Menachem Mendel

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Interview with Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Here is a lengthy, interesting, and in my opinion, honest, interview with the Chancellor of JTS Arnold Eisen. Below are some snippits.

The definition of our message has become a priority for several reasons. One is that on our left side, in the Reform movement, there have been changes that have made it look more like Conservative Judaism. On the right side, a type of left-moving Modern Orthodoxy has emerged in New York and a few other places. Rabbi Avi Weiss’s seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah ordains 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. JTS will be taking the lead on this matter, with which we have already started.

The key distinguishing mark between us and other movements is that Conservative Judaism 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 the tradition in all of its complexity, nuance, variety, and substance. On the other hand, we aim to be fully involved with society and culture at large that we are part of. I think this attitude directly emanated from the Torah as a guide for living.

The Conservative translation of this is that a strong sense of communal observances and norms unites Conservative Jews. The critique that Conservative Judaism needs more observance particularly as far as Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and the dietary laws are concerned is well founded. The practice is that observance in the Conservative movement is way below that of the Orthodox and way above that of the Reform. It doesn’t please me, but I think we have a chance to raise the level of Conservative observance, and we’ll be trying to do this. The Mitzvah Initiative is designed to get people to think about those observances and norms, and to elicit more consistency and deeper levels of commitment.

In the Conservative movement, 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 go to the rabbinical schools of the movements or 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 halakha and being an integral part of the modern world. There is a balance between the two and I consider that this is best achieved in the Conservative movement.

As far as outreach is concerned, I tell rabbinical students at JTS that if they cannot exhibit the same love for the Jewish people and Judaism as Chabad rabbis, then they have chosen the wrong profession. The Conservative movement is strong on academics; we have many PhDs who can speak with all the required footnotes. We are, however, not good at conveying passion in our services. Heschel spoke already fifty years ago about synagogues lacking fervor. One can only have a missionary capability if one has a very clear message.

When I go to Conservative congregations, I often say 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 an intense experience of Jewish learning and/or prayer. I then ask: ‘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? If your young people have to go to Orthodoxy to replicate that kind of prayer, it’s a disgrace and we don’t deserve it.’ Clearly the movement has work to do in this regard. And rather than give up on it and assume it can’t be done, I think there’s a lot to build on while preaching norms.

6 Responses to “Interview with Chancellor Arnold Eisen”

  1. 1

    intensity and fervor are great but devoid of content. you get plenty of fervor at a met game. jts has the brains and latent creativity to activate the content of judaism for now – cognitive understanding of the ancient in modern terms. the message should be – your judaism is interesting and here is why.

  2. 2

    A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  3. 3

    WADR, one problem here is that the Conservative vision “commitment to Judaism, openness to questions and integration in the modern world” sounds no different than the vision of Modern Orthodoxy. There needs to be some positive and compelling reason for me to embrace Judaism and Jewish living. If you tell me the history recorded in Tanakh is false, the theological principles taught to us by our rabbis are false, and the laws and rules are manmade and subject to capricious revision, how exactly do you expect me to respond? Then you tell me the primary inspiration for preserving Jewish ritual is some kind of loyalty to an ancient historical tradition – how exactly is that going to engage me as a modern and enlightened person?

    The other perpetual problem is the (apparent) inability of Conservative leaders to recognize that their own “takkanot”, “heterim” and other innovations are, at least in part, the cause of the decline in observance and interest among Conservative Jews. Look at the Catholic Church post Vatican II and note remarkable similarities between the drift of Catholics from their former religious commitments and that of Conservative Jews who no longer take the Torah or Halakha seriously anymore.

    And, just as a note, YCT did not ordain Sara Hurwitz. Her ordination was completely independent of YCT and even opposed by many elements within the Yeshiva, including the Rosh Yeshiva.

  4. 4
    Harry Perkal:

    The comment above by RJM is exactly what is wrong with Orthodoxy. Yes there is many things wrong with the Conservative Movement and yes Arnold Eisen did not say anything new or significant, BUT the most important issue is that the COnservative Movement is struggling with the fact that modernity and scholarship has brought into serious question that the Torah was given at Sinai- let alone the ridiculous claim that the Oral Law was also given at Sinai. So the Conservatitive Movement, as is all Liberal forms of religion, is stuggling to reconcile tradition, central myths of religion and modern reality. It has not resoved these issues by any means, but the hard questions are at least being asked. While Orthodoxy is smug in its complacensy and thinks it can forever deny reality. Sure there will be a certain percentage of people who will themselves to believe, but from a long term historical perspective denial is not an answer.

  5. 5

    Perkal keeps holding the Conservative Movement’s feet to the fire but no one listens. His own Rabbi is a key example of the ambivalence in the Movement. A good man but unwilling to get out in front in these issues.

  6. 6


    What I understand as the Oral Law being given at Sinai is simply that the meanings of the terms and concepts articulated in the written text were understood and explained orally to the people, just as any text can only be read through the prism of context. What you think is ridiculous is an idea to which no Modern Orthodox thinker actually subscribes. It is a straw man!




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