Why Bother Debating?
Two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a group of post-university students from the U.S. and Canada who are contemplating aliyah. The topic was “State and Religion in Israel,” and the panel included an activist from the Reform movement and a Modern Orthodox educator.
I returned home after two and a half hours completely drenched, wondering why I had gone and whether anything positive could possibly come from such a debate.
I doubt most readers can even imagine the chasm between traditionally Orthodox and secular North American Jews. We barely have a common language or any shared assumptions. For us, “Who is a Jew” is determined by very specific halachic criteria, and the question of “What are the obligations of a Jew?” can only be answered by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah.
For them, a Jew is anyone with Jewish blood who “feels Jewish,” and the concept of obligations is foreign. Instead they prefer such vagaries as “raising a Jewish family” or “living Jewishly,” defined by each individual Jew for him or herself. For reasons that I will not detail, I have never felt so intensely the truth of the Chazon Ish’s pithy line, “What they call a great love story is for us an issur kareis [a prohibition deserving of spiritual excision],” as during that panel discussion.
I knew from ample past experience on such panels that I would be on the defensive from the very start. The main topics are almost guaranteed to be army service and the economic dependence of the chareidi community. And indeed, in the moderator’s introduction, she mentioned that the participants had already heard a lot on these topics from previous speakers.
In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises — l’taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity. And the fact that most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service, only sharpens the question.
To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship. It is an introduction for which most of that audience did not possess a frame of reference.
So if the chances of winning the debate or convincing any large number of participants are minimal, why would I put myself through the unpleasantness? The least important reason for participating is the chance to reframe some of the issues to which they have already been exposed, and thereby mitigate the animosity. Just putting a human face on the chareidi community may have some purpose, though for that I would have sent someone younger and better-looking.
More importantly, any such forum provides an opportunity to present ideas that most of these young Jews have never heard. Torah min HaShamayim, the view that the pipelines of Divine blessing to the world are either opened or closed according to our actions and Torah learning, the immutability of Torah and that rabbis are not free to do whatever they want — these were new concepts to most participants. I wanted them to understand that Judaism is not whatever any Jew wants it to be, but based on the Torah, Hashem’s Word.
To make the abstract real for them, I described why someone coming from a background not so different from theirs might leave that world, at the pinnacle of success, to join the chareidi world. What could possibly motivate a young Jew, like them, to make such a leap? Of course, this did not have much to do with our given topic, and my Reform opponent complained, justly: “We are supposed to be discussing ‘state and religion’ and he keeps talking about ‘Hashem and Torah.'”
At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux, and one hopes to find the right words to hit them between the eyes.
Many of those young Jews — relatively committed by North American standards — have never even been in synagogue on Shavuos, if they have ever heard of the holiday at all. If all I did was to give them some vision of Maamad Har Sinai as the central event in human history, it will have been worth it.
Did I succeed? It’s always hard to know. But when I arrived home, there was a message from one of the participants asking whether he could come for a Shabbos. Hopefully, he’ll bring others.
From an article in Mishpacha, June 18.