By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I unintentionally shocked a Jewish journalist several months ago. I had invited the non-Orthodox reporter to Agudath Israel of America’s offices to introduce her to the organization’s various divisions and projects, and to some of my colleagues. But later, conversing with her about various issues, something I said—although to me it was entirely unremarkable—seemed to take my guest aback.
She had brought up the topic of abortion rights. I noted that Orthodox Jews don’t regard the issue as one of “rights” but rather of right—that is to say, our obligations to our Creator. Odd as it still seems to me now, my guest reacted as if a new lens on the world had suddenly opened before her. She wasn’t about to suddenly adopt the Orthodox paradigm, I’m quite sure. But she admitted that she hadn’t ever considered its contrarian conceptual source—the idea that we are here on earth not to reach our own conclusions and assert our rights but rather to accept G‑d’s will and serve Him. Suddenly, she seemed to understand why the Orthodox approach to a number of contemporary issues was so different from her own and that of her own professional and personal circles. She had actually thought a new thought.
I was reminded of the reporter’s minor epiphany by the recently released and much-reported-upon Pew Research Survey of American Jews.
There are all manner of puzzlements in the survey results, likely due to the very broad definitions employed by the researchers. One category of “Jews” is “Jews by affinity,” which is to say Americans lacking any Jewish parentage or any Jewish education who simply opt to call themselves Jews. There are apparently more than one million of them (which might go a long way toward explaining the survey’s finding that fully one third of all “American Jews” erect a holiday tree in their homes each December).
Similarly suspicious is the survey’s definition of “Orthodox.” How else to explain the bizarre finding that fully 15% of Orthodox Jews regularly attend services in a non-Jewish place of worship? (Or that 4% of them, too, have holiday trees!)
Times, to be sure, are strange. But still.
All that aside, though, the clear and less-contestable takeaway of the survey is that there is a very large and increasing number of halachically Jewish American Jews who have opted out of Jewishness as a religious identification altogether, on whose radar Judaism is a fading blip, if that.
The larger community’s approach to such “unaffiliated” Jews has long been to offer an elaborate smorgasbord of “Jewish” choices: Funky Federation programmatic food, somewhat moldy “denominational” fare (whose expiration dates have come and gone), “tikkun olam” appetizers, various affinity-group pastries “koshered” by adding the word “Jewish” to them (like “Jewish” vegetarianism or “Jewish” yoga, or even “Jewish” activities condemned by the Torah).
Even some of the various Orthodox kiruv, or outreach, groups—all of whom do wonderful work in the American spiritual field (or desert)—occasionally lapse into entertainment-mode, enticing unconnected Jews with nosh whose ingredients, while they include healthful Jewish additives, remain essentially nosh.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with trying to reach Jews “where they are,” with connecting to them through their personal interests or culture. And certainly nothing wrong with using the beauty of a Shabbos (or the aroma of a cholent) to help a Jew begin to “bond” with his or her heritage. But might there be room, even a need, for a . . . different approach?
What if, instead of special offers and glitzy offerings, we simply proclaimed loud and clear—in billboards and Web ads and social media—that being a Jew, like it or not, precious fellow Jew, means being Divinely charged, that it means shouldering, whether it is always comfortable or not, responsibility? And that ignoring that mandate is a reckless wasting of an opportunity to live a meaningful life by doing G‑d’s will? That each of us has a stark and urgent choice: either to regard our lives as the brief opportunities to access eternity they are, or to waste one’s days in the pursuit of stuff and fun and “rights”?
Would such an “in your face” challenge just be a total turn-off? Or might its message actually reach Jews, at least those who prefer being challenged to being wooed?
And might, just might, there be more such Jews than we dare imagine?
The common wisdom is that most Jews simply can never “become Orthodox”—that is to say can never come to accept and respect true Jewish belief and halachah. And so there’s no point trying to offer them the entirety of their religious heritage. But maybe the less common but more Jewish wisdom lies in Jewish tradition: that there flickers in every Jew’s heart a spark of desire to serve G‑d, that every Jewish soul was present at Mt. Sinai.
Yes, free will exists, and each person in the end makes his or her own choices.
But could the best way to fan some Jewish sparks into flame be to simply, starkly state the Jewish facts—that the Torah is our Divine inheritance, and that striving for a fully observant Jewish life is the mandate of every Jew? v
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.