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New JTS Head Favors Gay Rabbis, but Calls Halachah ‘non-negotiable’

April 12, 2006
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In his first interview with the U.S. Jewish media after being named the next chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen told JTA he favors allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservative rabbis. “My personal opinion is that I would like to see these processes end up with the ordination of gays and lesbians,” he said. “But I might be outvoted.”

The Conservative movement in recent years has been roiled by this hot-button issue. The movement’s central halachic authority, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, has debated the issue at length and has scheduled a vote for December.

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.

Eisen, 54, advocated a robust discussion among seminary faculty on homosexuality’s place in the Conservative movement. He pointed out that such a discussion preceded the seminary’s decision to ordain women in 1983.

“The faculty is going to have to decide how it wants to think about this issue,” he said. “I just want to have a discussion. I just want to know how my colleagues feel about this.”

A sociologist who has focused largely on American Jewry, Eisen officially was tapped as chancellor Monday following a lengthy search. He will succeed Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who will step down in June after two decades in the position.

Eisen will serve a year as chancellor-designate before taking the reins full time in July 2007. He comes to JTS at a time of some uncertainty for the movement: Conservative Judaism faces dwindling numbers, a debate on the homosexuality issue and a struggle to articulate a unified vision.

As a Jewish studies professor and chairman of Stanford University’s Religious Studies Department, and as a frequent traveler to congregations around the United States, Eisen is well-acquainted with the American Jewish community. He is not a rabbi, however, and will be just the second seminary head without rabbinical ordination in JTS’ 120-year history.

Some Conservative rabbis have expressed concern about the fact that a position sometimes likened to the movement’s de facto chief rabbi will be filled by a non-rabbi. Eisen says he understands the concerns.

Some within the movement have suggested that the chancellor’s role as a halachic voice could be transferred elsewhere: perhaps 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 a newly created position like a mara d’atra, a local halachic authority.

Eisen declined to speculate on whom this position might fall to. But he stressed that movement rabbis will find him to be a strong ally.

“I’m not one of these scholars who doesn’t care about the rabbinate,” he said. “You’re going to find me a super-supportive chancellor for rabbinical students.”

“I think this is going to be good for the rabbis,” he said.

Eisen said he imagined a rabbinical school graduation ceremony in which he will ordain the movement’s newest spiritual leaders “as a representative of the Jewish people and the Conservative movement in America,” rather than as a rabbi ordaining another rabbi.

“I am a member of the communities they’re going to be serving,” he said. “And I like the symbolism of me representing these communities in ordaining these rabbis.”

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 numbers — but half the Jews we have are not connected.”

“With camps, with schools, with synagogues, the challenge is to make the meaning so real, so palpable that people want to come back for more.”

Historically, Conservative Judaism arose as a middle-ground between traditional Orthodox Judaism and American modernity — a function that is no longer needed.

“No Jews anymore have trouble being fully a part of American life, and many Jews don’t know about tradition,” he said. “So you have to attract them from Square One. You have to persuade them that this way of being is a good, substantial way of leading a Jewish life.”

Eisen said his first responsibility as chancellor will be to the seminary rather than the movement as a whole: There will be a focus on scholarship, on applying that scholarship to Jewish life, on training students in each of JTS’ schools and in raising funds necessary to accomplish these goals, he said.

Still, he said, he hopes to play a role in the Conservative movement at large.

“One of my goals for the Conservative movement is that I want there to be a stronger leadership,” he said, adding that leaders of movement branches need better resources. “I’m hoping to get many of my colleagues more involved in the Conservative movement than they have been.”

He also said he believes the movement’s rank-and-file could play a broader role.

“We have people who are leaders in every area of life sitting in our congregations,” he said. “They could make a contribution to the movement by bringing their expertises into dialogue with Judaism.”

Eisen also lamented what he said was a growing chasm between U.S. and Israeli Jewry, and said that as one of the leading American Jewish institutions, the seminary could play an important role in bridging the gap.

Movement insiders also have complained that Conservative Jewry has not articulated a coherent message to take into the world. Eisen agreed that this has been a concern, and suggested that the movement ought to articulate “a message of substance and ethics and Torah.”

The “major theological challenge that we have concerns the idea of mitzvah: What does it mean to have mitzvah?” he asked.

The problem, he said, is that many Jews believe that by observing mitzvot, or Jewish laws, they give up their autonomy.

“This is, frankly, nonsense,” he said. “The message that mitzvah is far more wonderful than that, this message has not reached most Conservative Jews, unfortunately.”

That’s because many of them lack the background to understand this, he said. As such, education will play an important role in rectifying this misconception — and not just traditional education, but experience.

“You have to give them positive experiences time after time,” he said.

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