Conservative Judaism and the Public Square

JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen Urges Use of Great Wealth of Resources

Press Contact: Nina Jacobson
Office: (212) 678-8950

February 27, 2008, New York, NY

In his address, “Conservative Judaism and the Public Square,” delivered at the recent Rabbinical Assembly convention in Washington, DC, Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, called on the Conservative Movement to use its great wealth of resources to build “real communities and fill them with live teaching of Torah…and move them boldly and authentically, creatively and faithfully, into the public square.”

Where the Conservative Movement in the public square is concerned, Chancellor Eisen stressed the importance of developing a coordinated voice:

“We have something to say to the world…We have to be in the public square to do so. The question—and it is awesomely serious—is not whether we are meant to act in the world but how—what we shall do to further God’s pursuit of justice, and, how we shall prioritize among the many goods that need pursuing in the public square as well as between public and private, between study and social action, prayer and gemilut hasadim, care for the Jewish people and care for all the world.

“One cannot move effectively into the public square unless one’s own house is in something resembling order…we Conservative Jews possess many social and political efforts by various arms of the Movement rather than one…We really do suffer, all of us, from the lack of unified or even coordinated action. Disunity is a luxury that we can no longer afford.”

“Where Conservative social and political action is concerned, the point is not to create one center but to highlight, coordinate, and focus the considerable amount that our national organizations and our local institutions are already doing, and to do more together, visibly, because mitzvah goreret mitzvah; one learns piety by observing it, and all of us, but especially young and searching Jews, need to see these efforts and join them…”

His talk provided a framework for activism in three specific areas:

Ecology and the Environment
"The warming of the planet will not wait long for us.”

"The Torah, from its very first chapters to the last, makes human creatures responsible for stewarding the Earth….We who build and gather in the microcosms (our sanctuaries) have it in us to destroy the macrocosm or to save it. I too am a latecomer to this realization. To one degree or another I suppose we all are.”

Interfaith Dialogue
"It is a mitzvah to take Judaism into the public square for a dialogue with the respect for non-Jews that the rabbis carried forward in their category of B’nai Noah, and that we at JTS are developing through dialogue with Christians and Muslims. It is a facet of the Jewish public square that seems urgent to me today.”

"We are Jews, the State is in a real sense ours, our responsibility toward it is beyond measure—and its existence offers us palpable gifts, elicits some of our finest efforts and imagining, teaches us incalculable words of Torah, and makes possible great deeds of justice and compassion in the world.”

"The Masorti Movement is a natural vehicle that we neglect at our peril for the transformation of the Israeli public square into a state that to an ever greater degree practices, in its complex social and economic systems, the justice and compassion that have been our credo since Sinai. I have a great sense of urgency about this.”

In this, his second major address to the Rabbinical Assembly, Chancellor Eisen called on Conservative leadership—lay and professional—"to teach Torah, to live Torah, at home and on the way, in the best, the fullest, most authentic way that we know, and to do so as fully engaged participants in this society and culture, amid these conditions that demand our response, right here, right now.” As he defines it, "That to me is Conservative Judaism.”

The address reiterated the message he shared at the United Synagogue convention in December—that there is more that unites Conservative Jews than divides them.

"My hope is that whatever our theological doubts or beliefs about God’s activity in the world, we Conservative Jews will know that God dwells in us and among us because our tabernacles are places where we work together and study together, worship and eat together, as communities.”

The full text of Chancellor Eisen’s speech can be found at