With his appointment as chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the noted religious-studies scholar—and one time Gazette student columnist and assistant to former Penn President Martin Meyerson—is only the second non-rabbi to serve as the symbolic head of American Judaism’s Conservative movement.

It was one of those moments, in hindsight, when it would have been great to have been a fly on the wall.

The interviewee on the day in question in 1971 at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the seminal thinker and philosopher who redefined the Conservative movement. A prominent anti-war and civil-rights activist, Heschel had not only shaped the intellectual landscape of the Conservative movement, but breathed new life into the concept of the Jewish responsibility to be actively engaged with social issues.

The interviewer was Arnold Eisen C’73, then a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter who was writing a feature for 34th Street Magazine on Heschel. Eisen was a religious-studies major, a Conservative Jew, and a young man who knew the significance of the personage he was about to interview, but wasn’t afraid to ask him tough questions.

Eisen credits that interview with changing the course of his life.

“Heschel understood, within five minutes of our conversation, that I had deeply personal concerns on my mind, and that he was speaking to someone who was considering being a serious Jew,” Eisen recalls, recounting how he asked Heschel “challenging questions which he could have dismissed as simply the arrogance of a 20-year-old.

“I asked him, ‘What good is all your protesting the war doing anybody?’ Where did I get the arrogance to say to such a man that religion had become oppressive and overly sentimental?” Eisen wonders. “He responded very seriously for a few hours. He was fully present, and I left the room transformed.”

Transformed, indeed. A bit more than 35 years later, Eisen is preparing to go through the doorway of the JTS again—but this time as its chancellor, the titular head of the institution and the symbolic head of the Conservative movement. Having been named to the post in April 2006, he will officially take office this July, relocating from California to New York with his wife, Adriane Leveen, a senior lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at Stanford University, after his son Nathaniel finishes his senior year of high school. (Eisen and Leveen also have a daughter, Shulie, who is an undergraduate at Brandeis University.)

The news of his election attracted much notice, since he was only the second non-rabbi to lead the 120-year-old training ground for Conservative rabbis. In fact, for Eisen, a scholar and former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford, to be chosen for a position which has been considered by some to be a de facto chief rabbinate of the Conservative movement, signals nothing short of a revolution in the institution’s approach to halacha, or Jewish law.

The new approach is being warmly welcomed in many quarters. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985, said, “I believe that Professor Eisen has the giftedness, expertise, and fresh perspective to re-invigorate the discourse that guides the life of our movement.” And, if one can tell a person by the company he keeps, one might regard it as a portent of left-leaning to come that one of Eisen’s closest friends is Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s seminary. Ellenson professionally applauded Eisen’s selection, saying that the appointment “marks a wonderful day for the Conservative movement worldwide and for American Judaism as a whole.”

Other figures in Conservative Judaism, however, greeted news of Eisen’s appointment with trepidation, if not dismay. “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, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an international news service. “I’m a little concerned that it’ll be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.” Other anonymous pulpit rabbis voiced their concerns, in the press and blogosphere, that a “statement” was being made by the Conservative movement about the relevance of the rabbi in public life. Or, as JTS blogger Shmuel Rosner posited: “[T]ough questions arise from this choice. The first and most important one is: Where have all the rabbis gone? Aren’t there any good enough rabbis to take on such a job?”

The time of the revolution is at hand. With the numbers of Conservative Jews diminishing as its more religious members migrate towards Orthodoxy and its less tradition-minded slip towards the Reform movement or assimilate entirely, the center is no longer holding. It is a crucial time for the movement, and a time in which Conservative Judaism is revisiting what it means to be a Conservative Jew in the 21st century.

Eisen believes that he is the right person at the right time and the right place. “I’m hoping that my perspective as a relative outsider, but as a scholar of American Judaism, is going to help people see strengths that they might not have appreciated otherwise,” he says. “JTS is a marvelous institution, and the Conservative movement has incredible resources. It may take an outsider to remind them of just how strong they—just how strong we—are.”

Arnold Eisen's Moment by Jordana Horn
Illustration by Chris Sharp

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/07