This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Most people assume I was trained in the Reform movement. They’re wrong. I started my Hebrew School education in an Orthodox synagogue and spent my teen years at Beth Torah, a Conservative synagogue, in North Miami Beach.
All of this is prelude. Last night after extremely vivid dreams, I retrieved the following from my email inbox. Reading but still groggy, I asked myself if I was dreaming I was awake. Was I still dreaming?
The reading in question is Arnold Eisen’s address to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism on the occasion of their 1ooth anniversary of existence. Eisen is the Chancellor of the movement’s flagship seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The title of his address: “The Meaning of this Moment.”
Scrolling down the page, I quickly read through Eisen’s remarks. Then I read them again more carefully. I couldn’t believe what I was (not) reading. It was the middle of the night. I must be missing the obvious.
Eisen’s basic theme is the future. His point of departure is the recent Pew study of Jewish life. Eisen’s metaphor – stretching. On stretching, Eisen pinpoints three areas the Conservative movement needs to pay attention to. The Schechter, Eisen appeals to is Solomon Schecheter, the founding visionary of the Conservative movement:
First, we need to stretch our boundaries wider. Schechter spoke repeatedly in his talk about “Conservative or Orthodox,” aiming to build up what he proudly called “traditional Judaism.” He wanted United Synagogue to define itself positively, by what it was rather than what it was not, and he urged it to take “Klal Israel for its ultimate aim, but America as its immediate field of work.” We must unite despite our differences, he told his audience; you must not “sacrific[e] your children and the whole future of Judaism for the imaginary welfare of your own little soul.”
Yes! We need to work to strengthen Movement institutions, shore up membership rolls of synagogues and schools, pave the path in Torah that we believe is the right and true path. This will take internal effort and compromise. But we must also recognize that, if we serve and save only ourselves, we will not serve or save ourselves. The way to grow Conservative Judaism is to reach out beyond it to bring in more Jews, affiliated or not, denominational or post-denominational, from what we call the vital religious center…
Second, stretch beyond the status quo of the synagogue. You know about Schechter’s famous ambition to train rabbis who could talk baseball or even play baseball. What is the equivalent of that today? Or of his plea to give up “dread of the English sermon?” How can we act on his conviction that “our work must not remain confined to the synagogue?” This is striking: the work of United Synagogue must not be confined to the synagogue! Schechter did not just teach Mordecai Kaplan, he learned from him.
I, a fellow student of Kaplan, am a scholar of North American Judaism who believes the synagogue remains the key institution of our communities. I treasure passionate tefillah. But I think that it does not help our cause in 2013 that Conservative Judaism is identified with the synagogue far more than with any other institution, and that the synagogue is judged far more by what happens in Saturday morning services than by any other facet of its activity. USCJ is absolutely right to change the discourse from synagogue to kehillah. Jews live the truth of Kaplan’s great book: Judaism is civilization—politics and arts, Israel and social services, the life of the mind, the care of the body, the sanctity of the home, the safeguarding of the planet, and the nurturing of the spirit….
Third, stretch our capacity for sacrifice, and our notion of what sacrifice entails. Schechter sought, we seek, “to establish Conservative Judaism on a firm foundation for posterity.” Our task, he emphasized, is to make matters easier for the generations that follow us. It’s not only about us. Then he said, “Such a work, as I hardly need tell you, will require material sacrifice on the part of all those who inaugurate to-day this movement. We cannot do anything worthwhile without taxing ourselves to the utmost of our capacity.” He meant financial commitment, and not only that.
So stretching – boundaries, beyond the status quo of the synagogue and finally, the capacity to sacrifice and the notion of what sacrifice entails. Here’s the sacrifice Eisen calls for:
There is a remarkable midrash on the Akeidah in Bereishit Rabbah that has a lot to say on this point of sacrifice. Abraham is protesting to God, after the angel has saved Isaac from the knife, that God has been incredibly inconsistent. First you tell me that my seed would come through Isaac. Then you order me to sacrifice him. Then you tell me not to touch him! What gives? God replies, “I never said to slaughter him. I said to take him up the mountain in order to participate in a sacrifice.” Not to be the sacrifice. Abraham heard it wrong! He was ready to sacrifice, but he moved in the wrong direction.
We often hear so-called commands wrong; especially when they concern the people and causes we love most and call on us to give a lot of ourselves. We always have to be sure that it is God and Torah we follow, rather than faddish trends on the one hand or sheer inertia on the other. Let’s listen hard to Schechter’s warning that we not sacrifice our children’s Judaism in order to preserve our current notion of how things have to be. The Rabbis justified a lot in the name of va-hai ba-hem, the command to live through Judaism and not die, and make sure that Judaism lives through us. The point of taking Isaac up the mountain is to take him up, to reach the place where God appears to him, and by doing so to take ourselves higher too.
Like the other parts of his address, I have read and re-read this call to sacrifice. The sacrifice Eisen calls for eludes me. It seems to be summed up in this line: “Let’s listen hard to Schechter’s warning that we not sacrifice our children’s Judaism in order to preserve our current notion of how things have to be.” But rather than sacrifice, this strikes me more like my older son’s admonition: “Dad, hands off the wheel.” In youth parlance, it means he has his own life to navigate.
I’m OK with sacrifice – Jews of Conscience hear that beat. Sacrifice here, as the Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, would be speaking the truth about the real challenge of Jewish life. This is totally absent in Eisen’s address. That pesky question of Israel’s continuing expansion, the American Jewish enabling of that expansion and the real-time dispossession of Palestinians from their land – not one word! No mention of Israel’s apartheid. Not even a John Kerry warning of “time is running out” on a Two State solution.
These essentials being unmentioned in his remarks, Eisen’s address becomes irrelevant and banal. I would say irresponsible.
Is there some Jewish sand, Eisen and the Conservative movement have their heads stuck in?
Perhaps when I read Eisen’s remarks, I was fully awake and he, when delivering his remarks, was dreaming.
Is the Chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary dreaming of a world where Palestine and Palestinians don’t exist?