Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kiruv: A noble goal or sticking noses in others’ business?

A Guest Post by Philo

Is kiruv a noble goal? Or is it just some Jews poking their noses in other Jews' business and telling them how to live their lives?

The mainstream Orthodox Jewish community certainly sees it as noble. Kids are taught from a young age that anyone who's not religious is missing something, and it's our "job" to bring it to them. Another goal is bringing the geulah. A lot of frum kids are taught that if all the Jews in the world kept two consecutive shabbatot in a halachically observant manner, the Mashiach would come immediately. I was certainly taught that. So it becomes a numbers game, so get as many people into the fold as possible. This is a major motivation for Chabad, though within that context they do seem to show genuine caring for individual Jews.

But what if someone's living a happy life, has a husband and kids, is well-adjusted and is generally a good person? She may not have a deep knowledge of her heritage, but she goes to shul once or twice a year, and likes it. There's nothing missing in her life. Then some kiruv rabbi comes along and tells her that she's living her life wrong and has to change entirely. That she's missing out on something beautiful (and for the more hard-core kiruv rabbis) that she's sinning. How is that different from missionaries coming along and telling her that she needs to accept Jesus to be saved? (I know that kiruv people will explain that they target only Jews, so they're not missionaries, but really, from the perspective of the targeted, what's the difference?)

Essentially, if she's happy, who are we to come and mess that up?

Some close relatives of mine drive to a Conservative shul every shabbat. They love the shul and he lains the parsha there on a regular basis. Is there something deeply wrong with their lifestyle because they drive to shul?

And yet, in another case, my gut tells me another story. Not all non-Orthodox Jews are the same, despite what I thought when I was twelve years old. So let's look at the case of an entirely unaffiliated Jew. He grows up knowing that he's Jewish and not having any problem with that. But for him it means mostly Seinfeld or Bagels & Lox. Like the woman above, he also is well-adjusted and happy. But he knows virtually nothing about his heritage. From my perspective, he has the perfect right to that lifestyle. But there's a deep part of me that feels it's a shame that he knows nothing about the incredible heritage of his ancestors, knows no Hebrew, has never sat in a sukkah or heard a beautiful Adon Olam, and never experienced the serenity of a Shabbat (to whatever level of observance.) He doesn’t know of the wealth of halachic, aggadic, and poetic literature that has been produced by his people for 3,000 years. While I personally feel I have no right to intervene in his happy life, if he comes to me asking questions, I'd be happy to give him information and invite him to a shabbat meal, while putting no demands on him, to show him this gift he’s missing out on.

Then there are the unhappy non-Religious Jews. They are unhappy in their lifestyles and are desperately searching for something. They tend to be easy targets for kiruv “professionals”. Some are genuinely searching for religious truth and Orthodoxy does end up making them happy. But for a large minority of them, their problems just come with them into their new lifestyles. I’ve met far too many people who should have never become frum. They should have sought therapy instead. So they were miserably unhappy unaffiliated Jews, and now they’re miserably unhappy Orthodox Jews. Some are worse than unhappy, and are emotionally disturbed. Yet the frum community counts them as success stories as soon as they start keeping Shabbat & Kosher.

I know that Orthodox Jews are supposed to feel that anyone who’s not Orthodox is a lost soul that needs to be brought to frumkeit. And as a kid and a young adult, I deeply believed in kiruv. But now, as an Orthodox-ish Jew who has decidedly heterodox ideas and believes in Jewish pluralism, here’s a sum-up of how I see the correct approach to the various types of Jews I mentioned above.

1) The happy, and religiously involved Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc, Jew:

Leave her alone. She’s happy. She’s a good Jew, just as good as I am, perhaps better sometimes. They fact that I don’t use electricity on Shabbat and she does doesn’t mean anything. Become friends with her as an equal, not with any ulterior motive.

2) The happy but entirely unaffiliated Jew who thinks Seinfeld is what Judaism is about:

I would also leave him alone, other than becoming friends with him as an equal. I’m not better than he is either. However, if he asks me about Judaism, I’ll be happy to speak to him about it, without pushing. I’d even invite him to a Shabbat meal unprompted, but without any motive other than that he enjoys himself. If he takes something deeper away, that’s great, but that’s not my motive. But I’d be extremely happy to guide him if he expresses further interest. And despite the fact that I would in no way feel better than him if he never expresses interest in religiosity, there would be a small part of me feeling like his kids are missing something important. But I’d respect his choices, nonetheless.

3) The unhappy heterodox Jew, of any stripe, who may have emotional difficulties:

I would NEVER try to get him to become Shomer Shabbat. Instead, I’d try to get him the help he needs. It’s no service to him to encourage him on his way into becoming an OCD ba’al tshuva (and no service to Orthodox Judaism either, for that matter – that’s where many new chumras are born) or becoming a severely depressed person in a community where some segments still neglect emotional illness. Shmirat Shabbat does NOT equal happiness.

Summary: Kiruv is all very well & good in theory, but the kiruv missionary machine doesn’t respect Jews and their choices.

Search for more information about misdirected kiruv at 4torah.com.

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