On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Jews and Others” From Aaron Weininger

I often come to know myself better by being in community with those not like me. My training in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), the reflective practitioner model of learning for interfaith chaplaincy training, has borne this out time and again, and most recently this summer in the program of the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS.

Chancellor Eisen writes, “We accept our share of responsibility for the communities in which we live and for the planet as a whole, even as we bear special obligations to Jewish communities and the Jewish people. Jews have much to learn from others, we know, and they have much to learn from Judaism.”

Face to face with each patient in chaplaincy, I witnessed what CPE pioneer Anton Boisen termed “the living human document.” In being present to listen to a person’s truth and be aware of his or her suffering, I made room for God’s presence. I remember sitting with a devout Christian woman, a psychiatric patient, who tried to take her life by jumping off a bridge. She and I read from Psalms and sang together and prayed to God who heals the brokenhearted. I shared niggunim (wordless melodies) from the Jewish tradition, and she read me the poems she wrote. She frequently told me about her life’s work as a poet, many dreams still yet to be realized. Her pain was so raw, and her poems taught me about the power of hope.

Face to face with chaplain intern colleagues of other faith traditions in my three units of CPE, I was introduced each summer to new ways of thinking about religious leadership, pastoral care, and theology. Being in this kind of learning relationship with other seminarians allowed me to share my convictions, not by watering them down in the face of difference but rather by entering into rich dialogue and maintaining my “special obligations to Jewish communities and the Jewish people,” as Chancellor Eisen writes. This learning has continued for me outside of CPE, as I have taken several courses at Union Theological Seminary across the street from JTS. By being in the same classroom with other future clergy, in learning about other faith traditions and becoming good friends with these peers, I become a stronger religious leader. As I start a rabbinic fellowship this year with a congregation in North Carolina, I have begun reaching out to local clergy members. These ties help my own pastoral formation and expand communal opportunities—or rather religious obligations—for interfaith cooperation.

Chancellor Eisen is right to caution against both the elimination of distinctiveness and the raising of high walls of separation. When we ground ourselves in the tradition we love, we can then reach out from the depth of that commitment. We put wheels on our theology and roll into a world that needs us to show up. In sharing our fidelity to the values of justice and mercy embedded in Torah, about which Chancellor Eisen writes so passionately, we become religious leaders poised not only to confront violence but also to create pathways for peace. In one case I know, a shul with a long history of sharing interfaith Thanksgiving services and adult education programs with a local church is planning an interfaith community trip to Israel. Such a trip, I imagine, will be a catalyst for the forging of deep relationships—not despite difference, but because difference helps us locate our core values as we offer a distinct and compelling religious vision, learn from the devotion of others, and recognize God’s image in every person. Chancellor Eisen’s message bears repeating in a world that can veer to one extreme or the other—either shutting down from engaging others or abandoning our unique gift that is Torah.

What are the gifts you share, emerging from your faith, and what do you learn from others? The path of my rabbinic education, influenced by people from an array of faith traditions, helps me to become more grounded in my own faith, and to recognize the possibility of hearing different religious voices as an affirmation of a living God.