On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Learning Theory” From Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Chancellor Eisen expressed beautifully how our diverse, evolving learning is central to being a modern, yet rooted, Conservative Jew. By understanding how Jewish society changed in the past, we can help it flourish in the future. I agree with all that.

But the music of our learning would sound more harmonious if we played one note a bit more strongly: I want to hear the song of the timeless echoing above all that flux.

It is an indisputable fact that Judaism evolved with perpetually shifting conditions. An ancient religion of animal sacrifices and prophets became a medieval religion of lawyers and poets, and so on. Our ancestors learned from and tangled with the pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian, and Muslim societies in which they lived. But what imparts value to those facts?

The value is not that everything always evolves. It is that Jewish study helps us make the leap, from within history, which is always changing, toward destiny, which never changes. It helps us leap, in the words of Franz Rosenzweig, from what we already know to what we must learn, no matter what the cost. At our best, Conservative Jews study to contend with timeless questions.

Conservative study excels on two levels simultaneously, then. Historical clarity is our basic prerequisite for being competent students; if we fail at that, or if we airbrush our history and sacred texts, then we are learning lies, not the truth. But what important questions do we ask about the Jewish past? As a Conservative Jew, I study to join the conversation with Moses, Hillel, Maimonides, and everyone else that you’ve ever heard of or never heard of, over how to live a sacred life in a sacred community. Such questions endure unchanging, even though our responses evolve.

Like many Conservative teachers, Chancellor Eisen stressed here the diversity of our learning—diversity in the multiple voices of the past, and diversity in the present and future, as we bring more voices into our study house. He stressed the ever-changing nature of Judaism as it flowered through history. I concur.

But how does all that diversity and evolution cohere into a world view? The Conservative style of learning reveals the timeless amid time, because throughout history, millions of Jews have returned to ask the same questions of themselves, of each other, and of God.