So What Do We Think About Non-Orthodox Jews?

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A week ago, Agudath Israel proudly announced that Scholastic Library Publishing was recalling and reprinting an educational book for middle-grade children. “Enchantment of the World” is a series on “a country’s history, people and languages, economy, government, culture, natural resources, climate, religions, and much more.” Its volume on Israel, however, contained this passage: “But some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies [for automatic citizenship as a Jew, under the country’s ‘Law of Return’]. They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws.” As the Agudah press release put it:

In a straightforward letter to Scholastic, Agudath Israel director of public affairs [and Cross-Currents writer] Rabbi Avi Shafran characterized the contention that Orthodox Jews reject other Jews’ Jewishness because of their less-strict level, or even complete lack, of observance as “utterly untrue.”

“This, I am sure you realize, is no minor matter,” Rabbi Shafran wrote. “Texts like ‘Enchantment of the World’ are not only expected to be accurate but help mold attitudes in young minds. The assertion that Orthodox Jews somehow question the Jewishness of other Jews is both false and prejudicial. And so I hope you will take immediate steps to rectify the situation.”

Scholastic, to its credit, did so. After determining that the passage was indeed in error, they “offered an amended paragraph for Agudath Israel’s approval,” and obligated themselves to republish the book. And not stopping there, they will be destroying their current inventory, and are even going to replace copies now in the hands of customers once the new version is printed. A credit to Scholastic indeed — and quite a coup for the Agudah! But it also forces us to ask: really, now, how wrong were they? Isn’t it true that the Orthodox have been fighting against an increased Reform and Conservative presence in Israel? All of us Kiruv-niks (Jewish outreach workers) aside, is there really no traction within the Orthodox community to the idea that we would be better off without the non-Orthodox?

While within any group you will find people with outlandish ideas, it is very clear that the Orthodox leadership would have none of it. Ahavas Yisrael, love of all Jews, is the order of the day. If you can, in fact, find someone who thinks otherwise, he or she is merely evidence that the charedim don’t follow their leaders as readily as the media insists we do. This was brought home by an email and personal account that both came to me today.

The email arrived from a writer for HaModia, which is — as you probably know — as “ultra” Orthodox as a journal can be. By contrast to the Yated Ne’eman, HaModia has stronger ties to the Chassidic community, which should make it still more insular. Yet this writer’s “beat” is the world of Kiruv. To be sure, he can’t cover Project Genesis (as that would entail conceding that the Internet has a positive side), but he still talks about the world of Jewish outreach on a weekly basis.

He sent an email to an outreach-oriented mailing list, seeking “tips, do’s and dont’s, etc., for those who will be hosting non-frum guests at their Seder” on Passover, for an upcoming column. Think about it: HaModia, the ultra-ultra-Orthodox journal, is going to help people who would like to have a non-Orthodox guest! Passover is one of the holiest days and holiest times on the calendar… and they are actually encouraging having a non-Orthodox guest! What is the world coming to?

This pernicious idea, that contact with the non-Orthodox is a good thing, seems to even be infecting the schools. My wife was shopping today, and ended up speaking in Hebrew with the Israeli vendor at a cosmetics kiosk. The seller, who has only been in the US for several months, was excited to meet a Hebrew-speaking customer, but his more experienced colleague said that he met Hebrew-speaking customers all the time — and they would often invite him for Shabbos meals. To make a long story short, my wife ended up inviting both vendors, plus the one’s wife and the other’s girlfriend, to the Seder.

While we do live in Baltimore, which is less parochial, perhaps, than New York, our children are getting a strictly charedi education nonetheless. How do charedi schoolchildren, with their sheltered backgrounds and limited interaction with the non-frum world, react when confronted with the idea that four non-frum Israelis are coming to the Seder?

At least in this case, they responded by dancing with excitement. My wife insists that they were literally jumping up and down. Now I can’t tell you that my kids are typical. They, after all, have non-observant grandparents on my side, so they are certainly more used to the idea than many of their peers. But dancing with excitement? They couldn’t feel that way if their schools were not actively encouraging them to feel love and brotherhood as well. And, as already noted, one of the vendors mentioned that he gets frequent invitations from observant Jews.

What I would advise the HaModia reader is simple: learn from our children. Children don’t understand things like “turning people frum.” All they know is how exciting the holidays are, and how nice it is to share them with people.

If you have non-frum guests at the Seder because you want to “turn them frum,” you — and your guests — aren’t going to relax, aren’t going to enjoy the Seder, and you’re not going to accomplish much. But if your approach is that you will not only get to experience Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and will not only be able to teach it to your children in accordance with the Mitzvas HaYom, the Commandment of the Day — but that you will also share this experience with Jews who may never have seen the beauty of a traditional Seder or the holidays in a traditional home — then you and your guests will all benefit. Focus on doing what you have always done, and enjoying it as you always have, and let HaShem worry about bringing His children home. You’ll be contributing plenty.

And when your children hear that you’ll be having non-frum guests, don’t be taken aback if they start dancing around the room!

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17 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “Of course they don’t want Jews to be Non Orthodox. However, there is a world of difference between not wanting Jews to be Non Orthodox, and not wanting the Jews who are non-Orthodox. The first is a rejection of ideas. The second would be a rejection of people.”

    – agree

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Jewish Observer: the fact that charedim are trying to make people orthodox is a actually a proof that they DON’T want non orthodox.

    Ori: Of course they don’t want Jews to be Non Orthodox. However, there is a world of difference between not wanting Jews to be Non Orthodox, and not wanting the Jews who are non-Orthodox. The first is a rejection of ideas. The second would be a rejection of people.

    People have inherent worth. Ideas do not.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Seculars (Jews and non Jews) often have a “functional” definition of personhood. That is, they see people as being predominately what they do. That, BTW, is the reason for accepting euthanasia and abortion – people who can’t do anything aren’t considered to be really people. As a result, the religious attitude of “hate the sin, love the sinner” is really hard for secular people to grasp.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Hamodia is now divided into small sections plus a magazine, so you can share the parts you want to.

    The American Yated innovated a weekly digest of Lakewood NJ news.

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The email arrived from a writer for HaModia, which is—as you probably know—as “ultra” Orthodox as a journal can be.”

    I happen to think that the Anerican Yated has many good points, despite that I do not find it “worldly” enough to meet my needs. Nevertheless, if I had to share a newspaper with a non-Orthodox person, it would probably be Hamodia.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    The old question: If we love others as ourselves, do we show it by validating their way of life or by helping them to correct it, or by some combination? Every situation is different.

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    “What Do We Think About Non-Orthodox Jews?”

    – what do we think about Orthodox who have sinned?

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “how do you deal with the halachic problem of cooking for a non-Jew for Yom Tov”

    – cold cuts

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “they are actually encouraging having a non-Orthodox guest! What is the world coming to?”

    the fact that charedim are trying to make people orthodox is a actually a proof that they DON’T want non orthodox.

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    “HaModia has stronger ties to the Chassidic community, which should make it still more insular”

    – this is a myth. In general I find chasidim much more balanced and normal in their approach to life than fahrbrenter charedim. It’s like the myth that Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva is more open minded because the boys (used to) wear grey hats. Strong baalei shitah often wear the garb of the open minded.

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    First of two points: The question of “who is a Jew” is very complex and is often addressed simplistically by those who know better for fear that the non-frum Jew or the non Jew won’t get it. Jewish identity depends on kosher Jewish birth or halachic conversion. Aside from that, there is the question of what is Judaism and who is a rabbi, implying who is qualified to convert a person. This also has clear implications of what is going to happen to the descendents (if any) of kosher Jews and bogus “Jews by choice” in the coming generations. How do you all explain this to the great clueless masses?

    Second: Those of you who have had or continue to have non-Jewish seder guests, how do you deal with the halachic problem of cooking for a non-Jew for Yom Tov, considering that there is a gezera that the Jew will cook extra on YT in the event of shortages? I have heard a number of anecdotal statements about serious people (one who comes to mind is Chief Rabbi Herzog z”l) who had non-Jews at their sedorim. I have had non-Jewish guests only on Shabbos, although the mekubalim would not like that either.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    How do we deal with the increasing number of self-described Jews who are really improperly converted non-Jews?

    So far, Orthodox spokesmen have said publically that we don’t deny the Jewishness of Reform Jews, etc., but what becomes of this when the time comes and most of them are objectively not Jewish?

  13. Barbara says:

    When I was small, my mother (b”h) always did a big first seder with guests (although always the same ones), and just the immediate family the second night. At some point, it became family only on both nights (after I married and moved away, and she came to me for Pesach), but some years we would have invited guests, including non-Jews. My mother just loved it, and would go all out with the cooking and everything else, including pushing us to explain things to our guests as we went along, although we never deviated from reading every word in the haggadah. Take the opportunity to make it a learning experience for everyone – your kids will love showing off their knowledge of the holiday and the seder.

    We once had as guests the family of one of my chemistry professors, Catholics, who had basically asked for an invitation. His kids’ knowledge of “Old Testament” was astounding, especially considering that at that time especially, Catholics were actually not encouraged to read the bible – new or old. They were fabulous seder guests, fascinated with all of it. You have to take advantage of “teachable moments” no matter what the audience, and without preaching.

  14. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Children don’t understand things like “turning people frum.” All they know is how exciting the holidays are, and how nice it is to share them with people…but that you will also share this experience with Jews who may never have seen the beauty of a traditional Seder or the holidays in a traditional home—then you and your guests will all benefit”

    I think the fact that guests sense that children are happy to welcome strangers into their home adds to the guests feeling welcome, and to the positive Seder experience(whether or not they see the children dancing :) ).

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “To be sure, he can’t cover Project Genesis (as that would entail conceding that the Internet has a positive side)…”

    For the record, I believe that the Jewish Observer recently did an article on kiruv via the internet, alerting readers on how they can refer people to kiruv sites, even if they do not use the internet themselves.

    Hamodia’s policy, however, points to the need for an alternative Frum media– print or online– for those who want, or need to have a more “real” picture of reality. After all, conceding that the internet has a positive side, is a fact, and some people are more comfortable focusing on such facts. I agree, though, that the current system helps the majority of people maximize their potential in avodas Hashem, and that the majority do not lose anything by not focusing on the web’s positive features.

  16. mycroft says:

    Nothing to disagree with Rabbi Menken’s fine post.

    “is there really no traction within the Orthodox community to the idea that we would be better off without the non-Orthodox”

    Sadly-I believe I have heard such thoughts from students who went are going to some of our finest and largest yeshivas.
    To be fair I haven’t heard such thoughts from the leaders-but the some way where some variations of MO are responsible in an eglah arifah fashion for the Baruch Goldsteins etc-so are some of the chareid responsible for some or the hatred expressed about “frei yidden”

  1. April 11, 2007

    […] Most would agree that the single most consistent and dangerous flashpoint in the Orthodox-Heterodox divide is the issue of “Who is a Jew.” Much of the animosity and anger that the heterodox feel about this issue, however, is misplaced—because they are given an inaccurate portrayal of the positions in the debate. Just recently, Scholastic Books committed to reprinting the “Israel” volume in an educational series, because of the erroneous claim that “some ultra-Orthodox Jews… believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws.” […]