On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Mitzvah” from David Saiger

I recently moved out of my Upper West Side JTS apartment, and while the movers (one of whom is a practicing/believing Christian and one of whom has left Christianity for “logic and secular ethics”) and I were taking a break from lugging boxes of books to the moving van, we started schmoozing about the place of religion in contemporary America. I tried to make the argument that while secular society has produced many great ideas and institutions, the Jewish tradition, along with other religious traditions, provides its adherents with ongoing, deep conversations. These conversations often transcend nation, language and culture, and challenge us to refine—both morally and spiritually—every part of our lives.

While Mitzvah is central to this conversation, the more expansive term to which Chancellor Eisen refers (“an all-embracing way”) is Halacha. A teacher of mine describes Halacha as practical wisdom, the codified result of millennia of discussions about how to live not only a meaningful life, but a good life. Secular philosophies may challenge us to ask ourselves whether or not we need these ancient conversations, codified yet always in process, to inform our lives, our actions today? But this challenge shouldn’t make us afraid to admit that we are in need of this wisdom; first, because we are imperfect, and, second, because our ancestors had wisdom worthy of our consideration. As Stephen Colbert put it (in an ironic tone) to NYU President John Sexton, “Isn’t learning things just a way of admitting you don’t know something?!”

My assumption is that there is much we don’t know, and we need the practical wisdom of the generations to inform our lives today. I say “inform” rather than dictate, because Halacha-as-wisdom is not about outsourcing our decision-making processes, but about considering other voices before we make our own heard. The Psalmist writes that “…the decrees of the Lord are enduring, making the simple wise.” (19:8) To me, a Conservative understanding of Mitzvah and Halacha must show the ways in which we are simple, and it must show that our Tradition, our Torah, can make us wise. If we succeed, then the “decrees of the Lord,” which have been passed down through conversations called Halacha, will indeed be enduring.