“But at the same time, there’s an incredible amount of experimentation and transformation going on in Jewish life today,” he adds. He illustrates his conceptual picture enthusiastically, enumerating examples within the American Conservative Jewish community: Day-school enrollments are on the rise, Jewish camping and Jewish-studies programs are flourishing, and feminism has made real inroads into Jewish life. He points out that an increase in the “quality” of involved congregants could compensate for the decline in quantity. In other words, the glass may well be half empty—but what’s left in the glass is top-shelf champagne.

Eisen also envisions a future for Conservative Judaism—for all denominations of Judaism, for that matter—in which congregants fine-tune their observance as befits their own personal wants and needs. “I think that people are always going to need institutions that have a certain character which fits their aspirations, their particular styles of being Jewish, and their degree of attachment to Jewish law,” Eisen says. “I don’t think we’re going to see an end to Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism.”

That being said, Eisen adds, “What’s relevant to a Conservative synagogue is going to be relevant to a Reform or Orthodox synagogue. On the other hand, there are certain things that are going to differentiate them. What is the role of women going to be? Full egalitarianism? That’s outside the realm of Orthodox Judaism. A great deal of Hebrew? That’s outside the realm of Reform Judaism. There are going to be specifics that immediately come into play when you start making choices.”

Such choices are the lines drawn in the sand between the movements of Jewish observance—and the time to draw and erase such lines is drawing nearer. In December, in a hotly contested vote, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly ruled that the the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis was permissible under Jewish law.

While the JTS chancellor had no official decision-making capability on such issues, the position certainly wields a degree of influence, and Eisen had made it clear that he would like to see gay and lesbian rabbis in the Conservative movement, a change from the movement’s prior stance on the issue. It’s a big, decisive stand, and Eisen is not only comfortable with it, but believes that it would make the Conservative movement a more comfortable and inclusive entity as a whole.

“It’s hard to tell what the impact will be, except that many people who currently do not feel welcome in the synagogue will be made to feel welcome by these role models,” Eisen says. He cites the example of JTS’s decision to ordain women in 1985: “All sorts of women are feeling connected to Jewish life right now, expressing this connection because of the female rabbis they’ve had as role models. There’s been the creation of new rituals and new liturgy—it’s one of the great gifts to Judaism in my generation.”

The issue of whether or not to sanction religious marriages between gays and lesbians is not currently on the table, but the assembly also voted to allow same-sex commitment ceremonies. “You already see a lot of Conservative rabbis doing some form of commitment ceremony,” Eisen says, “and I think that trend will grow.”

Within the synagogue, Eisen forecasts a future of re-anchoring the Conservative community in ritual and belief. Traditionally, he says, the synagogue always served three functions in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora: a house of prayer, a house of study, and a house of assembly—it is only in America that the synagogue has been fashioned as a purely religious institution.

“You have synagogues thriving as houses of worship because prayer services have been revitalized,” Eisen says. “But synagogues are also houses of study and assembly. We know from my research and others that people want and seek community—you need to give them religious meaning in the context of community. If you do, they will respond positively and come back for more. Study opens up dimensions to you that you’ve never seen before.”

As a scholar of religion, Eisen has been repeatedly struck by the unique properties of America and how they affect community life. “The revival of churches has a lot to teach Jews about the revival of synagogues,” he says. Similarly, there is a lesson to be learned by Judaism by the growth of Latino immigrants and Spanish-speaking populations with a high degree of bilingualism: a bilingualism which, Eisen feels, would do well to be emulated by the American Jewish community.

“Somehow, Jews all over the world except America manage to learn Hebrew,” Eisen explains. “It’s so important to have Jews feel comfortable in the language Jews have had over the centuries—to have the experience of picking up the Torah and reading in the original Hebrew, and to understand—not do anything by rote, but rather to enter into the intention of the prayer.

“The thrill of being able to hear the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and to understand is tremendous,” Eisen adds. “The ability to become an interpreter of your own tradition is precious.”

Where does Eisen see Conservative Judaism in America, say, 50 years from now? His greatest fear, he says, is that the number of observant Jews in America will have dwindled, creating an inability to fund and supply the institutions needed to preserve the tradition—institutions much like JTS. At the end of the day, Eisen admits, to a certain extent, the numbers do matter.

“What happens 50 years from now depends on the work of identity building that we do now,” he says. “That’s why it’s crucial that we take advantage of this moment, when we have the resources and a moment of real vitality and pluralism to act.

“My hope is that Conservative Jews and other Jews alike will be finding new ways to recreate their Jewish identities,” Eisen adds. “Jewish life is very interesting, for those who want to take advantage of it. Each generation can find ways to keep the project alive. That’s what I want to be part of.”

Jordana Horn C’95 L’99, a lawyer and writer, last wrote on Penn alumni involved in New York City politics in the Jan/Feb 2006 issue of the magazine.

Arnold Eisen's Moment by Jordana Horn

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