On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘High Holidays’

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.

Bridging the Secular/Religious Divide in Ourselves and the World

The Yom Kippur liturgy holds out a special welcome, which I want to reinforce, to the tens of thousands of Jews who will attend High Holiday services this year, and perhaps fast all or part of the day despite complex and ambivalent feelings about religion and uncertainty or outright skepticism about belief in God. If you are among them, let me urge you not to be put off from fully embracing the opportunity this day affords by the fact that the liturgy seems to assume a year-round regimen of practice in which you may not engage, and makes assumptions about life and death that you may not share. Let me confess that one of the most important moments to me in the history of modern Jewish thought—my scholarly field of expertise—is the one in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone, when Heschel follows a gorgeous and moving page describing personal religious experience of God with a chapter titled in boldface headline, “Doubt.”

I want to build on that juxtaposition of faith and doubt for the next few moments, in the hope of helping all of us take maximum advantage of the 24 hours ahead. I want to challenge the assumption that the purpose of Yom Kippur is to get us to be more religious, in the sense in which that word is ordinarily used these days—religious as opposed to secular. In my view, we are not meant to go forth from this hall at the end of Ne‘ilah and forswear life in the secular world in favor of a putative religious existence in some other realm. Most of us live our lives in the secular world, and have no intention of abandoning it. We treasure science and technology; culture and the arts; the free exchange of ideas; the fabric of daily existence with family and friends that we share with other participants in modern times. If I thought that the purpose of Judaism, and so of Yom Kippur, was to get me to leave that way of life behind—as some forms of Judaism maintain—then my position on Judaism would bear the same title as that chapter in Heschel’s book: doubt.

Thank goodness the very opposite is the case. The Judaism I have been taught all my life—the JUDAISM of the Bible and the Rabbis—has no interest in the religious/secular dichotomy. Jewish tradition has never fit comfortably inside the notion of religion. Fasting and prayer are two among many hundreds of commandments meant to guide Jews to a good life and a better world. The Hebrew Bible includes lengthy legislation and narrative concerning politics, economics, social justice, and the arts; profound philosophical ruminations and moral insights; one of the greatest love poems ever written; and bloodcurdling tales about kings and their intrigues that highlight the limits, use, and abuse of power. Major sections of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes likewise cannot be contained inside any narrow definition of religion. They remind us that the Torah does not command Jews to be religious. It commands us to be holy, to pursue justice, to walk humbly with our God. That requires action outside the sanctuary more than inside it; seven days a week, and not just one.

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