On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Conservative Judaism’

Kol Nidre 2016

Message delivered by Chancellor Eisen at JTS Yom Kippur services.

I went fly fishing this summer with my son and a very patient instructor, and came away with three lessons directly relevant to the work of teshuvah.

First, fly fishing is hard, very hard, and if my skill at casting that day is any indication, it’s unlikely I will ever be very good at it.

Second, in fishing as in life one sometimes gets lucky. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, writes that “if our father [a Presbyterian minister] had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching it.” I was lucky: I did catch a fish that day. It is important, as we undertake the labor of doing better than we have in the past, to know and face up to our inadequacies. But it’s also important to remember, as Jewish tradition insists, that there is hope for us nonetheless. Reverend Maclean put it this way. “All good things, trout—as well as eternal salvation—come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

The third lesson is that often, when we bend all our efforts toward a single, difficult goal, we may fall well short of it—but if we look around, we may find that we have been vouchsafed a gift that never would have come to us otherwise, and that is worth far more than the goal for which we were striving. I set out that morning wanting to learn to fly-fish—or, to be completely truthful about it, to use a fishing lesson as an excuse for spending a few good hours with my son. He and I had those hours together. But what I learned with him at my side was the joy beyond words of standing knee-deep in a sun-dappled river, surrounded by four shades of forest green, looking up at four shades of sky blue, with waterfowl gliding overhead and woodpeckers making their distinctive call—all of this raised to an exponentially higher level of stunning beauty when the wind churned the water, and clouds covered the sun, making for a show of light and shadow that causes me to shudder even now, as I recall it. Talk about a moment of grace!

Thanks to that experience, I know something of what Maclean meant in the (very Jewish) mystical affirmation at the end of his story. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” We stand in that river, you and I, never with more awareness than on a glorious morning like the one I have described, or on a day like Yom Kippur.

It’s hard to do better than that sort of experience in this super- empirical age. Try to turn literature or memoir into theology or theory, I find, and you quickly run up against more conundrums than the technical terms in a fly fisherman’s lexicon. What is the “one” into which all things merge, exactly—or the One, the ehad, in the creedal affirmation that you and I will make in the final moment of Yom Kippur about YHWH, the God of Israel? When is the “eventually” when all things merge, or make sense, or allow us to figure out, as the characters in Maclean’s story ask, why it is so hard to figure out what people need, and to help them with it; why “it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us”?

I often meet Jews, young and not young, who throw up their arms in frustration that Judaism is so much better at asking questions like these than answering them. Sometimes, desperate for the answers, they mistake our tradition’s poetry, allusion, story, praise, reassurance, hope for things not seen, guidance for living, and companionship along the wilderness journey of life—for theology or even system. I too believe, and wish at times I could believe more. I am a seeker after every scrap of Truth that grace and art allow mere mortals to grasp. But my gratitude for Yom Kippur does not stem from the expectation that I will leave Ne’ilah with ultimate questions answered or will have all my deep-rooted doubts assuaged.

Why then am I here? What do I hope to receive in the next 25 hours, which we will spend largely with a liturgy that prompts introspection and resolve? I will answer by sharing two personal religious high points of the year that has just ended.

One was a conversation that took place at Yale University Hospital. I sat with a group of physicians, faculty, and staff who meet regularly to explore and strengthen the connection between “spirituality” and medicine. After a brief presentation by me on Jewish approaches to illness and healing, a physician at the far end of the table remarked that he goes to church regularly—and none of his colleagues understand why. “I go to church,” he explained, “because I find there a kind of discourse and community available nowhere else—certainly not at the hospital.”

Beautifully put, I think. I suspect that many Jews, perhaps many in this room, would say the same about their synagogue attendance, particularly at the High Holidays. The Pew Report of 2013 found that over 70 percent of American Jews self-identify as having a religion, Judaism. Yet 70 percent of those Jews declare in answer to a follow-up question that religion is not the major component of their Jewish identity. Judaism for them is rather a matter of family, ethnicity, tradition, ethics, or peoplehood. It claims their engagement, in other words, by providing a kind of discourse and community that is rarely available elsewhere.

There are times when I wonder, as much as the next person, why we really need to say all these prayers, the same ones day after day, or year after year, almost all of which were not written with 21st century Americans who carry smartphones in their pockets in mind. I have to tell you, though, that after following the latest news of the election campaign, reading the paper, listening to the pundits, I often feel cheapened, lowered, even sullied by what has been said and done. Is this the best that adult Americans can achieve in pursuit of the leadership of our country at this crucial time in the world’s history? This is the way we talk to and about one another, this is role-modeling for young people, this is what life is for and about? Maclean says gently, with the wisdom of his Presbyterian father, that “if you have never picked up a fly rod before,” as I had not before this summer, “you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.” This election campaign has proven that, with or without rods and reels. The question this Yom Kippur, more than any other in my personal memory, is whether we will sink into the mess beyond hope of rising. Words and melodies like Kol Nidre, and the 25-hour immersion that follows, constitute an alternate discourse and a restorative experience of community. They are to me, and perhaps to you as well, a very welcome antidote to the mess all around. They may even help us to do better.

Last fall I had the privilege of joining about 200 other religious leaders and public officials at the service of prayer and remembrance that Pope Francis convened at Ground Zero. The pope’s words were moving, and, especially to an audience sitting in those literal and moral depths, his presence was palpably elevating. No less moving, to me at least, was the silence that greeted the Pope’s entrance; the multi-faith character of the audience that he led in prayer; and the singing of Oseh Shalom Bimromav with that group, in that place, at that moment. Had the Pope sought theological agreement from those assembled, he would have failed before he began. The members of the audience, dressed at Francis’s request in the distinctive garb of their various traditions, probably brought dozens of different notions of prayer to the prayers we shared. They held divergent notions of the shalom that exists in heaven and the shalom we hope to see on earth. Without doubt, they cleave to widely varied ideas of the Higher Power to which that day, we all agreed to attach the word God. The degree of theological unity among us counted for less that morning than the fact that we were humbled to stand before God as mere mortals, our time on earth fleeting, the work to which we are called immense, the planet with which we are entrusted in real danger of irreparable harm.

They, at that moment, you at this one, are my community as we face up to, and face down, the terrorists and the nihilists and those who think only fools believe in any goal other than self-seeking. They, you, are the community that guarantees the existence of an alternate discourse, a better language, a higher path. Joining with you in this space—a Christian space, davka, loaned to us by allies of another faith who know how important it is for us to exercise and strengthen our faith on Yom Kippur—I am raised up and you with me.

The rabbis, as they did so often, front-loaded a lot of the meaning of Yom Kippur into the opening moments of Kol Nidre, knowing perhaps that they had our maximum attention then, and wanting to take full advantage. Let me in conclusion draw your attention to what we said and did a few moments ago at their direction. With the ark open, and Torahs in hand, we said with as much solemnity and focus as we could summon, that “by the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”

Who else is there to pray with, after all? How could permission to pray be given if we, all of us transgressors, did not grant it to one another?  Who else except a community like this, gathered at a moment like Yom Kippur, blessed with a discourse like the one we will inhabit for the next 25 hours, could affirm, in the face of the moral relativism peddled daily by our culture, that there really is an “above” and a “below”? That there is Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, and we need to turn from evil and lies to goodness and truth, and can turn? That there is blessing to be had, and we can choose it. That there is life—and with God’s help, we can choose that too, at least for a little while yet.

Then we turned the page, and requested release from vows we have not even made yet, and declared before God and each other that our promises shall not be considered promises, lest our inability to fulfill those vows and promises paralyze us from helping one another and making the world better. Finally, the liturgy offered the precious reassurance, in God’s name, that we can be and will be forgiven for whatever needs forgiving. We quote God’s words to our ancestor Moses, “I have forgiven, as you have asked.” That’s when we say sheheheyanu, having been given the promise we need in order to go on, and face another year.

Yom Kippur reminds us, in the Kol Nidre prayer and many others, how hard it is to get life right at any point. It teaches me that we may get it right nonetheless. We may get lucky. There may be grace. We may do better next year than we did before. And even if we don’t, there will be unexpected blessings, moments when we might be pierced by a melody, or a phrase, or the pleasures of a shared community.

I thank God for the blessing of this day, the blessing of this discourse, and the blessing of this community. I wish us all a day studded with moments of great meaning, and a year of both art and grace.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Eisen

JTS High Holiday services are being held this year in borrowed space at Riverside Church—a graphic reminder, if one were needed, of how this Rosh Hashanah is different from all other Rosh Hashanahs for JTS faculty, students, staff, and extended family. In the final months of 5776 we witnessed the demolition of our 1980s Library building. (The bulldozers are active, outside my window, as I write.) Long before Passover of 5777 we will break ground on construction of our renewed campus, which is set to open in Fall 2019. I want to reflect briefly on the wider significance of these developments. I believe they carry meaning at this season that is both communal and personal.

Gerson Cohen, a renowned chancellor of JTS, expressed the matter eloquently in Fall 1980 at the dedication of the building that is now giving way to new construction:

It is as if this simple act of digging a hole constitutes the affirmation that we have all been awaiting. We are building—and by so doing have demonstrated our belief in the authenticity of Conservative Judaism, our faith in the future of the American Diaspora, our confidence in our scholars, our schools, our publications, as the sources from which the American Jewish community will draw the strength it needs to guide our institutions into their second century. Those shovels, the blasting, the expanding foundation hole, are doing more for our sense of identity, our acceptance of mission, than all the arguments we marshaled while we debated whether or not to build.

Cohen’s words resonate with me—as they will with many readers who have resolved to embark on an ambitious path, personal or institutional, after long consideration of the alternatives, and in the face of skeptics who said it couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be done. “Why are you building a new campus,”  I have been asked, “when American Judaism (Orthodoxy excepted) has an uncertain future at best—and may not exist in 50 years?” Or: “Why are you investing in the preparation of leaders for the Conservative movement in particular, when its future is particularly bleak?” I have spoken with Jews who see no point in preserving an institution loyal to the Jewish religious tradition because they are convinced that all religion in America is declining steeply. Others expressed the wish for greater certainty in these troubled times. So much is changing,  and the change is so fast and so far-reaching. Perhaps JTS should hang back and wait a while, until the horizon clears.

I think it’s important to say,  as Cohen did—and never more so than at the High Holidays—that we build in full awareness of the data and the trends. We seize a unique opportunity presented to us at this moment because we are confident of JTS’s future, that of Conservative Judaism,  and that of the Jewish community in North America. We believe it is important—now as much as ever—that the sort of religion for which JTS stands, the sort of Judaism we have maintained and transmitted for over a century,  survive and thrive. The world is increasingly given over to intolerant fundamentalism on the one hand and militant (and no less intolerant) atheism on the other. We urgently need Jewish leaders who are trained to broadcast the opposite message, and help their communities navigate uncharted territory, alongside respected allies from other communities and traditions. JTS will provide these leaders.

We know that Judaism can make a tremendous difference to Jewish lives and communities in North America, because it already does for many hundreds of thousands, offering experiences of Meaning and Community (Capital “M,” Capital “C”) available nowhere else. And the record shows that wise, learned, and inspiring leadership is crucial to the success of this endeavor. That is the “core business of JTS,” one which requires a community of teachers and students committed to the endeavor and a constant flow of people and ideas into and out of that community, enriching conversation at 3080 Broadway and throughout the Jewish world and beyond.

Institutions that have been around for a long time can change dramatically to meet new challenges—just as individuals who have resolved to change at Rosh Hashanahs past, with disappointing results, can undertake teshuvah this year that,  unlike all past attempts, really turns their lives around.  Maimonides urges us in his Laws of Repentance not to heed those who tell us all is determined or decreed, with no “degree of freedom” left to you and me to alter the course of our lives. “This is a great principle, a pillar of Torah and mitzvah, as it is said (Deut. 30:15)  ‘Behold I have set before you this day life and goodness, death and evil…blessing and curse.…’”

That call is sounded for individuals,  this Rosh Hashanah as every other. It applies to the Jewish community in North America as it does in Israel. It holds true for our society, which at this moment seems to be struggling with its very soul. And it holds true for our world—which, if we heed the climate scientists, is in desperate need of our resolve to keep it habitable.

“Wake up!” a broadside issued by JTS declared in 1981. “It is Rosh Hashanah—the birthday of the world. The hungry need to be fed, the illiterate need to be taught. The old as well as the young need to be loved…Wake up. Accept your role as a partner in creation. Rosh Hashanah is the time and wherever you are is the place to begin.”

So much has been invested in us, the Jews of today,  individually and collectively. Returning that investment with interest, for the benefit of those “here with us this day,  as well as those not here with us this day” (Deut. 29:13)  is one of the greatest satisfactions a person can enjoy. May it be yours this Rosh Hashanah, ushering in a year that is good and sweet.

Teaching The Torah of Conservative Judaism

The following address was given at the 2016 Rabbinical Assembly convention.

Let me begin by saying that for me it is an honor beyond words to address my colleagues in the RA once more as chancellor of JTS. Working with you over the years; visiting the institutions that you lead; teaching and learning with you each January at RTI; benefitting from the excellent mentoring that you provide year after year to JTS students; getting the benefit of your wisdom, experience, and friendship in frank conversation on issues we face in our community and at JTS; partnering with RA leadership on these issues, publicly and behind the scenes; hearing the Jews you work with sing your praises—which does happen more than you might realize—all of that and more fills me with pride.

At a deep, personal level, you provide me with the pleasure of companionship, as together we walk a path in Torah that is not as well-travelled these days as we might like, if it ever was, but which—I believe, as you do—is of great and enduring importance for the future of our community and to the vitality of Torah. JTS would not be investing in the campus construction that has forced us to meet at Park Avenue Synagogue instead of 3080 Broadway if we were not confident in the future of our institution and in the kind of Judaism that inspires us. For reasons I shall explain in a moment, I believe that future is bright.

The personal meaning I have in walking our distinctive path in Torah is greater still because of the close connection to Conservative Jewish leaders who preceded us. For me, of course, that means especially the men and women who walked the halls of JTS and paced the dalet amot of the Chancellor’s Office. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual conversation with Gerson Cohen. Many in this room, of course, knew him well. I spoke to Cohen at length only once: about 30 years ago, when he offered me a position on the JTS faculty. But I’ve been reading him a lot lately, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Blessing of Assimilation” address. In the course of that reading I was particularly struck by an essay called, “Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Jewish Faith,” which Cohen delivered at an RA Yom Iyyun in 1981. Several passages in it say a lot about the Torah that is distinctive to the kind of Judaism that you and I teach and try to live.

The first occurs in the opening paragraph of the talk, right after Cohen asserts that “critical scholarship and traditional faith and practice are the pillars upon which Conservative Judaism rests.” He then says the following: “If learning and scholarship do not affect our religious faith and behavior, we are simply engaging in a kind of antiquarian exegesis. If critical learning does not have an effect on our theology, on our experience of God, we have to ask ourselves why we are engaging in it with such tenacity.”

Exactly. To me, “Conservative Torah” as you and I teach i—whether our Torah she bichtav, found in the set of texts from Frankel to the present that I teach in my seminar on Conservative Judaism at JTS—or Torah she b’al peh, transmitted and embodied in countless drashot, modes of practice, and styles of discourse, as well as in distinctive sensibility, emotional valence, and musical traditions—is permeated by our desire to bring together what we know about our history, our texts, and the history of our texts, with what we know about our world and from our world.

We seek wholeness, we Conservative Jews; we want the two parts of levaveinu, minds and hearts, to be in sync as much as humanly possible, and to be in sync too with our souls and our strivings; we want to serve God as best we can in this world, in shul and out, in our homes and on the way. We want to be God’s partners in making the world more just and compassionate. And we know, oh do we know, how hard that is. The work requires serious Talmud Torah, in the expanded definitions of learning and of Torah that have always been a distinctive feature of our Conservative way.

Citing etymological evidence from the Akkadian, Cohen argued that the passage from Proverbs that serves as his key text—“bekhol derakhekha da’ehu” (Proverbs 3:6)—means “that we must experience God in every ramification of our lives.” Lada’at means to know something [or someone] “ethically, sexually, physically, intellectually.” We should make it the central principle of our lives, Cohen said, “to experience the presence and the Word of God in every area of our being.” Only so “will we be able to overcome the fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.” And because the point is to live God’s Torah in the real world, which is rapidly changing, “one thing is certain: we cannot allow ourselves to be rigidly confined by the authority of earlier ages.”

Several implications follow directly, in my view, for the teaching of our Torah. One is that contemporary Jewish ethics, both personal ethics and social ethics, must be front and center when we Conservative Jews teach Torah and seek to live Torah. My veneration for Abraham Joshua Heschel stemmed initially from the fact—and photograph—of his march beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and from his remarkable integration of great learning and piety with courageous social/political activism. That is true for many of my generation, and remains the case today.

I believe that Gerson Cohen would have strongly approved of JTS’s new degree program and adult learning initiative in the field of ethics. Indeed, it seems to me that in 2016 we cannot but recognize that humanity faces a global ethical challenge never before encountered: all the children of Noah may soon be unable to “live upon ha-aretz la-vetach,” in such a way that “the land yields its fruit and we can eat our fill,” as Parashat Behar puts it (Lev. 25:28-19). Leviticus is in many ways the most intimate of the Torah’s five books. It meets us frail, mortal human beings where we live, in our skins and with our families, in private spaces of home and tabernacle. But in this passage the Torah instructs us as a society, as a species, that divine blessings of rain and sun will surely turn to curses if we do not do our part in stewarding God’s earth properly.

The curses we will soon read in Parashat Behukotai bear time-sensitive significance as never before. Massive disruptions of rain and fertility are happening before our eyes, millions of people are already without food and shelter as a consequence, human dignity suffers greatly every day—all this the result not of divine punishment (at least not visibly so) but from human action and inaction. Ancient Israelites were promised a second chance by God, once the Land has observed the Sabbaths it had been denied by non-observance of sabbatical laws. The scientists hold out no such hope for us.

Conservative Torah, echoing Moses’s Torah, must have a lot to say on this point now and in coming years. We can’t allow the universality of the problem to dissuade us from raising a distinctive Jewish voice of alarm and address, any more than we can permit the particularity of our love and concern for Israel to silence our defense of its legitimacy or our aspiration that it live up to the promises of its Declaration of Independence and the prayers of countless generations.

In order for Conservative Torah on this or anything else to be heard in 2016, or to deserve to be heard, two other aspects of bekhol derakhekha da’ehu seem to me essential.

One is the emphasis upon experience. Conservative Judaism, with strong input from JTS, has never lacked intellectual heft. Its ideas, its emphasis upon learning, its devotion to intellectual achievement and intellectual integrity, have been of incalculable importance to many of us over the years. They are obviously important to me. I’d venture to say that Benjamin Sommers’s book, Revelation and Authority, published last year, will take its place on the shelf of key texts that define Conservative Torah and fortify our conviction as Conservative Jews. I trust that books and ideas will never cease to play a central role in our kind of Judaism.

Even so: when I look back upon my life—upon my life as a Jewish human being, upon my life as a Conservative Jew—it is not the intellectual piece that seems most salient. Experience counts for more. Reflect with me now upon your own lives and I bet the same will be true for you.

I’m thinking of the wedding made for my wife and me by Minyan M’at in 1982; the day, like the congregation that danced us to and from the huppah, was a creation of havurah Judaism that was in turn a direct outgrowth of Conservative Judaism and could not have existed without it.

The single greatest religious experience of my life without a doubt was watching my daughter come into the world at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. I remember dancing around the room with her in my arms, singing “Baby, baby I hear a symphony,” and saying over and over again, “Thank God, thank God.” I had reviewed some reproductive biology, and accepted it as scientific fact; I also knew for a fact that my wife and I had not performed that miracle alone. God was in that place, ve-anokni kein yada’ti (“I, I did know it”). Conservative Judaism had freed us for that synthesis of faith and science, undergirded it with reason, and helped me to translate it at that moment from thought to primal emotion.

I know from the survey data that I am typical in the fact that so much of the deepest meaning in my life is bound up in my family. Sovereign selves melt in gratitude at ritual events with children, grandchildren, or extended family. In my case the memories that pack the most emotional punch, even now, include my daughter’s brit bat in Jerusalem and my son’s brit in Palo Alto; blessing our kids at the Shabbat dinner table, and watching my father cry every time he was present for that blessing; the way my wife and I learned from our communities to celebrate our kids’ bat and bar mitzvah, just as those communities helped us to find the strength—emotional and cognitive, to deal with our parents’ deaths.

Kaplan was not entirely wrong when he said that recital of the Shema is an occasion for experiencing the thrill of being a Jew. I certainly feel that thrill when the Torah is returned to the Ark each Shabbat morning to one of the soaring chants we use in Conservative shuls for Etz Hayim Hi. I know that Torah is my life, and it is satisfying to feel that, and to know that everyone around me is feeling it, too, each in his or her own way. The same is true when we dance at Simhat Torah or chant that final Avinu Malkeinu at Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, or rise to sing Ha’tikva on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. The gifts of Community with a Capital C and Meaning with a Capital M are on vivid display on such occasions. The power of those two gifts acting in unison is deeply felt.

My point, familiar to every rabbi here, is that we dare not neglect this non-intellectual, affective, and highly personal aspect of the Jewish self: the one that forms the backdrop to most of Leviticus; the one so wrapped up for me (and not only me) in music. Conservative Torah needs to take its cue from Moses’s Torah in addressing this experiential dimension of the self, evident when Rebekka cries out to God during childbirth, or Esau cries out to Isaac with bitter weeping, “Bless me too, my father” (Gen 27:34), or Jacob, having run a from Laban and about to face Esau, says to God in one of his finest moments, “I am unworthy of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have done with Your servant” (Genesis 32:11). I am grateful to God for the chance to meet up with those pesukim and many others year after year. Heschel’s lyrical evocations of the soul’s yearnings stir me to the depths. Be’khol derakhe’kha da’ehu.

I believe, despite all the depressing statistics of Pew reports, that if Conservative clergy continue to share this sort of experience with others, Jews and non-Jews alike, drawing on all of who we are, many of those individuals and families will want to be part of our community of Torah. That reference to the survey data will not be my segue to defending our movement’s strength and prospects at length yet again. But I will say a few words on this subject. We all know, or should, that Conservative Jews have a lot going for us right now—and that we have a lot of work to do. Our numbers are not what they once were, and will likely continue to fall in coming years. But that is no reason for talk of decline, let alone demise. If you are among those driven to despair by the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, make sure you are familiar with the valuable context provided by Pew reports on American religion as a whole, as well as the altered view of the data that results from disaggregation of the “non-Orthodox” category. We’re indebted to Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer for that important work and to Alan Silverstein and others for bringing it to our colleagues’ attention.

My confidence in the future derives in large part from the quality of our people: proud Conservative Jews who in so many cases are leaders in their fields, and who do what they do in the world, whether professionally or as volunteers, because of the Judaism they have been taught in Conservative auspices. Our future is bright as well because of the kind of talent gathered in this room, and—perhaps most important—because of the excellence of the students, person for person, who have elected to spend their lives serving the Jewish people and our Torah. As of last week, I am happy to report, 19 new rabbinical students are signed up to join the JTS community this coming fall—chai plus one, a very good number for signifying vitality and growth.

I am not Pollyanna-ish, as you know, but I have no patience with reports that confuse numerical decline with imminent demise. The figure always cited for Conservative Judaism’s decline reflects self-identification: an answer to the survey question, “What kind of Jew are you?” If you look at membership percentages, however, Conservative Judaism comes in at 11 percent, compared to 9 percent for Orthodoxy and 14 percent for Reform. The number of the most active Conservative Jews has actually grown in recent years. Success stories in camps, schools, synagogues, and elsewhere abound. Our new Lev Shalem siddur is another case in point. Please: Let’s not lose respect for ourselves or our Jews.

Instead of talking more sociology, I’d like to conclude by stressing one final aspect of the bekhol derakhekha da’ehu theme articulate by Gerson Cohen: how the quest to experience God’s presence and Word in “every area of our being”—the sacred, the Transcendent, the Most High and Deep, the “ineffable” realm of the spirit—helps to overcome the “fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.”

Cohen had that right. I don’t know about you, but I know from experience what he means by fragmentation. I am familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Life pulls us in so many directions. So much to do, so little time, so much suffering to bear with and ease, so many needs to meet, so many desires, noble and less so, so much anxiety for Israel, for America, for our families. I am intensely grateful for the sense of wholeness that Judaism provides. The words “every” and “all” mean a lot to me. We cannot experience this sense of wholeness if we repress the doubts and convictions of our 21st century minds, or if our minds are at odds with our hearts or with our souls. It is not possible to seek wholeness, let alone achieve it, if we are unaware that we have souls and that our souls are in need of cultivation—or if our ritual observance is out of sync with our ethical striving—or if my love of Motown or Cezanne, for example, cannot co-exist in synergy with my love of Carlebach niggunim and the Rambam.

The Torah calls on all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, all our effort to find happiness and fulfillment as part of a people and a faith larger than ourselves. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the possibility of you and I achieving any “be-kholness” in life is a function of God’s “ehad-ness.” The Shema connects the two for us, in plain sight, and has us recite the promise of that linkage—and its unbreakable connection to love—each morning and evening of our lives. At rare moments we get to experience it—and perhaps to figure out, thanks to such experience, what the words mean. This central element of Conservative Torah is one for which I am deeply grateful.

I love this Judaism of ours, and I cannot be pessimistic about its prospects, certainly not when I am here with you, surrounded by rabbis older and younger, women and men, gay and straight—our collective “be-kholness.” I cannot not believe our future is anything but bright, given all we have going for us.

Conservative Torah is alive and well because it is Torah that we live for and live by, drawing on age-old Jewish wisdom about the needed balance between that which must change, lest Torah fail to speak to dramatically changed circumstances, and that which must not change at any cost, lest we lose what is most precious in our tradition—and in the process lose ourselves. I hope that that in the weeks and months to come every member of the RA will take advantage of the increasing number of ways in which JTS can help you to locate that balance and bring this Torah to more and more Jews hungry for the community and meaning that is Torah’s gift to all who take hold of it.

Dear High, Dear Central High

I walked the halls of my high school last week for the first time since I graduated 46 years ago. It was, no pun intended, a real high: not only for reasons of sentiment and the pleasures of nostalgia—the cafeteria exactly as I remembered it; the corridors and lockers the same except for fresh coats of paint; the English class with the blackboard where I knew it would be and the desks scattered in proper disorder—but because the students of today were every bit as motivated,  talented, and happy in  their learning as  I remembered my classmates were way back when. The Central High Alumni Association presented me with an award and will place a plaque including my picture on the alumni “Wall of Fame” along with seven other new inductees. But the greatest satisfaction of my visit was not in memory but observation. At a time of dwindling support for liberal arts and public schools alike, Central remains a model of what a public high school should be. There is a lot to be learned from its example—including lessons for JTS.

The mythology of the place has always given a mighty assist to its character. Founded in 1836, opened in 1838, entitled by its charter to award a BA in addition to a diploma, enrolling academically talented young men (and, since the late 1980s, young women), and providing them entrée to the civic and professional elites of Philadelphia, Central—to students and city alike—is more than just a school. It is a symbol: proof of what a diverse student body, elevated by first-rate teaching and facilities, and raised on the expectation of high achievement, can do in the world. All the new hall-of-famers in my cohort spoke in one way or another about these themes at the event last week: how we had come from neighborhood schools of middling quality and somewhat provincial family backgrounds, had not had direct and sustained encounter before Central with great books, ideas, and possibilities and owed much of our subsequent achievement to the experience at our alma mater. We received these gifts through the demands of wonderful teachers in classes filled with students from every neighborhood of the city, representing several religions and multiple ethnic backgrounds.

In my day, Central was a mix of Jews, Italians, and African-Americans, with a smattering of other White Protestants and Catholics. Many grew up in immigrant households. You know in principle before you get to a place like Central that intelligence and virtue are not limited to people of your own persuasion, but it is something else to experience that reality in science or history class, or on the ball field. Respect for others changes from something one should have because it is right to something that comes naturally when one is surrounded by people who elicit respect by virtue of who they are and what they accomplish. What is more, you experience with them the special kind of bond that comes from learning together. Sometimes the learning takes place side by side, with the added glue that results from shared trials (that physics exam no one could pass) and collective elation (we did it!). Sometimes it comes from what other members of the class teach you. That kid you barely knew but always kind of wanted to offers an insight into a poem or painting that stuns you with how true it is to your experience of the world. You can’t believe anyone else saw it that way too, least of all this person so different from you. One is grateful for that: grateful to the teacher whose assignment made it possible, to the artist who got it right, to that new friend you will be happy to see, if you get the chance, at an alumni event 46 years later. You are connected. You are not only wiser because of this school, but less alone in the world, more at home.

I spoke at the event about one teacher in particular: John J. Mulloy, who was not satisfied with existing textbooks on the intellectual history of the West and so spent many hours, day after day, typing up the texts he wanted us to read (I remember Coleridge and Burckhardt, Eliot and Nietzsche, and a Catholic historian named Christopher Dawson) onto a stencil and then running off multiple copies on a mimeograph machine. The smell of the ink is still vivid in my mind—and so is the sense of growth of my mind and heart in Mr. Mulloy’s class, as palpable as the inches added in those same years to my height. It mattered to me even then that my favorite teacher was a practicing Catholic and a cultural Conservative—not ways of being with which I was familiar.

Twice a week after Central (and again on Sundays), I walked up Olney Avenue to Broad Street and then down Tabor Road to the Hebrew High School program at Gratz College, where I studied with faculty that included my other favorite teacher, Rabbi Sam Lachs. The great books of two traditions encountered one another in me and complemented one another far more than they collided. The walk from Central to Gratz gave life and substance to the hyphen in my identity as American Jew. You are larger than your individual self, both teachers taught.  (Last week, in the archives, I found a column written by Mr. Mulloy in an edition of the Central newspaper for which I wrote as a senior deploring the fact that most Americans had not followed JFK’s urging, and still worked only for their own welfare rather than for that of their country). We are citizens of a country and a world that include far more than our own particular group. There are higher powers—or One Higher Power—at work. Neither Mulloy nor Lachs ever preached in class, and neither seemed to me to represent a simple faith, and perhaps because of that both stood for versions of Truth and Right to which I could give credence, in teenage years when credence does not come easily.

You can matter, this education taught me and everyone else, in the way that mattering really counts: doing good. I transmitted to the students at the dinner and those I met at lunch the next day a message about leadership that has been expressed to me by political and religious leaders over the years. The most important prerequisite of being a leader is not managerial ability, technical knowledge, smarts, or people skills, though all of those are required. More important still is personal integrity. How can people work with you, or follow you, if they do not know who you are and what you stand for? How can they walk ahead of you, as you want them to do if you are a true leader, and grow stronger by your side, unless they know that in so doing they advance along the path that you, too, walk, and on which you want them to walk?

Many JTS students benefit from teachers as devoted to their craft as Mr. Mulloy and as committed to their tradition (and radical in their approach) as Rabbi Lachs. Our students are not all of one mind, thank goodness, nor are our faculty. They learn as much from the presence of people who share their passion for Torah but disagree profoundly in how they live and interpret it, as they do from the texts themselves. They will one day soon lead communities that are rapidly changing, and—in order to lead successfully—will need the personal integrity, self-knowledge, and immersion in Jewish tradition that are more essential at a time like this than in periods when lives and institutions are relatively stable. Our leaders will need to respect the communities they help to guide in all their diversity of belief and practice.

It’s great to remember “those days gone by, the glorious days of old,” in the words of Central’s anthem. Better still, however, is to make sure that we use what we learned to enliven classrooms (and, for JTS, to strengthen synagogues, Federations, camps, and communities) now and in the future. A good high school, a good teacher, a good set of classmates, can make all the difference in an individual’s future—and our collective future.


Rabbinic Training Institute 2012

Prayer and Learning in the JTS Courtyard

Prayer and Learning in the JTS Courtyard

/ 24 Tevet 5772

I spent much of last week in the company of about 70 Conservative rabbis—participants in the annual workshop sponsored by JTS that is known informally as “rabbi camp” and formally as RTI, the Rabbinic Training Institute. The schedule includes text classes in the morning offered by faculty from JTS and other institutions (I co-taught a course with Rabbi Gordon Tucker on the nature and authority of mitzvah and halakhah). In the afternoons there are professional skills workshops offered by experts in the relevant fields (e.g., psychology or management). Read the rest of this entry »