JTA reports that in his speech Monday to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly at its annual convention, the new chancellor Arnold Eisen “was given four standing ovations and received universal praise.”
In fact, it seems to me that his message is right on – (and, while I’m at it, IMO the message is, in a certain sense a continuation of BZs post below)- according to the article, he notes that “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,” and suggests that
… 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.
First of all, kudos to Professor Eisen for recognizing what Orthodoxy has done spectacularly well. I wish I could have heard the speech myself, since I’m now guessing at what he was explicit about ( hopefully someone will have and post a full text soon) but I rather wonder if he actually said what the description of his speech implies: on at least two lists for Conservative Jews, the matter of the driving tshuvah comes up at least every couple of months. It provokes a flurry on both sides of the matter, with a strong cohort of observant Conservative Jews pointing out the flaws in the reasoning of the so-called tshuvah, the actual effect it has had on the community, and how it will continue to shape the way that Jews in Conservative shuls interact. Which is to say, quite bluntly, that it massively intereferes with the meaning and rhythms of Jewish life to live outside of walking distance. It means that people do not know a great many of those with whom they attend shul – except insofar as synagogue activities (at best), and so it limits the formation of community to a great extent, as does the broad lack of adherence to kashrut.
The response to people pointing these things out is often very strong -people who believe that they cannot possibly live near a shul due to serious matters of earning a living, being able to afford a house near a shul, and so on. And these are not trivial problems. It is a huge problem in many places to be able to afford a house near a shul (let alone all the other expenses of Jewish family life, but that’s for another post).
So, I’m pleased that someone has finally said (or at least seems to be suggesting that he means to take on as an issue) these problems. But I have to admit, I’m rather curious as to what Professor Eisen thinks that rabbis can do about this, other than continue to cajole people to live closer to shul. Is he going to push for synagogues to give up their enormous, and enormously expensive buildings in favor of renting out smaller locations which can move withthe community every 20 years? Is he going to suggest using synagogues as ways to reinfuse poor neighborhoods with money by buying or renting their buildings there, and then helping young Jews find places to live close by? (Actually, I think that would be a fabulous idea, any takers?) I’d love for this to be the moment in which the Conservative movement found some backbone and decided to get serious about observance in both ritual and ethical matters by more than a committed core and the clergy. But I’m nervous about his linking it with the comment (at least in the JTA article) that “the concept of ‘mitzvah,’ … means more than simply “commandment,” as it is normally defined.”
It is true that it means “more than simply” but we are struggling to get people to do even just “simply.” Every rabbi I know is engaged in a constant juggling trick trying to maintain a balance between getting people to be more committed and not getting eased out for being too pushy. I do believe that some of the solution comes with having a community who is committed, and creating a general expectation within the community, but I want to hear what exactly one can do to foster and grow these committed communites, and where we’re going to put them, and how we’re going to do so given the current mutual trend of more intermarriage, more “outreach” – and not much willingness to ever say no to anyone under any circumstances. Not to mention the money.