Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reconstituting Jewish Brotherhood

I’m not usually in the habit of agreeing with Conservative rabbis. And yet I can’t help agreeing with the sentiments expressed by one of them in an article in the Jerusalem Post.

It is ironic that this perspective comes at a time when Agudah seems to be doing everything in its power to alienate even Orthodox Jews that do not agree with its dogma. Rabbi Daniel Gordis has posed a very interesting question. Noting the ‘sea of black’ comprised of over 100 thousand people who attended the funeral of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, he wonders why there was virtually no secular Jew in attendance.

By contrast if a secular Jew of similarly great stature were to die, there would doubtless be very few if any religious Jews in attendance. He compares this number to a same number of attendees about 100 years ago for the funeral of Y.L. Peretz a famous Yiddish writer. That funeral was attended by all manner of Jews religious and secular.

What happened? Why the current divide, he asks? Recognizing the greatness of Rav Nosson Tzvi he wonders why secular Jews never heard of him. Or if they did, could not care less about his death… or his life. They simply do not know or recognize his achievements. As another Conservative rabbi, Jason Miller, admits in his blog:

I had never read anything he had written or listened to any of his sermons on YouTube. I immediately knew he was a "tzaddik" (righteous man) and a "gadol hador" (an influential giant of his generation) because over 100,000 people attended his funeral. I will be the first to admit that his death didn't affect my life and after reading the headline of his death I said "baruch dayan ha'emet" and went on about my day.
In an interesting sidebar, Rabbi Miller asks if there were any secular Jewish figures of comparable stature that would draw 100 thousand people to a funeral and is hard pressed to come up with any.

But that aside both Rabbis Miller and Gordis make the point that it is not whether we honor someone post mortem, but whether we value their thoughts and deeds when they are alive.

From an Orthodox perspective, I have to admit that we have done a very poor job of both educating the secular Jewish public about our great leaders and conversely great numbers of us - primarily in the Yeshiva world - have done a poor job of recognizing secular Jewish achievement. As Rabbi Gordis points out with Y.L. Peretz it was not always like this.

As I have often said in situations like this, the enemy is us! It is very difficult to sell heterodox Jews on ourselves when we go to great lengths to show how much we reject their theology. I’m not saying that we should now change our attitude and start embracing them as equals. It is still important to reject their theology, as per the views of the greatest rabbinic minds of the 20th century, including Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. But at the same time we have to realize that this has been a serious impediment in selling our ideas to them.

Some on the far left of modern Orthodoxy who realize this impediment have - on their own - removed this barrier. They are now very active in dialoguing with them theologically, something Rav Soloveitchik expressly forbade. Their goals are noble in the sense that engaging with them gives us better opportunities to sell our message. But the danger in seeming to endorse their theology is still there. Even if they say publicly that they do not agree with it, the very fact that they engage in theological debate is a form of recognition. Which is why Rav Soloveitchik forbade it.

The question arises, how do we solve this conundrum? How can we get the message across to the rest of the Jewish world about our ‘Rav Nosson Tzvis’? I don’t have any great answers but that is an important question to be asked.

One thing I do know is that we can do a better job of it than we are. Most heterodox Jews do not harbor any innate animosity towards Orthodox Jews. I suspect that to the extent that they do it is because they see us as pushing them away. In our zeal to protect our values we often send messages of rejection. We certainly do not send messages of brotherly love.

For example it is one thing to refuse to participate with heterodox Jews in theological debate. But it is quite another to constantly harp on it. It is also wrong to refuse to have anything at all to do with them – even when it would be for the benefit of the Klal. This is one area where Rav Soloveitchik disagreed with his peers. He advocated engagement for the benefit of the Klal so long as it was not in religious areas.

We cannot leave outreach only to outreach organizations. We all need to do outreach all the time - whether it is one on one, or perhaps more importantly, organizationally. We need to teach by example. This has been very difficult of late because there have been so many examples of Orthodox miscreants. When a religious Jew does a criminal act, that is a ‘man bites dog story’ and it is going to make the news. This will be what secular Jews read about us.

They will not read about the great works of Rav Nosson Tzvi; nor his great character; nor his dedication to his people; nor his dedication to God. When will they hear about him? When he dies and 100 thousand people attend his funeral. And their reaction? At best it will mirror Rabbi Miller’s.

At the same time we need to recognize the contributions of other great Jews… the Nobel Prize winners and other great achievers… contributors to the betterment of mankind. There is a tendency on the part of the right to play down those achievements. To almost disparage them in comparison to the achievements of an Avreich who sits and learns with Hasmadah rabbah – great diligence. This is serious mistake and adds to the negative image of Orthodox Jews.

The impression a secular Jew gets is that we are a bunch of ignorant Jews living in a ghetto preferring to stick our heads in the ground - unaware of - or refusing to recognize the great contributors to mankind. Those who promote this message do a great disservice to Judaism.

No one denies the value of Limud HaTorah. ‘Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam’, the Mishna in Peah tells us. But that does not mean that everything else in the world is meaningless and of no value. And yet that is often the message sent and very well learned in the right wing Yeshiva world. The end result is an increasingly unbridgeable chasm between Jews and Jews.

There needs to be more integration between secular and religious Jews. What form that takes is a matter of debate that should engage the best and brightest minds in the Torah world. The one thing we shoudn’t do is continue to alienate them. That is counter to the Torah’s demand that Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh - all Jews are responsible for one another. A Mitzvah that - judging by the events of last weekend - Agudah seems to have all but abandoned.

*Hat Tip to my old HTC friend, Rabbi Menachem (Mort) Yolkut, Philadelphia PA