Taking a page from the Orthodox movement’s successful “Daf Yomi” or page-a-day Talmud study initiative, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has triggered a discussion about Jewish learning for the non-Orthodox Jewish community.
In an op-ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, Arnold Eisen praised the fact that some 90,000 Orthodox Jews crowded into MetLife Stadium in New Jersey two weeks ago to celebrate their completion (siyum) of the study of the Talmud over the course of seven-and-a-half years. And then, citing the recent Jewish population study of New York that found Jewish engagement among the non-Orthodox here has been on the decline, Eisen called for a “different page of Jewish learning, one that is open to the larger world and bears the impact of modern thinking.”
“It would cleave faithfully to texts, rituals, history and faith while being informed by art, music, drama, poetry, politics and law,” he wrote. “Imagine if every Jew who wished to do so could awake to a platform of daily Jewish text not limited to Talmud — and to Jewish media not limited to text.”
A spokeswoman for Eisen said he was unavailable for comment.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, said he understood Eisen to be “proposing the possibility of Jewish learning, beginning with the issues of the day for the American Jew who may not have as many points of Jewish literacy, and demonstrating that Jewish texts speak to the issues of the day.”
“It’s a strategic move for American Jewry who might not begin their spiritual journeys with text but rather with the pressing issues of the day,” he added. “We can look at the tragedies in Colorado, ask questions about sexuality or public policy during an election season — whatever it may be — and ask how does a Jewish text inform the lives of contemporary Jews and the decision making of Jews.”
Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s national director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said he agreed that the definition of Jewish text as strictly the study of Talmud is excessively narrow and should be broadened to include the Bible, Jewish philosophy and commentary.
“He is also internalizing the Daf Yomi approach to setting aside time for daily study,” Bayme said of Eisen. “The real challenge is to harness technology to advance the time-tested means of give and take, arguing and debating. Rather than accept things on authority, we teach students to question and doubt.”
Bayme said he particularly welcomed that the suggestion came from Eisen, because the seminary “has contributed to the historical study of Jewish texts and encourages us to understand the totality of Jewish history and then ask the current relevance.”