Yesterday, PrezBo dusted off the ol’ blue and white robes and headed north for the inauguration of JTS’s new chancellor. Bwogger Armin Rosen dressed
less ridiculously for the occasion.
During his inaugural address as the newly-minted seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, former Stanford professor Arnold Eisen recalled how, as a staffer for the Daily Pennsylvanian in the early 70s, he asked socially conscious Seminary professor Abraham Joshua Heschel why felt he could use Jewish tradition in order to deal with contemporary crises, and how he had the chutzpah to believe that it mattered to do so. “Because words count,” the venerable Heschel responded–implying, in Eisen view, that Judaism had given him a responsibility to participate in the political and cultural conflicts of his time, and had, inevitably, enabled his words and ideas to matter.
In front of Presidents Bollinger and Shapiro, as well as the JTS faculty and representatives of numerous other academic and religious institutions, Eisen explained just how he would make his words and actions as Chancellor–and as de-facto head of conservative Judaism–count. Borrowing from his experience with Heschel, Eisen elaborated on the “fruitful tension” that exists between modernity and tradition within Jewish life. Maintaining a deft balance of cautious optimism and sobering realism, he explained that JTS exists in order to make sure that that tension remains fruitful; to keep American Jewry fixated on the religion’s glorious past, but mindful of how historical and cultural experience can be used to cope with the world’s uncertain and oftentimes frightening future. Eisen was optimistic as to what this kind of balance can do for conservative Judaism, rejecting the notion of American Judaism being in decline, and speaking of a new Jewish “renaissance.” But he was also candid about the communal challenges he will face as Chancellor, mentioning that most conservative Jews “don’t know what their movement stands for,” and warning of increased American disconnectedness with Israeli Jews.
As a lay scholar, Eisen can afford to be idealistic without being dogmatic–but as an observant Jew he values tradition as much as idealism. Eisen was heavy on idealism, and talked about how “real pluralism” could help change the popular perception of religion as a polarizing and ultimately destructive force in the world. But on the traditionalism side, “real pluralism” for Eisen includes a rejection of relativism, and a recommitment to Jewish values and ideals. This idealism-tinged traditionalism (traditional-tinged idealism?) would seem like a convenient, diplomatic middle-path for a movement whose traditional wing still feels slighted by the seminary’s decision to ordain homosexuals. But Eisen made it clear that far from being oxymoronic, a forward-thinking religious conservatism could be a principled and intellectually legitimate means of viewing the modern world.
In a sense, his tenure as chancellor will hinge on whether he can convince Conservative Jews (and prospective JTS students) that this is actually the case. At least PrezBo was convinced—in a short speech introducing Eisen, he said that the seminary’s dual degree programs with Columbia and Barnard demonstrated how “institutions can intersect where we as human beings constantly try to intersect.” Eisen’s job is to keep that intersection relevant without alienating anybody. As a younger and enthusiastic career intellectual with dazzling interpersonal skills and a keen understanding of the obstacles that lie ahead, seminarians don’t have much to worry about, and should probably be pretty excited. But as PrezBo mentioned during his own introduction, inauguration day is not your best as a college president—but it’s up there.