Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My unwanted, unrequested two cents on the historic summit

I like Eliyahu Fink. I admire his optimism and his ability to see good in anything. Which is why I've been reluctant to say anything publicly about his "historic summit." But after reading Alderstein's new post on the Crosses, in which he described the conference, I found myself weakening. His attitude is simply revolting and his blind spots are legion. My small fisk follows.

I had not intended to write about the meeting a week ago Sunday between a group of Jews who left observance, and another group taken from the traditional community. 

Originally, the participants had all agreed to keep the meeting under wraps. Noise, self-congratulation in the press, grandstanding – these are proven ways of deep-sixing a new, delicate and complex venture. Somehow, the rules got changed, and the word is out. By now, there have been so many varied reports about the “summit” that I must add my voice to those who have already spoken.

Here is where I will ask why it is newsworthy that a group of people had a meeting. Meetings happens every day. The participants who have filed reports are acting as if the Pope sat down with the Ayatollah, but can we be honest for a moment? None of the participants are communal leaders in any sense. More importantly, they don't represent anyone. If lightening strikes and these meetings manage to help Alderstein and Safrin see that they are pompous prigs* with false, and even damaging ideas about both the religion and the universe who will that help other than Alderstein and Safrin? They don't speak for the other prigs, and the other prigs are under no obligation to obey them. Likewise the OTDers didn't appoint a representative to attend this conference and make decisions on their behalf.

Though I have an inchoate idea of what the goals of this conference might have been I fail to see how the participants at the meeting, given their standing and status, have any hope of realizing them. I see no way of extrapolating to the larger community any of what the participants personally experienced at this meeting

* prig: a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if superior to others.

It was the non-traditional group that requested the meeting, and it did not prove difficult to find traditional counterparts who were more than willing to participate. Rabbi Eliyahu Fink ably presided over putting the two groups together. The traditional delegates did not volunteer (nor could they, since no one knew about such a meeting), but were asked to join. The meeting was going to be small, confidential (so people could speak openly), and focused.

OTDers and traditionalists have been talking to each other forages  They talk to each other all the time. They chat at family events. For more then a decade they've interacted on web forums, on blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook. Many of those conversations are pointless, of course, but some are productive, with the participants gaining and learning from them. I've seen it happen. This Summit sounds like another one of those conversations. The fact that the participants who have gone public are representing this meeting as something new under the sun - they're even calling it a Summit! - instead of recognizing that it was just an ordinary interaction among relative nobodies seems like nothing but a function of their own egos.

I agreed to participate, even thought it meant hopping on a red-eye from the West Coast right after Shabbos.  Two objectives stood before me. Firstly, the OTD delegates were Jews in pain. (Aside: Several attendees expressed their dislike of the “OTD” label, and I can understand why. We are going to use it here because – as I pointed out at the meeting – its very ubiquity makes it unlikely that it can be erased as the descriptor of choice. Many in the yeshiva community object to the term “ultra-Orthodox,” but we similarly have no choice about using it.) People in pain need to share that pain with others, particularly when they feel that they have been previously silenced. I was aware enough of ways in which our community has made, and continues to make, great mistakes that may have contributed to their pain. As a member of the Torah community, I felt that we owed them the opportunity to be heard, and that taking the time to listen was the least I could do as a member of the community. Apportioning “blame” was a non-starter. Pain is pain. It should be ameliorated wherever it exists, period.

What did I say about ego? Here's the great, exalted Rabbi deigning to interrupt his busy schedule to fly cross country to sooth the pain of the poor lost sheep. Only, he's not going to do anything meaningful to address the sources of that pain. He says "taking the time to listen was the least I could do" but comments on his blog remain strictly moderated. So much for listening. His partnership with Menken and the Crosses endures and his columns will continue to appear alongside posts that prop up awful ideas and defend terrible people, with no word of protest or disagreement. The bashing of teenager girls who wear tefillin and heterodox Rabbis will continue. But at least the choshiva rov is available to pat heads and coo some kind words in private, behind closed doors at an event he's been promised no one will publicize.

Secondly, the traditional members perhaps stood more to gain than the no-longer-observant. Readers of Cross-Currents are not great consumers of whitewash.

Does Alderstein read Cross Currents? The blog is nothing but one big, giant, brush of whitewashing. Just standing here on one leg I can think of posts that whitewashed the following unsavory characters:
They generally insist on viewing reality in color, even when that includes somber shades of black.

And Cross Currents has been very helpful in abetting their viewing of reality by publishing science and evolution-denying posts.

In other words, they are aware – to some extent – of real problems and fault lines in our part of the universe.

Despite the ongoing efforts of Shafran, Alderstein and Menken to paper them over?


The meeting has been touted as running counter to the usual. I don’t see it that way. There is nothing particularly exceptional about Yidden listening to the pain of other human beings. If the meeting helped ease their pain, or gave them a modicum of hope for the future (hope means for different treatment to the children, relatives and friends they all have within the Torah community), it was successful, even if not particularly revolutionary. I hope that the premature attention directed to it will not cause the collapse of the process.

What process? Why is a process needed in order for jerks to stop being jerks? How does "premature attention" justify the continuation of errors?  If you know your community is doing something wrong - is causing unnecessary damage and pain!! -  and you have a forum for publicizing and correcting those errors, how dare you abdicate that responsibility? How dare you use "premature attention" as an excuse! How many blessings from how many gedolim do you need before you can stand up and do the right thing?

It would be counterproductive – and somewhat narcissistic – to report on the content.

So narcissism-seekers will have to be content with the account of your red-eye flight to the souls who longed for your healing touch

Let that happen later, when the process continues. 

Process. Again with the process. Just tell other people to stop being jerks. You don't need a process for that

For now, all I will say is that I learned much with my brain, and even more with my heart. 

Much of what you learned might have been discovered years ago had your blog employed a less draconiam commenting policy.

Some of us have some pretty nasty reactions to situations, and they are damaging and not what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants to see. 

You have no idea what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants to see. Prig.

I sensed that some on the other “side” learned a bit about the dynamics of the traditional world that they had not known while inside. To be sure, we were eleven blind people all encountering a huge elephant in the room, and meeting up with different parts of it. Some felt the sharpness of the tusks, while others were impressed or dismayed (depending on perspective) by a massive, immovable flank.

Even at this stage, it must be conceded that listening to pain can be painful. The anguish of others becomes your anguish. Listening to horror stories about the behavior of some individuals and some organized parts of the Orthodox world can depress you when you realize that you cannot jump out of your seat and say, “Impossible! Torah Jews never act this way!”

What are you going to do with this pain and anguish? How it will change the way you conduct yourself on your blog? ( I mention the blog because its where we see him) What have you learned from the meeting, from all that pain you shared? What new things have you taken on? What resolutions have you made?

Facing problems can be crushing. Many of us would like to believe that possessing a perfect Torah translates into living in a perfect community. 

Maybe you should ask yourself why the Jews are so less then perfect if their Torah is so infallible?

When we wake up to the reality of our imperfection, we can be shaken to the core. Each generation has its tests and challenges. It might very well be that our challenge is to confront our failings and – even before remedying them – resolving not to lose one iota of our conviction that there is no better way to live, despite the cognitive dissonance we experience. We stick with it because Torah is true, and you don’t abandon truth.

OK. I see you've learnt nothing and have made no resolutions. You're just going to "stick with it" because you, Alderstein of Los Angeles, know exactly what God wants to see, and until a moment or two ago you thought having a perfect Torah produced a perfect community and you're not quite ready to abandon that. You met some people and felt some pain, but you failed to do anything productive with it. Now as your article and ardor fizzle out, you're back where you started: Dead certain that you are right, and that your interpretations are flawless.

Yossi Bloch adds: (in the comments)

"It might very well be that our challenge is to confront our failings and – even before remedying them – resolving not to lose one iota of our conviction that there is no better way to live, despite the cognitive dissonance we experience."

That's the most shocking. Not surprising, but galling. Our primary challenge is not to remedy our failings (whatever that might mean), but to resolve that we are absolutely 100% right. So before we fix our failings, we should declare that we do not and could not possibly have any. Gadlus!
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