So What Do We Think About Non-Orthodox Jews?
A week ago, Agudath Israel proudly announced that Scholastic Library Publishing was recalling and reprinting an educational book for middle-grade children. “Enchantment of the World” is a series on “a country’s history, people and languages, economy, government, culture, natural resources, climate, religions, and much more.” Its volume on Israel, however, contained this passage: “But some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies [for automatic citizenship as a Jew, under the country’s ‘Law of Return’]. They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws.” As the Agudah press release put it:
In a straightforward letter to Scholastic, Agudath Israel director of public affairs [and Cross-Currents writer] Rabbi Avi Shafran characterized the contention that Orthodox Jews reject other Jews’ Jewishness because of their less-strict level, or even complete lack, of observance as “utterly untrue.”
“This, I am sure you realize, is no minor matter,” Rabbi Shafran wrote. “Texts like ‘Enchantment of the World’ are not only expected to be accurate but help mold attitudes in young minds. The assertion that Orthodox Jews somehow question the Jewishness of other Jews is both false and prejudicial. And so I hope you will take immediate steps to rectify the situation.”
Scholastic, to its credit, did so. After determining that the passage was indeed in error, they “offered an amended paragraph for Agudath Israel’s approval,” and obligated themselves to republish the book. And not stopping there, they will be destroying their current inventory, and are even going to replace copies now in the hands of customers once the new version is printed. A credit to Scholastic indeed — and quite a coup for the Agudah! But it also forces us to ask: really, now, how wrong were they? Isn’t it true that the Orthodox have been fighting against an increased Reform and Conservative presence in Israel? All of us Kiruv-niks (Jewish outreach workers) aside, is there really no traction within the Orthodox community to the idea that we would be better off without the non-Orthodox?
While within any group you will find people with outlandish ideas, it is very clear that the Orthodox leadership would have none of it. Ahavas Yisrael, love of all Jews, is the order of the day. If you can, in fact, find someone who thinks otherwise, he or she is merely evidence that the charedim don’t follow their leaders as readily as the media insists we do. This was brought home by an email and personal account that both came to me today.
The email arrived from a writer for HaModia, which is — as you probably know — as “ultra” Orthodox as a journal can be. By contrast to the Yated Ne’eman, HaModia has stronger ties to the Chassidic community, which should make it still more insular. Yet this writer’s “beat” is the world of Kiruv. To be sure, he can’t cover Project Genesis (as that would entail conceding that the Internet has a positive side), but he still talks about the world of Jewish outreach on a weekly basis.
He sent an email to an outreach-oriented mailing list, seeking “tips, do’s and dont’s, etc., for those who will be hosting non-frum guests at their Seder” on Passover, for an upcoming column. Think about it: HaModia, the ultra-ultra-Orthodox journal, is going to help people who would like to have a non-Orthodox guest! Passover is one of the holiest days and holiest times on the calendar… and they are actually encouraging having a non-Orthodox guest! What is the world coming to?
This pernicious idea, that contact with the non-Orthodox is a good thing, seems to even be infecting the schools. My wife was shopping today, and ended up speaking in Hebrew with the Israeli vendor at a cosmetics kiosk. The seller, who has only been in the US for several months, was excited to meet a Hebrew-speaking customer, but his more experienced colleague said that he met Hebrew-speaking customers all the time — and they would often invite him for Shabbos meals. To make a long story short, my wife ended up inviting both vendors, plus the one’s wife and the other’s girlfriend, to the Seder.
While we do live in Baltimore, which is less parochial, perhaps, than New York, our children are getting a strictly charedi education nonetheless. How do charedi schoolchildren, with their sheltered backgrounds and limited interaction with the non-frum world, react when confronted with the idea that four non-frum Israelis are coming to the Seder?
At least in this case, they responded by dancing with excitement. My wife insists that they were literally jumping up and down. Now I can’t tell you that my kids are typical. They, after all, have non-observant grandparents on my side, so they are certainly more used to the idea than many of their peers. But dancing with excitement? They couldn’t feel that way if their schools were not actively encouraging them to feel love and brotherhood as well. And, as already noted, one of the vendors mentioned that he gets frequent invitations from observant Jews.
What I would advise the HaModia reader is simple: learn from our children. Children don’t understand things like “turning people frum.” All they know is how exciting the holidays are, and how nice it is to share them with people.
If you have non-frum guests at the Seder because you want to “turn them frum,” you — and your guests — aren’t going to relax, aren’t going to enjoy the Seder, and you’re not going to accomplish much. But if your approach is that you will not only get to experience Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and will not only be able to teach it to your children in accordance with the Mitzvas HaYom, the Commandment of the Day — but that you will also share this experience with Jews who may never have seen the beauty of a traditional Seder or the holidays in a traditional home — then you and your guests will all benefit. Focus on doing what you have always done, and enjoying it as you always have, and let HaShem worry about bringing His children home. You’ll be contributing plenty.
And when your children hear that you’ll be having non-frum guests, don’t be taken aback if they start dancing around the room!