The Decline of Particularism: Fatal Flaw For Jewish Survival

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We should not sound triumphal in pointing to the fatal flaw in Daniel Gordis’ important, powerful, and incisive article mourning the abandonment of Israel by young rabbinical students. His error is more excusable and understandable than our own paralysis in doing something about it.

Writing in Commentary, Gordis offers trenchant analysis of how a new generation of leaders has come to see Israel as an embarrassment and themselves as champions of fairness and balance, but not of Jewish survival. Orthodox readers that I know greeted the article with shock and deep concern – and justifiable pride in his concession that none of his findings apply to the Orthodox, except those on the far-left. (Many of our readers already struggle with the question of whether the Orthodox far left acts and thinks in a manner so different than the rest of us, that it may have already written itself out of the Big Tent of Orthodoxy. This article may provide some more clarity regarding that question.)

Gordis is always thoughtful and though-provoking – and an extremely effective writer. He often offers considerable hope where others cannot find any, but does not shift to Pollyanna mode in this piece. He tells of a Boston rabbinical school where students were encouraged on Yom Ha-Zikaron to remember the dead of both sides of the conflict, and to ask themselves for whom they grieve. He reports on the rabbi-to-be who chose Ramallah as the place to celebrate his birthday, and another who wanted to buy a talis – provided that it not be made in Israel.

Gordis carefully teases out the differences between his generation, in which support of Israel was widespread, to the present one, in which supporting Israel is considered offensive to many Jews. The older generation remembers Israel in its times of greatest vulnerability, and its miraculous endurance, earning accolades from many nations. Today’s students first memories are of well-armed Israeli Goliaths facing down rock-throwing Palestinian Davids, as reported by hostile media. The older generation either remembers or can still conceive of a world without a Jewish State; the new one knows of nothing but the trickle-down benefits of such a state to Jewish pride and assertiveness that it paradoxically cannot even grasp what its loss would mean. The older generation knows of friends and enemies, and where to apply those labels; the present one is uncomfortable thinking that any group of people are our foes, preferring the political pablum of a worldview in which all people are inherently good and cooperative, if only their grievances are properly addressed.

The last, and most serious factor, is the erosion of Jewish particularism. Young Jews are embarrassed by the thought that Jews might have a special place in their hearts for other Jews, and might treat them with extra loyalty and concern. Young people have bought into the idea much or all of what ails the world stems from holding on to distinctions between people, based on outmoded, artificial markings of language, gender, religion and tribe. Consciously or otherwise, they have bought into the European post-colonial self-flagellation that tries to compensate for its bloody past by erasing all such distinctions. (The experiment seems to be a notable failure on many counts, not the least of which is the pushback against it evidenced in the rise of fascist groups in many areas where people were supposed to have taken down all borders, and joined hands singing a EU anthem in Esperanto.) They have accordingly rewritten their understanding of Judaism itself to reflect this univeralism. There is little, if any, room in it for a sense of automatic kinship with other Jews as fellow-travellers in a journey that stretches thousands of years in the past, and will last till the end of time. They simply refuse to allow for preferential action or affect for other Jews. (Elsewhere, people have written that Jewish charitable giving is not down as much as some believe. Rather, the share of Jewish philanthropic donation earmarked for Jewish, rather than general, causes continues to shrink – again, victimized by an antipathy towards particularism.)

All this is simply a reflection of the decreased role of “peoplehood” in Judaism. What we are witnessing is a Protestantization of American Jewish life. By and large, today’s rabbinical students did not grow up in homes that were richly Jewish. More often than not, these students came to their Jewish commitments as a result of individual journeys on which they embarked. They sought meaning, and found it. They sought prayer, and learned it. Their Jewish experience is roughly analogous to a Protestant religious awakening. The Protestant religious experience is a deeply personal one, not a communal one. Worship in the Protestant tradition is about reaching for the divine, while in the Jewish tradition, it is no less about creating a bond with other Jews.

A Judaism without particularism is inauthentic. It just isn’t in the historical or legal record:

To be sure, Jewish tradition is extraordinarily nuanced and generous when it comes to the question of how Jews are to treat non-Jews. But it is a simple matter of fact that Jews have always been taught to care, first and foremost, for other Jews.

“Why was Abram called a ‘Hebrew’?” the Midrash asks, and replies: the word “ivri” (Hebrew) refers to the bank of a river. The Jews were from one bank of the Euphrates; the rest of the world was from the other. There is an “us” and a “them” in Judaism’s worldview. It doesn’t make “us” always correct, or “them” automatically wrong. But it actually does mean that Jewish authenticity requires caring about ourselves before we care about others, just as we are to care for our own parents and our own children first. As the Talmud notes in the tractate of Bava Metziah: If you lend money to any of My people that is poor: [if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘My people’ has preference; the poor or the rich—the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [relatives] and the [general] poor of your town—your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town—the poor of your own town have prior rights.

Moreover, Gordis continues, a universalism that knows of no preferences and no distinctions is not workable and threatens Jewish survival:

What too many of these students do not understand is that the Jewish tradition makes a bold claim—the claim that we learn caring, and we learn love, from that which is closest to us. To love all of humanity equally is ultimately to love no one. To care about one’s enemies as much as one cares about oneself is to be no one. There needs to be priority and specificity in devotion and loyalty. Without them, we can stand for nothing. And without instinctive loyalty to the Jewish people, Jewry itself cannot survive.

Gordis is spot-on in describing the problem, but comes up short in suggesting solutions. He offers none – other than noting the seriousness of the situation, as if people reading his analysis would see their errors and repent. That, however, is entirely unrealistic. Young Jews lack particularism not because they haven’t been exposed to it and its place in Jewish history. They reject it because the intellectual and cultural milieu in which they live rejects and loathes all such narrow identification and concern. They have bought into an ethic well-expressed by Montesquieu: “I would be wrong if I preferred my children to the citizens of my town. I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of the town to the citizens of France, and I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of France to my fellow citizens of the universe.”

Young Jews need more than education to restore a sense of peoplehood, loyalty and responsibility. They need cogent arguments for a Jewish mission and a Jewish message. Gordis cites the Medrash about Avraham standing alone on one side of the river. He does not pay sufficient attention to why Avraham found himself there, and how his passion for understanding G-d and connecting to Him is what makes Judaism a noble pursuit, rather than jingoistic provincialism. He does not provide young Jews with permission to be particularistic in a world that despises it.

To those who think about such things, a traditional Jewish approach does not reject universalism, but embraces it. After a long davening for ourselves as individuals and Jewish community, we leave shul on a note of universalism at the end of Alenu. We recognize that successful universalism will only rest on a unifying recognition of “Vehaya Hashem l’melech al kol ha-aretz.” The particularism of Jewish practice is not an outgrowth of selfishness, but of a commitment to redeem the entire world, after it has been enriched by a message tenaciously clung to by this upstart people. There are no shortcuts to grasping this reality. It enters the bones of one who lives his or her life by the Will of G-d; without commitment to halacha, it can at best be one idea among many.

This presents us with more challenge than triumph, more responsibility than laurel-resting. If Gordis is right – and I have not met anyone who disputes his assessment – someone has to compensate for the erosion of support of Israel. In the past, we Orthodox could tell ourselves that we could not apply ourselves to all noble Jewish activities. We were too busy building communities, schools, shuls. There was no shortage of Jews willing to take on the social action projects and the political activism. With the shrinking allegiance of the non-Orthodox to Jewish concerns, we Orthodox can no longer avoid involving ourselves in areas we used to leave for others. The others can no longer sustain the effort themselves. If we think of ourselves as committed to Jewish peoplehood, we cannot sit on the sidelines as more and more areas of Jewish life are undersubscribed.

Gordis’ article, in the final analysis, should be a clarion call to action, not a source of Orthodox triumphalism.

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31 Responses

  1. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >He shows that you can’t ever arrive at the proper universalist stance without first traversing the particularist distance required by the Torah. Rav Kook was at once an ardent particularist, and a staunch universalist, providing us with the best of two worlds.

    See Igrot Raaya 3 pp. 10-12 (letter 546) for a wonderful example of this.

    I would also add to the list, the Kuzari whose model of “Israel in the Nations is like the Heart in the body” was the model for R’ Kook’s model of Jewish particularism being for the sake of the larger body of humanity.

  2. lawrence kaplan says:

    Daniel Gordis is the grandson of the prominent Conservative rabbi, theologian, and biblical scholar, Robert Gordis.

  3. Nachum says:

    “I would rather say with “resignation” and anticipation.”

    Much better.

    “Granted, but what’s the relevance IF it is perhaps a din min haShamayim?”

    Who cares if it is? That’s out of our hands. EVERYTHING is a din min haShamayim. We don’t have to go along with it.

    “I have not had the zechus to leave the American golus to “live the dream””

    I’m glad you feel that way, and hope you yet have the zechut.

  4. Shua Cohen says:

    > “Leaving R’ Wasserman aside, it’s certainly not good for us either in spiritual or practical terms to lose so many Jews.” (Nachum)

    >> Granted, but what’s the relevance IF it is perhaps a din min haShamayim?

    Thinking about it some more, I take my answer back and do not grant your premise.

    Rav Wasserman points out that “there is a selection going on now. Some people are being brought back, and some people are being thrown out. There are prophecies concerning this unfortunate fact.” In this manner our golus can be compared to a fiery furnace which is meant to burn away the dross and purify Klal Yisrael for the final geula. Once again, it seems harsh…but if this is the din min HaShamayim, how can one propose that the purifying of Klal Yisrael is “not good for us in either spiritual or practical terms.” On the contrary, it is what is necessary and therefore the BEST thing for us. Klal Yisrael needed to spend forty years in the desert to free itself of an entire generation deemed unworthy to enter the Land. Rav Wasserman is saying that the same situation prevails today (albeit, contrary to political correctness). Isn’t calling it “reprehensible” — or a milder “not good for us” — questioning Heaven’s judgment (chas v’shalom)?

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I don’t think that many of CC’s readers are going to believe that there is a gezerah in shomayim that has closed the gates on substantial kiruv on the basis of something that R Wasserman may or may not have said, and that no one alive has any way of demonstrating what he really may have really meant, if he did say it. Moreover, the statement flies in the face of the prodigious amount of kiruv activity that Rav Simcha Wasserman did all the years he resided here in LA.

      I am going to exercise editorial discretion and terminate this thread.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    I thought that Dr Gordis ( and R Adlerstein) hit the proverbial nail on the head. A Jewish identity that is rooted in universalism IMO, at the expense of particularism, should be viewed as not rooted in traditional Jewish values that have their roots in the Torah and how Chazal and the classical Mfarshim understood the lives of the Avos, and the purpose of the Exodus-the Divine selection of the Jewish People to receive the Torah and to live a personal and communal life rooted in Kedusha.

  6. Reb Yid says:

    Why not start out a mutual exchange (or cross currents, if you will) over non-theistic or faith issues?

    Both parties could talk about ways to develop leadership, to make learning more impactful, to run more successful organizations, to develop outreach in the 21st century, to make Hebrew/texts more available/accessible to beginners, etc.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      Nothing new in that proposal. Stuff like that has been going on for decades, without putting a dent in where the community is going – which means polar opposite directions for the Orthodox and the heterodox.

      Still, if you want to get me invited to address students at the school at which you taught between 2000 and 2002, I could probably be persuaded to accept…

  7. Shua Cohen says:

    > “R’ Wasserman seems to be stating this as an unfortunate and sad fact. I’m sure that he would try to save everyone he could.” (Nachum)

    >> Granted “that he would try to save everyone he could” — as should we all — but realizing that, in truth, the assimilated and intermarried masses are mostly beyond reach. Of course, the thousands of gentiles self-identifying as Jews in the heterodox movements are not a part of the Klal to begin with.

    > “You are stating it with relish and anticipation. There’s a difference.”

    >> I would rather say with “resignation” and anticipation. Once again, if 50% of American Jews under the age 35 (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) would be indifferent to the annihilation of the State of Israel…well my gosh…that’s a pretty horrific state of affairs. (Are these callously indifferent “Jews” perhaps descendants of the eiruv rav? Who knows?) Hence my perfectly justified “resignation.”

    > “Leaving R’ Wasserman aside, it’s certainly not good for us either in spiritual or practical terms to lose so many Jews.”

    >> Granted, but what’s the relevance IF it is perhaps a din min haShamayim?

    > “For all your talk about ‘leaving this golus’ and so on, may I ask where you live?”

    >> Regrettably, I have not had the zechus to leave the American golus to “live the dream” in Eretz Yisrael. Without getting into too much personal detail, aliyah with Nefesh b’Nefesh was imminent when a totally unexpected divorce and shared custody of my young daughter destroyed the dream. Thus, my anxious “anticipation” for the conclusion of our geula, the process of which I believe is currently underway, as Rav Wasserman clearly believed as well.

    The Chessed L’Avraham wrote that in these times (chevlei Mashiach), “Israel’s troubles will become as grave as can be, and they will suffer intense pain. The reason for this is that the Divine Presence will judge its household.” Well, Rav Wasserman understands that as a part of that judgment people will be “thrown out” of Klal Yisrael. These harsh words are Rav Wasserman’s (not my own) and accord perfectly with the scenario of “suffering intense pain” that is alluded to by the Chessed L’Avraham. Get over it folks!

  8. Raymond says:

    I guess I must be getting old, because I so completely identify with the older generation’s assessment of our Jewish people’s place in the world, that I frankly do not understand the mindset of the younger generation. To me, it almost does not even matter whether we identify ourselves first and foremost as Jews, or as neutral citizens of the world. It does not matter, because the world itself has always made sure to define us as inherently different than the gentile world. But aside from the fact that we cannot escape the fact that we are Jews, I do not understand why anybody would even try to. Yes, it is not easy being Jewish, but I for one feel honored to be a member of the most remarkable and disproportionally successful and decent people in all of world history.

  9. Nachum says:

    Shua:

    1. R’ Wasserman seems to be stating this as an unfortunate and sad fact. I’m sure that he would try to save everyone he could. You are stating it with relish and anticipation. There’s a difference.

    2. Leaving R’ Wasserman aside, it’s certainly not good for us either in spiritual or practical terms to lose so many Jews.

    3. The “one-fifth left Egypt” thing is, I hope you realize, drush. “Chamushim” means something like “armed.”

    4. For all your talk about “leaving this golus” and so on, may I ask where you live?

  10. Shua Cohen says:

    “I think what he found reprehensible was the ease with which you can write off millions of Jews. Basing this on the Nevi’im makes it more objectionable, not less.” (R. Adlerstein)

    I certainly understand what you are saying, but my comment is not based upon my own poor learning. I would not have the nerve to make these observations about the extinction of large segments of Klal Yisrael on my own. Thusly, I would appreciate it if you (or someone else) would address the statement of HaRav Simcha Wasserman zt”l, quoted in comment number one of this thread.

    A related issue that has been raised in other forums concerns the amount of money that should (or should not) be earmarked for kiruv efforts, given the assumptions made by Rabbi Wasserman. For example, the monumental tuition crisis requires considerable funding to keep already Orthodox youth in yeshivas and out of the public schools. Should we not be concentrating limited funds to hold the line within our own Orthodox communities, rather than investing in kiruv efforts which are showing decreasing rates of return?

    We may not have Navi’im, but gedolei Yisrael need to weigh in on our priorities with an open ear to Navi and with the hope that this is, indeed, the LAST diaspora generation before those “selected” to be included in the final geula (as per Rav Wasserman) leave this golus forever. It’s all very PC to say: “how reprehensible it is to write-off millions of Jews.” But since when does political correctness have any bearing on our mesorah. The PROOF of the disengagement of millions from Klal Yisrael is evident before our eyes. My reading of Rav Wasserman is to recognize that it is disingenuous to deny it…or believe that, in this final act of Jewish history, we can do very much about it.

  11. Boris Schein says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Thank you for your comments on this article published in the Commentary magazine.

    Both you and the people who left their “comments on your comments” consider this as a “Jewish” phenomenon and express their satisfaction that it occurred on the “far left” side of the Orthodox Judaism only.

    I disagree (sort of). These young (future) rabbis are children of their society. Their “anti-Israelism” camouflaged as “peacemaking”, “engagement”, or any other PC words, or the words like “justice” or “even-handedness” has about the same origin as anti-Americanism of the American Left: no matter what happens, if they don’t like that, they blame the US first. (I single the “American” Left out because anti-Americanism in Europe has additional stimuli.)

    We face claims about “relativism” of any value judgement: there is neither “good” nor “evil”, everything is relative and depends on the local culture, what is “good” in one culture is “bad” in another culture and vice versa. All “cultures” are created equal and if people in culture A have much more pathetic lives than in culture B, this is unfair and proves that B is deficient, bad, exploitative and colonialist. It follows that, to be “fair”, all cultures should produce universal misery. This is – with a few simplifications – the classical Marxist point of view: “truth” and “lie”, “good” and “evil” are purely relative concepts that express the interests of the ruling class (the Capitalists) and, after the Communist takeover, these concepts would change becoming polar opposites to the previous “Capitalist” ones. Or, not to use these frightening words, let’s call that “multiculturalism”.

    It is a sort of a “caveman” morals: if two cannibals meet and, naturally, fight, the one who kills the other one, eats him. Is this “good”? It is “good” from the point of view of the cannibal who had dinner, and it is “bad” from the point of view of the cannibal who had been eaten. Both points of view are correct and no other judgement is possible. So, after millennia, we made a full circle and returned to the cannibalistic relativism in moral and ethics.

    When I wrote about “anti-Americanism” I said “no matter what happens, if they don’t like that, they blame the US first” – and I had an almost knee-jerk urge to add: “not that the US is always right” etc., etc. I resisted it because my “conditional reflex” is more appropriate for Pavlovian dogs. And yet everyone in this dispute always hastened to add, when speaking of Israel, that, of course, he didn’t mean that Israel could not be criticized, that, of course–of course, her government made errors etc., etc.

    But OF COURSE!! Absolutely everyone, friend and foe, knows that any two Jews have five diametrically opposite opinions about anything, and the government is not an exception. And yet everyone repeats this mantra because, otherwise, G0d forbid, someone would accuse him of … Listen, Cross-Currents is an Orthodox blog, right? So, YOUR participants and readers do know that some disputes are “for the sake of Heaven” – and they “will ultimately endure.”

    May it be His will that more and more and more of our disagreements and disputes will be for the sake of Heaven.

    Boris.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      Dear Prof. Schein,

      We disagree less than you think. Your observations are fascinating, but quite consistent with my thesis. You simply make Dr. Gordis’ non-solution of the problem even less tenable. The relativism that you decry is so much a part of the fabric of Western intellectual thought that it would seem cruel to ask young people to swim against its current – unless we put them in a very good and strong boat. The Enlightenment turned the notion of the absolute into a target of mockery and derision. There were no more, and there could be no more, absolutes. Everything had to be questioned, and there could be no answsers – except, as you point out, the new orthodoxies that periodically arose, depending on which cannibals held more power. For strong belief in anything at all, you need to equip people with something completely outside of this relativism, and show them how and why it is more attractive. For Jews, only Torah can do that. Disagreements for the sake of Heaven endure because at their core, there is agreement about the absolute rule of Torah. Indeed, may we all see more of those kinds of disputes.

  12. Shua Cohen says:

    “Overall, I agree with…the overall tenor of the comments (except for the first, which I think is reprehensible).” (Jeffrey Woolf, above)

    This statement is incomprehensible to me. How can the prognostications of Navi’im be “reprehensible?” How is the expression of that reality by a gadol “reprehensible?” If “reprehensible” means “deserving of rebuke,” please offer an alternative reality to the following:

    “Polls show that Jewish American youth are largely apathetic about Israel. On college campuses, anti-Israel activities are met with resistance by only a tiny percentage of Jewish students. And one recent poll of American Jews showed that only 50% of respondents under age 35 would “consider it a personal tragedy” if the State of Israel were to be annihilated.” (Anti-Israel Spillover, Yvette Alt Miller, Aish.com, 06/20)

    Dr. Woolf, there exists no sense of “Jewish peoplehood” in an enoromous segment of the Jewish population. It is a tragedy of profound proportions. But, it is certainly not “reprehensible” to recognize that the words of Navi have come to pass; that so many Jews have written themselves/been written out of Klal Yisrael. Who is pollyannish enough to deny this tragic reality?

    (I find it fascinating that the comments here are, by-and-large, sociological in tenure and not Torah oriented).

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I hope that Prof. Woolf will reply more fully, but until then, I will weigh in with a short comment. I think what he found reprehensible was the ease with which you can write off millions of Jews. Basing this on the Nevi’im makes it more objectionable, not less. Without another navi around (and they are in short supply) we have no way of knowing whether what we might think is the fulfilment of a particular prophecy is really that, or just misreading the signs. Without assurance from a navi, surely our job is to fight tooth and nail for every Jewish neshama out there. I’ll have Chumash trump nach: See the Shalah ha-Kadosh on the pachim ketanim. He takes this to mean that Yaakov refused to leave behind any Jewish neshama to Esav – not even the apparently empty vessels.

  13. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Rav Yitzchak,
    If they ask for reciprocity, what if we gave it to them? Some conservative rabbi is no threat to the faith of learned and committed yeshiva students. They would eat such a guy up alive! It would also be a good exercise for the boys to know what it’s like “out there” as an antidote to the insularity. The risk is minimal, and it is surely worth the price for the opportunity to reach out to these young minds who are going to be influencing the future Jewish public. Or are they? Does anybody in the heterodox Jewish world care anymore?

  14. Carmi Wisemon says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein,
    This is indeed a very sad situation which I often experience through my work. Unfortunately us Orthodox world are partially responsible for this situation. Though you, I and many others can quote the universalist aspects of Judaism. How often do our children hear universal Jewish teachings in their schools, shuls or yeshivas? Rarely. Most mainstream Orthodox Rabbanim are uncomfortable to speak about these issues with their congregants and students. The Jewish community’s Yiddishkeit by default has become a particularist religion. In an age of Universalism it is only the Orthodox that are blessed to have ebough Mitzvot to keep them connected to Eretz Yisrael and Torat(s) Yisrael. The challenge of the Orthodox world is to start to mainstream Universal Jewish principles in our own community. When that happens B”H the Reform and Conservatives will start to follow our lead and perhaps we will be able to fullfill the mission that Hashem wants of the Jewish people.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I will meet you and raise you one. You probably confused readers by calling for greater appreciation of Torah’s universalism, when my essay spoke of the quintessential importance of particularism. But you are right, of course. To a world infatuated with universalism, simply raising the banner of Jewish particularism is not going to rally the troops. As I stated in my piece, you need to be able to demonstrate the rationale, the ethos of such particularism. You are also correct. You need to be able to show that their instinct for universalism is also correct. How could they both be correct?

      Here is where your observation is so tragic. The tools to demonstrate that particularism does not diminish a universalist telos need not be newly invented. We have some wonderful works in our arsenal that demonstrate that the two can coexist. Moreover, I would contend that our failure to teach enough of them leaves us with a slew of other problems, because the two of them provide the antidote to so many other contemporary problems. The two are Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rav Kook. Rav Hirsch ably and amply shows the universalist messages of the Torah. Rav Kook goes beyond that. He shows that you can’t ever arrive at the proper universalist stance without first traversing the particularist distance required by the Torah. Rav Kook was at once an ardent particularist, and a staunch universalist, providing us with the best of two worlds.

      As you say, many of us could point to many examples of universalist thought to our very particularist friends. In my mind, however, Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook remain the most convincing.

  15. Ori says:

    Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein: Emphatically yes! In a manner of speaking, about 10 times out of 9, feelers that I have extended have either been ignored, or have been responded to with something like, “Wonderful! We would love to have you speak. Just please tell us when you will be able to reciprocate, and have one of our rabbis speak in one of your Orthodox seminaries.” End of discussion. (Not really. I have sometimes been able to explain why reciprocity is not a possibility, but explanations have not been effective.)

    Ori: Why is reciprocity a problem? We aren’t talking about kids who might be tempted “off the derech”. We’re talking about adults who are the future leaders on the Orthodox community. Wouldn’t they be mature enough to understand when a speaker isn’t telling them the whole story? Wouldn’t their future responsibility include kiruv, which requires them to understand Heterodox opinions and attitudes?

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      [This reply is meant to address the comments of Ori, as well as several others who wrote similarly, and who will not be published to spare us all the redundancy.]

      Why a problem? Several reasons, some (but not all) of which I personally can identify.
      1) There rarely, if ever, is a venue for such speakers. People in other denominations often have enough curiosity and genunine openness to want to hear the ideas of those with whom they disagree. Yeshivos are not such places. In their mission to promote Torah study, there is no room to offer a podium or pulpit to people who operate entirely out of bounds of the accepted faith system. You can’t get students together and tell them that now, for entertainment or edification, we are going to listen to someone we know to be off-base and incorrect.

      2) Much to my surprise, people in the heterodox movements – at least the clergy – are far more desperate for legitimacy from the Orthodox than we would believe. On several occassions that I did speak (after consulting greater people) with the stipulation that my appearance would not be spun as some sort of thaw in Orthodox rejection of heterodox beliefs, I was shocked to find some time later that it was splashed as exactly that. This would be less of a concern for a non-rabbi who was also not a public figure.

      3) Some people, for better or worse, simply don’t want to have to deal with confusing arguments coming from rejectionists. I can’t blame them. On several rare occassions where I was party to inviting in (for educational purposes) speakers from outside the fold, they broke promises not to hawk their ideologies.

      All of this is regretable, because as several have written in, there is much to be gained by speaking almost anyplace that will allow us in.

  16. Jeffrey Woolf says:

    Overall, I agree with your reaction to Gordis’ piece and with the overall tenor of the comments (except for the first, which I think is reprehensible). I would only add a further reason for caution, lest we pat ourselves on the back overly much.

    I have just completed a four month sabbatical in the US. One thing that struck me was how incredibly self-satisfied large swaths of American Orthodox Jews appear to be. For many of the people I met (though assuredly not the majority, I hope), Israel is a place to visit, without really engaging or encountering it; to use, without internalizing; to pine for in low keys on Tisha B’Av, without putting Aliyah on the agenda. One indicator of this attenuation of relations is the Hebrew illiteracy (both in speaking and writing) that marks the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews (including rabbis and Lamdanim). Without a common language, how can there be a common cause?

    So, while we share the secret of our blessed solidarity and sense of peoplehood with other Jews, it behooves the Diaspora Jewish Community to check itself, as well.

  17. Dovid says:

    R’ Adlerstein,
    Have you ever sought to speak to a class of rabbinical students at U of J or somewhere similar about Orthodox Judaism, etc? Do you know of any attempt, formal or otherwise, to speak directly to such students, as an opportunity for them to learn about Orthodox Judaism from one of it’s own spokespeople?
    I suggest that part of the problem is that, in contract to the previous generation, the younger generation is hardly exposed at all to the kinds of ideas that comprise the “Jewish mission and the Jewish message” – in other words, hashkafos haTorah from the mouth of a Talmud chochom. Can you envision a realistic “kiruv initiative” focused on reaching out to non-frum rabbinic students and young rabbis? I would think success in such an endeavor – defined not by making them frum, btw – could have many peiros.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      Emphatically yes! In a manner of speaking, about 10 times out of 9, feelers that I have extended have either been ignored, or have been responded to with something like, “Wonderful! We would love to have you speak. Just please tell us when you will be able to reciprocate, and have one of our rabbis speak in one of your Orthodox seminaries.” End of discussion. (Not really. I have sometimes been able to explain why reciprocity is not a possibility, but explanations have not been effective.)

      There have been isolated exceptions here and there, and they have almost always been fruitful. It is also difficult to draw the correct line in the sand as to where one will not go, for fear of lending credence to what we cannot give legitimacy to. Some in our community will simply go nowhere that is affiliated with organizations that are clearly chutz lemacheneh. They have ample support. Others (you would be surprised who they are) are willing to look at such appearances on a case-by-case basis.

  18. Nachum says:

    It may be edifying to point out that political liberalism has a *lot* to do with this. Take it out of the equation, there wouldn’t be a problem. Realize that it *is* the problem, and that Jews will cling to their liberalism above all, and you realize the problem is intractable. There are a few liberal Jews who, rather inconsistently, support Israel together with their leftist views, but most take what is (let’s also not forget) the views of a very narrow slice of humanity in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Brussels as a package, and anti-Semitism is increasingly a part of that.

  19. Adam says:

    Most Jews are afraid of particularism because the non-Jewish world continually makes it clear that in a world of particularism, us Jews are the first to go.

    Ultimately is that not the bargain for the non-Jewish world in embracing the message of the Holocaust? They will never do it again, as long as we agree that everyone is equal, which means that we give up being chosen.

  20. E. Fink says:

    Nice article. As a younger rabbi, I may have some insight here.

    For today’s generation, particularism is a difficult pill to swallow. Most of the groups that exhibit this kind of thinking are extremist religious groups and nations. The “civilized world” preaches that all groups are equal. Not only is this preached but we as Jews for all intents and purposes agree that all “other” groups are equal.

    Contrasted with the nationalism and group pride of the 60’s and 70’s, today there is a lot of reservation about proclaiming “specialness”, especially in public. It may feel offensive to younger Jews to impose our specialness on the world. Particularly when that kind of self pride is mostly exhibited by those who want to erase Israel off the face of earth.

  21. dr. bill says:

    while i agree there is a very real problem, i am unsure of its magnitude. rabbinical students like academics may not be reflective of the overall community. while this may well be a leading indicator, i hope it more reflective of an out-of-touch seminary.

  22. Bob Miller says:

    It’s our job to do what we can to “undoom” our disengaged brethren, to the greatest degree possible.

  23. L. Oberstein says:

    I thought that Gordis was the son of a prominent Conservative Rabbi so why would his article have anything to do with Orthodox Triumphalism. I heard him speak last year at the Great Synagogue on a saturday night. He is insightful and I think is associated with the right wing on political issues. Why would one be surprised that young Jews who are steeped in the contemporary milieu and foreign to traditional Jewish values would identify with whatever is more in tune with what gentiles are saying. The fact that future Conservative rabbis openly share apartments with other future Conservative rabbis of the opposite gender and the school is powerless to prohibit it shows that tradition has very little influence on their lives. The above fact is not a small thing, it shows that we live in different worlds. Reform and Conservative young people have not been educated and haven’t had the life experiences to see the need and vorth or Israel. That is why Birthright is so important.

  24. Shua Cohen says:

    I suffer no agita at all about the present situation. If I understand our history correctly, the geula from Mitzrayim is the paradigm for the final geula. Just as only twenty percent of Klal Yisrael left Egypt for aliyah to Eretz Yisrael — the other eighty percent perishing in golus Mitzrayim — so too, eighty percent of diaspora Jews are NOT MEANT to participate in the final geula and will perish in the American golus.

    Speaking of the thousands who have already made aliyah and those who are currently planning to “go home” (with or without Nefesh b’Nefesh) Rav Simcha Wasserman zt”l wrote:

    “Those who have returned are those whom Eliyahu [HaNavi] has selected to lead the Jewish people to the redemption of Mashiach…There is a selection going on now. Some people are being brought back, and some people, due to the high intermarriage and assimilation rate, are being thrown out. There are prophecies concerning this unfortunate fact. Those prophecies state that there will be members of the Jewish body who will be removed from it.” (from “Reb Simcha Speaks,” Artscroll, 1994, pp. 33-34]

    The history of our final geula is unfolding before our eyes. We may be terribly saddened about how it’s playing out…but it is *emes* and we can do nothing to change it. The vast majority of our brethren are being removed from the body of Klal Yisrael and are doomed to extinction.