On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Covenant” from Meredith Berkman

As children, we naturally accept the religion of our parents. Born to a father who self-identified as a Conservative Jew, and a Jewish mother who proudly labelled herself a strong agnostic, I chose the path of patrilineal spiritual lineage. I attended weekly Shabbat and holiday services with my father and sisters; became a bat-mitzvah at our Conservative shul (reading from the haftarah but not the Torah); was married by my family’s Conservative rabbi who presided over my daughters’ baby namings, my son’s brit milah, and my mother’s funeral.

And yet it wasn’t until recently, while studying with my father and a Conservative rabbi, Marc Wolf of JTS, that I began to explore questions of theology. Being Jewish affects my life in almost every way—from what I eat to what I try to teach my four young children—and yet I can’t say that I have had the courage to wrestle with what it is that I actually believe. Nor have I ever really grappled with what it means to call myself a Conservative Jew.

As Chancellor Eisen writes, the notion that what happened at Har Sinai not only made us a people but also cemented our connection to G-d—the “double Covenant” that is our legacy to the generations—informs who we are and how we lead our lives. If the Torah is a living, breathing document that is as relevant to us now as it was thousands of years ago, we accept its Divine inspiration, and its corresponding human urgency, even if we do not necessarily believe that it was dictated to Moses by G-d Himself. What is primary is our acceptance that this awesome but almost overwhelming legacy has not only defined our past but must define our future.

Conservative Judaism embodies the beautiful and necessary pluralism and daunting complexity of modern spiritual life, and our burning desire to ensure that the Torah we received—whether we mean received into our hands or from our hearts—remains at the core of our peoplehood and our existence in the world. When my children ask why G-d is not present today as He was in Biblical times, I tell them that they must think about what it means to be present. While they may not speak directly with G-d, as Moses did, their connection to the Torah—which, I tell them, using their lingo, is “the greatest chapter book ever written”—is no less important or lasting.