CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (JTA) – He was given four standing ovations and received universal praise from Conservative rabbis this week, but Arnold Eisen still has his work cut out for him as he prepares to help steer the Conservative movement out of the doldrums.On July 1, Eisen will assume the chancellorship of the Jewish Theological Seminary and with it the de-facto leadership of the Conservative movement.Eisen, a professor of Jewish studies at Stanford University for the past 20 years and a leading scholar of contemporary Jewry, is only the second non-rabbi to lead the movement’s flagship seminary. His appointment last year raised some hackles.Yet by all accounts, any qualms about Eisen’s leadership evaporated after two speeches this week before some 400 rabbis at the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual convention in Cambridge, Mass.In his remarks, his first to movement rabbis since being appointed chancellor, Eisen was frank in pointing out where the movement has come up short. He suggested the movement has “largely dropped the ball” by allowing pluralism – the notion of competing views of halacha, or Jewish law, coexisting harmoniously – to become its core message.”Let’s be mature about this,” Eisen said. “Agreeing to disagree is not enough to keep a movement going.”His tenure begins at a time of great unease within the Conservative movement, once America’s largest Jewish denomination but now surpassed by the Reform movement.But the numbers tell only part of the story. The movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision by its top legal authorities to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy led to concerns about an internal split and a further erosion in the coherence of its message.Some worry that Conservative Judaism has chosen pluralism as its defining feature and lost touch with its historic commitment to marrying critical scholarship and fidelity to Jewish law.Some have argued publicly that a gap between the more observant practices of Conservative clergy and less observant laypeople challenges the accuracy of the movement’s self-description as “halachic.”During the heyday of Conservative Judaism in the mid-20th century, the movement was well in tune with the demographic and cultural trends of American Jews. It was boosted by its move to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat, a ruling that coincided with the great Jewish migration from dense urban neighborhoods to the suburbs.Eisen said contemporary beliefs and practices of American Jews are no longer working in the movement’s favor. Freedom and mobility have threatened the building of strong communities, which Eisen identified as a critical component in the success of Orthodoxy.Jews are committed to the modern ideology of personal sovereignty, which rubs up against the notion of halacha as a binding set of laws. And they take their cues on the meaning of prayer and religious obligation from the surrounding Christian culture.Changed circumstances require changes in rabbinic training and in the movement’s strategies, Eisen said. He urged Conservative rabbis to build “tight communities” in which meaningful Jewish practice is part of the broader rhythms of life. He warned them against pursuing a top-down pedagogy that begins with asserting the requirements of Jewish law.Eisen urged the rabbis to think more broadly about the concept of “mitzvah,” which he suggested means more than simply “commandment,” as it is normally defined.Instead of the rabbi preaching about what everyone is obliged to do, he said, rabbis need to create strong bonds of community that make obligation to one another and to God much more appealing to a contemporary person.Eisen also argued that Jewish life must be lived inside what he called a “plausibility structure” – the social and cultural context that makes religious claims meaningful and convincing.”Jews are living in a time and space that is not Jewish,” he said. The claims of obligation “are not plausible unless they come in a situation of community.”Above all, the movement must intensely engage its congregants in a way that rivals what is frequently found in Orthodox communities. There is a hunger for that, Eisen said, and the Conservative movement must provide it.”If we can’t win on that count,” Eisen said, “we can’t win.”Rabbis from across the country and around the world greeted Eisen with a standing ovation before and after one presentation Monday morning. They were on their feet for Eisen again Monday evening in a public address at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in nearby Chestnut Hill.In the hallways, the rabbis uniformly praised his intellect, vision, energy and courage in speaking forthrightly about the challenges facing the movement.Harold Kushner, a longtime Conservative rabbi and the best-selling author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” said he was “dismayed” when the seminary first announced it had chosen a non-rabbi as its leader.Kushner said a gulf has opened up in recent years between the seminary and the experience of rabbis in the field. But after reading several of Eisen’s books and hearing him speak, Kushner said he was filled with confidence.”Today,” Kushner told Eisen after his presentation, “I am thrilled that you will be the new leader of our movement.”Rabbi Raphael Friedman of the Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, Conn., echoed the views of many when he said of Eisen: “I was not blown away by charisma. I was impressed by substance and insight.”
Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.