Hormonal Judaism

There is good kiruv and there is bad kiruv. After reading ‘You’ve been Aish’d…’ in the Jerusalem Post, even the bad kiruv starts to look better. It is a piece that alternates between silliness and shallowness. The author makes it clear that she believes that the claims of Orthodoxy have some facial appeal, but nothing rigorous to back them up, and then proceeds to pen many declarative sentences – with nothing to back them up. Perhaps she was more influenced by her kiruv experience than she realizes.

“Everything moves fast and intensely, yet rarely lasts,” she writes about the trips to Israel. Duh…if the effects were such a rarity, would she really be writing an expose of kiruv organizations like Aish and NCSY? Where are the stats on the religious effects of kiruv organizaions? As I recall, a scientific study by the Lilly Foundation a few years ago demonstrated quite impressively the long-term efficacy of NCSY programs.

Those female advisors, overbrimming with cherubic innocence, may make a good go of it, but “unfortunately, they are unable to relate to the secular world.” So why do so many neophytes come back to them and their classes and their homes, and find in those same naifs mentors for life? Again, just how many people has she interviewed?

“Teachings are superficial …addressing issues from an archaic, non-scientific, pseudo-psychological perspective.” Just what makes them archaic, other than the fact that they originated a few millennia ago? Is everything old (e.g. love, honor, loyalty, honesty, freedom) archaic by dint of not having first seen the light of day in a YouTube presentation? Non-scientific – let’s consider that one. So how many approaches to the questions that really concern people, like how to be happy, and what meaning can I extract from life, have been treated scientifically? If they were amenable to scientific treatment, I think we ought to be prosecuting some of those scientists for war crimes, or something horrible like that, for withholding from the rest of us the scientifically established protocols for finding happiness, peace, and cheap gasoline. (We’ll excuse the Israeli prof who gives the single most popular class at Harvard, on learning to be happy, despite the fact that he quotes liberally from archaic Jewish tradition.)

Orthodoxy “fails to acknowledge that Halacha has had a variety of interpretations across different times and cultures.” Gosh. Guilty as charged. I have failed to tell newcomers that some people don’t brok on Pesach. I guess we are even, though. The author doesn’t tell the reader that in all those different times and cultures, at least in the last two thousand years, all the differences concerned how to observe halacha, not whether to observe it, which is the issue for Jews outside of Orthodoxy.

“Running into those who have remained Orthodox, unrecognizable from only a few years earlier, is an uncanny experience. They often work for outreach organizations and are as unsettling to me as Evangelical Christians.” Personally, I like many evangelical Christians. The ones I’ve met display more integrity than the author. I wonder if she has ever spent time with any of them. Possibly, she isn’t talking about real ones, but the caricatures of them we encounter from other, equally open-minded journalists. You know, bible-thumpers who pray to save your soul from damnation behind your back. Which raises the issue of just what it is about “those who have remained Orthodox” whom she has met that makes her uncomfortable. Are they Artscroll thumpers?

“Everyone has heard ‘your soul is a diamond that should be kept in a special case’ a hundred times. Metaphors like those sound wonderful and make superficial sense, but falter in the face of hormonal reality.” Here we have arrived at the core argument, something that should make all of us cheer. The strongest argument she can mount against the arguments that admittedly make some sense is that they don’t really get along with her hormones. Volumes could be written about that sentence, distilled as it is from the age-old battle between restraint and license, between mind and heart, between Voltaire and Rousseau. If this were the best shot critics could take at us, we could stand taller.

One of the most unforgettable passages in Meshech Chochmah (Bo) comes to mind. Here is a tantalizing sample:

How did Yisrael merit to read the Shma? As descendents of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, they can comprehend intellectual abstraction [i.e. the existence of the absolute Oneness of G-d], and disparage their own feelings [which are moved only by what is directly experienced]. Because of this, Hashem wished them to apply themselves to intellectual inquiry, to understand His Oneness. All feelings and sense-impressions should not disturb the findings of their rational probing. What did Hashem do with the paths of deception enabled by the imagination? He gave them much Torah – written and oral. This would strengthen the intellectual faculty, and help it triumph over the imaginative. What of the feelings, those that lead a person astray and to be moved by natural events, and thereby forget the real Creator? For these He created mitzvos, apportioned between the different feelings and emotions. Love is channeled into the the mitzvos of loving one’s fellow man, the mitzvos of family life, the love of the nation. Vengeance is directed against those hated by Hashem; chesed is pressed into the service of our friends. Each and every feeling and emotion has a place in the mitzvah system.

In other words, at the core of Judaism is the mind leading the heart, not the reverse. There is always room for disagreement, but I will take the Judaism of the mind and soul over hormonal Judaism.

If there is a redeeming thought in the article, it is in these lines: “The Orthodox world they present bears not a trace of dissatisfaction: Never did I ever hear a speaker or trip leader discuss any problems within the Orthodox world. Apparently, as long as they follow proper Halacha, everybody is happy and fulfilled, with neither depression nor repression, money nor domestic problems.” The ba’alei teshuva whom I know (and I have known far more than the average frum Jew) find out in due time about the myriad problems of the Orthodox community. They do not and should not learn about them at their first encounter, as long as they are introduced to them at the appropriate time. (Did you ever wonder whether freshman orientation at Cornell, with reputedly the highest suicide rate in the country, includes a tour of the last ten places on campus where a student did himself in?) I, for one, am a great fan of divulging problems (and helping students deal with them) as soon as possible. I make a point of not promising social, intellectual, or spiritual rose gardens. I try to describe the journey from the very beginning as having road blocks and detours. I frequently answer question with what must quickly become a boring response: “I don’t know.” My own experience has been that the candor has paid off for my students.

There are in fact many, many problems within Orthodox communities – as well as in the conduct of kiruv– as there are in all communities. If the Jerusalem Post piece is any indication of how outsiders look at us, we all have to try much harder to expose those problems ourselves. Some of the others aren’t getting it.

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17 Responses

  1. Shimshon says:

    “Non-scientific – let’s consider that one. So how many approaches to the questions that really concern people, like how to be happy, and what meaning can I extract from life, have been treated scientifically? If they were amenable to scientific treatment, I think we ought to be prosecuting some of those scientists for war crimes…”

    Actually, Rabbi Adlerstein, you do disservice to the cause. From what I understand, study after study shows that religious people in general are happier, live longer, divorce less, and so on. In short, being religious (again, in general, not specifically Jewish) is a pretty good antidote to all the ills of secular society.

  2. DF says:

    I agree with you. It’s not that there are no problems with either the Orthodox world, as you acknowledge, or the methods of kiruv organizations. But the poorly-written JP article doesnt capture it. So not everybody becomes orthodox. So? Not every participant in a time-share presentation buys in, either. And so they dont expose all the problems – big deal. What organization does? And her repeated referneces to sex just make the writer look immauture.

  3. Ori says:

    I think the journalist failed to notice that “hormonal reality” is not particularly new. She probably shares my personal belief that it is not thousands of years old but considerably older.

    I have yet to see a logical argument why archaic solutions don’t work for archaic problems.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    People often forget that most kiruv organizations, especially the big ones reliant on big dollars for their various enterprises, will run their operations like any big business.
    If I go to a major American car manufacturer, the salesman is going to tell me wonderful things about all his models. He’ll know enough about other companies and their cars to show why his compare favourably. At the end when I ask about the cost I’ll get quoted the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.
    And if I pay it unconditionally, I’m an idiot!
    Of course the salesman isn’t going to tell me about the voluntary transmission recall the month before or that all the consumers guidebooks rank his cars at the bottom of their class. He’s being paid to sell a car and that’s what he’s going to do.

    Kiruv on a large scale, like with Aish, Ohr or Chabad, is no different. The workers are on salary to present their version of Judaism as THE version of Judaism from time immemorial. They are to play up its strengths, show its advantages over competitive philosophies/theologies and make the price of joining the club seem extremely reasonable and logical.
    And anyone who commits to a life of Torah observance based on that is an idiot!

    You wouldn’t buy a car (or at least, you shouldn’t) without tons of legwork and research. But you’ll commit your soul, the only one you get, for nothing more than the assurances of a guy you just met that you’re doing the right thing?

    If I’m observant (and I am) it’s because I know, based on my research, that Torah observance is the right and best way for a Jew to live his life, not because some Aish’nik tried to convince me (I didn’t believe most of what he said but that’s another story).

    I’m tired of people saying they’ve been sucked into a cult, or that they were tired and that’s why they made the wrong decision they made. People were given intelligent thought and free will for a reason. Maybe they should use them.

  5. BR says:

    Plus, especially with teenagers, the jury is often out until several years later when–at the very least–a kid who may likely have intermarried now does not, or–in a stronger response–he or she comes to re-examine more maturely the issues that were presented to him or her as a teenager.

  6. Sharon Bloch says:

    Garnel Ironheart likens kiruv professionals to car salesmen and sees nothing wrong with kiruv professionals being less than honest in order to close the deal. Is this the Torah way of doing things? I thought Torah Jews held themselves to a higher standard of behavior than car salesmen.

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    R Adlerstein’s response is quite on the mark. That being the case, it is important to remember that BTs who became observant through different means ranging from NCSY to NJOP to Aish and Ohr Sameach each have a different point at what convinced them to move to a life based on Torah and Mitzvos. If one approach was the only one that worked, the results would be far more impressive and the need for other organizations that focus on kiruv would be very hard pressed to justify,if at all. Each represents what the Neviim long ago said-there are many means to teshuvah.

  8. elana says:

    Garnel, the analogy to car salesmen is unfair/poor. Most/many car salesmen know they are a tad dishonet. Kiruv workers may be naive, but most are sincere. Even the Jpost article sort of acknowledged that. Do they use emotional versus intellectual approaches? Sure, but there is nothing wrong with being practical. You and I may not fit their target profile.

    BTW lumping aish and chabad, strikes me as problematic on multiple levels.

  9. Garnel Ironheart says:

    First of all, the comparison between kiruv and car sales was not meant to imply anything about the honesty of kiruv workers. I have no doubt that the majority or nearly all of them are honest, hard working individuals who honestly believe in the product they’re selling and do what they do because they want their fellow Jews to benefit from Judaism the way they have.

    Having said that, they are still selling a product and, as a result, they will present the positives and omit the negatives. Come on, would you ever become frum if the kiruv worker told you “Well yes, there’s just as much of the schmutz that plagues general society in the frum world except we don’t talk about it”? Of course not. And, to give them the benefit of the doubt, many kiruv workers may not even realize the depth of what is good and what isn’t in the frum community. In their lives they do their best to lead the ideals they’re preaching and they are decent people.

    My point is simple: Before accepting anything, do your research. The same people who will price compare for a new computer by visiting 100 different websites should be expected to put the same effort into any kiruv information they’re given. We are supposed to be a people that are “chacham v’navon” wise AND understanding. That precludes any “Just believe what I tell you” approaches.

  10. Dr. E says:

    Without getting into the specifics of the article, I think that some of the phenemona manifested within are indicative of a few trends in Kiruv which I have witnessed:

    Kiruv is very popular these days within frum circles. Everyone seems to be doing it. Years ago, there were very few people who were doing Kiruv full-time. It was something that people became involved as a part-time altruistic endeavor based on certain proclivities, interest, and opportunities. Today, many young people when asked what they will be doing with their lives respond with “Kiruv” or “outreach professional”. On one level, this sounds quite noble and idealistic. On another level, it begs several questions of what exactly does that mean? Does that mean that one is going to be expected to generate parnassa from such a vocation? What training is offered and what is the career path?

    That being said, there is certainly need and opportunity for Kiruv. On college campuses in far-flung communities. One thing which bothers me is a lack of quality control for what passes as Kiruv. Organizations like AJOP are somewhat of a positive development and gives those in the business an opprtunity to share information, resources, and best practices. But, what I am seeing out there is a certain level of competitiveness for numbers and perhaps more importantly fundraising dollars. The competition is further fueled by differences in ideology and the relative superiority of one approach over another. Superiority on a macro theological level, as well as on a micro-level (i.e., which is the best solution for Situation or Venue X). Some organizations take the approach that we should all be deputized to be Kiruv workers, in our place of employment or our neighborhoods. Those are great opportunities for us to connect and inform, but what is the framework for it? Will it be through the lens of Kiruv Rechokim or through a paradigm of Kiruv Levavot? Will it be an intellectual approach or an emotional one? These are not simplistic questions to which one answer or approach fits.

    I’m sure that when potential donors from the corporate world are approached by Kiruv organizations, they want to hear numbers of participants. But, is quantitative success what Kiruv is all about? Is the index of success limited to only those who eventually drink the proverbial Kool Aid and become “one of us” who look like us, belive like us, etc. (with “us” being defined as being mekarev by such and such organization).

    I see a lot of confusion and overlap in the Kiruv world. For example on college campuses, there can be three or four organizational entities fighting for the same customers, with little communication among them. I guess each wants to how its model is the correct one that speaks to this audience.

    In terms of who goes into Kiruv, many of those with the intellectual depth and breadth to respond to tough questions are in the Beit Medrish. Many who venture out have the altruism and motivation, but are locked into the talking points given to them in a brief training session. I guess this is just an occupational hazard, but are in part antecedents of some of the experiences cited in the article.

  11. Toby Katz says:

    “Having said that, they are still selling a product and, as a result, they will present the positives and omit the negatives. ”
    –Garnel Ironheart

    Yes, they will /emphasize/ the positive and downplay the negative — BUT — most of the people I know who are involved in kiruv tell people from the beginning that Torah-observant people are just that — people! Human beings with human problems and frailties. The Torah gives you great heights of aspiration, but most of us fall far short of our own aspirations. Nevertheless, the striving is itself worthwhile.

    There are some people who “oversell” a Torah life as a cure to all problems, but I have met very few of those. What the Torah life does do is to offer a framework and guidance to help with the human problems none of us can escape — relationship problems, parnassah problems, problems between parents and children. We all have our faults and we all have our challenges. A person with a biochemical depression or a person with a fierce temper or poor impulse control or a learning disability will still have those same problems and challenges even if he becomes observant. An FFB can also have all those same problems. Ideally the Torah life and Torah-true friends and mentors he meets along the way will help him cope better, but there is no “cure” for the condition of being human.

    One thing that is wrong with the shallow writer of this anti-kiruv JP article is her own failure to note that kiruv people, too, have their own personalities and their own quirks and their own individuality. She could not see past her own prejudices to really look at the people she was writing about, and see them as — people.

  12. tzippi says:

    How sad for Ms. Kubes that apparently, the main motivation behind taking kids to Israel is to disorient them enough to be open to the pitch (may as well go to Mongolia) and be in an environment where it’s easy to avoid pork, etc. I hope that this summer, jeans or not, she gets what precious time in Israel is really all about.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    If there are enough approaches to kiruv and nuances of emphasis and enough people trying these out in the field, something’s bound to click. This is messier but probably more fruitful than limiting the number of personnel and their options according to some grand plan.

  14. lacosta says:

    we all know there are many problems in O society, and issues of Ortho-praxy and doxy— financial, shidduchim, O internecene warfare and theological integrity debasement, doubts at the margins [see all the ex-orthosceptic and atheistic or hedonistic bloggers],zio-doubt ,etc

    but it is not our job to give a warning label with our product, right?
    we know with all the warts, it’s still the Truth…

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Dr E’s point is very well taken. Kiruv is not at all like selling toothpaste.

  16. Baruch Pelta says:

    Addendum to Toby Katz’s comment: Some rabbis say, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” I prefer R’ Wein’s “Don’t confuse Jews with Judaism. And don’t confuse rabbis with Torah.”

  17. Raymond says:

    Sorry, but perhaps there is some validity to Hormonal Judaism. No, do not worry, I am not starting still another California cult. But the way I figure it, life itself is almost impossibly difficult, just trying to keep one’s head above water, just attempting to duck out of the way of the slings and arrows of outrageous people. Then Judaism comes along, and gives a person tens of thousands of rules to follow, with practically every breath one takes, with endless amounts of Jewish guilt accompanying it. How is taking on such an extra burden not a supreme act of masochism? Can we not own our own lives, with what little time we have on this Earth?

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