On My Mind: Arnie Eisen


Strengthening the Bonds Of Jewish Unity

JTS marked the hundredth yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter last week with a short service of commemoration at Minhah, a moving visit to Schechter’s grave at which I was joined by executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer Marc Gary and several recent JTS alumni, and a historic gathering of rabbis, educators, and leaders of all the major Jewish religious movements. I am proud JTS hosted this unprecedented conversation,  which included the heads of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as graduates and students of those institutions, Yeshiva University, and, of course, JTS. We came together to explore the contemporary relevance of one of Schechter’s most seminal ideas—Catholic Israel—his term for the “living body” of Jews, not limited to any denomination, viewpoint, or professional elite, who in each generation assume responsibility for maintaining Jewish tradition and passing it on, compelling and whole, to the next.

Schechter first articulated the idea of Catholic Israel in the 1890s, several years before he arrived at JTS, and drew upon it to shape the institution from the outset. He declared in his 1902 inaugural address that he wanted his Seminary to “avoid sectarianism.” JTS would not give preference to “any denomination or sector theological Richtung (direction). They are all welcome, each working out its salvation in its own fashion. Schechter did hold firmly to certain truths: “I declare, in all humility, but most emphatically, that I do know something.” True religion could not be a “jack-of-all-trades. . . its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods and fallen ideals as to bring it nearer to the true one. It means to convert the world, not to convert itself.”

In the case of Judaism, that meant fidelity to the study and practice of Torah: “There is no other Jewish tradition but that taught by the Torah and confirmed by history and tradition, and sunk into the conscience of Catholic Israel.” His Seminary would teach historical Judaism “in its various manifestations.” As an eminent scholar of Judaism, Schechter recognized the immense (if not unlimited) diversity of its “manifestations” over the centuries. He therefore respected adherents of other forms of Judaism than his own, and—rather than working to put an end to such differences among Jews—sought to unite them under the banner of Catholic Israel. Schechter also saw the need for further variety and change if Judaism were to meet the challenges of his own day.

I would argue that the same need for change-inside-tradition and unity-in-variety holds today. Ours is likewise a time of rapid and unprecedented upheaval: today, too, no one mode of Jewish living has a monopoly on the wisdom, authenticity, or truth with which to navigate the new terrain. Not every belief or practice of every Jewish movement will prove acceptable to every other—JTS cleaves to a distinctive path or practice and belief—but the commonalties among us, borne out by the discussion at JTS last week, remain far greater than our differences. Our group added love for and loyalty to the State and people of Israel to Schechter’s list of those commonalties,  even as we continued to be divided on what it means to “stud[y] the Torah and live in accordance with its laws,”  as Schechter put it. We also disagreedon the question of whether traditional boundaries separating Jews from others can—or should be—set or enforced in our day.

Much of the debate was about “saying yes” as opposed to “saying no.” “What is the price of saying no to someone who wants to come in?” asked one rabbi. To which another countered:  “There comes a moment where we do stand for something. It should not be a surprise when the rabbi shows a religious commitment. . .We can only have a healthy religion when one addresses the costs of saying yes.” Added a third: “Identity is not just about how you feel, but about how your community responds to you.”

It was clear from our discussion that the three B’s of Jewish living—believing, behaving, and belonging—must all pass a bar of approval wielded by virtually every adult outside the Haredi world today to a degree that Schechter could never have imagined.The leaders trained by JTS must know how to attract such Jews with experiences of meaning and community at once grounded in the Jewish past and thoroughly engaged with the Jewish present. We also want them to be loyal to Torah—and, because of that loyalty, willing to adjust Torah to changing demands of the day. They need to be loyal to the Jewish people and Judaism–and, because of that loyalty—open to and respectful of human beings of other faiths and communities. They cannot do this if we say no to every innovation and cause—or always say yes.

Despite himself, Schechter ended up the founder of a movement.  He established the Rabbinical Assembly for JTS alumni and the United Synagogue for the congregations they served.  But even in his opening address to the latter organization, he added the words “or Orthodox, or Traditional,” every time he said the word, “Conservative.” And Schechter never abandoned his belief that Jews “stand now before a crisis” that mandated cooperation and mutual respect.

That holds for us too, I believe—and should impel the various movements to act jointly more than ever before. Our synagogues and schools could share facilities, staff,  and—wherever possible—students;  our Seminaries could, in addition, share faculties with one another as well as with neighboring institutions of higher learning. We should be building multipurpose campuses that house multiple Jewish organizations rather than only one; funders and foundations should provide incentives for such cooperation.

But, as Schechter firmly believed, such cooperation need not be merely instrumental. There is much substantive agreement that transcends movement boundaries, and Jews inside the circle of agreement that marks Catholic Israel can and should cooperate with those outside for the welfare of the Jewish people. Schechter’s endorsement of the Zionist movement—despite the militant secularism of some of its leaders—provides a notable example. I hope that members of last week’s gathering will soon exchange ideas on how to effect significant cooperation among us.

Let us, like Schechter, cleave faithfully to Torah and never cease “appreciating everything Jewish and falling in love with it.”


Dear High, Dear Central High

I walked the halls of my high school last week for the first time since I graduated 46 years ago. It was, no pun intended, a real high: not only for reasons of sentiment and the pleasures of nostalgia—the cafeteria exactly as I remembered it; the corridors and lockers the same except for fresh coats of paint; the English class with the blackboard where I knew it would be and the desks scattered in proper disorder—but because the students of today were every bit as motivated,  talented, and happy in  their learning as  I remembered my classmates were way back when. The Central High Alumni Association presented me with an award and will place a plaque including my picture on the alumni “Wall of Fame” along with seven other new inductees. But the greatest satisfaction of my visit was not in memory but observation. At a time of dwindling support for liberal arts and public schools alike, Central remains a model of what a public high school should be. There is a lot to be learned from its example—including lessons for JTS.

The mythology of the place has always given a mighty assist to its character. Founded in 1836, opened in 1838, entitled by its charter to award a BA in addition to a diploma, enrolling academically talented young men (and, since the late 1980s, young women), and providing them entrée to the civic and professional elites of Philadelphia, Central—to students and city alike—is more than just a school. It is a symbol: proof of what a diverse student body, elevated by first-rate teaching and facilities, and raised on the expectation of high achievement, can do in the world. All the new hall-of-famers in my cohort spoke in one way or another about these themes at the event last week: how we had come from neighborhood schools of middling quality and somewhat provincial family backgrounds, had not had direct and sustained encounter before Central with great books, ideas, and possibilities and owed much of our subsequent achievement to the experience at our alma mater. We received these gifts through the demands of wonderful teachers in classes filled with students from every neighborhood of the city, representing several religions and multiple ethnic backgrounds.

In my day, Central was a mix of Jews, Italians, and African-Americans, with a smattering of other White Protestants and Catholics. Many grew up in immigrant households. You know in principle before you get to a place like Central that intelligence and virtue are not limited to people of your own persuasion, but it is something else to experience that reality in science or history class, or on the ball field. Respect for others changes from something one should have because it is right to something that comes naturally when one is surrounded by people who elicit respect by virtue of who they are and what they accomplish. What is more, you experience with them the special kind of bond that comes from learning together. Sometimes the learning takes place side by side, with the added glue that results from shared trials (that physics exam no one could pass) and collective elation (we did it!). Sometimes it comes from what other members of the class teach you. That kid you barely knew but always kind of wanted to offers an insight into a poem or painting that stuns you with how true it is to your experience of the world. You can’t believe anyone else saw it that way too, least of all this person so different from you. One is grateful for that: grateful to the teacher whose assignment made it possible, to the artist who got it right, to that new friend you will be happy to see, if you get the chance, at an alumni event 46 years later. You are connected. You are not only wiser because of this school, but less alone in the world, more at home.

I spoke at the event about one teacher in particular: John J. Mulloy, who was not satisfied with existing textbooks on the intellectual history of the West and so spent many hours, day after day, typing up the texts he wanted us to read (I remember Coleridge and Burckhardt, Eliot and Nietzsche, and a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson) onto a stencil and then running off multiple copies on a mimeograph machine. The smell of the ink is still vivid in my mind—and so is the sense of growth of my mind and heart in Mr. Mulloy’s class, as palpable as the inches added in those same years to my height. It mattered to me even then that my favorite teacher was a practicing Catholic and a cultural Conservative—not ways of being with which I was familiar.

Twice a week after Central (and again on Sundays), I walked up Olney Avenue to Broad Street and then down Tabor Road to the Hebrew High School program at Gratz College, where I studied with faculty that included my other favorite teacher, Rabbi Sam Lachs. The great books of two traditions encountered one another in me and complemented one another far more than they collided. The walk from Central to Gratz gave life and substance to the hyphen in my identity as American Jew. You are larger than your individual self, both teachers taught.  (Last week, in the archives, I found a column written by Mr. Mulloy in an edition of the Central newspaper for which I wrote as a senior deploring the fact that most Americans had not followed JFK’s urging, and still worked only for their own welfare rather than for that of their country). We are citizens of a country and a world that include far more than our own particular group. There are higher powers—or One Higher Power—at work. Neither Mulloy nor Lachs ever preached in class, and neither seemed to me to represent a simple faith, and perhaps because of that both stood for versions of Truth and Right to which I could give credence, in teenage years when credence does not come easily.

You can matter, this education taught me and everyone else, in the way that mattering really counts: doing good. I transmitted to the students at the dinner and those I met at lunch the next day a message about leadership that has been expressed to me by political and religious leaders over the years. The most important prerequisite of being a leader is not managerial ability, technical knowledge, smarts, or people skills, though all of those are required. More important still is personal integrity. How can people work with you, or follow you, if they do not know who you are and what you stand for? How can they walk ahead of you, as you want them to do if you are a true leader, and grow stronger by your side, unless they know that in so doing they advance along the path that you, too, walk, and on which you want them to walk?

Many JTS students benefit from teachers as devoted to their craft as Mr. Mulloy and as committed to their tradition (and radical in their approach) as Rabbi Lachs. Our students are not all of one mind, thank goodness, nor are our faculty. They learn as much from the presence of people who share their passion for Torah but disagree profoundly in how they live and interpret it, as they do from the texts themselves. They will one day soon lead communities that are rapidly changing, and—in order to lead successfully—will need the personal integrity, self-knowledge, and immersion in Jewish tradition that are more essential at a time like this than in periods when lives and institutions are relatively stable. Our leaders will need to respect the communities they help to guide in all their diversity of belief and practice.

It’s great to remember “those days gone by, the glorious days of old,” in the words of Central’s anthem. Better still, however, is to make sure that we use what we learned to enliven classrooms (and, for JTS, to strengthen synagogues, Federations, camps, and communities) now and in the future. A good high school, a good teacher, a good set of classmates, can make all the difference in an individual’s future—and our collective future.


Commentary Symposium: The Jewish Future

The impossibility of predicting the long-term Jewish future in America or anywhere else was highlighted for me recently by the announcement of a scholarly conference devoted to the question of whether the world’s food supply would still be adequate in 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Commentary’s questions implicitly assume, among other things, that solutions will have been found to global warming (or that the ecological disasters currently forecast prove false alarms); that China will not have supplanted America as the dominant economic and political power in the world (a development that would curtail the influence of American Jewry and threaten the security of Israel); that Islamic terrorism will have been eliminated or contained; and that Israel will have found a way to live peaceably with the Palestinians inside its borders, with Arab and Islamic neighbors, and with the diverse, contentious groups of Jews who comprise the majority of its citizenry. All these variables bear directly on the Jewish future. They greatly disturb one’s sleep in 2015 and make it difficult to dream about better days.

Continue reading my contribution to “Symposium: The Jewish Future” in Commentary.

Jerusalem and Zionism on Edge

Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them. Security around the prime minister’s residence, located directly across the street from JTS’s Schocken Library, where our students in Israel meet for classes, was even more rigorous than usual. One friend told me his kids were afraid to go to school. Reassured by their parents, they went nonetheless. No one to whom I spoke had panicked; no one cowered at home, even if no one was taking needless chances. Cafes and restaurants had lots of patrons and had not posted guards at the door.  My friends agreed, as they prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that this latest and worrisome chapter of the matsav might go on for some time and would not lead to anything positive.

I sensed the same mix of foreboding, resolve, and focus on tasks near at hand in the halls of the 37th Zionist Congress. That gathering of world Jewry is what drew me to visit Jerusalem this time, as a member of the Mercaz Olami delegation of Masorti-Conservative Jews. It felt good to be there, to stand with Israel and Israelis at a time when their sense of isolation is acute. Two Israeli friends told me how much my presence there meant to them. Shabbat really did seem like a taste of the world to come, its respite followed at once by news of more violence. Israel—despite all this—was a wonderful place to be. But calm, in Jerusalem, it was not.

The most meaningful part of my trip was sitting with JTS rabbinical students at Schocken, hearing about their experience in the program in Israel thus far and giving them a chance to air their feelings at being caught in the latest outbreak of violence. I told them of the steps JTS is taking to maximize both their safety and their sense of safety. They were understandably anxious, appreciative of JTS’ concern for their well-being, and quietly determined to face whatever challenges the situation presented, along with the rest of Israel. Our brief discussion of what could or should be done to improve the situation evinced a variety of views, as it has among Israelis in general.  The intimacy and honesty of that conversation brought home the toll that violence takes, but also the solidarity it fosters, the resolve it breeds among many to work harder still for a solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress drew worldwide attention for his claim about the role of the mufti of Jerusalem in inciting the “Final Solution.”  To me the Prime Minister seemed worn out, exhausted, hardened. I appreciated the burden of the immense responsibilities he bears and even so could not understand why he made no effort to rouse this audience with the thing most needed right now: vision, hope, and aspiration. His lecture on the “ten big lies” circulated by the Palestinian Authority drew only scattered and perfunctory applause. If offered neither hope nor vision. I found that depressing.

The plenary panel of which I was a member took the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as a given, and asked whether—in 2015—there is still any point to Zionism. That movement is also somewhat on edge, and has been for some time. I explained in personal terms why I believe the bonds joining Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people remain inseverable. . . despite frequent attempts in many quarters to break them apart and widespread cynicism among Israelis that Zionism—as opposed to the State—serves any purpose. The full text of the speech I prepared is available on the JTS website.

For all my sobriety when it comes to Israel’s challenges and failings, I remain compelled by the Torah’s vision of a land given to the Children of Israel in order to build a society more just and compassionate than any that has ever previously existed, and in so doing be “a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Some Jews and Gentiles, I know, find such teachings an excuse for religious or ethnic chauvinism, or reason to reject both Judaism and Zionism out of hand. But I won’t give up on the notion that Israel remains a prominent vehicle of achieving the good that we Jews have stored up in us.  Zionism, to me, means the work done by the Jewish people the world over, together, as a people, to carry out that responsibility – work focused on but not limited to the project of building a secure, just, and democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

For this purpose, thanks to this labor, Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel lives” despite everything. I believe in all humility that such aspiration will ensure the continuing relevance of Zionism and would actually make the State more secure.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, I was greeted by a full page in Yediot featuring a picture of the Rebbe and his 1974 proclamation that “the Land of Israel is the most secure place in the world” because “the Holy One Blessed be He guards and protects every single person in Israel.” May it only be so. There is much work for you and me to do as well.

Out of the Depths

What I will most remember about the recent multireligious gathering with Pope Francis at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is the hush that awaited and greeted him. I don’t remember anyone giving a direction for silence. Certainly no one signaled the few who applauded when the Pope entered the room that applause at that moment, in that place, for that man, was not appropriate. The audience of clergy and laity representing the many religions of New York City had been sitting patiently for 10 to 15 minutes after milling around for more than an hour. The speakers had gone to their seats on stage; the government dignitaries had quietly taken their assigned places. We awaited the Pope in the room at the very lowest level of the museum, ground zero of Ground Zero as it were, and, finally, his entourage too made its way to the podium, exactly on schedule—and in total silence.

There were many words spoken in the next few minutes, of course. The carefully choreographed procession began with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s welcome on behalf of New York City’s religious leaders who, he said, worked well together on fostering partnership and dialogue. Next came representatives of Judaism and Islam (Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (RS ’99) and Imam Khalid Latif, respectively) and then Francis himself. The man of the hour spoke totally without fanfare, somberly and solemnly, clearly not interested in demonstrating rhetorical power or any other kind of power, for that matter, but only in summoning something from the depths of the place and the depths of those listening to him, that would at once remember, witness, and heal. “O God of love, compassion and healing. . .We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here. . .We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here 14 years ago, continue to suffer from injuries and illness. . .God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world. . .Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope. . .”

The Pope had apparently asked that this “witness to peace” be held at Ground Zero. I wondered if Psalm 130 was on his mind as he did so. “From the depths I call on you, Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be opened to the sounds of my pleading.” The words of the psalm rang in my ears as he spoke, as did—less than 48 hours since Yom Kippur—the Al Chet prayers “For the sin that we committed before you by doing X, and for the sin that we committed before you by not doing Y. . . For all these, Lord, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” So much responsibility could be apportioned among the political and religious leaders gathered in the room, I reflected, both for things said and done, wittingly or unwittingly, that gave sanction to intolerance or violence, and for things left unsaid or undone.

The man in white at the podium did not once raise his voice in anger, or chide the dignitaries arrayed in the first few rows for not accomplishing more in the way of justice and mercy, or give the slightest hint of judgment, either in his own name or in the name of God. I wondered if he had decided to speak his prayer in halting English, rather than in his native Spanish, in order to take on the weakness of the immigrant and of everyone else who lacks verbal facility—including the dead who, as the Bible says, must dwell forever in silence. The very last thing the pope wanted to do, it seemed, was shout. My guess was that he believes God too is not a shouter. I recalled the passage in I Kings (19:11-13) when God is revealed to the prophet Elijah. There is first a wind that seems to tear the very mountain apart, and God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, and the Lord is not there either. The same holds true of the fire. Finally there is a “sound of thin silence.”When Elijah heard it, he covered his face. That is where God can be found.

The other moment of the day that I shall not soon forget had a similar quality. Following a second series of meditations on peace by representatives of the world’s religions, and immediately before the Pope’s second address—this one on the subject of peace, and given in Spanish, no less quietly or solemnly than the first—Cantor Azi Schwartz sang a beautiful, haunting El Male Rahamimin Hebrew, followed by a rhythmic Oseh Shalom Bimromav in which the Jews in the audience joined. This is a pope who clearly wants to reach out in friendship to all the world’s religions, as Second Vatican Council did 50 years ago in the Nostra Aetate declaration. He has extended an especially warm hand to Jews. The quotation from Francis about dialogue that appears on the inside cover of the booklet that was distributed during the occasion is taken from the book he wrote with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The Pope’s picture on the fifth page shows him from behind, his arm around the shoulder of a man wearing a kippah. And here was our friend Azi, slowly and deliberately asking God’s mercy for the 9/11 victims, calling their martyrdom a sanctification of God’s name, and then implicitly inviting the many Jews scattered throughout the room, as Jews are scattered throughout the world, to sing along as he introduced the Pope with a prayer—our prayer—for peace. Cardinal Dolan seemed to sing along.

“That was a moment,” I said to the Jewish woman next to me. I ascended to ground level a few moments later, chatting with a Catholic prelate from Massachusetts about what the gathering meant to him. He was proud of Francis, for good reason. “People are coming back to church because of this pope,” he said. “I’m glad,” I replied. So much violence on TV and on the streets. So much poverty and despair. So many problems not addressed, let alone solved. So much avoidance of those problems, and of people (or peoples) who see the world differently from ourselves. And so much speech, whether by politicians or talk show hosts or on the street, that cheapens and degrades us, making it harder and harder to be raised up from the depths toward hope as Pope Francis did during his speech.

If the representatives of the world’s religions who live here in New York City cannot manage dialogue and partnership, I doubt it can be achieved anywhere on earth—which is why we New Yorkers must achieve it here. I agree with Cardinal Dolan on that point wholeheartedly. And if Jews cannot lead the way on the effort of caring for the planet and for humanity at a moment when we have unparalleled visibility, resources, and influence, and have a good friend in the Vatican to boot, when can we take the lead? When will we? The onset of 5776 is an ideal time to start.

‘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.