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Judaism's new seminary leader favors ordaining gay rabbis

Judaism's new seminary leader favors ordaining gay rabbis

Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the prime school of Judaism's Conservative branch, named a layman Monday as its new chancellor: Stanford University religion department chair Arnold M. Eisen. Eisen is only the second nonrabbi to lead the 120-year-old rabbinical training school, located in New York City. He said in a telephone interview that he personally supports ordaining openly gay seminarians, though he'll abide by whatever the movement decides regarding the contentious issue. Eisen, 54, succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who is retiring in June after 20 years as chancellor of the seminary. 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'll take over full-time duties in July 2007. Eisen had not previously identified with either side in Conservatism's looming showdown over ordaining gays. The Rabbinical Assembly's committee on Jewish law has postponed proposing any decision on the contentious issue until at least December. 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 it "could be I'll 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 same-sex couples because, Eisen said, that's for rabbis to decide. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism are liberal on gay relationships, while Orthodoxy is steadfastly 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 liberal 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. 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." "I can't get upset by a slight loss of numbers if it's made up for by a gain in quality," he said. Eisen is a leading analyst of the effects of secularization and other modern trends on U.S. Judaism. His books include Rethinking Modern Judaism, The Chosen People in America, Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America, and the coauthored The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America. In a 2000 lecture, Eisen noted that large numbers of Jews do not observe the faith's tenets or practices. "In the long term, this tendency spells disaster," he said. Eisen earned bachelor's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University and a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Besides Stanford, he has taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. (AP)

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