On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Jews and Others, Continued” from Catharine M. Clark

I share Chancellor Eisen’s concern that we do not always maintain the proper balance between the universal and the particular in the relationship between Jews and Others. I also believe that implementing his third suggestion, to study other traditions, is an important corrective against weighing too heavily toward either the universal or the particular.

An experience from my second year of rabbinical school illustrates my point. That summer, I participated in the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding’s Institute for Seminarians at Sacred Heart University. In our opening session, we studied the Shema, or as our source sheet called it, “An Important Text from Deuteronomy 6.” I’d recited this text every day twice a day for years and studied it many times. What more was there to learn? A lot, apparently. The first question we were instructed to discuss was “Who does the Shema / Deuteronomy 6 address?” In my own head, the answer to that question was so obvious—”Hear, O Israel” is clearly speaking to us, Jews (duh!)—that I couldn’t figure out why the question was being asked. Imagine my surprise when, just as assuredly, the Greek Orthodox seminarian with whom I was studying responded, “Us, followers of Jesus, of course.” From him, I learned that Deuteronomy 6 is quoted in the New Testament, in Matthew 22:34-37 and Mark 12:28-30. Christians see this text as establishing a relationship between them and God. Hearing this interpretation from my Christian study partner helped me to accept the universal side of God’s relationship to all humanity. More important to my own spiritual development at the time, it clarified my identification with the particular. I had been struggling with the idea of Jews as the Chosen People, but the force of my reaction to the Greek Orthodox seminarian’s understanding of the Shema made clear to me the strength of my belief that Jews have a special relationship to God.

I came away from the conference renewed in my commitment to the particularism of the Jewish people. Learning about other faith traditions, especially when studying with members of those faith traditions, will help Conservative Jews maintain a healthy balance between the particular and the universal.