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November 1, 2014 / 8 Heshvan, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘jewry’

Keeping Jews Jewish

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

I recently attended the wedding of a wonderful ba’al teshuva couple whose parents are Conservative Jews. One of the honored guests was their parent’s Conservative Rabbi. Although the mesader kedushin (the officiating rabbi) was Orthodox, the Conservative rabbi was quite involved with various Halachic minutia throughout the course of the evening (…none under the hupah). Without getting into details, I have to say that I was impressed. The rabbi was very knowledgeable in Halacha and insisted that it be followed. If one did not know that he was a Conservative rabbi, one could have easily thought he was Orthodox… and not especially left wing either.

I happen to know that this rabbi came through the ranks of the Conservative movement. He was not one of those Orthodox “sellouts” who took a Conservative shul for the money. He came from a committed Conservative home and his primary Jewish education was through the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he was ordained. His shul is fairly large and I would guess consists mostly of non-observant (by Orthodox standards) Jews.

This got me to thinking about the origins of the Conservative movement. I fully believe that the founders’ intent was to ‘conserve’ Judaism… from the inroads of Reform that was sweeping the country in those days. Those founders wanted to produce a rabbinate that was in harmony with American values and American culture… in order to better relate to the melting pot mentality of those days.

Although the movement has since undergone changes whereby questionable theologies have become acceptable… I do not believe that was part of the original equation and did not become so until the late Mordechai Kaplan advanced his radical ideas about the nature of God and the Jewish people. Although radical views are not required in Conservative Judaism, they are now accepted or at least tolerated.

I don’t know the theology of this rabbi. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he believed in Torah MiSinai. In any case, I think one can fairly say that Conservative rabbis like the one at the wedding are observant and see themselves in many ways like kiruv professionals for their members. Not that they are able to get their members to observe Shabbos. But that they try and get them to be as observant as possible without alienating them from the shul.

Oddly enough, this is the philosophy of Lubavitch. Although their primary focus is on making as many Jews as possible religious Lubavitchers, they do things one step at a time and often do not succeed beyond merely making non observant Jews merely Lubavitivch friendly. They will say that we all fall short of perfection and that we should all try and improve in our observances… even those of us who are shomer Shabbos!

I think the Conservative rabbi sees himself and his role in the same way. I further believe that he would be overjoyed if any of his congregants become Orthodox via Chabad or any other Orthodox Kiruv group. Indeed he was effusive with praise for this young couple who were going to spend their first year of marriage in Israel with the husband spending time in a yeshiva.

I realize of course that not all Conservative rabbis are like this. But I’ll bet that there are a lot more like him – that actually live up to the original Conservative credo of trying to conserve Judaism.

I bring all this up in light of an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner. She too was critical of her own columnist Jay Michaelson for considering Haredism to be the single biggest existential threat to “fabric of American Jewish Life”…. And castigated him for demonizing and alienating one group when there is another threat that is “just as potent.”

Her point was that the many unaffiliated Jews are increasingly opting out of their Judaism. From the Forward article:

As the UJA-Federation of New York’s recent population survey highlighted, the growth of the “unaffiliated” has equally profound and worrying consequences for the future of the Jewish community. Compounded by the shrinking middle — that mixture of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who are, with some notable exceptions, throwing a party fewer and fewer people want to attend — we have a community that is ceding ground to an extreme form of Judaism largely because many of its members don’t care enough to maintain any other form.

The statistics that Ms. Eisner quotes in her editorial are illustrative of the problem. The trend is towards the growth of Orthodoxy and the shrinkage of everything else. It isn’t too hard to predict the future of heterodox movements.

But instead of being triumphalist, I think we Orthodox Jews are better served by reflecting on this massive attrition by so many Jews from Judaism… and seeing if there is anything we can do about it. To my mind it is tragic that we are losing so many Jews to an assimilation that sees any and all religion as archaic and useless.

It is all too easy to write everybody else off and say, “That’s life”! We can’t really do anything about it. Let us therefore concentrate on ourselves – to make our lives holier and re-build Judaism’s numbers by our own propagation. Thankfully there is Chabad and other Kiruv organizations that do not feel this way. But the people they reach are all a drop in the bucket compared to attrition numbers.

Which brings me back to the Conservative rabbi I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The fact is that if there was some way we could work together with people like him, I think our attempts at outreach would be far more successful. Altruistic Conservative rabbis like him I am sure would be eager to do that.

I am convinced that any and every non-observant Jew that becomes Orthodox would be a success story for him – if he were in some way involved with an Orthodox Kiruv movement – even it were nothing more than steering teenagers to NCSY and through them they became observant, that would be considered a victory for him.

I’m not saying that it will be easy to accomplish that. I realize there are restrictions involved because of issues having to do with validation. These issues are real. Virtually all the Gedolim of previous generations, including Rav Soloveitchik, forbade any religious collaboration with heterodox rabbis for fear of giving them tacit recognition.

One may argue that conditions are different now and since these movements are in decline there is little danger of our legitimizing them in any meaningful way. And that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs a now archaic public policy. But it is way below my pay grade to over-rule these giants.

That those on the left wing of Orthodoxy have done so – even if for these very reasons does not make it right. Besides – joint public prayer ceremonies and the like do not really do all that much for outreach anyway, in my view. There is a difference between working with them behind the scenes – and standing in a public arena and thereby by inference endorsing them.

I believe that we should work with them. Those who are sincere about mitzvah observance, like this rabbi, desire to keep Jews – Jewish. And they now realize that their past leniencies like permitting their members to drive to shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. And exactly counterproductive to their goals of preserving Judaism. They have instead created a path out of it… and their movement is now in serious decline.

I don’t know how to co-operate with them in ways that will not violate the will of the rabbinic giants of the last generation. But I’m sure it can be done. The devil – I know – is in the details. But at this point in time – it is worth taking the time to figure it out. There is too much at stake and the time is short. Before long there will be no Conservative Jews to work with. If not now, when?

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Another Defender of the Haredi Status Quo Clucks His Tongue

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Eytan Kobre has got be one of the most annoying defenders of the Haredi status quo in Israel on the face of the planet! He rarely fails to upset my sensibilities. His holier-than-thou attitude goes well beyond polite discourse in disagreement about public policy. It borders on the hateful! And he did it again in his weekly Mishpacha Magazinecolumn. Note in particular the three bullet points where he manages to disparage Jewish Action Magazine, an Orthodox blogger, Rabbi Dov Lipman and the “talmidei hachmim” and “ehrilche yidden” (his words) who hosted Rabbi Lipman on his recent visit to America.

What makes Mr. Kobre particularly annoying is the way he presents himself. He is an attorney. His talented writing skills indicate a fine secular education… attributes that would describe many moderate Haredim. And as most people know, I am a big fan of moderate Haredim – even though I am not Haredi myself.

The problem with Mr. Kobre is that he is anything but moderate. Despite his education and skills he writes like an extremist zealot.

The funny thing is that he does not really say anything about the Haredi belief system that is all that outrageous. But he uses those beliefs to disparage those who dare to challenge Haredi polices that in the view of many need some very serious tweaking at the least. He not only says that such challenges are evil, he implies that those that give a platform to people who advocate them are at best a bunch of morons. Of course, he doesn’t use the word moron. But he may as well have.

The subject of his most recent column is the draft of Haredim in Israel. His point is that if one were to truly understand the protective value of those who learn Torah they would know that all the miracles evident in every war were a direct result of the zechus (merit) of those who were learning Torah. He asks in the most hyperbolic of tones:

Now, as this fragile little country, whose 65-year history has been a string of wondrous miracles, faces the apocalypse being feverishly readied by the lunatic of Tehran, now is the opportune time to drag talmidei hachamim from their shtenders with brute physical or fiscal force, in a grand social reengineering scheme?
… is this the moment to allow the squelching of the amal haTorah that stands between us and a violent vomiting out of the inhabitants of this most spiritually sensitive of lands?

Brute physical force? Really, Mr. Kobre? What have you been drinking? No one in the government has suggested using brute physical force on Haredi Jews.

The fact is that no religious Jew would deny the merit that Torah study contributes towards the country’s security. But it is the height of folly to believe that hishtadlus via a strong military is therefore unnecessary. I’m sure that even Mr. Kobre understands that. But nowhere in the article does he make mention of it. The truth is that there has to be both. The only question is – what should the numbers look like.

What percentage of able bodied men who are dedicated to Torah study should be exempt from military service? In my view that has yet to be determined. I’m personally not sure what the percentage should be. But one thing I am fairly certain of is that they ought to not look like they do now. There is no way that every single Haredi Jew should be exempt from military service by simply registering in a yeshiva.

Mr Kobre might accuse me of hutzpah right about now. How, he might ask, do I know what the numbers should be? Am I a gadol (great Torah leader)? Only gedolim should decide these things, he might say. And right now they have determined that no Haredi Yeshiva student should serve, no matter what his age or status in Torah study.

True, I am not a gadol. But I have to ask, how many yeshiva students were there in 1948? So many miracles occurred in Israel’s war of independence that one would have to be the biggest cynic in the world to not see the hand of God in that victory.

I am absolutely convinced that Torah study in the yeshivos at that time protected Israel and contributed to the miracles. But the numbers of lomdei Torah then were substantially lower than they are now. In fact they were minuscule compared to what they are now. And yet Mr. Kobre would have us believe it is all about the numbers!

One might argue that you never know where we are holding as a nation with respect to deserving miracles. So the more people that are studying Torah the better chance we have for survival. I find this attitude to be a terrible way to look at God’s beneficence towards us. I would posit that considering the miracles that took place in 1948 – God is not interested in sheer numbers.

Yes, he wants us all to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study. But he also wants histhadlus – to do what we can physically to achieve success. Hazal tell us – ein somchin al hanes – do not rely on miracles. The way to best succeed in winning a war is to have the best physical army we can field – in addition to the spiritual army that studies Torah full time.

The bottom line for me is that there ought to be divinity student exemptions. But they ought to be applied to the best and brightest among us – and only the highly motivated of those! The rest ought to be willing to serve in some capacity. This does not mean able bodied Haredim must give up Torah study entirely. One can continue to study Torah by being koveiah itim – establishing a fixed time for it… even while serving one’s country. Furthermore all conscripts can go back to the beis hamedrash once their military service is completed after two or three years.

There are those who argue that once you are out of the beis medrash – you will never return to it. Well… so be it. All that means is that they were only there in the first place for sociological reasons. Real masmidim will want to return… and they are probably the ones who get draft exemptions anyway.

But perhaps we should take Mr. Kobre at face value. He believes that we should maximize Torah study at such a dangerous time for Israel. If that is really the way he feels, then he ought to give up his law practice here in the United States, move to Israel, and “pitch in.” I’m sure if he went to the Mir and asked if he could join the full time lomdei Torah there, he would be accepted. He is after all a pretty bright fellow and his learning would no doubt contribute to his goal of relying on Nissim (miracles). How in good conscience can he continue stay here and work for a living?

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Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/haemtza/another-defender-of-the-haredi-status-quo-clucks-his-tongue/2013/05/27/

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