We’ve covered Klal Perspectives here before. I think we will follow the same format as we did last time. I am going to highlight the one good article that I read in the journal in this post. Hopefully next week I will write my response to the Questions in this Klal Perspectives issue.
For those unfamiliar with Klal Perspectives, here is the intro from my post on the previous issue:
Klal Perspectives is a great journal of articles written by orthodox Jewish rabbis and writers. The difference between Klal Perspectives and other journals is basically the content. KP is not a halacha journal. It is a practical journal.
The articles are not about well researched, fine nuances of Jewish law. The articles are about the issues that the orthodox community is facing and how to deal with them. Because the articles are not academic, they appeal to more people and more people are capable of writing articles for the journal. In a pleasing development, several articles have been authored by women. Lay-people are also featured as writers.
The issue being handled in this issue is Kiruv. The questions are pretty specific but the goal is to discuss “varying approaches to outreach currently being pursued, and the appropriateness of the current allocation of communal resources as among these alternative strategies and focuses.”
The journal does not agree upon a definition for the word Kiruv but I think they generally define it as bringing non-orthodox Jews to mitzvah observance.
Honestly, the responses that I read were pretty depressing. The articles did not really answer the questions that they were asked to answer. This is somewhat typical of Kiruv in general, as the entire field is not really very into using data and statistics. There were barely any footnotes in the articles I read. To me, this means that the writers are writing from their hearts and minds, but not from a place of hard data. That’s fine, but it is qualitatively different than well researched writing. Most of the articles I read sounded more like sermons, or divrei Torah than journal articles. That’s also fine, but I think that reflects poorly on the Kiruv field. Yet, it rings true to my ears, in the sense that the Kiruv profession, for better or worse, is not really about data, numbers, efficiency of resources, or other more modern metrics.
None of the articles I read actually discussed the issues of proving God’s existence or the veracity of the Torah. One article acknowledged the challenges of Biblical Criticism, but said nothing about how to meet the challenge. It’s almost as if the Kiruv professionals who wrote articles are not aware that belief in God and Torah from Sinai is not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps, the reason Kiruv seems to be floundering is because we can’t get past first base!
One article stood out. Rabbi Ilan Feldman wrote more about the orthodox Jewish community than about Kiruv per se, but his observations are right on the money.
His basic point is that the success of orthodox Judaism actually harms Kiruv. Our communities are large, intimidating, and have become focused on observance above being what he calls “model communities”. We are more careful about chumros and precision in halacha and hashkafa that it detracts from our appeal. Further, our success permits untrue stereotypes about our non-orthodox comrades to develop and reach levels of acceptance that they are considered normal.
Rabbi Feldman relates a powerful story about the time he joined a mission of Federation style Jews (read = non-orthodox) as a way of trying to build a bridge between the respective communities. Throughout the trip he had to make many sacrifices and concessions all while not getting offended by the ignorance of orthodox Judaism exhibited throughout the trip. By the end of the trip his trip-mates warmed up to him and they had great conversations while getting to know each other pretty well. He felt that he was successful in dispelling many of the unfair or erroneous assumptions about orthodox Judaism by going on the trip.
This is not an unfamiliar script. It happens all the time. But the part that hit home for me, and elicited a tear in the corner of my eye was this:
But the one who was most transformed on that trip was me.
What I expected to encounter was a group of 200 Jews devoid of feelings for Israel or religion. What I discovered instead were 200 very religious, spiritual, passionately devoted, proud Jews who knew very little about Torah and who lacked a Jewish vocabulary, but who loved their Jewish brethren in Israel, respected holiness and possessed a passion for Judaism as they knew it that rivaled the passion I had seen in my frum friends. In short, I learned to respect them. And I learned that “secular” Jews are often very religious Jews who do not know ritual, and whose devotion and willingness to sacrifice for the Judaism they do know is inspiring. By the time we parted ways, I actually loved them. Once I made this discovery, I was both surprised and embarrassed that it was new to me.
In my opinion, this is so true. In some orthodox circles, the non-orthodox are heathen, God hating, anti-Semites. This is a lie. Maybe part of why Kiruv has become so hard is because they know what we think of them…
Rabbi Feldman then returns to the point about our communities focusing more on observance than being models. When combined with our arrogance about our own observance our ignorance about non-orthodox Jews creates this:
Picture an emotionally and financially secure, successful, well-educated head of household who lives in a world in which wisdom is respected, volunteering over the weekend is considered a wonderful way to spend one’s time, wholesome family activities on Saturday afternoon are seen as a healthy way of building character. Ask him to join a world in which routine Shabbos-table talk argues in favor of Torah by disparaging secular wisdom, in which political candidates are assessed purely on selfish concerns of the religious community, with little concern for their impact on broader society. Not only is this sort of talk distinctly unattractive, it is not the talk of giants; it obscures the sense of responsibility, compassion and awe for G-d’s children that Avraham Avinu left as his legacy to his descendants.
But it is true. Orthodox Jews are led to believe that non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews are flailing about in the God-forsaken secular world. They are up the creek without a paddle. If only they would see the beauty of orthodox Judaism, they would be like thirsty camels drinking from the cool waters of our oasis of Torah. But that’s not the way it is. People are doing just fine without religion, and we are not always doing just fine with religion. We need to change how we view them and more importantly we need to change ourselves.
Rabbi Feldman offers a hopeful alternative vision.
Orthodox Jews would be sufficiently secure with their own Yiddishkeit to invite their neighbors and co-workers to their homes, because the language of fear will have been replaced by a language of connection and confidence. Orthodox Jews would lead lives of idealism that extend beyond their own religious needs, inevitably becoming role models and attractive examples of lifestyle to non-observant Jews. Families will make life decisions informed by the religious needs of Klal Yisrael, not exclusively their own. Young couples will be recognized as an invaluable resource in a battle for the spiritual lives of all Jews, and will be encouraged to choose where to reside based upon where their presence would most greatly enhance Judaism, rather than merely their own religious comforts.
Because Orthodoxy would authentically and profoundly respect people, Orthodox community leaders would develop a reputation for selfless devotion to the good of the broader community, rather than solely parochial interests. For example, communal leadership will be invested in ensuring strong public schools in their neighborhoods, even though their own constituencies attend only yeshivas.
Notice the subtle criticism of the orthodox establishment? I honestly think this criticism is spot on. But there is hope. In Rabbi Feldman’s opinion, with the proper attitudes in place, we become a more attractive destination for passionate Judaism among the non-orthodox. I agree. This is what it would look like:
Non-observant Jews will be welcomed by their frum neighbors in both large frum communities as well as in evolving frum neighborhoods, and frum Jews will be more than welcome into their neighborhoods by the non-Orthodox, eruv and all, because Orthodox people would be known to be ideal neighbors: friendly, non-judgmental, and interested in the needs of others.
We can dream, right?