View on Eisen From L.A.: Thumbs Up

Local reaction was positive — with an element of wait and see — to the choice of Stanford professor Arnold Eisen as the new, de facto leader of the Conservative moment. Eisen, who isn’t a rabbi, will take over this summer as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Issac Jaret, president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, focused immediately on Eisen’s position on gays — the seminary does not currently ordain openly gay rabbis.

“On the one hand, Eisen has stated he is in favor of the ordination,” he said. “On the other hand, being that he is not a rabbi, professor Eisen may have less impact upon this decision than another chancellor might have had with similar views.”

Jaret would not articulate his own position on gay ordination but added that “any decision on this matter [would] leave a significant segment of the movement dissatisfied.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a prominent innovator in the movement, also foresees a period of division and discontent, adding, “The Conservative movement must become much more responsive to the world and not live by quotations of halacha [Jewish law] alone.”

Schulweis, a longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, called the movement behind the times: “To be a movement that will excite its people, you have to be on the cutting edge, and you can’t be too little too late.”

He joked that the definition of a Conservative Jew “is someone who is willing to do something, but never for the first time.”

Schulweis quoted the Passover Torah portion to underscore his point: “The question Ezekiel asks is, ‘Will these dry bones live?’ The challenge to the new chancellor, the seminary and the Conservative movement is whether or not we can resurrect the dessicated bones of apathy.”

His colleague at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, put it another way: “The most important issue is what it means to be a religious movement in a completely voluntary and individualistic culture. How do you build contemporary spiritual community?”

Los Angeles rabbis interviewed for their reaction were unconcerned that Eisen is not a rabbi.

“They made an important statement in the scholar they chose,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “They didn’t take a biblical scholar or a scholar of rabbinic literature. They took someone who is an expert on American Jewry and American Jewish life — not in a historical context but in a contemporary sociological context,” he said.

Eisen’s books include “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America” (Indiana University Press, 2000) and together with Stephen Cohen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (Indiana University Press: 2000).

Vogel called Eisen “someone who can speak more on the condition of American Jewry and help to form a vision for American Jewry.”

More praise came from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who took his own name out of consideration for the seminary job.

“Professor Eisen is a deep and subtle thinker about Judaism and American Judaism in particular,” Wolpe said. “This can only be a very powerful shot in the arm for a movement that was looking for a very powerful shot in the arm, that was looking for reinvigoration.”