On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Learning Theory” From Marjorie Lehman

If we look to the Babylonian Talmud, what we find is a particular pedagogical style that has become integral to the way learning happens at The Jewish Theological Seminary and in the institutions associated with the Conservative Movement. In the Babylonian Talmud, positions are presented and challenged on a consistent basis. Interestingly, the string of attacks and counterattacks, which function as the building blocks of each Talmudic passage, lend a great deal of volatility to the ideas presented. To some degree, this is surprising for a seminal religious text. After all, don’t we look to our sacred canons hoping to find well-defined religious truths? Can the “truth” be located amidst all of this debate? But, it was the framework of debate modeled in our Talmud that defined a religious commitment to the development of critical thought by constructing thought-provoking arguments in the name of exploring, constructing, and reconstructing, even testing, religious values and norms. Using Talmudic argumentation as a template, Conservative Judaism defined itself by striking a careful balance between authority and an examined, respectful critique of that authority, between tradition and change.

Today we face a world that is constantly changing and we struggle each day with how to engage with it, with how to understand it, and with how to contribute to it while maintaining our identity as Jews. The study of Talmudic literature, which presents us with a picture of the religious struggles of ancient Jews, offers us a strategy that will only enliven our thinking. It teaches us how to reason well about urgent questions and encourages a style of living in the world that demands that we never back down from debate and dialogue. The Talmud reveals, through its study, that the cultivation of Jewish identity is intimately tied to the structures that also cultivate humanity. Without a form of critical analysis that emerges from asking questions and without a sustained dialogue, we cannot hope to nurture justice in the world in which we live. Indeed, our ancient rabbis understood this. For this reason, Conservative Judaism embraces its ancient texts; it purports that the study of these texts can shape vibrant, thinking Jews who can engage with and live in the modern world.