On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

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.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

This has been a momentous and disturbing year for Jews who care about the future of their people and their tradition. 5774 began with news of prestigious research that cast doubt on the vitality and viability of the Jewish community in America. As the year draws to a close, that concern for the state of American Judaism has long since been eclipsed by fear for the ability of Israel (indeed, of any state) to defend its citizens from terrorist aggression. ISIS’s brutal march across Iraq and Syria has demonstrated that the threat posed to Israel’s borders by Hamas missiles and tunnels is part of a far larger threat from which no one, no nation, is immune. These events will weigh heavily on many Jewish minds as we sit in synagogue on the High Holy Days. I know they will be on my mind, crowding out a host of other concerns, both personal and communal, and eroding the hope we all need in order to accomplish repentance and renewal.

How shall we think about these matters during the High Holy Days? In what ways shall we act differently in 5775, as individuals and as a people? And, perhaps most crucially of all, what wisdom do the Days of Awe offer, in the face of truly awful events, that can help to restore hope and point the way toward life and blessing?

As if in response to these questions, I was suddenly reminded one day of the opening passage of the haftarah chanted on Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of Repentance that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—by the Prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Rereading the prophetic selections this year, I was struck by two themes in particular.

The first is that Israel should return to our God in recognition that we have “stumbled” or “fallen.” All is not right with us or the world. We can’t just proceed as usual, down the same roads as usual. Our course must be altered, or we will get nowhere. That lesson holds for many aspects of our lives, individual and collective. It is true with regard to Israel’s security situation in the wake of this summer’s war; Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum, embracing “left” and “right,” “religious” and “secular,” seem agreed that the New Year must bring new directions, new options, ways of moving forward not yet attempted, on paths as yet untried.

Hosea emphasizes one aspect in particular of the required change: new language.

Take words with you and return to God. Say to Him: Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good. Instead of bulls we will offer our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride our steeds, or say that our handiwork is our god. In You alone orphans find pity. (14:3–4)

What we say to one another and the world, the way we use language to reinforce current belief and limit consideration of other options, or by contrast, open the door to new thought and new partnerships—all these matter. Our words have the power to persuade God to forgive us, the Prophet maintains. Do they not have the power as well to persuade one another that things we ourselves have fashioned—objects, ideas, policies—are not God? We can and should turn away from those things. That’s what the New Year is for.

One of the most remarkable and hopeful moments of the summer was the coming together of Israelis of every opinion, joined by American Jews of almost every opinion, first in response to the June kidnapping and murder of the three teens in the West Bank and then in support of the war to defend Israel against the rockets and tunnels that put its citizens in jeopardy. Jews are not good at unity much of the time, and not much better at listening to words with which we strenuously disagree. We are highly skilled at using words to categorize one another—secular, religious, settler, leftist—and flinging the words about with a contempt that declares dialogue useless. Two other low points of the summer were the murder of an innocent Palestinian boy in response to the murder of the three teens and the censure or ridicule of Jews who expressed sadness at the death of innocent Palestinians. Anger and fear took their toll on compassion. Our words were brought low.

We know—and should we forget, Hosea reminds us—that the God before Whom we stand in judgment on the Days of Awe is one in Whom “orphans find pity” (14:4). This same God sent Jonah, an unwilling prophet, to secure the repentance of Nineveh, capital of Israel’s sworn enemy Assyria. Nineveh, apparently powerful, is helpless in the face of God’s judgment. Widows and orphans, seemingly powerless, find safety in God’s compassion, which circulates in the world through human beings like you and me. Normal operating procedure for individuals and states is to look to force (“steeds”) and alliances for strength and salvation. I am not ready to abandon either force or alliances in the face of Israel’s enemies, and do not believe Hosea wants us to. His point is rather that we should not rely exclusively on those sources of strength. The ironclad security we seek is unattainable; such security as we can attain will require words of healing among ourselves and with our enemies. This is a hard truth in any time, for any country, and all the harder for Jews in this time, in our precious homeland.

The long history of the Jewish people gives hope that, having survived so many tragedies and overcome so much adversity, we will be able to work through present difficulties, hard as they are, and take full advantage of the enormous blessings that come with renewal of Jewish sovereignty and participation in the greatest Diaspora we have ever known, the United States of America. The study of Jewish tradition offers confidence that our Torah is profound enough, complex enough, and compassionate enough to point a way through moral quandaries like those imposed upon us by the enemies of the moment. I wonder if the Rabbis directed us to read three different Prophets on Shabbat Shuvah—unparalleled in the annual haftarah cycle—to stress the need for a multiplicity of differing voices in the quest for turning and return.

Hosea calls us to recognize the fact of stumbling and embark on the search for new words. Joel assures us (2:19–20) that Israel’s enemies will be overcome, and life safeguarded: “I will grant you the new grain, the new wine and the new oil and you shall have them in abundance.” And the haftarah concludes with Micah (7:19–20), who promises—lest we doubt this going into Yom Kippur—that God will continue to “keep faith with Jacob,” and will “return to us in compassion” or, as the Etz Hayim translates the Hebrew, “take us back in love.” The love is put into the world by God, but is made effective here by us, manifest in better words and wiser paths.

My very best wishes, on behalf of everyone at JTS, for a year that is both sweet and good.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Speaks at the “New York Stands with Israel Community-Wide Rally”

This week, Jews in New York join with Jews in Israel and Jews around the world in beginning to read Sefer Devarim—the book of the Torah that more than any other sets forth the eternal bond uniting the people of Israel, the tradition of Israel, and the God of Israel with the Land of Israel.

The promise and dream of the Land of Israel, and what the people of Israel can accomplish there with God’s help, has inspired Jews for over 3,000 years, and still does so today, July 28, 2014, here in New York and around the world. We cleave to it in the face of enemies who do not want the Jewish people living in its homeland once again, some of whom do not want Jews to be living anywhere.

We pledge eternal loyalty to the promise and the dream, to the families of young Israelis who have given their lives—and continue to risk their lives as we speak—in this latest chapter of a long struggle. We will remember them and the millions of Israelis making sacrifices daily on the home front, the way Jews remember—not just in words or mental images, but by pursuing with all our strength the dream they share, and giving heart and soul to the fulfillment of the promise that is the State of Israel.

To those listening to our words in the State of Israel I say know that the Jews of New York stand with you at this moment as we will stand with you always. You are not alone in the face of our enemies. “The people of Israel lives” and prays in one voice on this Rosh Hodesh day that the Holy One will protect our soldiers from every trouble and evil design and cause the work of their hands to be for blessing and success and shall bring them home for life and for peace.

We shall stand with our soldiers and their families and communities always, despite political and religious differences in New York as in Israel, grateful to be alive at this unique moment in Jewish history when the State of Israel is once more alive to nourish and sustain us with its many blessings.

We shall stand with you—whether Reform or Orthodox or Conservative or any other kind of Jew; whether old or young, male or female—in a bond that is fundamental, nonnegotiable, and unbreakable, knowing that the strength and well-being of our community in New York are bound up with the strength and well-being of the Jewish communities that comprise the State of Israel.

We shall stand with you in mourning together the lives that have been lost in defense of our homeland, and in mourning, too, the innocent lives lost in Gaza because a brutal terrorist regime uses its citizens as shields and cynically exploits their suffering for political gain.

And we shall stand with you in coming months, praying alongside you for a just and enduring peace and an ultimate resolution of the conflict that has claimed so many lives.

On behalf of Conservative-Masorti Jews around the world, and our friends and family members who walk other Jewish paths, I assure our friends and family in Israel that Od lo avda tikvatei’nu. The book of Devarim commands Jews to choose life. Choose good. Choose blessing. No devarim, no words, penetrate more deeply into our hearts and souls. No devarim, no facts on the ground, arouse our commitment and resolve more than those being created and defended by our brothers and sisters in and for the sake of Israel.

Let’s promise again at this moment, each one of us individually and all of us together, that we will never cease striving to fulfill the promise and dream that is Israel.

Israel Under Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response to the Presbyterian Divestment from Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Story of Israel

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

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

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

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Marriage, Family, and Torah

I’ve been thinking about marriage since I first started thinking about what adulthood might be like. Even as a young teenager I knew that my parents’ marriage, while loving and stable, could not in many respects provide the model for my own. My parents seemed so different from me in every way imaginable: children of the Great Depression who never had the chance to go to college, Philadelphia “locals” who never wandered far from the city of their birth or feasted on the array of novels, films, and poetry that supplied my images of love and family. What could I learn from my parents about matters of the heart?

Ten and 20 years into my own marriage, which thank goodness was no less loving or stable than theirs, I often found myself on the other side of the generational divide: giving counsel to students who sought my wisdom about marriage—and that of Judaism—despite a strong sense that I could not possibly understand them. Their experience was far different than mine, their diversity of options immense and, at times, overwhelming. The women’s movement had changed marriage along with so much else. LGBT people were out of the closet. Internet dating had begun. The “hook-up culture” had taken root on campus. The divorce rate had climbed to 50 percent; couples standing under the huppah were well aware that there was a 20-percent chance they would not be together after five years.

And yet there were aspects of their situation that seemed familiar, fears and yearnings that Jewish tradition and I were called upon to address. My students asked aloud if they were good enough for anyone to want to marry (or attractive enough to find someone who was interested them). Could they be faithful to a partner, or to their own ideals. They could not imagine spending their lifetime doing any one thing, let alone doing it with one person. Suppose they or their partners changed? How could they possibly serve their own needs—and someone else’s? And how on earth could they, whose imperfections in their own eyes were so glaring, hope to do a better job raising children than their own parents had done with them. I found myself saying, never sure if they believed me, that of course marriage is hard; it takes a lot of work; the guidance of our age-old tradition has a lot to say on these subjects; and I could attest that my wife and children were by far the greatest gifts I have in this world, and that the problem with marriage, as with life, is not that the years drag on, but that they speed by much too fast.

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Educating for Human Wholeness

“As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” reported the New York Times a few months back. “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s major undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities—but only 15 percent of the students.” A principal cause of that disparity, of course, is Stanford University’s reputation in the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another, however, is the economy. It costs a great deal of money to attend a private college or university, and for many parents the outcome upon graduation must be commensurate with the investment, particularly when good jobs are scarce. I can recall many poignant conversations over the course of my 20 years at Stanford with students who wanted to major in Religious Studies or Philosophy, but were forbidden by their parents from doing so. At Harvard too, reported the New York Times, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields.”

In one sense there is no problem with this change, except the underemployment of humanities faculty and dimming job prospects for newly minted PhDs in these fields. One might argue, with some merit, that the point of a college education is to sharpen the mind, unleash powers of creativity and thought, and give students the experience of going deep into a single area of intellectual endeavor—goals that can be accomplished just as well in a biology or math major as in classics or comparative literature. And yet one can’t help worrying that the decline of interest in the humanities does not bode well for the quality of our graduates or our country. I want to explain why I share that judgment, and why I believe that the unique value of humanities education is directly connected to how and why The Jewish Theological Seminary is attempting to educate a new kind of Jewish activist and Jewish leader. The point at JTS, as in higher education generally, is wholeness. We aim at integration of the various faculties of the self in a manner that shapes integrity.

Stanford President John Hennessy, addressing the matter in a recent column in the Stanford alumni’s magazine (“Preparation That Lasts a Lifetime,” January/February 2014), cites the assertion over a century ago by Senator Leland Stanford that “The intelligent development of the human faculties is necessary to man’s happiness,” enabling a person “to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others.” That is true, I believe. The advancement of human happiness seem a far better reason for liberal arts education that includes significant work in humanities than the (no less true) explanation that the humanities inculcate skills needed “to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world,” or, worse still, that they “provide a broad range of skills highly valued by employers in every economic sector.” Does one really need an entire humanities major to develop these abilities? Wouldn’t a required course or two on the way to a major in STEM subjects suffice? Most schools and students have apparently come to that conclusion—which is why, as at Stanford, there are general education requirements in humanities but very few majors.

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