One of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century was made very clear by the recent Pew study on American Jews. The fact is that except for Orthodoxy – Jewry is shrinking. I need not go into the statistics. They have been discussed ad infinitum by just about everyone. The shrinkage is due to a combination of factors mostly having to do with the lack of any significant meaning attributed to Judaism by those devoid of a religious education. Young Jews even with the highest of ethical values see no value in the religion of their forefathers. They see themselves as ethical human beings – same as anyone else with ethical values. They see all religious ritual adding nothing to their sense of ethics.
The question arises – what do we do about that? As Orthodox Jews who understand the value of the Torah and the importance of following Halacha – how can we change this new secular Jewish paradigm?
There are those who would answer: Nothing! There is nothing we can do to significantly change the attrition away from Judaism the masses are undergoing… that there has been attrition one way or another in every generation. Although they might wish things were different, they say it is virtually impossible to influence the minds of the vast majority of Jews whose secular – even ethical values were formed by a society devoid of Torah.
They will therefore say that we Orthodox should instead turn inward and work on ourselves and that the future of Judaism rests with us. While I understand that mentality and would certainly agree that we all need to work on our ourselves – I strongly disagree that we ought to ignore the rest of Jewry. We are not talking about a few Jewish souls here. We are talking about the vast majority of them. Fully 90% of all American Jewry is not Orthodox. Are we simply to just write them off? I don’t think so.
Thankfully neither do all the outreach organizations. They have had much success in reaching out to our secular brethren. But it is still a drop in the bucket. We Orthodox remain only 10% of the total. We may be growing, but a lot of that is internal because of our higher birth rate. The amount of successful outreach is still relatively small.
One way to reach more people is by interdenominational interaction. The problem with that is that some of the greatest religious leaders of the 20th century – including Rav Soloveitchik – have forbidden doing that. They forbade religious interaction of any kind because it would grant them tacit recognition. We cannot be seen to recognize movements that legitimize heretical thought. I understand and appreciate that.
Which is why the actions of the well intentioned Yeshiva Chovevei Torah are so problematic. Outreach is what motivated them to host leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism at a round table discussion during the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. That certainly does seem to legitimize them. Both in the eyes of the leaders themselves and in the eyes of those who attended the session. While I support YCT’s intentions, I believe they have crossed a line here. As much as I would love to see cooperation between the denominations towards the goal of outreach that we all share – it cannot be at the expense of undermining our theology.
I know that YCT argues that such interactions do not validate heterodox movements. But it is impossible for those who attend to not see it that way – watching them all discuss their religious views as equals at the same table.So even though I agree with their motives, I disagree with what they did. That leaves the problem unsolved.
But there are other ways that we can participate with them and at the same time not be seen to recognize them. One way was when Yosef Reinman, a right wing Orthodox Rabbi from Lakewood, co-wrote a book with Amiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi he had befriended… and then went on a book tour with him.
He was immediately – roundly criticized by the Agudah Moetzes for violating the ban on interacting with heterodox rabbis. They asked him to stop the tour and withdraw his book. He acceded to their requests but lamented the fact that he was now impeded from making the inroads he had started making with Reform Jews he would have otherwise never met.
To me that was not a violation of the ban since it was made clear by both Rabbi Reinman and Rabbi Hirsch (in the book and in the book tour) that Orthodoxy does not accept Reform Judaism as legitimate. That was a lost opportunity in my view. More harm than good resulted from that ban.
Which brings me to what happened in England recently. The new British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis bucked a warning issued by Charedi Dayan Rav Chanoch Ehrentrau and attended Limmud. What is Limmud? From Ynet:
In Britain there is an annual conference where laypeople can go and study Torah known as Limmud. This conference is multi-denominational and teachers from all movements within Judaism from Reform to Orthodox attend.
After Rabbi Mirvis said he would attend Limmud – here is what followed:
The response was shock by Ehrentreu and his orthodox colleagues, who wrote a letter accusing Mirvis of action that will “bring about tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry.
Tragic consequences?! That he had the opportunity to reach out to many secular Jews will have tragic consequences?! I’m sure he was talking about the recognition that he perceived would result from Rabbi Mirvis’s attendance. I do not see his attendance as recognition. As I understand it, this is nothing more than a teaching session. There is no interaction between the rabbis there.
I agree with those that say that Rav Ehrentrau and other like minded Rabbonim are fighting battles from the past. Where once these heterodox movements were a danger to Orthodoxy – threatening to take away our members, the reverse is now true. We are the ones taking away from their numbers. The danger now is apathy. Most young non observant Jews do not seem to care at all about their Judaism. That is evidenced by Pew study which found that 70% of them intermarry.
The fact is that when it comes to reaching out to non denominational young Jews – we are actually on the same page. We all want to stop the hemorrhaging . Both Conservative and Reform leaders understand the error of their forebears ways in abandoning or tolerating reduced or no ritual observance. A lot of non Jews share our ethics. When Judaism is watered down to ethics, there isn’t much reason to be Jewish. Something we Orthodox have known all along.
Instead of competing with Orthodoxy these movements now want to cooperate with us. Even Reform has switched gears and now advocates more Mitzvah observance. When a secular Jew becomes Orthodox both denominations now consider that a victory. While it is still important to not be seen giving non Orthodox movements recognition, why not let them help us reach out to unaffiliated young Jews? What better way to do that than what Rabbi Mirvis is doing?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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