Menachem Mendel

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Chancellor Eisen’s Inaugural Speech

Those who are interested can read JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s inaugural speech.  I think that his most important point is that JTS should not be involved with ivory tower scholarship. “Our mission is scholarship for the sake  of Torah: for that sake, that is, of Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and—through both of these—the world.”  I also liked his description of a meeting with R. Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1971.

When I met Heschel in his office at JTS one day in 1971, ostensibly to interview him but in fact to ask the questions which most concerned me, I asked him—with the chutzpah that only a twenty-year old could possibly muster—where he got the nerve to say, as he did in the first paragraph of God in Search of Man, that religion had declined not because it was refuted by modern science and philosophy but because it had become “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” I went on to ask a few moments later how he could declare with such certainty that the war in Vietnam was wrong—and what good all his words of protest were doing anyway, what good words ever did. I needed to know how Heschel could make the tradition speak so forcefully to the crises of the day. “You doubt—that’s my problem,” he replied quietly. (I quote from the interview published under my byline in The Daily Pennsylvanian.) “My good friend, words count.” He dared to tell people how they should live, he said, because of “certain climactic moments of my own life, certain convictions and insights,” and because of “a tradition of wisdom which I feel has enriched me, has given me values.” That tradition, the source of Heschel’s insights and convictions, had given him, he said, not only a right but a duty to express them, to share them, and to try to have them guide human lives. His was no mere middle path between extremes, no mere balancing of tradition and modernity, but the Torah burning inside him, guiding his pen in his study and his feet at Selma, a life-giving path of meaning and community, intellect and passion, on which he, following his teachers, sought to lead us.

As to Conservative Movement politics, I think that Chancellor Eisen clearly sees JTS as leading the Conservative Movement but in coordination and cooperation with other institutions within the movement.  I remarked to a friend that it was a frum speech, in the sense that it was filled with theology and Torah, and I think that Chancellor Eisen represents that which I heard from someone years ago, Wissenschaft with a neshama (with the Yiddish intonation).

5 Responses to “Chancellor Eisen’s Inaugural Speech”

  1. 1
    Zooky2:

    Hey, I know that friend to whom you said it was a frum speech!!!

  2. 2
    andy:

    Where I come from, scholarship (of this type) is kept at arms length from Torah, for good reason.

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    Zooky2,

    I feel priviledged to know that you read my blog.

  4. 4
    andy:

    What I meant was, for example, the article by your friend Josh K. in JQR showing that the requirement of a beit din for geirut was a relatively late innovation. For someone to use this to argue for the abolition of the requirement is unacceptable.

  5. 5
    Menachem Mendel:

    I would agree with you, but I don’t think that Chancellor Eisen was calling for such a thing. I think that he is calling for scholarship which while both historical and critical, is also aware of the larger questions which the scholar may be trying to answer. I would claim that all scholarship is driven by some larger question, the problem is when results are skewed and altered intentionally to fit that agenda. As to the question of history vs. halakhah, R. Joel Roth has written about this, criticizing those who confuse the history of halakhah and pesak halakhah. An important article of his on the subject is found in The Seminary at 100.

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