Be Forewarned — Oversize Posting!

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This is an unusual posting for this venue, no obvious relative of the short essays I post weekly.

Clicking on “more” below will take you to a long article I worked on over the past few months and which I hope will be of benefit to those who want to engage in outreach to other Jews but are daunted by the prospect of having to deal with basic questions of emunah.

I don’t claim to be an authority in this realm, and am not a “kiruv professional.” All the same, I wanted to share a “mehalech,” an approach, that I have personally found to be very effective.

So if you have an interest in the topic (and some time to spare!), please do give it a read. Should you have any comments or constructive criticisms about the piece, I will be gratified to receive them, at [email protected] May we soon see the day when knowledge of Hashem will blanket the earth “like water covers the ocean-bed.”

REACHING OUT WITH REASON

A Kiruv Primer

Rabbi Avi Shafran

My sins I recall today.

Many years ago, when I was much younger, even more foolish and living in California, I used a motorcycle for personal transportation. I remember once riding my mid-sized Honda, tzitzis flying behind me, into a cycle shop for a part. As I entered a parking space and cut the engine, I heard an explosive, rumbling roar from behind and knew, even before it pulled up next to me, that a Harley had arrived. The behemoth’s rider, a man much older than I, with flowing white hair and dark sunglasses, clad in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, looked down at me – menacingly, I thought. But what I had tagged as a scowl suddenly broadened into a smile, as the biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence of another time and place: a crudely tattooed number. “Another crazy Jew,” he said in Yiddish.

What an opening for bond-building. But, flabbergasted by the unexpected, I squandered the opportunity. To this day I am bothered by the memory of that lost chance. I think I shook his hand and probably smiled, but I didn’t go the extra mile. Not only didn’t I invite him for a Shabbos meal, I didn’t even ask him to tell me his name or about himself, nor did I share with him anything about me.

YIDDEN, YIDDEN EVERYWHERE

We non-“kiruv professionals” sometimes forget that even a few words of connection, a friendly conversation, a referral to a Jewish educational opportunity, is an act of outreach, of ahavas Yisroel, the planting of a seed.

And the opportunities are everywhere. Many of us have relatives or Jewish co-workers or neighbors who are less than fully observant, or entirely estranged from their religious heritage. Add to them the Jews we may meet just going about our daily lives – in the car repair shop, the doctor’s waiting room, the supermarket, the bus, the train – who beam us signals of their Jewishness. When a stranger smiles and pointedly drops a Yiddish or Hebrew word, or otherwise telegraphs some Jewish connection, it is not a meaningless act, but rather an invitation, a plea to connect. To just smile back and merrily go on one’s way – or, cholila, to not even smile – is to rebuff the overture.

Even had Gedolim of our generation not declared kiruv rechokim to be a vital obligation for contemporary Torah Jews, current Jewish intermarriage statistics make the mandate all too clear. According to the most recent National Jewish Population Study 2000-2002 (issued in 2003 – don’t ask), 47% of Jews over the five-year period prior to the study had wed non-Jews. That represented an increase from previous years, and there is little reason, barring the introduction of some unexpected factor, to expect the rate to slow, much less reverse itself.

The most generous estimates of the Orthodox portion of American Jewry has us at about 10%. Which means that 90% of the roughly 5-6 million Jews in the United States alone are, to one or another degree, disconnected from their religious heritage.

A cornucopia of kiruv groups, of course, offer classes, sponsor lectures, and disseminate wealths of print and electronic Jewish resources. Most such efforts are worthy and wonderful, and deserving of our support.

But, as those organizations’ representatives readily point out, they alone will never be able to reach the numbers of Jews whose lives could be touched, and potentially changed, if every Torah-observant Jew undertook as an individual to interact with less- or non-observant Jews. And so, it falls to each of us to undertake our own personal kiruv ventures – whether through efforts like Torah Umesora’s rightly celebrated “Partners in Torah” chavrusa program or simply by taking whatever opportunities present themselves for interaction with fellow Jews.

DIFFERENT FACES, DIFFERENT MINDS

Chazal teach us to recognize that each individual has his or her own way of looking at things – “Just as [people’s] faces are dissimilar, so are their points of view.” It would stand to reason, too, that just as there are groups of people who share physical similarities, so are there groups of Jews with similar mentalities, each group especially open to a particular path “home.”

And indeed, there are those who connect viscerally to Jewish observance. These are the Jews who, when they experience a Shabbos or Yomtov, a bris or a chasuna, come to understand on the neshama-level that they have sampled a deeper reality. Others are particularly affected by meeting a true Torah personality. They innately sense the sublime nature of a tzaddik and are provoked to explore what it is that yields such refinement. And then, of course, there are Jews whose sublimity of soul allows them to realize the truth of Torah from… Torah. Its study, that is. For such Jews, nothing can top a good shiur or chavrusah.

(There are also those who, for better or worse, are impressed by anecdotes or artifices – “miracle” stories and “Torah codes.” While such stratagems may excite some Jews, what titillation they may generate is often ephemeral. And for good reason. Many maasehlach enjoy an only tenuous relationship with truth; and many textual fireworks tend on close inspection to fizzle out. Wonder stories and miraculous methodologies might “work” for some, but Jewish lives are not generally built on such foundations.)

Whatever aspects of Yiddishkeit may be their entrée to observance, though, all Jews can be brought to acknowledge the theological foundations of Torah-life: That there is a Borei Olam and that He gave us His Torah. Beraishis bara Elokim es hashomayim vi’es ho’oretz and Torah tziva lonu Moshe.

Because those ikkarim can be reached through reason. To be sure, once a Jew recognizes the Divine nature of Torah, reason plays an only very limited role in the living of a Jewish life. Naaseh vinish’ma – doing the will of Hashem regardless of whether we understand it – becomes the operative principle. But the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit themselves are demonstrably reasonable; and demonstrating their reasonableness is vital. The word emunah itself, after all, does not mean “blind faith” but rather is rooted in the word omein, which implies the affirmation of a fact.

PARTING THE WAVES OF CYNICISM

There may have been a time when Hashem and the Torah’s Divine nature were self-evident to all Jews – in fact, to many non-Jews – and there was no need to “make the case” for a Creator or a Jewish mandate. Our days, though, are different. We live in a world as psychologically fueled by cynicism as it is physically powered by petroleum (and in the former case the supplies are unlimited). Ours is a world where books peddling atheism are sure-fire best-sellers, and faith in anything but science is portrayed as a sort of feeblemindedness. Even much of the Jewish world, while it may not have embraced the worst of contemporary paganism, has absorbed large chunks of the wider world’s moral relativism, and, as a result, is rife with “reinterpretations” of the Jewish religious tradition, if not outright denial of its veracity.

Truth be told, all of us stand to benefit from recognizing that affirmation of a Creator and the truth of the Jewish mesorah can be compellingly yielded through reason to an open and intelligent mind. All of us need not only the vi’yodato hayom but the vi’hashevoso el livovecha as well.

And so, below, an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.

COME, LET US REASON

From the very outset, it is important to understand that there is no way to prove most truths. “Proofs” – in the strictest sense of the word – are really only possible in mathematics and formal logic.

Which is why we seldom demand such proofs in our lives. Were we building a house, we would certainly want the architect and builder to use accurate geometry (which is itself constructed from math and logic). But we make the vast majority of our decisions, including many of the most important ones, on something else: reasonability.

It is reasonable, for instance, to dress warmly in the winter, although we don’t have any formal proof that doing otherwise will be unhealthy, or even uncomfortable. At most, we may have read, or think we have, of some scientific, statistical argument for donning a coat, based on the evidence of other cold days. But that is still reasonability, not proof. And then there are things for which we may not even have statistical support but nevertheless assume to be reasonable: following a doctor’s orders, looking both ways before crossing the street, shunning that herring salad that smells funny.

To be sure, people tend to resist reasonability when it leads where they prefer not to go. They would rather remain comfortable in their assumptions even when those assumptions are clearly unreasonable. That is why some people don’t buckle their seat belts or become jealous or get angry. Add physical desire and it becomes even worse, which is why people smoke and overeat.

And such shunning of reasonability is not limited to the mentally limited. Smart people are just as likely to ignore what should be obvious as anyone. Even scientists, as the celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck wrote, “especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…”

The sifrei mussar explain why: Only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character to which we all play host can perceive the world with clarity. The rest of us are subject to missing much that is entirely reasonable. We are daily hampered by a little voice in the back of our heads – physically inaudible but clearly heard all the same – that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to our Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. Hopefully, as religious Jews, we strive to resist the blandishments of that voice. But, for all of us, it is a difficult voice to ignore.

A the same time, though, we bear a responsibility to confront reasonability as best we can.

RECOMMENDED RAZOR

One important principle of reasonability, or common sense, is what has come to be called “Occam’s Razor” (after a 14th century English logician), or the “law of parsimony.” It asserts that the less complex an explanation for an observation (or set of observations), the more likely it is to be true.

Take, for example, a medical diagnosis. If someone had pepper blown in his face and subsequently had a sneezing fit, it would not be reasonable to interpret the sneezing as an allergy; there is a more simple explanation.

Similarly, if a patient presents a number of symptoms, one might choose to view each one individually. The fever could be the result of a bacterial infection, the cough might be an effect of the patient’s having unknowingly inhaled some irritant, the muscle aches from a possible mineral deficiency. But as the symptoms taken together are consistent with influenza, it is most reasonable to interpret the symptoms as a set, and to duly diagnose the flu.

Similar examples can be described in any profession or realm, indeed in everyday life. The loud rumble one heard in his third-story apartment may have been from an oversize truck running over a rough patch of road below; the shadow spreading over the window shade might be the result of a partial eclipse of the sun, and the drops of water on the window pane may have been discharged by an air conditioner in the window of the apartment above. But a reasonable person observing all those things together will wisely venture outside only with an umbrella.

Applying the law of parsimony to a set of historical and other observations yields a compelling case for our mesorah.

EXHIBIT A: THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR

There are many “arguments” for the veracity of Torah, some with sources in well-known seforim, others the result of relatively recent historical facts. Any one of them would give pause to an agnostic who is truly objective (admittedly, as above, a rarity). The aggregate, however, of all the arguments – each of which is independent of all the others – leads to a point as close to certainty as can be reasonably expected in life.

We might begin with the alpha-point of the Torah itself: its revelation at Har Sinai. Nowhere in the annals of religions is there a parallel to Jewish historical tradition’s claim to a mass-revelation from G-d.

Christianity is mediated by a man who was named Shaul (or Paul); Islam, by someone called Mohammed; Mormonism by one Joseph Smith. While Moshe Rabbeinu acted as an intermediary between Hashem and Klal Yisroel, his role is concretely established only after the Creator directly introduces Himself to the Jewish people, who personally experience His communication en masse.

That is not a minor point. Every faith is only as compelling as the individual standing at its beginning, and any individual’s claim to divine communication is only as strong as its weakest link – that person’s credibility. By contrast, the claim of a mass experience cannot be successfully asserted unless it really happened; for if it didn’t, the perpetrators of the hoax will be unable to produce the mass. The experiences of masses are, in fact, precisely what constitute what we call history. We don’t doubt that the Revolutionary War actually took place because of the tradition about it handed down to the next generation by the large number of people who witnessed it, and the further entrusting of the facts by subsequent generations to their own progenies.

Mattan Torah, despite its supernatural element, is no different from – and thus no less reliable than – any other historical tradition. For it is based on a mass-testimony.

To be sure, someone newly presented with that thought might suggest scenarios where a mass-revelation claim could have been fabricated after the claimed event, and was somehow propagated despite the lack of corroboration from the masses themselves. Louder by far, though, than his doubt is the profound silence yielded by a single, salient fact: Despite the obvious advantages of claiming a mass-event-based faith, only one such claim has been made over the course of human history: the Jewish one.

Is the Divine origin of the Torah thus proven, in some mathematical sense? No. Is it, though, a reasonable conclusion? Absolutely. How convincing? To me, entirely. But if a listener insists it is only “80% convincing” or “70% convincing” to him or her, so be it. We move on.

EXHIBITS B AND C: THE SUICIDAL AND THE PROPHETIC

Move on, that is, to consider the separate matter of the self-defeating nature of several of the Torah’s laws. Take Shmitta, which enjoins the Jews in Eretz Yisroel to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row), an unarguable recipe for agricultural and (at least in Biblical times) economic disaster. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure that the populace will not starve would dare make such a promise.

And what of the law of the Sholosh Regolim, the three “pilgrimage festivals” when all adult Jewish males were commanded in the times of the Beis HaMikdosh to journey to Yerushalayim – leaving their homes and the nation’s borders vulnerable to attack from enemies? The regolim are closely connected to the seasons and phases of the moon, and would thus have become quite predictable to the Jews’ enemies, of which, as always, there were many.

A skeptic might retort that maybe the Jews never really kept those laws, or maybe the laws themselves were added to the Torah’s text (for some unimaginable reason) at some point after the Jews’ exile from the Holy Land. And no one noticed the textual tinkering.

Well, okay. But our skeptic will have to admit all the same that the most straightforward (if supernatural) explanation points instead to the Divine authorship of the Torah. If he is honest, he will have to rate the argument at least a 5 or 6 on the reasonability-scale.

Then, of course, there are the predictions, like the Torah’s foretelling of how the Jewish people will come to sin, be exiled from their land and scattered among the nations. And the further description of how Jews will seek to lose their identity, most of them unsuccessfully – rebuffed, often violently, by their foreign hosts. And how the remnant of the Jewish People will eventually return to Hashem, and to their land.

The doubter will likely attribute this one, too, if not to some post-facto change of text then just to plain chance. But, as reasonability goes, it remains another, separate and compelling argument.

EXHIBIT D: THE UNEXPECTED

There are other independent indications of the Torah’s uniqueness, too. Like the fact that, unlike every other tradition hallowed by a world faith, it harshly highlights the foibles and sins of its great men and women. In the New Testament, the books’ hero is without fault; the Koran’s protagonist is a perfect prophet. Just what one would expect from documents written by men to extol men. The Torah, by stark contrast, declares the mistakes of its greatest personages, including Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohein, evidence that it was created not by typical hero-promoters but by an omniscient Other. The nay-sayer may mutter “So what?” But the oddity does point, once again, to the Torah’s Divine origin.

As does Moshe’s singular and striking lack of qualification for leadership. He suffers from a speech impediment, lacks the self-confidence that is the essence of every great leader, and doesn’t even want the job. Has there ever been such a leader? Other religion-forming figures possessed the natural ability to convince others of their connection to truth. Not Moshe. He was the last person one would ever choose, yet he was the one through whom the Torah was given. (Perhaps that is even why: so that no one would ever be able to attribute the truth of our Torah to the impact of oratory, charisma or self-confidence.)

The rejecter contends all the same that such uniquenesses may imply a special author, but not necessarily a Divine one. But anomalies remain eloquent; what is unexpected is usually meaningful, a clue to a truth.

Each of the above observations of anomalies – each independently from every other one – points to the truth of the Jewish religious tradition; all of them taken together should be impossible to ignore. Were there as many indications of heart failure in a human being, he’d be rushed to cardiac surgery without delay.

AND EXHIBIT E: THE UNMENTIONABLE

And all that is not even to mention one of the most compelling arguments today for the truth of our mesorah, something we are uncomfortable pondering but are in a better position today to perceive than anyone at any other time in history: the persistence of anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish people have been historically significant is a truism. The nation described by the Torah as chosen by Hashem to live by His laws not only introduced monotheism and morality to human society but has played a critical role in promoting a multitude of important ideas, from that of a legislature to textual analysis to educational systems to ethics to democracy itself (the principle by which a beis din operates). And, as observers as diverse as Mark Twain and Ann Landers have noted, even from a secular perspective, the influence has been overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes the persistence of anti-Semitism not only unexpected, but astounding.

What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the singular distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every single period of mankind’s progression from ancient times to the present? What other group removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination?

The aims of the historical persecutions have been varied and, as such, the term anti-Semitism is something of a misnomer. Some of the hatred has been of a racial nature, some of a religious and some even of a personal nature. What all the animus has in common, though, is its collective focus on a perceived but unthreatening enemy: the Jews (and/or their beliefs). Whether the particular excuse was cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, or radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or national (Palestinian radicals), the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek dedicated himself to art and beauty; he hated the Jew. The Crusader championed the message of the “New Testament” (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew. The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew. The Palestinian opposes what he regards as Zionist imperialism; but in the end it is the Jew whom he hates.

Things might be a bit more understandable were there in fact some World Council of International Jewry that meets in some grand European castle every decade to plot the next stage of our nefarious manipulation of world governments to our own evil advantage.

Or if, as large portions of the non-Jewish world once believed (and parts still do), religious Jews required Christian blood for matzos, an assertion for which countless Jews were tortured and killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that while Jewish organizational meetings can be hellish in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the “Elders of Zion” – and that matzo containing blood would never receive rabbinic certification, much less the enthusiasm of Jewish consumers. Yet the myths persevered for centuries – and, sadly, still do.

As do contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels, in no less bizarre forms – like some Palestinians’ projection of their own murderous designs onto Israeli soldiers who seek only to protect their fellow citizens; or like much of the Arab world’s acceptance of the contention that Jews were really behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or like media equations of accidental civilian deaths from Israeli fire in self-defense with the victims of murderous terrorists (or “gunmen”) gleefully seeking to kill and maim as many innocents as they possibly can.

“I had somehow believed that the Jewish Question had been solved …” wrote essayist Jonathan Rosen in The New York Times Magazine several weeks after the 9/11 attacks. “But more and more I feel Jews being turned into a question mark once again. How is it, the world still asks,… that you are still here?”

“There are,” that writer continued, “five million Jews in Israel and eight million more in the rest of the world. There are one billion Muslims. How has it happened that Israel and ‘world Jewry’, along with the United States, is the enemy of so many of them?”

How, indeed. The question, in truth, runs much deeper. How is it, one can just as easily ask, that Jews are reviled in places Idaho or Japan, where there aren’t even any Jews to speak of? And how is it that parts of a Europe that was seized by a frenzy of Jew-murder not even a century ago can today be so sympathetic and helpful to those who would do the same in the Middle East?

One can try to address the persistence of Jew-hatred into modern times by invoking “rational” explanations: psychological concepts, social theory or geopolitical realities. But, here too, there is a more straightforward and comprehensive if disturbing solution to the riddle.

And it lies, at least for Jews unafraid to face Jewish verities, once again, in the truth of our mesorah – its prediction about how the Jewish people, in golus, will neglect its spiritual heritage and suffer dearly for the fact.

“And He will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day (Devorim, 28:64-66).”

THE BIG PICTURE

And so, we tell our searching fellow-Jew, step back to regard the entire canvas: the historical singularity of ma’amad Har Sinai; the self-defeating nature of some of the Torah’s laws; the uniqueness of the Torah’s stark descriptions of its “heroes”; Moshe Rabbeinu’s utter lack of qualifications for leadership; and, finally, the sheer astonishingness of anti-Semitism and its persistence. Can a reasonable, open-minded person really not be struck by the implications of the fact that a single contention, and only that single contention, explains all of those things? And that contention is the very one that has imbued and animated Klal Yisrael for millennia, and continues to do so today.

Whether that realization is internalized or deflected by mental contortions in order to avoid its implications is, of course, up to each individual (and the little voice in the back of his head). All any of us can do is present the facts. But the reasoning is in fact compelling and, armed with it, we should not hesitate to reach out to other Jews, to help them look at history and the world around them with open minds and reason, and help them say omein.

I am indebted for much of the content of this essay (as I am for more than I can confine to words) to my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l.

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3 Responses

  1. Esther says:

    I think the most important point of your article was in the introduction. It’s so important to be aware that you and your actions are the first exposure any non-frum person will have of the entire Torah lifestyle and Judaism. Not only will you miss out on a kiruv opportunity but you have then set an image in the person’s mind that will affect whether anyone else will ever get the opportunity to have any of the discussions that Rabbi Shafran’s article is about. (In fact, i would say that Rabbi Shafran actually did NOT miss the opportunity – although he didn’t “do kiruv,” he spoke nicely to the person so left the door open for this person because this person will remember the friendly frum guy on a motorcycle)

    Remember, this means not only being friendly instead of rude, but also not driving like a maniac or other public behavior that will form negative images. There may only be a small number of people who wil; have the opportunity and ability to have the discussions in this article with a questioning fellow Jew, but it is th rest of us who make that person willing to even ask the questions in the first place.

  2. Ken Applebaum says:

    The Talmud says that Torah (i.e., a Torah way of life) is one of the things that always needs Chizuk (encouragement and strengthening). Thank you Rabbi Safran for providing such Chizuk in this important post.

  3. Neil Harris says:

    What an important article. Thank you.