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"In the last 300 years, the Jewish religion as it is generally practiced has failed the Jewish people," said Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt at the opening of a dialogue with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Monday night about the future of the Jewish people.
Steinhardt, a prominent philanthropist dedicated to the preservation of non-Orthodox Judaism, was noticeably on edge during this opening exchange, as he was at many points during the evening as he went head to head with Steinsaltz, one of today's greatest Talmud scholars.
The two were brought together at New York's St. Regis Hotel for the annual dinner of the Aleph Society, an organization dedicated to promoting Steinsaltz's efforts worldwide to address what can be done to help invigorate Jewish growth and unity, given the current state of fractured ideologies and beliefs.
Though they approach the subject from opposite ends of the spectrum, both Steinhardt and Steinsaltz have, in their own right, been revolutionary in their efforts to make Judaism more accessible to the masses.
With his interpretations and translations of the Talmud, Steinsaltz has made the text available to the Jewish community at large. Since 1989, Random House has published 22 volumes of the English Talmud and Steinsaltz himself has launched Russian, French and Spanish versions.
Steinhardt, a self-declared atheist, has grown increasingly alarmed over the erosion of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and the threat to non-Orthodox Jewish continuity. In 1995, he closed his lucrative hedge fund to devote his time and fortune to the Jewish world. He is one of the principal investors in Birthright.
Though Steinhardt and Steinsaltz represent, respectively, the secular and religious approaches to Jewish continuity, those lines were blurred several times throughout the evening. Early on, Steinsaltz rejected the idea that Steinhardt was "secular," arguing that someone who has devoted himself to the continuation of the Jewish people is a believer of sorts.
Steinsaltz insisted that there was something religious inside Steinhardt, struggling to get out. Steinhardt replied: "I'll risk the wrath of your God by saying it doesn't exist."
When the audience members weren't laughing, they were gasping, often in response to Steinhardt, who was provocative and unflinching in his gripes against the Orthodox.
Steinhardt blamed them repeatedly for continuing to use "clich s," that for most Jews have "lost their ring."
"[The] vast unwashed mass of Jews out there don't speak your language... the Orthodox world has totally failed to persuade the mass of Jews alive today to care about their Judaism," said Steinhardt.
Neither speaker seemed to offer real solutions for preserving the Jewish people, but moderator Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, pressed both participants to explain why there was even a need for Jewish continuity.
Steinhardt argued that the Jewish people should continue in order to preserve "Jewish values," which he distinguished from Judaism's religious aspects. "The overwhelming number of Jews alive today have no serious interest in their religion," said Steinhardt. He said that could change if Jewish values were substituted for "that which is called religion today." He mentioned education and tzedaka (charity) as examples.
Steinsaltz tried to reframe Joel's question. He rejected the notion that Jewish survival was important because of what Jews have to offer the world. "Do we have to continue in order to do something, or can we continue as other beings [do]?" asked Steinsaltz.
The reasons to work for the continuation of the Jewish people, he said, could be compared those given for saving the dolphins. "Everybody should see that here is a species that seems to be endangered, so you should give it a better chance to survive."
Steinsaltz said, as he has before, that the Jews were neither a nation nor a religion - they were a family. "We want to survive, first and foremost, because our family is a family... I don't need to give any arguments that we are a light unto nations," he said.
Steinsaltz asked why [Jews] should be of "use" to others.
Steinhardt also blamed the organized Jewish world for failing to acknowledge the degree to which non-Orthodox Judaism was in "decline."
"There have never been fewer of us than there are now in relation to the world's population," said Steinhardt. "I don't think we should ignore it, and - more importantly - we need to understand why so many people are leaving or have left our faith."
But even Steinhardt, with all his pessimism, ended on a hopeful note. "Jews throughout the world want to continue being Jewish," said Steinhardt. "They don't know what that means, but they want to know what it means to be Jewish."