By David Kelsey
Fair Warning: This appeal is not targeting those Orthodox Jews who consider Modern Orthodoxy religiously unacceptable. This post is only appealing to those Jews who are:
1) Modern Orthodox, or
2) Accepting of Modern Orthodoxy as a legitimate approach to traditional Judaism. If you are not in one of these two camps, this post is not for you.
I am declining to establish the parameters of Modern Orthodoxy. Clearly, the acceptable boundaries for those on the MO left will be drawn differently than the by those on the right-wing of Modern Orthodoxy, and many will debate where the line is separating MO from charedi. But for the point of this essay, despite many grey areas and gradations, I am relying on the fact that in reality, there is a Modern Orthodox world, and there is a charedi world, and it appears that post-high school kiruv–at least outside of the Upper West Side of New York City–is dominated by various charedi branches of Judaism. There appears to be a general lack of interest in kiruv by the Modern Orthodox. BTs have to find them.
This is partially because of Modern Orthodoxy’s tolerance of other Jews having a different perception of the world. But many secular Jews who may not be willing to embrace a charedi brand of traditional Judaism might very well be willing to consider a Modern Orthodox vision. Additionally, for many Jews, charedi Judaism is often mistakenly viewed as the only legitimate approach to traditional Judaism. This can unfortunately create the mistaken impression that one must choose between being charedi or secular.
In Israel, Modern Orthodoxy is considered to be based on Zionism. But this is not the foundation of Modern Orthodoxy. Despite common misconception, the yeshiva and Chassidic movements are largely relatively modern movements. Just as not all religious Jews joined the various Chassidic movements, so too, not all of religious Jews joined the Yeshiva movement. Those who declined to join either modern Haredi movement are frequently considered to be in the Modern Orthodox camp.
Modern Orthodoxy offers an advantage to secular Jews who are becoming more observant. The stress and difficulty of the already monumental life-changing commitment to begin keeping the mitzvot is often added to by communities who have extra traditions and stringencies and demand extra conformities. Jacob’s ladder of steady, incremental growth might suggest that beginning with a haredi interpretation of Jewish law and life might not be an appropriate starting point for many secular Jews intent on increasing their commitment to Jewish life. Integration into such communities can be quite difficult. The cultural references are invariably more radically different than with the Modern Orthodox, with fewer points of shared experience and a larger language barrier, a less charitable view of such experiences, and a firmer divide between BT and FFB. These can even carry over into subsequent generations to some extent; something rarely understood fully or explained to new BTs.
There are reasons to be concerned as well about the effects of charedi kiruv ideology upon younger recruits, where a college education and high-level vocational training are frequently discouraged, with undue financial strains, unfortunately, becoming a not unheard of byproduct. This is particularly problematic for those Jews from the lower economic classes, who are not going to be supported or assisted to the same degree or for the same length of time as those from more well-to-do backgrounds. This can prove trying and devastating on a socio-economic level which can cause marital strife.
The natural instinct for many secular Jews who grew up in a society where no one is beyond reproach and criticism will not always be receptive to an intensive emphasis on daas Torah whose acceptance is incumbent upon most charedim, but less so among the Modern Orthodox.
If we accept the premise that Modern Orthodoxy is a legitimate approach to Torah Judaism, and if we accept that it will prove valuable both to those who would not consider haredi Judaism, then it would make sense that Modern Orthodoxy be presented as an option to secular Jews with greater promotion.
MO’s silence is perceived, incorrectly, by those inside the BT world and even outside of it as a tacit concession that it is a compromise, and not ideal. Not the real deal. But for some it is clearly ideal.
For some Jews, not only is charedi Judaism unacceptable, but there is reason to believe it has proven damaging to some Jews who have attempted to do so. This is not surprising, and should not be surprising. A radical change in lifestyle and outlook is not easy, and it would appear that the greater the attempted change, the greater the chance of resentment and eventual fall out. This is not always properly considered as a risk. All too often, the example of bending a tree in the opposite direction for straighting it out is offered, even though this may not be an appropriate example, since the issue in question with the tree may be only particular and specific form of behavior or characteristic, not a general outlook on life.
If so, this example is being misappropriated as a refutation to the Torah’s warning of Jacob’s ladder.
Additionally, the charedi approach does not always seek to build a BT’s skill set in order to allow a BT to develop his own understanding of Judaism within a traditional framework as intensely as he could, but sometimes focuses more in generating a specific outlook (hashkafa) according to a sometimes narrow perspective, and even at the expense of much needed general skills such as the Hebrew and Aramaic languages themselves. To be clear, in the post-high school kiruv world, there is a dominance of institutions that sometimes place more of an emphasis on a specific frumkeit rather than a general yiddishkeit
There is simply less of a chance that a BT will identify with a specific brand of Judaism, and If not, there is more of a chance that exhaustion will set in if frustrated and discouraged by this specific outlook or another, rather than define himself within a larger framework which is being presented as incomplete or sometimes even flawed.
Certain sectors of the haredi kiruv world appear to be promoting dysfunction and rigid ideas about traditional Judaism, including (but by no means limited to): an all but prophetic claim of understanding of specific current events, a rejection of hishtadlus, general bans on information sources, and an insistence on public preference for literal translation of text.
And in the meantime…
Non-Orthodox Jewish movements intentionally misappropriate Orthodox language, bolstering the impression that they are the religious Jewish alternative to charedi Judaism.
Cults like the Kabbalah Centre and predators like Jews for Jesus disproportionately target our youth.
How does Modern Orthodoxy justify its silence? I am not advocating fliers in the subway or screaming in the street.
But there is reason to set up shop, and be honest and forthright with people (without pressure) about objectives. They could also distinguish themselves by being above board and forthright about their desire for Jews to consider engagement in traditional Judaism, and never employ misleading or deceptive tactics to attract students. The objectives may vary depending on the institution, but will always be in line with the stated ones. Both BT yeshivas in Israel and after-hour institutions for men and women seeking to learn about Judaism could differentiate themselves from the charedi ones.
And they could be promoted as such through both programming and marketing. For instance, a night institution might offer and promote an ongoing (come-for-one, no problem) fifteen part lecture series on R. Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (at say, $5 a pop), and explain very briefly why both he and this book was important, and insert on a rotating basis one of his many profound quotes in each ad in the secular weekly press.
A lecture series on the Modern Orthodox approach to evolution would probably find tremendous interest.
So would a moderated lecture and discussion explaining the biblical rivalry between Yitzchak and Yishmael.
A Hebrew language course need not even be mentioned. It is a necessity, and the focus should be dikduk based.
In addition, such MO kiruv should tackle all the usual nuts and bolts ( i.e., mitzvot) of Judaism, from an MO perspective, explaining a range of opinions, not a favored stringent answer based on accommodating maximum compliance.
There is no end to what can be accomplished. But a MO that focuses solely on its own community or defending Israel is, IMHO, not maximizing its role in the Jewish world. The Jewish people need choices, and choices demand public debate, not a private one among the already MO.
I would argue why this would help the Modern Orthodox themselves, but that would be an entirely different post.