Thursday, November 29, 2007

kiruv: can Orthodoxy prove itself meaningful?

This article in the NY Times about new "minyanim" which are springing up and attracting young people looking for spirituality raised a bunch of questions in my mind. The service featured in the article is done in Hebrew, incorporates song and music, is led by laypeople, and is fully egalitarian. It attracts people who have not found a home in traditional synagogues of any denomination.

1) Why do people go? The article quotes a founder of one of these minyanim as saying people are looking for, “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives.” Which means to say that organized religion, certainly Orthodoxy, has failed to provide such experiences. Look around you in shule – are people bored during davening, asleep during the “sermon”, eagerly counting the minutes until kiddush? If not in your shule, I am sure you know a shule like this. Is shule supposed to be a "redemptive, transformative experience", and if we don't have that experience, why not and what can we do about it?

2) From the article:

“The primary reason I am here is because of gender equality,” said Rebecca Israel, 25, who was raised in an Orthodox family. Ms. Israel attended D.C. Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat, which she visited one recent Friday, until she moved a year ago to New York, where she goes to Kehilat Hadar. “If Judaism is central to my morality, then its practices needed to reflect the morality that I learned from it. In religious practices that limit women’s participation, Orthodox shuls were not living up to that equality that is important to me.”

I wrote a few posts ago about Ms. Haviva Ner-David and the changes to Orthodoxy she advocates. Well, if Orthodoxy is not going to radically change (and I don’t mean to suggest it should!), how should Orthodoxy address concerns like those raised by Rebecca Israel? Do we just dismiss these complaints as unfounded at the cost of another person leaving Orthodoxy, or should we be doing some soul-searching about whether we are even hearing the complaint and/or offering a meaningful response?

3) Why should we care? The article notes: “Kehilat Hadar’s e-mail list, however, has about 2,800 addresses, a sign of the transience of the young Jewish population in the city and the high level of interest.” 2800 souls who want an affiliation with something spiritual and meaningful; 2800 souls who are searching for G-d and say they can't find him in our shules. How should we respond? Are their claims to be dismissed as not genuine or their concerns moot because they deviate from tradition? Can Orthodoxy provide the spirituality and community they crave in a way that does not undermine halacha? 2800 people are not leaving the derech because they cannot square the age of the universe with braishis or because they cannot see how torah m'sinai fits the documentary hypothesis - they are leaving because established religion, Orthodoxy included, has proven itself spiritually irrelevant to their lives. That is a thought that should scare us.


  1. Anonymous1:41 PM


    It surely has not escaped your notice that what is called "spirituality" in this article is, for the most part, self-centered, feel-good-about-myself rhetoric. Very New Age, but not very Torah based.

    As for egalitarianism, the short answer is: the Torah is not egalitarian, not in the sense meant here -- erasure of all gender differences. There is no "answer" that is consistent with both the Torah and the "morality" of egalitarianism.

    The only answer I know of is: God wrote the Torah, and He also created man and woman. The two are different not only biologically but also religiously.

  2. Anonymous4:24 PM

    Two words: Muttel Kaplan.

  3. The thing with Judaism is that by its very nature it drives its adherents away. The same way it elicits hatred from non-Jews, it also generates dissatisfaction in many Jews. Did you ever hear of "self hating hindus/christians/muslims/zoroasterans/animists"? That's the way it's been from day one, from the Eigel to Achav to the Tzedukim to the Misyavnim to the 'supplanters'. The few of us that are left are the ones that refuse to be driven. If Judaism were at all user friendly, it would be pandemic. As it is, we are the me'at mikol ha'amim, and that's the way it's going to always be.

  4. Well, Dawkins and Harris, I suppose, but it would not shock me at all if one of them *did* have a Jewish ancestor somewhere up the line...

    I don't believe there's any easy answer to the phenomenon, but I think that it deserves to be a source of worry, rather than simply accepting it. I think that RTB has the right idea, but we're ideologically very far away from being able to easily apply it as a useful answer.

  5. Heh. OK, so Harris *is* Jewish (although his father's a Quaker).

  6. Anonymous2:52 AM

    The Truth does not need marketing.

  7. The post and the comments reflect what I see as the problem with contemporary orthodoxy. We are saddled with emunot tefeilot that have become the sine qua non of yiddishkeit and that has sapped the real message of avodat and yediat hashem out of Torah's path. We need to go back to basics and reexamine every one of those supposed axioms and see if they are really Torah messages or things we accumulated in Galut. Until we get a person that is great enough both in Halacha and Maschshavah, a yerei shamayim be'emet, who can undertake this reformulation, we will continue floundering. We need someone oif such stature that he can supercede the deep divides that are extant in our community and garner the respect of all. Is that going to happen? I hope so. Historically we were lucky for such people one in many generations, but when such a person came about it was transforming and rejuvenating.

    The other choice is the return of the Sanhedrin and beit din hagadol system bimeheira beyameinu-