I studied communications in college, where we learned to appreciate the power of speech and that the ability to communicate is an art which must be treated with respect and caution. The orator is an artiste and the speech is his canvas. Yet in today’s world automation is replacing communication and discourse is quickly becoming antiquated.
Today one can walk into a classroom of kids during recess, or observe a family at a restaurant table, and see everyone sitting quietly, texting one another with their cell phones. When I asked my daughter why she records messages to her friends and sends them via Whatsapp as opposed to just phoning them and talking directly, she told me it was just easier. We have moved from the telegraph to letter writing to speaking on the phone and back to writing again.
Strangely, there are some who would call this progress, but from a Jewish perspective it is anything but.
Judaism has always emphasized the importance of speech. The word “vayomer” (and he said) appears 632 times in the Torah, and the word “amar” (said) appears 431 times. King Solomon proclaimed in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” – quite an instrument for the average person to wield. From the Torah’s perspective Jews are expected to engage in dialogue, even with God, as in prayer (in which we are instructed to utter the words clearly so that we hear what we are saying to God), and certainly with one another as demonstrated by the commandment to impart the Torah to others. At the same time the Torah requires us to monitor our speech, refraining from saying certain things such as taking God’s name in vain or making unnecessary vows. The Torah encourages proper speech but also extols silence, advocating a balance in our lives and establishing that abuse of communication in either direction can be threatening.
This need for balance has revealed itself most recently on the political scene. Many Americans are infatuated with Donald Trump for the simple reason that he speaks his mind, even if he rarely says anything substantial or even if it appears some of the things on his mind border on the insane.
Yet his recent decline in the polls demonstrates that certain people still value the way things are verbalized, and that diplomacy still counts.
Two years ago I started an organization called Makom Meshutaf which promotes Jewish learning and values through educational programming on secular kibbutzim throughout Israel. As an Orthodox rabbi, it takes me time to convince a kibbutz that I have no religious agenda and certainly no intention to coerce, and that my interest is to unite the Jewish community in Israel by means of teaching, discussing and arguing about Jewish principles and ideals which all of us, consciously or subconsciously, share in common. A few weeks ago I called a woman who was the head of culture on a certain kibbutz and who was genuinely interested in what we were offering, which led me to believe the kibbutz would host some of our programs. However, I was disappointed to learn that the kibbutz did not share her enthusiasm. Frustrated, the woman asserted that it was foolish and close-minded of her colleagues to reject the opportunity to study and discover traditional texts. Yet we, as she put it, referring to the rabbinic establishment at large, were equally to blame because for years we had failed to communicate with the country and over time people lost interest.
Her criticism was resonant and merited.
That same week I was speaking with Rabbi Berel Wein, noted Jewish historian and scholar, who was telling me how Orthodox kiruv (lit. “bringing close,” meaning Orthodox Jewish outreach. From the Hebrew word “karov,” meaning close) organizations such as Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach and NCSY enjoyed rapid growth 40 years ago but are currently diminishing in size and influence.
He explained that most of those influenced by these movements were youth affiliated with the Conservative movement who grew interested in Orthodoxy. The leadership of these movements however consistently refused to converse with their Conservative counterparts, which limited a more expansive effect.
While some of the Conservative youth moved toward Orthodoxy, many Conservative Jews swayed toward the Reform movement.
Consequently as the Conservative movement began to lose numbers and influence so did the kiruv movement. Rabbi Wein wryly concluded that this unwillingness on the part of the Orthodox to converse with the people it was trying to inspire merely confirmed that indeed the Lord has a marvelous sense of humor, and has only been detrimental.
Unfortunately this same predicament exists in Israel. Kibbutz Nir Am is situated down south on the border of Gaza and is one of the few kibbutzim in the southwest region which I have managed to visit; there is good reason for this.
Assaf, a member of the kibbutz, explained to me that Sapir University in Sderot was built through contributions from the Reform movement in the United States, under the condition that the local council promote entry for the Reform movement in Israel to teach Judaism and run services in the surrounding area. Assaf happens to be interested in Orthodox traditions and he prefers that if there are classes in the kibbutz that they be taught by an Orthodox authority, which explains why I managed to speak in Nir Am twice. However, under tremendous pressure from the local council, Nir Am is being persistently persuaded to hire a female Reform rabbi who will run services and teach in the kibbutz.
Don’t get me wrong, I have reform rabbi friends who have hosted me as a guest speaker in their synagogues, and we engage regularly in dialogue – something which I strongly believe Orthodox rabbis ought to be doing in Israel as well – but that does not mean that I agree with them. I respect the fact that someone may want to search their Jewish roots by way of the Reform movement, but as an Orthodox rabbi, I am disappointed when I am denied the opportunity to present the Orthodox opinion and perspective, much as I imagine the Reform rabbis are frustrated when they cannot present theirs. Assaf told me that he has gone to the local rabbinate and explained to them what is going on but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Truth be told, there is no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. The Orthodox rabbinate and leadership have consistently approached the secular public and alternative denominations with suspicion and a “holier than thou” attitude and now we are beginning to pay the price. It is only a matter of time before the Conservative and Reform movements in the US begin to question why they are contributing to a country which subscribes to a rabbinic leadership which will not even entertain the thought of engaging with them.
While there is a tendency to cast blame or criticism on the observant Jews (perhaps because of the higher moral standard they are held to, fair or unfair as that might be), many secular Jews, too, leave much to be desired. Just recently a kibbutz retracted an invitation for Makom Meshutaf to run a learning program because, as it explained, following the enthusiastic atmosphere which surfaced during the Purim festivities on the kibbutz, some of the members were nervous that more programming involving Jewish themes would foster excessive religious fervor, and while their concerns were clearly unjustified, I was reminded of how challenging it was to nurture discussion.
Nevertheless, the same week I was fortunate to receive a glimmer of hope and a source of inspiration. I met with the person who was in charge of cultural activities on a different kibbutz, who began to tell me that she was fed up with people complaining about the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) because while there may be much to complain about in terms of their extremism and narrow-mindedness, the same was true regarding members of the kibbutz movement, whom she described as boors who not only knew nothing about Judaism but were also foolish enough to deprive themselves of their rich ancestry.
She related how she often converses with her children about why secular Jews still subscribe to brit mila (covenant through circumcision) and celebrate their bar and bat mitzva; the significance of Jewish symbols and the traditions that make Israel a Jewish country and their homeland. She did not detail the intricacies of the conversations with her kids, but she did reveal that she was determined to connect with her children by exchanging ideas and partaking in conversation.
This week we usher in the month of Nisan, the month marked by Passover, the holiday of redemption. The Passover Seder remains the greatest Jewish national event, commemorated by the highest number of Jews all denominations and levels of observance.
The Seder is not merely a formality or an excuse to hobnob with the family, it is about education through communication, it is about rejecting coercion and embracing transmission. The Passover Seder is an empty canvas upon which we are granted the opportunity to paint, it is an opportunity to converse and understand what makes us different, it is an occasion to impart to our children why all Jews regardless of their level of observance should have a brit mila and commemorate their bar/bat mitzva. We don’t have to put aside our differences at the Seder – au contraire, we should accentuate, consider and discuss them. However, at some point during the Seder we will all read the text which insists that we recall how the Egyptians our enslavers, and so many who have persecuted us since, did not see any differences between us, they looked at us as one in the same – as Jews – and perhaps that is the moment we should look at one another and assert that it is time we did the same.The author serves as a lecturer for the IDF. He started an initiative offering lectures throughout the country on Judaism to secular kibbutzim – www.makommeshutaf.com. He is a lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora.