By now, anyone who cares about Conservative Judaism has absorbed the news about the controversial change at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the movement’s main educational institution.
In brief, the seminary’s chancellor, Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch, has announced his intention to retire after 20 years. He is to be succeeded by Prof. Arnold Eisen, long-time chair of the Religious Studies department of Stanford University.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, according to the Internet schmoozers and mainstream Jewish news agencies, the big deal is buried in the titles of the retiring Schorsch and the succeeding Eisen: namely, “Rabbi Dr.” versus “Professor.” That is, Schorsch, like all but one of his six predecessors as chancellor of JTS, holds both rabbinic ordination within the Conservative movement and a research degree in Jewish history (Columbia). He embodies the ideal Conservative intellectual — learned in traditional rabbinics and thoroughly at home in the historical study of Judaism as the evolving culture of “Catholic Israel” (klal Yisrael).
Eisen, by contrast, is a brilliant and widely read intellectual historian and sociologist of American Judaism. But he apparently has no rabbinics training beyond what is necessary to “cover” a few lectures in a general undergraduate course in the history of Judaism.
Eisen’s lack of rabbinical training has raised a few eyebrows. I wonder why. After all, JTS has always been torn between its two missions: the training of Ph.D.s in the history of Jews and Judaism to fill academic posts, and the training of rabbis to serve the religious needs of American Jews. And, in point of fact, the intellectual prestige of JTS has always rested more upon the research of its doctoral faculty rather than in the quality of its rabbinical program.
What this has meant for recent generations of Conservative rabbis, quite simply, is that they take graduate-level seminars in academic theories of rabbinic literature while remaining relatively inexperienced in the study of Talmud and Midrash. The result is a synagogue environment in which Talmud Torah is more likely to include academic books about “Judaism” than classical Jewish texts.
In this sense, at least, Eisen’s appointment honestly acknowledges the seminary’s actual privileging of academics over rabbinic studies. I see no reason to kick up a fuss about it. But, that said, there remains something truly odd in the choice of a professor of Religious Studies to represent the public face of JTS.
Prof. Eisen is an acknowledged master at what sociologists of American religious and ethnic groups do best — probing the most sensitive and crucial inner-contradictions and, at times, self-deceptions of the group, in order to expose “how the culture really works” in concert with the larger American order of things.
His first major book, for example, charted the discomfort mid-century American Jews felt at professing the idea of “Jewish Chosenness” in an egalitarian democracy. His more recent work traces the emergence of “private” definitions of Jewish identity that are rather more indebted to American individualism than to traditional Jewish values.
As a scholar of religion, then, Prof. Eisen is committed to unmasking the origins and logic of the self-presentations and misconceptions that structure popular expressions of American Jewish identity. He is fully aware that professors of Religious Studies go home in the evening without having to pick up the pieces of the worldviews they shatter. I wonder if he is fully aware that chancellors of JTS are charged with promoting and marketing precisely such a religious worldview.
One of his first and most crucial tasks, after all, will be to articulate and administer — as the Conservative movement’s “First Cheerleader” — the mass-marketing of an institutional ideology of American Judaism. Prof. Eisen of Stanford, of course, has never had to market American Judaism; I wonder how Chancellor Eisen of JTS will ultimately manage the necessary compromises his role will require.
But even if the new chancellor finds a way to harmonize his intellectual convictions with the needs of movement ideology, there is one last problem, missed by journalistic comments on Prof. Eisen’s lack of rabbinic education: what is surprising about the appointment of an academic with no rabbinic expertise to the chancellorship of JTS is precisely how “conservative” it really is.
Far from being a radical departure, Eisen’s appointment merely ratifies the shape of JTS’s long-standing institutional culture — namely, at JTS, the academic-historical tail has always wagged the rabbinic-halachic dog. And the dog, certainly since the early 1950s, has been fed and walked, it must be said, by a laity notoriously oblivious to the halachic pronouncements issued by the Seminary’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
The future of Conservative Judaism does not depend upon who serves as the chancellor of JTS. It depends, rather, upon the ability of the synagogue rabbinate to inspire the laity in the paths of traditional Jewish learning and devotion.
But, as every sociologist of American Judaism knows, the Conservative laity is increasingly indifferent or even hostile to the religious sensibilities that inspired the movement’s founders. The founders imagined an American Judaism that would blend traditional Talmudic wisdom with the most pioneering insights of modern historical studies to produce a supple, evolving tradition, aware of the authority of the past even as it was open to the call of the future. They did not imagine collaborating in the production of a mass-market religion geared to the coarsest trends of popular religious taste.
In an ironic sense, then, the appointment of Prof. Eisen to lead the Conservative movement reflects a kind of providential logic. Perhaps this superb unmasker of the pretenses of American Jewish suburban religiosity has in mind to deconstruct the popular pieties of the movement’s laity and force it to confront the enormous religious vacuum at the center of the system? If so, Conservative Jews may be in for a “spiritual renewal” they hadn’t quite bargained for!
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.