American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Interview with Arnold M. Eisen -The Future of Conservative Jewry

According to Arnold Eisen—the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)—The Conservative Movement faces three major challenges related to message, quality control and structure. When Eisen speaks throughout the United States and Canada to Conservative Jews, he says, many of them do not know what the movement’s message is. Even some rabbis complain that they are not able to convey its essence to their congregants. Some seem not to know it themselves.

Eisen believes the definition of Conservative Judaism’s message has become a priority for several reasons. One is that on the Left, the Reform movement has made changes so that it more resembles Conservative Judaism. On the Right, a type of left-moving Modern Orthodoxy has emerged in New York and other places. Rabbi Avi Weiss’s seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is perhaps close to ordaining women in a way that is partly similar to that of male rabbis (though without all the same roles and obligations). Thus some people leave Conservative Judaism because they want something more to the Left or the Right. This new blurring of boundaries requires a clear definition of what Conservative Judaism stands for. The JTS, Eisen says, has already taken the lead on this matter.

Currently one cannot take for granted that a person born Jewish is going to remain committed to Judaism, he says. Certainly one cannot assume that a person raised in one denomination will remain in it. One thus has to give Jews a good reason to live as Conservative Jews. Intellectuals tend to overvalue the importance of ideology. However, the quality of a person’s experiences within the movement may, Eisen believes, count for more than its message.

Quality Control

Quality control is thus a prime issue that the Conservative Movement has to confront. For an international organization like Conservative Judaism, which depends on “franchises,” it is particularly important. The movement relies on local organizations—synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, youth groups, men’s clubs, and sisterhoods—to provide a quality product. There are many fine Conservative Jewish professionals and first-rate institutions, Eisen says, but also acknowledges that others are mediocre or worse.

Eisen observes that quality control is so important because any individual’s judgment of Conservative Judaism is based on what he or she encounters on the local level. It is difficult to ensure overall quality throughout the far-flung movement.

The issues with quality control result in part from the structure of the Conservative movement. Eisen explains that Reform has a distinctive edge in this matter thanks to the existence of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which is a relatively unified organization. There is one person at the top of its hierarchy, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Together with Rabbi David Ellenson, the head of Hebrew Union College, he has set much of the recent course for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism, by contrast, has only a loose umbrella body, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism (LCCJ). The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) represents the congregations. The movement also has separate men’s and women’s groups. The educators are separately organized and so are the rabbis and cantors. So, too, is the Masorti movement in Israel and around the world. The LCCJ meets several times a year. Many different organizations are represented there, and in such a framework it is hard to function in a unified manner.

The USCJ will be fundamentally reorganized in the near future; Eisen would like to see a more unified Conservative movement with a structure similar to that of the Reform movement, though he will entrust its form to the commission, currently at work, that is jointly run by the USCJ and a broad range of rabbis and leaders who call themselves HaYom. He hopes that the spiritual and intellectual leadership of Conservative Judaism will continue to come primarily from JTS, and that JTS will have a closer relationship with the congregations, schools, youth groups, and camps.

JTS also has a certain amount of influence at the Ramah camps, which operate under its auspices. Many Ramah staff members are JTS students or graduates and part of the curriculum is planned by the seminary. Eisen says that JTS intends to make Camp Ramah more of an integral part of its organizational structure in the future. JTS is also hoping for a strong relationship linking Ramah and JTS to United Synagogue Youth. He would like to see JTS develop connections with young people as early as possible, rather than waiting for them to enroll at JTS as college or rabbinical students.

Nonideological Challenges

According to Eisen, the leading challenge Conservative Judaism faces today is demographic in nature, combined with a lack of economic resources to deal with it. For example, Conservative Judaism has been strong for decades in many small towns, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast. These are losing population in general and Jewish inhabitants in particular.

Many Conservative congregations are closing or are under siege in less successful economic areas. There are also regions of the country like the Midwest that are losing Jews to other parts of the country, like the Southwest, where Reform is traditionally stronger. Economic and organizational limitations have prevented the Conservative movement from acting quickly enough to plant new institutions in the areas to which Jews are moving.

The Essentials of Conservative Judaism

 In October 2007, Eisen gave a much-publicized speech to the Biennial Convention of the USCJ in Orlando. It was titled “The Things That Still Unite Us.” He mentioned ten elements that, for him, defined Conservative Judaism: learning, community, Clal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), Zionism, Hebrew, changing the world, mitzvah (commandment), time, space, and God. He elaborated on each of them.

Eisen outlined there the essentials of Conservative Judaism. He says he based his approach, on the one hand, on the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who—without knowing it—was a great Conservative theologian. On the other hand, Eisen says, his thoughts were rooted in those of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was also a great Conservative theologian though he, too, did not call himself that. Eisen remarks that Heschel, along with Mordecai Kaplan, is with him every day as he ponders the future of Conservative Judaism and JTS.

Based on their ideas, Eisen listed those ten elements that together make up the Conservative Jewish worldview. Some are shared with non-Jews, who face many similar challenges. They also have much in common with forms of Judaism other than Conservative.

Conservative Judaism, for example, has been Zionist in America, almost from the very beginning. Although its strong Zionism no longer distinguishes Conservative Judaism from other contemporary movements, Eisen says, “it is an integral part of our ‘whole’; crucial to who we are.”

As for Jewish peoplehood, Eisen says that if one asks whether it is as important a concept in the Reform movement or in Orthodoxy as it is in the Conservative movement, he would reply empirically, “No.” As a scholar of modern Judaism, he would make the case that the Reform and Orthodox movements do not value Jewish peoplehood as a core plank of their movement as Conservative Judaism does, and that their members have not been as active in leading Clal Yisrael organizations. This core principle has been embodied in every major statement of the movement since Solomon Schechter.

However, Eisen urges a realization that ethnic Judaism is on the decline in North America. When he and Steven M. Cohen polled a representative sample for their book The Jew Within, close to half the interviewees said they felt no greater obligation to other Jews than to the rest of humanity.1

History, Texts, and Traditions

Eisen posits that the key distinguishing mark between Conservative Judaism and other religious movements is that it insists that the Torah wants Jews to live Judaism in a way that is firmly grounded in and continuous with the history, texts, and traditions of the Jewish people. That means, he says, the tradition in all of its complexity, nuance, variety, and substance. Conservative Jews aim, as well, to be fully involved with the larger society and culture of which they are part. He believes this understanding emanated directly from the Torah.

Eisen is clear that he does not regard Conservative Judaism as a compromise with modernity. The tradition entails the commandment to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart, soul, and mind. The word heart, he says, should be interpreted as the Torah means it to be: both mind and emotion, holding nothing back. The Torah does not want Jews to separate themselves out from the world at large, but to be fully involved in it. This should be done at the same time as Jews are completely devoted to the Torah, to the mitzvot (commandments), and to the Jewish community.

Conservative Judaism insists that this, while difficult, is possible, Eisen says. The question, then, is how it is done. How can one be fully involved with contemporary society and culture and simultaneously live according to the Jewish tradition? Heschel talked about the dialectic of halachah (Jewish law) and agaddah (Jewish tradition), one of the many “polarities” as he called them. Both are required for Jewish existence.

What Heschel was essentially arguing (and told organizations of rabbis in 1953), Eisen explains, was that Orthodoxy put the emphasis on halachah to the detriment of agaddah, while Reform put the emphasis on agaddah and eliminated halachah. His point was that both are absolutely necessary. Both depend on— and lead to—a personal relation to God, a sense of what Heschel called “the ineffable.”

Observance

Conservative Judaism teaches that a strong set of communal observances and norms is needed. Eisen acknowledges that the critique that Conservative Judaism needs more observance today, particularly as far as Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and the dietary laws are concerned, is well founded. “We need more and better learning, more regular and passionate tefilla [prayer],” he says. “Low levels of Conservative observance do not please him, but he sees the opportunity to raise them, and will be trying to do so. The Mitzvah Initiative that he has launched is designed to get people to think about those observances and norms, and to elicit more consistency and deeper levels of commitment.

The Conservative movement has a vastly varied array of congregations across North America, Eisen says, and there is no uniformity of observance. Still, he contends there is more consensus and cohesion than one might think. Many Conservative Jews must be challenged to do more—and many are quite active in performance of some mitzvot (service to Israel and other communities, for example), even if they are not regular students or synagogue-goers.

At present, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is reexamining itself and trying to figure out how the halachic decision-making process should work in Conservative Judaism. Should it, for example, take the view of the majority of voting committee members as normative? Will the leadership strive through other means for greater uniformity in the movement? Will Conservative Judaism clarify the role of the individual rabbi as mara d’atra (the local authority) in relation to the law committee and movementwide standards? Eisen believes such matters must be resolved quickly so as to achieve greater agreement on what is normative for and/or expected of Conservative Jews. One cannot move ahead, he says, if one denies that Judaism has been changing throughout the centuries. Gerson Cohen, a former chancellor of JTS and one of the greatest historians of Judaism in his generation, was often asked why Jews could not live the same way as they had always done. Eisen says Cohen loved the question so that he could contradict it.

Cohen used to reply, “Show me what Jews have always done. Obviously, we have Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox Jews claiming that they are doing things the way they have always been done, but Judaism has a history of constant change and innovation within the framework of the inherited Jewish past.” Eisen iterates that Cohen was right. The issue is not one of tradition versus change—or even tradition plus change. There cannot be a tradition without both continuity and change. That, Eisen says, is what Conservative Judaism stands for.

Achieving a Balance

Eisen encourages Conservative Jewish leaders to avoid focusing exclusively on externalities, even if that is what many people look at. The classical questions were: is the prayer in Hebrew? Do men and women sit together? Then the synagogue had to be Conservative. If men and women sat separately and the service was in Hebrew, it had to be Orthodox; if they sat together and the service was in English, it must be Reform. Now it is more complicated, Eisen says. But there is a style of being a traditional Jew in the modern world that is distinctively Conservative.

In the Conservative movement, Eisen says, any question can be asked. The method of asking these questions and answering them is different from that of both the Orthodox and Reform movements. To realize this, one need only see what is studied at the rabbinical schools of the movements and how it is studied, or go to one of the congregations to hear what is said from the pulpit. This comes back to the issue of the Conservative movement both respecting halachah and being an integral part of the modern world. There is a balance between the two that Eisen believes is best achieved in the Conservative movement.

Eisen says he has always argued that if one does not master Hebrew and does not put an emphasis on the range of Jewish texts, studied in their original language, one cannot have a firm grasp of tradition. One cannot know intelligently how to carry Judaism forward unless one understands the Jewish past in its complexity and variety.

Living Tradition Today

If one understands the ten elements mentioned, Eisen explains, one can easily see how Conservative Judaism differentiates itself from Orthodoxy on the one side and Reform on the other. Conservative Jews would, however, be wrong to define themselves only in terms of what they are not. One should instead define oneself by what one is. Deuteronomy teaches that the commandments are a way to understand life, blessing, and goodness. That is not across the sea or in Heaven but in one’s heart to do.

To Eisen, this is a message that demands Conservative Judaism: “How do I know in which way to live this tradition today? I have to comprehend in great depth what Judaism has been thus far and also to fully understand contemporary circumstances. I have to live in this world, be a part of it and to some degree apart from it.”

Gap between Rabbis and Many Members

Eisen observes that in Conservative Judaism there is a gap between the attitudes of the rabbis and the most observant members on the one hand, and many other members on the other. There is an overlap in observance between Conservative rabbis and perhaps 10 percent of the laypeople, he says. Once this elite is made much larger, the difference between the movements will be much more apparent.

One of the great achievements of Modern Orthodoxy in the last generation, Eisen says, has been the reduction of a similar gap in its movement. People do not remember that there used to be many members of Orthodox synagogues who did not keep kosher. This situation has now vanished.

Orthodoxy, remarks Eisen, has done a wonderful job in educating its laypeople by building strong communities where observance is normative. Reform has a very small gap between leaders and congregants because of its lower level of observance. Data collected by Cohen show a significant gap between the Reform and Conservative movements concerning the level of observance, for variables such as Shabbat, education, tefilla, and keeping kosher.

But Eisen says he is the first to admit that unless Conservative Jews can raise levels of observance—and in particular of Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, learning, and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws)—the movement cannot stay strong. It will lose both young people and the most committed adults unless it can give them a higher level of passion, learning, and observance.

When Eisen goes to Conservative congregations, he often sees that there is a problem in dealing with young persons who come back from the Pardes Institute or the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel, or Camp Ramah. These may have had an intense experience of Jewish learning and/or prayer. He then asks: “Can these people find intense learning on a high level in your congregation or community? Is there a passionate prayer service available in your congregation?” Clearly, he says. the movement has work to do in this regard. And rather than give up on it and assume it cannot be done, he says there is a lot to build on.

The movement’s most pressing need, Eisen says, is perhaps Shabbat communities. Too many Conservative congregations do not have one. When traveling, Eisen meets many loyal Conservative Jews who want the movement to succeed. They cannot imagine themselves being Orthodox or Reform. Even those who go to services at a Modern Orthodox or a Chabad congregation consider themselves Conservative Jews and are looking for Conservative institutions to bring them home.

There is no doubt that it is sociologically easier to have a Shabbat community if one walks to synagogue, sees others walking, and meets people at the synagogue one can invite to walk home with one for lunch. It is harder when one has to invite them to drive their car to one’s house.

Conservative Judaism in this respect was weakened by the decision to allow driving on Shabbat. On the other hand, if Conservative Judaism had not made that decision the movement would have a fraction of its current membership.

Israel

For Eisen, the state of Israel is the perfect, urgent, and paradigmatic case for Conservative Judaism. It is an utterly revolutionary development in Jewish history. The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz spoke very eloquently on this point in the 1950s. He said that the new reality of Israel demanded both a new halachic and a new agaddic response. One now had to take account of and apply what is “Jewish” about politics, economics, and foreign policy in the new century.

One cannot look up ready-made answers in the classic codex of the Shulchan Aruch or other sources. Torah has to be carried further. This can only be done if one is firmly involved in contemporary society and culture, as well as thoroughly grounded in the past and tradition. In Israel, however, most contemporary Orthodoxy lacks a principle of change and is much too hesitant. One has to say:

“This is a different reality. Torah needs to speak to this reality and thus must be adapted and brought forward.”

Eisen stresses that Israel is vital to American Jews. “It gives us hope and faith. Israel is crucial to the meaning of being Jewish for every American Jew who gives thought to this subject. American Jews who visit see a society that is predominantly Jewish. They see what it is like for Jews to live in Jewish time and space and for Torah to extend to every area of society. This is in some way continuous with the Jewish past, yet in other ways radically different.”

Demands from Rabbis

To know what and how to change in response to the changed conditions, Eisen says, great training is required. “The JTS rabbinical school could offer a shorter course of study and be cheaper to run if we didn’t insist on a profound degree of learning. The community must have rabbis who are as learned as, if not more learned than, the most knowledgeable members of the congregations they lead. JTS rejects many candidates because the program insists on very high levels of learning (and observance).”

As far as outreach is concerned, Eisen tells rabbinical students at JTS that if they cannot exhibit love for the Jewish people and Judaism, they have chosen the wrong profession. The Conservative movement is strong on academics; there are many PhDs who can provide the required footnotes. It is, however, not always good at conveying passion in its services. Heschel spoke fifty years ago about synagogues lacking fervor. One can only have a missionary capability if one has a very clear message—and the passion needed to transmit it.

Eisen admires Chabad’s ability in this area but notes that they do not reach out to non-Jews; he thinks Conservative Jews could do much in this field, especially given the increase in intermarriage. Eisen says he wants to reach out to the non- Jewish partners and bring them ever closer to Torah.

A Major Project: Mitzvot

When Eisen came to JTS as chancellor, he asked himself what JTS could do for the Conservative movement in the opening years of his leadership. He decided that what was needed was to get Conservative Jews talking to each other about mitzvot, studying and doing mitzvah together. He says he had learned from Heschel that one cannot talk about halachah if people have no concept of mitzvah, and he learned from a host of evidence and thinkers just how problematic mitzvah is for modern, autonomous, “sovereign” selves.

He thus launched the Mitzvah Initiative in the Conservative movement. This year, about thirty congregations plus (Conservative) Schechter schools and some Ramah camps will talk about, study, and perform mitzvot. The participants will reflect on what the mitzvot mean, and hopefully increase the level of individual and collective observance in their congregations. One can only have a strong Conservative movement with a strong notion of mitzvah.

Eisen explains that the program begins with small groups in congregations discussing what they believe obligates them and why, what they are responsible for, what in Judaism they love. The instinctive response of American Jews, like Americans in general, is that a commandment is the opposite of freedom. They consider themselves “free” and therefore no one can command them. But, if one pushes them a bit, they realize that they do have obligations and responsibilities. Some are evident, such as those to their children, aging parents, friends, or their community. Many also recognize that distinctive responsibilities exist—because they are Jews—to Judaism, to other Jews, or to Israel.

If one asks them why this is so, some of them reply that it is a matter of conscience. God often enters into the discourse, even if they do not believe in Divine revelation at Sinai. Almost all admit their special obligations as Jews, whether or not these are connected to God.

Once this honest discussion has taken place, one can start explaining the concept of ta’amei hamitzvot, the broad range of meanings provided by Jewish tradition. Some mitzvot center on one’s home, such as keeping kosher and making kiddush (the blessing over wine) on Shabbat. Other commandments are fulfilled primarily in the synagogue or in the community. Some are “between a person and his or her fellows.” Others are “between man and God.” Some commandments are distinctly Jewish; others concern all people, such as working against genocide in Darfur and helping to save the planet.

The essence, Eisen says, is to help Conservative Jews see mitzvah as a unified path, in a way that has not been presented to them before. Many rabbis with whom Eisen has talked told him that they had never thought about the mitzvot themselves in this way, let alone spoken to their congregations about them. The yearlong curriculum of study and practice on the mitzvot has enabled this to happen. The results so far are inspiring.

Eisen argues that Judaism cannot accept what he and Cohen call the “sovereign self,” an individualism that borders on narcissism. He believes that American Jews harbor a much larger notion of being responsible and commanded than they initially acknowledge. “We need to encourage that sense,” he says. “The future of our community hangs in the balance.”

Notes

Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

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