Thursday, January 25, 2007

Catching Flies with Honey

There is a discussion going on at Areivim that revolves around what our approach to Kiruv should be, specifically with respect to members of the Conservative movement. A poster related a story about a Conservative neighbor who wondered if driving to his Conservative Shul every Shabbos was worth it. Orthodox Shuls were not an option to him since he had tried them and found them very uncomfortable. He asked whether he should continue driving to that Shul or whether his time would be better spent working around the house or going shopping.

Many posters responded with very terse rhetoric. In one instance it was suggested that we compare his Conservative Shul to eating a MacDonald’s cheeseburger.

In my view this would be a terrible move, especially in the current climate of the Conservative movement.

What is being glossed over the fact that the Conservative movement is undergoing a split between their Right Wing and their Left Wing. One of the issues they are struggling with is whether they should be considered a Halachic movement or not. Of course Orthodoxy does not consider it Halachic in any way.

Within their HaMon Am which consists primarily of the jewishly uneducated masses, a great many of them seek spirituality in some way. Many actually want to do Mitzvos. They just don't know how. These Jews are extremely ripe for proper Kiruv. It does no good to tell someone who has had a bad experience in Orthodox Shuls after trying them to just forget the “MacDonald’s Cheeseburger” that is a Conservative Shul.

The famous (or should I say infamous) incident with Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Reinman illustrates just how ripe members of non-Orthodox movements are for Kiruv. As a Charedi Rav Rabbi Reinman had somehow gotten into an e-mail correspondence with a Reform rabbi, developed a friendship with him, and ultimately collaborated together with him to write a successful book based on those correspondences. He scheduled a book tour with that Reform Rabbi and they actually made one appearance together.

But he was immediately asked by the Agudah rabbinic leadership to stop the tour and withdraw his book from circulation as they felt it was giving tacit recognition to a rabbinic leader of the Reform movement. I questioned the wisdom of that edict at the time. But more important are the comments made by Rabbi Reinman at the tine. During his very public contrition in the “Jewish Observer” to the rabbinic leadership and withdrawal of his book, he said his only regret was that he had been able to reach large numbers of Jews, here-to-fore not accessible to anyone working in Kiruv… and engage them in a dialogue. He felt the potential to engage with these people on such a mass scale was an opportunity lost.

The last thing we need to do is alienate these wonderful Jews, all of whom are Tinokos SheNishbu, from Orthodxy. And this is what would happen if we tell them that their Rabbi is an Apikores and they might as well be eating Treif, so stay away. The Rabbi of that Shul might just be one of those who not only wants to retain his movement as a Halachic one, and actually wants to make his flock more observant. The Rav himself may be one of those who are ready to break from the movement because of its leftward pull… and ready for Kiruv himslef.

What should be our approach? It should be one of kindness and understanding. In no way should our approach be confrontational. In no way should we respond to them by slamming the institution (even though we know it to be part of a false movement) that is currently keeping them interested in Judaism. Instead we should be trying to gently wean them away from C. Doing that requires that we not be seen as antagonistic to it, lest they discount us altogether as just haters of all non-Orthodox Jews, which of course is not true.

I'm not a fan of Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. Far from it. But as a Kiruv tool for sincere Conservative Jews, it can be a great plus. It might just be the kind of Orthodoxy that appeals to them. To the individual in the example above who was asking for guidance and who had a negative Orthodox Shul experience, recommending a Modern Orthodox Shul like Rabbi Avi Weiss's Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, might just be what he needs to make the move. The similarities between the decorum of a Conservative Shul and Left Wing Modern Orthodox Shul might make such a move more palatable for them. And it would be a huge step, one that crosses the line away from Apikursus into one which is a part of Orthodoxy.