On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Learning Theory” From Rachel Ain

As a rabbi, I am committed to using my training to illuminate a variety of paths that one can travel, sometimes simultaneously, to gain access to our Jewish tradition that I find so compelling and that, as Chancellor Eisen says, “offers wisdom to guide us through present-day complexities.” These paths often come in the form of Shimon HaTzadik’s statement in pirke avot, that the world rests on three things: on Torah (history, law, and peoplehood), on Avodah (ritual and worship), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness and social justice).The question is, where does Jewish learning fit into this paradigm? While most obviously in the connection to Torah, I would argue that Jewish learning helps connect this three-legged stool which keeps the world standing.

We know that there are some people who are drawn more towards one aspect of this statement than the other in their personal quest for spiritual fulfillment. One might get much more out of acting to repair the world than praying on a routine basis. Ideally, we would be able to find a balance of all three components to keep ourselves whole. Just as one can’t just eat healthy but never exercise, or exercise but never sleep, we need to make sure each aspect of our Jewish life is nurtured. For me however, it is through the act of study that I find myself fulfilled spiritually because I believe that learning is the link between the three components.

How? Engaging in serious Jewish learning, for the sake of not only adding our voices, but seeking wisdom for today, creates the rich tapestry that has been, and is, our tradition. Further, when one better understands the context and the meaning of our prayers, I do believe that a worship experience can be elevated, even if that means disagreeing with or being challenged by aspects of our prayer services. And of course, while many people might say that to be Jewish is to be a good person, engaging in good deeds, I would suggest that it is through a deep connection to our tradition that we not only feel good about what we do when we help others, but we understand that we are fulfilling a religious mandate of working to change the world.

Jewish learning, at its best, reflects the democratization of our faith that happened out of the crisis moment of the destruction of the Second Temple. Torah is now in our hands. The Rabbis modeled for us an ability to add our own voices to a timeless conversation, using Torah to respond to the issues of a timely nature, be it about issues of peoplehood, worship, or social justice. When Eisen asks, “What role will we play in fulfilling the age-old covenant linking Jews to one another, to God, and to the world? What word will we say in the conversation begun at Sinai?” I believe that we are commanded to answer that question by sitting at the proverbial dining-room table throughout the generations and across the geographic divide. This horizontal and vertical approach to Jewish learning will enhance our connection with our tradition and will help us understand that by adding our own voice we are acting as authentic Jews who care deeply about our tradition and people, now and in the future. And as we engage in these conversations, through serious Torah study, we can hear the voices of the past, dialogue with the voices of the present, and educate for the future.