JTS lucked out with Arnold Eisen

Professor Arnold Eisen, the newly tapped chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is near-universally hailed as one of the nation’s most brilliant minds in the field of modern Jewish thought.

And for the sake of Conservative Judaism, he’d better be.

The longtime Stanford professor ascends to the top echelon of a movement at the crossroads. Under the 20-year tenure of his predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the movement saw some positive developments but, undeniably, it also experienced an alarming drop-off in membership at the congregational level.

It also endured several roiling controversies, including the ordination of women (now resolved) and the ordination of gays and lesbians (not at all resolved).

Eisen now must grapple with Conservative Judaism’s most pressing problems — above all, defining the relevance and meaning of the movement today, and figuring out how the movement can grow in the years ahead.

While his appointment has been met with nearly unanimous praise, some have expressed surprise the JTS search committee would select an academic for a post normally filled by a rabbi (one other non-rabbi has headed JTS in its 120-year history). Others wonder if Eisen is up to the administrative and fund-raising demands of the job.

Those concerns are understandable, but, not surprisingly, we add our voice to the praise, and we congratulate the search committee on its daring choice.

To his credit, Eisen has stressed that he is indeed not a rabbi and will not lead the seminary as if he were. Eisen is not the high priest of Conservative Judaism, and there won’t be any Eisen-penned papal bulls.

We are willing to wager that a professor who so ably chaired Stanford’s religious studies department — well enough to be asked back to the post multiple times — is no stranger to the slings and arrows of controversy, administration or fund-raising.

Undoubtedly Arnie Eisen’s biggest asset is sitting squarely on his shoulders. He isn’t an arcane intellectual. The questions that puzzle him are the same questions that ripple through the everyday lives of American Jews. Eisen’s bread and butter is the analysis of just what it is to be a Jew in America. Frankly, we feel this is more than a little relevant in his new job, too.

Granted, Eisen’s task is Herculean, and no one could be expected to do a perfect job from day one. But we do think the JTS lucked out when they tapped this brilliant, diplomatic mensch.