Thursday, January 21, 2016
Kiruv Uber Alles?-when the end does not justify the means
[This is the third, and probably final post on kiruv. To read the other posts, click here, and here.]
It was a scary moment when I realized the power I have as a teacher. I was teaching a class of intelligent high school students. The kind of kids who asked serious questions, and wanted serious answers. At some point, I passed the test. They saw me as the type of rabbi who wouldn’t give them silly, unthought-out answers. They came to believe that I was different from many of their other teachers, whom they thought didn’t have serious answers. One day it hit me. I had reached the point that for at least some of them, I could could push off some of their religious doubt, without answering their questions. All I had to say was something like “I’ve spent a lot of time working on that. It’s too complicated for me to explain, but trust me that your question can be answered”. Of course, I never did that, nor would I ever do that, but just the fact that I could have that kind of power over someone’s life, scared me. What terrifies me is that some in the kiruv world, have that kind of power, and take advantage of it.
The question needs to be asked. Is “making someone frum” (to use a rather vulgar phrase) important enough that it justifies dishonest or even immoral behavior? In too many kiruv situations the mekarev seems to think that ends justify the means. In this post, I will attempt to cite some examples, follow with what may be said in defense of these practices, and explain why this defense is incorrect. Finally, I will describe an even more heinous outcome of the idea that doing kiruv is of greater worth than other important values, before describing a better approach.
For those who do kiruv, one of the big questions is how to get a potential ba’al teshuva through the door. While there are various approaches that are used, one approach that one sees involves bait-and-switch. Offering a trip to Israel with no suggestion that it is for kiruv purposes, having a program that seems to not have any religious content or desired goal, and by far the most dangerous example, using alcohol to attract college students (many of whom are underage) are among the ways that are used.
Once the person walks through the door, how does one introduce them to Judaism? Is it about teaching Torah, or are all sorts of “proofs” offered? The reason that these “proofs” seem to work is that they are often used to attract those who are not so intellectual, and are often unaware of the reasons why these ideas are faulty. While it seems to me that some of the mekarvim themselves might actually be unaware that the ideas that they are teaching don’t work (which is problematic enough), it seems that some are aware but have no problem misleading people in order to “save” them. Examples of this approach includes the so-called “Kuzari proof” (which should not be confused with what Rebbe Yehuda HaLevi actually wrote and meant), and the Torah Codes, which supposedly prove that only God could have written the Torah.
A third example is what I discussed in my first post on kiruv, where the complexities, weaknesses and flaws of the frum world are hidden, so as not to be discovered until buy-in has occurred, and it is harder to act on the discovery.
So why do these things occur, and why do some mekarvim see them as acceptable? I suspect that one answer would be that when you are trying to save someone’s life, you do whatever is needed in order to do so. In this analogy, causing someone to become religious is so essential that it can be accomplished by any means necessary. How do those of us who see God and Torah as truth respond to this idea? Surely we can not deny that there are ideas that are found in rabbinic literature which seem to equate saving someone’s soul with saving their life. Some sources seem to go further placing it above saving their physical life.
One possible response is that in this case, the analogy does not work. While one could argue that saving a life with any amount of deception is acceptable, this would only be true if one is truly saving the life. If it is only doing so temporarily, with the strong possibility that death will occur when the deception is discovered, then kiruv that is done in a manner that makes a return of the ba’al teshuva to secular life likely, and even more with an antipathy for Judaism, can not be justified. While I lack statistical evidence to prove that this is occurring, anecdotal evidence suggests that many ba’alei teshuva are becoming what is known in Israel as “chozrei b’sh’eila”, that is returning to secular life, often with a negative feeling for the frum world.
However, I think there is a more basic response. It can not be that a God whose name is Truth can be served through dishonesty and subterfuge. It is not possible that a religion that speaks of free will, as an essential component, can be served by misleading people and stealing their autonomy. A kiruv done with a belief that the ends justify the means, is simply not Jewish.
Which leads me to what is, perhaps, the most disturbing part of this approach. Some very troubled and immoral individuals have been protected due to their being master mekarvim. In the not so distant past, this approach kept Baruch Lanner involved with NCSY when it was very clear that he should not have been around teenagers, and, as has come to light recently, was used by a well known rabbinic figure (as well as others) to protect Marc Winiarz (who later became Mordechai Gafni), so as to not ruin his promising rabbinic career. How many people would have been saved from these horrible individuals, if kiruv had not been placed above so many essential values? To cite another somewhat less distressing example, how is it that Yosef Mizrachi is still treated with respect by people who quote his overinflated claim of having gotten tens of thousands of people to become frum? Again, do heinous comments about kedoshim from the Shoah, Israeli soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and so many others, suddenly become acceptable if they are said by someone who is supposedly doing kiruv?
One final series of questions must be asked. Am I against kiruv? Am I denying that there are some who do kiruv the right way? If not, what is the goal of these series of posts? To answer, allow me to tell you about a bar mitzvah I attended this past Sunday. The father of the bar mitzvah boy, who is a friend of mine, runs a kiruv-style shul. At the bar mitzvah, I saw first hand what he does. He teaches Torah to anyone who is interested regardless of level of observance. He is welcoming, warm, and caring. He is there to have a real long-term relationship with the people in his shul. Equally important, he is real. As much as he has guided them, he has learned from the people around him. While my approach to, and venue for, teaching Torah is different, we are both doing something similar. We are sharing the Torah which we love, in a way that maintains the dignity and autonomy of those whom we teach. Call it it teaching, or call it kiruv if you’d like, but if that is kiruv, it is how kiruv needs to be done.