A liberal Conservative

Some are concerned, others applaud the appointment of scholar Arnold Eisen as chancellor of the JTS.

arnold eisen 88 (photo credit: )
arnold eisen 88
(photo credit: )
With Conservative Judaism at a crossroads, the movement's flagship institution has chosen a scholar of American Jewry to guide it into an uncertain future. No white smoke emerged from the Jewish Theological Seminary's red-brick tower when news of Arnold Eisen's selection was announced on Monday. But the move put to bed months of rumors and speculation swirling around the secretive process by which the list of potential candidates for chancellor was winnowed down to one. Eisen, a Jewish studies professor and chairman of Stanford University's Religious Studies Department, will succeed Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who steps down officially June 30 after some 20 years at the helm of the Conservative movement seminary. Eisen's ascent was greeted with excitement and relief by many Conservative Jews who had hoped the JTS search committee would select a dynamic leader to steward the ship as it faces a series of challenges and questions. The news also was met with a few raised eyebrows because Eisen, who is in his 50s, is not a rabbi. He has spent his professional career in academia and not working in the movement. Although he is a practicing Conservative Jew, Eisen will be just the second non-rabbi to hold JTS's top post. Cyrus Adler led the school from 1915-1940. Coincidentally, both Adler and Eisen grew up in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania. The Conservative movement, once the dominant religious stream on the US Jewish scene, faces dwindling numbers as it struggles to articulate a coherent message. It has been losing ground to the growing Reform movement and sometimes has seemed feckless in the face of an energized Orthodoxy. It is further being roiled by the battle over the place of gays and lesbians in the movement and by an identity crisis that has led some Conservative leaders to ask whether the group is a movement or just a coalition of approaches to Judaism. The search for chancellor reflects a larger struggle that has dogged the movement for years. Conservative Judaism, since its inception, has been pulled between those who would adhere more strictly to halacha, or traditional Jewish law, and those who are more willing to change tenets of religious observance to gel with modern living. The choice of chancellor was seen as a barometer of which approach the movement would take as it moves forward. And while Eisen's views on these issues are not well known, many in the movement say that given the seriousness of the challenges, Eisen, a tall man with an easy smile, is the right man at the right time for JTS. "I just think they hit a home run," said Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish studies professor at Brandeis University, who praised the search committee for thinking outside the box in its choice. "Arnie Eisen is one of the most respected Jewish scholars in America. He is exceptionally broad in his knowledge, able to speak learnedly about the Bible and rabbinics even as his specialty is modern Jewish thought." But others, while trumpeting Eisen's qualities as a leader and scholar, weren't as sure about what the selection would mean for the movement's future, particularly with regard to the complex social issues it is confronting. Unlike other candidates who were considered for the job, Eisen - who is said initially to have taken himself out of the running - has not played a role in the movement's halachic discussions and therefore his positions on these matters are not well-known. "I can't say what halachic effect it will have," said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. "He's not a halachist, he's not a rabbinic scholar. He's the kind of person who would be careful about making pronouncements in a field that was not his own." Others speculated that it was precisely because Eisen is, halachically speaking, an open book that he was so attractive to the search committee. Because his focus as an academic is broader than some movement insiders who were considered for the post, he may be able to shift the movement's focus. "He may move away from some of the debates over social issues that have bedeviled the seminary and he will address the larger issues of what it means to be a Jew in America," Sarna said. "I think that the very fact that he's not a rabbi will turn out to be an asset." Said Steven Zipperstein, the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford who has known Eisen since the 1970s: "It's an incredibly creative choice to bring in someone slightly on the outside, but someone who very publicly shares the views of Conservative theology." Not everyone is so sure. "I think that a huge taboo was broken with it not being a rabbi," said one congregational rabbi from New York, who asked not to be named because the appointment was not yet official. "I'm a little concerned that it'll be hard to put that genie back in the bottle." "He doesn't have a long background of movement insidership," the rabbi added. "That means he won't have as many contacts, have built-up loyalties, which is a problem." Another leading rabbi, also requesting anonymity, said news of Eisen's hiring was "a bit of a shock for many people." "There's no religious voice," he said. Eisen did not return several phone calls seeking comment. UNDER SCHORSCH, the seminary was, perhaps, the leading institution of the Conservative movement. Schorsch himself was outspoken on issues of halacha, often taking a conservative approach to matters such as the place of homosexuality in the movement. He also urged Conservative Jews to adhere more strongly to tradition, even suggesting that the movement's decision to allow driving to synagogues on Shabbat, which many Conservative Jews do, had been a mistake. The chancellor candidate once considered the favorite for the job, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, is a pulpit rabbi, scholar and longtime member of the movement's central halachic authority. He is widely considered to be a liberal, and recently authored a paper calling for a change in the movement's approach to homosexuality that would pave the way for the ordination of gay rabbis. On issues of Jewish observance, though, he is relatively conservative. With the choice of Eisen, some are wondering whether the traditional role the chancellor has played when it comes to halacha - some have likened the position to the de facto Chief Rabbinate of the movement - may shift to someone else. Such a role could fall instead to the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement's synagogue arm; or the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm; or perhaps to a newly created position like a mara d'atra, a local halachic authority, some suggest. The seminary is home to one of two Conservative rabbinical schools in the United States. The other, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, is located at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. The leading conservative rabbi who asked not to be named thinks such concerns are misplaced. "The chancellor has not been the halachic authority of the movement, really not," he said. "In the history of the movement, the chancellor has been more of the titular head of the movement." Halachic authority has generally rested with the movement's rabbis, he said. EISEN HOLDS a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also has attended Oxford University. He is the author of, among other books, The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology; The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (with Steven M. Cohen); Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming; Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America; and Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community, for which he received the Koret Jewish Book Award. Some observers say that as a social scientist, Eisen will bring a new perspective to the chancellor's office, which has traditionally been held by experts in history and rabbinics. "He's devoted at least as much time to the issues of American Jewish life as any other academician - and more than most," said Laurence Silberstein, a Jewish studies professor at Lehigh University and Eisen's former teacher. "I think that gives him a kind of different perspective." Still, some observers privately wonder whether Eisen's resume has prepared him for the administrative, fund-raising and management requirements of a university head. Eisen, who acquaintances say is politically liberal, has publicly challenged the Jewish community to engage in a meaningful public affairs agenda that takes into account both Jewish and American values. He also has spoken of the importance of art in Jewish life. "We Jews need art as much as anyone else," he said in an address earlier this month at the Jewish Funders Network annual conference in Denver. "Perhaps we need them more than anyone else because we are committed to making the world right." "It's a subject on which we've remained silent, we teachers of Torah, we builders of community, for far too long," he said. In the end, Mintz Geffen said, Eisen's success is likely to rest on his personality. "I have never met anybody who doesn't like him," she said. "He's one of the nicest people. He's a real mensch. He is just a pleasure to be with."