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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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An Existential Analysis

If we are going to survive as a Jewish people, we must revise the system.

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There were 4488 page views (‘hits’) on my blog yesterday. Of those 1429 were unique visitors. Unique visitors are the actual number of people who accessed my blog during Monday’s 24 hour period. Of those, 307 voted on my poll. Which asked to choose the biggest existential threat to Judaism from a list of 7 possible choices. The results were: Chilul HaShem 78 (25%) Education 127 (41%) Feminism 11 (3%) Internet 13 (4%) Poverty 22 (7%) Sex Abuse 14 (4%) Tuition 42 (13%)

Not surprisingly the largest number of votes by far – 127 (41%) went to educational concerns. A full 25% of the votes went to concerns about Chilul HaShem. The third biggest concern was the Tuition crisis. The rest of the respondents were in single digit percentages poverty being the biggest concern among those.

The bottom three concerns were about the impact of sex abuse, the internet, and feminism.

First let me address the fact that a lot of factors were not included. Among them were: going OTD, divorce rates, dysfunctional families, sexism, the move to the right, the move to the left, the Shiddach crisis, assimilationist influences, isolationist influences, the State of Israel, increased divisiveness between Hashkafos… all serious challenges to Judaism. I could not list them all. That would have made the poll almost meaningless dividing the vote into small and insignificant numbers. I chose these because I believe that although they are not all inclusive – they do represent a wide variety of issues often cited as existential threats.

Not that these results are all that significant. The sample was relatively small and not random. It was also heavily biased in that respondents were people who read my blog. And only a small fraction of those actually voted. So for these and many other reasons, this poll cannot be taken as representing what the actual percentages of all Jews believe regarding any of these issues.

That said, I like to think that my readership consists mostly of Orthodox Jews that are intelligent, well educated, care greatly and have strong feelings about issues affecting the Jewish world. Although this blog’s demographic skews heavily in favor of Modern Orthodox Jews, there are many Charedim among my readers too. As well as non Orthodox Jews and even a few non Jews. I strongly feel that the majority of those (at least of those who comment) are fair minded, keen observers of the Jewish world whose opinions should be valued. So even though this is not a random sample of all Jews, it is a sample of thinking and caring Jews.

It was a little surprising to see how few people there were who thought that sex abuse was the most important issue of the day. Considering the fact that this issue is the most hotly debated issue in our day… and that the fact that the slightest taint of it in any institution will cause a tremendous outcry… and considering the damage that it causes to victims – sometimes permanent psychological damage… and the damage it causes to the victim’s families, and even the abuser’s family… and considering revelations about the far greater number of victims than anyone ever suspected… and the fact that so many of the victims go OTD… I would have thought sex abuse would have gotten a much bigger vote than 14 people.

I guess the reason for that is that as bad as sex abuse is… and as great the damage it does to so many people – even beyond the actual victim, that issue alone is not seen as an existential threat to Judaism itself. But still, the way religious leadership across the board has dealt with it in the past – and even now cannot but have a deleterious effect upon our existence. Many iconic names – religious leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy have – by word , deed, or lack of action – have disappointed victims and their advocates. This disillusions people about Orthodox Judaism. Sex abuse is a serious problem in need of our immediate attention. It should have ranked a lot higher than 5th out of 7 – totaling only 4% of the vote.

That Chilul HaShem ranked number 2 is no surprise. If anything can disillusion people, it is when prominent Jews get caught in wrong doing like fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering. Whether it is Rubashkin, the Spinka Rebbe, an elderly Sephardic Rabbi in New Jersey, or of late, Rabbi Yehoshua Pinto – it does not inspire a love of Judaism when such high profile rabbis who are supposed to be role models and teachers end up being crooks.

If the crimes are related to sex abuse, the Chilul HaShem increases exponentially. Who wants to be part of a religion that thinks its OK to cheat the government as long as you don’t get caught? Who wants to be a member of a religion that defends convicted rapists and smears innocent victims? Who wants to be a member of a religion where religious (looking) Jews spit on reporters, call 8 year old girls whores, and embarrass us in a myriad of other ways? When religious leaders are involved in Chilul HaShems like these, it is definitely a great cause for existential alarm.

It is interesting to note that feminism scored the lowest amount of voters. 11 people (3%) said this was the biggest existential threat. There are many people who feel that this is the defining existential issue of our day. , Among the first to express this view was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg ZTL, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel. Even though I disagree with him, I can certainly understand why he felt that way. It is almost impossible to argue against equality. That is what feminism is all about.

That other denominations are responding to this issue by altering their long held views barring women from various rituals and rabbinic positions is a fact. Orthodox Judaism by definition could never fully do that. Some Orthodox women caught by the spirit of the times are hard pressed to fully understand Orthdoxy’s apparent unequal treatment of women. For some – it is hard to understand why Halacha should supersede equality. It is in fact difficult to explain even among many Orthodox women – and men – with modern sensibilities about the equality of the sexes.

But it is not an existential threat. Judaism does not reject the feminist goal of equality of the sexes in areas outside of religion. Equal pay and mutual respect is something the Torah favors. With the right education, the different roles of men and women within the context of religion can be explained.

It is also interesting to note that what the right wing says is the greatest spiritual threat of our day – the internet – came in 2nd from last with only 13 votes. I understand why there are those who feel it is. But it is very obvious to me that the widespread use of the internet by virtually all Orthodox Jews tells me that it is not destroying us. Its responsible use is in fact aiding us in our daily lives. Although the dangers are real and have lead some people astray – for most of us that isn’t so.

Poverty got 7% of the vote. 22 people felt that poverty will destroy Judaism. I don’t think that’s true. It may however destroy the Charedi paradigm of full time Kollel for all men without preparing them for a future. But that’s a good thing. The vast majority of Charedim should be working – and being Koveiah Itim. Only the elite should be learning full time and supported.

Tuition is a real problem for almost all of Orthodox Jewry. Without a religious education it is highly unlikely that our children will become observant adults. Assimilation will almost certainly overwhelm their Yiddishkeit. The fact is that few if any parents are pulling their children out of day school because of high tuition. It may be breaking the backs of parents to pay tuition even with the partial scholarships. But most Orthodox Jews know the importance of sending their child to day school. They therefore bite the bullet and pay even while struggling to make ends meet.

That leaves the number one issue- Jewish education. Rightfully so. By far.

Our children are not getting what they need. Educator after educator has spoken about the need to instill a love of Judaism in their students and the failure in many instances to do so has led to ‘the ignorant Jew’. He may end up knowing how to learn a Blatt Gemarah but he won’t know a thing about the meaning of Judaism itself. There is an over emphasis on Gemerah or academics to the detriment of other subjects that are integral to our understanding meaning in Judaism. Without meaning we cannot expect anyone to be observant in anything but rote ways.

The availability of instant information on any and every subject further challenges the system. I’m not sure there has been any progress in how educators deal with the increasing number of questions stemming from that.

There are schools that teach to the lowest common denominator and schools that teach only their top tier students leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Sometimes they simply drop out.

These are only some of the problems. I’m sure I am only scratching the surface. If we are going to survive as a Jewish people, we must revise the system. The bottom line is that all of these issues contribute to the dropout rate – with education leading the charge. If we don’t change things, our very existence as Orthodox Jews is at stake.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “An Existential Analysis”

  1. In the last paragraph, the word should be "role" models with an "e" at the end NOT "roll" like a "roll call" or the rolls that we eat. I am an expert proofreader and find mistakes very quickly.

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