What Would Hillel Say?

letter-447577_1280

Once upon a time, Jews who found Judaism cumbersome simply declared the Torah obsolete and went about their lives as they pleased. They weren’t inclined to intellectual contortions.

Some “progressive” Jews today, though, choose instead to twist and torture the Jewish canon, in an attempt to force it to “yield” what they wish it actually did. In a way, their reluctance to just jettison the Torah and Talmud is admirable. Other words, though, come to mind for their merciless manipulation of the Jewish religious tradition.

A recent example of such intellectual anarchism is Hillel. The campus organization, that is, not the Talmudic sage who, while he was an exemplar of equanimity and tolerance, had harsh words for Jews who arrogate to “exploit the crown” – i.e. misuse the Torah for personal purposes (Avot, 1:13).

“Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life” maintains a presence at more than 500 campuses throughout the United States and Canada and aims to “inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life.”

If that final phrase read “contemporary mores,” a recent Hillel publication entitled “LGBTQ Resource Guide” might make sense. It is intended, after all, in its own words, to make “all Jewish students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities” feel comfortable with their choice of lifestyle. But the term “Jewish life” is simply not sufficiently expansive to include behavior that has been unarguably condemned by Jewish sources throughout the ages.

The publication itself is in equal parts self-righteous and silly. Among its offering of “Selected Jewish Texts Useful for Creating Queer Jewish Ritual” are fun-house mirror versions of Biblical laws and narratives, all imaginatively engineered to erase disapproval of certain behaviors and to imply that great Jewish personages lived in, or emerged from, various closets. Wearing its ignorance brightly on its sleeve, the “Resource Guide” risibly mangles its references. It mistransliterates words (like “v’nigeid” for “v’nigein”) and invents others from whole cloth (“to’arish”). At one point, it identifies Chira, Judah’s father-in-law, as his wife.

The clumsy attempts at Biblical revisionism are bad enough. Even more disturbing is the propagandists’ next step: demonizing those who dare to uphold authentically Jewish values.

To that end, they refer to “religious conservatives” – presumably those who take Leviticus 18:22 and centuries of oral Jewish tradition seriously – as “purveyors of hate”; and offer up new liturgy, like a refurbished “Al Hanissim” (“On The Miracles”) prayer. The original Al Hanissim is recited on the Jewish holidays of Purim and Chanukah – the latter, as it happens, commemorates the refusal of Jews to capitulate to the mores of the dominant culture. The “LGBTQ Resource Guide” version of the prayer celebrates instead the “dignity and justice” due “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.” And it goes on to deride those who “hate us in the name of [G-d]” and “rose up to victimize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us.”

The prayer-parody then thanks the Creator for having “fought alongside us, vindicated us,” and “[given] us the courage to stand together… the strength… to be who we are and to love whom we love…”

Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the “new-and-improved” version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don’t “pathologize” or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges. But no, we do not kowtow to the Zeitgeist, nor are we intimidated by its proponents. We do not apologize for our embrace of Judaism’s eternal truths.

That a major Jewish organization – one pledged, no less, to “inspire” Jewish students “to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life” – has chosen to vilify us, and to glorify what the Torah considers sinful, should deeply disturb all Jews who care about Judaism – and should make us think.

During the years my family and I were privileged to live in Providence, Rhode Island, I happily gave of my time to the Brown University Hillel. The local Hillel provided services (prayer and otherwise) to a broad variety of Jewish students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The classes I was privileged to teach attracted young people from Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds – and interacting with them all was a wonderful experience. The Reform rabbi who served as the Hillel House director was always friendly and grateful for my participation. To the best of my knowledge, he never spoke disparagingly of Orthodoxy. If he considered my belief in the truth of the Torah and the sacrosanctity of its laws to be objectionable, he certainly never voiced his feeling; Hillel, after all, was about providing Jewish students with Jewish resources and Jewish learning.

Today, though, it seems that Hillel has changed. By sponsoring and distributing a document that actively celebrates what the Torah considers iniquitous and that demonizes those who stand up for Jewish truths, it has blatantly betrayed its trust.

All Jews who seek to discern G-d’s will from His Torah, not try to impose their own upon it, should let Hillel’s leaders know that the organization has gone too far, that it has insulted the memory and the admonition of the Talmudic sage it claims to revere, the great rabbi whose name it claims as its own.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

You may also like...

26 Responses

  1. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Also, is not the whole concept of עת לעשות לה’ really undermine this argument of the Brisker Rav?

  2. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >But never, ever compromising on Halachah. The Brisker Rav said this numerous times – that there is never an option of having a policy of allowing any breach in Halachah for the sake of a perceived greater good. <

    I think that the gemara from Gittin 56a is a strong raaya against such an approach:

    אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו

    see also R’ Shaul Yisraeli’s introduction to Eretz Hemda where he compares the aggada in the bavli with the parallel one in the yerushalmi and concludes that such a particularistic approach to halacha is fitting for bavel, but not for Torat Eretz Yisrael which is Torat haKlal which must take the greater good of the klal into consideration.

    When Rav Yisraeli zt”l would hear of a ruling by another gadol which ignored greater good considerations he would often quote the midrash (in Eicha Rabba?) במחשכים הושיבני – זו תורתה של בבל.

  3. Ori says:

    Yehoshua Friedman, thanks. That is a good answer, and opening a competing organization might be a good idea. I often suspect we’re really two different religions (Orthodox and Heterodox Jews) who just happen to share the same history. It makes sense to have separate organizations, just as we do for synagogues.

    It would probably be easier to open an Orthodox organization and get students to come to it than to change the leadership of an existing organization or to get them to understand why certain things are beyond the pale.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    #21 Ori in reference to Binyomin Eckstein: The Brisker Rov would first say, what is an ehrlicher Yid doing on a college campus anyway. It’s Sdom. That failing, many hareidi and not so hareidi Jews would say that what is in our power is to sever all connection and say to Hillel with Hillel. Considering that the majority of feet that walk into Hillel activities belong to the O and near-O, the “ratings”, the bang for the bucks of the donors, would be felt in the event of such a boycott. Certainly an alternative O organization, preferably spanning OU and Aguda and even Chabad if possible, would be a good thing.

  5. David N. Friedman says:

    It is clear that Hillel is problematic on some campuses, while still providing a valuable service at others. Certainly a good deal of the problem stems from a lack of good will concerning how a Jewish educational resource needs to be run since such an entity needs to be sensitive to the needs of the entire Jewish community. As such, food should be kosher since kosher food provides for the needs of all instead of only the needs of what is likely to be a majority. Further, to make a real effort to keep the food and the programming as ‘kosher’ as possible, demonstrates a sensitivity to the Jewish tradition instead of merely catering to contemporary standards in the community at large. I find it hard to understand how a leader representing a Jewish organization can see fit to run it with the same mandate as a generic liberal community group–this suggests that the “Jewish” part of the title has no meaning.

    Therefore, even a politically charged liberal in charge of a Hillel can reasonably be expected to either hide or greatly tone down his own views concerning such controversial topics as the moral correctness of gay marriage since he should understand that the wider community AND the Jewish community expects conformity with the Jewish standard on the topic.

    I have heard several horror stories concerning the radical terms that animate some Hillel on campus programs and at a minimum, these activities should be protested and exposed. It is some hypocrisy that the Jewish left has so much at stake in promoting tolerance and yet has so little tolerance for the Jewish tradition.

  6. Ori says:

    Binyomin Eckstein: The Brisker Rav said this numerous times – that there is never an option of having a policy of allowing any breach in Halachah for the sake of a perceived greater good.

    Ori: Allowing or forbidding something is only possible when you have that power. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, for example, can allow or forbid contents on this site, torah.org, etc.

    Hillel, however, is not under Orthodox control. Therefore, the whole issue of forbidding or allowing something is irrelevant.

  7. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Steve:

    The problem is not “Hillel’s increasingly pluralistic views.” The problem is that Hillel’s pluralism is finding less and less of a place for the Orthodox viewpoint. Hillel has gone all-out on a crusade to marginalize the Orthodox and attract everyone else.

  8. YM says:

    Re #13: This is an important issue. I work in an organization that is supportive of Gay rights, Gay marriage, etc. Some of my best friends (:))in the organization are Gay. I have never been asked my opinion about homosexuality in general or within American society in particular, but I have thought about it.

    The Torah’s prohibition of homosexuality is within the context of holiness or kedushah. Our society rejects the concept; in fact, with its understanding of the ‘pursuit of happiness’, it embraces the opposite, hv’s. Within the greater social and ideological context of America, Gay rights is as much a right as any other right; why should anyone tell consenting adults who they should love or marry? The Talmud tells us this is a disaster; I don’t remember the source, but somewhere it says that one of the merits of the gentile nations is that they don’t permit men to marry.

    The bottom line is to try to explain the Jewish opposition to homosexuality within the context of the quest for holiness and that we understand that if life is about pursuing ‘happiness’, we understand where homosexuality fits in within that context. Also explain the danger to society of everyone indulging their desires for ‘happiness’.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    The OU has a an initiative for helping students from O families deal with the issues confronting them on college campuses. It is meant to supplement and offset Hillel’s increasingly pluralistic views

  10. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    “obviously it takes the integrity and wisdom of someone like the chazon ish to weigh the net good of decision alternatives.”

    But never, ever compromising on Halachah. The Brisker Rav said this numerous times – that there is never an option of having a policy of allowing any breach in Halachah for the sake of a perceived greater good.

    To quote the Akeidas Yitzchak:

    ואני דנתי על זה פעמים רבות לפניהם ולפני גדוליהם והסברתי להם שהחטא הגדול אשר יעבור עליו איש איש מבית ישראל בסתר ושלא לדעת הרבים ורשות ב”ד חטאת יחיד הוא והוא שבעונו ימות ע”י ב”ד של מעלה או מטה וכל ישראל נקיים כמו שהיה עון פילגש בגבעה אם היו ב”ד שלהם מוסרים האנשים הרשעים ההם לבדם ביד ישראל, אמנם החטא הקטן כשיסכימו עליו דעת הרבים והדעת נתנה בבתי דיניהם שלא למחות בו הנה הוא זמה ועון פלילי וחטאת הקהל כולו ולא ניתן למחילה אם לא בפורענות הקהל כמו שהיה בבני בנימין על השתתפם בעון, והוא היה עון סדום שהם ובתי דינים שלהם הסכימו שלא להחזיק יד עני ואביון, ולכן הוא טוב ומוטב שיכרתו או ישרפו או יסקלו החטאים ההם בנפשותם משתעקר אות אחד מהתורה בהסכמת הרבים וכו’ ומי שלא יקבל זה בדעתו אין לו חלק בבינה ונחלה בתורת אלקית

  11. Mark says:

    JO,

    Did the Chazon Ish write/say that in regard to a particular situation/s or was it said as a “vertel”? IOW – did he apply it anywhere that we can use as a model or did he say it as a general principle?

    Also, do you know where it is written/said?

    Thanks

  12. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    ” We should recognize that Hillel is not a frum institution, but Orthodox students might still be able to have a chelek there, at least on certain campuses.”

    In my college years (1968-1972) Hillel was dominated by Conservative-born Orthodox wannabees. When I follow up with my Hillel contemporaries, I find that many of them chose as adults to affiliate Orthodox.

    The pattern in many college Hillels has been that the traditional Conservative or Orthodox dominate. The problem, from the national Hillel’s point of view is at the students who dominate are not a representative cross section of the Jewish college population, and they want to get others involved. The fact that those others might not want to be involved isn’t very relevant. As a result, the national Hillel has been pushing an “outreach” agenda aimed at the less observant and minimally affiliated. All too often, this has come at a price to the more observant, and it goes beyond the things Rabbi Shafran has pointed out. Thus Orthodox students have been made to feel unwanted, and Orthodox rabbis have had difficulties getting employment in Hillel. The recent experiences of Rabbi Charles Scheer at Columbia are instructive. Rabbi Scheer is on the left wing of the Orthodox movement. He cannot be faulted for excessive particularism. Yet he was prematurely retired from his position as Columbia Jewish chaplain, ostensibly because the organized Jewish community thought he wasn’t doing enough to make non-Orthodox students feel welcome at Hillel. The undercurrent of sentiment was that the Orthodox were too comfortable and they should be reduced to a minority.

    In the 1960s, there was an Orthodox alternative to Hillel called Yavneh. It didn’t get very far, and it eventually dissolved. Maybe it’s time to think about reviving it.

  13. Jewish Observer says:

    “Torah is not a commodity that we have a right to make trade-offs for”

    actually, the Chazon Ish defined a yesod (foundational operating principle) to the contrary, articulated through a play on words. every morning we reciite a bracha “la’asok bedivrei sorah”. literally “la’asok” mans to deal with. The poshut pshat (plain meaning) is that we deal with torah by learning it. The chazon ish wittily said that la’asok, to deal with is, also the hebrew phrase for doing business. His point at the time – having to do with taking a stand in favor of torah that would reap no practical benefit, and even potetially hurt future chances to further torah’s cause – was that we have to treat torah causes with no less shrewdness than our business matters; i.e. “deal” to maiximize net good. obviously it takes the integrity and wisdom of someone like the chazon ish to weigh the net good of decision alternatives.

  14. tzippi says:

    Re #11: I think so too. We are, or at least I am, looking to eloquent spokespeople like R. Shafran to give us a vocabulary for this discussion of one of today’s major issues, where we can convey sympathy and recognition of human dignity, while defending our principles, and ourselves against the accusations of bigotry.

  15. Daniel Shain says:

    When I was in college (the late 80s), Hillel was like a microcosm of the larger world. Orthodox students had their own davening, shiurim, etc, and the Hillel dining room was kosher and supervised by the Orthodox rav. There were inappropriate and assur activities going on too, but just like in the “real world”, you had the choice of whether to participate. If a student does not want to be exposed to these things, or is afraid to be tempted by them, then he or she should not be going away to a secular college. We should recognize that Hillel is not a frum institution, but Orthodox students might still be able to have a chelek there, at least on certain campuses.

  16. Baruch Pelta says:

    I think many of y’all missed the point of R’ Shafran’s article.

    The main problem he’s referring to is not the fact that Hillel isn’t frum — which, while a problem, is more understandable because of the unfortunate situation in America — but the fact that because we think blatant distortions of Judaism are just that (blatant distortions), we’re now “purveyors of hate;” our values are written off in an insulting fashion.

  17. Daniel says:

    Is this hillel’s response to Chabad?

  18. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    What are the options for a not-yet-observant, politically moderate right of center Jew to go to college today. There is YU, and he/she isn’t there yet. The conservative campuses are Christian. I, B”H, am in E”Y for the last 37 years and have raised all my eight kids here, but our nieces, nephews and cousins in America are apparently up a creek without a paddle.

  19. Charles B. Hall says:

    There is no prohibition against setting up Orthodox organizations on college campuses. If we want to avoid Reform Rabbis and Gay groups, we have to be willing to step up and start such. How many campuses have an Agudath Israel house? Is Rabbi Shafran’s essay preparting us for such an effort?

  20. Ori says:

    Binyomin Eckstein: Torah is not a commodity that we have a right to make trade-offs for. There can never be a policy which sacrifices even a smidgen of Halachah for the sake of some perceived greater good.

    Ori: Then you and us (= Heterodox Jews) probably can’t have the same organization. Maybe it’s time for an Orthodox campus organization that would function as Hillel for religious Jews.

  21. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    >> If we were to veto the gay activities, then the gay Jews would veto our activities and overall we too would be worse off. <<

    Torah is not a commodity that we have a right to make trade-offs for. There can never be a policy which sacrifices even a smidgen of Halachah for the sake of some perceived greater good.

  22. Anonymous says:

    The decline of the Hillel organization is really a shame. It used to be that if a frum Jew wanted to go to University, he would check out the strength of the campus Hillel, and what kinds of services it provided (Shabbos, kashrus, minyanim, shiurim, etc). In their zeal to accommodate any and all Jewish preferences (the notion that they need an LGBTQ is ridiculous- there already is a regular one on campus), they are becoming very unaccommodating to the very real religious needs that certain students must be provided with. Now, a “good, strong, Hillel” doesn’t cut it. The only real choices are YU/Stern, Touro/Landers, or going to a local college and coming home after class (to give a NY example, any of the CUNY schools are good for this).

  23. Garnel Ironheart says:

    If Hillel today is like it was when I went to university, then this is nothing to worry about. Back then, no non-religious students wanted to hang out at the Hillel House or come to any of the programs (except the big dances at the local night clubs) because they didn’t want to hang around with the “disapproving religious students”.

    No doubt Hillel is still trying to woo that disaffected group back.

  24. David says:

    Rabbi Shafran raises an interesting argument. But why single out gay people? According to Shafran, when he taught at the Brown Hillel, the Director was a Reform rabbi. So, clearly, whoever that rabbi was, he was OK with people breaking Shabbos and eating traif (and, presumably, did so himself). But, just as clearly, that didn’t “cross the line,” as Rabbi Shafran was still willing to participate in programs under the auspices of this Reform rabbi.

    OK, so the Torah condemns homosexuality, and, clearly, homosexual activity is incompatible with Orthodox Judaism. But then, so is eating traif and breaking Shabbos.

    Where does Rabbi Shafran think the tolerance line ought to be drawn?

  25. Ori says:

    Jews committed to Jewish tradition (the original, not the “new-and-improved” version) do not hate those who violate the Torah out of carnal desire. And they certainly don’t “pathologize” or brutalize them. On the contrary, countless men and women challenged by predispositions to behavior condemned by the Torah have approached Orthodox rabbis and been treated with great concern and assisted in facing up to their special challenges.

    In contemporary society we seem to have lost the distinction between the action and the actor. Having lost that distinction, we find it hard to see it in other people.

    This is a problem because the very basic of freedom is the ability to say: “you’re wrong, what you’re doing is stupid and it’s going to hurt you – but you have a perfect right to keep banging your head against that particular wall and I won’t force you to stop”.

  26. Eric says:

    I presume that Hillel sees itself as an organization for the Jewish people rather than the Jewish religion. And therefore, they make a point of tolerating nearly anything as long as it is done by Jews.

    In legal terms, Hillel is like a “common carrier” which is not held liable for the content it carries as long as it allows all content presented to it. Even if some of the content is objectionable, we presume it’s a public good that large amounts of content can in fact be publicized. If we were to veto the gay activities, then the gay Jews would veto our activities and overall we too would be worse off.

    Of course, the individuals who came up with the gay Al hanisim and so on deserve the criticism given them here.