage, disappearance. There is, of course, some truth in this standard Zionist argument. Much 20th-century Jewish history supports it. The Holocaust does make Israel’s existence essential to Jewish survival. The Pew Report does demonstrate, once again, that assimilation remains a clear and present danger to Diaspora Jewry. There is good reason to believe that if anti-Semitism does not “get” Jews, assimilation will. Over against both of those dangers, riding to the rescue of Jews and Judaism, there is Israel.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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