On My Mind: Arnie Eisen


‘Who’s God?’


















My observance of Yom Kippur this year was greatly enriched by a recent New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss that provided useful entrée to the serious matters that occupied Jews for the long day of fasting and prayer.

It takes a minute to get the “God” joke: part of its appeal—“Who’s God?”—has never been an easy question for Jews to answer. Indeed, according to some Jewish thinkers, the question—as posed by theologians—is not even the right one to ask.

Today I shared my thoughts with the Huffington Post on which questions (and answers) we might consider—together.

Please join the conversation.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

Forty years ago this fall, I moved into an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and began participating in a program called Mishmar Ezrachi, or civil guard. The officials in charge instructed us on what to do if we sighted suspicious activity and trained us in the use of the old M-1 rifles with which we were supplied each time we went on patrol. My partner for guard duty was my upstairs neighbor Lilian, who was not only an excellent conversationalist but contributed the use of her bright red Volvo for some of our late-night tours of the neighborhood. It felt good to be working for the larger good of Israel so soon after my arrival and barely two years after the Yom Kippur War—though I confess I was unsure just how much of a difference our efforts actually made. I experienced great relief when each patrol passed uneventfully: the Volvo parked once more at the curb, the rifle safely stored, and the city’s slumber remaining undisturbed.

I know I am not the only one for whom a good night’s sleep does not come easily in 2015: not in Israel and not in America, not for Jews and not for others who care about the state of the world as we approach another Rosh Hashanah. The day is described by our liturgy—in the passage immediately following the blowing of the shofar—as the “the world’s birthday, the day when all its creatures are called to judgment.” This year, the call that I hear, the response for which we will be judged, has to do with stewardship of God’s creation.

Pope Francis invoked this theme eloquently in his recent encyclical on the threat climate change poses to global well-being. The power of his message, I think, lies in its call for dramatic change in the broad set of attitudes and behaviors that have led to the current crisis, and his confidence that such transformation is not only necessary but possible. The encyclical reads at many points like a commentary on the High Holidays call for thorough going teshuvah, in order that we—the “we” enlarged in this case to include “all creatures” and the planet we share—may continue to be written in the book of life. I want to dwell on four aspects of that call.

First, and most important, there is the need to discard belief that the world is ours to do with as we please, as if by right. Jewish morning prayers begin daily with thanks for a body and soul that are on loan and must not be abused; the Torah begins with creation stories that remind us, as Pope Francis put it, “that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” We owe the earth—and God—responsible stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. Failure to provide it amounts to a sin “before God” for which the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to account.

Second, there is the insistence that we cannot separate care for the planet from care for the human beings who populate it. We’ve all met or heard about individuals who are great animal-lovers but are undisturbed by poverty and injustice. It is not uncommon to encounter people who defend the earth against despoilment but will not raise their voices to protest the degradation of human life. The Rabbis made it a rule long ago that Jews cannot ask for forgiveness from God if we have not sought—and won it from our fellow human beings. Our turn away from exploitation of the earth, if it is to be decisive and long-lasting, must be accompanied by a parallel turn away from exploitation of other human beings.

Third, our responsibilities also extend to future generations. The Jewish calendar decrees that, immediately before Rosh Hashanah each year, Jews read the Torah portion in which Moses declares that the covenant binding God and Israel is made “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with you this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). I find great personal meaning in these words. They assure me that the covenant includes me as much as it had included my ancestors and will include my descendants. I am part of a larger story; I walk a path that began long before I arrived in the world and will continue long after I am gone. And with that gift, too, comes responsibility: the need to apportion the earth’s resources wisely and justly among all who share it with us now and with those who will come after us.

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My Response to Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s Address on the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate


The following is adapted from the address I delivered on May 6, 2015, on the occasion of Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s Return to JTS for the Annual John Paul II Center Lecture for Interreligious Dialogue.

I want to thank Cardinal Dolan for honoring JTS again with his presence and for the bold and eloquent words that he shared with us. The Cardinal’s visit to JTS represents the latest chapter in an exchange between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community of New York, and another testimony to how seriously JTS has always taken dialogue and partnership with other religious communities and their leaders. This is the raison d’être of the Milstein Center and of the Finkelstein Institute before it, and of the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, established by Louis Finkelstein, in the 1930s.

Nostra Aetate is named for its opening words, “in our day,” and 2015 is a moment—no less than 1965—when dialogue and partnership among religious groups and religious leaders have assumed new urgency. There are representatives of religion in this world, and in this country, who believe and proclaim that faith in God requires them to disrespect or oppose or persecute or kill believers in the same God who practice a different faith. JTS has always taught and practiced exactly the opposite conviction— indeed, JTS was founded in part to spread a vision of Torah that not only allows but mandates respect for other faiths and other ways of practicing Judaism. We have raised and inspired generation after generation of Jewish leaders to practice and teach this vision in their communities. Now, as ever, religious voices must be raised in service of interreligious respect as loudly and persistently as those seeking to drown out this commitment with bombs and bullets. If we are silent, they will win. That is why I am so grateful for Cardinal Dolan’s presence and for his rich and probing talk this evening. He summons us to work we must do, and do together. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

I want to pick up on two points in the Cardinal’s stirring address, both of which flow directly, as we would expect, from teachings in Nostra Aetate itself. I shall call the first “the humility of confidence,” or “ultimate trust that expresses itself in utmost humility.” The second draws on a recent declaration by Pope Francis that “The one who doesn’t know to dialogue does not obey God.” Theology, as we know, is often long, abstruse, and difficult. Call my words, then, Jewish Theological Snippets – or, for short, JTS. Here goes.

Chancellor Arnie Eisen

I’ve long wondered where Abraham Joshua Heschel got the confidence to declare in his book, God in Search of Man, that much of what passes for faith in our time is “irrelevant, oppressive, insipid, and dull”—and the humility to assert as well— as in his famous address across the street at Union Theological Seminary in 1965, another interfaith anniversary that we will mark this year—that “no religion is an island.” Jews and Christians need one another, he said, to face up to “the challenge and the expectation of the living God.” I think one clue to that combination of confidence and humility comes from the metaphor of land and sea so prominent in his book, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. We sail to faith and in faith, he wrote, because “our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.” A few pages later Heschel compared faith to an “island” to which we move across “the wake of undying wonder.”

I take Heschel’s metaphor very seriously. One does not need to be a mystic to believe that terra firma is not where faith lives. There is too much trust involved in faith for that to be the case, too little that is certain, too much doubt, too many “leaps of action”, as Heschel called them: decisions to “do more than we understand in order to understand more than we do.” One can’t walk across the water to God—that happens in your sacred story, Cardinal Dolan, but not ours, and unless I am mistaken, it happens only once. The rest of us swim to faith as best we can, and some of us are not good swimmers. We are carried to faith by currents more powerful than we can master or understand. In another teaching in this vein, Heschel declared that “we are not God’s accountants.” If we did know how history worked—if we could be sure of the mechanics of getting to God, knowing God, taking God’s attendance at or reporting God’s absence from an earthquake or a genocide or a child suffering in a hospital bed —we would have less uncertainty less humility, less need for one another— and therefore less mutual respect.

Most of us, by a certain age, have reason to believe, as Solomon Schechter put it in a phrase I love, that we “do know something.” Not everything, but something. Religious or non-religious, Catholic or Jew, Muslim or Hindu, we are betting our lives on the meaning, community and truth to be had inside a certain set of teachings, rituals, commandments, Scriptural books, and interfaith dialogues. We know what we love, almost as clearly as whom we love. And yet, as Pope Francis and Cardinal Dolan have both reminded us, we have much to learn—and we can only learn if we listen well to voices we have not heard. “The one who does not dialogue,” said Pope Francis, “wants to silence those who preach the newness of God.”

Nostra Aetate dwells on the lessons that Catholics can learn from Hinduism and Buddhism, and from Islam, before urging respect for Jews and Judaism and denouncing anti-Semitism: “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of All, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.” Substitute gender-neutral terms in that sentence and one has a profound truth for our time and any time. Nostra Aetate cites the New Testament to say, “He who does not love does not know God.”

Last week in synagogue we read the Torah portion that contains the verse on which that line is likely based. The portion is entitled Kedoshim, Holy, because of its opening injunction to “be holy” in everything we do, including business dealings, sexual relationships, treatment of the poor, rituals of worship, and performance of priestly responsibilities. Smack in the middle of these diverse commandments are the three Hebrew words that have directed human lives over our two faiths for two millennia: ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha: love your neighbor as yourself.

It takes utmost confidence to be sure this is God’s way for us, given the guns and the bombs that say the opposite, and no less confidence to be sure that the way we want to walk is indeed the way of love. It also takes utmost humility to do that: to join your life to causes and claims far larger than yourself, broader than your community, deeper even than your faith.

Of all the gifts that Cardinal Dolan shared with us this evening, perhaps the greatest was his sense of the importance and urgency of our working together on this task. If we do so, our communities will be blessed—as they gather to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Nostra Aetate—with a world of greater understanding and, perhaps, great peace.

Watch Timothy Cardinal Dolan: 50 Years of Nostra Aetate

In Appreciation of Torah—and the Rabbis Who Teach It

The following is adapted from the address I delivered on April 29, 2015, at the JTS Convocation honoring members of the Rabbinical Assembly who have served the Jewish community with distinction for 25 years or more.

My remarks grow out of my thinking and writing over the past few years on the subject of Conservative Judaism and from my experience in the past few weeks—a true highlight of each of my years as chancellor of JTS—teaching and learning from our rabbinical students. I am a confirmed optimist concerning the future of the Conservative rabbinate—both because of its distinguished history of learning, achievement, community building, and creative response to societal and cultural change, and because of the learning, quality, diversity, and commitment of the men and women who, year by year, are preparing to join your ranks.

I will focus here on diversity: not in the sense of background for rabbinical school, gender, sexual orientation, or site of rabbinic vocation (synagogue, school, campus Hillel, and the like), but in the sorts of human need that rabbis address, the aspects of Jewish life that rabbis enrich, the qualities of soul that rabbis exhibit and encounter. As an organizing conceit, I will speak about Bereishit moments and opportunities, Shemot moments, and so on. Together, these moments—openings to holiness, invitations to meaning and community, pathways to encounter with God—make for a full Jewish life, and for an overfull rabbinic calendar. We are blessed, we leaders of Jews in 2015, and we are very, very busy.

Bereishit (Genesis) moments are occasions when one takes on the mantle of being heir to the stories of our ancestors. This is the challenge and opportunity held out to Jews in every generation: the way that the universal question of ayeka (Where are you in the world?) reaches Jewish hearts and minds, and calls us to the covenant. The pages and paragraphs that you and I “write” do not make it into the Five Books of Moses, as did the story of Joseph: the first-generation Child of Israel on whose story the Torah dwells at length. But our stories do join the tradition of commentary through word and deed that has sustained Jewish individuals and communities for centuries. Some of us, like Joseph, serve in Gentile courts of power. We wrestle as our ancestors did with angels and adversity, rise to heights of love, and succumb to lows of pettiness and deception. Almost all of us face tests we do not need and do not always pass. Sometimes we wonder what God wants of us, where God is hiding, how to answer the call, or—let’s be honest—how to avoid answering.

Rabbis hear stories of such things every day, and remind Jews every day that our personal stories, as Children of Israel, neither begin nor end with us. This, in the age of iEverything, of the world at our fingertips in a smartphone, is one of the most important lessons that anyone can learn or pass on.

Shemot (Exodus) moments link personal to national stories, often despite our fondest wishes and best intentions. My life has not been directly impacted by the Holocaust. I am not the child or grandchild of victims or survivors. But all of us confront the Holocaust, either directly in that way or at one remove. Many of the most active and devoted members of our community are driven by the command to remember as Jews remember: not cognitively but by putting into the world counter-facts to evil and extinction. Israel—the other piece of Jewish history that overshadowed the second half of the 20th century, and does so still today—arguably shapes American Jewish life more with each passing year. We cannot allow the distance between Diaspora Jews and Israelis to increase still further, dare not allow our young people to be alienated from Israel or Judaism by campus anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and should not allow our community’s internal conversations about Israel to be halted by understandable fear of giving aid and comfort to an enemy that, in 2015, is all too real. What a shame it would be to miss the chance, spearheaded by the Masorti movement in Israel, of bringing our age-old tradition to bear on unprecedented challenges—the mission of Conservative Judaism since its inception.

That brings me to the other great Shemot moment of this or any generation of Jews: ma’amad Har Sinai, the call to join God in covenant to make the world more just and compassionate. Contemporary Jews hear that call in the shadow of Holocaust and the light of Statehood, every bit as much as the Israelites experienced Sinai in the aftermath of slavery, exodus from Egypt, and salvation at the Sea. It’s one of the great privileges of rabbis in our day to help Jews cope with and make sense of history that is too large for coping or sense. They help Jews bear the burden of memory and take advantage of the blessing that is Israel. They bind Jews in covenant and invite others to enter the covenant’s embrace. This is far from simple, as we know. It remains one of our greatest challenges. But we know too that converting men and women to Judaism, building stronger Jews, and strengthening Jewish communities are among the greatest satisfactions a rabbi can enjoy.

The older I get, the more I take comfort in the intimate routines and daily rituals of Vayikra (Leviticus), which—as opposed to the peak experiences and historical transformations chronicled in Exodus—always seems to operate on a very human scale. I am thinking of skin disease and running sores, mold and mildew in the walls, impurities to be cleansed, sins to be atoned for, longed-for words of thanksgiving or asking forgiveness or saying hello to God, or celebrating key events in the cycle of life or the cycle of a year. All of these are sometimes better expressed formulaically, in words or gestures that we do not create ourselves, or perhaps expressed silently: swaying to a melody, cupping hands over the eyes as one lights Shabbat candles. I love Va-yikra. It recognizes that I am frail, and wants me to know that I am mortal, and—despite that or because of that—it commands me to love my neighbor, to not take vengeance, and to care for the poor,in full confidence that I can do all these things.

Leviticus reaches Jews, much of the time, by means of rabbis and cantors, who in significant degree transmit both the solace of ritual and the Torah’s insistence that ritual be translated into ethics. Ritual is the place where rabbis—called for this very purpose—meet Jews in need of healing, forgiveness, or blessing. Rabbinical students tell me that their first encounter with such moments, through courses and fieldwork in clinical pastoral education (CPE), is a highlight of their lives that leaves them changed.

Wilderness, Bemidbar (Numbers), is where adults live. I learned that when I became a parent. It is also the location of every country on the map of nations. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig knew this, and therefore expressed a preference, in The Star of Redemption, for the “eternal Jewish people” to remain “outside history” rather than distract itself with affairs of state. He died in 1929, as you know, before the Nazis made Zionists of many Jews who might otherwise have preferred greater purity and cleanness of hands—luxuries of a benign Diaspora. I find the stories collected in the book of Numbers—the spies’ failed mission, Korah’s rebellion, endless Israelite grumbling and challenges to authority—to be reassuring somehow. They testify that the Torah was prepared for the world we inhabit, which seems to grow ever harder to bear or make right. Bemidbar is the book for Jews dismayed at the lack of civil discourse in our Congress or in our own communities. It serves as an indispensable source of wisdom to the real world of wanting, seeking, and wandering. It does not tell you how to vote, but it does remind a Jew—even as we engage in the necessary work of guarding our interests and our survival—that we must never forget that we are here to serve the covenant.

I count on rabbis to sound that reminder loud and clear—and to tell us baby boomers that, no matter how good our GPS and how effectively Siri answers our questions, we are still lost, much of the time—and as far from the Promised Land as ever. But it awaits. We need to keep moving in its direction.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) for me once meant, above all, its detailed political program for life in that Promised Land, mapped out in the portions called Re’eh, Shofetim, and Ki Tetzei.  In recent years, Devarim has come to mean, more than anything else, Nitzavim, with its radically inclusive invitation to covenant addressed to men and women, old and young, wealthy and poor, Israelites and the ger-khaasher be-kerevmahanekha (your stranger, who dwells in your camp.) I am grateful for that—and for the further enlarging of Moses’s audience to include those “alive that day and those not yet alive that day”: me, you, us, and the generations of descendants to whom we, by passing on Moses’s words, will be treasured ancestors (29:9–14).

Rabbis do a lot of welcoming and inclusion today, and will need to do even more in coming years. A big assist—one which I treasure—comes from Moses’s declaration that there are mysteries belonging to God alone—and revealed things that give us enough knowledge to do the mitzvot that we and our children and students are called to do (29:28). I revel in the fact that God’s teachings are “not in heaven, or beyond the sea,” but as close as our hearts and minds (30:1–13). And I am eternally grateful for the assurance that life and death are set before me, good and evil, blessing and curse, and to a precious extent I get to choose which path to follow (30:15,19). We human beings in 2015 can choose, as a species, to save God’s earth from destruction. I pray that, with God’s help, we will.

It is overwhelming, this word of God through Moses to you and me. The task seems too great for us—and too wondrous. How much gratitude can one person express or contain? But this task, this wonder, and this blessing—nothing less—is what every rabbi who preaches on Shabbat or Holy Days gets to transmit, as does every teacher in every school, every pastor at every funeral or hospital visit, every mentor to every student. Abraham Joshua Heschel passed it to me in 1971, when I spent two hours with him that I shall never forget it. Devarim moments are there for all of us—in part because they are made present, in word and deed, by rabbis.

I know, I know: There are also budgets to cut, board meetings to endure, synagogue and school politics to fret over (sometimes to the point of despair), people who don’t listen, and then complain, and then don’t listen some more. There are Pew Research Center reports to digest and refute and come to terms with and get over. How could we not all know these things? We have read Va-ykra and Bemidbar many times over. Freud and Weber and Philip Roth and the New York Times have added their testimonies to the weight of the “reality principle.” But there is also the Promised Land that beckons, and the ancestors who need us, and the community that travels with us on the way, and the presence of God, who searches for us no less than we do for ourselves.

Do we love this? Think of Golde and Tevye’s duet in Fiddler on the Roof as you ask yourself: Do you love this? After 25 years of service in the rabbinate, all the highs and lows, all the tzuris and the rewards, one might well ask: “If that’s not love, what is?” Rabbi Meir taught (Pirke Avot 6:1) that the person who engages in the study of Torah for its own sake “is called beloved friend, lover of God, lover of humanity, a joy to God, a joy to humanity.” I hope there is enough love in all of us to empower another generation of rabbis, and another after them, with the love of Torah, of Israel, and of God that are chief joys of our existence.

A Vote for MERCAZ USA: Slate #2 Is a Vote for Conservative Judaism and for Israel

I write to urge you to support MERCAZ USA: Slate #2 (Masorti / Conservative Movement) in the World Zionist Organization (WZO) elections that are taking place now through the month of April.

You may not be familiar with the WZO or with the process through which money is allocated by it and the Jewish Agency for Israel to various Jewish “streams,” such as the Masorti-Conservative Movement and other communities. I confess that I also did not follow this matter in great detail before I became the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, but now, having come to understand the importance of the work funded through the WZO, I have agreed to serve on and head up MERCAZ USA: Slate #2, which includes other members of the JTS family—Matthew Abelson, Jennifer Rolnick, Marc Gary, Nancy Abramson, Noam Kornsgold, Daniel Nevins, Aliza Sebert, Julia Andelman, Mirit Sands, Shira Rosenblum, Sara Horowitz, and many more JTS alumni—among representatives from the Conservative Movement. Let me explain why.

For me, the heart of Judaism, and the deepest source of my connection to Judaism, is the covenant announced in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro; a covenant binding Jews throughout the generations and in all corners of the world to one another, to humanity as a whole, and to God. Your own Jewish commitment may have other sources or express itself in particular ways other than mine, but chances are good that you too want to strengthen the impact that Jews and Judaism have in the world. We are called to perform acts of justice and loving-kindness, to exemplify what a caring community and righteous society could be. The State of Israel is a precious vehicle for serving those goals in our day, providing an opportunity for core Jewish values to be manifested in the public sphere. We work nonstop for its security and well-being—and we believe that the kind of Judaism that we practice can and must make a major contribution to Israel’s future.

The “playing field” for Jewish movements competing for the allegiance of Israeli individuals and for government resources is far from level right now. Conservative/Masorti Judaism has made great strides in recent years; this despite the lack of generous funding that regularly goes to Orthodox clergy and institutions. Many young people in Israel and the Diaspora feel alienated from Israel because they do not identify with the kinds of Judaism that ARE supported, and do not like being told by official representatives of Judaism that Conservative and Reform Judaism are not really Judaism and should not count when it comes to recognition and resources. A vote for MERCAZ USA: Slate #2 is a statement that we do count, and must be counted.

It is also a vote for the kind of Israel we want to see: open and pluralistic, loyal to the Zionist ideals enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, pursuing a negotiated two-state settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and proactively concerned for the protection of Israel’s environment. These commitments in the MERCAZ USA platform are precious to me, as I believe they are to you. We should never take them for granted, anymore than we should take for granted the survival and thriving of a secure Israel in a dangerous world and an even more dangerous Middle East. I believe the two are connected: that Israel grows stronger the more its society heeds all the diverse voices that comprise it, and that Israel’s support from Jews around the world requires that Jews in all their varieties feel part of Israel, take pride in its achievements, and know that the kind of Judaism that inspires us also inspires Israelis and contributes to the State.

This will not happen unless Masorti Judaism is well represented in the rooms where funds are allocated—and that, in turn, depends on a large turnout by us. You can vote online by visiting votemercaz.org.

Vote today for MERCAZ USA: Slate #2—the process takes only a few minutes, and will make a real difference. And please urge your family and friends to vote as well.

Speaking to and About Israel

At the first-ever Israeli conference devoted to the religious thought and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, former professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at JTS, which took place in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, my subject was the talk that Heschel himself gave in Jerusalem in 1957 at a conference of world Jewish leaders gathered by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and future president Zalman Shazar. Speaker after speaker focused on the challenges facing the Jewish people, inside and outside the Land of Israel, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the founding of the State. Heschel, in pointed contrast, declared that “the problem of the individual is the urgent issue of our time. If we do not build a house for the individual, we shall labor in vain in the building of a nation.” He called for attention to the struggles of the soul, and renewal of faith and observance in the new Jewish State. He also lovingly but bitingly critiqued the notion (held by Ben-Gurion and many others in the room that day) that Jewish sovereignty had superseded the need for piety and God, as Israel, in their view, had eliminated the need for the Diaspora. It is clear in retrospect that Heschel’s call for more Judaism in the Jewish State is one that needed to be heard then and now.

I came away from the conference, and from careful study of Heschel’s talk, wondering what we Jews of North America, in our day, should be saying to Israel and about Israel, and how we should be saying it—questions rendered still more urgent by the horrific events that took place in Paris last week and the multiple ways that Israel quickly became a major part of the story. These Islamic terrorists, like others, were prepared to kill indiscriminately, and did—and yet they took particular aim at Jews. French men and women of all persuasions reacted to the killings with a mixture of fear and defiance, but French Jews had particular cause for concern. The victims of the kosher market rampage were laid to rest Tuesday in Jerusalem, as their families (and many other French Jews) announced that they are considering aliyah to Israel, whose prime ministers invited them with open arms and where terrorists murdered worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem two months ago. After the carnage in Paris, the Jewish State seems more necessary to Jewish survival than ever before. It also seems to stand front and center in the global battle against terrorism. Israel’s importance in that war is out of all proportion to the country’s small size and population. When Israel occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of world leaders, and on the world Jewish agenda, when Jews have once again been singled out by history, North American Jews dare not be silent where Israel is concerned. Our voices more than ever must be as strong, loving, judicious, faithful—and honest—as we can make them. What shall we say, as Jews, here and now, to Israel? And—no less important—how should we say it?

Can We Speak Openly and Honestly in the Diaspora About Israel?

It occurred to me more than once, during this recent stay in Israel, that one of the greatest pleasures of spending extended time there—for Jews like me who love the place passionately, and therefore worry passionately about its future—is the ability to take part in no-holds-barred conversation on the issues of the day. In America, one often holds back because of worries that public criticism of Israeli society or government policy will play into the hands of Israel’s enemies (whose existence and determination, after this summer’s war with Gaza, and the proclamations of the terrorists last week, cannot be doubted by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear). Some vocal supporters of Israel go too far, in my view, and contend that all criticism should be forbidden, no matter how responsibly it is offered, whether in public or in private. They try to shut down debate and serious discussion about Israel among North American Jews—and to a large extent have succeeded. Conversation about the Jewish State these days is often stilted and halting. Dissent is frowned upon. Honesty and candor are in short supply. So is depth. In Israel, by contrast, no one shies away from argument and the more heated the better. Election season has only made that debate sharper and more vociferous.

It amazes me sometimes that, after so many years, so many twists and turns of history, and so many disappointed hopes, Israelis are still engaged by the issues of war and peace, and continue to express guarded optimism that this election, or the one after it, might yield real change. They have no choice but to care: the future of their country and their families is on the line. Their sons and daughters are in battle, and they run to the shelters when the siren sounds. Conversation about Israel among Israeli Jews is further enriched by the fact that it is set in the context of dozens of other concerns, both personal and collective, all of them Jewish by virtue of land, language, and history. Table talk among my friends and colleagues moves easily from what our kids are doing, to the jobs people are taking and the projects on which they are working, to Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power after the upcoming election and whether that is a good thing, to the pros and cons of resuming peace negotiations with Palestinians right now, to the steep cost of housing and the rising cost of university, to growing Haredi power, and back to the joy or prospect of grandchildren.

The tenor of political debate is raised immeasurably when ideology gives way to uncertainty, as it inevitably does when siblings or spouses argue politics at the dinner table. Israelis know that their government is composed of quarrelsome individuals, factions and parties that are the very opposite of united when it comes to policy. The media and the politicians talk of “left” versus “right,” but actual points of view held by thoughtful Israelis of every stripe are thankfully far more difficult to categorize. Two former members of the Knesset told me about the alliances they had forged with MKs who held very different views, and of their respect for those individuals. They judged colleagues by integrity and thoughtfulness, not party line.

I confess that I was deeply moved when two other Israelis, both former government officials, urged me and other Diaspora leaders to speak up more, both publicly and privately, on the wide range of matters that affect our shared Jewish future. It did not take the Paris killings to make it clear that Jews around the world are directly impacted by Israeli government actions and policy. Indeed, one question that Israeli and Diaspora Jews need to address is whether Israeli policymakers should take the wishes and well-being of Diaspora Jews into account when plotting battles and defenses, and if so, how.

On this as so many other things (e.g., legislation concerning converts, treatment of refugees from North Africa, funding for and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, application of Jewish law to Knesset legislation), Israelis will have the last word and should. But we Diaspora Jews should not be shut out from this conversation, privately or publicly, and need not be fearful that honest debate among us will somehow wreak havoc in ways that debate among Israelis, in this age of Internet transparency, does not. We are one people, after all; the State acts in our name, in pursuit of Jewish interests; it often cites the tradition we share, and the God we all worship, as authority for its actions. What is more, Israel needs vigorous and imaginative Jewish thought and conversation by Jews from around the world on these matters, and we for our part need it too, lest we continue to alienate young Jews who have been told that their voices are only welcome regarding Israel if they toe the line on government or communal policy, and alienate not-so-young Jews who have received a similar message.

Our criterion of judgment, like that of the Israelis I spoke with over the past few weeks, should be how informed and knowledgeable speakers about Israel are; how thoughtful and responsible their speech; and whether their criticism is offered from a place of love and support for the State and its people. I have little patience, this week in particular, for Jews or Gentiles who instinctively rush to blame Israel for everything, see no good in anything it does and no wrong in its opponents, and do not understand—or try to understand—how 3,000 years of Jewish history has brought us to this point. The hateful chants of the jihadists echo Pharaoh’s call to genocide long ago, one that Jews read from the Torah, in a sobering coincidence of timing, in synagogue this past Shabbat.

We in the Jewish community need to get past the widespread fear that any dissent from Israeli government policy, or this or that version of Zionism, is going to endanger us so much that it can’t be tolerated. We lose far more than we gain by shutting down artists and filmmakers, student activists, and scholars. Let the gates to conversation about Israel be opened wide, trusting that Israel’s case on the merits is strong enough to withstand any challenge. We can best fight the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions crowd with reasoned, passionate arguments, as long as we make sure that all Jews who care—whatever their age, religious stream, or politics—have the knowledge needed to make those arguments stick. JTS will continue to do its part in those efforts.

What Shall We Say When We Speak about Israel?

Heschel made it clear from his very first words in the 1957 talk that the Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel were part of one shared story. The Holocaust had shattered all of us with “the black fire of ruin and disaster.” With the establishment of the State, “the whole Jewish world was filled with light.” We too should demonstrate that unity of fate and purpose by saying as clearly as we can what needs to be said to and about Israel, ever careful to exhibit balance as well as context. That means due attention to history and complexity, as well as dwelling lovingly and at length on the achievements of the State, which no one with historical sensitivity can ever take for granted.

In Tel Aviv, where I happily spent time recently, those achievements present themselves vividly in day-to-day realities: the scale and design of the buildings, for example; the liveliness of the café culture and the arts; the experimentation with Jewish education and synagogue life; the routine mixing of classes and ethnicities; the bookstores that stock current and classical Judaica in abundance alongside Israeli literature, world politics, and every other subject; the hi-tech revolution in full force. The city possesses remarkable calm, compared to Jerusalem, a gift perhaps of the ever-present sea. Perhaps only a poet can do justice to the wonder of it all (hence my appreciation for Heschel’s lyrical prose), the best part being that Tel Aviv, unlike Jerusalem, just is, without making too big a deal of itself or its holiness. The spectacular achievement of the quotidian in Israel only adds to one’s despondency at the lack of progress toward anything resembling peace.

Four matters on the current Israeli agenda seem to me to cry out for the attention and voices of Jews from North America right now with special urgency; Jews who, like Heschel and many others, speak from inside Jewish tradition and out of the experience of Jewish history even when they tell Israelis things that not all of them want to hear.

First, just as the Jewish community of North America needs to facilitate conversion to Judaism, a measure that would arguably help combat the alarming rate at which intermarried Jews are lost to assimilation, so too Israel’s government needs to take action to facilitate conversion to Judaism. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who came to Israel by the Law of Return, but are not halakhically Jewish, will not even consider converting due to the current monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate and its rigid and unfriendly system; many more are due to make aliyah in the coming months and years. At present, their conversion is stymied by Haredi intransigence and governmental inaction. Legislation aimed at reforming the process by empowering municipal rabbis throughout Israel to perform conversations (though it would not provide for non-Orthodox conversions) was about to be passed several weeks ago when the governing coalition dissolved, and no one knows what its fate will be after the upcoming elections. Jews both inside and outside Israel need to be heard on this matter. The Jewish people cannot afford to lose hundreds of thousands of souls to communal or governmental politics and red tape.

Second, just as the American Jewish community (like many members of Congress, Republican as well as Democrat) steadfastly supports reform of US immigration policy in a way that humanely addresses the problem of illegal immigrants at the same time as it secures the borders and provides for fairness and equity (who among us is not the child or grandchild of immigrants?), so too Israel needs a more rational and humane solution to the presence of tens of thousands of African refugees. Many of them live in South Tel Aviv. Most are caught in frightening limbo by changing (and often cruel) government policy and the threat of detention. Their plight cries out for our assistance.

Third, we should continue to support efforts at strengthening Israeli democracy and pluralism. This includes the ability to get married, divorced, or buried without rabbinic approval; provision of resources and legitimacy to diverse streams of Judaism, not only Orthodoxy (several weeks ago JTS rabbinical students tried to daven Minhah while visiting the Knesset and were told that only Orthodox services are permitted there, as only Orthodox congregations and rabbis get government support and recognition), and educational programs that counter the rising tide of chauvinism, intolerance of minorities, and anti-Arab violence. There has been notable progress on these fronts in recent years, as well as steps backwards that are cause for grave concern. The Masorti Movement too has made impressive gains despite the lack of a level playing field. Our Jewish State should be the framework where various notions of Jewishness and Judaism compete for the allegiance of Israel’s Jews, leading to the flowering of many streams—including the “secular” form I have come to call “Tel Aviv Judaism”—to a degree that cannot happen in the Diaspora. There is room in that Jewish State for a flourishing Arab minority. The possibilities remain immense, highlighted in recent weeks by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.

Finally, and most difficult of all, there is the matter of the “peace process.” I speak about this matter in my name only, and not that of JTS or Conservative Judaism or my family and closest friends. I do so knowing there is ample room for disagreement with my opinion, and therefore speak up in order to encourage the airing of divergent views and counter the stultifying silence in which honest discussion of Israel is too often buried these days. Please read these words—formulated in Tel Aviv before the Paris murders, and refined in the Diaspora in the wake of those killings—in this spirit.

I’ve never been one who believed that if only Israel took this or that step, there would be peace with Palestinians and Arab neighbors. “Peace Now” for me always meant that one should do whatever one can to encourage rather than preclude an agreement, all the while making sure that Israel’s security is advanced rather than undermined. A large number of reserve generals, former chiefs of staff, and former heads of the intelligence services have testified in recent months that Israel could and should be more flexible in its approach to peace. That is good enough for me. I wish those on the “right” would desist from denouncing such Israeli leaders—and Jews who agree with them—as traitors and seeking to discredit them, and that those on the “left” would stop dismissing concerns for Israel’s security and distrust of the PLO and love for the Land of Israel as disingenuous. My view is that Israel faces truly terrifying decisions right now. My sense—shared humbly but with conviction—is that not facing up to them is more dangerous still. The Middle East is fraught with instability. And yet time is not on our side.

I am in no rush to give back the portions of the Land of Israel, full of associations with our Bible and our sages, that Jews call Judea and Samaria. But I am greatly troubled by settler leaders who do not cite security as their main reason for opposing withdrawal (a concern I share) but Israel’s “eternal right” to all of the biblical Land of Israel or preparation for the coming of the Messiah or the supreme value of the Land of Israel over the people of Israel or the Torah of Israel. One would have to be blind not to see the risk to Israel’s survival from a Middle East in full-scale turmoil even without a nuclear Iran—and the prospect of Iranian nuclear arms, absent iron-clad guarantees for Israel, is frightening. One would have to be naïve to trust any Palestinian faction, no matter how “moderate,” with Israel’s security. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot tell what would have happened had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated or Ariel Sharon stricken or Ehud Olmert driven from office. I do not understand any more than the next person how a divided Jerusalem could serve as the capital of two states, or how the gap between Israel’s concessions and Palestinians’ demands can be bridged.

But I also see the dangers of sitting still on top of the powder keg that is rule by force over another people, its numbers not much smaller than ours. I have not heard a single credible road map from those who would deny Palestinians all hope of a state of their own, alongside Israel. And I am persuaded by the many Israelis of diverse parties, right and left, who believe there is virtue in talking with Palestinians right now, because negotiations once begun may lead somewhere useful—probably not to peace, but perhaps to a small step in the direction of peace that will, in turn, lead to another small step, and another.

The eternal vocation of the Jewish people does not mandate any particular foreign policy for Israel, let alone a vote for any particular party in coming elections. But it does command Jews to keep our eyes uplifted to the miracle that is Israel, as Heschel did that day in Jerusalem, and to make sure that our direction is always set to the purposes that Israel—people and State—should serve in the world: “We shall not succeed in repairing our house in the Diaspora without close relations with Israel, without the air of the land of Israel. The Diaspora Jew has not only a duty to give but a right to receive as well: inspiration from Zion, faith from Zion.”

The horrors of terrorism do not discredit that conviction, but underline its importance. We Jews will triumph over our enemies in this as in past generations by being Jews, faithful to our ideals, and never despairing about God or the humanity created in God’s image. I admit that I myself, at this point in time, in my limited imaginings, cannot describe a scenario in which anything resembling peace can be achieved for Israel anytime soon, anymore than I can see an easy exit from the battle with the jihadists. In the former, as in the latter, I dare not imagine what will happen if a solution is not found. But, as a religious Jew, I have faith that the Jewish people has not come this far, invested so much, built so wisely, sacrificed so enormously, loved Israel with such overwhelming love just to arrive at a dead end. If we cannot think our way to a solution, “help will surely come from someplace other” than our power of thought. But, in the meantime, let’s think and talk as much and as wisely as we can. Any and all reason for hope, from whatever quarter it comes, should be warmly solicited and welcomed.

Home for the Holidays

Hanukkah in Tel Aviv

As I was driving in Tel Aviv the other day, a commercial came on the radio that caused me to sit up and take notice. It featured “Ma’oz Tzur” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” followed by a resonant male voice that asked the listener to imagine what might happen if Santa Claus lit Hanukkah candles this year. Many Israelis are making a similar move, the announcer continued, trading in German-made automobiles for Cadillacs: “Shouldn’t you think of joining them?”

I could not believe my ears—but this is Israel after all, where absolutely everything (in this case Santa Claus and the decision of what car to buy) can take on major significance. One takes the ever-present weight of Jewish history for granted in Jerusalem, a city that always seems weighed down with secular/religious and Israeli/Palestinian divides. But Tel Aviv prides itself on the achievement of what classical Zionists called “normalcy.” The city abounds in parks, high-tech firms, and high-rise apartment towers. All are softly lit by Tel Aviv’s lush winter sunshine. And then a radio ad puts “normalcy” to flight. Every little thing is connected to bigger things in the State of Israel, even in Tel Aviv; every election—like the one that will take place this March—can plausibly be described as a fateful choice that will determine Israel’s very existence.

This is a major part of the meaning attached to being a “secular” Israeli, and Hanukkah, as observed in Tel Aviv, offers a wonderful opportunity to think about that meaning and about the new kind of Judaism that is emerging here. A young professor, Israeli by birth and upbringing, told me the other day that he is now raising his family in the States and confronting the realization that “my children will not be Israeli ex-pats like me.” They would have to be American Jews, if their Judaism were to matter to them at all (he desperately hopes that it will matter a lot). And, he offered, “I have no idea what it means to be an American Jew.” Would he and his family have to join a synagogue? Raise the kids to be religious? Here in Tel Aviv, Jewishness requires neither of those things. It is as obvious, utterly taken-for-granted—and as different from Judaism in America—as it could be.

The form of Judaism on view here is certainly not religious in any traditional sense. I did a double-take of consternation a couple weeks ago when I saw ham and bacon on sale in a Jewish supermarket—a common sight at Safeway, of course, but not in Jerusalem, where I usually spend my time in Israel. Most of the cafes that abound in Tel Aviv are not kosher either. It is rare to see men wearing kippot on the street (chances are better on the Upper West Side). Synagogues, while numerous, are far from ubiquitous. Shabbat, too, has a very different feel. Food stores are open, though other shopping stops for the day. Bars and restaurants are jammed Friday night. The streets, with no busses running and many fewer cars than normal, are relatively quiet until sunset on Saturday. Shabbat is a time to visit with family, catch up on reading, perhaps go to the beach. Some people choose to go to shul. Shabbat here is not what it is in Jerusalem, but neither is it the same as Saturday in America.

That is the point, I think: the men and women who walked out to a sand dune north of Jaffa just over a century ago, with the aim of founding the world’s first Jewish city, have succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams—not just because hundreds of thousands of Jews now live in that city, but because those Tel Avivim inhabit a kind of Judaism that never existed before. I am not sure how viable this form of Judaism (let’s call it Tel Aviv) will prove, or how deep it goes into the self. I want neither to romanticize nor to dismiss it. Certainly, this mode of being Jewish does not seem to work for Israelis once they leave the Jewish homeland for places where Jews do not form the majority and Hebrew is not spoken all around. Nor does it seem to work at all for Diaspora Jews in North America and elsewhere. It requires the rich Jewish scene, the vibrant Hebrew language, the power of sheer day-to-day existence, of this place. Many Tel Avivim, of course, do not take advantage of the Jewish potential stored up in what Zionism has created. They settle for a Western (largely American) style of life that happens to be conducted in the Jewish homeland and in the Hebrew language. One can have good times in this great city, but perhaps—as in many great cities—at the cost of ignoring the poverty just a few blocks away. For others, though, a rich kind of Judaism has been created that is neither “religious” nor “secular.” Hanukkah points to three crucial elements of what that “more” might be.

First, awareness of history, which in this case is not the history of divine salvation or judgment but of Jewish human beings: the miracles performed by heroes and pioneers “in those days and in our time.” The hundreds of kids who gathered in the Tel Aviv port area for Hanukkah festivities the other evening sang songs like “Mi Yemalel,” celebrating Jewish victories and achievements. They also know, or soon will, about persecution, ghetto, and Holocaust. Commercials for Cadillacs will remind them why many Jews remain wary of German culture and German cars. They will learn that they are part of a worldwide people with a long history; that they are carrying on a story first told in the Bible. This history is present all around them. Yesterday, I heard a sing-song Hanukkah ditty on the radio with the words, “Hag sameah Hanukkah, am Yisra’el chai!” (“Happy Hanukkah Holiday! The people of Israel lives.”)

That is the key message of Israeli civil religion, in my view: the heart of Jewish commitment not just in Israel but for Jews around the world, and the second core element of Tel Aviv Judaism. Israelis find meaning, significance worth living and dying for, in the very fact of who and where they are. Continuing threats to Israel’s existence give that meaning reinforcement. Politicians exploit it shamelessly. Street life that elsewhere would be just that matters more here because it is Life and takes place on a Jewish street. Add the other elements of any culture—the arts, work-life, leisure-time pursuits, all of which take place here in the amazingly reborn Hebrew language. Mix in a generous dose of especially intense family relations, reflect on shared confrontation with army, bureaucracy, missiles, in-your-face fellow Israelis, and Jews from around the world, and one has a rich tapestry of Jewishness that, while hardly “religious,” is not without transcendence.

Finally, there is ethics. This morning I was watching Orly and Guy, a popular morning talk show, and found myself enthralled by a heated conversation over whether workers at a supermarket check-out counter might have been gossiping with one another rather than attending to customers because they are alienated from jobs that do not pay them a decent wage and employers who do not give them enough respect. Need I say that I have not heard such a discussion recently on American morning programs? Israelis, of course, have a long way to go in the area of social justice as of personal ethics, if they want their country to be an ethical “light unto the nations.” The distribution of wealth grows more and more unequal. Tens of thousands of African refugees crowd into south Tel Aviv. Palestinian Israelis suffer widespread discrimination. The health care system is severely underfunded. And yet there is so much good being done here, so much kindness and mutual concern, so many respects in which Israel is showing the way, “repairing the world” as Judaism wants Jews to do. This, too, is Tel Aviv.

I wish this form of Jewishness success, even as I hope more Israelis will take advantage of the somewhat different (but closely related) form of Jewishness, lately growing by leaps and bounds, that is neither Orthodox nor “secular” but Masorti, “traditional,” Conservative. I’m a Jew who loves the synagogue; thanks God daily for the opportunity to study Torah; cannot imagine life without Passover, Yom Kippur, and—perhaps Judaism’s greatest gift of all—Shabbat. I hope and trust that more and more Israelis will find ways not yet imagined of joining that set of commitments, shared with me and so many others, to the sort of Judaism unique to the Land of Israel. Just as my kind of Judaism, the kind we teach and model at JTS, is far more than “religious,” theirs is far more than “secular.” Our Judaisms meet in the space of Tel Aviv Hanukkah, knowing that great miracles have happened here of late, and more are yet to come.

From Toronto to Hollywood in Search of the Key to Jewish Cultural Survival

Author David Bezmozgis, in dialogue with me a few weeks ago before an overflow audience at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, put his finger on a basic point of Diaspora Jewish life that to my mind is too often skirted, ignored, or denied. Namely that “for a community to survive and thrive, there has to be something forward-looking or distinctive” at its core; for North American Jews, who are overwhelmingly secular, it is not at all clear what that “something” could be. Bezmozgis had only one candidate for the role: Hebrew language and a vibrant Jewish culture to which Hebrew is central. He was also clear about the implication of this truth for Jewish communal policy: either massive resources will go to education built around language and culture, enabling parents like him to afford sending their children to day schools if they wish, or the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in North America is bleak. The Jewish story in this Diaspora would soon come to an end.

I found myself quibbling with details of Bezmozgis’s formulations—after all, I am an American-born scholar of modern Judaism whose very being as a Jewish baby boomer is wrapped up in religious belief and practice, while he is a Russian-born writer of fiction who, as a member of Generation X, states flatly and without fanfare that he respects Jewish tradition but is entirely secular. Still, I agreed with most of Bezmozgis’s premises. We Jews of North America are trying to do what no previous Jewish community has done before, and that is to live fully in two civilizations. Jews like me want to be 100 percent American (or Canadian) and be Jewish through and through; we want to participate with all our hearts and minds in the society and culture of which Jews are an integral part, and we also want to be deeply engaged with, and anchored in, our Judaism: its texts, history, practices, and traditions.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing half a century ago, pronounced this effort an “experiment” that might well fail. Mordecai Kaplan, in his great work, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), extolled the virtues of living in two civilizations but conceded that the dominant civilization for American Jews would always be America’s, while Judaism would necessarily remain “subordinate.” Kaplan urged Jews to adopt Jewish names, promote Jewish arts, observe Jewish holidays and rituals, study Jewish history and texts, support Zionism and build strong communal organizations—much the same path that Bezmozgis advocated that evening in Toronto. The question in 1934—and still more in 2014—was whether this program for Jewish survival could work, and particularly, whether Jewish culture and community can hold together without the “glue” of religious belief and practice.

Sadly, I doubt that they can. The Pew report of 2013 laid bare the degree to which the great bulk of American Jews have come to take pride in their Jewish identity at the same time as they know next to nothing of Jewish history or tradition, practice few of the rituals that mark and perpetuate Jewish distinctiveness, fail to provide a decent Jewish education to their children, and are therefore—not surprisingly—disappearing from the ranks of Jewishness in record numbers. American civilization is utterly dominant in their lives. Judaism is entirely subordinate. Religious belief and practice, for most, are almost completely absent. Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, reanalyzing the raw data of the Pew report in a recent study, have demonstrated that there is vitality and hope in the non-Orthodox sector—and particularly in Conservative Judaism—but only when Jewish commitment is matched by serious Jewish education and “thick” participation in Jewish life.

I myself have been critical of the dichotomous distinction of “religious versus secular” precisely because Judaism is always much more than “religion” for Jews who care about it greatly. The word “secular” for its part does not do justice to the commitment of active, non-synagogue Jews such as Bezmozgis, in the shadow of the Holocaust and the presence of Israel, to spirituality, social justice, high standards of personal ethics, professional achievement, and collective Jewish survival. The community needs to act swiftly and decisively to do what needs doing to perpetuate the Judaism to which both sorts of Jews are devotedand to make it affordable.

Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Betrayers, portrays a Jew whose entire life—from discrimination in the Former Soviet Union, through emergence as a refusenik, subsequent betrayal to the KGB by a fellow Jew, and long imprisonment in the Gulag to eventual emigration to Israel, where he rises to prominence as a politician and cabinet minister who opposes the dismantling of West Bank settlements—is shaped, even determined, by the inescapable fact of his Jewishness. Baruch Kotler is Jewish in every fiber of his being, not least in the stern moralism that accompanies him even as he runs off on vacation with his mistress. Almost all of Kotler’s thoughts and actions can be found among non-Jews too, but the way they work together, the history and circumstances in which they play out, the languages in which they are expressed give Kotler the distinctive Jewish “something” that most contemporary American Jews lack. “For Benzion [Kotler’s Orthodox son], the God of Israel was the giver of the law. For Kotler, God and His Law merely provided inflection for the Jewish people. To be a Jew, one did not need to worship, only to be sufficiently inflected.” (p. 185)

I’m not sure how or if this could happen for Diaspora Jews who lack the think framework of Jewish observance lent force and meaning by active participation in a religious community. American and Canadian Jews do not live inside a distinctively Jewish time and space, nor do they speak (or dream in) a Jewish language. In the absence of those givens—which guaranteed the perpetuation of Jewish life for centuries and still do inside ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the borders of the Jewish State—it seems that only a powerful, “immersive” framework of Jewish education can do the job. That means either K–8 or K–12 education in first-rate day schools (such as the Schechter network) that bring soccer, Shakespeare, and chemistry into a vibrant Jewish reality every day, or comparably exciting and rigorous supplementary education that continues through high school and is complemented by immersive summer experiences in substantially Jewish camps such as Ramah. Day school plus camp is a still better solution, one that is already producing a significant percentage of the lay and professional leaders who will serve North American Jewish communities and individuals in the coming generation.

As if in comic coda to these reflections about Diaspora continuity spurred by my dialogue with Bezmozgis, I went to Cinema City in Jerusalem one recent motzei Shabbat to see This is Where I Leave You, a Hollywood presentation of shivah in contemporary America. The film could serve as exhibit number one for the Pew report’s case about the failings of what passes for Diaspora Jewish culture today. I know, I know: it’s a comedy, and should not be taken overly seriously. Precisely because it was so funny in spots, however—at times both well-acted and well-written—I could not help but see the film in the context of the issues raised by Bezmozgis. At the entrance to the shopping mall where the movie theater was located, a guard checked bags for suspicious objects. Outside, on the streets, Jerusalem was tense, but at the movies, on screen, Jane Fonda—as a non-Jewish widow—was telling her four adult children that their father’s dying wish was that they all sit shivah together. Relationships deepen or come unraveled over that intense week of mourning; profound as well as stupid things are said and done; the rabbi, a childhood friend of the youngest and least mature son, is regularly called “Boner” and touched playfully in his private parts in between attempts to clarify the rules of shivah and conduct dignified religious services. The Jane Fonda character confesses at the end that she had made up the story about her husband’s last wish. She knew shivah would prove a good idea for her family.

It does; the film in that sense honors a well-known tradition of Judaism, even as it shows the value of fidelity, respect, and love—all Jewish values, to be sure. It also takes intermarriage for granted and assumes near-total ignorance of and disinterest in Jewish practice and belief. The Pew report, remember, highlighted this very same combination of pride in being Jewish and lack of knowledge about what it means. Asked “what does it mean to be Jewish,” 42 percent said “having a good sense of humor,” right up there with “caring about Israel” and far above “being part of a Jewish community” or “observing Jewish law.”

I laughed a lot at the film, but the situation that it portrays, and to which Bezmozgis pointed in Toronto, is deadly serious for the life of the Jewish community in North America. “Are we serious about this?” Bezmozgis asked again and again, and I think that question is right on target. If we are, we will invest in Jewish education as never before; we will make “thick” Jewish experience of meaning and community available, compelling, and affordable to ever larger numbers of North American Jews.

A Talk on Religion, God, and the Internet

Delivered by Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
National Library of Israel Conference, Jerusalem
October 20, 2014

As I sat in shul during the Yamim Nora’im a few weeks ago, I wondered—with this talk in mind—how I should feel about being inscribed and sealed for life in an eBook. “Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, God of life.”

On the one hand, it seemed I should cheer at the prospect of being written into cyberspace. If God can move beyond the use of ink that fades, paper that crumbles, binding that frays—the instruments on which my prayed-for future has depended until now—this could be a decidedly positive development for my personal future. The “e” in eBook might in that case signify eternal rather than evanescent or ephemeral; the loss of physical bookbinding might accord nicely with my fervent desire for a life not bound by space and time, the enemies of immortality. We are reminded by the Unetanah Tokef prayer that each of us is “a broken shard, withering grass, a passing shadow, a fleeting breeze,” but “You, the Sovereign living God, ein kitzva li’she’notekha, there is no limit to Your years.” A digital book of life might provide the most godlike promise imaginable.

On the other hand, there has been great comfort for me and countless other Jews in imagining ourselves as words on a page, inscribed in a big printed or handwritten volume, like the words on the page I was reading in shul in an attractive and substantial mahzor with a brownish gold cover that I was holding in my hand. I want to be held in God’s hand, I reflected, as Moses was held by God in the cleft of the rock, rather than glanced at on a phosphorescent screen. I want to be “remembered with compassion for life with the rest of God’s creatures,” as the liturgy puts it—a possibility that does not seem to be enhanced by God’s yizkor bucher coming off the shelves in their billions, to be replaced one by one in an ongoing program of divine digitization. And besides: the premodern ink and paper have held up well over many centuries, while the current generation of digitized files, I am told by the JTS librarian, “should last for 50 years or more.” Not a very long time in the divine scheme of things.

Let me suggest that the conceit of book versus e-Book, and the larger matter of pre-Internet processing and communication of knowledge versus the new reality of a truly World Wide Web provides useful entrée to some of the most difficult issues vexing Jewish religious thought in our generation. I shall allow myself to speculate rather freely and, given time constraints, to speak in conceptual shorthand.

Let me confess first that I do not subscribe to the notion that modernity, let alone postmodernity, has changed everything where religious belief and practice are concerned. I reject the popular dichotomy of a “sea of faith . . . at the full” that surrounded earth’s shore until the late 18th century and then gave way to a “darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Our ignorance is vast, especially where God is concerned, and the clashing of religious and other armies seems to get more destructive by the week; but neither is entirely new, of course. Nor are the dilemmas occasioned by the Internet. Rather, just as the Holocaust did not pose doubts or challenges to faith unknown to the Bible and the Rabbis, so much as render those questions unavoidable for two generations of Jews, so too the Internet, the eclipse of the printed book, is not so much pointing a new theological direction or damning existing claims as eliciting concerns and raising possibilities that will likely take on new urgency in coming decades.

That said, we do well to consider the ways in which modernity and postmodernity have made a difference to religious thought, the better to speculate about what might be in store for us theologically from the web. Let’s start with the stipulation that Max Weber got it right when he talked about the “disenchantment of the world” in at least this sense: mention God as a causal factor of scientific explanation in a scholarly paper and you will not get tenure at any university I know of, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and your paper will not get published in the leading scientific journals. Mention God as a causal factor of historical explanation and the result will be the same. The set of challenges that we might call “Enlightenment” are exacerbated—at least outside Israel, and outside the Haredi world—by the set of factors we might in shorthand call “Emancipation”: loss of integral communities—the fact that Jews do not come home every night to totally Jewish neighborhoods where God’s name is written on every gate and every doorpost, and individuals therefore lack insulation from the prevailing cultural winds.

Human beings like us who spend significant time each day online cannot but feel the strain placed upon any one set of assumptions and commitments, whatever it is. The job market is global, and so is the thought-and-values market. It is more difficult for “The People of the Book” to sustain the belief that it is in any meaningful sense “The Chosen People”—or is “the” anything—because an unlimited diversity of claims is literally in our face every time we look at a screen on a laptop or smartphone.

My generation of students and practitioners of religion was shaped by sociologist Peter Berger’s notions of “the heretical imperative” to choose among competing alternatives for commitment and of “plausibility structures” needed to make some choices seem preferable, compelling, or even taken for granted. In America, we Jews have with some success poured millions into building plausibility structures over recent decades: summer camps, day schools, synagogues, JCCs, youth movements, Hillel foundations and Jewish Studies programs on campus, gap-year programs in Israel, and Birthright trips to Israel. The Internet makes this job at once more difficult and more necessary by challenging the ability of any cause to stand out, let alone monopolize consciousness. This is in part a very good thing for minority causes such as Judaism, for it challenges modern absolutes such as science or Immanuel Kant before whom Judaism has had to plead its case in modern minds. That effort had shaped influential 20th-century theologians, Jewish and Christian, who wrote out of and for communities of faith that struggled to be both a part of and apart from the larger society: Tillich and Nieburh among American Protestants; Soloveitchik, Borowitz, and Heschel among American Jews. I bear those thinkers an enormous debt of gratitude. Their defenses of faith in the face of science and philosophy have been crucial to my own.

I believe that there is far more Jewish thought being written today than in the midcentury heyday of theology in America. It is produced by far more individuals than previously, though they possess far less fame and influence than before and their work has virtually no systematic character. There are many reasons for that shift. One is that, having given away rational space to the disenchanters, a lot of Jewish belief and practice has sought refuge where Weber said it would: in the emotional sphere, “in pianissimo.” Another is the focus on social ethics or pastoral care, neither of which requires theological underpinnings. Fragments of theology well suit our porous communities. Meaning and community are the orders of the day. Experience trumps belief. One day in class I asked JTS rabbinical students whether they are bothered by the challenges that science poses to their faith, as I am, and they said no. Theirs is a theology of halakhah and Aggadah, of meaningful observances and multiple narratives, of local community and the embrace of diversity inside and beyond Judaism. It is a theology tailor-made for the kaleidoscope of seemingly infinite inputs to consciousness that characterizes the Internet era—and, arguably, it is more representative of Jewish tradition over the centuries than any kind of belief system.

We do not know yet how the shaping of our consciousness by pervasive (and often dissonant) music and of fleeting images on a screen, as opposed to words that sit still on a page, let alone a page that one holds sitting still in one place and takes in at a relatively slow pace, will alter religious belief and practice—but it seems certain that impact will be great. Nor do we know how the incredible democratization of access to knowledge and experience will affect religious belief and practice, but here too the impact will likely be great and is indeed already palpable. Texts once restricted to scholars are available to everyone. JTS put the Prato Haggadah up on its website before Pesah a couple years ago and got tens of thousands of hits. Hypertext is a wonderful gift to Talmud study. Bible scholars click once or twice to do the concordance work over which I labored for many hours in the Judaica Reading Room of this library. One can attend services virtually, learn Torah trope online, gain immediate exposure to every Jewish option that exists or ever did exist, and—according to some authorities—even help to make a minyan from halfway around the globe.

And yet, of course, there is the other side, the leveling downwards of postmodernity, the struggle for bandwidth, the further decline of face-to-face community, which has been a prerequisite of every faith we know of until now. We rejoice in the universality of Wikipedia today, the fact that it is subject to constant correction and available to everyone, but part of me misses the Britannica on the shelf in my local public library, with its claim to be correct and all-inclusive. A lot of good things happened during those childhood visits to the library. Now, of course, the knowledge comes to us and we can have no illusions of its permanence. Truth is written with a small rather than a capital T. We cannot think for even a minute that we hold it in our hands, like a book. Thanks to the Internet, if the truth is actually out there somewhere to be found, it is hiding in plain sight: a new sort of esoteric concealment, in Moshe Halbertal’s terms, because everything is now exoteric—easily, seductively, commercially, and inescapably available, to everyone, all the time.

Let me conclude with a final thought, put schematically and over-simplistically but perhaps true nonetheless: If the premodern challenge was “Why be Jewish rather than Christian or Muslim?”; and the modern challenge was “Why be a Jewish rather than a putatively universal, ‘modern,’ American, or ‘human’ self?”; the postmodern challenge is: “Why be, how can one be, a self at all, rather than a protean being who ‘feasts at many tables’ and consists of many selves?” We are told by some philosophers and social psychologists that the notion of a fixed and unitary self is an illusion, and it does seem that the flood of information coming our way from all corners of the earth precludes the possibility of integral cultural or religious consciousness. This is a major problem for ethics and for relationships as well as for religion. All borders to society and the self seem permeable, unless we shore them up and raise them high. (Anti-Semitism may or may not assist the project of maintaining Jewish identity in the open societies of the West, but that is a possibility that I am not eager to test.)

If I am right, the greater challenge posed to faith in these early days of the Internet is not to God’s existence but to our own; not to the Author and Writer (whether of manuscript or printed volume or e-Book) in whose hands our lives are held but to the solitary human creatures who long to be a word in that book, or a letter, or even a diacritical mark. I reflected, during the High Holiday service, that while we may not merit inscription in God’s book, we do get to read, over and over again, the Book in which God’s name appears over and over again. This will have to suffice.


I learned the other day from JTS’s librarian that sales of e-Books have lagged this year, while the number of hardbacks sold has remained strong—a parable, perhaps, for the future of faith in our putatively secular society.

Betting on Hope

It’s not often that a museum makes history as well as chronicles it, and rare too when otherwise cautious observers, chastened by the repeated experience of expectations gone awry, remark at the opening of a new museum that it may prove a source of hope and pride that propels an entire society forward. Both of those things happened this week in Warsaw, with the opening of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the stunning museum erected on the site of the ghetto where, 70 years ago, Jewish history seemed to come to an end. I travelled to Poland for the event, as did Reuven Rivlin, the new president of the State of Israel, and hundreds of other Jewish leaders, scholars, and activists from around the world, including several members of the Jewish Theological Seminary family. The occasion was not only moving but portentous. A once-ravaged and much-reduced Jewish community, and a long-suffering country far from innocent in the suffering of its Jews, had come together for a moment, in a joint project of ambition and consequence. The two seemed to be grasping—simultaneously and together—at new life. I wanted to be there to cheer them on.

The museum’s opening has received enormous press coverage, both in Jewish and non-Jewish media. I will therefore say little about the building itself (placid, graceful, light-filled, and dramatic without a hint of pretentiousness) or its creative engagement of visitors through ingenious storytelling, state-of-the-art technology, and—in the galleries devoted to the modern period—utterly riveting photography and film. I went through the 43,000 square-foot core exhibition from start to finish three times, and would happily return to spend entire days in the sections devoted to the shtetl and yeshiva; the inter-war years; and the tragic, ambiguous tale of Jews in post-war Poland, to which the museum has added another chapter. The years of Nazism and the Holocaust are captured with power and restraint, I think, neither overshadowing all that precedes them nor downplaying the magnitude and horror of the Shoah. Anyone who has ever taught a class will marvel at the thoughtfulness and consistent high quality of the museum’s “lesson plans.” Teachers of Jewish history will likely take special note of the pedagogy on view. The museum owns few items from the past: its point is not to preserve and display objects, but to tell a story that it wants its visitors to carry forward.

That objective struck me forcibly again and again. Committed Jews have far more at stake in the telling of Jewish history on this site than mere recital of facts and dates. Poles committed to the rebirth of their country as a liberal democracy in the heart of Europe likewise have much at stake in the recognition that Jews have long played a major role in their history and must be welcomed now if the current experiment is to succeed. Polish Jews perhaps have the most at stake, betting with their lives that their community has a future, despite the recent past of Holocaust and Communism, and in the face of anti-Semitism that has not entirely disappeared. They hope to build on a thousand years of life that was far more than persecution, including centuries of real cultural and economic flowering, as basis for renewed achievement.

I was hard-pressed to remain unmoved by this effort, which speaks through gallery after gallery of the core exhibition, and I doubt that Polish visitors will be able to preserve distance either. The Jews who walked through the museum with me wiped back tears and commented about how much the experience meant to them. Words such as “exhibits” or “galleries,” which connote viewing a spectacle apart from oneself, do not capture the emotion elicited by the place. This is true even as one admires the exquisite craftsmanship in evidence throughout and nowhere more visible than in the already famous reproduction (at 80 percent scale) of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec. Its gorgeous colors and zodiac designs held me for long moments. I did not want to move. The museum’s curators have made it the literal centerpiece of the story they tell: halfway point on a march through Jewish history and perhaps a pointer, in a way only time will reveal, to the future of that history.

This is the point at which I want to pause as well. JTS, to my mind, represents a similar commitment to building a vibrant Jewish future by reaching deep, again and again, into the Jewish past. We too disdain mere nostalgia for the past, because rosy pictures of what was allegedly easy and nice will not help us navigate conditions that, like all human conditions, and certainly all Jewish situations, are difficult and complex. We prefer engagement, critical inquiry, conservation, and transformation aimed at giving the past new vitality. Like the new museum in Warsaw, JTS rejects the picture of Jewish history as entirely one of suffering and loss, and has no interest in elegiac approaches that consign Jewish history to a past that makes no claim on you and me, here and now. At JTS we feel that claim and act on it every day. We take the past seriously enough to understand its complexity, challenge its assumptions, and dare to change its rules.

I confess I felt the claim of the Gwozdziec Synagogue and of the house of study attached to it most keenly. (So did JTS Professor David Roskies, who like me sat long in that exhibit and kept returning to it, notebook in hand.) How could we not? The synagogue’s soaring but fragile wooden roof made me feel privileged to serve the same God, and be part of the same people, as the Jews who inhabited the original. I carry their path forward, with a comparable mixture of love, self-concern, anxiety, and imperfection. History is the story of change, of course, and the move from gallery to gallery, and within galleries, drove home the fact of change for me better than any lecture on the subject. No differences are denied at Polin, and no conflicts pampered-over. But these are my ancestors, I kept thinking to myself. My history has been shaped by theirs in ways too numerous to count. By bringing their story to life with such care and quality, the museum had brought those Jews home to me—and me to them. I am grateful for that.

At Tuesday’s opening ceremony, held on the plaza outside the museum, the theme of continuity with the past, along with marked contrast from it, was paramount. The presidents of Israel and Poland together, flanked by a Polish honor guard and numerous members of the Polish and Israeli security forces, laid wreaths at the monument honoring the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. As if that symbolism were not powerful enough, the Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski, then confronted the horrors of so much Jewish history on his soil and the complicity of Polish bystanders to the Nazi murders, while also paying tribute to Poles who had risked and lost their lives while protecting Jews. He also cited the interdependence of Jewish and Polish cultural achievement over the centuries, and pointed out that only in a free Poland, resolutely committed to democracy, to the West, and to Israel, could this museum have been dreamed or built. (It represents an unusual partnership among private donors and foundations, the government of Poland, and the city of Warsaw.) Marian Turski of Polin’s Museum Council quoted the refrain of Zog Nit Keynmol: Hymn of the Jewish Partisans over and over again: “We are here!” (“Mir zaynen do!”). He himself had survived Auschwitz and then Communism. Now he was presiding over a museum that contained that past—his personal past, his people’s past—inside the larger frames of the thousand years of Jewish life that preceded it and of this ceremony, taking place on the site of the ghetto uprising, with the participation of the president of the reborn State of Israel. Jews and Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, had partnered in mutual hope carefully poured into concrete and glass. Amazing things do happen sometimes.

I too have a personal, though far less substantial, connection to the museum: my friend Tad Taube, a longtime supporter of the Jewish Studies program at Stanford University and now a supporter of JTS, worked and dreamed tirelessly for about 20 years to bring the museum into being. The opening was a personal triumph for Tad, and I wanted to be there with him. But to me the museum seems the fulfillment of another prayer, said by Jews repeatedly during the High Holidays: Zochreinu L’Chaim (Remember Us for Life). Jews address that prayer to God when we recite it in shul. During my three days of visits to the museum, I heard in my head the voices of Polish Jews from centuries past, including those who lived and fought in the ghetto, directing those words at us—and I heard Jews and Poles directing the prayer to one another. So many people have told me over the years that it is folly to invest in the future of Poland or its Jewish community, and many more have told me that it is folly to invest in the future of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism in America. Wrong on both counts, I believe. We Jews remember for life, live through memory, and—at our best, with God’s help—transmute memory into life. We bet repeatedly on a future that breaks with, as well as continues the past, and sometimes that bet succeeds.

Tuesday’s gathering in Warsaw gave voice to a silent resolve to give hope a chance once more.