Facts Trump Theory
French intellectual Alain Finkelkraut describes our times as the Age of Theory. He does not mean it as a compliment, for the theory of which he is speaking is one that recurs frequently in European and American academic discourse: Because the Jews were the victims and not the perpetrators of the Holocaust they never learned the terrible danger of dehumanizing the "Other." And because they did not learn the lesson, they have dehumanized the Palestinians and are today perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians.
When Finkelkraut refers to Theory, he does not mean theory in the sense of a scientific hypothesis that is capable of empirical verification or refutation. Rather the Theory of which he speaks is impervious to facts; it triumphs over any and all facts. It will avail one nothing when speaking someone in its thrall to point out that under Israeli governance from 1967 to 1993, Palestinian life expectancy increased fifty percent and infant mortality dropped 75% -- certainly a peculiar kind of genocide.
Recently, I heard expounded a new theory considerably more plausible than the one described by Finkelkraut, albeit no less tenable on the facts. A woman who has actively supported a number of chareidi kiruv projects in Eretz Yisrael over many years told me that she was contemplating switching her kiruv giving to a national religious center in Tel Aviv she had heard about. It just makes sense, she explained to me, that the national religious would be much more successful at this. Why would anyone want to be like you when the two most prominent qualities associated with chareidim in the secular mind are the lack of any gainful means of support and no education with which to earn a living?
I would agree that neither ignorance nor poverty are major selling points for Torah. And it is helpful at the beginning of a ba'al teshuva's path to be able to visualize some of the stepping stones and to realize people to whom they can relate have followed similar paths. The Maimonides Program model employed on many campuses in the United States, in which students receive a stipend for two hours a week of classroom learning and two Shabbatons per semester, involves frequent lectures from Orthodox Jews who have achieved prominence in fields to which the students might aspire. The subliminal message is: Becoming shomer Torah u'mitzvos does not require eschewing the career to which you previously aspired.
But for all its superficial plausibility my friend's self-evident theory is empirically wrong. For the last forty years, the vast majority of kiruv work in the world has been done by self-identified chareidim of various stripes. In Israel that is partly a function of the heavy focus of the national religious world on settlement activities. In recent years, many in the national religious world have come to view that exclusive focus as a mistake, and more kiruv work is being done. But it is still a small fraction in terms of manpower and financial resources of what is invested by the chareidi world.
The lack of secular education of Israeli chareidim is not a new phenomenon, and it has not prevented Israel from being the center of kiruv, including kiruv of numerous graduates of the world's finest universities, over the past four decades. It is demonstrably not true that chareidim cannot possibly draw secular Jews closer to Torah because they are too alien to the world from which the prospective ba'alei teshuva are coming.
I welcome the entry of the national religious world into kiruv activity, and I have no doubt that the most talented in that world will reach some who might never be induced to hear a shiur by someone with a black velvet kippah. But I still expect chareidim to continue to do the majority of successful kiruv.
THEORIES CAN ONLY BE REFUTED BY FACTS. But it still remains important to understand why my friend's theory is wrong. For starters, she makes a fundamental mistake about the goals of chareidi kiruv. With the possible exception of a few small Chassidic groups, it is not the goal of most chareidi kiruv workers to make secular Israelis just like them. Mrs. Tzili Schneider, whose Kesher Yehudi organization I'm very familiar with, makes clear in the training program for chareidi women who will be learning with secular study partners: "Our goal is not to make the secular Jews with whom you are learning to be just like you, but rather to help connect them to the Torah and the light that is in it, so that they can then choose their own path in Torah."
There is a widespread acknowledgment in the kiruv community that it can be destructive and dangerous to push ba'alei teshuva towards a too rapid integration into the chareidi community. It is often far healthier for ba'alei teshuva to be in communities with many others from similar backgrounds or to grow in Torah without cutting themselves off from their communal and familial roots. In most cases, ba'alei teshuva are advised to bend over backwards not to sever familial ties.
Two ba'al teshuva yeshivos in my neighborhood forbid students from adopting chareidi garb, and are based on a model of returning to their careers or schooling after two years. Many stay to learn in Israel longer, but those who return to their former careers do so without any sense of failure.
The fact that a ba'al teshuva's principal religious mentor is chareidi does not mean that he will identify with the chareidi community. At the homes of Rav Moshe Schapiro and Rav Asher Weiss on Purim there are more than a smattering of kippot serugot, worn by those who identify as their talmidim.
My friend's second mistake concerns what makes someone a successful mekarev. That person must be someone whom newcomers can respect and admire. Admirable traits, however, are distributed across the Orthodox spectrum, and the general population as well. Besides the ability to connect, the most successful mekaravim convey a passion for Torah, a sense that they are giving over the most precious gift imaginable and that a Jewish life without Torah is a tragedy. That passion is most likely to be found among those who have devoted themselves to Torah learning.
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach recounts how he was once attacked by a Jewish Agency official in South Africa, who told him, "I hate your Chassidic dress. Why do you have to wear it even in the hottest weather." As near as I can recall at a distance of thirty years, Rabbi Gottlieb answered him, "I dress differently to convey a message that becoming shomer Torah u'mitzvos is not a detail in one's life, it is a sea change. Everything about one must change."
Perhaps that is why sixty years of full participation in Israeli society and culture by the national religious community has produced so little kiruv. Co-workers may acknowledge that the guy wearing a kippah seruga is a fine fellow, but they do not see him as essentially different from them – except for the kippah-- and therefore are unlikely to have their curiosity about a Torah life piqued in any way.
And finally, my friend fails to understand what makes Jews willing to make the dramatic changes in their life connected to becoming shomer mitzvos. They sense that something is missing in their lives, and seek the deepest, most authentic expression of what is missing – the deepest Torah.
They do not expect the process of becoming religious to be painless. Their goal is not to see the same movies on Saturday night that they might once have viewed on leil Shabbos. Nor are they looking for a return to their secular Scouts troop, only this time with a religious flavor.
That multi-layered, rich vision of Torah that they seek might be constructed from the thought of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook or Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. But again, the deepest Torah vision today, is most often offered by those who have dedicated themselves to plumbing its depths.
What Sam Can Teach us All
Sam Berns, a 17-year-old Jewish Boston-area Jewish boy, passed away last week. His legacy includes a documentary on his life, "The World According to Sam;" the founding by his physician mother of the first research center devoted to progeria, the rare, premature aging condition that claimed his life; and an extraordinary 12-minute TED lecture delivered just last month, in which he expounds his philosophy for living a happy life.
A few years back, a reporter asked Sam, "What is the most important thing people should know about you?" Sam replied immediately, "I have a very happy life."
"I don't want people to feel bad for me. I don't think about these obstacles all the time. And I'm able to overcome most of them anyway," he said.
In the TED speech, Sam offered three principles for a happy life. "First, I'm ok with what I can't do because there is so much I can do. Most of my time is spent thinking about things having nothing to do with progeria."
His second principle: "I surround myself with people I want to be with – people of high quality." Chief among those he placed his parents and family and his group of friends who "see each other for who we are on the inside."
Sam's third rule: Keep moving forward. He said of himself, "I always try to have something to look forward to, something to strive for that will make my life richer." He aspired to become a biologist, perhaps to work on the horrible disease that stunted his growth at fifty pounds and left him looking like his parents' grandfather.
Sam did not deny that life had thrown him some unique obstacles, but tried "not to waste energy feeling bad for [him]self." He did not ignore his disease but rather "acknowledge[d] it so I can do what I need to move past it."
Just one month ago, he said publicly, "I believe I can change the world." And he did. No matter what our challenges there is no one who could watch Sam describe his "happy life" without being strengthened.