Rabbi Elyashiv, leading halachic authority, in grave condition

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered this generation’s leading halachic authority, is in critical condition.

Prayer sessions in Israel and around the world have been held for Elyashiv, 101, the leader of the Lithuanian haredi Orthodox community, since he was admitted to the hospital on Sunday. One on Monday night at the Western Wall attracted thousands of worshipers.

Elyashiv reportedly is on a respirator and has suffered massive organ failure.

New JTS Head Faces Trouble, Opportunity

Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position, too,” said Eisen with a laugh. “I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. Eisen offered a three-part answer.

“No. 1, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through, and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out, and you know what that is.”

Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen’s record over two decades as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen’s academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

“Arnie didn’t live in [a] cloister,” added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. “He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn’t give this job to some ivory tower isolated person.”

A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen’s Stanford colleague.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” Zipperstein said.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They just don’t get it. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected, and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said. “I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement but insists that “the numbers for all [affiliated] Jews are down…. It’s a very strong movement, and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership: “We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement.”

Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.

Eisen disagrees with that approach: “Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows a trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community. Indeed, it’s very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community,” said Stanford’s Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he says he could serve as a natural bridge.

He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as “chancellor designate,” he doesn’t have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he’s ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” Eisen said, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life, and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s Conscience

The conscience of the Jewish state has spoken through the recent landmark ruling of Israel's Supreme Court. It has taken an important step toward removing the pariah stigma from tens of thousands of Jews who converted to Judaism by the rabbinic authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, but ignored by the Jewish state.

With this new ruling, Israel's Interior Ministry is to register Israelis converted under Reform or Conservative auspices as Jews. That earned identification, previously denied them, will henceforth be inscribed on their national identification card. Jews in limbo have returned to their chosen home.

Imagine the joy of Russian Jews who made aliyah, fought in the wars to defend the State of Israel — some of whom were slain in battle and refused burial in Jewish cemeteries because they were not regarded as Jews — and who now will no longer suffer from such humiliating disenfranchisement.

What fulfillment of dreams does this ruling promise for themselves and their children? The ruling, of course, is a first step. Regrettably, these converts can be married only by Orthodox rabbis who alone are authorized to perform marriages legally recognized by the state and who alone have in their power the decision as to who is a Jew. The evolution of a democratic, pluralistic Jewish state requires time, vigilance, courage and unflagging effort.

The decision of Israel's High Court of Justice has regrettably met with predictable partisan denominational responses. Orthodox leaders regard the Supreme Court decision as a secular transgression of Orthodox halachic jurisdiction; non-Orthodox leaders understand the ruling as strengthening religious pluralism and as an act of Jewish unification.

In my view, the ruling embodies the moral and legal tradition of Judaism that — no less than 36 times throughout the Torah — mandates us to love the stranger, to know the heart of the stranger and, following many ethical imperatives, reminds us that we too were strangers.

Moreover, the rabbis of the tradition induced in the thrice daily “Amidah,” the 13th petition of which appeals to God to let His tender mercies be stirred for the gairei ha-tzedek (faithful proselyte). The Supreme Court's ruling expresses a transdenominational judgment that offers a healing balm to the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian denominational politics.

In these parlous times, when the enemies from without seek to tear us apart, this momentous ruling points the way to peace from within. When the rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) speculated as to the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the second Temple, they did not point to the external factors of the superior military might of the Romans. Nor did they point to the lack of the study of Torah and ritual practices by Jews. The second Temple fell, they maintained, because of groundless hatred; because of internal factionalism that stemmed from disrespect for the judgments and perspectives of others. How then does one rectify the sins of groundless hatred which is still within us? Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, answered, “The sin of groundless hatred can be overcome only with the mitzvah of causeless love.”

The Supreme Court's ruling should be greeted by all segments of world Jewry — secular and religious, left and right — as a therapeutic gesture toward the healing of our divided people. Through embracing the stranger in our midst, we may overcome the estrangement between us.

The Supreme Court ruling has deep traditional roots. Obadiah the proselyte once asked Talmudist and philosopher Moses Maimonides whether he could halachically pray, “Our God and God of our fathers.” Since Obadiah was a Jew-by-choice, he was informed by other rabbinic authorities that he was prohibited from reciting such a prayer. Maimonides ruled as follows: “By all means you are to pray 'Our God and God of our fathers.' If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your ancestry is from Him by whose word the world was created.”

The Supreme Court decision continues the spiritual and halachic tradition of Jewish moral sensibility. The Supreme Court's decision augurs the dawn of a harmonious state.

Caught in a Maelstrom

Brenner, a 57-year-old New York-born social worker, Reform Jew and feminist, is at the epicenter of the latest halachic earthquake shaking Israel. Her downstairs neighbor is Dov Dumbrovich, the Orthodox chairman of the local religious council, who is defying a Supreme Court ruling and refusing to let her take her seat on the council.

The court last week ordered Dumbrovich to admit Brenner, who had been nominated to the council by the local branch of the militantly anti-clerical Meretz. Religious councils are not rabbinic bodies. Their role is to mediate between the religious bureaucracy and the citizen, who has to turn to the rabbinate for such services as marriage, divorce and funerals, even if he or she is not an observant Orthodox Jew. Members are chosen by the political factions represented at city hall.

Orthodox politicians accused the justices of turning the Supreme Court into “a branch of a political party,” and they vowed to force through the Knesset legislation that barred Reform Jews from religious councils. Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Arye Gamliel threatened to resign rather than publish Brenner’s appointment in the official gazette (a legal requirement). In the convoluted world of Israeli theo-politics, Gamliel is the de facto head of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Joyce Brenner is an improbable cause célèbre. Her late father, Eli Rothman, was an Orthodox rabbi with a small congregation in Brooklyn and a deep commitment to Zionism. Brenner, now divorced and a mother of three daughters, took her master’s degree and doctorate at that pillar of Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, where she is still a visiting lecturer. She made aliyah in 1976.

But she was a child of the rebellious 1960s as well as of the rabbi’s study. She turned to Reform Judaism as a young married woman starting a family. “It was the women’s issues,” she says. “I wanted full equality in all aspects of expressing my religiosity. It couldn’t happen, it wasn’t happening, within the Orthodox community.”

She settled in Netanya “because it’s pretty.” It was, she says, the perfect town. “My children were school-age. Here, children walk everywhere, they take their bikes, and there’s the beach. What could be nicer?”

It was her feminism that brought Brenner into politics, a feminism that, in macho Israel, had a pioneer taste to it. She was one of a group of English-speaking immigrants who founded a women’s psychotherapy center in Netanya. It has grown into a counseling service with offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Israel,” she says, “gave those of us who came in the 1970s a chance to express ourselves in a full and exciting way because these services didn’t exist here. We were taking on the issues that we all felt were very important in making a better society, feminism and a liberal Judaism.

“These were the issues that gave us a sense of contributing to Israel and of fulfilling ourselves. People like me, coming out of the civil rights movement, felt Israel was a place we could make things happen. The Reform part was the smallest part of it.”

In Netanya, she is “just a regular member” of a small Reform community. She became involved with Meretz on the local level “because they are the voice of the issues I want people to pay attention to.”

Why, with all this, does Brenner want to serve on the town’s religious council?

“There’s a lot of money disbursed,” she says, “10 million shekels (about $3 million) in a town with almost 200,000 people. Most of it is city money, and people don’t even know how it gets divided. This is a council that gives services to everybody in the locality.

“I’d like to be the address for the people who may need these services and may not know how to approach them, or are turned away by official rabbinical services. Young couples, for instance. I’d like to be the woman who helps young couples approach these services. I’d be very proud to do that.”

She would also, however modestly, like to be the women’s voice. “I can’t presume to speak for Orthodox women,” she says, “but I think Israeli women have been treated very unfairly, even within Orthodoxy. There are lots of aspects of divorce law that could be handled differently if the rabbinate would approach them differently.”

Many women end up in the feminist counseling centers. “I’ve dealt with hundreds of problem divorces,” Brenner says. “But the really tragic cases we’ve come across are incest within the ultra-Orthodox world. Young women come to us who are very scared of being ostracized within their communities. They come for counseling, but they ask the therapist not to go to their communities and not to prosecute the fathers, uncles or brothers responsible. This is not the task of the religious council, but it’s part of my commitment to change things.”

On her way to what should have been her first meeting as a member of the Netanya religious council — a meeting from which she was politely, but firmly, ejected by her downstairs neighbor — Brenner was approached by a Russian immigrant who had cut out her picture from a newspaper. He told her that the town’s large immigrant community, with all its problems of Jewish identity, was excited “that you’re going to be on the council, that we’ll have someone who will listen to us.”

Not yet, it seems.