Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can we "create" Torah?- An examination of the Falasha Mura work "Petirat Aharon" (audio shiur)

In this week’s shiur we examine a very fascinating question. To what degree can we create Torah? We start off by looking at “Petirat Aharon” a holy work of the Falasha Mura and ask whether it is a sefer or only a book. We then proceed to examine the view of the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Acharonim towards midrash as a way of shedding light on our question.

The shiur can be listened to by clicking here

Running time:48 minutes

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Techiyat Orot- A review of the new translation of Rav Kook's Orot by Rav Bezalel Naor

[This review is based on the review that appeared in the Book supplement in this past week's Jewish Press. Subsequent to writing this review, I had the pleasure of meeting Rav Naor, and now attend his weekly chabura.]

Although Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook was one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the last few centuries, there are many Jews who are unfamiliar with his worldview and writings. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Some think of him only as an early leader of the religious Zionist movement, evidently unaware of the spiritual and philosophical breadth and depth that his writings cover. Those who are aware of the scope of his writing, have oftentimes been prevented from exploring those writings, due to the fact that he wrote in  a poetic and flowery Hebrew, challenging even to the native Israeli. This unfamiliarity is particularly unfortunate, as Rav Kook offers ideas and insights of great importance to the modern Jew, in areas as varied as humanism, biblical criticism, and the religious-secular divide.

In the early 90s Rabbi Bezalel Naor, himself a serious and prolific thinker and writer, as well as one of the preeminent scholars of Rav Kook’s thought, wrote and published an English translation of Rav Kook’s Orot. Orot, which was originally published in 1920, offered a new, almost prophetic vision of where the Jewish people were headed and how they would get there. Rav Kook provided a religious framework for how to understand the “secular” Zionist movement, an emphasis on the value of a religious and physical revival, the import of “secular” studies, as well as a sense of great hope to those who feared the growing religious-secular divide. For many who wished to understand Rav Kook, Naor’s translation opened the door to this profound and prolific thinker.

Naor’s translation became an instant classic, not only due to the skill with which he translated Rav Kook’s words, but also for the fascinating introduction in which Naor traced the history of the publishing of Orot and the subsequent controversy which arose in pre-war Palestine. To top it all off, Naor included more than 80 pages of endnotes tracing the origins of Rav Kook’s thoughts, which included quotes and allusions from Tanach, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, midrashim, the Zohar, as well as from thinkers as varied as the Rambam and Rebbe Yehuda HaLevi, the Maharal, the Baal HaTanya, Rav Nachman, and Hegel and Nietzsche to boot. For many years, the original translation has been out of print. After more than 20 years, it has been re-published, this time by Maggid Books, a subsidiary of Koren Publishers.

In addition to all of the above mentioned bonuses, the new edition has various additions that will make it even more valuable to those who wish to undertake the challenging, but rewarding path of exploring Rav Kook’s thought. Most prominent among these additions is the inclusion of the Hebrew text alongside Naor’s translation (this is only available in the hardcover edition). This has the added benefit of making it possible to try and read Orot in its original language, while at the same time, offering a translation for the more challenging words and phrases. Naor has written a new introduction for this publication which includes even more fascinating stories and information about the publication of Orot, things Naor has discovered over the past 20 years. The new edition has even more endnotes than the original,  as Shemonah Kevatzim, eight of Rav Kook’s original journals, have been published in the last two decades. These journals offer readers a glimpse into the original form in which Rav Kook thought of the ideas, that ultimately became Orot. Naor has gone through these journals and carefully notes the differences between the journals and the book that was ultimately published. While some of these differences are merely semantic, others show how carefully Rav Kook, and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda, who was his publisher, weighed his words, as they attempted to get across a subtle point, or soften the opposition of his adversaries. Finally, Naor made the decision to provide the chapters of Orot with English titles and to begin each chapter with a brief summary of its contents. He chose to do so, following in the footsteps of some of Rav Kook’s editors, due to the fact that Rav Kook wrote in a poetic, free-flowing manner, with little, if any, thought given to how it might be understood by his readers.

There’s very little to quibble with in this incredible new edition. I would suggest that future editions have the numbers for the footnotes on the Hebrew side as well as the English. Additionally, it would be helpful to have the Hebrew and English page breaks  align more closely, to make it easier for those who are making use of both sides of the page.

I am quite certain that, just as the original translation became a must read for those who wished to understand Rav Kook, the same will be said for the new edition. Naor has done the incredible, offering a translation that is, at once, comprehensible and useful for the novice, while at the same time offering even those who already are most familiar with Rav Kook’s thought and writings, many new avenues of thought to consider.

Click here to order the hardcover edition, here to order the softcover edition, and here for the Kindle edition.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Take Me to Your Leader- Audio shiur- Parshas Korach

In this week’s shiur, we examine a very timely issue as we use the parsha to examine what true leadership looks like. By carefully reading the pesukim, and examining the haftarah we see what the argument between Korach and Moshe was really about.

Running time: 37 minutes

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Welcome?- An open letter to the Modern Orthodox community

Dear Friends,

I’m still on a high from this past weekend when I attended and spoke at a Project Makom shabbaton. Project Makom is an organization that was started to help charedim who want to transition to a more moderate community.Still, a comment from a friend has me thinking, and a bit concerned. When my friend, who is Modern Orthodox as well, heard about Project Makom, he suggested that the Modern Orthodox community might not be so welcoming. My first instinct was to think of all the wonderful people I know in the MO world, and those people who offered to host charedim who would like to spend Shabbos with them, and yet, upon further reflection, I wonder if my friend might be partially correct.

A different friend, who grew up in a chassidic community, recently walked into a Modern Orthodox shul. He noted, and yet, sadly, was not surprised by the fact, that almost nobody welcomed him, or said Good Shabbos. He was not surprised as this was not the first time that he had an experience like this. Lest one suggest that the same thing would happen if the situation was reversed, and a MO person were to enter a chassidish shtiebel, my experience and that of my friends have been quite different. I have always found chassidish shuls to have a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

While the amateur psychologist in me might be able to explain why this difference exists, I’m not sure that the reason really matters all that much. Modern Orthodoxy has improved in so many areas, with our shuls offering numerous minyanim and opportunities for talmud Torah for both men and women. I’d like to see a greater emphasis on hachnasas orchim join the list.

Of course, I’m hoping for something greater. What would happen if someone from a chassidic community wanted to join your community? Not just for a Shabbos, but for good. Would they be welcomed? Would there children have friends to play with? Sadly, I have heard stories of families who tried to integrate who were not made to feel welcome, and ultimately left. We can do better. We need to do better.

Allow me to conclude with the story of Franz Rosenzweig. At one point in his life, Rosenzweig, who would go on to become a serious Jewish thinker, had been ready to convert to Christianity. Shortly before his conversion, he attended a Kol Nidrei service in a Chassidic shtiebel. Rosenzweig was so moved by the experience that he decided not to to convert. Nobody knows exactly what he witnessed in the shtiebel, but it was enough to change the course of his life. Had Rosenzweig been a chassid who entered one of our community’s shuls, would he have remained a Jew?

With hopes for the redemption,


"Dear Friends,I’m still on a high from this past weekend when I attended and spoke at a Project Makom shabbaton....

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Finding a more modern Orthodoxy- My speech at the Project Makom shabbaton

[A few people wanted to know what I spoke about on Shabbos at the Shabbaton and since I don’t have the Shabbos App, I was unable to record my speech. What follows is an approximation of what I said, plus or minus a few witty comments. Where appropriate, I add a little commentary.]


As many of you know, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to say for many weeks. Before I start with what I am going to talk about, allow me to tell what I will not be talking about.

What I don’t want to say

  • MO is the right community for everyone- you’ve already spent enough time in a community that tells you it is the right place for you. I will not be doing that. In fact, I will not be speaking about Modern Orthodoxy. Instead I will speak about a more modern Orthodoxy.
  • That the charedim are wrong- I am not here to bash anyone. Different communities will work for different people.
  • That there is one way to be a Jew- As I always tell my students, anyone who says “The Jewish view of X is…” is almost always lying. There are many legitimate views.
  • Being modern Orthodox is about a uniform, or being a wishy-washy Jew- It is about being a serious Jew with a different perspective.
  • That I am here to teach you- I am not some brave modern Jew here to save from the error of your ways. In fact, I am not here to save you at all. I am here to speak with you, and to learn from you. Each of our communities can benefit from some of what the other one has.

So what do I want to say? Allow me to begin with a story

A friend who went to a very Litvish yeshiva, you know, the kind where they don’t play basketball during Elul [inside joke, you had to have been at the Shabbaton] told me of a time when he was saying selichos in Chevron by Maaras HaMachpeila. As he looked around, he noticed many types of yarmulkes, and modes of dress. As they sang “Tefilla L’Ani”, he watched the other Jews sing and realized that everyone there meant what they were singing, and wanted to be close to HaShem.

One of the biggest challenges is that for many of us, other types of Orthodoxy is seen, at best, as a bidieved. Forget that, from what I heard from some of you, being a different type of Orthodox Jew is like being a “sheigitz”. How do we change that?

I’d like to talk a little bit about stars.

Imagine someone like us, who lives in the Northern Hemisphere. He loves stars. He loves looking at the various constellations, and can name all of them. One day, he meets a person from Australia, who also loves stars. Only this person says he’s never heard of the other constellations. No Big Dipper. No Little Dipper. If the first guy didn’t know better, he’d think the other person was lying. Depending on where we are, we see things differently. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong. There are different perspectives.

So when did modern Orthodoxy begin? I’m not going to bore you with a historical analysis. Instead, allow me to mention various Jews who represent the best of what a modern Orthodox Jew might think. so where did it all begin?

  • Maybe it was Avraham Avinu looking around and finding HaShem through nature. As the midrash explains, Avraham looked at the world and realized there must be a Borei Olam.
  • Or maybe it was Dovid Hamelech looking up at the stars and saying  כִּֽי־אֶרְאֶ֣ה שָׁ֭מֶיךָ מַֽעֲשֵׂ֣י אֶצְבְּעֹתֶ֑יךָ יָ֘רֵ֥חַ וְ֝כוֹכָבִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר כּוֹנָֽנְתָּה: מָֽה־אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ: וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹקים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ: Looking up at the stars we talked about beforehand, he engaged in serious thought about man and his relation ship with God.
  • I know. It was Rebbe Meir. When his rebbe, Elisha ben Avuya stopped believing, Rebbe Meir continued to learn from him. In a way similar to what Rambam would say 1,000 years later, Rebbe Meir realized that we can learn from everyone, and that the idea should be judged, rather than the person saying it. The gemara tells a beautiful story of rebbe and talmid studying together on a Shabbos, as Acher rode a donkey. When they reached the techum Shabbos, he told Rebbe Meir he had reached the limit of permitted travel. Apparently, even non-believers can be caring, sensitive people, who have what to teach us.
  • On the other hand, it could have been Rav Saadya Gaon  and Rambam who taught that Torah and TRUE science don’t conflict. More than that, they can’t conflict as they are given by the same Creator. In fact, they said that when there is an apparent conflict between the two, we leave science as it is, and realize we have misunderstood the pasuk. They taught us that we need not fear as we engage with the secular world.
  • This might seem odd, but it could have been the Baal Shem Tov and the early founders of chassidus who emphasized the words “Bechol deracheicha da’eihu”. Through all of our traits, and all aspects of our personality, we can connect with HaShem. We need not hide who we are to be a good Jew.
  • Some would say it was Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who taught that we could combine the best of Jewish and general culture, that a Jew could use modern culture including art, music, and poetry as part of their Avodas HaShem. He also taught that when it came to science, the chachamim used the best available science of their time, and therefore could make mistakes. No one is perfect other than HaShem.
  • My suggestion might be Rav Kook who taught that no part of the world is foreign to a Jew, that extremism is harmful to Judaism, and that if we look at things correctly we can  see HaShem in everything. In LeNevuchei HaDor [holding up the sefer] he wrote a new Moreh Nevuchim for his generation. He saw that his generation was struggling. Instead of banning questions, he tried to give them a framework to use to deal with the questions
  • This might surprise you, but it could have been Sarah Schneier who founded the Beis Yaakov movement. She knew that while Torah doesn’t change, the world we apply it to DOES change. The BY she founded was open, serious and intellectual. There are various approaches to women learning Torah. Different people will follow different approaches, but for the women here, if you want to learn serious Torah, do it. When my daughters were born I thought about what I want for them, and I know I want them to all have the opportunity to learn Torah on a serious level. Throughout history, women like Bruriah, who was married to Rebbe Meir, as well as Rav Hutner’s daughter, who helped him edit Pachad Yitzchak, through today with women like Dena Bloch who will be speaking next, have studied Torah at the highest levels. Knowledge is power. The more you learn, the less others can tell you what you must think.
  • Getting to more recent times, modern Orthodoxy is lived by people Aaron Feuerstein who owned a factory in a small town where many of the locals worked. When the factory burned down, Feurstein continued to pay his workers their salary at great personal cost. This is not an Artscroll story. For a while, he faced bankruptcy. Still, he saw the Tzelem Elokim in everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, and he placed mentschlichkeit before profits.
  • Finally, let’s consider Robert Aumann who is a Nobel Prize winner. He came late to the ceremony so that he would not have to violate Shabbos. He also wrote a commentary on Maseches Kinnim, one of the most complicated masechtos in Shas Mishnayos, which he helped explained using the same math that won him the Nobel Prize. [NOTE: apparently I confused RA with someone else who used math to explain Kinnim. RA used game theory to explain a challenging sugya in Kesuvos]

[At this point, I added in a bit about my personal religious struggles, as well as my journey from and back to Modern Orthodoxy. ]  Sometimes we have to leave our birth community behind. At times, it is possible to come back to what we left behind, at least the good parts, and incorporate them into our new lives.

Finally, bringing it full circle, let’s talk again about stars:

In Tehillim Perek 147 pasuk daled it says
מוֹנֶ֣ה מִ֭סְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִ֑ים לְ֝כֻלָּ֗ם שֵׁמ֥וֹת יִקְרָֽא:

He (God) counts the stars, and gave names to them all. What does this mean? The Malbim teaches that HaShem values each star. We might look up and see stars, but each one is unique. Each one is an individual. In the world you are in, you have not always been treated as individuals, but you are stars. Each and every one of you. As Chazal teach, just as no two people look alike, no two people have the same personality. You are individuals, and each of you is unique.

[A few people wanted to know what I spoke about on Shabbos at the Shabbaton and since I don’t have the Shabbos App, I...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

Olam HaBa B'Olam HaZeh- Thoughts from the first Project Makom Shabbaton

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Shulem Deen, and spend a few minutes speaking. I had read his book, and we had interacted a bit on Facebook, and I was anxious to see if my positive perception of him would be confirmed. It was. During our brief conversation, I saw the sensitivity, intelligence, and warmth that I had expected. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him about his thoughts about Project Makom, a new organization set up in order to help those charedim who were looking for a more open community, find their place. I had read Shulem’s essay about why Charedim  who leave observance, don’t check out the Modern Orthodox world before leaving, and I was curious to hear his thoughts. In response, Shulem shared a story with me.

When he was 14 years-old, he spent Shabbos at the house of a chassidish family. When he woke up Shabbos morning, his host asked him if he’d like some cake and tea. When his host noticed that Shulem had a surprised look on his face, he asked what was the matter. Shulem pointed out that it is assur to eat before davening. His host replied “I don’t eat before davening, but I thought you might be hungry and thirsty. I worry about your Olam HaZeh, not your Olam HaBa”. Shulem used this story to explain his concern with what Project Makom was doing. When a person is leaving their community, and needs help of all kinds, which might include job training, education, counseling, or the like, you need to worry about their Olam HaZeh, rather than their Olam HaBa. He worried that Project Makom was more concerned with its members Olam HaBa than their Olam Hazeh.  As I drove home that evening, I spent a lot of time thinking about Shulem’s words, and it was only the next day that I came to a deeper understanding.

This past Shabbos, I took part in the first Project Makom shabbaton. As one of the speakers I was nervous. Not due to stage fright, or a lack of words (as if that’s ever a problem), but because I was unsure if I could find the right words to connect with the people who would be attending the shabbaton. Truth is, I was concerned about the whole weekend. Given this opportunity to help our fellow Jews, would we meet with success?

I’m not going to try and sum up the entire weekend, or even what I spoke about (although at the request of some friends, I hope to do a brief writeup about my speech). Instead, I’d like to share some thoughts about what I saw. While the programming was varied, creative, and thoughtful, there were several parts that stood out.

On Friday night, there was a panel discussion where five people spoke of their experience transitioning from the charedi world to a more modern Orthodoxy. What struck me the most was the honesty of the words that they shared. Nothing was sugar-coated. There was no effort to promise that things were easy, or that transitions were linear and without pain. When the shabbaton participants asked tough questions of the panelists, the panelists responded with honesty, rather than trite cliches.

We also heard a schmooze from Rav Moshe Weinbereger, at his shul Aish Kodesh. Rav Weinberger’s shul is for people from the Modern Orthodox community who are looking to incorporate chassidus into their lives. Here too, I wondered whether the rav would be able to share words that would be meaningful to the shabbaton participants, some of whom were anxious to move on from the chassidic world. Once again, I was not disappointed. Rav Weinberger’s words showed that he understood the pain that many people were going through, and that he was not trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

The most important part of the shabbaton, at least in my eyes, and it is here that I come back to my conversation with Shulem, took part in between the programming. About 60-70 people, chassidic and Modern Orthodox sat and talked, and smiled, joked, and reached across the gulf that some people think ought to divide us. I met some of the bravest people I’ve ever met, people who refuse to accept the status quo of their lives, or that the most important aspects of their personal lives should be decided by others. I fought back tears, tears that now begin to fall, as I spoke with a couple who are not on the same page religiously, but are working on things because they are so madly in love with each other. I met a chassidish man whose desire to be himself has come at a big cost, but who chose to attend a shabbaton where he knew nobody. I watched people from different parts of the charedi world meet others like themselves and discover that they are not freaks, and that even if they have lost the support of some family members and their communities, that they have a new community that understands them and welcomes them with open arms.

So what’s my response to Shulem? At Project Makom, we are not trying to save anyone’s Olam HaBa. We are fully focused on helping people find a better Olam HaZeh. It’s just that for some people finding a new and better religious existence is part of creating a better Olam Hazeh.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Deep and Flowing River- a review of A River Flowed from Eden by Rabbi Ari Kahn

I must admit, that I am not a fan of “vortlach” and thus, many divrei Torah heard around the Shabbos table tend to not work for me. While I understand that a devar Torah said over before bentching is not the place for a long and complicated idea, I still believe that Torah should never be presented in a way that is cute or “shtick-y”. It was precisely for that reason that I was excited to see Rabbi Ari Kahn’s latest book A River Flowed From Eden: Torah for the Shabbos Table. Having been a big fan of Rabbi Kahn’s Torah for many years, I hoped that he could combine his usual erudition and depth, with the brevity that is required for a devar Torah that is said around the Shabbos table. Thankfully, my hopes were realized.

I first encountered Rabbi Kahn nearly 20 years ago. I was learning in the kollel at Aish HaTorah, where Rabbi Kahn taught a beginners class at the time. Occasionally, when I would get a little “gemara-ed out”, I’d go up to Rabbi Kahn’s classroom and listen as he explained a piece of aggadeta to students who had been in the yeshiva for a very short time. I was incredibly impressed with Rabbi Kahn’s ability to translate and explain a fascinating story from the gemara, and make it understandable to newcomers to the world of Torah, while, at the same time, explaining the story in a novel, creative and intellectual manner. While I have subsequently read and heard many of Rabbi Kahn’s shiurim, it was these classes that I thought back to, as I read his newest book. Once again, Rabbi Kahn manages to combine his own creativity (his devar Torah on Noach  is one of the places where he is brilliant and original), and the ideas that he learned from his own revered teachers, Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zichronam liveracha, and present them in a way that is accessible even for those who do not have the same background.

To cite one example from parashat Shelach, this week’s parsha, Rav Kahn notes that when Moshe delivers instructions to the meraglim at the beginning of the parsha, his words indicate that, in fact, Moshe knows that the land is good. This can be seen from the fact that he instructs them to bring back fruit after asking if the land has fruit trees. If he were unsure of what they would find, Moshe would not have been able to say that. Quoting his rebbe Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kahn suggests that the meraglim misunderstood their mission. Through the use of an analogy, Rav Kahn explains the sin of the meraglim as being that they saw themselves as spies, whose job was to to ascertain whether the land of Israel was good.. In the space of a few pages, Rav Kahn manages to combine depth, scholarship and creativity, while sharing Torah that will be enjoyed by everyone sitting at the Shabbos table.

Alec Goldstein, of Kodesh Press has done a wonderful job of publishing English Jewish books that are both thoughtful, readable, and attractive. It is my hope and wish that he will continue to have success doing so and that books like “A River Flows from Eden” will find the large audience that it deserves.

To order this book, please click here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Having a Foot in Two Worlds- The inverted Nuns in parshat Beha'alotecha and learning to not hide from questions

In this week’s shiur, we deal with the “inverted nuns” found in Parshat Beha’alotecha around pesukim 35 and 36 in perek 10. We consider them from traditional and academic standpoints, and, most importantly, suggest that these two worlds need not be in conflict

Running time 1:01

Monday, June 1, 2015

Looking in the Mirror- Some reflections on what I took away from attending a Footsteps event

Since attending the Footsteps event on Thursday evening, I’ve figured out what I want to write...about ten different  times. Each time, I have tried to find a balanced approach that would be honest, free of sappiness, pleasing to friends and critics of Footsteps alike, and thought-provoking. Oh, and also a good read. I’ve decided to write now, not because I’ve found a combination of those things, but because there is a message here that needs to be shared.

Last night, I received a phone call from a Footsteps member I met Thursday night. I don’t know his background story, nor does it matter that much. I do know that he grew up in an insular chassidic community, is now secular, and that he is very involved in Footsteps. He was calling to find out about Project Makom, an organization with which I am involved, that helps charedim who are interested, transition to a more modern Orthodox community. He has a friend who no longer wishes to live as a charedi Jew, and based on a conversation with his friend, he thought Project Makom and not Footsteps would be the right address.

I share this story not because it proves anything about Footsteps, but because it has the potential to show those who think  of Footsteps as “OTD kiruv”, that things are more nuanced than that. If I had to choose the biggest lesson I learned Thursday night, and there were many, it is that Footsteps is not monolithic, and that attempts to paint it as such are unfair and unkind.

As I wrote Thursday night, I’m not going to discuss the private conversations that I had, but in sharing some general ideas, I hope that I can generate some thoughtful discussion, and deeper understanding. After going back and forth several times, I’m not going to try and make use of Jewish sources to justify my views, although I think I could. This is not the place for that.

Let’s start with certain givens. Despite being “frum” and a maamin, I do not believe that, even if presented at its best (whatever that might mean), Torah Judaism (another nebulous phrase) would work for all Jews. Once you factor in communities where religious, educational, and communal decisions are made, for all sorts of reasons, ideal and not, there will always be those who choose to leave. No community, no approach, no amount of strictness, or openness, or anything, will work for everyone. Add in the fact that communities are complex, and often have all sorts of competing pulls, and types of people calling the shots, and, inherently, some people will want out. I do not wish to criticize the charedi world, particularly as an outsider. All I will say at this point is that, as with my community, as with any community, things are not perfect in the charedi world.

Another given. Any attempt by any of us to decide whether someone’s reason for leaving their community, and observance is good or legitimate, is presumptuous. We have no idea what another person has experienced, and even if we did, that would still give us no legitimate reason or right  to judge.

With those givens, let’s proceed. When a person leaves the charedi world, particularly its more extreme manifestations, they need a lot of help to land on their feet. Often, they lack the educational background, as well as the social skills and knowledge of how to interact with those from outside of the world in which they grew up. In addition to needing help with those things, leaving is almost always traumatic. The decision to leave often comes with the regular psychological difficulties that come from leaving one’s world of comfort, as well as the fact that they are often rejected by family and friends. That being the case, there is only one legitimate question that can be asked “How can I help ease your pain?”. Anything else is callous. If that question is asked, with strings attached, it is cruel. A fireman does not ask questions. He just helps those who need to be saved.

Footsteps is an organization that asks this question. It provides help to people so that each member can have the freedom to make the choice they want, and more than anything, freedom seems to be at the top of the list of what its members want. Freedom from limitations on who they can be, what jobs they can have, whom they can marry, freedom of intellectual inquiry, and, yes, for many, freedom from religion. For some, and this is connected to what I just wrote, they also want to be free from a world where they have suffered abuses of all kinds. There are some who are angry, hurt, resentful, cynical and simply anti-religion and dogma.

Watching the program on Thursday night, I heard of people who had been helped to be able to get a GED, go to medical school, and work as a nurse in Haiti helping poor people. I met one man, who, having just gotten his MSW, is working to help children from his former community receive the secular education they deserve. I found myself wondering if there were too many other communities in the world, where these achievements would be met with anything but praise.

I also listened to one speaker talk about the type of religious questions she left behind, and wondered whether a simplistic Torah education which can not even distinguish between peshat and derash, will not lead to people having huge questions, the minute they are exposed to serious areas of thought.

Speaking of which, the internet is a game changer. Gone are the days when the charedi world can, more or less, keep the outside world out. IPhones bring power. A simple Google search can lead to, well, anything. Banning, and threatening probably never was that smart of an approach. Now, it’s also futile.

After the program, I spoke with a friend who had attended a serious Litvish yeshiva. He was never taught anything more than Shas and Rishonim, and his questions were met with answers considered brilliant, only by those who don’t understand that word. Rather than be threatened by the questions, might not we take them as a challenge to step up our game. Shouldn’t we try to  spend serious time thinking about the questions, and how we might respond with honesty and depth when confronted with them?

So what is Footsteps? Is it good or bad? Are they doing OTD Kiruv? What’s their agenda? What are they really like? The simple answer is that there is no one single Footsteps. It is not a person. It is made up of people, many different people. However, if you want to view it in a monolithic manner, I’d say the following. Footsteps is giant mirror being held up to the frum world, challenging us to look at ourselves. Who are we? What’s our agenda? What are we really like? Do we care about each member of our family and community, or only about our reputation, and our team? Before we look past the mirror and ask questions about those who are holding it up, I strongly suggest we look deeply in the mirror, and face ourselves, warts and all.