Interesting Times: Content is king

How Arnold Eisen's message and the new Boston study converge

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Goodness knows the Jewish people needs leaders, and I think I just met one. Professor Arnold Eisen, the surprise pick to lead the Conservative movement's most venerable institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, is not a rabbi. He is living out the fantasy and fear of perhaps every serious combatant in the world of ideas: putting his scholarship into practice. Eisen is the first to admit that Conservatives have an identity challenge. "I think we can do a lot better in formulating and articulating a message about what Conservative Judaism is, has been, should be," Eisen said in a speech on October 12. "We are not simply some middle ground. You don't want to be Reform; you don't want to be Orthodox, so let's stick ourselves in the center and be Conservative. Come on: we have a proud history, a history of ideas, of values and commitments, which distinguishes us." In practice, Conservative Judaism long ago became a resting place somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of Jewish observance. And while the movement has an elaborate mechanism for making halachic decisions, it is not clear that its members take those decisions seriously, let alone as binding. Moreover, the decisions themselves - whether regarding driving on Shabbat or homosexuality - sometimes seem more of a bellwether of social trends than the result of coherent halachic reform. Though attitudes toward Halacha may in theory constitute a bright line separating the Reform and Conservative movements, in reality it is a matter of degree: the former have dropped all but a smattering of halachic observance, while the latter try to observe much more, but are unwilling to allow Jewish law to impinge too much on fitting into mainstream American life and mores. WHAT IS Eisen's solution to this situation? He argues that synagogues don't flourish because the rabbi gives another political sermon, but because they offer Jewish insights and inspiration, and because they generate a community that springss into action in support of family in crisis and to add meaning to life's transitions. It is no coincidence that the Reform movement has been moving to the Right in terms of observance, use of Hebrew, and emphasis on education. Why go to a synagogue if you are not looking for meaning and community? Expect Eisen to be a leader in combating the trend toward dumbing and watering down Judaism as a way to broaden appeal. He clearly admires controversial Boston federation head Barry Schrage, who suggests that if Jews are not joining federations, maybe federations are not worth joining. Eisen says the same logic can be applied to Jewish schools, camps and synagogues that could be doing better. "We have to deliver something of excellence, beauty, depth and intelligence - something that is really part of this culture, but also authentic.... When we do this, when we create real communities, places of real connection, and these communities are full of Torah, of wisdom to live by, of stuff that we recognize as the profound things of life, when we do that consistently, enough Jews will come back for more." He's right. And he's right about something else: how to approach the intermarriage/outreach/conversion dilemma. ON THIS question, a major just-released study of the Boston Jewish community is causing almost as great a stir as the 1990 study showing a leap in intermarriage rates - and purports to be its antidote. "Although intermarriage is generally presumed to have a negative impact on the size of the Jewish population," the report notes dryly, "in Boston it appears to have increased... the Jewish population." The explanation, the authors argue, is in the high proportion of intermarried families - 60 percent - that claim to be raising their children as Jews. This is almost double the rate found by the 1990 survey on the national level. One researcher speculated that the framing of the questions led to many fewer answering "Jewish and another religion" when asked about how they were raising their children. But there is no doubt that there is an explosion of Jewish educational offerings in Boston, and the community's deliberate shift in funding priorities in this direction has had an impact. The Boston study accentuates a subtle bifurcation of the continuity debate. Ostensibly, there is conflict between being welcoming and demanding, between "outreach" and maintaining standards. As the "outreach" lobby pushes for shedding taboos against intermarriage and the intermarried, the more traditional side believes that we attract by having more to offer, not by watering down what we stand for. Enter Eisen, offering a refreshing way out of what may be a false dichotomy. "The way a Conservative rabbi should deal with intermarriage is to say, 'I'm sorry I cannot perform an intermarriage. But the day after you are married I want to see you in my congregation. We want you to convert. We want you to be a part of a life of Torah.'" Some regard even mentioning conversion as poisonous, as if it will automatically drive the intermarried away. But it is possible to favor conversion compassionately without exerting counterproductive pressure. The Boston study aside, the evidence is still overwhelming that conversionary families are much more likely to raise Jewish children than families where one parent is not Jewish. Children are not dumb: they go by what parents do, not what they say. They often do not like to adopt any religion if doing so "chooses" between their parents, even when both say they are voting for Judaism. The message of the Boston study is not that intermarriage works, but that a rich, content and community-building approach can overcome powerful assimilationist trends. "Let no one persuade us we're in crisis." says Eisen. "We just have some work to do. You don't cry and don't complain; you roll up your sleeves and you get to work, because the work itself is a great part of the meaning of our lives." Well said, and we look forward to well done.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11