“Real” Jews?

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Sholom Simon argues:

When some guy tries to insult another guy, he might say, “you’re not a real man.” News flash: he is not speaking in strictly biological terms. When we answer a Reform Jews complaint that the Orthodox do not regard Reform as “real” Jews by citing halacha that we do indeed consider them Jews, we are (deliberately?) missing the point.

In my opinion, it is Sholom who has missed something in his comparison. When someone says “you’re not a real man,” neither the speaker nor the victim thinks it is meant literally. Many fathers have eaten quiche.

In the case of the Jewish people, on the other hand, I would not agree that this is understood as some sort of metaphor. The very opposite is true. The conflict over the recognition of Reform conversions in Israel was portrayed as “Who is a Jew,” rather than “who is a convert,” or, even better, “what makes a rabbi.” Jews in America came to believe, quite literally, that they would not be recognized as Jews in the Jewish state. And much hatred came out of that.

As far as regarding them as “less Jewish,” I’m sure that for every traditional Jew who actually feels that way, (and I do not pretend that they don’t exist), there are ten non-Orthodox Jews who think that “the Orthodox” commonly view them that way. We don’t believe that it is right for a Jew to not observe the mitzvos. Is the response to that condescension, or compassion? The Torah obviously calls for the latter.

In 1996, the Baltimore Jewish Community Center contemplated opening its Owings Mills center on Saturdays. The Orthodox Rabbinical council hastily called for a gathering, which over 3500 people attended. We got the recordings of that event and put them on-line. I recommend, especially, that you view or listen to the conclusion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s remarks — he is a Rosh Yeshiva in Ner Yisrael, meaning he has extremely solid “ultra-Orthodox” credentials. And this is what he said:

And finally, one last point. One last point, and hear this well.

Why are we here? Why are 3000 people gathered here, in a high school auditorium, on a Sunday morning?

We are here, because we care about you! Do you hear that? We care about all of you! Don’t believe what you read, and what you hear. Don’t let them tell you that we don’t believe you are Jews. We hold you to be Jews, and we care about you. We’re not here for our Shabbos, we’re here for your Shabbos. Because if we didn’t care about you, then why on earth are we here?!

Sholom writes: “As a former Reform Jew, I can tell you that many Jews have a chip on their shoulder, because they are subjected to a barrage of evidence that the Orthodox don’t think them as legitimate.” Where is the evidence, Sholom? Many of them have never had the opportunity to meet an Orthodox Jew. Those that do almost always discover that the Orthodox aren’t nearly as bad as portrayed. As a former Conservative Jew, I can confidently assert that my pre-conceived notions about the Orthodox did not come from real-world interaction with Orthodox Jews.

What we have in front of us is evidence that people really are being taught that the Orthodox have an irrational intolerance for them. The NFTY program framed all of the differences between Orthodoxy and Reform in the model of Dr. Seuss’ sneeches. Is that accurate? Is it the fault of the Orthodox that these kids are taught in youth group that the Orthodox think they aren’t Jewish, or their Rabbi tells them that the “ultra-Orthodox” think anyone who isn’t “ultra-Orthodox” is “goyim?”

Of course, we agree on the solutions. “(a) meeting them face-to-face” — that’s what I was advocating for earlier, and as Sholom well knows, I do not merely talk the talk in this area. And I’m not some sort of exception, either — I don’t need to restate all of the outreach organizations I mentioned earlier, which are working to build bridges. “(b) an outpouring of compassion. Do we really care about every Jew?” That, too, has already been implemented. Israelis cannot but be impressed by the work of Yad Sarah (created by Uri Lopolinsky, who today is mayor of Jerusalem from the UTJ party), and awed by that of Zaka, which recovers bodies of those killed by terrorists in the most gruesome fashion.

But these efforts existed long before the publication of this past week’s Jewish Times. Those efforts cannot undo all of the poison. Much more must be done, and I hope this discussion is a small contribution.

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5 Responses

  1. Isaac says:

    I’m not sure which post to add this comment in, but since this is the most recent in the “They Say We Say” thread, I’ll say it here:

    An additional aspect of the problem of American, “Stream”-affiliated Jews claiming that Orthos say that they’re not Jewish is the export of this idea to secular/traditional (s/t) Israelis. At least once, I met such an Israeli who was surprised to hear that Orthodox Jews would consider her Jewish. I suspect that she’s not the only one.

    In Israel, s/t Jews do not maintain a competing version of “Judaism,” but many (most?) of them do value their Jewish identities very highly. So, to tell them that “Orthodox Rabbis say that you’re not Jewish.” is not true or fair in any way, but it does cause them to feel ill will toward those who they believe are undermining their Jewish identity. I can’t document this right now, but I suspect that there is a great deal of overt and more subtle communication to this effect from American “Streams of Judaism” and their affiliates to s/t Israelis.

    The only things I can think of to do about this aspect of the problem are:
    – Working on the root problem in America, which is already being discussed in this forum.
    – Increasing outreach to s/t Israelis and demonstrations that we value them as Jews.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Sholom —

    Comment #1 — I agree that there is a “jumble” in the person’s mind. Part of this may be internal — imagining that the Orthodox look down on him. Affirming that the person is “as Jewish as I am” is not merely an “Halachic” answer, at least to me. In my experience, most view that as a tremendously positive statement.

    Neither Jeff nor I blame the Reform laity. When the Rabbis speak like that and NFTY teaches like that, it means, of course, that they are training the Reform laity to think that way — exactly as you described. That, I hope we agree, is a problem!

    Comment #2 — We are in complete agreement. That’s why we hope that this blog may contribute, in some small way, to improving that perception, by providing an alternate media view.

    Thank you for being with us!

  3. Michoel says:

    At risk of having some sharp web developer at Cross-Currents find a way of sending a rotten tomato through my monitor, I’d to voice a view that I don’t think gets enough exposure, although it seems to be the view of at least some g’dolei Hatorah. Undoubtably, the large majortiy of Orthodox Jews care deeply about their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters. However, perhaps we are already over-extended in our kiruv efforts? (This is a big subject which I can’t fully address right now but I just want to through it out for others to comment on.) The greatest kiruv is when we live a Torah life properly. When we are consantly running after our fellow Jews and begging them to look at Orthodoxy, we risk cheapening Torah observance in their eyes. Also, as I heard from one Rosh Yeshiva, the goal of kiruv should not primarily be to make many Jews be shomer shabbos, but rather to create lomdei Torah or at least Jews that are committed to the centrality of limud a Hatorah.

    When we hold ourselves back, it actually allows true m’vakshim to come looking for us. When we force Torah into the general marketplace of ideas (via the internet and other means), we may be doing as much harm as good. It is important to look at these things honestly and not just take an “I’m going to save the world” attitude. Also, it benefits klal Yisroel in the long run to have highly commited baalei t’shuvah that will strenghten the frum community and not weaken it. Yes, ahavas Yisroel, but let us remember that their can be no true ahavas Yisroel without ahavas Torah and yiras shomayim. Let us not buy into the cannard expressed in some cirlces that the Orthodox just want to sit in their ghetto in Lakewook and don’t care about klal other Jews. The greatest expression of love of fellow Jews may be sitting and learning Torah. And, certainly, learing Torah is the thing which is most m’sugal to produce ahavas Yisroel.

  4. Sholom Simon says:

    R Menken writes: “Sholom writes: “As a former Reform Jew, I can tell you that many Jews have a chip on their shoulder, because they are subjected to a barrage of evidence that the Orthodox don’t think them as legitimate.” Where is the evidence, Sholom? Many of them have never had the opportunity to meet an Orthodox Jew. Those that do almost always discover that the Orthodox aren’t nearly as bad as portrayed. As a former Conservative Jew, I can confidently assert that my pre-conceived notions about the Orthodox did not come from real-world interaction with Orthodox Jews.”

    Tell me — how do we know what’s going on in Iraq? Have we met any Iraqis? No. We know by reading the media and listening to our leaders.

    How do Reform Jews know what Orthodoxy is about? Same thing! The media and their leaders. Read any number of newspapers. Read “Reform Judaism” Magazine (and R Menken knows well of what I’m talking about here). When R Bashki-Doron made his comments, it was fodder for all the Reform pulpits.

    Furthermore, when I was in Reform circles, I can’t tell you how many times I heard somebody say something like, “my father’s uncle once who is Orthodox once told me that . . . “. And, poof, instant generalization. And that generalization accords with all the other things they “know” about the Orthodox: from the media and from their leaders.

    We have a _lot_ of work to do to overcome this situation. A lot.

  5. Sholom Simon says:

    I must disagree with my good friend R Menken here. I must share some of the blame because I wrote quickly and didn’t articulate myself well.

    Yes, it is true that when a Reform Jew claims that the Orthodox don’t think of him as a Jew, the Reform Jews means it literally (in a halachic sense). But he _also_ means it in a more metaphoric sense (like the “your not a real man”). And he also means that his “brand” of Judaism is completely discounted.

    And not only does he mean all of the above, but he probably has them confused and jumbled together, not fully understanding the distinctions. But, mostly, he feels rejected.

    So when a Reform Jew complains that the Orthodox don’t think he’s a real Jew — I’ll say again — to answer in strictly halachic terms misses (at least part of) the point. Furthermore, it doesn’t address his concerns.

    But, most of all, we can’t attack Reform Jews on the grounds that they are slandering us by claiming that we don’t take them to be full Jews. It’s unproductive and doesn’t help anyone. (Tinok Shenishbu anyone?)

    We need to tell him that not only do we count him as a full Jew, but that he is as essential to klal yisroel as each letter of a sefer Torah is to that Sefer Torah.