The Catholics got it right. They choose a pope in secret. They mourn the last pope, collect the cardinals in seclusion, and poof — black smoke, black smoke, white smoke. Then everyone goes back to work.
But choosing a pope for a billion Catholics is one thing; choosing a chancellor for a million and a half Conservative Jews is another thing entirely.
The pope has a simple job description: being the pope. But being a chancellor, now that’s a complicated job. Head of a religious movement but not chief rabbi of Conservative rabbis, head of a rabbinical school but not principal in teaching and scholarship, fund raiser for an educational institution but responsible for religious organizations as well, primary on the American scene but involved with religious life in Canada, Russia, Argentina, Israel and elsewhere — the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary has numerous responsibilities, with little power to carry them out.
If the outgoing chancellor, Ismar Schorsch, didn’t know it already, he’s quickly finding out now, as pretty much everyone in the movement is having a field day bashing him and his record. On his watch, Conservative Judaism lost its primary position in American Judaism, its West Coast school broke off from the center in New York City, the board of its Jerusalem school found itself dismissed, a huge deficit was discovered and then covered up, the principal professional representative of Conservative Judaism in Israel was discharged for lack of funds, and in general a malaise has descended over the movement.
But that was then. This is now.
When Schorsch-bashing loses its appeal, people will turn to naming names. That is, they will toss out names of candidates for the succession, thereby turning choosing a chancellor into an exercise in skeet shooting. This is nothing other than an excuse for lashon hara, for gossip about wannabe celebrities.
Then we’ll confront the issues people think will require resolution at just this time, in just this context. The debate on the ordination of gays and lesbians has sucked up all the oxygen in the chamber, as though that were the principal issue facing Conservative Judaism in America.
The position of candidates on the equalization of opportunity for women in the rabbinate runs a close second on the Web, as though any plausible candidate were opposed. And political acceptability — Schorsch was a liberal Democrat and is unlikely to be succeeded by a conservative Republican — runs third on the list.
None of this, of course, will help pick a leader who can steer Conservative Judaism back on course. So, what should choosing a chancellor require? Four questions demand answers, in this order.
First, what tasks does the next chancellor have to take up — or do people just want the same job done by a different player? Is it principally to be a religious leader? Academic administrator? Intellectual and scholarly authority? Chief judge in deciding issues of religious law and theology? International voice of a religious movement? Chief rabbi or not a rabbi at all? Or fund raiser, and the hell with everything else — as the American academy seems to have decided, to its loss?
Second, once you define the work to be done, you need to decide on the qualities a person must exhibit to do the job. If it is to be a religious voice, then piety takes precedence, and if an academic figure, then intellect registers. Gifts of the heart and soul endow the community and lift its spirit. And then there is the matter of experience: What in the person’s record will demonstrate the kind of leadership the chancellorship requires? Money follows vision: what vision of the future does this person offer?
Third, look at the records of the multitude of candidates who have yet to be named. Only when people define the tasks and what it takes to do them will specific types of persons come under discussion.
Must the next chancellor be an ordained rabbi? A publishing scholar? Experienced in administration of a large institution? A pulpit rabbi? Big pulpit or little pulpit? Florida, California or New York? A school principal? May a woman qualify? How much of a political player in the institutions of Conservative Judaism must the successor be — a major voice in the Rabbinical Assembly, for example, or an intellectual giant in public debate? Must the next chancellor be a Jewish Theological Seminary alumnus?
Fourth, specific names should now enter the debate, which should take place in private, among those chosen to find the successor and so inherit the crisis of tomorrow.
This is the kind of debate that will clarify the position of chancellor and sort out the candidates for it. If this process succeeds, Conservative Judaism will emerge stronger and better able to meet the challenges of the coming decades. It has already happened with other movements. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion came up with David Ellenson, celebrated everywhere as a winner, and Yeshiva University found Richard Joel, who has already established a presence.
Can a declining religious movement take command of its future? We shall know the answer by what happens in the next ten months or so. This is the last chance.
Jacob Neusner, a rabbinical alumnus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a research professor of theology at Bard College.