ARTICLEA Conversation with Dr. Arnold Eisen

Dr. Arnold Eisen has served as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America since 2006, and has been a Board Member of The Covenant Foundation since 1999. In addition, he is one of the leading scholars in the field of Modern Jewish Thought. Prior to becoming Chancellor of JTS, Dr. Eisen was the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Dr. Eisen has long had a deep personal and professional interest in the arts and their ability to transform people’s understanding of and relationship to Jewish life and culture. He recently spoke with The Covenant Foundation about the initiatives JTS has launched over the past few years to integrate art and music into all aspects of JTS’s educational programs and leadership training. These initiatives include the following: art galleries in the hallways, poetry in the classrooms, and joint concerts between JTS Cantorial students and Juilliard jazz musicians. Dr. Eisen also shared his personal connections to art, as well as his vision for how arts education can help shift the focus of Jewish institutions from “educating Jews” to “educating Jewish human beings.”

What inspired the new emphasis at JTS on integrating the arts throughout the Seminary’s program?

It’s always been clear to leaders of JTS that Jewish spirituality takes in a lot more territory than “religion” narrowly defined. That’s why Louis Finkelstein launched the Jewish Museum, which still operates under our auspices. He wanted to make the case that Jewish expression is broad. There’s a quote from Franz Rosensweig, which Solomon Schechter also used, that “Nothing Jewish is alien to me.” We know there are many portals through which Jews enter Jewish life and Judaism. JTS is an educational institution at which we train Jewish leaders; we want them to tie both their own Jewish leadership and commitment and their leadership as educators to spirituality, and that is often expressed through art. For the people that they are leading, art is a major feature of their lives and their spiritual expressions, whether through music or painting or dance.

We’ve found that the same is true of our students, so we wanted to recognize that, bring it to the surface, and give them ways to express it. The JTS building has really changed, because now there are art exhibits in the building, paintings and photographs on the walls, and music literally in the hallways. In addition, the Cantorial School has become a more visible presence. I myself have always been drawn to the arts, especially music, which has been an important part of my life since I was a child. I studied piano for many years. For me, playing Bach and listening to a Beethoven String Quartet are spiritual exercises. Of course, we have the arts in our Jewish tradition; look at the fabrics and colors of the Tabernacle and the importance of music in the Temple service. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we as educators don’t tap into this.

What are some other examples of the impact of the arts on the schools and the students at JTS?

There is much more interaction now between the Cantorial School and both the Davidson School and the Rabbinical School. Many rabbis have musical ability, and we want to enhance that ability as part of their work as rabbis. Many cantors have some Jewish learning, and we want to enhance that learning and thereby enable them to better use their musical talents in the service of God and Torah. In other words, if they’re more aware of their own tradition, feel more connected to it, and are more learned in it, and if they have more educational techniques and skills, then they are better able to connect their music to their own spirituality and use their music to connect other people to Judaism.

We have up on the walls this year an amazing exhibit of photographs of trees by Larry Lederman. In my remarks opening the exhibit, I said that I will never forget Martin Buber’s passage in I and Thou about not seeing trees merely as objects, or something beautiful or something you can study scientifically, but that you can really have an “I and Thou relationship” with a tree. That’s true for creating works of art and relating to works of art. So we have been staring at these photographs of trees that seemed to be on fire, to be backlit. None of them are retouched, but you see amazing light and color in them. Every day, we have students in a second floor lounge, sitting and conversing and spending time in front of trees. You can’t specify or predict the impact that will have on their thinking and emotions, but you know it’s got to matter. We had an exhibit of paintings last year that were either created for those spaces or deemed to be perfect for those spaces, and again it gave a new dimension to the educational experience.

I teach a course every other year on the philosophy of Conservative Judaism. During one session of this course, a TA who was in the Rabbinical School suggested the following exercise. We asked every student to put up on Google Docs a work of art, a piece of music, a photograph, or a poem that spoke deeply to him or her spiritually. The students were then asked to write a short paragraph about how that item connects to their Judaism and to Conservative Judaism in particular. We put all of them up on a screen in class and had every person spend 20 minutes talking about his or her piece. By far, it was the best and most meaningful class of the year.

This new focus on the arts came out of a Task Force we had commissioned around these issues. I remember at one meeting Nessa Rappaport said, “You want to teach your rabbis how to see better.” That’s right; when you surround people with visual arts they see better. The same is true of the current place of music in the school. We have a partnership with Juilliard in which their Jazz Quartets and String Ensemble come and not only give concerts for but work with students, and not just cantorial students. That teaches students to hear better.

What do you see as the role of the arts in Jewish education for youth and teens? How could the experiences of JTS students be translated to supplemental schools and day schools?

At JTS, during one of the visits by the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, we had all of these young people--most of them not Jewish--riffing back and forth with the Cantorial students and the faculty. There is an historical relationship between jazz and Jewish music. And it was wonderful to see our Cantorial students being musical--singing or playing instruments--and the Juilliard students singing or playing something in response. I’m imagining a city-wide Hebrew High School program in which a local musician or group would come and do a jam session with the students in that room, and in which the relationship between contemporary Jewish music and contemporary music as a whole would not just be talked about, but would be played and exhibited. What could that do for the relationship of those students to their Judaism? At the very least they would see that the guitar part of themselves, or the drum part of themselves, or the sax, or the clarinet, or whatever it is, comes together with their Jewishness.

When you’re educating teenagers, you need to understand that, for a lot of them, music is a big part of their lives. They can spend hours and hours every week playing guitar or drums. Why would one not want to connect that part of their own spirituality to their Judaism? One certainly would. By doing this, we’re not only recognizing a feature of what actually goes on in people’s souls, but we’re bringing to the surface some tools that Jewish educators and other leaders can use in teaching Jews about Judaism. So I think the moral, the nafka minah, for all Jewish educators is clear. You have this dimension of the human being, and certainly of children and teenagers, and we must not let it remain unconnected to our students’ emerging Judaism.

This is part of one of my pet educational campaigns. We should not regard our task as educating Jews, but rather that we’re educating Jewish human beings. Because we only have students in a Jewish educational setting for at best half a day in day school, or a small number of hours per week in supplementary school, it’s understandable that for generations we’ve said that we’re going to focus on the Jewish and try to give them as much text or tefillah or Hebrew as we can. But they’re not coming to us as Jews; they’re coming to us as Jewish human beings. The hyphen, the connection between the Jewish and the human, should be an explicit focus of the education. Currently, we give them the Jewish and leave it to them to figure out how it relates to the human, and that’s wrong. Mordecai Kaplan said this 80 years ago. The arts are part of the human in the Jewish part of them; with the Jewish arts you can connect the Jewish and the human in a very powerful way. That’s what we want to do in Jewish education.

We need to reach a lot of Jews out there who never set foot in a synagogue. And we know from the data that they don’t want to call themselves religious. But many of them are touched by the arts, and we want to find a way to reach that part of them. We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach that part of Jewish kids. I know people are going to say, “We only have so many hours in the classroom; how can we spend an hour visiting an art museum?” But if a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to those students’ hearts and souls. That’s what we’re there to do.


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