- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the prime school of Judaism’s Conservative branch, named a layman as its new chancellor this week — Arnold M. Eisen, chairman of the Stanford University religion department.

Mr. Eisen is only the second non-rabbi to lead the 120-year-old rabbinical training school. He said in a telephone interview that he personally supports ordaining homosexuals as seminarians, though he will abide by whatever the movement decides on the issue.

The 54-year-old scholar succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is retiring in June after 20 years as chancellor of the New York seminary. Mr. Eisen will be “chancellor-designate” for a year while concluding commitments at Stanford and avoiding a move during his son’s senior year in high school. He will take over full-time duties in July 2007.

Mr. Eisen had not previously identified with either side in Conservatism’s looming showdown over ordaining homosexuals. The Rabbinical Assembly’s committee on Jewish law has postponed proposing any decision on the issue until at least December.

Mr. Eisen said it’s important that the committee, the Conservative rabbinate and the seminary faculty conduct a thorough examination of traditional religious law “with mutual respect.”

“My own personal point of view is I would vote in favor of gay and lesbian ordination,” he said, but he could “be outvoted.”

He said he hasn’t taken any public stand before, and the seminary’s search committee did not make the issue a “litmus test” in assessing candidates. He plans to keep his opinion private on the related question of ceremonies for homosexual couples because, Mr. Eisen said, rabbis must decide that.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism are supportive of homosexual relationships while Orthodoxy is stoutly opposed on the basis of the Bible and Talmud. Conservative Judaism positions itself as a middle path between Orthodoxy’s strict traditionalism and Reform’s loose approach to religious law.

Conservative Judaism, with about 760 synagogues in the United States and Canada, has been concerned about declining membership and weakening identity.

Mr. Eisen said “we have a numbers problem,” but so do other religious institutions at a time when “getting people to join or regularly attend anything is hard.”

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