When One Man’s Kiruv Success Is Another’s Misrepresentation of Torah

Don’t argue with success, they say. Especially success born of fierce devotion to a noble cause.

Why would anyone who values Torah throw up obstacles in the path of a charismatic teacher of Torah, just because he occasionally says things that make others uncomfortable. Can those statements be as important as the work he does? These are the questions thrown back at the rest of us by the supporters of one particular person who has unfortunately been high-profile in the news cycle lately. Many testify that he was instrumental in bringing them back to observance. Let the purists debate the quality of his teaching in private, and let him continue to reach the masses! Nothing – nothing – is as important as reaching other Jews and encouraging them to practice halachic Judaism, no matter what the means.

That is what they say. But they are wrong. Kiruv is important, but it is not the sine qua non of Torah Judaism. Even more important than increasing the numbers of baalei teshuvah are such core values and interests as emes and Kiddush Hashem.

Consider this passage from an earlier age. While some have accused the critics of this teacher to reflect an anti-Sefardi bias, the author of the following lines (in loose translation) has impeccable Sefardi credentials:

You must know that the words of the sages are differently interpreted by three groups of people. The first group is the largest one….They accept the teachings of the sages in their simple literal sense and do not think that these teachings contain any hidden meaning at all. They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be. They hold such opinions because they have not understood wisdom and are far from having acquired knowledge….They understand the teachings of the sages only in their literal sense, in spite of the fact that some of their teachings when taken literally, seem so fantastic and irrational that if one were to repeat them literally, even to the uneducated, let alone sophisticated scholars, their amazement would prompt them to ask how anyone in the world could believe such things are true, much less satisfying.

We should feel bad for them in their foolishness. They believe that they are honoring and glorifying the Sages, while in reality they sully their reputation to the nth degree…. As God lives, this group destroys the glory of the Torah of God; they turn the Torah into the opposite of what He intended. For He said in His perfect Torah, “What a wise and understanding nation is this great people.” (Devarim 4:6). But this group expounds the laws and the teachings of our sages such a way that when the other peoples hear them they say that “What a foolish and degraded nation is this small people.” The worst offenders are preachers who preach and expound to the masses what they themselves do not understand.

It would be difficult to accuse the Rambam, the author of those lines, of undervaluing Torah, or of anti-Sefardi bias. The passage eloquently makes the case for the need to distance ourselves from representations of Torah that bring shame upon it, and shame upon the Jewish people.

There are shivim panim l’Torah / seventy facets to Torah. To be sure, there are valid mesoros that eschew allegorizing the words of HKBHand the words of Chazal, at least to the extent that the Rambam is prepared to go. There are beautiful communities of Torah-true Jews who hew close to literalism in many places.

But there are limits. Seventy is a finite number. It is simply not true that all interpretations are valid. Some are wrong; some are dangerous. Some don’t belong in the public domain, because they will be misunderstood, even though they remain the privilege and right of people to offer than more circumspectly.

The Rambam warns us that taking Chazal at face value compromises Torah in two ways. Firstly, it sells Chazal short, blinding people to the profundity that is latent, but not always manifest, in their words. Secondly, it exposes Torah to ridicule and derision.

As bad as those errors are, even worse damage can be done. Combine a literalist approach (one of the tools of the trade for the person whose statements we respond to here) with claims to know the Mind of G-d and how it works, and you can come up with some pretty nasty stuff. Claiming to know what is “logical” for Hashem to do – of subjecting His actions to our criteria of logic and acceptability, other than where there is a clear mesorah – is a form of blasphemy. It is every bit as objectionable as arguing that He takes human form, or has a body. It is all too common in much of our community, but doubly objectionable when wielded as a cudgel by public figures.

Should we not, perhaps, ease up a bit on the purism when it would interfere with the work of kiruv workers? Even if the presentations they sometimes use are not valid, they are surely, goes the argument, less objectionable than the assumptions of sheker in the secular world. Better our sheker than their sheker! Once people are brought through our doors, they will quickly replace some of the tenuous thinking with a more profound connection to Toras Hashem.

Sometimes. Too often, however, the opposite occurs. We have seen no small number of cases in which people treated this way, when they find out about the shoddy thinking that attracted them, feel so abused and mistreated that they run, not walk, away from Yiddishkeit. So do others who observe the process from the sidelines.

I am not sure who has been doing the spiritual accounting – who has done the cost/benefit analysis of X number of souls attracted vs. Y number of souls turned off. Surely it takes great authority to cavalierly dismiss the Y for the sake of the X.

But our consideration of this issue should not end with the practical. If an argument is not true, it should not be used in kiruv, not even as part of a bait-and-switch in which those who are lured by the less-than rigorous will in time graduate to more sophisticated arguments that are true. There is an essential problem with using falsehood to win over souls: Torah is emes, and should be taught only through emes.

I heard a beautiful amplification of this theme from R. Moshe Meiselman, shlit”a, who at the time had not yet founded Yeshiva Toras Moshe, at whose helm he has ably served for decades. When the three guests arrived at Avrohom’s tent, he asked Soro to prepare a meal for them. One item on the list never seemed to have arrived – the bread. Chazal explain that Soro became a niddah, making the bread tameh.

There is no halachah against ordinary people eating chulin that is tameh. (Offerings, terumah, etc. of course are different). Avoiding ordinary food that is tameh is a chumrah, a stringency approved of by the gemara for special people. It certainly had no relevance to the apparent non-Jews who found themselves in Avrohom’s tent, even though he may have conducted himself more strictly.

So why did he not serve them the bread? Explained Rav Meiselman, “When you are trying to bring people closer to Hashem, never feed them anything you would not swallow yourself.”

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21 Responses

  1. mb says:

    “So why did he not serve them the bread? Explained Rav Meiselman, “When you are trying to bring people closer to Hashem, never feed them anything you would not swallow yourself.””

    There lies the rub. Many in kiruv absolutely believe in what they are “selling”, although it is often nonsense to others.

    • hillel says:

      Maybe that’s because many in kiruv have only lower levels of secular and Torah education (even Rabbis). I’ve sat at Shabbat lunches and listened to over-simplifications of scientific and philosophical ideas. The ideas sound good to the uninitiated, but to anyone slightly more familiar with the topics the arguments sound childish. The kiruv person sincerely believes what they are saying, but they aren’t educated enough in science or philosophy, or whatever topic and draw wrong conclusions. Sometimes they aren’t much better when it comes to topics within Torah. Having smichah doesn’t mean what it used to I suspect. What do you do with Yeshiva students who want to become Rabbis but who aren’t even sure of who the members of the twelve tribes are? Basic informationthat even an Am HaAretz such as myself knows. I don’t know, this article speaks to my worries about the kiruv movement.

      [YA – We’re talking about one individual here. The majority of kiruv people that I know are either prepared, or know their limitations. I haven’t gone to AJOP for a handful of years, but when I did, I was always positively impressed by the caliber of people in the kiruv field.]

      • lacosta says:

        hillel’s point is interesting.  while the kiruv experts  [ie  the ones who ‘have the answers’ in specialized areas–bible criticism,  evolution , etc]  can convince the generalist audiences they talk to , and be mechazek bnai/bnos tora who know nothing of these areas—  but if in the audience you had  a bible scholar , an evolutionary biologist , a cosmologist-   would these experts in the field be able to easily to push aside  these arguments?    and if so,  is this type  kiruv technology then ok, or is it lacking an element of emes?

      • Yossi says:

        Thank you for acknowledging that. But then, don’t you think this article is too much of a generalization that was spurred by a person who most likely isn’t like that because of cultural reasons? Is it possible that you could have taught this Rambam and made the point that the end doesn’t justify the means without generalizing this as a kiruv attitude?

        I want to add something else. As someone who is in kiruv for only a little more than a decade, one of the things that my friends and I were very conscious of when deciding whether to go into kiruv was the idea of “selling” phony ideas. R’ Leuchter used to lecture in Ner Le’elef about the Maharshal’s opinion that being מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה is יהרג ואל יעבור and forcefully impressed on his students that teaching nonsense was out of the question. In fact, most of us saw that kind of kiruv as our “parents” kiruv- with the seminars and proofs, and most of us were interested in something a little more sophisticated or text and Torah based.

        (But no kiruv guy can resist the mass revelation thing even with DovBear trying to demolish it on his blog ……:-)

  2. moshe says:

    I appreciate this article greatly, but I am surprised that you limited your attack on the idea of “sheker for a higher cause” to kiruv.

    The truth is, single dimensional Torah spoken by charismatic middle level leader who think they know what G-d wants and what is good for every person, is used, perhaps in greater measure, to frighten, control and manipulate bochorim in yeshivos, families in kollel, and baalei tshuvah who have been frum for a while, into living inauthentic lives..

  3. Yossi says:

    As someone who is in kiruv and prides himself on not “selling” something I can swallow, I still am always puzzled by these posts. What prompted this?

    [YA – Check recent news. That might be a good start.]

    Right now it feels like someone who is not in kiruv is writing an article criticizing those in kiruv, when most of the people reading this are likely not very involved in kiruv on either the teaching or receiving end.

    [YA – Just how much do you know about whether I do, or do not, do kiruv? I wonder if making sure to check facts might make you a more effective mekarev]

    It sort of reminds me of the Klal Perspectives issue of whether kiruv’s good years were behind it, and whether we should be directing community resources to it. There too, I didn’t really get it.

    [YA – Sorry to hear that. You were, I believe, outnumbered.]

    Also, it is interesting that you quote Rabbi Meiselman. While he is someone I have great respect for, there are many people, and certainly many on Natan Slifkin’s side, who will say that Rabbi Meiselman’s book on science is exactly what you just criticized about kiruv. I have no idea one way or the other, as I haven’t read it, but I’m so puzzled as why you would pick that as an example.

    [YA – The logical flow here eludes me. I cited R. Meiselman, not his book on science. By citing one statement of a particular person, do I automatically embrace everything he said?

    And while I have some strong reservations about the book, I would never, ever, speak about it in the terms I did above. Lots of deep, important thinking went into that book. It should be accepted or rejected on the basis of the arguments he presents. Others have written about it. The person who is the subject of this essay, however, uses a general approach that is targeted by the Rambam I cited. He has the right to hold differently – and many do! But the rest of us have an obligation to distance ourselves – and our understanding of Torah – from it]

    • Dov says:

      I just want to qualify my comment:

      I completely agree with what was said in this article,  my only complaint is the lack of a clear delineation between the person you are talking about and the rest of the kiruv world.

      The statement is so broad ,and creates an assumption  that this is how it is in our world .


    • Yossi says:

      I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who had the reaction I did about you quoting Rabbi Meiselman about this issue; I see that Dr. Bill did as well.

      I didn’t realize you were talking about the rabbi in the news; don’t know how I missed that. But, I would say, as you yourself pointed out in the article, that it is most likely that the rabbi himself believes that what he is saying is true. And if you look at many of the speakers that cater to the more ethnic communities (I don’t know how to say it any nicer than that), they take a very superstitious, all or nothing approach. Even some of the more modern communities that are more “enlightened” in the ways of the world have fundamentalist approaches to their belief in the “Chacham”. I would almost say that what you’re pointing out, especially in this case, is much more a cultural phenomenon than a kiruv one.

      I’d also say that, while I’m not involved in campus kiruv so I don’t know what’s going on over there, having been in trained under R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz and having hired people from Ner Le’elef, I haven’t seen what you’re writing about to be the case with, at a risk of over simplifying, mekarvim over forty. While not every mekarev is necessarily an intellectual and as a result may have a somewhat simplistic worldview, the mekarvim I know, have hired or interviewed, or come in contact with are sincere in their desire to teach what they believe is true in a manner that encourages discussion and questions.


  4. dr. bill says:

    An excellent article, but I suspect you can find a better illustration with which to end.  Frankly, as I read the quoted passage from Rambam, I actually thought of some who consider not just the literal meaning of the Bible but also that of Talmudic sages as infallible, even in matters of science.  If you had quoted that source, your ending would be “interesting.”

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “There is an essential problem with using falsehood to win over souls: Torah is emes, and should be taught only through emes.”

    R. Adlerstein is discussing a case when the mekareiv himself and/or a consensus realizes that something is a clear distortion of truth. [YA – Actually, in this case I highly doubt whether the mekarev sees his words as anything less than the perfect truth!] There are also less clear issues,  as people  argue which approach is true, and which is not.  I like what R. Haim Jachter wrote recently, “Different solutions are suitable and satisfying for different people depending on their intellectual (and psychological) makeup”(“Torat Emet Natan Lanu—Harmonizing Bereishit with Contemporary Science”, 10/15/15 Jewish Link), similar to the “shivim panim” mentioned by RYA(see also R. Benjamin Hecht’s “Kiruv:A Paradox of Hashkafah” regarding ta’amei hamitzvos).

    Another  less clear issue is when a proof has questions, whether they should be raised publicly. R. Slifkin wrote to R. Meiselman regarding “The Camel, The Hare, and the Hyrax” that, “Rav Aharon Feldman shlita read through many drafts of the manuscript, including the final draft, and even wrote a haskamah; he ultimately decided not to support the book only because I could not guarantee that it would only be read by the yeshivah world, and he was concerned that it would embarrass outreach workers who use this topic as a proof.”

    One can argue that an argument doesn’t have to be perfect. For example,  R. Adlerstein wrote in his Jewish Action review that R. Reinman’s “One People, Two Worlds  “did not have to be perfect”. Similarly,  R. Dovid Gottleib wrote  in the preface to the 2nd edition of “Living Up to the Truth,  “It still has the status of work in progress”.  About his haskamah to “Science of Torah”,  R. Sholom Kamenetsky wrote,  “but I see these as “suggestions” (based on somewhat spurious understandings of unconventional sources) that are to allow the uninitiated to feel that he can begin learning Torah”;  R. Belsky’s haskamah(translated) to  “The Camel, The Hare, and the Hyrax” reads, ” However, he left a number of issues from the rishonim, the princes of Torah, as difficulties and one can still engage his words”.

    On the subject of truth, I also wonder how  Dr. Shapiro’s “Changing the Immutable” book fits in. So far, there have been reviews by R. Avi Shafran and R. Yair Hoffman, but I would also be interested in seeing a review written by someone in kiruv, as it is potentially related to questions dealt with in the kiruv field.

  6. Charlie Hall says:

    I am grateful that when I decided to try to become an observant Jew I walked into an ordinary modern orthodox synagogue and not one of the kiruv factories that sometimes shade the truth of what Torah is about.

  7. Sara says:

    As a “fresh” university student, I was enamored As a fresh-for-the-pickin’ university student, I was enamored by the emphasis on critical thinking offered by the mekarvim.  The world I came from was devoid of questions, perhaps because there were no good answers.  

    But alas, like many other BTs, I gave up my seichel because everyone else seemed to be doing the thinking for me. The rabbis already thought through the issues.  If I asked eitzeh, I didn’t dare question the answer (isn’t that heretical?!). I didn’t understand how to question in the Torah world.  In fact, I later found out that many don’t question.  Did you know that asking eitzeh is not the same as getting a psak?! (My Lakewood FFB friend begs to differ)

    This is one of the biggest “shekers” being committed by mekarvim– not teaching BTs what seichel is and how to use it.  And I think that this inability to properly process gray areas (shout out to TLC, 2005, Rabbi Adlerstein addressing the difference between Islam and Judaism) is a reason why BTs burn out.

    In fact, I think many BTs, if they had the right education by mekarvim, wouldn’t freak out when they went from looking like they just got out of Lakewood to realizing that a more “modern” approach would perhaps be more healthy for them.

    But, of course, many mekarvim are very idealistic and “black and white” by nature. This more “chilled” approach goes contrary to their personalities.  This is a problem.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Kiruv professionals come in many varieties, with different basic approaches and levels of expertise and trustworthiness.  People who come into their orbit are still responsible as human beings to evaluate what they see and hear and to ask questions.  Failure to take questions seriously or answer appropriately should signal that someone else might be a better spiritual advisor.

  8. Eliezer says:

    It is undeniable that the Charedi world have been largely successful at keeping it’s adherents ‘in the fold’ by restricting access to certain information/media and promoting untruths or simplified truths so as to further a particular agenda (Slifkin affair comes to mind). However I often wonder, as his article does, at what cost? When the wider Jewish sees that this agenda is not always based on truth, how many people then lose confidence in rabbinic authority and go OTD? I think this is something the Charedi world must think about this more than it does. Rav Adlerstein, what do you think?

    [YA – I think that what you say is true about parts of the community, and very much not true about other, equally haredi, parts. Those who wish more nuanced and less simplistic approaches (probably true of a majority of Cross-Currents readers) have plenty of places to go in the haredi world.]

  9. Shmuel Landesman says:

    Thank you for articulating the argument I couldn’t quite articulate myself.

    I have a  family member whose an FFB but loves his talks. I now know what to tell her.

  10. Meir IshHaPar says:

    Excellent point, but invites the type of comments such as mb’s above, the kiruv teacher’s usually are not so dishonest as to preach something they don’t themselves believe. This leads to the next question: Who decides what is “misrepresentation of Torah”? Who decides what is one of the 70 ways? To compare to a different era,  consider the approaches of the commentaries of Rashi and the ba’alei Tosfos as contrasted to the Ibn Ezra. Adherents to the former’s approach often viewed the latter’s as at odds with Mesorah, and disciples of the latter viewed the former’s interpretation of midrashim with near derision. Is one a “Misrepresentation of Torah” or the other “Nonesense”?

    [YA – Pointing out that defining the difference can be difficult does not end the discussion. It does not mean that it can’t be done. In fact, it must, or Torah becomes a free for all. One way that often works is by consensus, or near-consensus. I do believe that this is the case here. Additionally, all people have the right – and a mandate – to militate for positions they have received from their rabbeim. That also enters the discussion about the case at hand.]

  11. joel rich says:

    consequentialism vs deontology round 5776


    Joel Rich

    [YA – Not so sure it should be a debate. In any event, it is probably a truism that deontologists have a moral obligation to speak out against statements they believe to be harmful to the public.]

  12. Yisrael says:

    Some Rabbi’s have a style of overstating the facts to bring out a point. I have heard the Rabbi in question many times and I am certain that this is the case. I know many of his students and  we all know this to be true. Like Donald Trump says he can shoot his supporters and everyone knows he not serious.Why is everyone so bothered that the Rabbi is bringing Jews closer to hashem in a different than usual way. He’s not for everyone. His style is ment for a particular personality that is unaffected by conventional wisdom. A group of people are trying to bring the Rabbi down, in fact the recent news story was from a shiur he gave a few years ago. They are searching his old classes for news worthy bait.He has been Mekariv many thousands of Jews. I’m not aware of anyone who listened to his classes and whent of the derech,the opposite is common.

    [YA – If you are still asking why people are bothered, then you cannot have adequately pondered what the Rambam said. You wrote,”His style is ment for a particular personality that is unaffected by conventional wisdom.” Isn’t that the point! And please understand. He has the right to speak. But in today’s world, no one speaks in a vacuum. Nothing remains private. It all gets out. Which means that while we respect his right to speak, we maintain ours to affirm that we disagree entirely with his approach to Chazal, and do not wish to be associated with his conclusions. Isn’t that fair?]

  13. Manny Saltiel says:

    Well I’m glad I went to one of the mosdos that taught emes. Except for thing they left unsaid. No one told me how costly it would be to put kids through yeshiva and bais yaakov/ seminary. I may still be going to college football games, nebach.

  14. Steve brizel says:

    Kiruv is most effective when the would be BT is offered a portal for exploration of Torah and mitzvos with room for growth mitzvah by mitzvah

  15. Eliezer says:

    Rav Adlerstein, thank you for responding to my points. My point is not whether there are or are not places for the educated haredi to go and get a more nuanced, complex view on things. My point is the public persona that the community has and how it effects the wider community’s view/confidence in rabbinic authority. Many of the headlines outsiders see involve an utter rejection of science/secular education/anything to do with the internet. When the wider community hears this, it gives over the impression that haredi leadership is out of touch with the ‘real’ world (of course, all the above have associated dangers, I don’t deny that) and that it expects people not to think autonomously. Haredi leadership should take into account that although the utter rejection of the things mentioned may keep some of it’s own in the fold, it may also cause countless others from the wider community to believe that orthodox Judaism is only for the simplistic, non thinking, Jew. This is a shame because there is also much good that emanates from the haredi world.

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