Amen to Ahavat Yisrael

Just because we see Orthodoxy as the only legitimate form of Judaism doesn't make us any less loving of our fellow Jews who aren't Orthodox.

Yad Sarah 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Yad Sarah 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Jonathan Schorsch writes in "Why many Jews might feel the Orthodox do hate them" (April 19) that I am a "clever fellow" whose "handwringing" over the hatred some non-Orthodox Jews are taught to have for Orthodox Jews is "somewhat posed, if not disingenuous." Prof. Schorsch can be easily disabused of his first assertion by perusing my high school scholastic records, or by consulting my wife and children, who can regale him of all manner of dumb things I've said and done (but who love me, I hope, all the same). As to the second charge, I assure him that I am not only sincere in my observations of the attitudes some have toward the Orthodox, but honestly surprised and pained by them. Schorsch, however, quickly moves to his real point, a charge born of personal experiences he reports. He contends that Orthodox Jews are themselves the cause of the hatred aimed at them, due to what he perceives as their despising of Jews less observant than they. Some of what he relates shows nothing of the sort. The very essence of Orthodox conviction is the rejection of changes to the Jewish religious mandate, like those changes embraced, to one or another degree, by non-Orthodox movements. So there is no crime in, and hence no apology for, Orthodox belief. That, though, should not (and in the vast majority of Orthodox Jews does not) in any way affect how we Orthodox view non-Orthodox Jews. My love for an uncle who was a communist was in no way compromised by my utter rejection of his world-view. Surely Schorsch can relate to that. Does he, as a committed Conservative Jew, consider, say, the "Humanistic Judaism" philosophy - which is unabashedly atheistic - to be a legitimate form of Judaism? Presumably not. Is he chagrined that rabbis of that movement seek to redefine Judaism in atheistic terms? Likely he is. Does he, though, hate Jews who, out of unfamiliarity with the Jewish heritage, pay dues to that group? I would certainly hope not. WELL, WHEN he hears in Orthodox circles how non-Orthodox Jewish theologies are considered beyond the pale, before taking personal umbrage he might consider that it is a thing, a philosophy, an approach, that is being rejected, not Jews. Schorsch asks how anyone could possibly not take it personally when his or her theological beliefs are rejected. The answer is, well, simple; all that is needed is good will, and respect for the deep-seated convictions of others. But some of what Schorsch recounts is deeply disturbing. If, indeed, Orthodox Jews seized on the fact that his father is a chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary to berate Schorsch, that was uncouth, indeed downright rude. And if, indeed, one of his woman friends was assaulted by haredim for carrying a Torah scroll, all I can say is that haredi leaders have explicitly condemned and forbidden any such reactions to even intentionally provocative public displays of that sort. Unfortunately, Orthodox Jews are not immune to character flaws, but I, and most Orthodox Jews, condemn such behavior. Schorsch, however, seems to regard it as characteristic of Orthodox Jews as a group, and offers us some advice. If we are concerned about being perceived negatively, he says, we should collectively focus on Ahavat Yisrael. I will go a step further. Even if we are unconcerned about how we are perceived, Ahavat Yisrael is indispensable, especially in our troubled times. That is an essential message my wife and I have instilled (thank God, successfully, I think) in our children, and one that I stressed, over nearly two decades in Jewish education, to the hundreds of students I was so fortunate to teach (and learn from). But Schorsch's suggestion seems to imply that there is in fact some dearth of Ahavat Yisrael in the larger Orthodox community. While there is always room for improvement, the evidence tells a very different, and, boruch Hashem, very heartening story. Allow me to list a few examples. FOR STARTERS, there are groups like Chai Lifeline, which cares for young Jewish cancer patients and their families regardless of what prefix the beneficiaries may place before "Jew" in their self-description. Likewise the famed "Satmar Ladies," who minister to the needs of Jewish patients in New York area hospitals. And those are but two of the better known of many such hesed organizations under Orthodox auspices. Then there is the world of kiruv, or Jewish outreach. The very existence of dozens of groups helping Jews interact with their religious heritage should say it all. There are so many, in fact, that there is an umbrella organization for such groups in North America, the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs. The concern of the "givers" in these programs transcends any and all denominational lines. A participant who remains a staunch member of a Reform or Conservative congregation is studied with, invited and cared about as much as any belonging to an Orthodox shul, or to none at all. It would be exceedingly odd, of course, for Jews to be so determined to share what they consider a treasure with other Jews they don't care for. And then there are the many "community kollelim" that exist to engage in Torah study not only in the traditional kollel mode of internal study partnerships. These pointedly set aside considerable time for members and their wives to interact and study with men and women from the larger local community - again, without regard to denominational affiliations. In fact, in many established traditional kollelim one easily finds associates - who might be characterized as Torah-study graduate students - setting aside time to study with local Jews (yes, again, whatever their prefixes) who have more limited familiarity with Torah texts. THEN THERE are things like the remarkable Inspired films, whose entire existence is born of a desire to encourage Orthodox Jews to care for and share with their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters. That the films have drawn large Orthodox audiences in many cities, and that untold numbers of DVDs of the productions have been purchased by Orthodox Jews, clearly indicates a concern in the Orthodox community for Jews who are not part of it. As do the themes of Ahavat Yisrael and hesed - good deeds - for other Jews that are mainstays of lectures by popular Orthodox speakers like Rabbi Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Yissocher Frand, whose audiences sometimes number in the thousands. Nor should anyone forget Partners in Torah, the celebrated project of Torah Umesorah that matches up Orthodox Jewish men and women to study Torah by phone. My wife's Torah partner in Torah lives in Arizona, is intermarried and belongs to a Conservative temple. My hasidic colleague's lives in Poughkeepsie, and is of a similar background. At my daughter's recent wedding, her new mother-in-law, who is from Los Angeles and not Orthodox, got to see her own Partner in Torah, from Lakewood, New Jersey - a young woman who made a long trip just to be at the wedding and dance with the Jewish woman she has been studying with for years. It was a festive sight to behold. Scores upon scores of Orthodox Jews are studying with scores of non-Orthodox Jews through this wonderful project. The major American Orthodox organizations all offer the Jewish community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, the benefits of a host of projects, services and educational opportunities. On the local level, practically every American community has an Orthodox hesed group, whose goal it is to assist Jews in need - any Jews in need; likewise a hevra kadisha, or burial society, which prepares the Jewish deceased - regardless of his or her affiliation during life - for Jewish burial. Israel has a plethora of its own outreach and communal services operated by Orthodox Jews but servicing all - many, in fact, that pointedly seek to serve non-observant Jews. I COULD go on - to evidence like countless articles in The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel's monthly magazine, that have called on readers to reach out to and care about all their fellow Jews; or like Orthodox-produced audiotapes and CDs for children that prominently promote good will toward fellow Jews; or to addresses on the subject that have taken place at large Orthodox gatherings, like Agudath Israel's national conventions. Dr. Schorsch: Please believe me. I am embarrassed and pained by the reports you cite of boorish behavior by some Orthodox Jews, behavior I and everyone I know consider a contradiction to what Judaism demands of us. So please consider an open invitation to, at your convenience, grace my family's Sabbath table with the presence of you and yours. I assure you that the experience will be filled only with smiles (and wholly sincere ones), song, friendly conversation and words of Torah.