On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Joining the Conversation of Torah” From Amy Kalmanofsky

I came relatively late to the Torah conversation. I was in college. As I result, I struggle with issues of authenticity and often feel jealous of those who were born into Jewish life and learning. Yet in recent years, I have come to appreciate being a late-comer. Not growing up with a mythic understanding of God, Israel, and Torah, I happily embrace a Torah that was constructed, compiled, explained, and sanctified by human beings over time and that remains fundamentally adaptable. My Torah has always been open to the outside world, and I am convinced that the Torah’s greatness rests in its openness to interpretation.

In many ways, I allow my life to guide my learning and turn to the Torah at different life-stages with new questions and new means of interpretation. I have always found the Torah receptive to my interests and even to my unconventional methods. I am one of the few interpreters of Torah to compare it to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and may be the only one to compare it to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. These comparisons have made the Torah more compelling to me and, I believe, to my students. Yet, as I develop my voice as an interpreter of Torah, I continue to struggle with authenticity issues. There is no right way to study Torah, but there is a Jewish way, and I wonder if what I do and how I do it is Jewish enough. Are there limits to interpretation, and are certain mediums of interpretation off-limits? What precisely does the chancellor mean by a Torah properly interpreted for changed conditions?

I hope that I am part of the continuing chain of Jewish teaching. Deuteronomy 30:20 says that God is life and that we can live by holding on to God’s Torah. I understand this to mean that we must keep God’s Torah alive in order to live. By allowing my life to guide my learning, and through my unconventional methods of interpretation, I try, in good faith, to keep God’s Torah alive.