Both/And podcast transcript
The following are transcriptions of the podcast Both/And: 250 Years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This isepisode one, “Encountering Enlightenment.”
Arnold Eisen: Hi, it’s really good to be with you. I have the kind of excitement that I always have on the first day of class, and this podcast series developed directly out of a class which I have given every other spring at JTS to rabbinical students, List College students, and anyone else who wants to take it. I take the history and philosophy of Conservative Judaism, so something like 250 years of history collapsed into 13 three-hour sessions, and several of the trustees of JTS heard about it and said, “Why can’t you give us a kind of mini-version of this course?” So I collapsed the course into a 40-minute presentation, after which several trustees came up to me and said, “We want to hear some of this again. Can you make this into a podcast series?” And that’s how this series developed. So I’m happy to share with you some of what I have been working on for many years and some of the most enjoyable discussions I have with students at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Arnold Eisen: When you offer a series like this, the question always is, “Where do you start?” Because nothing starts from the beginning, especially if you’re dealing with Jewish history and Jewish thought. As a student of Modern Jewish Thought by profession, a person who did a PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1970s, I can’t not start this course, this presentation series, with the character of Spinoza, who many people consider the first modern Jewish thinker, but whom my teacher Eliezer Schweid insisted on calling “the person who established the prehistory of modern Jewish thought.” Schweid would not call him a “Jewish thinker,” because, as you may know, Spinoza, though born a Jew and a highly educated Jew, was eventually, for reasons we don’t know, excommunicated from the Jewish community, and really did not care whether the Jews or Judaism survived, and Schweid thought we should reserve the term “Jewish thinker” for Jews who are facing issues in modernity with an eye to preserving the Jewish people and/or Judaism and making them stronger for the modern period.
Arnold Eisen: So, we mentioned Spinoza because he set the agenda for modern Jewish thought, but then we really begin this series with the figure of Moses Mendelssohn, the great German Jewish thinker of the 18th century, who in the year 1783 is challenged by an anonymous pamphlet to answer the following question. “Mendelssohn,” he said, “you’re obviously a very great philosopher. Why don’t just come out and admit that you’re no longer a believing Jew? Why don’t you just admit you’re pretending, because no one can be smart as you are and as enlightened as you are and possibly want to be a believing practicing Jew anymore.” Mendelssohn thought this pamphlet had been written by a good friend of his and felt he had to respond to it, and so he writes the book Jerusalem. I think the first audience for that book is himself, but we are fortunate because for me, for all of us, it’s the first book written by a Jewish thinker that wrestles with issues that we wrestle with today.
Arnold Eisen: I’d like to put it this way. Mendelssohn was the first Jewish thinker to write a book of Jewish thought who had to worry that if his readers didn’t like his arguments, they might decide not to be Jewish. If you didn’t like Maimonides, you turned to Nahmanides. If you didn’t like the Baal Shem Tov, you turned to the Vilna Gaon. But in the modern period, if you don’t like Moses Mendelssohn’s arguments for being a Jew, you might well decide not to be a Jew, as in fact several of his children decided when they converted to Christianity in order to marry non-Jews and make their way in German society. Mendelssohn summarizes his argument near the end of the book Jerusalem by saying there are three parts of Judaism, and I’m going to talk about each of these three parts in turn because these issues are going to define for us what we’re going to do for the rest of this series.
Arnold Eisen: Mendelssohn says, first of all, Judaism consists of eternal truths that you don’t need particular revelation to acquire. The first part of Judaism are things that you know through conscience or through science or through logic. Mendelssohn is an 18th-century thinker who believes that the existence of God is just as true and certain as the fact that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West or that two times two is four, and you don’t need revelation at Sinai to tell you these things, and, in fact, no words revealed at a particular time and place could tell you these things because words are confusing, and they have different meanings, and Mendelssohn believes that all of us, if our reason works correctly, the same way as we know that two times two is four, understand that God is God, God created the world, God’s going to judge us after we die in accordance with our deeds.
Arnold Eisen: This, for Mendelssohn, is an eternal truth. Next, every religious tradition has historical truths, and the important thing about Mendelssohn to remember is he’s a pluralist. He’s arguing for Judaism to be accepted in Germany at a time when Jews were not accepted in Germany. It’s always touching to me that Mendelssohn, even though he’s recognized as one of the greatest philosophers in Germany—not just greatest Jewish philosopher, one of the greatest philosophers—even though his friendship with German literary figure Lessing was famous, every year, Mendelssohn had to apply to the city authorities of Berlin for permission to live in Berlin for one more year. They wouldn’t make him a permanent resident of Berlin and he had to apply for special permission for his wife and for his children. So, here’s the great Mendelssohn who’s arguing that Jews should be accepted in a way that he has not been accepted, and he’s trying to make the case to Christians, saying, “Judaism is a parallel religion to you, and just as you have eternal truths, we have eternal truths.
Arnold Eisen: And just as you have historical truths, we have historical truths.” So in this second category, Christians would believe that there was Jesus of Nazareth and he taught what is recorded in the Gospels and he died on the cross. Jews have historical truths: the Red Sea split, and there was a revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Maccabees fought, and there was Purim. So each tradition contains distinct historical truths which are parallel to the historical truths of other traditions, but you see, eternal truths are shared and historical truths are parallel. The question is, what makes Judaism really distinctive? And Mendelssohn said, “What makes Judaism really distinctive from other traditions are the mitzvot, are the laws, are the commandments.” And this was the issue that we’re going to see is going to set Conservative Judaism apart from other denominations and Judaism in the modern period. We’re going to see as we go through the series that one kind of Jew generally doesn’t disagree with another of Jew over abstract theories of revelation or exactly what God is like.
Arnold Eisen: The issue at hand is what must Jews observe and why. What is the authority of the commandments? And for Mendelssohn, that authority was twofold. The first authority is that God said so. Mendelssohn believed that God revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai, but he knew that that explanation was not going to satisfy modern Jews, modern Jews who study math and science and history and literature, and are part and parcel of the larger world the way he wants Jews to be part of it. So, Mendelssohn spends Jerusalem developing an elaborate theory of the commandments which tries to show how the commandments, as it were symbolically, through enactments rather than the words, bring us to eternal truths and bring us to historical truths. The reason why a Jew is going to observe commandments is because they give you a life of what he called “felicity.” They give you the highest kind of happiness you can have.
Arnold Eisen: They provide you meaning in your life. So for Mendelssohn, you observe Passover first of all because Passover is given to you by God in the Torah. But the second reason you observe Passover, and the more immediate reason perhaps, is that it’s a great joy to celebrate Passover, and you find it meaningful to celebrate Passover, and it points you to certain truths: moral truths; eternal truths; truths about the nature of society, and politics, and the way the world should be. So what we’ve done in this first session here of our series is we’ve looked at the figure of Moses Mendelssohn, a great and towering figure whom every subsequent Jewish thinker in the 19th century wanted to see as an ancestor. We’re going to see next time that the founder of Modern Orthodoxy took Moses Mendelssohn as his model, the founders of Reform Judaism took Moses Mendelssohn as their model, and most importantly for us, Zechariah Frankel, the founder of what comes to be known as “Conservative Judaism,” took Moses Mendelssohn as his model. So we’re going to see that this one figure, and pretty much in this one book, lays out arguments that come to shape the lives that we still live today as Jews and particularly as Conservative Jews. To me, it’s wonderful as a scholar to be able to pinpoint the beginning of your discipline. Modern Jewish Thought begins with one man, one book, one date, and next time we’re going to see how this book still continues to influence us today.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And: 250 Years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode two, “History and Halakhah.”
Arnold Eisen: Last time, we looked at the towering figure of the late 18th century who dominates all the developments of Judaism in the 19th century in western Europe, eventually America: Moses Mendelssohn. And what I want to say about Mendelssohn, which I didn’t say last time, which is going to set the stage for this session, is how Mendelssohn is like us.What makes him a modern Jewish thinker, aside from the fact that he was writing in the modern period and the first thing is he presumes what I consider to be the fundamental fact of Jewish life that we all face, which we would call, volunteerism. Mendelssohn is writing for Jews who have a choice about whether to be Jewish. And as I mentioned last time, after he died, several of his children chose not to be Jewish. They converted to Christianity in order to marry Christians and make their way in German society.
Arnold Eisen: Mendelssohn knows that we have this choice, and the second thing he knows, which is like us, is he’s writing for Jews who are part, or who he wants to be part of a larger culture. Our identities are what you might call hyphenated. We are American Jews. We are part and parcel of a larger culture in a larger society. Mendelssohn wrote his book Jerusalem in 1783, in German, at a time when very few Jews wrote or read German, but Mendelssohn understood that this was coming and he wanted it to come. He wanted the process that we call the Emancipation. He wanted us to be part of the larger world and he understood that being part of the larger world meant a harder task for Jewish teachers and Jewish parents and Jewish leaders. Because you could no longer compel your children or your students to be Jewish.
Arnold Eisen: You had to persuade them to be Jewish and if you have to persuade them, you have to persuade them in language. They’re going to understand and find compelling. So, he wrote in German the same way that I write most of my work in English and he uses language that would be fitting to people of his time and to the generations that followed. Beginning in the early decades of the 19th century, some Jews, given the opportunity to change Judaism, started making reforms: different prayers, different kind of education, different observances, some more radical, some less so, but in the 1840s, these rabbis and leaders who we know of as Reform Jewish leaders started gathering in Germany and they tried it to put some unity to their new movement and they looked back to Moses Mendelssohn and they said, look, Mendelssohn taught us that the heart of Judaism, as of every religion, are really eternal truths.
Arnold Eisen: We share these with Christians. We don’t need revelation at Sinai to give us these eternal truths, and indeed the heart of Judaism are the truths about God and the truths about morality. So, Judaism should be defined, they said, as ethical monotheism, everything else, whether it’s the historical truths Mendelssohn introduced as Passover or Purim or Hanukkah? Yeah, you have some historical truths—to the degree that, and only if that they will lead you to eternal truths, and what about the mitzvot, the commandments? Well, the reformers didn’t believe anymore as Mendelssohn had, that they were actually given by God at Sinai. They believed that God only reveals to us the eternal truths and God need not do that at Sinai. God does that through our reason and through our conscience. So, every mitzvah, every commandment will be observed only if, only if, it was conducive to the eternal truths.
Arnold Eisen: So, take the example of kashrut. If observing kashrut separates you from your non-Jewish neighbors, how can you possibly be a vehicle of teaching ethical monotheism to the world—because you’re apart. Kashrut is going to be discarded. There was another group of Jews who said, no way, and the reaction to Reform among Orthodox Jews was twofold, as it is today. There were Jews, we might call them ultra-Orthodox Jews, today we might call them Haredi, who said, we’re rejecting this entire notion of fitting Jews into the larger society. We don’t want you speaking German. They should speak Yiddish. They should not go to German schools, they should not go to universities. But there’s another kind of Orthodox Jew, which we know as Modern Orthodox Jews, and this movement is actually traceable to a particular rabbi named Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who in the 1830s starts issuing a series of writings where he says, we can accept some portions of the modern world, but like Mendelssohn, we must hold to the truth—he believed it was the truth—that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. We cannot change the laws except around the edges and we must not expose ourselves to ideas which are going to threaten our belief.
Arnold Eisen: So, you have to diagram it simplistically. You have a Reform movement which says yes to History and no to Halakha. Yes to History. Judaism has constantly been changing. We should change it further right now as dramatically as we need to, to keep Jews on the path of ethical monotheism. Orthodoxy says yes to Halakhah, no to History. Yes, we’re going to keep the law, but we’re not going to believe that there was significant historical development in the course of Judaism and so we’re going to reject the notion that Judaism should change dramatically. Now to bring it into line with what contemporary society is doing.
Arnold Eisen: So if you’re following me and you have this two-variable set of boxes in your head, there’s room for a movement that’s going to say yes to Halakhah and yes to History, and that movement begins at a particular moment—at a rabbinical conference in 1845 of reform-minded rabbis, when a rabbi named Zecharia Frankel stands up in the course of a debate over the language that should be used in prayer. Whether Hebrew is essential or dispensable and Frankel basically says—I’m putting words into his mouth, but this is the gist of his argument—If you people think that we can dispense with Hebrew, I’m outta here. I am in the wrong place because Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people. And Frankel was all for using German in services, English or any other language, but the core of the service had to be Hebrew. It had to be kept because Judaism is not just a religion of ethical monotheism, but it is a people. The Jews are a people and the history and the hopes of the Jewish people are bound up with the Hebrew language and so Frankel says, I can’t go with the Orthodox because I’m in favor of some historical development, but I can’t go with Reform because I am going to be faithful to Jewish law. And so out of that search for a different path, Frankel leaves the conference, establishes a rabbinical seminary, establishes a journal, establishes a way of being Jewish that had not existed previously in the modern world, but also cleaving to tradition.
Arnold Eisen: I’m going to spend a few moments now talking about what Frankel said at that particular conference, because it’s from that address that we get the name by which Conservative Judaism was known in the 19th century: Positive Historical Judaism. We have a transcript to the conference. We have his words as recorded by the secretary of the conference. “The positive forms of Judaism are deeply rooted within its innermost being and must not be discarded, coldly and heartlessly.” When Frankel says positive forms, he doesn’t mean positive as opposed to negative. The word positive there, it means objective external in the world, the positive forms, the laws. “We cannot return to the letter of Scripture as some Reform rabbis were saying they would do and dispense with the Rabbinic Judaism. The gap between Scripture and us is too wide to be bridged. The reform of Judaism, moreover, should not be reform of faith but of religious commandments. These still live within the people and exert their influence. We are not called upon to weaken, but rather to strengthen this influence, we must not consider the individuals who do not abide by them. We are not a party and must therefore take care of the whole.”
Arnold Eisen: And here you see what Frankel was saying; he appeals to the people. Well, what we’re going to look at next time is how Frankel understands who the people are. How do you know what the people want and who counts among the people? He’s already told you that if you separate yourself from the community, if you stop observing any laws altogether, you’re not part of the people, you’ve cut yourself off, so he doesn’t take your vote, as it were. So what Frankel is going to try to show us is that there can be a kind of Judaism that is positive, that is that it’s halakhic, that cleaves to the commandments and is historical. And the key to bringing these two things together, which Reform and Orthodoxy had separated, is appealing to the people and the will of the people and understanding what the people need and taking the people forward. And we’re going to look at that next time.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And: 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at email@example.com.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode three, “A Judaism by the People.”
Arnold Eisen: I love the idea that the kind of Judaism I practice began on a particular day. One particular thinker said, a “no,” and a “yes” that were decisive for him and have remained decisive for Jews like me ever since 1845, when Zechariah Frankel said “no” to the idea that Hebrew was dispensable and “yes” to the commitment that the Jews are not just a religion but a people. But that word, “the people,” which looms large in Frankel’s address, is not simple. Frankel wrote an essay the same year, 1845, about how you change Judaism, how you introduce changes in Judaism; and listen to his language and you’re going to hear that this word, “the people,” “der volk” in German, comes up again and again and you’re going to see what’s at stake in it. And that’s going to set the stage for Conservative Judaism ever after, which has been wrestling with the same dilemma: Who counts? Who gets to vote? Who is part of the people that’s going to preserve the tradition, going back to Sinai?
Arnold Eisen: So here’s a little quote from Frankel: Judaism demands religious activity, but the people is not altogether merely clay to be molded by the will of theologians and scholars in religious activities as in those of ordinary life. It decides for itself. This right was conceded by Judaism to the people. Consequently, when a new ordinance was about to be enacted, it was necessary to see whether it would find acceptance by the people. When the people allows certain practices to fall into disuse, then the practices ceased to exist. There is, in such cases, no danger for faith. A people used to activity will not hurt itself and will not destroy its practices. Its own sense of religiosity warrants against it. We have reached a decisive point in regard to moderate changes, namely that they must come from the people and that the will of the entire community must decide.
Arnold Eisen: But Frankel realizes what you’ve no doubt realized. When you hear him say this, you say, come on Frankel, what are you going to do? Take a plebiscite? We’re going to have a referendum like Brexit? Am I going to gather together every Jew and we’re going to say to the Jew, do you want to make this change or not? So we have seven days of Passover or eight days of Passover: vote! No, that’s not what he has in mind, and he says, this way alone will accomplish little. The whole community is a heavy, unharmonious body and its will is difficult to recognize. It comes to expression after many years, right? How do you decide when the people has put something in disuse? And we might say in contemporary times just because most Jews no longer observe Shabbat, does that mean that the Jewish religion should dispense with Shabbat?
Arnold Eisen: That can’t be what Frankel is saying, because we know that he wanted to have moderate change in Judaism but not totally disrupt the continuity. So therefore, he says, we must find a way to carry on such changes in the proper manner, and this can be done by the help of the scholars. Aha. So Frankel, who was a historian, wants to teach Jews, and particularly rabbis and leaders of the community, how Judaism has changed over the centuries. And he thinks that when Jews understand how Judaism has changed in the past, they will responsibly change Judaism in the future. The people is going to be guided by the scholars of Judaism—as Frankel believes they were guided 2000 years ago when the Temple was destroyed, by the Sages, by Hazal in modifying Judaism significantly to deal with the loss of the Temple in a way that did not disrupt our tradition.
Arnold Eisen: This, Frankel believes, is the essential task of his generation of scholars. And note one more thing about this: the kind of scholar needed is not a philosopher, is not a theologian because theology is not the essential thing here. Practice is what counts, not belief. So, we don’t need theologians and philosophers to tell us what is true. We need historians to tell us what has been constant and what has been changing in the history of Jewish practice, and that will carry us forward. Fast-forward 50 years, the greatest Jewish scholar of his day, Solomon Schechter, is teaching at Cambridge University in England; a Romanian Jew living in Britain who has discovered the Cairo Geniza, brought many of those Geniza fragments back to Cambridge, worked on them, exposited them, and is thinking about coming to America, is being wooed by some of the leading Jewish figures in New York City to come and head their emergent Jewish theological seminary of New York.
Arnold Eisen: But in 1895 before he comes to New York, Schechter asked the question: What is it that takes Judaism forwards? How are we going to decide this question that Frankel wrestled with? Who is going to decide who’s going to have the authority to change Judaism, and how are they going to know what to change? And in an essay called “Historical Judaism,” Schechter says the lines that have imprinted themselves on Conservative Judaism as we know it ever since. And it’s in this paragraph I’m about to share with you that Schechter coins the well-known term Catholic Israel as an answer to Frankel’s question as the successor idea to “the people.”
Arnold Eisen: So, listen to a couple of lines from Schechter’s essay of 1895: It is not the mere revealed Bible that is of first importance to the Jew, but the Bible as it repeats itself in history. In other words, as interpreted by tradition. I love this line: “The mere revealed Bible.” Right, Schechter believes in revelation, but it’s not the mere revealed Bible that counts. It’s the tradition that counts—and look at his word for tradition. Tradition is the way the Bible repeats itself in history, what the Bible means, what the Bible says is determined by the Jews who interpreted over the course of century. Who are these people? The interpretation of Scripture or the secondary meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influences. Note the interpretation of Scripture is mainly a product of changing historical influences, therefore must be placed in some living body. This living body, whoever is not represented by any one section of the nation or any corporate priesthood or rabbi-hood, but by the collective conscience of Catholic Israel as embodied in the universal synagogue, and when Schechter goes on here, who is part of this Catholic Israel, he says, prophets, psalmists, scribes, Sadducees, rabbis, patriarchs, interpreters, elucidators, eminences and teachers with a glorious record of saints, martyrs, sages, philosophers, scholars, and mystics. This synagogue, the only true witness of the past, forming in all ages the sublimest expression of Israel’s religious life must also retain its authority as the sole true guide for the present and the future.
Arnold Eisen: So, look at what Frankel has left to Schechter and look at what Schechter has done with Frankel. Frankel gave us this really problematic notion that the people have to decide what to keep as authority and the people, and there’s even a notion that God reveals God’s will to the Jewish people through what the people does. Over the centuries. Revelation didn’t stop at Sinai. Revelation continues in what Jews do in the 19th and 20th centuries. Schechter knows even more than Frankel, that that’s unwieldy, so Schechter comes up with a notion of Catholic Israel, of the universal synagogue, which apparently consists of all those who know something about how Judaism has developed over the years and in their various ways contribute to that development while remaining faithful to their inheritance.
Arnold Eisen: This is a wonderful addition which has been formative to Conservative Judaism. Of course, it doesn’t solve all the problems that Frankel left us with. You still have the question, who’s in, who’s out? What kind of Judaism is authentic? Is it okay to change the Sabbath to Sunday? Is it okay to discard kashrut? Is it okay to do x and not okay to do y? How do we know and who’s going to decide? We’re going to look at that question again in our next session, but I want to leave you with this thought that what has been determinative for Conservative Jews since 1845, when Frankel started the movement then called positive-historical Judaism, until today. What has been determinative for Conservative Judaism is not abstruse questions of theology, precise definitions of what it means for God to create the world or the Torah or redeem us one day. What has counted for Conservative Judaism is this question of what Jews must do and what authorities are going to decide what you must do, and when we revisit Solomon Schechter, we’ll look at the light that Schechter throws on that question.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And: 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode four, “A Judaism of the People.”
Arnold Eisen: I have special fondness for Solomon Schechter, and particularly for the selection of Schechter’s writings that we’re about to consider. I’ve a particular fondness for Solomon Schechter for an obvious reason: that I’m the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Schechter was the second chancellor, and he decided to head JTS after a successful life of scholarship, and I did the same. And I love Schechter because he was a complicated figure.
Arnold Eisen: When I arrived at JTS a little more than 10 years ago, I gave an opening address that was directly borrowed from Schechter’s opening address, and the line in that opening address that means the most to me is the one where Schechter basically says, God forbid that I should have a faculty and student body that always agrees with me. He quotes a professor who once said to a student, young man, how dare you always agree with me; I don’t always agree with myself! I love that about Schechter. Schechter wanted a JTS of pluralism, he wanted lively debate about ideas, and that notion informs the selection which we’re about to look at. It’s an essay, a beautiful essay, called “The Seminary as Witness” which he delivered as a speech in 1903, where he’s trying to say why, despite the vast differences that exist inside Judaism, we are still one tradition. So what Schechter was doing here, I think in his inimitable way, is giving you an answer to the question that I posed the last time in relationship to Frankel, or to Schechter’s own idea about Catholic Israel, what’s in and what’s out, what’s OK and what’s notOK? What is it you have to do in order for that to be really Judaism that’s authentic, that’s continuing the tradition rather than disrupting it?
Arnold Eisen: So Schechter says at the end of this essay, “The Seminary as Witness”: If I were asked, what connection is there, say, in order to except present company, between Rabbi Moses ben Maimon of Cordova, known as Maimonides, and Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, known as Rashi, I would say none, saving God and His Torah. And then it goes along and in a really lively and even a humorous fashion: the one lived under a Mohammedan government, the other under a Christian government. The one was a merchant, afterwards a famous physician in the great capitals of Cordova and Cairo. (That’s Maimonides, of course) The other was a rabbi without salary in an unimportant provincial city. The one was persona grata (like, welcome) in the court of Saladin. The other probably, he says, never even spoke to the local constable of his place. So what united them? And I love the fact that Schechter is not trying to harmonize these two great figures. Rashi and Rambam. He’s emphasizing the fact that both were Jews and they disagreed with one another profoundly. So then what unites us as Jews with the Jews who disagree with us or who practice Judaism differently.
Arnold Eisen: So then he gives us a list and I’m going to read it in Schechter’s words and then comment on it, and then we’re going to see how Schechter’s student Mordecai Kaplan ran with what Schechter had given him. As they both observed the same fast and feasts, as they both revered the same sacred symbols. Though they put different interpretations on them as they both prayed in the same language, Hebrew, as they both were devoted students of the same Torah, though they often different in its explanation as they both looked back to Israel’s past with admiration and reverence. Though Maimonides’s conception of the revelation, for instance, largely varied from that of Rashi, as their ultimate hopes centered in the same redemption in one word, as they studied the Torah and lived in accordance with its laws and both made the hopes of the Jewish nation their own.
Arnold Eisen: Because of that, the bonds of unity were strong enough even to survive the misunderstandings between their respective followers. I love that. The bonds of unity were strong enough even to survive the misunderstandings between the respective followers. So look at this list again and look how it’s like Moses Mendelssohn and how it’s like Zechariah Frankel. What’s Number One on the list? They both observed the same fasts and the same feasts. You come to a Passover seder, you’re gathering together on this one night you put the same symbols in front of you and what do you do? You talk about what they mean to you. Why are we here? This is Number One, the same feasts and fasts. As they both revered the same sacred symbols, though they put different interpretations on them. As they both prayed in the same language. Remember why Zechariah Frankel walked out of that Reform rabbinical conference in 1845—over the issue of Hebrew. Schechter says they both prayed in the same language, Hebrew. They were both devoted students of the same book, though they often differed in its explanation. They both looked back to Israel’s past with admiration and reverence and they both looked forward to the same redemption. They were a people, as Frankel had insisted, as Mendelssohn insisted they were a people and not just a faith. In one word, they studied the Torah, lived in accordance with its laws, and both made the hopes of the Jewish nation their own.
Arnold Eisen: Now, we can say in a certain sense, Schechter ducked the question. They both lived in accordance with its laws, so somebody is going to have to decide what is it to live in accordance with its laws, and Schechter has just told you that people are going to disagree about that. Not all Jews are going to live in observance with the laws the same way, but if you do, you are part of what Schechter called Catholic Israel. If you don’t, I think Schechter is saying that you disrupted the continuity of the Jewish people and therefore you’re no longer part of Catholic Israel.
Arnold Eisen: Along comes Schechter’s student, Mordecai Kaplan, whom Schechter names in 1909 to be the head of the new Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Kaplan has some radical ideas. He believes, as we’re going to see, that Judaism is essentially a matter of the practices of a people, the symbols of a people, the feasts and fasts of a people. A religion is one aspect of a larger entity called a civilization, and when Kaplan writes his great book in 1930, which comes out in 1934, Judaism as a Civilization, he explicitly traces himself back to Frankel. When Zacharias Frankel charged the reformers of his day with not having their proposals informed by any principle, he intuitively put his finger on the weak spot in their very approach to the problem of adjustment, but he did not realize clearly what kind of a principle that was that a proper approach demanded. So Kaplan explicitly couches his approach as Frankel’s, just made explicit, just made bolder, just made clearer and less confused. And that principle is that Judaism can’t be a religion only. It has to be a civilization.
Arnold Eisen: Now, before I read you the quote where Kaplan says this, let me say up front that the most glaring absence in this book is a figure named Solomon Schechter. When Kaplan talks about Conservative thinkers before him, he does not mention his teacher Solomon Schechter, and I believe it’s a matter of interpretation—I’m a scholar of American Judaism so I’ll allow myself to speculate. Kaplan loved Schechter, and Kaplan didn’t want to say about Schechter what he said about Frankel, namely: Schechter, he didn’t have the guts to come out clearly and say what I’m about to say, and if you had, you would have said this. Or maybe it’s just reticence than humility, he doesn’t want to invoke the name of Solomon Schechter in putting forth his theory, but I think it’s undoubtedly true that when Kaplan writes this title sentence in the title chapter of the of the book called Judaism as a Civilization, he has Solomon Schechter very much in mind: Judaism includes that nexus, that linkage of a history, of literature, a language, social organization, folk sanctions, standards of conduct, social and spiritual ideals, aesthetic values, which in their totality form a civilization, and today it is not only Judaism the religion that is threatened, but Judaism the civilization. What endangers that civilization is not only the preoccupation with the civilizations of other peoples, but the irrelevance, remoteness, and vacuity of Jewish life.
Arnold Eisen: Kaplan thinks he has an answer that no one else has come up with to solving the problem of assimilation in the United States of America and the West generally in the 1930s in the face of antisemitism, when many Jews have stopped being religiously observant, have stopped believing, and that answer, he believes, is to pick up where Solomon Schechter left off and understand that feasts and fasts are very important. If you still have that quotation from Solomon Schechter in your head that starts with the feasts and fasts and the symbols and the Hebrew language, you probably noticed there’s one important thing you might’ve expected to be in Solomon Schechter’s list of what makes Judaism, Judaism that’s not there: God! Solomon Schechter does not mention God in that list of what makes Judaism, Judaism. And Kaplan is saying that wasn’t a coincidence. Schechter understood that a lot of Jews have lost that belief in God. Maybe Schechter himself didn’t have that kind of belief in the traditional God anymore. We don’t know because Schechter didn’t talk about God. Mordecai Kaplan davenned three times a day, every day, put on tallis and tefillin every morning, but believed that he did so not because God told him to do so, but it because this is what Judaism demands. These are the customs of Jews, we’re a civilization, and as such we will live into the future.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And, 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at email@example.com.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode five, “American Judaism in the Mid-20th Century.”
Arnold Eisen: In continuing our discussion with Kaplan, I can’t not tell the story of the time I met Mordecai Kaplan in Jerusalem at his apartment, on Ibn Ezra Street. He was merely 95 years old. I was a young PhD student writing about American Judaism, especially the question of whether Jews were God’s chosen people. I owed my dissertation to Kaplan and told him so because Kaplan objected vehemently to that notion. He did not believe in personal revelation at Sinai. He did not believe that Jews were going to have a fate different from any other people, and therefore we thought it was not just un-politically-correct to talk about yourselves as chosen. It was immoral, it was wrong. It made no sense and insisted that we get rid of the notion of chosenness.
Arnold Eisen: I asked Kaplan—I’ll never forget this—if he had maybe changed his mind over the years, and this 95-year-old man rises from his chair and starts pounding on the table: No, no, no. The Jews are not God’s chosen people. And then he gave me a kind of quiz. He said: Al sheloshah devarim ha’olam omed . . . nu? The world stands on three things. What are they? And he expected me to give the answer, which I did: Al haTorah, ve’al ha’Avodah, ve’al gemilut hasadim. On Torah, and on Avodah, and on deeds of kindness, and Kaplan says, what’s Avodah? And I said, service to God, and he said, no, Avodah should be taken in a strict sense. Avodah means sacrifices and we are modern Jews. We don’t believe in sacrifices. And I’m asking myself, why is this so important to this man at 95 to tell me this and get emotional about it? And the answer is because Kaplan staked his entire life on the conviction, which he believed came from Schechter, and from Frankel, and from the Rabbis, and from the Torah, that Judaism is the practices that the Jewish people perform, and these practices have to change with the times and in Kaplan’s words, Judaism has to be reconstructed, built afresh, and Jews have to understand that these practices are not those of a religious community, but those of a people, of a civilization.
Arnold Eisen: One of the more controversial things that Kaplan did in his great book, Judaism as a Civilization, is change the notion of mitzvot, to what he called folkways, a term he got through anthropology He studied anthropology, Kaplan did, at Columbia University, and he thought that when a Jew sits down at a Passover seder, you’re not doing it because God told you in the Torah to have Passover. You’re doing it because that’s what you do at Passover seder. It’s a lovely, beloved practice of the Jewish people. Kaplan observed all the commandments. He wouldn’t have been able to stay on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary for most of his career unless he strictly observed halakha, which he did, but he did so not as commandment, but as folkways, and he says in a chapter called “Jewish Folkways” that in this way we’re going to keep the commandments from descending into when he called pettifogging, little externalities, he called them, little details which are meaningless and we’re going to preserve the possibility of innovation.
Arnold Eisen: So for Kaplan, this is Judaism. Judaism is Jews doing Jewish things together with other Jews, and the secret to preserving the Jewish people was to surround Jews with the benefits of a community and tradition, which are so wonderful that the question changes from why be Jewish, to why not be Jewish? Why would I not want to continue in this great tradition? And Kaplan thought that in so doing, he would meet the needs of many Jews of his time and of ours and particularly of many leaders, including many rabbis who wanted to serve the Jewish people, but didn’t necessarily believe literally in the God who stands behind the Jewish tradition, according to most of that tradition itself.
Arnold Eisen: Well, Kaplan is often paired with another great American Jewish thinker. Kaplan was descended from Litvaks. This other thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the child and grandchild of Hasidic lineages. Kaplan came to New York as a child and went to American public schools as well as to Talmud Torah and then to City College and Columbia University, and then to JTS of course. Heschel, born and raised in Warsaw, eventually goes to the University of Berlin, gets out by the skin of his teeth when the Nazis are about to close the doors behind the Jews in Poland. Kaplan’s family is in America, for the most part, when the Holocaust happens. Heschel’s family, for the most part, is trapped in Eastern Europe, but where Kaplan put the stress upon the Jewish people and its folkways, Heschel put his stress upon the personal experience the Jew has with God. Heschel believed there was a faculty inside each human being called the soul, and Heschel wrote lyric prose, almost poetry, rather than philosophical discourse, for the most part because he wanted to arouse in each of us this feeling we have, which tells us that something is calling us, that there was a reality beyond what science and philosophy can teach us.
Arnold Eisen: So here’s Kaplan, who’s a rationalist to the core, who wants to adjust Judaism to the needs of a scientific age and a rational public, and here’s Heschel writing a generation later, starting in the late ‘40s and ’50s into the ’60s, who is saying to America, rationality is not going to do it for you. You have to know there’s more to the self than reason. There’s also the soul. There’s the mystery. And so Heschel writes in the first chapter of his great book, Man Is Not Alone, from 1951: Our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips, we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. Heschel believes we hear that murmur and he wants us to respond to it, and he says, once you realize that there is a reality, a Being out there, a Being above and beyond all beings, God, the question you must ask yourself is, how shall I live in response to what God wants of me? How do I live in a world that I share with God?
Arnold Eisen: So I have to say, having talked about Mordecai Kaplan at the beginning of this address, that one of the great privileges of my life was I got to meet and spend two hours with Abraham Joshua Heschel as a student reporter for the University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper in 1971, and Heschel had the wisdom to see that I was there to interview him, but I was there to ask really important personal questions. I wanted to know basically, how come you, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most learned Jew I’d ever met, the most pious Jew I’d ever met, was marching with Martin Luther King in Selma and campaigning against the war in Vietnam. How was one connected to the other and what good was it doing?
Arnold Eisen: And Heschel spent those two hours with me and patiently explained to me that in his words, he finds out I’m from Philadelphia, and he says that the Number One religious issue of our time is not the number of kosher butchers in Philadelphia. The Number One religious issue of our time is to end the war in Vietnam. And here’s this man with a long white beard and a big kippah and he’s written so many books that I’ve been studying and thrilled by, and Heschel is telling me that to be religious is to respond to human beings’ ultimate questions and to do God’s work in the world. And I left my meeting with Heschel understanding that if I’m going to be a Jew, I can’t retreat to some desert sanctuary and worship God through mystical flights of abstraction and get beyond the real world to find God. For Heschel, serving God, which is going to be done through the commandments, has to be done in the world. And the whole point of doing these commandments is to make the world better. So the key category for Heschel was prophecy.
Arnold Eisen: Those were the key figures. The key book is the Torah. One has to live with the Torah and in response to the Torah. And what we’re going to look at next time is how these two figures, Heschel and Kaplan, in the course of their generation shaped Conservative Judaism down to our day because they influenced a generation of teachers who, in turn, influenced me and my contemporaries. And I’m of the opinion that without Heschel and without Kaplan, the Conservative Judaism that we practice would not exist and be thriving the way that it is. I think we’re indebted to both individuals and it’s not one or the other, but the dialogue between them. When it comes to the key question of what Jews should observe and why, that dialogue is what gives life to Conservative Judaism today and into the future.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And, 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode six, “Finding God Through the Leap of Action.”
Arnold Eisen: We began last session with Mordecai Kaplan, a rationalist, if ever there was one. The consummate Litvak, a man determined to preserve the tradition he loved by redefining it as civilization and subjecting every element of Judaism to the standards of rationality and science. Today we’re going to spend some time with Abraham Joshua Heschel, a mystic, a descendant of Hasidic rabbis, a man overwhelmed by the presence of God in the world, for whom the question we must ask ourselves is, how should we live in a world where God is present and needs our help to make God’s world better? The striking thing to me when considering the varieties of Conservative Judaism is that Heschel and Kaplan had so much in common, beginning with the fact that they both spent much of their careers teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I’m told they were sometimes good friends at JTS and sometimes not so good.
Arnold Eisen: I like to imagine the conversations and arguments that took place between them and their students. It seems to me this fulfills Solomon Schechter’s desire that JTS be a place where different kinds of worldviews about Judaism should thrive. Kaplan, Heschel, were both greatly concerned with making our world better, and they both saw the practice of Judaism as a key to that process. For Kaplan, conscience and reason told us what ethical commandments we should follow, and he believed that the Jewish people was distinct for historical reasons because it had taken upon itself the task of living with an especially high level of personal and collective ethical practice. For Kaplan, God was in the world in the form of a set of forces working to make the world better.
Arnold Eisen: For Heschel, God was in the world in a much more personal way, and when one experienced God’s presence, one left with the question, how shall we live? What shall we do to help God in the task of making the world more just and more compassionate? For Heschel, the commandments came to us by means of prophecy. The chief prophet, of course, being Moses. What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. This is a burden that Heschel bore and that he wanted all of us to share. Keep God’s desires in front of you all the time, and you are called upon to act in a way in keeping with what God wants and what God needs of you.
Arnold Eisen: Heschel wrote a book called The Prophets based on his doctoral dissertation in Germany, and in that book he said, a prophet is someone who intuits God’s will and changes God’s will into concrete words and actions that fit a particular circumstance. He also said the prophet not only intuits God’s will, the prophet has sympathy for the divine pathos, sym-pathy—with pathos. In other words, the prophet feels what God feels in particular, the prophet feels God’s pain at the suffering of God’s creatures. So you see, Heschel and Kaplan both might end up at a similar place. Both were concerned about civil rights. Heschel was a leader in the civil rights movement in the United States and in the antiwar movement against the war in Vietnam, but they came to this position from differing theologies. Kaplan translated much of what Jewish tradition knows as mitzvah or commandment into minhag or custom. You do these things not because a personal God commanded them at Sinai, but because this is what Jews do.
Arnold Eisen: For Heschel, it was otherwise. A personal God did command Torah at Sinai. Through Moses ourprophet, those commandments come down to us, and mitzvot, these commandments, are the way that we can live in the presence of God. God is in search of us. God is in search of man, he wrote, precisely so that we could do these things. In Heschel’s great book God In Search of Man, we find a paragraph which he titled “a leap of action” that has justly become famous.
Arnold Eisen: Listen to a little bit of Heschel on this leap of action: in our response to God’s will, we perceive God’s presence in our deeds. Notice we perceive God’s presence not in God’s deeds, but in our deeds when we perform those deeds, those mitzvot in response to God’s will. Next sentence, the same point, God’s will is revealed in our doing, in carrying out a sacred deed. We unseal the wells of faith. This is quintessential Heschel. You may not be sure about your faith, but your faith will become stronger when you do a mitzvah; that can unseal the wells of faith and it gives you an original of a line in Psalms, “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness,” which Heschel takes to mean we behold God in the righteous deeds that we perform. A Jew, he said is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He’s asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands, in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah, he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds, the Jew learns to be certain of the here-ness of God. Right living is a way to right thinking.
Arnold Eisen: Heschel never called himself a Conservative Jew, to my knowledge. He certainly could not be a Reform Jew. His halakhic belief and observance could not allow for that and I don’t think he would have been happy in the Orthodox community, certainly not the community in Brooklyn, of his many cousins who were strictly Orthodox, and I say this because even though his observance was strict, Heschel’s views on revelation and many other things were very flexible. Heschel stressed the importance of Aggadah, the imaginative freedom to think about Judaism in different ways, to find different meanings in the commandments, different theories of revelation at the same time as his observance was strict.
Arnold Eisen: I see Heschel in those classrooms at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in the synagogue service at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sitting alongside Mordecai Kaplan and perhaps alongside the chancellor of JTS, Louis Finkelstein as well, and I see three different thinkers united in their commitment to Jewish practice and united in their commitment to varying theologies that make sense of and motivate that religious practice. And it is this combination of practice—what Frankel wanted, what Schechter wanted, of Conservative Jews. And the diversity of meanings to practice the openness to different theories about revelation—this combination, this insistence on ritual performance as well as on high ethical standards; this notion that Judaism had been a developing tradition for 2000 years and will continue to develop; this historical sensibility, which Heschel too brought to his work—all of these things to my mind, bring them together at JTS and together into Conservative Judaism. We are the proud heirs to a legacy that these three great thinkers left to us.
Arnold Eisen: Let me close this session with a word from Finkelstein. Finkelstein wrote a great essay which he delivered as a speech, I think in 1937, called “Tradition in the Making” and it says the following, which I find personally inspiring as I think about the meaning of Conservative Judaism today: When I was younger, I frequently wished that it might’ve been granted me to have lived in the first or second century and been one of those humble students whose names have been for the most part forgotten, but whose life and labor contributed so much happiness and goodness for all the world. In other words, here’s Finkelstein, the great student of Rabbinic Judaism, wishing as a young man that he had been one of those Rabbis living in the academies almost 2000 years ago, but listen to the end of this speech: Now that I am growing older, I realized that we have no need to envy our ancestors. We can do better than that. We can emulate them. The call comes to us, as it did to Isaiah, whom shall I send and who shall go for us? Certainly, the answer which each one of us will make will be that of the prophet himself: Here I am, send me.
Arnold Eisen: I think more than anything else, this consciousness is what defines Conservative Judaism. This notion that each succeeding generation of Jews through what we do helps to reveal God’s will. Each succeeding generation of Jews, because of the justice and compassion we are to the world, helps carry out the Torah and is an agent of revelation. Here we are, send us. Our job is not to be the Jews of 2000 years ago or the Jews of 200 years ago. Our job is to be the best Jews that we can be today.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And: 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at email@example.com.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode seven, “Hearing Women’s Voices and Moving From Path to Pathlessness.”
Arnold Eisen: The last episode in this podcast series about the evolving history of Conservative Judaism left us in the 1970s. I talked a lot in the last episode about Abraham Joshua Heschel, who passed away in 1972. I began the episode with Mordecai Kaplan, who, when I met him in Jerusalem in 1976, was a mere 95 years young. Kaplan actually went on to live another seven or eight years into his hundreds, I think 103, when he passed away. And Louis Finkelstein, who I talked about also a bit last time, stepped down as chancellor of JTS in 1972. We’re going to pick up the story of Conservative Judaism in today’s episode, more or less in the 1980s, I’m going to talk about two related areas of growth that have always been crucial to the movement.
Arnold Eisen: One is halakhah, mitzvah. What are our obligations to God, to our people that we have to do in the world, and how do we understand those obligations? And the second area is theology. What notion of God and God’s relation to us goes along with, underlies, flows from this notion of what we’re commanded to do? The most dramatic, visible, I think far-reaching change that took place in both these areas was Jewish feminism, which really got underway as a major movement in the 1970s and reached a milestone in its history in 1983 when JTS began to ordain women as rabbis. I recently had the chance to review the writings of one of the major figures in this development, Professor Judy Hauptman, a long-time professor of Talmud at JTS and a pioneer in bringing women’s voice, experience, knowledge, needs to the study of Talmud. I think it’s fair to say that Judy was the first great woman Talmudist to take the stage in the world in this period.
Arnold Eisen: And Judy wrote a piece in 1993 called “Women and Prayer: An Attempt to Dispel Some Fallacies,” which itself might be a milestone in the history of Conservative Judaism, because the first time we hear a voice of a woman, a woman who is a leading Talmudic authority, saying that the way that Talmud has been understood until then simply was wrong: It’s time to set the record straight, she says. Most Jews think that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray daily, and they have responded accordingly. And she speaks about how Orthodox Jews, Haredi Jews, Conservative Jews have acted on the basis of that misunderstanding. Conservative rabbis employ the perceived exemption as the starting point of a responsum. Only women who voluntarily accept upon themselves the obligation to pray can serve as prayer leaders for any group. But as widespread, well-entrenched and convenient as this notion of women in prayer is it is wrong. And I hear this voice of a woman talking about the obligation of women to pray, and I’m saying to myself, this is a moment of history, it could not have happened even a decade earlier in the history of Judaism or of Conservative Judaism.
Arnold Eisen: And when I hear Judy saying this, I think at once of a passage especially beloved to me, an essay by the great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, written around 1920, an essay written as an open letter to another great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, where Rosenzweig talks about the leap that is required to move from “path,” the Judaism we have known and taught until now to “pathlessness,” the Judaism that we’re going to live and teach starting tomorrow. And Rosenzweig says that the only way to make that leap from path to pathlessness is to make, what he calls somewhat coyly, a detour through knowable Judaism to work through the sources and the practices of Judaism until now, until we get to that which we need to know at any price, the leap to the teachings, the leap to Jewish teachings. “That which we need to know at any price.” If you’re a woman, and you’re a woman who’s an observant Jewish woman, you’re a faithful Conservative Jewish woman. It’s not an abstract question of whether Jewish women are obligated to pray. This is something that you need to know. You might become an expert in Talmud so that you can pronounce authoritatively on this and related questions. And because people need to know things about Judaism, and take the trouble in practice and in learning to acquire what they need in order to answer what they need to know, we get authorities, opinions, essays like the one that Judy Hauptman gave us.
Arnold Eisen: I have a student named Mara Benjamin, who this year is bringing out another such text. This is a text in what we might call Jewish theological ethics written by a Conservative Jewish woman who was puzzling through notions of obligation, but she’s using a resource that until now has not been available to people trying to figure out what Jews are obligated to do. The resource that Mara has, not only being a Jewish woman who’s an expert in the history of Jewish ethics but being a mother and talking about what one learns about Jewish obligation from the fact and experience of being a mother called upon to raise children that one has actually borne. Jewish women, Mara writes, like other women throughout the centuries, have intimately known their own distinctive form of boundedness, even bondage and attachment, the boundedness of living with being responsible for and attending to children. And so, her book, she says, investigates maternal subjectivity by placing maternal experiences into conversation with central themes in Jewish religious thought.
Arnold Eisen: And once again, I read Mara’s words published in 2018 and it occurred to me that this is the chapter in the history of Judaism, a chapter in the history of Conservative Judaism that could only have been written now when women bring the need, the concerns, and the expertise to bear on questions that Jewish men have been addressing for many centuries. This, to me, is exactly what Zechariah Frankel and Solomon Schechter and Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and other forebears in the history of Conservative Judaism were talking about.
Arnold Eisen: Let’s look at these same matters theologically as we bring new experiences and insights to bear on talking about what God wants of us. There is a graduate of JTS, a distinguished rabbi named Arthur Green, one of the leading writers about Jewish spirituality and a person who has developed what he calls a radical Judaism by basing Jewish religious thought not on philosophy or law, as has traditionally been the case, but on Kabbalah and Hasidism. Green went on, at a certain point in his career, to be the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College following the path of Mordecai Kaplan, who left the Conservative Movement near the end of his life to found a new movement called Reconstructionism, and Green now serves as the leader of the rabbinical school at the Hebrew College in Boston.
Arnold Eisen: At a certain point in the 1980s, Green wrote a piece called “Rethinking Theology: Language, Experience, and Reality,” which I teach as a beautiful attempt to synthesize two of the thinkers that we spoke about in the last two episodes of this series, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Green talks about Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey as all of being, but so unified and concentrated as to become Being with a capital B. None other than the universe bespeaks a vision of the universe, so utterly transformed by integration and unity as to appear to us as indeed “other,” a mirror of the universe itself that becomes a universal self. None other than we ourselves, and the world in which we live transformed as part of the transcendent vision. I hear a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschel here, but I also hear a lot of Mordecai Kaplan, and indeed Green tells us in the very next line, such a religious viewpoint, is that of mystic and naturalist at once? It demands no leap of faith, as does the miracle-working God of conventional Western theism. It requires rather a leap of consciousness. Here you have a thinker who was taking the tradition of Conservative Judaism and carrying it one step farther, another leap from path to pathlessness, from what one knows to what one needs to know.
Arnold Eisen: I think that there have been many other comparable leaps done in Conservative Judaism in the last two or three decades, leaps done by Israeli men and women, Masorti Jews who need to take this tradition of Conservative Judaism, one developed after all in Europe and then in America, and apply it to the radically different conditions of sovereignty and being in the Land of Israel. How does Conservative Judaism change and develop in the Land of Israel? And thinkers such as Tamar Elad-Appelbaum are carrying Conservative Judaism forward in the Masorti movement in Israel. What we’re going to look at next time in the concluding episode of this series is how this stands today. Where Conservative Judaism stands as we seek to develop it in the second decade of the 21st century, and I’ll be drawing upon some of the words that I myself have written which attempt to tackle that task.
Julia Andelman: Thanks for listening to Both/And: 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julia Andelman: Welcome to Both/And, the JTS podcast series where Chancellor Arnie Eisen teaches us how Conservative Judaism became what it is today. This is episode eight, “Looking To the Future.”
Arnold Eisen: For the final episode of this podcast series, I want to invite you to think with me about the future of Conservative Judaism, and I want to dedicate this episode to our late colleague and friend, Rabbi Neil Gilman, who passed away several weeks ago. Neil taught many generations of JTS rabbis, cantors, educators, and adult audiences really around North America and beyond that to practice theology, to do theology. One need not have a system. He called his book Sacred Fragments, with the emphasis that the fragmentary character of our thinking and practice does not detract from its sacredness. The afterward to that book is called “Doing Your Own Theology,” where it says that it’s natural for scholars and other professionals to do theology, but he thinks that everyone should. And he says, if ever the sort of elitism that limits something to professionals is misplaced, it is in the discipline of theology. And it gives you a kind of how-to guide to preparing your own theology.
Arnold Eisen: Well, what I’d like to do here is think with you about a personal philosophy of Conservative Judaism and a practice to go along with that theology. What are the beliefs and practices that you think should be included for yourself, and what are the beliefs and practices that you think should be common to, or even normative for, people who call themselves Conservative Jews. I myself had a chance to think about these questions several years ago when I started a blog series on Conservative Judaism, and then we took the blogs, edited them, and worked in responses to the many queries and comments that I received and produced a booklet called Conservative Judaism Today and Tomorrow, which is available from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I want you to think with me about the question that faced me before I sat down and wrote the blog series. Namely, how do you explain Conservative Judaism to other Conservative Jews, to Jews who are practicing Judaism in another way, and to non-Jews? Where do you start?
Arnold Eisen: I saw three possibilities. The first was think of Judaism as a story. We are the heir, you and I, if we are Jews, to the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Our privilege, our responsibility, is to take those stories further, to add a chapter, a verse in that narrative that the Jewish people has given to the world for several thousand years. Now we are the Children of Israel every bit as much as Joseph and his generations were Children of Israel. How do we take the story forward? A second way of thinking about it is that we are the heirs to the conversation begun at Sinai; what will our words be in that conversation? And in the spirit of the book of Deuteronomy, I translate “words” there both as words literally and as things. Devarim means words and things. What words shall we say through what we do as well as what we speak in a conversation that goes back to the events at Mount Sinai.
Arnold Eisen: I chose to make the framework of my booklet Covenant the Covenant at Sinai, and I liked the idea of Covenant because it gives us three elements crucial to Judaism as a whole, and certainly crucial to Conservative Judaism in particular. The first is that a people is formed at Sinai and not just a faith. We are a people and because we are a people, Mordecai Kaplan was correct, Judaism can’t just be a religion which is one aspect of the life of individuals and a people. Judaism is a civilization, taking in all aspects of that people, and if that is correct, it means that Jewish institutions, and synagogues in particular, can’t only address the religious needs and aspirations of those who walk through their doors, but must address them as the entirety of the human being that they are. Religion is but one of those needs and aspirations and elements of their being. Synagogues must address other elements as well. Indeed Kaplan wanted synagogues to be retitled as community centers, and think of themselves as places where all the aspects of Jewish life would be found in them, the educational part, the arts, the social justice work, the social organization part, etc., etc.
Arnold Eisen: We are not just the people, of course, we are a faith. The Covenant teaches us to hear God’s words and try to respond to God’s presence in the world and be God’s partners through Mitzvah in making the world better. In my personal experience, in the life of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I think in the history of Conservative Judaism, the figure most identified with this path is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for whom the presence of God was overwhelming. And when you think about Heschel’s legacy to us as Conservative Jews, you find it imperative to make our religious life, our sensibility as Jewish human beings infused the notion of God’s presence, our spirituality, as vigorous, as robust as possible, and to think of Mitzvah as a way of partnering with God to make God’s world better and improve the lot of God’s creatures.
Arnold Eisen: And with that we come to the third key element that I find in Covenant, which to me makes Covenant the heart of Judaism in general, and certainly of Conservative Judaism in particular; namely, what philosophers would call agency action. We are called upon to be Jews in action to do things in the world. God in some sense needs us. Our partnership is required. It’s not a belief system only, it’s certainly not a tradition of great literature or a wonderful history [only]. Judaism wants us, all of us, heart and soul and mind and might all of us engaged in making the world better, so if that’s the case, if the heart of Judaism, and Conservative Judaism, is Covenant, what follows? Well, to me, what follows immediately is what I and others call Community. A people is a network of local Jewish communities. We are bound up in community. We act not only as individuals, but as a community. Our action is more effective because we don’t simply do it alone. We do it with other Jews and these communities in their network constitute a people, so that my third topic in this booklet is Peoplehood and Israel.
Arnold Eisen: I approach Israel first of all as a great example of a project the Jewish people has put on the ground in the 20th century, the paramount example where the Jewish people is centered, where the Jewish people act as a people to make the world better. Now, how does one know what to do as a Jew? What should Mitzvah mean in our time? And this is where Conservative Judaism is perhaps most distinctive from other approaches: Our notion of Jewish learning, our notion of what it is to study, to try to understand God’s will, to figure out how to be good involves all the wisdom and experience we can muster. In other words, if you’re a Conservative Jew, you don’t just start with yourself, but you draw on the generations that came before you and try to learn as much as you can, not just from the texts that were written in those times, but from the experiences, the history that went into those sources and emerged from them.
Arnold Eisen: We are a people that has been on the ground for many centuries, learning from our past and learning from all human experience. So when a Conservative Jew comes to the question of Torah, the Conservative Jew does not believe that our sources alone are what we need to learn from, but the vast amount of human experience, the best of all cultures are part of the training ground for our actions today. And we do not perform these mitzvot alone. We have allies from other traditions and faith communities. We have allies in the world who are working with us to place God’s will in the world. Therefore, when we act, it’s with a different consciousness than some other Jews, both in terms of our fidelity to tradition, our openness to other communities and the importance we place on learning from science and the arts and other civilizations.
Arnold Eisen: I don’t think we cannot not, I think we must, place special emphasis on reviving the synagogue as the key institution of Jewish life and on reinvigorating the kinds of tefillah we do in the synagogue. Heschel and Kaplan and all other Conservative Jews that I know of put an emphasis on that aspect of our existence, and I do too. We will not survive as a movement or a people unless our synagogues are strong and vigorous and relevant and compelling. But what separates Conservative Jews from some other forms of Judaism is the way we reach out to others. We stress boundaries necessary for maintaining Jewish existence, but we also emphasize that it’s essential to cross boundaries as our ancestor Abraham did. We cannot be Jews without distinctions between Jews and others. We cannot perform our duties as Jews unless we reach out beyond the borders of Judaism to help improve the lot of humanity and to join with other Jews in doing so.
Arnold Eisen: At the end of this set of podcasts about Conservative Judaism, I want to say as clearly as I can in an age when some are questioning the value of denominational differences that I firmly believe in denominational differences. Indeed, I believe that the Torah gives rise to various expressions in practice and belief. It’s impossible for all of us to agree on what the Torah wants from us and therefore we must as Jews practice different sorts of Judaism. These varieties must be strong. I am a loyal Conservative Jew. To me, this is the most authentic, compelling, relevant, and beautiful way to live a Jewish life. But as a Conservative Jew, I’m a pluralist. I believe that there are other ways to practice and live Jewishly. Conservative as Heschel once put, it is an adjective not a noun. The noun that defines our practice is Judaism. I think this kind of Judaism is going to have a healthy future and look forward to working with you to make it so.
Julia Andelman: This was the final episode of Both/And: 250 years of Conservative Judaism in 80 Minutes with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen. It was recorded and produced here at JTS by Larry Cameola and Rabbi Tim Bernard. If you enjoyed this podcast, please review us on Apple Podcasts. You can find all of JTS’s podcasts at jtsa.edu/podcasts, and you can send us an email at email@example.com. Take care, and thanks for listening.