How Can We Get Beyond the Failure Narrative?

As Jews we want to improve ourselves, our communities and the world. That’s our calling. Perhaps that’s why some very fine people, including many articles and comments on Beyond BT, scrutinize our people and institutions in search of improvement.

It’s a noble cause, but the downside is that we get caught in a failure narrative. Kiruv is failing. Our communities are failing. Our spiritual connection is failing. Our educational institutions are failing. Our resource allocation is failing. We do acknowledge the successes, but it seems the overriding narrative is one of failing people and failing institutions.

Can we improve without the failure narrative?

Is finding failure the Torah viewpoint?

Can giving the benefit of the doubt and judging favorable apply to communities and institutions?

Should we emphasize the successes or is that just a rose-colored-glasses view?

13 comments on “How Can We Get Beyond the Failure Narrative?

  1. I would agree with Steve Brizel #12 that it is a mistake to view Kiruv “success” in terms of numbers. Measuring solely by the quantity of individuals who have been “mkarev’d” leads to what I and others have complained about: superficial Kiruv that doesn’t stick around to address the real issues that returnees have.

    If you speak to Jewish food pantries, they’ll cry over the fact that they’ve given out twice as many food packages this year as compared to last year. They want nothing more than to reduce their numbers to zero. Now maybe philanthropists need these numbers in order to determine where best to make their donations. But is serving ten thousand meals at a soup kitchen really being twice as successful as serving five thousand meals?

    Some things are too difficult to measure empirically. I once tried to suggest a possible match to a young man. He challenged me with the question: “How many matches have you made?” I told him, “None. I’m not a shadchan. I just think this girl might be right for you.” Well, the match didn’t work out, so maybe the young man was right to want to hear about a track record of prior successes.

  2. I disagree with the term failure. Kiruv is a person by person, mitzvah by mitzvah phenomenon. The Klal issue respondents all reminded me of a simple truth-different strokes for different folks. Viewing “success” in terms of numbers, IMO, is a mistake because Klal Yisrael, as Rashi reminds us in this week’s Parsha, has never been a faith geared to mass popularity.

  3. This post deserves more than my short answer, sorry.

    One of the most important things I have every learned in regard to self-improvement is a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. He taught that whenever we see a lacking or deficiency in others, it means that Hashem is highlighting that point within ourselves. Here are two common examples:

    BT’s don’t fit in- Well, Neil, what are you personally doing to fit in and be part of your community

    We are losing the Kiruv battle- Ok, Neil. When was the last time you had someone over who wasn’t Shomer Shabbos?

    There’s no achdus or mutual respect among frum Jews- Do you point out differences between frum Jews to your children or do you site common ground?

  4. It’s important to try to make things better, both things that are “bad” and things are “already good.” The question is how to go about doing that. Sometimes shocking people into realization and action might be the best way. Other times the softer approach is better.

    In my view the softer approach is better about 95% of the time. Rather than say, “I can’t believe that people are doing X” I would try to say “Area X is an important component of life, let’s look at what we’re doing now and our principles and see how if at all we can improve how we’re doing it.”

    Before I criticize, I try to look at myself and see if I am also worthy of the same criticism or criticism in some other area. The answer is invariably “yes.” Doing this helps me to moderate my tone and broaden my perspective in approaching what may be a very real problem that needs to be addressed.

  5. I think we may also be overreacting to our realization that we’ve been lied to repeatedly by some people in authority who above all want to claim that they and their communities are perfect and all problems arise from outside agitation.

  6. Just speak the truth as you see it and let the chips fall as they may. Leave the spin and frumspeak to the so-called mainstream. What’s happening here is called positive deviance- someday it may catch on and become the new normal.Its not about failure- our history travels on waves of dynamism and decline. Right now we’re experiencing a dip in the road.

  7. There’s nothing wrong with positive change, even with it’s implication of imperfection.

    I’m just wondering about the predominance of the “failure narrative” over one of “good and getting better”.

  8. Bringing about a positive change in something would imply that there previously existed an imperfection: otherwise, any change would be negative. (As in “new and improved”).

  9. Bob, kashrus inspectors have specific requirements that have been objectively defined to get a hechsher.

    Human beings, communities and institutions are much more complex and can be viewed through different prisms, both positive and negative.

    I think Hashem wants us to primarily view things in a positive light and with much circumspection when we try to fix things.

    Take a look at the laws of rebuke for starters.

  10. Judy, where did you learn that Torah hashkafa says we should view the world like an inspector with a clipboard looking for problems?

    I think making things better, starts by looking at ourselves first. When we can honestly assess our own strengths and weaknesses then perhaps we can be a little more positive when assessing others.

  11. To fix a problem, we must know what to fix. Failure to fix a known problem may be understandable, but not failure to try to fix it. If we’re trying in good faith to fix it, that is a healthy sign.

    What if kashrus inspectors decided that finding violations was too depressing?

  12. Tikkun Olam, improving the world, is part of what a Jew strives for in his/her Avodas Ha-Borei. And “working to make things better” naturally must be preceded by some kind of honest analysis of what needs to be fixed. I wouldn’t describe it as a failure narrative. It’s more like an inspector coming in and noting on a clipboard all of the problems that need to be taken care of.

  13. Make a kiddush hashem and demonstrate that it is possible to be frum and normal at the same time. That will not drive off potential kiruv targets.

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