Basically, it is defensive.
The Orthodox community does not realize that it is not observance that should be its main concern. Its primary goal should be to create a spiritual environment in which Jews, whether religious or not, can take part in the great mission called Judaism, driven by a visionary Halacha. Because it fails to understand this, it views strangers with suspicion. They are only welcome after a security check. The language spoken in these communities is of right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous. It is a language of survival.
Mainstream Orthodoxy has fallen victim to a false kind of modernity in which flaunting irreverence has become the norm. With only a few exceptions, debunking is commonly practiced, and at every turn we experience the need to expose the clay feet of even the greatest thinkers. Human dignity, a phrase often used, has become a farce in real life. Instead of deliberately looking for opportunities to love our fellow men, as required by the Torah, many have rewritten this golden rule to read, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Distrust your fellow man as you distrust yourself.” People’s lack of belief in themselves has spilled over to their relationships with others. Mediocrity has led them to believe that we are a generation of spiritual orphans.
Influenced by materialistic philosophies, many religious people who once revered their fellow men have become part of the problem without even being aware of it.
When observing even those who are fully committed to helping fellow Jews find their way back to Judaism, we see an attitude that is foreign to religious life and thought. We cannot escape the impression that some people, without denying their love for their brothers, tend to talk down to secular Jews. This has become the norm. Constant emphasis is placed on the need to cure the secular person of his mistaken lifestyle. But this is asking for infinite trouble. It is as Rabbi Heschel stated, based on arrogance.
While the religious Jew sees himself as the ideal, he relegates the secular Jew to second-class status and decides that it is the secular Jew who needs to repent for his mistaken ways. Such an attitude is based on the notions of contrast and a lack of affinity. The secular Jew will always feel inferior. Therefore, the point of departure from which one reaches out to bring fellow Jews closer to Judaism is, at the same time, its undoing. The suggestion, “One should throw oneself into a burning furnace rather than insult another person publicly” (Berachot, 43b) may very well apply, since it is the community of secular Jews who are being shamed and treated as inferior.
FOR JEWS to bring others back to Judaism they need to celebrate the mitzvot that the secular Jew has been observing for all or part of his life, and not condemn his failure to observe others.
The foundation should be humility, not arrogance, said Heschel. There is little doubt that secular Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of those mitzvot may not be in the realm of rituals, but there is massive evidence that secular Jews are firmly committed to keeping interpersonal mitzvot. Beneath the divisiveness of ritualism lies the underpinnings of religion, such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. The pledges are different, but the devotions are equal, said Heschel. It may very well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between religious and non-religious Jews, but their spirits do touch.
Who will deny that secular Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? How many do we know who lack the inner faith that God cares? And how many will not show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of these is the deepest of religious values. We must try to make the so-called non-religious Jews aware of the fact that they are much more religious than they may know; that God’s light shines on their faces just as much, if not more, than on the faces of religious Jews.
This can become an inspiration for religious Jews – not just by honoring secular Jews for keeping these mitzvot, but by taking an example from their non-observant brothers, by renewing these mitzvot and good deeds in their own lives.
Just as the non-religious person needs to prove his worthiness to be the friend of a religious Jew, so the religious Jew needs to be worthy of the friendship of his fellow secular Jew. It would be a welcome undertaking if the religious would call on the non-religious for guidance in mitzvot in which religious Jews have been lax, as well as by asking how to improve themselves.
There is a significant need to call Jews back to their roots by showing them that they never left. Once religious Jews learn that secular Jews are their equals, not their inferiors, a return to Judaism on the right terms can come about.
Orthodoxy celebrates its massive growth and unprecedented birthrate, but by doing so it masks the tragedy of the thousands who are never given an opportunity to get in touch with Judaism, or are unaware of how Jewish they really are. The language of condemnation and devaluation that permeates Orthodox classrooms not only makes it impossible for many to enter, but also causes numerous young people who were raised in a religious environment to turn their backs on Judaism.
Even worse is that Orthodoxy continues to point to this trend as evidence to support its insularity and separatism, blaming secularity for this tragic state of affairs, while the truth is that to a great extent it is Orthodoxy that is to blame.
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. He is the author of many books including the bestseller Jewish Law as Rebellion. An international lecturer, his views are discussed on many media outlets. Find his weekly thoughts at