On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

I think the case for humanities has to be made differently, building on Leland Stanford’s wisdom and Hennessy’s point that humanities “enrich our personal lives . . . teach us how to build on the past and construct things never before imagined.” Among the purposes of higher education, I believe, is to help a person think intelligently about what it means to be a human being (in JTS’s case, a Jewish human being). The sciences are indispensable to that task. They explain our part in the natural world, the place of our planet in the galaxy, the way our bodies work, the way we fit into the food chain, how it is that I can write this sentence and you can read it. The social sciences are no less essential. They teach us what it means to be a user of language, tools, and machines; the patterns and dysfunctions of societies and states; the distribution of wealth and resources; the uses and abuses of money, power, and influence.

Humanities disciplines have two major roles in this scheme of things. They teach us, via close encounter with and discussion of texts and historical documents, to pay close attention to arguments and insights, weigh values as well as facts, and learn from voices and experiences far different than our own. The humanities also teach us to reflect on the facts about our universe, world, society, and selves revealed by the sciences and social sciences. They give citizens the ability to weigh competing goods and obligations, and individuals the ability to think about the moral significance of sickness and disease, the religious significance of our place in the cosmos, and the meaning for love and friendship of the fact that we are bodies that respond like all other life forms to chemical and physical stimuli.

JTS has, from the outset, aimed at educating Jewish leaders——who understand the complex web of interactions linking Jewish communities and traditions to the cultures and societies of which we are a part. We do not want Jews to keep science and faith in separate pockets, carefully insulated from the challenges each poses to the other. We want to further a kind of Judaism that respects and learns from other religions, values the insights of the arts and social sciences, insists that Jewish wisdom be brought to bear on every aspect of contemporary society—and that it be enriched and corrected by other sources of knowledge and truth.

That is why the undergraduate students in JTS’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies are encouraged in a new senior seminar to integrate what they have learned in their dual-degree studies at Barnard College or Columbia University with what they have learned at JTS: linking political science with Talmud, say, or chemistry with Bible. For the same reason, students in the List College Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship are taught to bring classroom learning to bear on the knowledge gained in field placements and vice versa, putting “academia and activism in conversation with one another,as one student put it. Our cantorial students study Jewish education—not only to improve job prospects, but to bring arts and social sciences into dialogue. Our rabbinical students learn about other faiths and faith communities along with Jewish texts and Jewish history.

“The day is short and the work great.” Our Sages knew this long before the explosion and instant accessibility of knowledge made it utterly impossible for any of us to know what we should in order to achieve the wholeness for which we yearn. The quest remains as it has always been: one wants to love God and God’s creatures with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.” Higher education that integrates study in sciences and humanities can make a major contribution to the integrity of our persons.

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.

Aseh lekha rav.” Rabbis are teachers of Torah first of all, teachers of a very special sort: love of learning and teaching Jewish tradition, modeling that love, epitomizing the kind of life to which Torah calls us is as much the first perquisite of the rav today as it was in previous eras. Rabbis do much more than transmit information in a way that students can grasp. They stand behind and stand for what they teach, testifying through their every act to the enormous amount at stake in the learning and practice of Torah: not just the welfare of the individual teacher and student, but the well-being of the world. A 17th-century Puritan writer on the subject of vocation held that the first sign of a calling is pleasure and proficiency at the work. If you take deep satisfaction from the study of Torah—whether “Written Torah” or “Oral Torah” (I define the latter as the teachings and lives built up over the centuries around the core of the Five Books of Moses)—and if you want to share the privilege of such study with others; if you are (or think you could be) really good at this study and teaching; if you find that the deeper you go into Torah, the deeper and higher you are able to go into life—and vice versa—then this calling might be yours.

From the outset, JTS has prioritized several elements of learning, all of which are designed to get students to the point where they know enough about Jewish tradition and how it has developed and changed over the centuries that they are equipped and empowered to take responsibility for carrying the tradition forward, including—if need be—by introducing changes. There is wisdom for our day to be discovered in the pages and precedents of Jewish tradition, halakhah to guide us through terrain as yet uncharted, insights into God’s intentions waiting to be gleaned. That is why JTS rabbinical students learn not only text but a diverse wealth of commentaries written on the text, from ancient times until the present, and why they study not only text but context: the history of communities, institutions, and ideas that fed into the texts and followed from them. We emphasize the study of texts in their original languages so that access to the tradition is immediate and the texts make maximal impact on the learner. Our students come to understand the main lines of consensus that have kept Judaism strong over the centuries, as well as the lines of disagreement that have been sources of strength at some times, but threatened to tear our people apart at others. No question is out of bounds to our study of Torah, no area of knowledge or experience irrelevant. A rabbi needs to know how to learn and—no less important—how to teach with all one’s heart and mind, all one’s soul, all one’s might.

Ke-nai lekha haver.” For a rabbi, study of Torah is far from an academic pursuit. Jews are bound in Covenant to one another, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are here to make the world better—more just and compassionate—and Torah is the path. The conversation that we carry on in the classroom, the synagogue, the cafeteria, and the homeless shelter is the one that began on high at Sinai. Its fulfillment requires work on the ground that always takes place at eye level, face-to-face, in relationships. Rabbis are community builders first, last, and always. Community is where we live, and so where Torah must be; community gives us agency—power to do things—that we lack as individuals. It is true that the Torah provides individuals with enlightenment as to the right path on which to walk, and offers pleasures to mind and spirit—intricate logical puzzles, flights of fancy and wordplay, breathtaking insights into life’s mysteries and quandaries—as satisfying as any you will ever encounter. But, as the Rabbis of old reminded us, study of Torah—while great in its own right—is even greater when it leads to right action. The world needs to be made better. You and I need return and renewal. Every teacher of Torah needs to rise in his or her level of holiness.

Every part of ourselves—and of every member of our community—is required for the teaching we do, and that teaching takes place in word and in deed, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we sit at home and when we walk on public thoroughfares. Rabbis, as the authorized bearers of this unique learning, must draw upon all they have and give all they are to the learning, whether they are serving in a school or a camp, in a synagogue, or in an organization working for social justice; whether they are engaged in advocacy for Israel, or advocacy for greater observance. They must know how the members of their communities make a living, how they conduct their marriages and raise their kids, how the Jewish world functions (and at times proves dysfunctional). Mind is needed, but so is mindfulness. Knowledge is essential, but so too is the manner of learning. A teaching about humility, for example, cannot be delivered arrogantly; the command to pursue justice cannot be heard in a setting that is oppressive; testimonies to the joy and relevance of Torah in ages past must not be smothered in stultifying routine or deadness of spirit. God spoke to Moses face-to-face, the Torah tells us in one of its most remarkable passages, and rabbis can do no less in all their interactions with the communities they serve.

That is why JTS has made Clinical Pastoral Education an essential and required element of the curriculum. Our students spend hundreds of hours working with hospital and hospice patients, grieving with people in mourning, listening to stories of the elderly, and learning to listen to lengthy silences. Every student whom I talk to about this training tells me, and I quote: “It changed my life. Not just my rabbinate.” Any good classroom teacher learns to hear the questions that students do not ask as well as those they do. We all value this ability in our friends, and even expect it of them. Rabbis must have it as well. Leadership consists of many things, but none of them more important than listening carefully and speaking to every member of the community one-to-one, face-to-face.

He-vai dan et kol ha-adam le-khaf zechut.” Seeing the best in people is a lot harder than it sounds, particularly when one knows them in contexts that do not always bring out the best in them. Synagogue and school board meetings are one such place, from my experience; life crises are sometimes another; moments of experiencing judgment—whether by God or parents or conscience—are a third. Rabbis may figure in all of these, perhaps in a single day—and besides, seeing others clearly, free of our own needs, desires, and projections is difficult in any situation. It’s a lot easier to stand before God, and to stand before others, if we can—like the angels—be ahuvim, berurim, and gibborim: have all the love we require, think clearly and without distortion, and conquer our basest inclinations. A rabbi has got to be on top of the transference and countertransference at work with any person of authority, let alone one who represents an ancestral tradition bound up with morality and God. Gender roles will come into play. The need for a rabbi’s blessing is sometimes profound. Matters of the heart are rarely straightforward, and Judaism is very much a matter of the heart.

I think that when I told that rabbi 40 years ago that I lacked the faith needed to be a rabbi, I was talking as much about faith in myself and my own abilities as I was about faith in God. Congregants had not always treated the rabbis well in the synagogue in which I grew up. I was shy, and rather thin-skinned. Why set myself up for failure in a profession for which I seemed unsuited? You too may have such doubts. It’s hard not to, if you consider the job with requisite seriousness. How can a newly ordained rabbi guide others through life, even with the proven assistance of Torah? How can a young person counsel someone half-a-century older? How shall those untested by life’s cruelties marshal the wisdom needed to speak truth to those on the other side of pain or suffering in its clutches?

This, to me, is the wisdom of Rabbi Yehoshua’s adage in Pirkei Avot: we must judge everyone “on the scale of righteousness,” ourselves included. None of us is perfect. All of us fail at times. We miss the mark, and worse. The recognition of this imperfection in ourselves is what enables us to be helpful to others. It makes us worthy of leading them. I sometimes encounter people who claim to love Judaism but do not much care for Jews, or who profess to love Jews in general but are not generous to the ones they know well. A rabbi must love Judaism and love the Jewish people, and must demonstrate that love every day.

Demonstrations of sincere passion are more necessary at a time like this, when Jews have the option to leave Judaism behind and millions exercise that option. We often underestimate the degree to which Jews internalize the hostility directed at our people, whether this occurs in age-old patterns of anti-Semitism or newfound methods of delegitimizing Israel. Jews are admittedly sometimes hard to love (that, I think, is why Ahavat Yisra’el [love for one’s fellow Jews] is a commandment). Members of a congregation, by definition, will not be as observant as their rabbis would like (you will have made Judaism your life’s work, and for most of them it remains one of many elements in life). Students will not be studious enough. Activists for justice may seem insufficiently engaged. And your job is to elicit the best in them, ask more of them, understanding that that is exactly what they want you to do, are counting on you to do, as their rabbi.

This brings us back to the issue of faith, which Judaism has usually construed not as belief that this or that is true, but as trust that ultimately the world, life, being itself, the very foundations of what is can be trusted. I don’t have a definition of God to share with you. JTS does not have one either. How could we? Our Torah, Written and Oral, provides us with a plethora of images of God, knowing that every one of them is inadequate, but urging us to be confident that God stands on the side of justice and compassion and stands with us when we stand there. At the end of the day, the ultimate mysteries belong to God, but the revealed things given to us and our children are enough to do what the Torah requires. I believe that. I have that faith. Reflection, tradition, and experience have joined to grant it to me. I cannot prove the rightness of this path to you—no one can—but I witness to it, as you will when you become a rabbi, in part in the very title “rabbi” by which you are addressed.

It’s a real gift to be able to spend life teaching Torah, building communities and relationships, and seeing and eliciting the best of what Jews are capable. It’s no less a gift to spend several years in close conversation with men and women who share the commitment to keep Torah vibrant in our time. The Rabbinical School of JTS prepares students well for service in Conservative Judaism—the vision and institutions with which JTS is most closely aligned—as well as in the larger community. It offers the best Jewish education available anywhere, in the midst of a community that deeply values Torah, the quest for justice, and the service of God as much as you do. That is a very special thing, you know. I hope you will think about joining us.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »