Mirror, Mirror on the wall…

The issues of how to assess the intentions and impact of other religious groups and whether and how to engage with them are critical issues and I am glad that R. Adlerstein is laying out his very instructive experiences and thoughtful observations on the matter. I note a tendency, however, for such discussions (even when they are informed – which is rare) to focus solely on the “other.” What are their intentions? What are their purposes? What are their beliefs? Can we trust them? Interestingly, of course, these conversations flow mostly around groups which are trying to befriend and help Jews – it is a non-starter around those who snub us or are overtly hostile. (Even when it comes to liberal Jewish apologist types who constantly try to hook up with liberal Christian denominations, these questions aren’t asked – in fact they stubbornly avoid the libs’ obvious and unrepentant hostility toward us.)

I think there always needs to be a parallel – indeed, an interwoven – track in such conversations and I’d like to start that in the instant case – What are our intentions? What has our track record been in dealing with these groups or the issues that matter most to them? What criteria have we been using to determine the appropriate nature of engagement?

Awareness of Jewish history and clarity about the remarkable durability and danger of real anti-Semitism is vital. But self-indulgent wallowing in a sense of contextless eternal victimhood weakens us spiritually, morally and politically. Jews – through whom the Master of the Universe has taught the world that all human beings are moral actors – must ourselves, first and foremost, be moral actors – which is much more about making demands on ourselves than on criticizing the faults of others. This is critical to our spiritual and physical survival. No amount of hate or tragedy or suffering can be permitted to eradicate that core responsibility. I’d like to see as much – actually, way more – soul-searching on our part about whether we live up to our moral charge in our interactions with these groups. I am not advocating self-flagellation; I am not advocating denial of reality; I most certainly am not saying we “deserve” the irrational virulence of anti-Semitism – on the contrary, I am arguing for greater clarity about when resentment against us is irrational and when, perhaps, we are acting to bring it about. We can do nothing about the first and much about the second.

Moral self-examination, cheshbon hanefesh, only can make us better and stronger and more worthy of our status as a nation chosen by G-d; an idea that confers responsibilities more than rights.

This is true whether we are talking about ourselves as individuals or as a community: If you want to better the world, the surest place to start is with yourself.

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8 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Your writing is beautiful but I having trouble getting a concrete criticism out of it. Can you give a specific example of case where you think the Torah community has been weak in this area?

  2. Jeff Ballabon says:

    Thanks for the very kind compliment.

    This is extremely odd. Four times I’ve written long and (hopefully) thoughtful answers to your question. Each time, when I tried to post the answer, it got lost.

    I will assume this means that I’m not really meant to answer the question as fully as I’d hoped – plus it is too close to Shabbos and too frustrating to attempt again.

    Short answer: It was not at all my intention to criticize the “Torah community” or to charge it with any particular weakness. I do not feel that the Internet is an appropriate forum for such activity, nor, if I did, would I arrogate to myself the right to do it anyway. In the specific discussion, moreover, the “Torah community” above all other segments of American Jewry, has much of which to be proud. I do, however feel, that it is no weakness to acknowledge the very Torah-based idea, which was inculcated in me by the institutions of our community, that we all, as individuals and as a community, should be engaged in a constant process of personal refinement and betterment. Introspection about ways to seek improvement is holy work. Difficult as it may be to draw lines between the two ideas, I am trying in good faith to do just that – just bring my personal observations into a communal cheshbon hanefesh.

    Maybe I’m fooling myself by feeling there is any real distinction – or maybe the difference lies in trying to adhere to shmiras haloshon and kovod haTorah.

    More, hopefully, on the subject after Shabbos…

  3. Randy Moon says:

    Oh! the self. It would take two life times to examine my own faults. I guess that leaves really no no time to judge others.

  4. Jeff Ballabon says:


  5. Yaakov Menken says:


    We now return you to our regularly scheduled erudite and informative publication.

  6. Dov Wachmann says:

    I think that it’s self-evident that there are two fundamental areas where Jewish groups as a whole can really improve. (Although these areas are most pertinent to secular Jewish groups or secular groups that are not Jewish but have a dominant Jewish representation there may be room for improvement to varying degrees across the entire spectrum of Jewish groups)

    1) Tolerate the majority. Recognize that they may want freedom to express their religion. Focus on protecting minorities by special or alternate arrangement and accomodation to ensure protection of equal rights rather than by imposing and enforcing secularism in the public square. Sensitivity training should focus more on making minorities understand the majority than vice versa.

    2) Don’t appear too demanding and don’t be too demanding. We have needs but we need to be reasonable. Noisy and provocative campaigns are better fund-raisers than quiet diplomacy but they come at the expense of widespread resentment and only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes.

    In truth we can summarize the above and much more in one recommendation, “Let’s try and remember that we’re in golus”. We can achieve so much more through humility and cooperation than through provocation and conflict.

  7. Jeff Ballabon says:


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