Ideology or Community? An Exchange Between Rabbis Broyde and Feldman
[YA – Rabbi Ilan Feldman’s contribution to the new issue of Klal Perspectives continues attract the most attention. Our plan at KP is to collect both letters and longer responses to the issue, and publish them as a separate, special issue.
Some responses can’t or shouldn’t wait. Rabbi Michael Broyde is a neighbor of Rabbi Feldman’s in Atlanta. He communicated a strong caveat to Rabbi Feldman’s piece to which I was privileged to be included. (Full disclosure: both of them are friends of mine.) I urged both of them to share the exchange; they both agreed. They have edited the original only slightly to make it better understood by readers. My guess is that it will stir up some healthy debate.]
I read your piece today in Klal Perspectives and I enjoyed it very much. It was well written and persuasive and made a few excellent points — it was very very nice. Congratulations!
I write a criticism of it in two parts, not because I did not agree with what it said, but because I thought it was missing two central issues which temper it.
First, I think that you think that many people are not Orthodox because they have not seen yet a beautiful social community. As you put it: Orthodox Jews would lead lives of idealism that extend beyond their own religious needs, inevitably becoming role models and attractive examples of lifestyle to non-observant Jews.
I think, however, that many many people are not Orthodox because they have taken a close look at what we believe in and reject it. They find us, in their opinion, to be ideologically and scientifically backwards. If we were going to adopt your approach alone, we would have to shed some of those views, and many of us [myself included] do not want to. My read is that many Orthodox Jews stopped being actually Orthodox because of the Slifkin matter and became merely Orthoprax (or less) as they took a close look at how many of us treated the Torah and Science problem and “jumped ship.” Torah and science are not the only ones and there are many other areas where Orthodoxy is in a different place — totally and completely — on important matters of ideology from our secular brothers.
The idea that if we live beautiful lives, that is enough to make people frum strikes me as inadequate to fully explain what is going on around us. They are not “us” because they do not agree with us on core ideological issues. Indeed, the “spiritual battle” (as you call it) will have casualties on our side as well, as — beautiful as our social community is — many of our dogmas and ideologies are thought of as untenable by many secular people. We can, on many matters, sadly enough, just retreat to insularity, in the hope that people do not actually look closely at many issues.
So my first comment is that the kind of open outreach community has to really be prepared to be honestly questioned about all of our different views, and many of them will be subject to ridicule. While we have answers — some excellent, some okay and some weak — do not doubt that sometimes the outside world has better questions than we have answers. The kind of open community that you describe will be hard pressed sometimes to function. — Some of the academic research on the teshuva phenomenon notes that we attract a certain type of person while others are not at all interested in us. You seem to gloss over the existence of such an ideological gap and you treat it merely as a social gap. I think there is much more at play. People leave Orthodoxy as we do not seem to ring true to their rational selves rather than because we are not good social models.
Second, and even more complexly, this situation discusses only America. The truth is that the Charedi community in Israel will never be perceived as a role model for anything until they agree to carry there fair burden of the obligations of the community around them. Secular Israelis, and indeed many in the tzioni dati community as well, view the non-army serving charedi community as bad role models and unattractive examples of a Torah lifestyle. While if Israel were Mars — far away and strange — this would not matter, I sense in a very clear way that the image of us America-based Orthodox (particularly the charedi looking ones) are being tarnished day in and day out by this. In Israel, kiruv towards Israelis is hardly being done by anyone other than the army serving tziyoni or sefardi community, exactly for that reason. This is the same issue as above, but in a different form. For your idea to actually work, we have to actually be role models in a full and complete way. In Israel, many parts of Orthodoxy are not.
The sum of both of these criticisms is that to adopt your model actually could open our community not just to the outside world becoming like us, but to us being subject to the outside worlds’ deep and close criticism of who we are and what we stand for. Exactly for that reason I think kiruv needs to be done by professionals who know questions and answers and reflect, parry, and feint. I fear that many in the Orthodox community can not withstand the rigors of the questioning being part of an outreach community would bring.
In short, living a “life of idealism” as you put it, will not fix the problem entirely. It will leave out the many who think our ideals are wrong, and it will cause all of us to have our ideals closely examined and being forced to defend them. We need many more people than we have at the moment who are capable of doing that. We have contented ourselves with a kind of retreat into an intellectual insularity that does not produce the people who could be the ablest spokespeople for Torah and its values.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think the difference in perspectives between your view and mine reflects the different worlds we operate in. In academia, there is at least the assumption that non-Orthodox are thoughtfully non-orthodox. Most of the balanced non-frum I meet are open, largely unschooled in regard to the basics of Judaism, and mostly open to inspiration. As to the issue of possible losses from the ranks of Orthodoxy when exposed to others, that is precisely my point: a responsible Orthodoxy would produce thoughtful and articulate people who would would be able to hold their own in an intelligent discussion with people who have another world view. This is no more difficult than training masses of students to be conversant in a Ketsos; it is merely a question of priorities. I am maintaining that a society grounded in Kiddush Hashem would have this as a priority.
Your comments about Israeli society and chareidim ring true. It is definitely more complex than I make it out to be in the article. However, even with Israeli chareidim not serving in the army, a kinder, gentler chareidism which was not insecure would soften the blow, and at least model something virtuous. I fear that this is not happening at the moment. We have no idea what Israeli society would accept from a scholarly elite that demonstrated devotion, compassion, and plain interest in the well being of broader society.
These are thoughts largely developed in passing, by-products of an activity that has been taking up much more of my time. I find myself meeting with uninspired Orthodox Jews who desperately need a community of passionate, responsible neighbors who have sense of mission in their lives, and that continues to be my focus. There is more to be said about your thoughtful comments.
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a Professor of Law at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America. Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Atlanta and one of the founding trustees of AJOP.