On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Encountering History in Jerusalem

I write on the flight home from a four-day trip to Israel, trying to process from 32,000 feet the jumble of events I witnessed on the ground during these few days—all of them developments that may well impact Jewish history for many decades to come. The past is impossible to escape on the streets of Jerusalem; the future is seemingly up for grabs on a daily basis. The bustle of crowds and the screaming headlines are not just street noise but history hurtling forward.

Consider the decision at the beginning of the week to set aside a portion of the Western Wall for mixed prayer by men and women, as well as the congregation known as Women of the Wall. For the very first time, official and explicit government recognition has been afforded to Reform and Conservative Jews. The immediate outcry by Orthodox leaders and politicians provided eloquent testimony to the immensity of what non-Orthodox Jews had just achieved. So did the protests of Jews who were unhappy with the compromise because it left the part of the Wall known to Jews everywhere as “the Kotel” in the hands of Orthodox authorities who have denied women the right to pray there wearing tallit and tefillin, and prohibited any kind of public prayer that did not meet with their approval. I cannot but cheer the compromise, one that I did not believe could possibly happen during the present government, which holds only a one-vote majority in the Knesset that depends on ultra-Orthodox support. But it did happen. Many details still need to be worked out, and the process of implementation might yet be derailed, but the symbolism of what occurred, to my mind, could not be more profound.

What it means is that Jews who live abroad as well as who live in Israel, no matter their belief and practice, have a full share in the Land and State of Israel. The wall is universally held to be “the holiest site in the world” for Jews. If one can only approach that holy site on Orthodox terms; can only pray according to Orthodox rules; cannot open a Torah scroll without Orthodox permission; cannot as a woman wrap oneself in prayer shawl and phylacteries or lead prayer for a mixed congregation or raise one’s voice in petition to the Creator of the Universe—and if all these rules are enforced by Israeli police officers—then the message is loud and clear: this site belongs to us and not to you, as does the authentic form of Jewish tradition, and even—in a very real sense—that State.

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin put the matter with stunning directness when he said that there was no reason to accommodate Reform and Conservative Jews—who were not only a tiny minority in Israel, but would not exist in two or three generations because of assimilation and intermarriage. The Prime Minister immediately dissociated himself from those comments, but Levin refused to retract them—knowing full well that he had centuries of Orthodox disdain for non-Orthodox Jews, and decades of Zionist confidence that the Diaspora would soon disappear.

Conservative Judaism, for its part—our part—has always invoked the authority of history in countering such claims maintained: there has never been only one interpretation of Judaism, never only one way to be Jewish, and—in our brand of Judaism at least—there has always been an emphasis on obligation to the entire Jewish people (even Haredim who won’t give us respect) and strong attachment to the Land and State of Israel. The realities of Israeli society and coalition politics have long denied non-Orthodox Jews an equal playing field in the contest for the minds and hearts of Israeli Jews, just as they have long denied Israelis the right to be converted, married, divorced or buried except by agreement of the (ultra Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate. That changed this week, in one crucial aspect, at one crucial intersection of your life and mine with history.

“It does not give us what we need,” one thoughtful Israeli said to me, “The Kotel, the place where Jews have prayed for centuries, remains in the hands of the Haredim.” “Yes,” I replied, “but centuries from now Jews will regard the place set aside by this week’s decision for non-Orthodox prayer as just as much a part of the Kotel as the other because Jews will have sanctified it by praying there. The stones have stood silent for a very long time, untouched by tears or petitions inserted in their cracks. That will soon change. Israel will change with it.”

Just how much such change is required, from the point of view of the Torah that Jews like me have learned and taught, was underlined by two other events of the week, fitting brackets for the decision about the wall. My arrival coincided with reverberations from the verbal attack by the right-wing Im Tirtzu group on prominent Israeli artists and writers such as Amos Oz and A. B. Yehosha as “plants” (or moles) and “traitors.” Minister of Culture Miri Regev demanded that any artist or arts organization receiving or applying for a government subsidy swear an oath of loyalty to the State and not impugn Israel or its symbols. The move was widely seen as part of a growing campaign by the right to silence its critics—a secular parallel to action by the rabbis with whom the right is politically allied.

That partnership was evident again at week’s end when the chief rabbis along with politicians of the right sought to overturn an army decision that weakened the power of the chief rabbinate’s educational arm in the Israeli Defense Forces. A friend of mine who has one son in the officer corps and another about to be drafted expressed concern – apparently growing inside the army as well as outside it – that rabbis in the military are abusing their special access to the minds and hearts of soldiers. By some accounts, more than half of the officers in the IDF are now Orthodox – a direct result, some say, of the pre-induction yeshivot that, under army auspices, promote the confluence of right-wing politics, Orthodox belief and observance, and military prowess.

I thought, as I reflected on this battle, of the new book by political philosopher Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation. In Israel, as in India and Algeria, Walzer argues, nationalist movements that had achieved independence in part through the use of religious symbols, myths, and longings, have been overtaken several decades afterward by religious parties that deny legitimacy to secular authorities and have gained positions of power in the state. Will Israeli soldiers who pledge loyalty to their rabbis as well as their commanders follow the orders of the latter when the two come into conflict—as they surely will as some point? Or will they follow the rabbis, who not only wear an army uniform but speak in the name of God and Torah?

If only Israel were a peaceful place, these battles for the definition of a Jewish state could be fought through competing teachings, divergent rituals and prayer services, and multiple school systems. Instead they take place against a background that forces one to ask, every week and sometimes every day, not only how but whether Israel will someday come to live at peace with its neighbors. On my way from the airport to Jerusalem, my cab driver told me about the soldier who had been shot by terrorists earlier that day; my cousin Leo told me, as we drove to Mount Scopus for a discussion comparing Latin American and North American Jews, that we would make a giant detour because terrorists had just killed one soldier (a recent female recruit) and wounded two others at the Damascus Gate. The site is a short walk through the Arab Quarter from the Western Wall. “I don’t see an end to this anytime soon,” my cousin said, echoing a sentence I heard many times this week.

Such sobriety and pessimism are widespread these days, along with recognition that Israel represents a truly incredible chapter of Jewish history and that its problems, which are many, are more than matched by its achievements. No one I know is regretting their decision to join their personal fate to Israel’s destiny. The highlight of the week for me was a ceremony honoring four JTS alumni who moved to Israel many years ago and have made notable contributions to its character and its citizens. We conducted the evening in Hebrew, aware that the fact of Hebrew’s revival had transformed Jewish history and greatly altered all of us. Next year in Jerusalem, we hope to celebrate our alumni again.

Educating for Human Wholeness

“As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” reported the New York Times a few months back. “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s major undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities—but only 15 percent of the students.” A principal cause of that disparity, of course, is Stanford University’s reputation in the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another, however, is the economy. It costs a great deal of money to attend a private college or university, and for many parents the outcome upon graduation must be commensurate with the investment, particularly when good jobs are scarce. I can recall many poignant conversations over the course of my 20 years at Stanford with students who wanted to major in Religious Studies or Philosophy, but were forbidden by their parents from doing so. At Harvard too, reported the New York Times, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields.”

In one sense there is no problem with this change, except the underemployment of humanities faculty and dimming job prospects for newly minted PhDs in these fields. One might argue, with some merit, that the point of a college education is to sharpen the mind, unleash powers of creativity and thought, and give students the experience of going deep into a single area of intellectual endeavor—goals that can be accomplished just as well in a biology or math major as in classics or comparative literature. And yet one can’t help worrying that the decline of interest in the humanities does not bode well for the quality of our graduates or our country. I want to explain why I share that judgment, and why I believe that the unique value of humanities education is directly connected to how and why The Jewish Theological Seminary is attempting to educate a new kind of Jewish activist and Jewish leader. The point at JTS, as in higher education generally, is wholeness. We aim at integration of the various faculties of the self in a manner that shapes integrity.

Stanford President John Hennessy, addressing the matter in a recent column in the Stanford alumni’s magazine (“Preparation That Lasts a Lifetime,” January/February 2014), cites the assertion over a century ago by Senator Leland Stanford that “The intelligent development of the human faculties is necessary to man’s happiness,” enabling a person “to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others.” That is true, I believe. The advancement of human happiness seem a far better reason for liberal arts education that includes significant work in humanities than the (no less true) explanation that the humanities inculcate skills needed “to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world,” or, worse still, that they “provide a broad range of skills highly valued by employers in every economic sector.” Does one really need an entire humanities major to develop these abilities? Wouldn’t a required course or two on the way to a major in STEM subjects suffice? Most schools and students have apparently come to that conclusion—which is why, as at Stanford, there are general education requirements in humanities but very few majors.

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Calling All Rabbis

I post this blog at a moment when the Jewish community in North America urgently needs good rabbis. If you are considering the rabbinate as a vocation or have toyed with the idea in the past or are open to weighing the possibility now, I hope to persuade you to do so. Of course, I’d be most pleased if you pursue your studies for the rabbinate at The Jewish Theological Seminary, which I believe offers the single best training ground for the profession available anywhere, and hope that you will find your spiritual home in Conservative Judaism, which I believe is the most compelling way to teach and practice Torah in our day. But even if you don’t come to JTS, and choose to work outside the framework of Conservative Judaism, I hope you will give the rabbinate serious thought. The Jewish community needs good rabbis across the board, on and off the pulpit, and arguably needs them—needs you—more than ever before.

Let me begin with a personal story. One day about 40 years ago, a rabbi whom I greatly respect asked me in the course of a conversation about my PhD thesis on American Judaism why I was not studying for the rabbinate.“I don’t think I have enough faith to be a rabbi,” I replied without hesitation. His response, as I recall it, was equally immediate. “Faith has nothing to do with being a rabbi.”

It took me years to understand what the rabbi, a man of deep faith, meant by that remark, but now I think I do: he was saying that I could dedicate my life to teaching the Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and representing the tradition and the community to the world at large without attaining clarity (at least at the start) about what I believed on matters such as Creation, Revelation, redemption, or whether God actually hears prayer. Rabbis are teachers first of all. Many (including about 40 percent of those ordained in recent years at JTS) do not serve in a congregational pulpit. If you are leading a Jewish organization or a campus Hillel, for example, “faith in God,” while it is certainly a major asset, might count for less than teaching ability, people skills, and faith in the potential of Jewish individuals and groups to make a difference in the world. I think the rabbi who addressed me that day wanted to make sure that I was not closing the door to a career in the rabbinate because of problems I had at that point with traditional pillars of Jewish belief. I want to do the same for you, though I will return to the question of faith in God in a moment. The years have changed me on that score, and probably will do the same for you.

So what is required of an individual considering the rabbinate? What must you profess, as it were, to join this profession? I offer four thoughts on the matter, based on a very personal reading of Pirkei Avot 1:6.

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Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations

As JTS graduates continue to take their place in the professional world and put Torah into action, the conversation that has been Judaism for millennia expands exponentially. Does what they see in the world relate to their Jewish lives—and to the current statistics they’re reading in the newspapers? How can Conservative Judaism continue to offer free, honest, open, and passionate discussion in contemporary terms?

Please enjoy a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we continue our discussion on the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

Watch “Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations”:

Belfast and Jerusalem: “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall”

On the day a couple weeks ago that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington DC to resume the long-stalled peace process, my wife and I toured Belfast, site of another intractable conflict that long seemed beyond resolution. We learned that—15 years after the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought a formal end to the conflict setting Protestants versus Catholics—the reality on the ground falls far short of peace, let alone reconciliation, even if it also marks a vast improvement over the warfare and terror that had raged before. One cannot help but ponder the lessons of the Belfast situation for the peacemakers resuming work this week in Jerusalem, and for those who want to support their efforts. I offer the following reflections.

First: separation walls have their uses in promoting peace, but are not always helpful in securing reconciliation. Not having studied the situation in Northern Ireland before our brief visit (and by no means an expert now), I was shocked to come upon a wall, 25 to 40 feet high and half a mile long, dividing a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist neighborhood from a twin Catholic-Nationalist-Republican neighborhood on the other side. It is one of 99 such barriers or buffers in Belfast alone. Houses on the Catholic side abutted directly onto the wall. On the Protestant side, there was a large open area of vacant lots and overgrown weeds between the wall and the nearest houses. I could not get over the sight of a Catholic home, adorned at the front with flowers and satellite dish, with the back windows and patio enclosed by heavy metal fencing. It remains my dominant image of Belfast. No less disturbing was the fact that, with the consent of both sides, gates to the two neighborhoods are locked every night. No one can get in or out: a heavy price to pay for protection from the other, and from oneself.

Our two guides—Issac, a former member of a Protestant paramilitary group, and Tommy, once part of the Official (as opposed to the Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA)—were of course beyond shock at the reality that so upset me. Their depression seemed tempered by full awareness of how much better the present situation is than the one that preceded it. Tommy told us of the time British soldiers caught him in a Protestant neighborhood where he had been visiting his girlfriend, pushed him against a wall, and broke both his hands as a warning never to come back. Between puffs on chain-smoked cigarettes and with understated eloquence, Issac described the brutality and senseless violence of “The Troubles,” including murderous rivalries and killings, Mafia-style, among the various Loyalist militias. Our two guides had much in common, and knew it (a fact driven home to us when we shared a meal after the tour and they both ordered an “Ulster Fry”—ham, eggs, and toast—downed with black coffee and cigarettes).

Issac recounted the moving story of how his imprisoned brother (a member of a Loyalist paramilitary, also named Tommy) one day heard the voice of a childhood friend—in jail for IRA military activity—from an adjoining cell. Both were naked except for blankets, a protest against the British decision to treat them as common prisoners and issue them regulation convict garb, rather than treat them as political prisoners, who are permitted—in accordance with that status—to dress in street clothes. Both had grown long black beards. The two former friends and rival gunmen lay prone on the floor of their cells to talk, taking advantage of a narrow opening at the bottom of the wall. “How did we come to this?” they asked one another. Thus, according to the story, began a major personal breakthrough, and a vow to stop young people from going down the same path. Our two guides, together and separately, now work on conflict resolution with groups from Northern Ireland and other world trouble spots; one such retreat brought Israelis and Palestinians together in Belfast. Only face-to-face, person-to-person relationships, they believe, will move Northern Ireland past its history. “Power sharing” between political factions will not suffice. “Things are never going to change so long as it’s a matter of separating the two communities and dividing spoils between them,” they said.

Lesson number two: symbols matter. One part of the separation wall, on the Protestant side, was adorned with murals and messages devoted to the effort of getting Belfast beyond conflict. A visiting Israeli had scrawled “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” the title of the anthem of the Israeli peace movement. We translated the words, and explained their significance to Issac and Tommy. As uplifting as this stretch of wall was, it was outnumbered by others nearby that bore quite different messages, and by flags and parades that asserted identity and ownership. One cannot stay long in Belfast without encountering Protestant parades of men and boys playing fifes and drums. On the Catholic side, one finds memorial gardens and plaques to people who had died for the cause going back almost a century. Murals are everywhere. One, set in a Nationalist neighborhood, features endorsement of the Palestinian cause, the legacy of cooperation between the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A prominent Protestant mural has a militant brandishing a machine gun that uncannily remains pointed at the viewer no matter the angle from which it is approached.

Symbols are better than violence, of course, but these don’t seem to be advancing the cause of lasting peace and genuine reconciliation. There are no unifying symbols, to my knowledge: no flag beyond those of the Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack; no days to celebrate or imagine an era beyond hostilities or coexistence, reflecting the lack of any such option at present, real or imagined. Will Israelis and Palestinians one day trade guns for in-your-face marches through East and West Jerusalem? Will we rejoice at the sight of rival flags, appreciating how much better it is than the sight of bombed out pizza parlors and coffee shops? Or will we manage to find rituals and symbols shared by the two sides, expressing interests and convictions that are truly mutual?

Final lesson: there is no one factor that causes the conflict, and no one factor that can resolve it. Again and again, our two guides stressed that “The Troubles” were sectarian rather than religious, by which they meant that the two communities are not divided primarily by faith, but by ethnic identity and sense of nationhood. Religion continues to play its part; however, clergy cannot help but bless and help to maintain conflicting identities, even if they work against violence. Politics continue to be a major factor, whether as contested division of spoils or the basic question of who has the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives. I was struck by the degree to which the conflict seems to have heated up in recent years with the cooling of the Irish economy. The separation walls divide working class neighborhoods from which Catholics and Protestants alike move up and out with educational and economic attainment. Other areas, such as the one around the university, have a far more normal feel. To some extent, the latest installment of “The Troubles” resembles gang warfare in the “’hood.” The sectarian problems of Belfast likely won’t be solved until job opportunities can be provided to a generation of young people who currently lack both employment and hope.

“They have nothing now,” Issac lamented about those on the dole. Once they were fighters and respected for that. Before that, they had steady, decent jobs in industries that have long since moved away. Now they can’t even find anyone to listen to their stories from those days, let alone someone to hire them for honest work. Disappointment at the Good Friday Agreement is fueled, in part, by absence of the promised “peace dividend”: economic benefits to ordinary citizens. Rabble-rousers exploit poverty in Belfast as they do elsewhere, accusing neighborhoods and politicians on the other side of grabbing more than their fair share. Investment dollars matter a lot to the success of peace, our guides agreed—another lesson for Israel; one of which American promoters of an Israeli-Palestinian accord have long been aware.

I left Belfast sobered by the reminder that peace—difficult as it is to achieve—is not an event but a process. One key stage is reached when the two parties put down weapons and agree to resolve all matters henceforth by democratic means. That is hard enough to accomplish—and it is not sufficient. Despite huge differences between the two conflicts of concern to me in this essay, Robert Frost’s warning in the poem “Mending Walls” seems to apply equally in both cases. On the one hand, “Good fences make good neighbors. It’s simplistic to believe one can entirely do without walls in a place like Belfast. But Frost was wise, and not merely sentimental, to note as well: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Do we really need the separation fences once violence ceases? One “ask[s] to know / What I was walling in and walling out / and to whom I was like to give offense / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Peace, for example.

Israel in Winter

/ 13 Adar 5772

A friend wondered aloud, as we sat in a Jerusalem restaurant on a mild winter day in mid-February, why it is that books continue to be written, and reviewed in Ha’aretz, asking whether Israel has a future.

“Is there any other country in the world where this could happen?” she said.

None came to mind. Nations routinely worry about all sorts of things: political divisions, economic stagnation, ethnic conflict, and the like. Few, even if they were born more recently than the Jewish State, seem plagued by anxiety about their very survival. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Coming Closer to Israel

/ 10 Tevet 5772

I read the responses to my December 21st blog posting on the topic, “Distancing from Israel,” in the wake of a spate of news reports from Israel that graphically illustrated one piece of the problem we face in trying to overcome such distancing. It’s upsetting to many of us here in North America to see pictures of Haredi kids dressed by their parents with yellow Jewish stars in order to liken Israeli police enforcing Israeli law to Nazi murderers of Jews. It’s hard to watch settler extremists torch mosques and break into army bases to protest government policies and law-enforcement that they do not like. It’s painful to Jews brought up to be proud of the Jewish role in America’s civil rights struggle to see images of Jews in Israel separating men and women on buses on religious grounds or hurling abuse at a little girl because she does not dress as they think she should. And sometimes—often—it’s very hard to find images of Israel in our media that counter those. Where are the positive stories that do make us swell with pride? Read the rest of this entry »

West Point, Judaism, and the Languages of Faith

/ 5 Kislev 5772

My posting about the visit I made to West Point in early November garnered a lot of response—and two comments in particular got me thinking more about the points I had raised.

The first, from Kenneth Katz, made the valid point that “there is in fact plenty of interaction between civilians and the military in our country these days, just not in the social and professional circles you inhabit.” True. As it happens, the Pew Research Center came out with a report on November 23 entitled, “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections.” Read the rest of this entry »

At West Point

West Point cadets

West Point cadets, courtesy of West Point Public Affairs.

/ 20 Heshvan 5772

I spent a day at West Point last week—meeting Jewish and non-Jewish cadets, seeing the sights, talking about leadership education with administration and faculty, and teaching a class about Judaism, the distinctive pattern of religious belief and practice in America, and the role of religion in stimulating and sanctifying violence—and in eliciting and sanctifying compassion. It was a powerful experience—rendered all the more so for me by the fact that it took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and—according to the Hebrew calendar—of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Several moments in particular stand out in my memory.

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