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Conservatives Tap Dynamic Scholar, Not Rabbi, to Head Theological School

April 11, 2006
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With Conservative Judaism at a crossroads, the movement’s flagship institution has chosen a scholar of American Jewry to guide it. No white smoke emerged from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s red-brick tower Monday when Arnold Eisen’s selection was approved by JTS’ board. But the move put to bed months of rumors and speculation swirling around the secretive process by which the list of potential candidates for chancellor was winnowed to one.

A Jewish studies professor and chairman of Stanford University’s Religious Studies Department, Eisen will succeed Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who steps down June 30 after some 20 years at the helm of the Conservative movement seminary.

Eisen’s ascent was greeted with excitement and relief by many Conservative Jews who had hoped the JTS search committee would select a dynamic leader to steward the ship as it faces a series of challenges and questions.

The news also was met with a few raised eyebrows because Eisen, 54, is not a rabbi. He has spent his professional career in academia, not working in the movement.

Though he is a practicing Conservative Jew, Eisen, a tall man with an easy smile, will be just the second non-rabbi of the seven people to hold JTS’ top post, after Cyrus Adler led the school from 1915-’40. Coincidentally, both Adler and Eisen grew up in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania.

“The appointment of Prof. Eisen comes at a moment of transition for the Conservative Movement,” said Gershon Kekst, chairman of JTS’ Board of Trustees and co-chairman of the search committee. “There is no doubt that the days and years ahead will be exciting, demanding and inspiring. I am delighted that we have been able to bring Prof. Eisen to JTS and confident that he is the right person, with the vision and leadership to ensure the vibrancy of JTS, the Conservative Movement and the Jewish people.”

Once the dominant religious stream on the U.S. Jewish scene, the Conservative movement faces dwindling numbers as it struggles to articulate a coherent message. It has been losing ground to the Reform movement and sometimes has seemed feckless in the face of an energized Orthodoxy.

It also is being roiled by a battle over the place of gays and lesbians in the movement and by an identity crisis that has led some Conservative leaders to ask whether the group is a movement or just a coalition of approaches to Judaism.

The search for chancellor reflects a larger struggle that has dogged the movement for years: Since its inception, Conservative Judaism has been pulled between those who would adhere more strictly to halachah, or traditional Jewish law, and those who are more willing to change tenets of religious observance to fit modern living.

The choice of chancellor was seen as a barometer of which approach the movement would take as it moves forward.

Eisen’s views on these issues are not well known, but many in the movement say that given the seriousness of the challenges, Eisen is the right man at the right time for JTS.

“I just think they hit a home run,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Jewish studies professor at Brandeis University, who praised the search committee for thinking outside the box in its choice. “Arnie Eisen is one of the most respected Jewish scholars in America. He is exceptionally broad in his knowledge, able to speak learnedly about the Bible and rabbinics even as his specialty is modern Jewish thought.”

Others trumpeted Eisen’s qualities as a leader and scholar but weren’t as sure what the selection would mean for Conservative Jewry’s future, particularly with regard to the complex social issues the movement is confronting.

Unlike other candidates who were considered for the job, Eisen — who at one point is said to have taken himself out of the running — has not played a role in the movement’s halachic discussions, and his positions on these matters are not well-known.

“I can’t say what halachic effect it will have,” said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. “He’s not a halachist, he’s not a rabbinic scholar. He’s the kind of person who would be careful about making pronouncements in a field that was not his own.”

Others speculated that it was precisely because Eisen is, halachically speaking, an open book that he was so attractive to the search committee. Because his focus as an academic is broader than that of some movement insiders who were considered for the post, he may be able to shift the movement’s focus.

“He may move away from some of the debates over social issues that have bedeviled the seminary, and he will address the larger issues of what it means to be a Jew in America,” Sarna said. “I think that the very fact that he’s not a rabbi will turn out to be an asset.”

In his first interview with the Jewish media shortly after being officially named as the next chancellor, Eisen told JTA he favors allowing gays and lesbians to become rabbis.

“I would like to see these processes end up with the ordination of gays and lesbians,” he said.

Still, Eisen said, despite pressures to resolve the issue, a change cannot simply be imposed from above.

“There’s got to be halachic process,” he said. “You have to preserve the integrity, the authenticity of halachah.”

“The halachic process is non-negotiable,” he added.

Further, Eisen advocated a robust discussion on homosexuality’s place in the Conservative movement among the seminary’s faculty. He pointed out that it was just such a discussion that preceded the seminary’s decision to ordain women in 1983.

Steven Zipperstein, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, who has known Eisen since the 1970s, called it “an incredibly creative choice to bring in someone slightly on the outside, but someone who very publicly shares the views of Conservative theology.”

Not everyone is so sure.

“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 because the interview was conducted before the appointment was made official. “I’m a little concerned that it’ll be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”

“He doesn’t have a long background of movement insidership,” the rabbi added. “That means he won’t have as many contacts, have built-up loyalties, which is a problem.”

Another prominent rabbi, also requesting anonymity, said news of Eisen’s hiring was “a bit of a shock for many people.”

“There’s no religious voice,” he said.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that he does not “think it makes a difference that he’s not a rabbi.”

“The fact that he’s not a rabbi means that halachic issues and issues of spiritual leadership will not distract him,” Epstein said. “The Rabbinical Assembly has great spiritual leadership and that’s really the role of the Rabbinical Assembly.”

Eisen will serve as chancellor-designate for the first year while he fulfills his teaching commitments to Stanford. He will assume the chancellorship on July 1, 2007.

“Prof. Eisen is deeply committed to JTS’ role as the spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, embodying the Conservative Movement’s deep reverence for tradition, combined with great appreciation of the pluralistic nature of American Jewry,” Robert Rifkind, co-chairman of the search committee, said in a statement. “His entire life’s work has been centered on the revitalization of Jewish life. He is an extraordinary individual and uniquely qualified to lead JTS forward.”

Under Schorsch, the seminary was perhaps the leading institution of the Conservative movement. Schorsch himself was outspoken on issues of halachah, often taking a conservative approach to matters such as the place of homosexuality in the movement.

He also urged Conservative Jews to adhere more strongly to tradition, even suggesting that the movement’s decision to allow driving to synagogues on Shabbat had been a mistake.

With the choice of Eisen, some are wondering whether the traditional role the chancellor has played when it comes to halachah — some have likened the position to the de facto Chief Rabbinate of the movement — may shift to someone else. Such a role could fall instead to the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue arm; the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm; or perhaps to a newly created position like a mara d’atra, a local halachic authority, some suggest.

The prominent conservative rabbi who asked not to be named thinks such concerns are misplaced.

“The chancellor has not been the halachic authority of the movement, really not,” he said. “In the history of the movement, the chancellor has been more of the titular head of the movement,” and halachic authority generally has rested with the movement’s rabbis, he said.

For his part, Eisen said, “This chancellor is not going to play that role on halachic issues.”

Eisen holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also has attended Oxford University. He is the author of, among other books, “The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology”; “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (with Steven M. Cohen); “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming”; “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America”; and “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community,” for which he received the Koret Jewish Book Award.

Still, some observers privately wonder whether Eisen’s resume has prepared him for the administrative, fund-raising and management requirements of a university head.

Some observers say that as a social scientist, Eisen will bring a new perspective to the chancellor’s office, which traditionally has been filled by experts in history and rabbinics.

“He’s devoted at least as much time to the issues of American Jewish life as any other academician — and more than most,” said Laurence Silberstein, a Jewish studies professor at Lehigh University and Eisen’s former teacher. “I think that gives him a kind of different perspective.”

Eisen said the major challenge facing the movement is getting unconnected Conservative Jews involved.

“How do you get them to be part of Jewish communities? How do you connect them?” he asks. “There’s a membership crisis” in the Conservative movement, which in recent years has been overtaken numerically by the Reform movement. “But to me, with Jews in general everybody worries about the declining number — but half the Jews we have are not connected.”

Acquaintances say Eisen is politically liberal. He has publicly challenged the Jewish community to engage in a meaningful public-affairs agenda that takes into account both Jewish and American values.

Eisen, who said he bikes to work every day in California, is married to Adriane Leveen, a scholar of Hebrew Bible, and has two children: Shulie, 20, a sophomore at Brandeis University, and Nathaniel, 16, a high school junior.

In the end, Mintz Geffen said, Eisen’s success is likely to rest on his personality.

“I have never met anybody who doesn’t like him,” she said. “He’s one of the nicest people. He’s a real mensch. He is just a pleasure to be with.”

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