On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘The Jewish Theological Seminary’

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.

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.

Strengthening the Bonds Of Jewish Unity

JTS marked the hundredth yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter last week with a short service of commemoration at Minhah, a moving visit to Schechter’s grave at which I was joined by executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer Marc Gary and several recent JTS alumni, and a historic gathering of rabbis, educators, and leaders of all the major Jewish religious movements. I am proud JTS hosted this unprecedented conversation,  which included the heads of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as graduates and students of those institutions, Yeshiva University, and, of course, JTS. We came together to explore the contemporary relevance of one of Schechter’s most seminal ideas—Catholic Israel—his term for the “living body” of Jews, not limited to any denomination, viewpoint, or professional elite, who in each generation assume responsibility for maintaining Jewish tradition and passing it on, compelling and whole, to the next.

Schechter first articulated the idea of Catholic Israel in the 1890s, several years before he arrived at JTS, and drew upon it to shape the institution from the outset. He declared in his 1902 inaugural address that he wanted his Seminary to “avoid sectarianism.” JTS would not give preference to “any denomination or sector theological Richtung (direction). They are all welcome, each working out its salvation in its own fashion. Schechter did hold firmly to certain truths: “I declare, in all humility, but most emphatically, that I do know something.” True religion could not be a “jack-of-all-trades. . . its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods and fallen ideals as to bring it nearer to the true one. It means to convert the world, not to convert itself.”

In the case of Judaism, that meant fidelity to the study and practice of Torah: “There is no other Jewish tradition but that taught by the Torah and confirmed by history and tradition, and sunk into the conscience of Catholic Israel.” His Seminary would teach historical Judaism “in its various manifestations.” As an eminent scholar of Judaism, Schechter recognized the immense (if not unlimited) diversity of its “manifestations” over the centuries. He therefore respected adherents of other forms of Judaism than his own, and—rather than working to put an end to such differences among Jews—sought to unite them under the banner of Catholic Israel. Schechter also saw the need for further variety and change if Judaism were to meet the challenges of his own day.

I would argue that the same need for change-inside-tradition and unity-in-variety holds today. Ours is likewise a time of rapid and unprecedented upheaval: today, too, no one mode of Jewish living has a monopoly on the wisdom, authenticity, or truth with which to navigate the new terrain. Not every belief or practice of every Jewish movement will prove acceptable to every other—JTS cleaves to a distinctive path or practice and belief—but the commonalties among us, borne out by the discussion at JTS last week, remain far greater than our differences. Our group added love for and loyalty to the State and people of Israel to Schechter’s list of those commonalties,  even as we continued to be divided on what it means to “stud[y] the Torah and live in accordance with its laws,”  as Schechter put it. We also disagreedon the question of whether traditional boundaries separating Jews from others can—or should be—set or enforced in our day.

Much of the debate was about “saying yes” as opposed to “saying no.” “What is the price of saying no to someone who wants to come in?” asked one rabbi. To which another countered:  “There comes a moment where we do stand for something. It should not be a surprise when the rabbi shows a religious commitment. . .We can only have a healthy religion when one addresses the costs of saying yes.” Added a third: “Identity is not just about how you feel, but about how your community responds to you.”

It was clear from our discussion that the three B’s of Jewish living—believing, behaving, and belonging—must all pass a bar of approval wielded by virtually every adult outside the Haredi world today to a degree that Schechter could never have imagined.The leaders trained by JTS must know how to attract such Jews with experiences of meaning and community at once grounded in the Jewish past and thoroughly engaged with the Jewish present. We also want them to be loyal to Torah—and, because of that loyalty, willing to adjust Torah to changing demands of the day. They need to be loyal to the Jewish people and Judaism–and, because of that loyalty—open to and respectful of human beings of other faiths and communities. They cannot do this if we say no to every innovation and cause—or always say yes.

Despite himself, Schechter ended up the founder of a movement.  He established the Rabbinical Assembly for JTS alumni and the United Synagogue for the congregations they served.  But even in his opening address to the latter organization, he added the words “or Orthodox, or Traditional,” every time he said the word, “Conservative.” And Schechter never abandoned his belief that Jews “stand now before a crisis” that mandated cooperation and mutual respect.

That holds for us too, I believe—and should impel the various movements to act jointly more than ever before. Our synagogues and schools could share facilities, staff,  and—wherever possible—students;  our Seminaries could, in addition, share faculties with one another as well as with neighboring institutions of higher learning. We should be building multipurpose campuses that house multiple Jewish organizations rather than only one; funders and foundations should provide incentives for such cooperation.

But, as Schechter firmly believed, such cooperation need not be merely instrumental. There is much substantive agreement that transcends movement boundaries, and Jews inside the circle of agreement that marks Catholic Israel can and should cooperate with those outside for the welfare of the Jewish people. Schechter’s endorsement of the Zionist movement—despite the militant secularism of some of its leaders—provides a notable example. I hope that members of last week’s gathering will soon exchange ideas on how to effect significant cooperation among us.

Let us, like Schechter, cleave faithfully to Torah and never cease “appreciating everything Jewish and falling in love with 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.


Commentary Symposium: The Jewish Future

The impossibility of predicting the long-term Jewish future in America or anywhere else was highlighted for me recently by the announcement of a scholarly conference devoted to the question of whether the world’s food supply would still be adequate in 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Commentary’s questions implicitly assume, among other things, that solutions will have been found to global warming (or that the ecological disasters currently forecast prove false alarms); that China will not have supplanted America as the dominant economic and political power in the world (a development that would curtail the influence of American Jewry and threaten the security of Israel); that Islamic terrorism will have been eliminated or contained; and that Israel will have found a way to live peaceably with the Palestinians inside its borders, with Arab and Islamic neighbors, and with the diverse, contentious groups of Jews who comprise the majority of its citizenry. All these variables bear directly on the Jewish future. They greatly disturb one’s sleep in 2015 and make it difficult to dream about better days.

Continue reading my contribution to “Symposium: The Jewish Future” in Commentary.

Jerusalem and Zionism on Edge

Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them. Security around the prime minister’s residence, located directly across the street from JTS’s Schocken Library, where our students in Israel meet for classes, was even more rigorous than usual. One friend told me his kids were afraid to go to school. Reassured by their parents, they went nonetheless. No one to whom I spoke had panicked; no one cowered at home, even if no one was taking needless chances. Cafes and restaurants had lots of patrons and had not posted guards at the door.  My friends agreed, as they prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that this latest and worrisome chapter of the matsav might go on for some time and would not lead to anything positive.

I sensed the same mix of foreboding, resolve, and focus on tasks near at hand in the halls of the 37th Zionist Congress. That gathering of world Jewry is what drew me to visit Jerusalem this time, as a member of the Mercaz Olami delegation of Masorti-Conservative Jews. It felt good to be there, to stand with Israel and Israelis at a time when their sense of isolation is acute. Two Israeli friends told me how much my presence there meant to them. Shabbat really did seem like a taste of the world to come, its respite followed at once by news of more violence. Israel—despite all this—was a wonderful place to be. But calm, in Jerusalem, it was not.

The most meaningful part of my trip was sitting with JTS rabbinical students at Schocken, hearing about their experience in the program in Israel thus far and giving them a chance to air their feelings at being caught in the latest outbreak of violence. I told them of the steps JTS is taking to maximize both their safety and their sense of safety. They were understandably anxious, appreciative of JTS’ concern for their well-being, and quietly determined to face whatever challenges the situation presented, along with the rest of Israel. Our brief discussion of what could or should be done to improve the situation evinced a variety of views, as it has among Israelis in general.  The intimacy and honesty of that conversation brought home the toll that violence takes, but also the solidarity it fosters, the resolve it breeds among many to work harder still for a solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress drew worldwide attention for his claim about the role of the mufti of Jerusalem in inciting the “Final Solution.”  To me the Prime Minister seemed worn out, exhausted, hardened. I appreciated the burden of the immense responsibilities he bears and even so could not understand why he made no effort to rouse this audience with the thing most needed right now: vision, hope, and aspiration. His lecture on the “ten big lies” circulated by the Palestinian Authority drew only scattered and perfunctory applause. If offered neither hope nor vision. I found that depressing.

The plenary panel of which I was a member took the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as a given, and asked whether—in 2015—there is still any point to Zionism. That movement is also somewhat on edge, and has been for some time. I explained in personal terms why I believe the bonds joining Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people remain inseverable. . . despite frequent attempts in many quarters to break them apart and widespread cynicism among Israelis that Zionism—as opposed to the State—serves any purpose. The full text of the speech I prepared is available on the JTS website.

For all my sobriety when it comes to Israel’s challenges and failings, I remain compelled by the Torah’s vision of a land given to the Children of Israel in order to build a society more just and compassionate than any that has ever previously existed, and in so doing be “a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Some Jews and Gentiles, I know, find such teachings an excuse for religious or ethnic chauvinism, or reason to reject both Judaism and Zionism out of hand. But I won’t give up on the notion that Israel remains a prominent vehicle of achieving the good that we Jews have stored up in us.  Zionism, to me, means the work done by the Jewish people the world over, together, as a people, to carry out that responsibility – work focused on but not limited to the project of building a secure, just, and democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

For this purpose, thanks to this labor, Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel lives” despite everything. I believe in all humility that such aspiration will ensure the continuing relevance of Zionism and would actually make the State more secure.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, I was greeted by a full page in Yediot featuring a picture of the Rebbe and his 1974 proclamation that “the Land of Israel is the most secure place in the world” because “the Holy One Blessed be He guards and protects every single person in Israel.” May it only be so. There is much work for you and me to do as well.

Speaking to and About Israel

At the first-ever Israeli conference devoted to the religious thought and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, former professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at JTS, which took place in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, my subject was the talk that Heschel himself gave in Jerusalem in 1957 at a conference of world Jewish leaders gathered by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and future president Zalman Shazar. Speaker after speaker focused on the challenges facing the Jewish people, inside and outside the Land of Israel, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the founding of the State. Heschel, in pointed contrast, declared that “the problem of the individual is the urgent issue of our time. If we do not build a house for the individual, we shall labor in vain in the building of a nation.” He called for attention to the struggles of the soul, and renewal of faith and observance in the new Jewish State. He also lovingly but bitingly critiqued the notion (held by Ben-Gurion and many others in the room that day) that Jewish sovereignty had superseded the need for piety and God, as Israel, in their view, had eliminated the need for the Diaspora. It is clear in retrospect that Heschel’s call for more Judaism in the Jewish State is one that needed to be heard then and now.

I came away from the conference, and from careful study of Heschel’s talk, wondering what we Jews of North America, in our day, should be saying to Israel and about Israel, and how we should be saying it—questions rendered still more urgent by the horrific events that took place in Paris last week and the multiple ways that Israel quickly became a major part of the story. These Islamic terrorists, like others, were prepared to kill indiscriminately, and did—and yet they took particular aim at Jews. French men and women of all persuasions reacted to the killings with a mixture of fear and defiance, but French Jews had particular cause for concern. The victims of the kosher market rampage were laid to rest Tuesday in Jerusalem, as their families (and many other French Jews) announced that they are considering aliyah to Israel, whose prime ministers invited them with open arms and where terrorists murdered worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem two months ago. After the carnage in Paris, the Jewish State seems more necessary to Jewish survival than ever before. It also seems to stand front and center in the global battle against terrorism. Israel’s importance in that war is out of all proportion to the country’s small size and population. When Israel occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of world leaders, and on the world Jewish agenda, when Jews have once again been singled out by history, North American Jews dare not be silent where Israel is concerned. Our voices more than ever must be as strong, loving, judicious, faithful—and honest—as we can make them. What shall we say, as Jews, here and now, to Israel? And—no less important—how should we say it?

Can We Speak Openly and Honestly in the Diaspora About Israel?

It occurred to me more than once, during this recent stay in Israel, that one of the greatest pleasures of spending extended time there—for Jews like me who love the place passionately, and therefore worry passionately about its future—is the ability to take part in no-holds-barred conversation on the issues of the day. In America, one often holds back because of worries that public criticism of Israeli society or government policy will play into the hands of Israel’s enemies (whose existence and determination, after this summer’s war with Gaza, and the proclamations of the terrorists last week, cannot be doubted by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear). Some vocal supporters of Israel go too far, in my view, and contend that all criticism should be forbidden, no matter how responsibly it is offered, whether in public or in private. They try to shut down debate and serious discussion about Israel among North American Jews—and to a large extent have succeeded. Conversation about the Jewish State these days is often stilted and halting. Dissent is frowned upon. Honesty and candor are in short supply. So is depth. In Israel, by contrast, no one shies away from argument and the more heated the better. Election season has only made that debate sharper and more vociferous.

It amazes me sometimes that, after so many years, so many twists and turns of history, and so many disappointed hopes, Israelis are still engaged by the issues of war and peace, and continue to express guarded optimism that this election, or the one after it, might yield real change. They have no choice but to care: the future of their country and their families is on the line. Their sons and daughters are in battle, and they run to the shelters when the siren sounds. Conversation about Israel among Israeli Jews is further enriched by the fact that it is set in the context of dozens of other concerns, both personal and collective, all of them Jewish by virtue of land, language, and history. Table talk among my friends and colleagues moves easily from what our kids are doing, to the jobs people are taking and the projects on which they are working, to Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power after the upcoming election and whether that is a good thing, to the pros and cons of resuming peace negotiations with Palestinians right now, to the steep cost of housing and the rising cost of university, to growing Haredi power, and back to the joy or prospect of grandchildren.

The tenor of political debate is raised immeasurably when ideology gives way to uncertainty, as it inevitably does when siblings or spouses argue politics at the dinner table. Israelis know that their government is composed of quarrelsome individuals, factions and parties that are the very opposite of united when it comes to policy. The media and the politicians talk of “left” versus “right,” but actual points of view held by thoughtful Israelis of every stripe are thankfully far more difficult to categorize. Two former members of the Knesset told me about the alliances they had forged with MKs who held very different views, and of their respect for those individuals. They judged colleagues by integrity and thoughtfulness, not party line.

I confess that I was deeply moved when two other Israelis, both former government officials, urged me and other Diaspora leaders to speak up more, both publicly and privately, on the wide range of matters that affect our shared Jewish future. It did not take the Paris killings to make it clear that Jews around the world are directly impacted by Israeli government actions and policy. Indeed, one question that Israeli and Diaspora Jews need to address is whether Israeli policymakers should take the wishes and well-being of Diaspora Jews into account when plotting battles and defenses, and if so, how.

On this as so many other things (e.g., legislation concerning converts, treatment of refugees from North Africa, funding for and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, application of Jewish law to Knesset legislation), Israelis will have the last word and should. But we Diaspora Jews should not be shut out from this conversation, privately or publicly, and need not be fearful that honest debate among us will somehow wreak havoc in ways that debate among Israelis, in this age of Internet transparency, does not. We are one people, after all; the State acts in our name, in pursuit of Jewish interests; it often cites the tradition we share, and the God we all worship, as authority for its actions. What is more, Israel needs vigorous and imaginative Jewish thought and conversation by Jews from around the world on these matters, and we for our part need it too, lest we continue to alienate young Jews who have been told that their voices are only welcome regarding Israel if they toe the line on government or communal policy, and alienate not-so-young Jews who have received a similar message.

Our criterion of judgment, like that of the Israelis I spoke with over the past few weeks, should be how informed and knowledgeable speakers about Israel are; how thoughtful and responsible their speech; and whether their criticism is offered from a place of love and support for the State and its people. I have little patience, this week in particular, for Jews or Gentiles who instinctively rush to blame Israel for everything, see no good in anything it does and no wrong in its opponents, and do not understand—or try to understand—how 3,000 years of Jewish history has brought us to this point. The hateful chants of the jihadists echo Pharaoh’s call to genocide long ago, one that Jews read from the Torah, in a sobering coincidence of timing, in synagogue this past Shabbat.

We in the Jewish community need to get past the widespread fear that any dissent from Israeli government policy, or this or that version of Zionism, is going to endanger us so much that it can’t be tolerated. We lose far more than we gain by shutting down artists and filmmakers, student activists, and scholars. Let the gates to conversation about Israel be opened wide, trusting that Israel’s case on the merits is strong enough to withstand any challenge. We can best fight the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions crowd with reasoned, passionate arguments, as long as we make sure that all Jews who care—whatever their age, religious stream, or politics—have the knowledge needed to make those arguments stick. JTS will continue to do its part in those efforts.

What Shall We Say When We Speak about Israel?

Heschel made it clear from his very first words in the 1957 talk that the Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel were part of one shared story. The Holocaust had shattered all of us with “the black fire of ruin and disaster.” With the establishment of the State, “the whole Jewish world was filled with light.” We too should demonstrate that unity of fate and purpose by saying as clearly as we can what needs to be said to and about Israel, ever careful to exhibit balance as well as context. That means due attention to history and complexity, as well as dwelling lovingly and at length on the achievements of the State, which no one with historical sensitivity can ever take for granted.

In Tel Aviv, where I happily spent time recently, those achievements present themselves vividly in day-to-day realities: the scale and design of the buildings, for example; the liveliness of the café culture and the arts; the experimentation with Jewish education and synagogue life; the routine mixing of classes and ethnicities; the bookstores that stock current and classical Judaica in abundance alongside Israeli literature, world politics, and every other subject; the hi-tech revolution in full force. The city possesses remarkable calm, compared to Jerusalem, a gift perhaps of the ever-present sea. Perhaps only a poet can do justice to the wonder of it all (hence my appreciation for Heschel’s lyrical prose), the best part being that Tel Aviv, unlike Jerusalem, just is, without making too big a deal of itself or its holiness. The spectacular achievement of the quotidian in Israel only adds to one’s despondency at the lack of progress toward anything resembling peace.

Four matters on the current Israeli agenda seem to me to cry out for the attention and voices of Jews from North America right now with special urgency; Jews who, like Heschel and many others, speak from inside Jewish tradition and out of the experience of Jewish history even when they tell Israelis things that not all of them want to hear.

First, just as the Jewish community of North America needs to facilitate conversion to Judaism, a measure that would arguably help combat the alarming rate at which intermarried Jews are lost to assimilation, so too Israel’s government needs to take action to facilitate conversion to Judaism. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who came to Israel by the Law of Return, but are not halakhically Jewish, will not even consider converting due to the current monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate and its rigid and unfriendly system; many more are due to make aliyah in the coming months and years. At present, their conversion is stymied by Haredi intransigence and governmental inaction. Legislation aimed at reforming the process by empowering municipal rabbis throughout Israel to perform conversations (though it would not provide for non-Orthodox conversions) was about to be passed several weeks ago when the governing coalition dissolved, and no one knows what its fate will be after the upcoming elections. Jews both inside and outside Israel need to be heard on this matter. The Jewish people cannot afford to lose hundreds of thousands of souls to communal or governmental politics and red tape.

Second, just as the American Jewish community (like many members of Congress, Republican as well as Democrat) steadfastly supports reform of US immigration policy in a way that humanely addresses the problem of illegal immigrants at the same time as it secures the borders and provides for fairness and equity (who among us is not the child or grandchild of immigrants?), so too Israel needs a more rational and humane solution to the presence of tens of thousands of African refugees. Many of them live in South Tel Aviv. Most are caught in frightening limbo by changing (and often cruel) government policy and the threat of detention. Their plight cries out for our assistance.

Third, we should continue to support efforts at strengthening Israeli democracy and pluralism. This includes the ability to get married, divorced, or buried without rabbinic approval; provision of resources and legitimacy to diverse streams of Judaism, not only Orthodoxy (several weeks ago JTS rabbinical students tried to daven Minhah while visiting the Knesset and were told that only Orthodox services are permitted there, as only Orthodox congregations and rabbis get government support and recognition), and educational programs that counter the rising tide of chauvinism, intolerance of minorities, and anti-Arab violence. There has been notable progress on these fronts in recent years, as well as steps backwards that are cause for grave concern. The Masorti Movement too has made impressive gains despite the lack of a level playing field. Our Jewish State should be the framework where various notions of Jewishness and Judaism compete for the allegiance of Israel’s Jews, leading to the flowering of many streams—including the “secular” form I have come to call “Tel Aviv Judaism”—to a degree that cannot happen in the Diaspora. There is room in that Jewish State for a flourishing Arab minority. The possibilities remain immense, highlighted in recent weeks by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.

Finally, and most difficult of all, there is the matter of the “peace process.” I speak about this matter in my name only, and not that of JTS or Conservative Judaism or my family and closest friends. I do so knowing there is ample room for disagreement with my opinion, and therefore speak up in order to encourage the airing of divergent views and counter the stultifying silence in which honest discussion of Israel is too often buried these days. Please read these words—formulated in Tel Aviv before the Paris murders, and refined in the Diaspora in the wake of those killings—in this spirit.

I’ve never been one who believed that if only Israel took this or that step, there would be peace with Palestinians and Arab neighbors. “Peace Now” for me always meant that one should do whatever one can to encourage rather than preclude an agreement, all the while making sure that Israel’s security is advanced rather than undermined. A large number of reserve generals, former chiefs of staff, and former heads of the intelligence services have testified in recent months that Israel could and should be more flexible in its approach to peace. That is good enough for me. I wish those on the “right” would desist from denouncing such Israeli leaders—and Jews who agree with them—as traitors and seeking to discredit them, and that those on the “left” would stop dismissing concerns for Israel’s security and distrust of the PLO and love for the Land of Israel as disingenuous. My view is that Israel faces truly terrifying decisions right now. My sense—shared humbly but with conviction—is that not facing up to them is more dangerous still. The Middle East is fraught with instability. And yet time is not on our side.

I am in no rush to give back the portions of the Land of Israel, full of associations with our Bible and our sages, that Jews call Judea and Samaria. But I am greatly troubled by settler leaders who do not cite security as their main reason for opposing withdrawal (a concern I share) but Israel’s “eternal right” to all of the biblical Land of Israel or preparation for the coming of the Messiah or the supreme value of the Land of Israel over the people of Israel or the Torah of Israel. One would have to be blind not to see the risk to Israel’s survival from a Middle East in full-scale turmoil even without a nuclear Iran—and the prospect of Iranian nuclear arms, absent iron-clad guarantees for Israel, is frightening. One would have to be naïve to trust any Palestinian faction, no matter how “moderate,” with Israel’s security. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot tell what would have happened had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated or Ariel Sharon stricken or Ehud Olmert driven from office. I do not understand any more than the next person how a divided Jerusalem could serve as the capital of two states, or how the gap between Israel’s concessions and Palestinians’ demands can be bridged.

But I also see the dangers of sitting still on top of the powder keg that is rule by force over another people, its numbers not much smaller than ours. I have not heard a single credible road map from those who would deny Palestinians all hope of a state of their own, alongside Israel. And I am persuaded by the many Israelis of diverse parties, right and left, who believe there is virtue in talking with Palestinians right now, because negotiations once begun may lead somewhere useful—probably not to peace, but perhaps to a small step in the direction of peace that will, in turn, lead to another small step, and another.

The eternal vocation of the Jewish people does not mandate any particular foreign policy for Israel, let alone a vote for any particular party in coming elections. But it does command Jews to keep our eyes uplifted to the miracle that is Israel, as Heschel did that day in Jerusalem, and to make sure that our direction is always set to the purposes that Israel—people and State—should serve in the world: “We shall not succeed in repairing our house in the Diaspora without close relations with Israel, without the air of the land of Israel. The Diaspora Jew has not only a duty to give but a right to receive as well: inspiration from Zion, faith from Zion.”

The horrors of terrorism do not discredit that conviction, but underline its importance. We Jews will triumph over our enemies in this as in past generations by being Jews, faithful to our ideals, and never despairing about God or the humanity created in God’s image. I admit that I myself, at this point in time, in my limited imaginings, cannot describe a scenario in which anything resembling peace can be achieved for Israel anytime soon, anymore than I can see an easy exit from the battle with the jihadists. In the former, as in the latter, I dare not imagine what will happen if a solution is not found. But, as a religious Jew, I have faith that the Jewish people has not come this far, invested so much, built so wisely, sacrificed so enormously, loved Israel with such overwhelming love just to arrive at a dead end. If we cannot think our way to a solution, “help will surely come from someplace other” than our power of thought. But, in the meantime, let’s think and talk as much and as wisely as we can. Any and all reason for hope, from whatever quarter it comes, should be warmly solicited and welcomed.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

This has been a momentous and disturbing year for Jews who care about the future of their people and their tradition. 5774 began with news of prestigious research that cast doubt on the vitality and viability of the Jewish community in America. As the year draws to a close, that concern for the state of American Judaism has long since been eclipsed by fear for the ability of Israel (indeed, of any state) to defend its citizens from terrorist aggression. ISIS’s brutal march across Iraq and Syria has demonstrated that the threat posed to Israel’s borders by Hamas missiles and tunnels is part of a far larger threat from which no one, no nation, is immune. These events will weigh heavily on many Jewish minds as we sit in synagogue on the High Holy Days. I know they will be on my mind, crowding out a host of other concerns, both personal and communal, and eroding the hope we all need in order to accomplish repentance and renewal.

How shall we think about these matters during the High Holy Days? In what ways shall we act differently in 5775, as individuals and as a people? And, perhaps most crucially of all, what wisdom do the Days of Awe offer, in the face of truly awful events, that can help to restore hope and point the way toward life and blessing?

As if in response to these questions, I was suddenly reminded one day of the opening passage of the haftarah chanted on Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of Repentance that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—by the Prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Rereading the prophetic selections this year, I was struck by two themes in particular.

The first is that Israel should return to our God in recognition that we have “stumbled” or “fallen.” All is not right with us or the world. We can’t just proceed as usual, down the same roads as usual. Our course must be altered, or we will get nowhere. That lesson holds for many aspects of our lives, individual and collective. It is true with regard to Israel’s security situation in the wake of this summer’s war; Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum, embracing “left” and “right,” “religious” and “secular,” seem agreed that the New Year must bring new directions, new options, ways of moving forward not yet attempted, on paths as yet untried.

Hosea emphasizes one aspect in particular of the required change: new language.

Take words with you and return to God. Say to Him: Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good. Instead of bulls we will offer our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride our steeds, or say that our handiwork is our god. In You alone orphans find pity. (14:3–4)

What we say to one another and the world, the way we use language to reinforce current belief and limit consideration of other options, or by contrast, open the door to new thought and new partnerships—all these matter. Our words have the power to persuade God to forgive us, the Prophet maintains. Do they not have the power as well to persuade one another that things we ourselves have fashioned—objects, ideas, policies—are not God? We can and should turn away from those things. That’s what the New Year is for.

One of the most remarkable and hopeful moments of the summer was the coming together of Israelis of every opinion, joined by American Jews of almost every opinion, first in response to the June kidnapping and murder of the three teens in the West Bank and then in support of the war to defend Israel against the rockets and tunnels that put its citizens in jeopardy. Jews are not good at unity much of the time, and not much better at listening to words with which we strenuously disagree. We are highly skilled at using words to categorize one another—secular, religious, settler, leftist—and flinging the words about with a contempt that declares dialogue useless. Two other low points of the summer were the murder of an innocent Palestinian boy in response to the murder of the three teens and the censure or ridicule of Jews who expressed sadness at the death of innocent Palestinians. Anger and fear took their toll on compassion. Our words were brought low.

We know—and should we forget, Hosea reminds us—that the God before Whom we stand in judgment on the Days of Awe is one in Whom “orphans find pity” (14:4). This same God sent Jonah, an unwilling prophet, to secure the repentance of Nineveh, capital of Israel’s sworn enemy Assyria. Nineveh, apparently powerful, is helpless in the face of God’s judgment. Widows and orphans, seemingly powerless, find safety in God’s compassion, which circulates in the world through human beings like you and me. Normal operating procedure for individuals and states is to look to force (“steeds”) and alliances for strength and salvation. I am not ready to abandon either force or alliances in the face of Israel’s enemies, and do not believe Hosea wants us to. His point is rather that we should not rely exclusively on those sources of strength. The ironclad security we seek is unattainable; such security as we can attain will require words of healing among ourselves and with our enemies. This is a hard truth in any time, for any country, and all the harder for Jews in this time, in our precious homeland.

The long history of the Jewish people gives hope that, having survived so many tragedies and overcome so much adversity, we will be able to work through present difficulties, hard as they are, and take full advantage of the enormous blessings that come with renewal of Jewish sovereignty and participation in the greatest Diaspora we have ever known, the United States of America. The study of Jewish tradition offers confidence that our Torah is profound enough, complex enough, and compassionate enough to point a way through moral quandaries like those imposed upon us by the enemies of the moment. I wonder if the Rabbis directed us to read three different Prophets on Shabbat Shuvah—unparalleled in the annual haftarah cycle—to stress the need for a multiplicity of differing voices in the quest for turning and return.

Hosea calls us to recognize the fact of stumbling and embark on the search for new words. Joel assures us (2:19–20) that Israel’s enemies will be overcome, and life safeguarded: “I will grant you the new grain, the new wine and the new oil and you shall have them in abundance.” And the haftarah concludes with Micah (7:19–20), who promises—lest we doubt this going into Yom Kippur—that God will continue to “keep faith with Jacob,” and will “return to us in compassion” or, as the Etz Hayim translates the Hebrew, “take us back in love.” The love is put into the world by God, but is made effective here by us, manifest in better words and wiser paths.

My very best wishes, on behalf of everyone at JTS, for a year that is both sweet and good.