A Message for Orthodox Jews in the wake of Joel Alperson’s Op-Ed on Tikkun Olam

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In what has become a bit of a famous op-ed in on JTA.org, Joel Alperson, a non-orthodox Jew, has written a powerful call to arms for the non-orthodox communities.

I am orthodox, so his words apparently are not directed at me and my co-religionists. Or perhaps they are…

Alperson writes that Judaism for the non-orthodox has become too much about tikkun olam (social justice) and too little about building Jewish communities. He opines that in order to maintain a Jewish community, the focus of the community cannot be about social / political issues. It must be about religion. Tikkun olam must be an ingredient in modern Jewish life, but it cannot be the focus, lest we lose our direction completely and divest Judaism from all of its religious underpinnings.

He writes that Jewish education is more important than tikkun olam and the non-orthodox are losing their Judaism because of ignorance and complacency. In his view, Judaism, even if not orthodox, can help people become better people, for themselves, not just to help everyone else.

Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, businesspeople, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and when to fight evil. In short, Judaism done right makes us better human beings. It is the discipline of leading a traditional Jewish life that also reminds us how best to engage in repairing the world.

Of course, orthodox Jews have been saying this forever. We agree. Perhaps, this would give orthodox Jews a feather in the cap. We are winning. They know it. Tee-hee! Ding-dong the witch is dead!

But I think that orthodox Jews also have a role to play in this. In general, there are two ways that orthodox Jews view the non-orthodox: 1) persona non grata 2) kiruv prospect.

This is undertandable for a variety of social and religious reasons. I am not here to say this approach is absolutely wrong.

But I would like to propose a third view that may help us and the non-orthodox. The third view assumes that many non-orthodox would like and do enjoy religious experiences that can be shared with orthodox Jews. Some orthodox shuls (like Pacific Jewish Center) appeal to non-orthodox Jews even though the services and rabbi and majority of community members are orthodox. The non-orthodox can share in the experience, attend shul, enjoy the kiddush, join for a Shabbos meal but with no kiruv subtext. It is purely for the sake of sharing a common religious experience.

If, as Alperson writes, non-orthodox Jews should be participating in more religious activities and they do. It would great if this could help foster a greater mutual respect and understanding between orthodox and non-orthodox Jews. There does not need to be a “my way or the highway” approach, nor does there need to any proselytizing. Simply Jews with different backgrounds, beliefs and opinions sharing a religious experience.

It works well for us at PJC. I hope and pray, more orthodox institutions and communities can follow our lead.

Link: JTA

  • Susan Barnes

    It’s nice to hear you welcome non-Orthodox Jews at your shul.

    At my non-Orthodox synagogue we also welcome Orthodox Jews. Although one time I just chatted outside with an Orthodox guy who was there for a family bar mitzvah but who didn’t feel comfortable coming inside.

    I think we’d all be better off if we spent more time learning from each other.

  • Anonymous

    I have never seen any frum Jew, of any hashkafa, treat a Jew who has never received a yeshiva education as “persona non grata”.  (Those who know better and run off to become public and vocal enemies of G-d are another matter.)

    While we must not treat people like etrogim (i.e. I’m doing a mitzvah with “it”), there is too fine of a line between respect for the non-frum Jew as a fellow Jew, and respect for his/her ideology.  When Reform leaders speak of “mutual respect”, they mean the latter, and that is impossible for frum Jews to do.

  • Anonymous

    “My way or the highway”  Which sect of orthodox Jews have such an approach.  I have encountered all types of orthodox Jews an none have shown such an attitude.  Whilst there is disagreement about hashkafa and beliefs, there is still respect even in the heat of battle.  There are those who do not show respect (which are in every sect of both OJ and non OJ) but it has nothing to be with being orthodox, it has to be with not being raised properly, or some other outside reason (other than their religious affiliation).

    BTW, I find it a bit comical that your are preaching respect.

  • I cringe to think that anyone would interpret Tikkun Olam as “Social Justice”.