At a time when the Conservative movement is struggling to define its goals and message, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, appears set to empower the members themselves to determine its identity.
Even “the rabbis are asking me, ‘what does it mean to be a Conservative Jew?’” Eisen told The Jewish Week on the eve of his inauguration this week as the seventh chancellor of JTS, the movement’s anchor institution.
He has spent more than a year on a “listening tour,” traveling to congregations, camps and institutions, asking members what their needs and priorities are.
“I heard a sense that people want to be Conservative Jews, are enthused about it, but there is some perplexity about what Conservative Judaism is,” he said. “You have a question in Conservative Judaism about message. Instead of merely writing speeches myself, I want to engage Conservative Jews in dialogue about it.”
As a result, in a break with the traditional top-down approach by the movement’s leaders, Eisen plans to launch the pilot effort of what he’s calling “the mitzvah project,” an attempt to energize the grassroots and leadership of the Conservative movement by inviting — and challenging — them to set an agenda.
It will involve 10 congregations nationwide whose spiritual leaders are members of Eisen’s Rabbinic Advisory Cabinet.
Each month, the congregations will receive materials prepared by JTS faculty and administrators meant to spark community-wide discussion on some aspect of the meaning of “mitzvah,” a Hebrew word widely understood to mean “good deed,” but one that actually means “commandment.”
“It’s designed to get Conservative Jews speaking with one another about what they feel commanded to do, disciplined about, in love with in the practice of Judaism in general and Conservative Judaism in particular,” said Eisen.
Alluding to the didactic manner of his predecessor, Eisen said he wants “to reverse the pattern of instruction from above and for people to listen to one another and talk and realize they share a set of commitments that goes beyond the differences.”
The goal is for them to “realize they’re part of the same community, on the same page,” he said. “It’s a launching pad for getting Conservative Jews to discuss who and what they are.”
If successful, the mitzvah project will be rolled out movement-wide a year from now.
The focus on “mitzvah” as a defining principle isn’t new for Eisen. In fact, he’s been thinking and writing about it for years. In 1998 he published a book, “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community,” (University of Chicago Press) which the following year won the Koret Foundation’s award for books about Jewish history.
Conservative “is an important adjective, and we’re here to help Jews walk a certain set of paths. I want them to see that there is coherence in the way they walk and think about it,” said Eisen in The Jewish Week interview. “Whatever else Conservative Judaism is, the idea of mitzvah will always be at the core of it.”
The once-dominant branch of Jewish religious life is grappling with shrinking synagogue membership, fractious disagreements over issues like gay ordination and the widespread sense that it has lost its way. Last year, in his last official remarks, previous chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch said that the movement is suffering from “malaise.”
Eisen was appointed to his new post 17 months ago. He and his wife, Adriane Leveen, a bible scholar on the faculty of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, deferred their move to New York from Stanford, Calif., until their younger child finished high school.
When asked why there is a widespread lack of clarity about Conservative Judaism’s meaning and message, Eisen said “It has perplexed me for years, as a scholar. There’s diversity inside the movement of which it has always been proud. That diversity has sometimes obscured the unity,” he said, alluding to the sometimes-fractious debates over everything from whether openly gay or lesbian rabbis can be ordained to whether women should serve as rabbis, and to whether musical instruments may be played during Sabbath and holiday synagogue services.
“He’s absolutely right. We’ve been searching for an identity for a century now,” said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a longtime professor of Jewish philosophy at JTS and former rabbinical school dean who was part of the search committee that hired Eisen. Rabbi Gillman is retiring this year.
“The common formula, that we’re not Orthodox and we’re not Reform, just won’t work anymore. I find in my travels around the country that our congregants by and large will go to a Conservative synagogue but largely for sociological or liturgical reasons. But their identity with the movement ends with the synagogue.
“If we can speak the language of mitzvah and move from the personal and move from study to the areas of ritual, we have the beginnings of a new approach which might be fruitful,” said Rabbi Gillman.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, said that a leader’s ability to rouse adherents of a denomination from a negative self-image will itself help reverse the situation.
“He and everybody understand that the malaise has itself become a factor within the world of the movement,” said Sarna, who as part of Eisen’s installation program on Wednesday was scheduled to participate in a roundtable discussion of “The Future of Religion in America” at JTS.
“Learning from the experience of Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, both of which have seen their demise predicted and negated, such prophecies should give hope to the Conservative movement and allow Arnie to start to change malaise into a feeling of hope,” Sarna said.