On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘The Jewish Theological Seminary’

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but bitingly critiqued the notion (held by Ben-Gurion and many others in the room that day) that Jewish sovereignty had superseded the need for piety and God, as Israel, in their view, had eliminated the need for the Diaspora.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.

Israel Under Fire

The last time air raid sirens blared across Israel at the approach of incoming missiles fired from Gaza, in December 2012—a conflict that, as awful as it was, inflicted less suffering on both sides than the current war—I happened to be in Israel for a round of meetings. It felt profoundly right to be there for all that friends and family back in the States were concerned about my well-being. The friends and family in Israel who were being fired upon needed to know that the world—or at least the Jews in the world—cared about them. It was important for me to demonstrate with hugs and hurried discussions held in safe rooms that Israelis do not stand alone at moments of duress like these—a message best conveyed when, standing together physically, no words need be said. For their part, Israelis wanted Jews from abroad like me to see that life goes on, as normal as they can make it, despite the threat to life and limb. We shared a hope that their resolve would rub off on the rest of us. For we Jews all need to be in this together, and for the long haul, regardless of religious or political differences. I took great comfort in the quiet courage of the Israelis who stood beside me, and do so again this week, as Israeli troops fight in Gaza, and I sit in faraway but near-at-hand New York City.

Far away because, of course, the air raid sirens do not sound here, the television is not on nonstop with continuous coverage of the conflict, we are not on the phone day and night exchanging words of encouragement with parents, friends, and spouses of soldiers plucked from daily routines just like ours and sent to hellish patrols and firefights in Gaza alleyways. I’m proud that North American Jewish leaders are making solidarity trips to Israel, including a mission of Conservative and Masorti rabbis who are in Israel this week to offer comfort, pledge emergency financial support, and demonstrate up close and in person the concern that is keeping so many of us awake at night and glued to news reports all day. Teens on Ramah Seminar are in Israel too, along with JTS rabbinical students who arrived several weeks ago for their year of study in Jerusalem. Fate has presented them with an opportunity to be with Israelis and experience firsthand a crucial part of what it means to take part in the contemporary Jewish situation. None of the visitors, as far as I know, are asking to come home. Their families in North America are trusting that they will be well looked after (as they are), despite the war taking place a mere hour’s drive away and the missiles flying within striking range almost daily.

It seems we have made a collective decision as committed North American Jews to stand with Israelis as closely as we can during moments like this one. There seems to be more widespread recognition than ever before that our own well-being as Jews on this continent is tied directly to that of Israel. The Israeli prime minister, sending troops into battle or holding them back, has immediate impact on Jews around the world. Our role, too, carries considerable consequences. The support we provide or withhold—particularly given widespread lack of sympathy for Israel’s existential dilemmas—is critical. The voices we raise while the war goes on and when the fighting stops need to be as wise and forceful as we can make them. Our voices need to be heard.

Perhaps, too, this mutual understanding is a function of how near-at-hand the conflict has become, thanks to technology that did not exist, or was less readily available, even in December 2012. My smartphone—and perhaps yours—clicks every time a warning siren sounds over Israel’s major cities. Internet radio dials can be set to receive Israeli news bulletins on the hour. We can and do watch in real time as Hamas missiles streak across the sky and are met, in some cases, by the Iron Dome defensive shield. TVs carry live broadcasts from Israel. No more need we rely exclusively on American media to supply facts and commentary (or, all too often, jumbled mixtures of the two). Yesterday I watched an Israeli channel that featured almost-real-time footage of Hamas fighters (including some who were filmed, machine guns at the ready, piling into vans painted white with the letters “UN” on them to take advantage of the humanitarian cease-fire) and of Israeli troops on patrol, including the wounded being rushed to helicopters. The newsreel was explicated not just by the usual experts and pundits, but by Israeli reservists sharing in the studio what it had been like to be fighting in Gaza several years ago. I feel no distance whatsoever from those young men in the studio, despite the ocean separating us. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem too, Israelis watched these men on their TVs, their hearts racing at the very same moment as mine from the anxiety.

Ten days ago, as the conflict moved toward a ground campaign that most of us hoped would not take place, I met with the dozen or so Israelis who had come to North America for the summer to join the staff of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I always treasure these conversations with the Israeli delegations at Ramah camps that I visit, because the Israelis involved are often experiencing North American Judaism—or this passionate, vitally communal, Conservative-Masorti form of it—for the very first time. The discussion in Wisconsin this summer was even more intense and probing than usual, in keeping with the seriousness of the moment. There we were in a faraway corner of the Midwest, while back home for them in Israel, things were getting more and more dangerous. What were they doing here? What were we doing here?

In some ways, this Ramah experience was a microcosm for the split that divides the two major sectors of the Jewish world today. There, in Israel, Jews live as a majority, in public Jewish space and time, claim a spot on the map of the world, protect it with an army, and are Jews (though not all in the same way, and despite the fact that many Israelis deny it) simply by virtue of being who they are. Here, in North America, Jews live as a distinct minority, largely in public space and time that are (like Wisconsin) overwhelmingly not Jewish and in private space and time (like Ramah) that are. We decide, over and over again, whether and how to be Jewish; we work hard at transmitting a culture, a set of values, an idea of ourselves, a faith that cannot for one moment be taken for granted—and that in Israel, to a large extent, come with the territory.

The group got the fact that I, as a North American Jew, was living out one of the two major options for contemporary Jewish life, and they, visitors to my reality, as I had often visited theirs, were living the other option. My Jewish life is immensely satisfying and meaningful. They felt the same way of their very different Jewish life. But our story was one. Most of them knew that the weekly Torah portions we read during this period—our shared narrative as Jews—uncannily describe tensions and occasional pitched battles between ancient Israelites and neighbors who did not want them there; I suspect the Israelis remembered, from required high school reading, that Theodor Herzl had stated with eerie prescience in Der Judenstaat that the Jews, once returned to Israel, would always have enemies, just like every other nation.

That we do. Yesterday, July 20, 2014 / 22 Tammuz 5774, my email box, and perhaps yours, brought news of the death of Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav of [Masorti] Kehillat Succat Shalom in Ramat Yishai who was killed during Operation Protective Edge on July 19. There was also news that IDF–enlisted US citizens Max Steinberg, 24, a native of San Fernando Valley in California, and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, Texas, were killed as well. May their memory and that of all the others, the far too many others, who fell and will fall in this battle be for a blessing. May those who mourn them be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May peace and comfort come to the families of innocent Palestinian victims caught up in this tragic conflict. May the Israeli soldiers serving in Gaza return home safely and in one piece. And may the Jewish people be of one piece, as we work together during the war, and after the war, to bring peace to our Land.

The Story of Israel

At least one thing has changed between last Yom Ha’atzma’ut and this one in the relationship between many American Jews and Israel: we have read and thought about two challenging and highly personal books that came out this year on the subject of the past, present, and possible futures of the Zionist project. Just before Passover, Ari Shavit discussed his groundbreaking book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, at a private meeting (cosponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with rabbinical students of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Yossi Klein Halevi shared the thinking laid out in his award-winning book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, at a public lecture at JTS one evening last fall. He also taught two courses about Israel and Zionism during that semester, one of them in Hebrew, to JTS undergraduate and rabbinical students. Both books have deeply affected me. I want to share two responses to them as we approach Israel’s 66th birthday. My hope is to add a small measure of optimism at a moment when yet another apparently failed peace process threatens to drown our celebration in despair for Israel’s future.

Shavit’s presentation to JTS students was far more about triumph than tragedy. He stressed the good that has been accomplished in Israel since its founding—and still is achieved daily—even while paying full attention to the existential threat that continues to hang over the State and the moral price paid at every stage of Israel’s history—including the present moment—in order to achieve and safeguard that accomplishment. No less important, in my view, Shavit put the emphasis on what needs to be done by Jews here and in Israel in order to secure the future of the Jewish State. “A new narrative is required,” he said again and again with real passion; a story about Israel’s past that points toward an inspiring future; a new way of talking about why the State came to be and why it is important (for Jews and for the world) that it continue to thrive. Exactly. Even as we continue to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and seek peace among the various sorts of Jews that make up Israeli society, let’s work on telling and retelling that story, to ourselves and others, of why Israel matters so much.

On this point, for all my admiration for Shavit’s book, I have to say that, in my view, it falls short. There is little room in Shavit’s narrative for any part of Diaspora Jewish history, except the history of assimilation in modern times and of anti-Semitism in all times. There is equally little place for Judaism in the story Shavit tells, except as the source of the language, values, and aspirations that fueled the return to Zion but now must be transmuted into a distinctly Israeli version of enlightened Western civilization. All too often, Shavit’s case for Israel—the reason why the State is needed, the cause that justifies the suffering and injustice inflicted as part of the effort to build and protect the State—comes down to the claim that ein makom acher (there is no other place). Diaspora existence, according to this version of Israel’s story, means anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, Holocaust, whenever it does not mean (outside of Orthodoxy) assimilation, intermarriage, disappearance. There is, of course, some truth in this standard Zionist argument. Much 20th-century Jewish history supports it. The Holocaust does make Israel’s existence essential to Jewish survival. The Pew Report does demonstrate, once again, that assimilation remains a clear and present danger to Diaspora Jewry. There is good reason to believe that if anti-Semitism does not “get” Jews, assimilation will. Over against both of those dangers, riding to the rescue of Jews and Judaism, there is Israel.

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Educating for Human Wholeness

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

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

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

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Calling All Rabbis

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

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

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

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

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Israel in White and Gray

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The snow in Israel—and me—at the Wall

The story that dominated news and conversation during my first week in Israel this past December was the snow. A foot and a half fell in Jerusalem in the course of a three-day weekend: the most in a generation (and some say: in a century). Three feet fell in Safed. A friend in Tel Aviv got in the car with his daughter to drive up to Jerusalem and experience the novelty—and got stuck on the way, spending the night in the car before being rescued by police. The highway became clogged with abandoned cars. By the time I arrived on Tuesday, the snow had long since stopped falling, but had barely begun to melt. Streets and highways were a mess. I regretted that I had not brought boots. Everyone was talking about snow: poetically, philosophically, religiously, and always with a sense of excitement. The entire country seemed to bask in the sheer pleasure of changing the subject from the usual talk about “the situation” and “the peace process.”

The effort was not entirely successful. On the plane from New York City I read a front-page column in Yediot by Nahum Barnea—one of Israel’s finest journalists—called “Until the Snow Melts.” It began with a paean to the beauty of the landscape: “A golden sun shone yesterday on a snow-filled West Bank . . . you’d have to be crazy to think of giving up one inch of this gorgeous land, I reflected. It is forbidden to withdraw from even one meter—as long as the snow has not melted.” Barnea was being ironic, but his point was utterly serious; the very next sentence described with wonderment what had happened on the Shabbat of the storm, when Palestinian drivers were stuck in the snow alongside Israelis. “Sometimes the Palestinians helped to push, sometimes the Israelis helped . . . This was one of the only weekends in recent years when there was not a single disturbance on the West Bank, no incident whatever. No Palestinian stone-throwing, no Jewish ‘price tag.’ Another 364 days of snow, and we will have arrived at the messianic era.” [The translation is my own.]

Snow is normal for most parts of the United States. Cooperation among people of different nationalities and religions is common in New York City. Here in Israel, a different notion of normality operates on both counts. For a short while, a storm had left the country and all its problems, all its differences, covered in white. It really was marvelous to behold, even after the fact. My driver excitedly pointed out piles of snow and felled trees as we made our way slowly, ever so slowly, from the airport up to Jerusalem. My visit along with The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary to the office of MK Ruth Calderon,who spoke at JTS last year and who will receive an honorary degree at JTS this May, was rendered even more celebratory by the visage of snow a half-foot deep on the lawn outside her window at the Knesset. The beautiful Friday night services at the new Masorti congregation in Jerusalem, Kehillat Zion, were deprived of numerous congregants reluctant to take their kids out on dark, icy streets still strewn with branches, and piles of snow. And the TV talkshow Politika, of course, took up the question of who was to blame for the lack of efficient snow removal and failure to care for homebound people left for days without food and electricity. Would there be a price to pay in future national or municipal elections? Who would pay that price?

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Hanukkah Miracles at the White House

Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen and Pizmon at The White House

Pizmon—the JTS-Columbia-Barnard a cappella group—performing at the White House.

I was puzzled when I received the invitation from the President and First Lady to celebrate Hanukkah at the White House last Thursday evening—hours after the holiday would have ended. How would they handle this awkward ritual conundrum? Would a ninth candle be added for the occasion? Would the ubiquitous and lovely Christmas decorations be complemented by an electric menorah lit the night before and kept burning for the extra day? Perhaps there would be latkes and lamb chops on the table, but no menorah in sight (the White House is known for its kosher lamb chops, and its staff is probably aware that far more American Jews consume latkes these days than light Hanukkah candles). The solution arrived at was ingenious: the President offered brief remarks, the blessing that commands Jews to light candles on Hanukkah was omitted, a rabbi recited the blessing that thanks God for the miracles performed for our ancestors and for us, and then the group joined in a heartfelt sheheheyanu thanking God for enabling us to reach this moment. Eight candles were lit. We sang Ma’oz Tzur. Synagogue ritual committees, take note: this night of Hanukkah was wonderfully different from all others—and the innovation worked.

I found the ritual moving (and, judging by the mood in the Grand Foyer of the White House, I was not alone). It captured something both deep and joyous, enabling those who participated to step out of that particular moment and that very special place—or, better, through them—into Jewish and American centuries past and future, and even to approach the precincts of eternity. The journey was made more meaningful by having two survivors of the Holocaust light the candles, using a menorah that itself had survived the Shoah. My personal joy in the occasion was increased because the blessings were recited by Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a graduate of The Jewish Theological Seminary, whose father and grandfather were also ordained at JTS. I suspect that everyone in the room was touched when our nation’s first African American president drove home the universal import of the Hanukkah story with a memorial tribute to Nelson Mandela, who had passed away a few hours earlier. No one in our time has testified more eloquently than Mandela to the power of the idea of freedom, a major theme of the Hanukkah story. Few have so dramatically moved from darkness to a great light.

The meaning of the ritual for me lay above all else in the simple fact that the congregation—American Jews of all denominations (or no denomination), ingathered from all parts of the country, comprising men and women of all ages and both political parties, among them three Supreme Court justices, a Secretary of the Treasury, and many members of Congress—were in that room together, feeling at home in our nation’s home, marking Jewish time there, joining loudly in the blessings, and giving that especially rousing rendition of Ma’oz Tzur. That got my heart pumping and set my mind thinking about how unique the American experience has been for Jews. The nation’s founding father had proclaimed, in his famous address to the Newport synagogue in 1790, that he was not there to offer toleration to the Jews of America because, as citizens of the United States, they had as much right to its liberties and benefits as he did. Now here we were, almost 225 years after George Washington’s declaration, and nearly 70 after the latest attempt to destroy our people and our faith, taking full advantage of the opportunities available in this unique and blessed country—and doing so unmistakably as Jews. ‘Am Yisra’el chai! That’s what I heard in the robust recital (from memory, no less) of Ma’oz Tzur. We are Jews happy with our lot. Against the background of Jewish history, ancient or recent, this surely counts as a great miracle.

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Chancellor Arnold Eisen Says L’Chaim! to Conservative Judaism in the Jewish Week

Chancellor-9_resize-approved“I’ve spent the better part of my adult life as a scholar of American Judaism, with a special focus on figures at the center of Conservative Judaism, and I’ve spent most of those years enjoying the benefits of Conservative Jewish institutions, conversations, and communities. Consider this short list: Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, where my wife and I davened for 21 years and where we celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of our children; Camp Ramah, which my daughter attended as a camper for two summers and where my son worked on staff for three; repeated experiences of emotional and spiritual support from clergy and community at moments when my family and I most needed it; a pattern of ritual celebrations and holiday observances that I shall treasure as long as I live; a kind of Talmud Torah-reverent engagement with Jewish text and history, in the context of broader ideas and learning-that to this day remains distinctive to Conservative Judaism; a fervent but critical Zionism that is no less distinctive; and, last but never least, a fulsome sense of what it is to serve God in this time and place with an open heart as well as a totally engaged mind and an enraptured soul.”

Continue reading “Let’s Drink a L’Chaim to Conservative Judaism” in the Jewish Week. 

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”: