My Debate With Dennis Prager

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I debated Dennis Prager yesterday – and survived!

The OU was looking for a strong closing session for its West Coast Torah Convention, and there are very few proven draws as strong as Dennis, who lives and broadcasts here in Los Angeles. The two of us have been friends for many, many years, so I was seen as a natural sparring partner.

Of course it was foolish to go up against a consummate debater like Dennis. I agreed to swallow my pride and dignity to help out the OU, and my good friend Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the OU’s West Coast director. I tried to make light of being outranked by describing the encounter as a win-win proposition for me. If I made a few good points, great. If I didn’t, Dennis would get the blame, since everything I know about public debate I learned from him.

Nonetheless, I was plenty apprehensive about the encounter. The brochures had assigned a topic so vague – The Future of American Jewry: Innovation or Preservation – that I could not prepare in any way. Dennis would have to lead, and I would respond. Dennis did not disappoint – neither in holding the audience spellbound, nor in providing an opportunity to respond.

For as long as I have known him, Dennis has clearly broadcast his modus operandi. When he speaks to a Reform audience, he criticizes Reform; Conservative audience can expect a critique of Conservatism. Orthodoxy gets the same treatment.

Not all Orthodox communities are comfortable with outsiders offering their suggestions about what they are doing wrong. The OU thought about it, and decided that hearing criticism – taking it to heart if it was accurate, rejecting it if it was not – would be a positive experience, not a negative one. I think it was a wise move, although clearly not appropriate for every audience.

Coming into the debate, my guess was that Dennis would stay away from ideological issues, and primarily focus on one of his pet peeves about Orthodoxy – what he sees as its shirking its responsibility to the rest of humanity. First mistake. While he did take aim at our insularity, he spent more time going after parts of halacha that he took strong exception to. He placed at least equal emphasis on the parts of Orthodoxy that he admired (he grew up Modern Orthodox, and his oldest son David is completely observant and learning in YU), and underscored that he shared with Orthodoxy a belief in the Divinity of the Torah – the single factor he considers to be the most important guarantor of the values he cherishes the most, and that are at the core of American greatness.

He cited example after example of halachic areas he thought problematic. I hesitate to publicize on this blog what are essentially blows at the very heart of our mesorah (tradition). The casual reader may not appreciate it. [For those really interested, you can find a copy of the presentation minus the first minute or so at http://s1.upload.sc/request/de87e9f88d46d4b117829c091b83547c The server will automatically delete the file after one month.]In responding, I had my work cut out for me. I tried to get as much as I could into the time I had, and to match humor with humor. Only the audience can tell whether I succeeded.

Most important was that there was no real need to educate the audience, but simply to defend kavod HaTorah. I don’t believe that anyone in the audience was really moved by the specific arguments, because they recognized that those arguments struck at the heart of what halacha tries to accomplish, and they had enough confidence in it to withstanding the attacks. They may not have known how to satisfactorily explain each example, but they knew that the answers were there for the asking. In that sense, I think people walked away with the confidence that they had heard what a respected and intelligent critic had to say, and it didn’t sway them.

Dennis did make one point that I feel more comfortable sharing, and that is worthwhile pondering. Owning up to what he saw as certain tensions between mainstream Orthodoxy and Chabad, he nonetheless sang the virtues of the latter. In particular, he contrasted what he saw as different kiruv styles between the communities.

He argued that Chabad was so successful because the greatest motivation for their work was unqualified love for every Jew. Outside of Chabad, he thought, kiruv workers were far more focused on results – more mitzvah performance – than on the person.

Generalizations always fail. There is plenty of ahavas yisrael (love of other Jews) around among successful kiruv workers. Yet the thrust of his argument does seem reasonable to me. I had a similar conversation with my friend Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda. While I fiercely reject the notion that Chabad pioneered outreach in American or put it on the map, I would resist any attempt to deny their great accomplishment, especially in far-away areas that no one else is interested in serving. I think that it is accurate to say that much of the vocabulary of the non-Chabad kiruv world does derive from other halachic areas, other than ahavas yisrael. Specifically, the mitzvah of kiruv is seen as deriving from the mitzvah of vehashaivosa lo (returning lost property, and a fortiori, a lost soul), or tochacha (rebuke), or teaching Torah. Every kiruv gathering I have attended has emphasized that kiruv workers need to be supersaturated with love of their fellow Jew, but it is not the only theme or halachic source.

Maybe there is some wisdom in Chabad’s putting all their kiruv eggs in the basket of ahavas yisrael.

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Truth
8 years 7 months ago

Moishe,

I know it’s extemely difficult to have a rational discussion on these matters, even with a intelligent one, because sooner or later it brings forth emotional outbursts rather than logical analysis of the matter discussed, but since the point has to get accross let’s try slowly:

One of the criticisms being posed here was the denigrating (and isolation) attitude of Lubavitchers towards the rest of the non chabad world. when presented with such complaint (with many anecdotal experieces) the response is “but they all hate us”. and starts a whole list of subjective anecdotal history (going back to such difficult times as the Holocaust and they educate their youth on this whenever possible)) to supports the position, that since everyone “hates us” it is legitimate to relate in kind. Then it is pointed out: that even judging by these “anecdotes”‘ there are shades in the story where some really were impartial and showed compassion towards L; that is dismissed in practice (neither highlighted and neither given over with emphasis to the youth).

Then the discussion further continues with the anecdotes of those who were hostile to l: is it possible for a L to see that from another pespective the other person meant sincerely leshem shomayim (albeit he was wrong)? and even when the L is right that this particular person was hostile to begin with (which is sometimes the case and sometimes not the case) IS it possible for him to put those thing in their proportion? NO

They will perpetuate those subjective feelings for ever and ever and not try to make bridges. They should educate their youth that all non chabdsker hate them and some of their leaders were murderers and the rest are “snags” anyway.

additionally: when shown by their non chabad neutral friends (or non enemies) how they deviated publicly from the way jews beleived for thousands of years and feel that the change is highly repugnant they respond: “but they have complained before moshiach?” “it’s got nothing to do with moshiach…”. They would bury their head in sand and not deal with the issue to change their attitude internally, abee they are able to justify their wrong to the world outside.

It is also highly illogical to harp on something that the detractors have railed about prior 3 tammuz precisely about their concern (from their perspective at least) that it will degenerate into a change in thousands of jews beleif in the 13 ikkrey emunoh, and what looks today by some of them (albeit a small minority but a not a handful) as a beggining of a new religion (shvil, saying yechi togeher with Hashem Hoo Elokim and tkias shofar etc. and other such practices) and they were unfortunately vindicated, to then turn around to them and claim: “you hated us anyway before it happened?” HOw disingenous can one rational person be? They were railing about THIS VERY issue! (and to try make beleif that people like Rabbi Volpo and his teachings did not exist is to put blinders in one’s face. So what we have now is irrational emotional response to a legitimate claim even if the opponent happened to have been a “hater” (which probably and certainly some of them were), it does not “answer” the claim of the opponent; on the contrary, the emotional logicalless outbursts only reinforces the vehement opposition from the opponent.

So by bringing the unfortunate comment made in the neighborhood you are not strengthening your position; on the contrary you strengthen his position by saying that you cannot logically show how the position he made in the past precisely about the prediction of how will look today was faulty.

Let me try to give you an “example”; it is just an example (and is not certainly in all aspects and maybe in most aspects, but just to the point made here):

In the late 70s and early 80’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe warned jewry about the dangers of the peace process. At that time he would say that (some of the) Roshey Yeshivos who are unfamilar with the practical situations on the ground were wrong. At times he said that the are selling jewish blood for money.

Now for someone to bring this as a point how the Rebbe spoke in such terms about…would be ludicrous and ridiculous given what we see now on the ground how the Lubavitcher rebbe was so right when he saw the suicide bombers erupting from the Sadat Begin Camp David treaty. vehanimshal (only for the aspect of mentioning something harsh that was said *in the context* of an issue which the person who made those claims is vindicated is ridiculous in a logical discussion) yuvon.

Now with regards to the issue at hand: A) it is not in the interests of Lubavitchers! to educate their children how everyone else is a snag and hates them. 2) Especially when they are so skilled in getting along with everyone else even people who are not yet shomer torah and mitzvot and find all ways to legitimize their stance (and tovoy alehem brocho for the wonderful positive work that comes out of that) and label most of them “tinokos shenishbu”, why can’t they find a way to label the frum non chabadskers as “tinokos shenishbu”? and live in peace with them? (interesting that you mention how Rabbi so and so did not make want to make a”cherem” against another so and so over maters of disagreement; and yet you don’t see in your own backyard: how in your circles your movement will make “peace” and find ways to relate to worse poshey orchey yisroel (especially when it gives the publicity points) and cannot find some of these feats towards the manichey tefillin and shomrey shabbos etc) 3) and Most importantly, it is about time to understand and teach their children that when most of jewry (even those who were friendly to them or non belligerent) are appalled by their stance regarding messianism that they at least understand that those people have a legitimate coplaint, 4) and that should be corrected in the education of their own youth for their own sake… 5) but the least that should be done If all cannot be achieved: stop telling your youth how all non lubavitcher frum people are not really yireh shomayim, are for the money, are for kovod, for being godol and so on, (and maybe when you will put more effort to stop the beliggerant attitude towards other jews, there will also be less fights within your movement),

bekovod and i do not mean to be offensive personally but to make the point how many have legitimate grievances about the movement and maybe you will hear the grain of truth therein and some change will happen,

shabbat Shalom,

truth

Steve Brizel
8 years 7 months ago

Moishe-NCSY, in its earliest days, had a substantial mix, of public school and day school products. Many regions had a mix, others were and remain 100% public school as of this date. In recent years, it leaned more towards yeshiva high school products and some public school products. I hope that the mix continues. For some day school products whose school and home life resembled mitzvos anashim mlumadah, NCSY inspires them to realize that others struggle to get to that level.

As far as R Ruderman ZTL is concerned, I do know that RYBS and R Ruderman ZTL exchanged pre Pesach greetings every year. I suspect that this was because of RCS ZTL’s payment of R Ruderman ZTL’s scar limud. I know of no source that substantiates the idea that R Ruderman ZTL was a Chabad child who ran away from a Chabad yeshivah. MOAG, a wonderful guide to the Litvishe world, sets forth RCS ZTL’s involvement in R Ruderman ZTL’s chinuch in quite extensive detail.

Moishe
8 years 7 months ago

Friends, I just saw this on a neighboring post, read this and then tell me how a lubavitcher Bochur or Yungerman should feel, or have felt, about the Torah world around him and the respect he should then have for it and its Gedolim, when this is the kind of extreme talk ITS gedolim have for HIS Rebbe, who taught him Torah. Remember that the time frame this must have occcured was 20 (maybe more) years ago when the Rebbe was still aliv and well, promoting Torah mitzvos ( and Moshiach), no yechi, no chai vekayom, etc. and to the Lubavitcher was his Rebbe.
Its funny, how now, almost universally the talk is, that “Meila, while the Rebbe was alive…”)
As one Litvisher told me, recently, that he now feels that the Rebbe Was a candidate for Moshiach, but he died!
Remember how this affected drinking of the wine and etc. of a Lubavitcher Chosid. this is the kind of talk, that was transmitted to the Talmidim of these Rabbonim.
here is the post.

kudos to Cross_Currents for facilitating an interesting exchange of views on Lubavitch. It must resonate if so many people joined the discussion.
I am a utililtarian and am happy as can be that there are successes galore in outreach. This is still a drop in the bucket of what can be accomplished and there is room for every group in the effort.
Rav Ruderman told me personally that Rav Shach wanted to put them in cherem but he and Rav Yaakov told him that we don’t do that in this generation. You will note that Rav Shach did not do it while these two men still lived.
Though they agreed with Rav Shach ideologically,they had a different approach dealing with the issue.
Ad Kan.

So, ideologically they were in full agreement to put me and my Rebbe and my Rosh Yeshiva (And Kalmenson, Ashkenazi, Eliezrie etc.) in RaMach.
Then you wonder why a lubavitcher Bochur is told by his peers what they are told.
IMHO, with respect, this was not the way Gedolim should approach an issue, there were other ways, and there were other Gedolim who may have not agreed with everything Lubvitch did, but handled it differently, and more responsibely. Did Rav Aaron agree with Rav Ruderman on college? Rav moshe paskened (Baal Peh) that a woman who went to college was bechezkas Zonah and her Kohen Son could marry a Zonah etc. I heard this from the baal hamaaseh, the Rov who was mesader Kiddushin. And in Ner Yisroel they permitted and in some cases encouraged college and secular studies.
Rav Aaron didn’t feel it was worth the split in Klal Yisrael.

Moishe
8 years 7 months ago

truth= I happen to disagree with most of what you’ve just written, and to tell the truth Im surprised. I have heard from many Lomdim that The Kovetz mentioned is of a high calibre. I mentioned before that I was proud to present it to some friends in Lakewood who aren’t ashamed to tell the truth, and they liked it.
To call R’ Forkoshes seforim on Niddah Shabbos and Chol Hamoed a Likkut is astounding, It is actually anything but, his biurim and chidushim in the above subjects are amazing, look at them again.
However, the above, and our difference of opinion is again not relevant here, Is that what we are discussing?

You (purposely) misstated my words, and after reading (and appreciating) your previous comments, I am quite surprised and disappointed, I never said in my post That Lubavitch Learns BETTER (although now that you ask, I can say that IMHO i know many Lubavitch Talmidim, you seem to know them as well, who are tremendous Baalei Kishron and happen to have a straighter and clearer learning than other yeshivos, that is my personal opinion) the issue you raised was whether Lubavitch at large learns and publishes.It is to that issue I correctly, and adequately responded.You clearly laid down the premise that Lubavitch as a group doesn’t learn or publish Chidushei Torah, so now you say that its not a high calibre, is every Pilpul In Nehuroie good, I saw a lot of Marginal Stuff, Is every Shtikel in Shufra Dishtoro correct, or original, or repetative in four different places?
I just bought a new sefer from a Lakewood Yungerman on Sukka, a very thick and impressive looking sefer, it was very very poor, I called a guy in Lakewood, he called back a few days later, agreeing.

I am amazed and quite taken aback at your blanket (to me ridiculous) statements about one group (satmar Bobov Lakewood) knows more or less than Lubavitch, first of all, who checked? and by what standards? second and most important, Lubavitch has been so marginalized and isolated for so long no outsider really can adequately assess whats going on.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Lubavitch is unique that we sent our best and brightest to all corners of the world, some to remote places, in that a Shliach can live in an area like Ithaca NY alone for twenty one years and continue his learning, without feeling he has a need to prove himself or show himself off with some one upmanship to his yeshiva colleagues. This is a fact.
I’ll conclude with a small anecdote, that I know personally to be true, A very fine family from Lakewood, in ,business, needed to open up an office in Kansas city,althogh they all learn, One of the brothers, is an exceptional Lamdan, he later called me up and said he was amazed at the Shliach In Kansas, Rabbi Weinberg, who blew him away with his knowledge, and depth, and besides his “nigleh” learning, he is a big Mayvin in Nistar, he said “whats that guy doing in Kansas? he should be in a yeshiva?
If you, Truth, know the inside Lubavitch, like I now realize you actually do,(afterall, how many people out there know who was the editor of Migdal Ohr….Forkosh Ah Milaket?? vos iz mit dir?) you will know that I am right, and the Label Kaplans and Sholom Ber Weinbergs and Sholom Ber Lipskers and Sholom Ber Chaikins and Nosson Gurary’s and Moishe Meir Glukowskis and Gershon Shustermans Efraim pikarski, and Naftoli Estulin , Label Altein, Sholom Charitonoff, Nochum Shapiro, Avremi Shternberg, Avremel Shemtov, Tzvi Grunblatt, Avremel Altein, Imanual and Dovid Shochat etc etc all ridiculous Illuyim Mammesh(to say nothing of the Roshei Yeshiva and Magidei Shiur in the myriad of Lubavitcher Yeshivas) stayed in 770 or a learning institution instead of going on Shlichus to Calgary, Seattle,Buffalo, Long Beach Ca, Tzfas, Bal Harbour, would have outshined any and every Torah institution, maybe the Rebbe deserves credit for that, sacrificing his best for Klal Yisrael.

But.. that doesn’t mean that Chabad doesn’t need improvement in their Torah learning.

truth
8 years 7 months ago

Moishe,

I have read some of the haoros. With all due repsect, you can print a 10,000 page kuntres but it has no caliber. I have read other kovtzim from other groups and they stand lemaaloh from the kovets you mention.

You know Lubavitch is very good in publicizing itself as the greatest in all areas. The way to test these things is through “Yehallucho zor…”. Bring the voices of other Gedoyley Hatorah who are respected by a wide array of Roshey Yeshivos and great Rabbonim who testify about the greatness of these kovtzim and these talmidey chachomim and the proper gadlus in learning etc..

Not to belittle the aforementioned kovtzim and chiburim they are not outstanding more than the hundreds of seforim that are put out by many other talmidey chachomim from all corners. For instance, Rav F a Talmid Chochom is mainly a melaket (and a good one) and there are dozens and more so melaktim today in the world of a higher claiber (this does not belittle Rav F) which btw i’m not sure studied in Lubavitch in his learning age (the same with the author of Migdol Ohr who studied in his prime “learning years” in Lakewood!)

Yes, there are a handful of Bney Torah and Talmidey chachomim in Lubavitch but they are not outstanding anymore than many talmidey chachomim that you would find in many shtiblech from MANY MANY and all kreyzen.

“But, does that make one a lamdan? Rav Soloveitchik hardly published in his lifetime,” 100% “I know many shluchim, Rabbis of Chabad Houses, who are literally Torah Illuim im not kidding”. As said before, bring the “eydoos” of talmidey chachomim muchzokim vemumchim nechochmas hatorah in writing who are accepted by klal yisroel…otherwise your judgment on this is VERY subjective (nothing against you…you are a great guy) to say the least.

You next point on the next level: “Also a point to ponder, that I’ll bet you never realized, Lubavitch (like Satmar and Bobov) are “Family” institutions meaning typically Everybody in the family goes thru the Yeshiva system, whether he is “Shtark” or not, if he is a dilligent student he learns more, if not he “coasts” till marriage or etc.”

Yes, but unfortunately the level of knowledge by those who “coast” in “Satmar and Bobv or Belz are FAR greater (in gemoroh and halocho) than their counterparts in Lubavitch!

“in a litvisher yeshiva like Lakewood or Brisk you literaly have only the best from all over, you can (and do, as we both well know) have a family of say four five boys, one or perhaps two happpen to be natural Shakdonium and Masmidim and they go on to Brisk and Lakewood while the others (in many instances, much more than in a Chassidic Yeshiva) go onto to other endeavors or professions college etc.”

And here too their overall and general knowledge and sometimes the percentage of people who LEARN (as opposed to read) some parts of the Torah more beiyun (even if it be an omud gemoroh or less or a halocho etc.) is greater than in your neck of the woods.

Make an honest assessment of the very few who learn on a CONSTANT basis by your baaley batim (talking about Talmud and or Halocho) and if your intellectually honest you will see that the batey medrashin chabad shtiblach have per capita much participants in these studies than in ANY other kreyz that you mentioned here.

Bekovod,

Truth.