Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Iyar 5759, April 28 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
Message in a Bottle
Rabbi Avi Shafran

The following is a somewhat shortened piece that originally appeared in a recent issue of the Jewish Observer.

When the oddly shaped package arrived in the mail, several of my colleagues at 84 William Street happened to be in my office. I took the cylindrical 20-inch mailing container in hand and looked at the return address. It was from Mr. Blue*, an older gentleman in Northern California with whom I have been corresponding for several months.

Mr. Blue, who had first contacted me to take rather strong issue with something I had written in a national Jewish magazine, had never made a secret of his negative feelings for Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism. We argued back and forth in letters over those months, he quoting news reports and enclosing press clippings and I responding with protestations, corrections and explanations.

"It's from someone not exactly enamored of us `Ultras,' I told my friends with a laugh. After making a lame joke about the package ticking, I tore off the wrapping to find a bottle of fine kosher Cabernet.

All of us smiled, and I put my slightly late Purim gift on my desk, where it stayed for most of the day, a reminder of one Jew's gesture of good will toward another -- and a spur to thought.

There are no Orthodox Jews where Mr. Blue lives. He had formed his opinion of the Jewish religious heritage and those dedicated to it from the only sources available to him: the pages of newspapers and word of less-than-friendly mouths -- some, no doubt, speaking stridently from pulpits. And so his first missive had been accusatory and indignant in tone. All the same, though, I realized from the start, he had bothered to write, and that says he cares. And so I had written him back in a friendly tone, expressing the hurt rather than the anger that his words -- a hodgepodge of common misconceptions and overheard half-truths -- had caused me. And so it was that our extended correspondence began.

Now many months later, Mr. Blue still displays biases, misconstrues things he reads and vents misplaced outrage in his letters. He may never fully accept my point of view. Yet he has, I think, come to realize that Orthodox Jews are not the shallow caricatures he once assumed, that even if our deeply-held principles do not allow us to accept things like the Reform or Conservative movements' definitions of "conversion" (or, for that matter, of "Torah"), we nevertheless consider all Jews to be parts of the Jewish people. He has been forced to concede, to boot, that we are real people, people from whom he can elicit a reasoned response, people with whom he can have a good argument, people whose day he can brighten with a bottle of wine.

And even as he has, I hope, learned a bit from me, I know I have learned much from him. Not only about the depth of misconception that Jews "out there" harbor about the Orthodox world, but also about how the deepest unreason and cynicism can sometimes be eroded by simple conversation and caring.

The multifaceted Am Echad project, of course, which was created by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt'l, and which I am privileged to direct in the United States, aims to correct misconceptions and provide accurate information about Orthodox Jews and Judaism to the wider Jewish community on a broad communal scale. But there can never be any replacement for personal, "Jew-to-Jew" outreach.

They Teach and We Teach

Another memory, too, was conjured by the bottle of wine (and all this even before it was consumed!) -- of a letter to the editor of a magazine published by the Reform movement. The letter, written by a teen-aged girl, had apparently been inspired by an article in an earlier issue of the periodical, in which a Reform rabbi had contended that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves. "Why," wrote the young woman, "when there is so much antisemitism in the world must fellow Jews hate us as well?"

I was greatly agitated after reading the letter, deeply pained that anyone -- not to mention a "Jewish leader" -- could so outrageously slander other Jews and bring such needless anguish to an innocent young Jewish soul. I simply couldn't concentrate, and so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the girl's New Jersey town.

There would probably be many listings for her last name, I told myself, too many to sift through.

There was only one; I wrote it down.

Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle*. She came to the phone and, after apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue and promising that I would not call her again unless she asked me to, I spoke my piece:

"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! We may have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you will be able to evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are precious Jewish brothers and sisters to us!"

A pause, and then she responded.

"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I'm sorry. I can't accept the truth of what you're saying."

I was stunned. "But why not?" I asked.

"Because I've been taught otherwise. For years."

"But what you've been taught simply isn't true!"

"That might be so, but we've spent my classes in my Temple school discussing the Orthodox attitude and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught by my teachers."

I was dumbfounded, and angry -- at those who had so polluted a Jewish heart -- but could do nothing but plead with the young woman that she try to keep an open mind. She assured me she would.

After the conversation, I was hardly less agitated.

I had only promised not to call her again, I told myself. There wouldn't be any harm in writing, would there?

At the start of my letter, I apologized for the second intrusion, and enclosed several articles I thought might help demonstrate that while Orthodox Jews, like all principled people, might reject things -- philosophies or ideas -- we most certainly do not reject other Jews for their casual affiliations. I asked her to weigh the sentiments in the material that was enclosed against what her teachers had told her.

"You might also try an experiment," I continued. "Go (with your parents, of course) to any Orthodox synagogue -- pick an `Ultra' one if you can -- on a Friday evening or Saturday morning and, after services, ask anyone at random if you and your folks -- identify yourselves as Reform Jews -- can join his or her family for the Sabbath meal. You can imagine what to expect if your teachers are correct."

I included my phone numbers and address, should she ever wish to talk further, but promised not to bother her anymore -- through any means.

I have not heard from her to date and have so far kept my word.

Future Shock

A multitude of scenarios has been proposed for the American Jewish future. If present trends continue, there is little doubt that the Orthodox community will grow, be"H, both in size and its proportion of the entire Jewish community. What will happen, though, to the larger American Jewish world -- to the Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox movements or, like most, with no movement at all?

A sad scenario has the majority of such Jews falling prey to increased assimilation and intermarriage, drifting away, chas vesholom, into Jewish oblivion. An insistent optimist, however, someone weaned on miracles, might envision the future intensification of something that has already been experienced on a relatively small but noteworthy scale over recent decades: the ba'al teshuvah movement.

The non-Orthodox philosophies, after all, are collapsing under the weight -- or perhaps better, weightlessness -- of their unabashedly Zeitgeist-driven agendas. It is only a matter of time before large numbers of affiliated non- Orthodox American Jews come to realize, as have their non- affiliated counterparts, that a quasi-Jewish patina is neither honest nor necessary for the embrace of environmentalism, feminism, the legitimization of "alternate" lifestyles or any of the other grand causes that have motivated the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinates in recent years.

And while "the Orthodox monopoly" (or, less partisanly put, democracy) in Israel will surely continue for some time to serve as fodder for outraged Reform and Conservative rabbis' sermons, the "pluralism" issue -- which is, to non-Orthodox activists, essentially a political one in the end -- will eventually fade once against into the background, perhaps as soon as the imminent Israeli elections. Either the Jewish State's religious parties will not, chas vesholom, retain sufficient Knesset leverage to stand up to the activist Israeli High Court, or, be"H, they will. In either even, though, the American Jewish sectarian war cry may soon enough come to lose much of its resonance.

Should that indeed happen, a mammoth vacuum could well begin to open up within the collective heart of American Jewry. From my perch, cracks already seem evident. The increase in the number of returnees to our mesora is powerfully apparent in practically every Jewish community, and large multi-generational families whose matriarchs or patriarchs were raised in nonobservant homes are no longer anomalies. We have come to know noted intellectuals who were brought up in the reform movement -- like David Klinghoffer (the literary editor of National Review, whose recent autobiography chronicled his movement to Jewish Orthodoxy) and Yonason Rosenblum (no stranger, of course, to Jewish Observer readers) -- who have squarely faced the fatal flaws in the non-Orthodox philosophies and courageously followed the demands of their consciences. Is it unreasonable to imagine large numbers of other honest, caring Jews who are at present unaware of how distant their rabbis' beliefs and ideals are from those of the historic Jewish tradition coming to follow similar life-paths?

Reasonable or not, that must be our deep hope and our fervent prayer.

*Names have been changed.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America, and American Director, Am Echad

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