What has the Torah come to teach us?

The denigration, the contempt for Jews who differ surfaces all too easily and remains widespread.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
The Jerusalem Post invited me to respond to Rabbi Avi Shafran's latest installment ("Amen to Ahavat Yisrael," April 28). I am grateful for the opportunity. First, I would like to clear up a few things. My last piece did not come out of the blue, but was in response to an article of Shafran's ("Fiendish fables about Orthodox Jews," March 27). In it I failed to mention that I have been blessed to belong to and daven at a number of Orthodox synagogues where the rabbis self-consciously avoided denominational swipes. Furthermore, many wonderful stories can be told about Orthodox individuals who treat non-Orthodox Jews with warmth, empathy and concern. I have only the greatest admiration and respect for the tremendous work that so many individuals and institutions in the Orthodox world do for the people of Israel. I look up to so many "Orthodox" scholars and rabbis, past and present, and the Torah they helped and help renew that it would be silly to try to list them. I would not spend the time and energy that I do in pursuit of learning from them if I lacked respect for them. Finally, I do not want to be misunderstood as "blaming the Orthodox" for all animosity toward them. And again, as I wrote last time, groundless hostility and contempt toward the Orthodox is also too widespread. BELIEVE ME, I would be overjoyed to be wrong in this discussion. I do not think I am, Shafran's denials notwithstanding. Of the intelligent responses that I received - from Conservative Jews, "progressive" modern Orthodox Jews and Chabad emissaries alike - most confirm what is an open secret in the Orthodox world: Denigration of and contempt for Jews who differ, even within Orthodoxy, surfaces all too easily and remains widespread. Shafran may think that the Orthodox merely reject "a thing, a philosophy, an approach," but these philosophies are held by real, living Jews and many non-Orthodox Jews sense all too accurately that they are being rejected. Their perception is not mere imagining. After all, in some places the Torah prays and wants us to pray for the termination of sinfulness, while elsewhere it calls for the extermination of the sinners themselves. But today's non-Orthodox Jews are not asking for Orthodox approval and the truth is, it is no longer in Orthodox hands to determine who is a "legitimate" Jew, to use Shafran's words. If Orthodox Jews act with hostility or hate toward those who differ, it is nothing less than sinat hinam; God can and will judge without our "help." If Orthodoxy is going strong, "making" so many new Jews, why the constant need to delegitimize other streams of Judaism? What is it to the Orthodox if others prefer a more critical Judaism or a humanistic one? These streams keep thousands upon thousands of Jews connected to Judaism, even if in ways scoffed at by those who would demand that they observe the entire Shulhan Aruch. Surely this is better than their having no connection whatsoever with Judaism? Tactless dismissal, exclusion "for the sake of God" (committed Zionist rabbis forbidden to utter public prayers, as we witnessed in Israel just now) generates in those excluded only alienation, anger, frustration and sadness. THE QUESTION of how the Orthodox should treat non-Orthodox therefore has nothing to do with "Orthodox beliefs." The problem is attitudinal. Some people clearly prefer the Torah of separation and exclusion, avoiding everything that differs from their way. This is the kind of Torah that leads a rabbi to instruct a ba'al teshuva to no longer eat at the house of his non-Orthodox parents, a case I had the displeasure to witness. Others emulate the Torah of holiness-within-the-world. In my experience, those whose Judaism is strongest, most mature and self-aware have no problem maintaining their strict standards while, say, visiting and eating in a less observant household, even if it means eating only an apple or drinking tea. I have seen gedolim do this, even eat hot meals off the hosts' plates, with no questions asked. They understand that accepting others where they are does not compromise their own religiosity. They understand that the positive message they are sending pleases God more than self-righteousness parading as godliness. Shafran describes a veritable Orthodox love-fest toward non-Orthodox Jews. I am unaware of the many articles in the Orthodox press and the many children's CDs urging ahavat yisrael that he mentions, but would very much like to see them. If they are as frequent as is alleged, they need to be assessed according to a well-founded principle of legal history: When a law or correction of a transgression is repeatedly promulgated, it is because the problematic behavior continues to be widespread. The organizations Shafran describes may all do wonderful things, but they all share the same goal, turning non-Orthodox Jews into their vision of what an Orthodox Jew should be. (I say this as someone who tries very hard to live my life around Torah.) THE IMPLICATION is clear: non-Orthodox Jews cannot be accepted as they are. This is at best partial love and care, perhaps even the opposite. I am reminded of the blogger who "agree[d] wholeheartedly" with my call for ahavat yisrael, which he perversely turned into the following: "Anyone acting negatively towards the newly observant Jew will have to answer for it in the Next World"! Only toward the newly observant Jew? To some degree Safran shares this kind of unwillingness to read accurately. He calls me a "committed Conservative Jew," though nowhere in my piece did I characterize my religiosity (no offense intended, but anyone who knows me would find this description amusing). It is of course much easier to dismiss people when you decide that they are heretics. Nowhere in my piece did I suggest that non-Orthodox denominations stand free of serious problems and deficiencies, or that Orthodox Jews should compromise on their beliefs. As far as I recall, however, even the famous talmudic section regarding those who fail to believe in the supposed "minimum standards" - the divine authorship of the Torah, divine providence, resurrection, etc. - prescribes no punishment, leaving their treatment to God. HOW CAN one serve God with all one's heart and soul, as some of us pray twice daily, if one denies one's God-given intelligence, if one kills important and healthy parts of who one is? The problem is not Orthodoxy, but a poor understanding of what we are in this world for, and what Torah comes to teach us. If people are not encouraged to think for themselves, how will they ever be thoughtful? Torah should lead to expansive consciousness, not small-mindedness. If you do well in your religiosity, don't credit yourself with great achievements over it, just serve God and stop crowing about how wrong everybody else is. I know that once again people will think I am being harsh, even vitriolic or trying to tell everyone how to be a real Jew. I am not reluctant to confess how little I know and how much I could improve. But I believe passionately that we can and must all do better. I beg readers to believe that my pleas come for the sake of heaven, out of love of Torah and for all Jews. I simply cannot hold my tongue in the face of secret and not-so-secret animosity between Jews, especially in these dangerous times. I wrestle on an ongoing basis with questions of theology; to pretend it were otherwise would be no spiritual accomplishment, but role-playing. A wort attributed to the Yehudi Hakadosh as well as the Kotzker Rebbe states that while Vayikra 19:11 commands all Jews not to lie to one another, a hassid is someone who will not lie even to himself. My children can't stand that I define myself only as a practicing Jew, but that is the only accurate self-description I can think of; I hope desperately to one day get it right. Rabbi Shafran: Thank you for your kind invitation. I will gladly bring my wife and five children to your house for a Shabbat meal. The real question, however, is whether you and your family would be willing to sit in my father's house, for instance, or at the house of a secular Jew and have fruit or tea? The writer teaches Jewish studies at Columbia University.