The Missing Interviews

One of the perks (such as it is) of working for a Jewish organization is receiving unsolicited books and manuscripts in the mail. Most – like “new age” Jewish ritual guides, Middle-East manifestoes and novels channeling their authors’ neuroses through Biblical narratives – don’t interest me. Occasionally, though, a freebie escapes the circular file. Like the copy (there were actually two, a few weeks apart, one hardcover, the other soft) I received of “Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance” by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.

Mr. Bronfman is the former CEO of the Seagram Company, past president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to Jewish causes.

His book, the accompanying folder contents informed me, is “a passionate plea to the Jewish community, urging members to celebrate the joy in their culture and religion… [and] to recognize their responsibility to help heal a broken world.”

Mr. Bronfman proposes that young Jews be brought to “meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community”; that they be brought “into conversation with the faith’s traditions and with each other”; and that Jewish institutions find ways to reach out to Jewish youth. Sounded promising.

But the book’s vision of Judaism, it quickly became apparent, is decidedly libertarian, its understanding of “the faith’s traditions” essentially Reconstructionist. The phrases “culture” and “heal a broken world” should have tipped me off. Mr. Bronfman’s Jewish theology is entirely personal – in fact, personalize-able: “I don’t believe in the G-d of the Old Testament,” he recently told a New York Times Magazine interviewer, “but I am happy with my Judaism, without that.”

What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman’s book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single haredi Jew.

There are all sorts of people on the list, including a number of rabbis – even an occasional religiously liberal Orthodox one. But one would have expected that the goal of finding ways of engaging young Jews would have led Mr. Bronfman to wonder about how the less “progressive” part of the Orthodox world seems to have successfully imparted its Jewish dedication to its young.

To portray even a slice of the remarkable empowerment of traditional Jewish belief and practice over the past half century is to court being tarred “triumphalist.” But taking objective stock of the phenomenal growth of traditional Judaism in our day is not triumphalism but triumph – the prevailing of the Jewish religious heritage at the root of all Jews’ pasts.

To be sure, the growth of the traditionally observant Jewish community has not rendered it immune to social problems that permeate contemporary society. Nor are high ideals, alas, always matched by high behavior. But, all the same, there can be no doubting the successes.

Not long ago, it was the Jewish fast day of Tzom Gedaliah. Down the hall from my office at Agudath Israel of America’s Lower Manhattan headquarters is our “in house” synagogue, adjacent to a large board room. The collapsible wall between the rooms was folded away to allow well over 100 Jewish men working in the Wall Street area to participate in special fast-day Mincha services, when the Torah is read.

The first service, that is. Two more followed over the course of the afternoon, to accommodate similar numbers who came to pray. And I know of at several other Orthodox organizations or synagogues in the area where the special services were held as well.

If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?

Yet Mr. Bronfman didn’t see fit to interview any of the many rabbis in that world whose lectures regularly draw hundreds of Jews; or any of the popular Orthodox thinkers and speakers whose talks and recordings reach tens of thousands; nor the editors of the ArtScroll publication house, which has revolutionized Jewish learning over the past quarter century; or the publishers of any of the haredi papers, like the weekly Yated Ne’eman or the daily (yes, daily – the only Jewish one in the country) Hamodia; or any of the heads of American yeshivot and seminaries in which thousands of young Jews are immersed in Jewish texts and traditions.

Mr. Bronfman didn’t likely lack for toys as a child, but, tragically, he was sorely deprived of examples that might have led him to understand how Judaism is transmitted. By his own account in the New York Times Magazine, his father told him to attend synagogue on Sabbath morning, while he went to his office. “What made him think I was going to go to the synagogue if he went to the office?” Mr. Bronfman reminisced. “The hell with that.”

But over the many years since then, as astute an individual as Mr. Bronfman should have noticed where young Jews have come to “meaningfully encounter Judaism: its texts, traditions and community.”

If he didn’t, that’s unfortunate. If he did, but decided all the same to dismiss authentic Jewish belief and practice as not germane to inspiring young Jews, well, that’s doubly unfortunate.

In either event, Mr. Bronfman may think he has made a major contribution to Jewish life with his book. But wittingly or not, he shortchanged his readers.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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7 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Why would Bronfman want to talk to an observant Jew? The Judaism we practice, one in which God is accorded absolute authority over our lives and tells us the best way to be through His Torah is the last thing someone like him wants to hear. It goes against every tenet of the secular liberalism in which he was raised.

    Tefillos? Why would anyone get up at 7 am to run to shul? Torah study? Who cares what some rabbis who couldn’t even speak English and lived 2000 years ago thought? Where’s the fun? Where’s the excitement?

    Years ago the non-religious community did a large study on determining how to ensure Jewish continuity. They talked about many of the same things that Mr. Bronfman does – an enriching Jewish life free of commitment to Torah and mitzvos or any recognizably Jewish culture outside of hamataschen and latkes.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Ori says:

    What particularly struck me, though, about Mr. Bronfman’s book was the list of people he interviewed in its preparation. Or, more precisely, what was missing from it: the words of a single haredi Jew.

    This is, at least partially, because the task of convincing people who grew up in a predominately charedi environment to stay charedi is very different from the task of people who grew up in a predominately non-Jewish environment, with a few hours of Jewish activities during the week to continue doing those few hours of Jewish activities.

  3. The Contarian says:

    Rav Shafran’s argument has one fundamenal flaw. It’s validity depends on when one starts history.

    If history begins in the late 1960’s, then he is correct. East-Ruropean Orthodox Judaism has been very successful in transmitting its dedication to its young.

    That is not the case if one begins history 200 years ago. East-Ruropean Orthodox Judaism in that time frame has lost nearly ninety percent of its adherents.

    My family is a case in point. My great great grandfather A’H, my great grandfather HYD and grandfather HYD were Shomrei Torah Umitsvos.
    However none of my grandfather’s siblings remained religious. My father’s aunt A’H married an up and coming rav in Europe who was already a mechaber seforeim in his twenties. Then they immigrated to America When we visited them we could not eat in their hosue.

    During the lifetime of the Chafets Chaim ZATZAL, 1 to 2 million Eastern European Jews went off the derech. That is not a fact to be to be “triumphal” about.

    In retrospect then, the results of the past year 50 years have been largely due to the Chasdei Hashem.

    Some of the non-triumphal reasons for this renaissance.

    1. Small base to start from.
    2. Those who survived the war were usually the most stubborn of individuals.
    3. The good fortune to move to the USA and Israel.
    4. The Forty Hour work week.
    5. The poitical stalemate between right and left in Israel.
    6. The increasing life span and the drop in infant mortality.

    I will give Rav Shafran the dedication to learning and Artscroll. Those are clearly someting to be triumphal about.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    Mr. Bronfman has a well known antipathy to Orthodox Jews and their beliefs. When he once found out that some students from two girls high schools who had never been to Israel went on a Birthright trip, he was very angry about that fact. One of the principals told him to his face that his program had opened the eyes of more than one student to the possibility of making aliyah.

  5. Gershon Josephs says:

    ‘If one were seeking means of empowering Jewish life, connections and learning among young Jews, why in the world would one ignore the buzzing dynamo of Jewish thought and life that is the traditional Orthodox world?’

    Presumably because 100% of the people that Bronfman is trying to reach, and 90% of world Jewry, are pretty sure that Orthodox Judaism isn’t true.

  6. DF says:

    Orthodox Jews, or at least their titular leadership, grant no legitimacy at all to non-orthodox Jews. So why then should it bother Rabbi Shafran that a non-orthodox Jew like Bronfman doesnt think much of Orthodoxy?

  7. Ori says:

    DF has a point, but let’s reverse it. What would it take for Heterodox leaders to listen to Orthodox leaders? Can Orthodox leaders do it without compromising their integrity?

    I’m not sure if we are one people, or two peoples who just happen to share a lot of history.

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