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Stanford Report, January 26, 2000

Arnie Eisen: Teaching religion raises devilish questions

Photo by L.A. Cicero


Arnold Eisen often surprises students by asking them to bring a Bible to class.

Don't go out and buy a new book, he tells them. Just pick up whatever translation you have on hand, however dog-eared it may be.

"In class I'll ask various students to read the first line of the first chapter of Genesis," the chair of the Department of Religious Studies says. "They are astonished to find how different translations can be, and that immediately causes them to wonder in what sense Genesis can be the literal truth if scholars can't even agree about what the words mean."

Teaching religion apparently raises devilish questions.

At a time when 90 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters every year that they believe in God and pray regularly, Eisen finds many a paradox in life at the university -- "the most secular institution we have."

"In a broad sense, every single culture until the modern Western culture in which we live has been a religious culture," he says. "Today the United States is, with the exception of Ireland, the single most religious industrial society in the world, in terms of belief, church attendance and membership.

"So that makes this both a challenging time and a good time to be a professor of religious studies."

In addition to pursuing timeless existential themes, Eisen and his colleagues are constantly hammering out the questions of identity and purpose that shape the soul of their discipline.

How do you build a department of religious studies that views religion as an object of study without encouraging the perception that the department is an adjunct to the university's campus ministry? How do you serve the intellectual needs of religious students while also serving students who are not religious but may be searching for answers to deep personal questions?

"When you come to college to think about the things that matter to you in life, you're probably going to take at least one religion course as an elective," Eisen says.

"In teaching religion, we know we're touching very sensitive nerves, and for a lot of students in our classes, these are not merely academic courses. But it's not our job to make students into believers or disbelievers. It is our job to get them to think about this area of human culture."

At the same time, Eisen says, the classroom is not the place for personal professions or confessions.

"Students know I'm Jewish, at least some of them do, but I don't want them to know more than that. When I teach Judaism, I try to give an account of lots of different positions that Jews have held, and I'd be upset if they could tell from what I say about various thinkers what I believe about them."

An expert in modern Judaism, Eisen is also a trained sociologist who studies the relationship between social and cultural contexts and religious ideas. He has written about the ways in which Jewish leaders in America have transformed the traditional concept of the Israelites as the chosen people, and he has explored the theme of Jewish identity as it relates to exile and the diaspora.

Eisen did his undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a degree in the sociology of religion from Oxford University and a doctorate from Hebrew University. After teaching at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University, he was recruited to Stanford in 1986 to help plan a program in Jewish studies.

Eisen regularly teaches courses on modern Jewish thought, religious ritual and the transformation of Judaism in the West. His teaching and research have combined in an impressive list of published books: The Chosen People in America: A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming, Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community and Taking Hold of Torah.

His study of sacred Torah tells Eisen that through the centuries Jews have been united not by particular beliefs about God but by behaviors that are based on shared symbols, rituals and texts.

His study of contemporary Judaism tells Eisen that there is in the United States today a voluntary, pluralistic Jewish community that has never existed before. Many members of that community have spouses and close friends who are not Jewish, and many also tend to care more about celebrating traditions at home with their families than they do about going to synagogue.

Eisen's conclusions are drawn from his own study and reflection, and also from the lengthy interviews he and Steven M. Cohen conducted in the mid-1990s for their co-authored book, The Jew Within, which is scheduled to be published next fall. They talked with dozens of American Jews who were affiliated with a synagogue but only attended once a month or once every two months.

"What surprised us was the consistency of their responses," Eisen says. "This population, which represents the bulk of American Jewry today, takes for granted its right to decide what it will believe and practice.

"What they care most about is ritual observance at home with their families and friends, where they can use any one of a dozen different texts or make up their own texts. And they only go to synagogue because there they find a connection to tradition, through singing and through the Hebrew language."

Eisen has been given the mantle of biblical seer by Jewish community organizations nationwide that ask him to speak to their members and by congregations that invite him to be a scholar in residence at their synagogues. His academic colleagues also drape him with a latter-day coat of many shades of praise.

"When students come to me to ask about where they should go for their doctoral work in modern Jewish philosophy and religion, Arnie is always number one in my mind -- at the very top of the heap," says Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "I assign his publications to my students because he understands this material so well. And I also feel his academic qualifications are informed by his personal commitments as a serious, religious Jew."

Growing up in Philadelphia as an only child in a close-knit extended family, Eisen absorbed centuries of heritage at the dinner table and in celebrations of holy days. His maternal grandfather lived in his home and his mother's four sisters and their families came there for seders.

"Our house was the central gathering place and the smells of my mother's kitchen on the Sabbath will never leave me," he recalls.

But as a teenager Eisen felt a growing gap between the tradition he learned about at Jewish school, which he attended three days a week after public school, and the community life he experienced at synagogue.

"I wanted to understand why, in the classical and medieval period, Judaism was producing works of such intellectual content and vitality, and why in the modern period those works had been reduced to what mainly seemed to me a series of apologetic and defensive maneuvers," Eisen told a packed audience in a side chapel of Memorial Church last spring in the "What Matters to Me and Why" series of lunch-hour talks by faculty and staff. "Looking back, a career was born out of that question."

In college, Eisen was drawn to the study of literature and he found religious questions in practically every book he opened, from Moby Dick to The Brothers Karamazov.

"I was always looking at questions of meaning, justice and truth," he says. "The books that captured my attention concerned the meaning of life and the relationship of human beings to the transcendent, and I figured that the university could give me a set of analytical tools to help me figure out what had happened to my tradition and other traditions in the modern world."

At Oxford Eisen was particularly intrigued by Max Weber's writings about the Puritans, and he applied Weber's questions to his own study of Judaism and the cultures with which it has interacted.

"Judaism and all religions in the modern period have had to come to terms with the modern self, which is bent on its own autonomy," he says. "The modern self rejects God's authority and communal authority and says, 'No one will tell me how to vote, who to marry, where to live.' And yet religion is an attempt to persuade people to accept authority."

As he untangles those contradictory influences, Eisen is trying to find out how today's believers accommodate their daily lives with their religious practices.

"What's interesting to me, and to an increasing number of scholars, is not the elite, idealized versions of religion put forward by theologians, but the way religion is actually believed and the way it works in the minds of actual people."

Eisen notes that emerging research now is overturning scholars' understanding of the Middle Ages -- "we know for a fact that people didn't go to church every week or even every month, and that they probably didn't believe most of the things that were written in books." He argues that studying what religion means to real people today may yield similarly profound discoveries.

His academic examination of the study of modern Judaism also is focused through a personal lens.

"Both the sociological study and the historical study have to do with my own quest, my own interest in living a good life," he says. "I want to find some meaningful relationship to the tradition in which I was brought up and which I primarily teach.

"Traditions only grow by wrestling with, being in tension with and creatively appropriating all sorts of things that scream at them from the outside. They only live century after century if they live in people."

When he turned 40 several years ago, Eisen turned his attention to the Judaic concept of the accounting of the soul and put his personal commitments to a Goliath of a test.

"To get myself over the hump and save the money that would have gone into therapy, I decided to devote a summer to thought and to writing about what I cared about. I wanted to clear a space in my head and on the page for a statement of the Judaism which I hold and which holds me at this particular point in my life."

The resulting book was Taking Hold of Torah, published in 1997.

"He looks at each of the five books of Torah and uses them to elucidate phenomena of contemporary Jewish life," Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, associate dean for religious life, says about the book. "He engages not only his head but his heart."

Karlin-Neumann meets with Eisen and others once a week for an off-campus Talmud study group and she also sees him regularly in a community prayer group. Her son, Zev, and Eisen's 10-year-old Nathaniel have been fast friends at the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, and the two families often share Sabbath dinner.

"My training was to read word for word, but Arnie has this extraordinary ability to look at a specific piece and see global themes," Karlin-Neumann says about the interpretations Eisen brings to the study group. "The scope of what he knows is breathtaking."

Karlin-Neumann invited Eisen to be the keynote speaker at the meeting of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis this month. There he presented three papers on the theme "Modern Jewish Thought as a Resource for Modern Jewish Lives."

"There are not many academics who see part of their mission as translating their research into the Jewish community, and it's a real gift," Karlin-Neumann adds. "It's clear that he regards being engaged as a participant in the religious tradition one studies as perfectly appropriate and acceptable in a way that it was not 20 years ago."

Eisen likes to joke that when he was being courted by Stanford in 1986, faculty at other institutions told him he would be joining a department of anti-religious studies. Stanford had waited until 1951 to make the first appointment in religious studies, and the department wasn't fully established until 1973.

Today the department has a growing national reputation, thanks in part to its success in turning out graduate students who are hired for tenure-track positions at prestigious institutions. It remains a small department, however, with about 10 full-time faculty, and a search is currently under way to fill two junior positions. There are typically about 15 undergraduate majors and between 20 and 25 students in the doctoral program, specializing in Asian religion, Christian thought and culture, Jewish studies or religious ethics.

"Our department consists of believers and non-believers," Eisen says. "We are people who read philosophy, who study ritual, who spend time reading history and anthropology. We are people who analyze texts and we are people who think texts are highly overrated. Collectively, we are united by our interest in this vast phenomenon called religion, not by the way we study it."

Eisen is in his fourth and final year heading the department and his legacy as chair has been crowned with two recent appointments. Thomas Sheehan, a specialist in contemporary European philosophy and its relation to religious questions, joined the department this year, and next year Gregory Schopen, an expert on Buddhism in India, will arrive from the University of California-Los Angeles. Robert Gregg also returned to teaching in the department this year, after serving as Dean of the Chapel for 12 years.

Schopen was hired to fill the billet the department received for teaching Stanford Introductory Seminars, and Eisen wishes he had additional billets to hire specialists in African religions, Catholic thought and Islam. In the meantime, popular visiting scholars are filling courses on the religions of India, Daoism and modern Islam.

When he meets with faculty from other departments on campus, Eisen says there sometimes are doubting Thomases.

"Some of our colleagues don't understand what all the fuss is about and they probably think, 'Why bother to study this stuff?' I think they respect us as scholars, but they're still a little quizzical about why an intelligent person would want to spend his or her life studying a phenomenon like religion."

His response to raised eyebrows draws on established scholarship and deep personal convictions.

"Religious studies, to me, is an unsurpassed way of entering into questions about what it means to be a human being. And I think universities, primarily departments of humanities, should be places where all of us together reflect on what it means to be a human being in this particular time and place.

"Why humanities? Because of their focus on texts, languages, discourse, discussion and commentary as one principal way of going deep into these kinds of issues."

To answer contemporary sophists who wonder why the Department of Religious Studies is offering courses titled "The Death of God: Between Hegel and Marx" and "The End of the World: Apocalypse Then, Now and to Come," Eisen argues that many 20th-century thinkers, including Martin Heidegger, have asked religious questions without involving God.

"You can read Kafka's The Castle or The Trial, which are two of the great, profoundly religious books of the past century, and you can come to the conclusion that there is no good, no justice. So these courses are very relevant to reaching a large number of students who are not interested in religious traditions but who are interested in religious questions."

As for student skepticism, Eisen says he sees less of it today than he did 20 and 30 years ago.

"I think there's an openness in the culture as a whole to religious issues. Students are no longer approaching religion as something that is absolutely false. They're coming at it with an open mind and they're saying, 'Here's an area of human culture I'm interested in.'"

During the past three years, Eisen has had his hands full as the department has expanded its course offerings and strengthened its faculty.

"Arnie has had a lot on his plate," says Hester Gelber, associate professor of religious studies and director of graduate studies for the department. "Because of faculty vacancies and tenure turndowns, we've had relatively few senior people on the ground to do everything, and all of us have been pretty stressed.

"But Arnie's a very energetic person and he has taken the welfare of the department to heart and given it his all. It's a complicated dance you have to do and he does it with a good deal of agility, even though I sometimes have the sense that he's dancing as fast as he can!"

Gelber and her colleagues twisted Eisen's arm and implored him to continue as chair for an extra year, and she says they'd now like to give him a parting gift, before he goes on sabbatical next year, by recommending two new candidates in Jewish studies to fill the searches currently under way. She recalls how happy he was to complete a similar search last year.

"It was just after a new appointment had been signed, sealed and delivered, and I heard Arnie singing on the stairs. I leaned over the balcony and said, 'I haven't heard that sound for a long time, and it's great!'

"I was just so tickled for him."

When he can put administrative tasks behind him next year, Eisen hopes to devote some time to writing about what he sees as a particularly exciting aspect of the community in which he lives and works: the changes evidenced in American Jewry by the increased involvement of women. For visionary guidance, he can turn to two in-house experts -- his 14-year-old daughter, Shulie, and his wife, Adriane Leveen. A former therapist, Leveen currently is completing a doctorate in Hebrew Bible studies with Robert Alter at the University of California-Berkeley and recently presented a paper on the biblical book of Numbers at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

"As I travel the country visiting synagogues, a disproportionate share of responsibility is being shouldered by women," he says. "And then there's the outburst of Jewish feminist commentaries.

"It's a new religion every day." SR