The only way to possibly effect change in another is through sincere caring for him as a person
The Autumn 2021 issue of Sapir, a newish journal on topics of Jewish interest, focuses on the question of how to ensure American Jewish continuity. My magazine shachein, Yonoson Rosenblum, appears therein with an essay arguing that to survive Jewishly intact, American Jews need to engage seriously with Jewish texts and the basics of Jewish practice. And that, he writes, requires having “a personal relationship with a fellow Jew who takes the Torah seriously and attempts to guide his or her life in accord with the Torah’s dictates….”
In an epilogue to the issue, editor Felicia Herman writes that the “Jewish people have survived because of our ability to adapt to new circumstances while retaining a connection, in some form, to the past. The trick is to balance ‘tradition and change,’ as Mordecai Waxman’s classic book about Conservative Judaism put it.”
Ms. Herman is certainly correct in noting our people’s talent for adapting to changed societal circumstances. But I would challenge her to adduce even one example in which Jewish survival was facilitated not by staunch dedication to Jewish practices as transmitted down through the ages, but instead by maintaining a mere “connection, in some form” to that tradition.
There’s a long history of Jewish schismatic sects trading in strict adherence to the mesorah of Torah shebe’al peh for some newfangled permutation of Judaism and eventually fading into Jewish historical irrelevance. Indeed, it’s quite ironic that Ms. Herman looks to buttress her thesis by resort to the title of a book by Mordecai Waxman, a leading ideologue of one such schism — the increasingly moribund Conservative movement.
Ms. Herman summarizes the issue’s 11 essays as “sketching out prescriptions and policies to create confident, knowledgeable Jews, varied in background and practice, who can, with resilience and adaptability, still chart a path into the future.” Jews who are adaptable and resilient, confident and knowledgeable, and varied in background, too, are certainly necessary for American Jewry to weather its current existential crisis.
But a Torah Jew must reject the notion that the Jewish future can be guaranteed by “prescriptions and policies” that will create Jews “varied in practice” — unless she has in mind the variation between nusach Ashkenaz and Sefard or those who eat kitniyos on Pesach and those who don’t. This is just one more iteration of the long-standing chasm between Torah Judaism and the various heterodox movements, which is, in the end, unbridgeable for one central reason: They believe in religious pluralism and Orthodox Jews don’t. They stand for a multiplicity of spiritual truths (although they often seem curiously dismissive of the one we espouse….), while Orthodox Jews believe that Moshe emes v’Soraso emes, without negotiations.
(An aside: Ms. Herman devotes one paragraph each to summarizing the theses of the various contributors. Each is introduced by name only, save for one who is introduced by reference to his religious beliefs: “The Haredi writer Jonathan Rosenblum.” This reminded me of the time, many decades ago, when a relative of mine with an advanced degree in geology traveled out west for an interview with a Colorado-based oil exploration company. The oil industry is, to say the least, not flush with Jews, let alone frum ones, and when the executive interviewing him gave him a tour of the offices, he introduced him repeatedly as “So-and-so, an Orthodox Jew.” He never did get that job, although he did ultimately land a position working with rocks — in Manhattan’s 47th Street diamond district.)
Yonoson writes of his belief that programs facilitating one-to-one relationships might have a significant impact on American Jews, based on having observed the efficacy of such programs in Eretz Yisrael and how they’re able to reach the alienated Jewish neshamah.
When, as Yonoson puts it, “secular participants in the program are exposed to Jews for whom being Jewish is the greatest imaginable privilege, who are fully imbued with the belief that the Jewish people have a world-historical mission,” only good things can happen. (I can attest to that. Many of the relationships first formed in the one-on-one programs I oversaw back in the 1990s when I was involved with Jewish outreach have endured to this day, leading to Jewish growth and increased Torah observance.)
Yonoson writes regarding these one-to-one relationships that it’s “crucial that the criterion of success for the religious partners is building a relationship, not whether their secular partner takes on religious observance.”
I agree that the focus must be on creating and nurturing a genuine friendship (with due caution to ensure one’s own values and views as a frum Jew aren’t affected, which is a topic for itself). We owe that to our fellow Jew simply because he’s a Jew. And he, for his part, isn’t interested in being someone’s “mitzvah object,” a way for his Orthodox coreligionist to earn spiritual brownie points, and he’ll sense the insincerity rather quickly. Still, a Torah Jew who loves Hashem and His chosen children has to be pained by a fellow Jew’s estrangement from Torah and hope deeply for that to change.
True, the only way to possibly effect change in another is through sincere caring for him as a person, and seeing through his veneer to glimpse the beauty of his neshamah within. But it’s also okay to feel that the measure of ultimate success of your efforts is for your partner-in-learning to become a full-fledged servant of Hashem.
Why, it might even inspire you to become one too .
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 890. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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