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.

"It was a scary moment when I realized the power I have as a teacher. I was teaching a class of intelligent high school...
Posted by Pesach Sommer on Thursday, January 21, 2016


  1. I think your series could be summed up in a couple of sentences: Donors want metrics to justify where they put their money, so kiruv workers go for bulk, which means that rather than actual Torah education they're broad-band marketing.

  2. a) What's the difference between "The Kuzari Proof" and what RYH actually wrote?

    b) When people date, don't they try to put their best foot forward until the other person sees their qualities and only afterward share their not-so-great attributes? As long as one is eventually shown the whole picture, what's wrong with initially conveying the beauty of Judaism before dumping a load of questions and problems on someone? If, as a young man, I had been shown all the problems with belief in Torah, without first experiencing its solidity and value, I'm not at all sure I would have chosen this life.

    c) Why is a trip to Israel any different than good advertising? If getting someone to do something for an ulterior motive can serve to expose him/her to meaningful experiences, how is that misleading or deceptive?

    d) I do not know any kiruv professionals who feel that they are "fooling" the people with whom they interact, with the notion that the ends justify the means. I have four or five nephews and a brother-in-law in full-time kiruv all of who are caring, sincere, and intelligent. When asked a difficult question about Judaism, I'm pretty sure that they would respond honestly to the best of their ability, and openly acknowledge that no system is perfect and without things that remain incomprehensible.

    e) I'm curious about all these proofs which "don’t work". Which ideas "don't work"?

    f)You make it sound like the entire profession of kiruv is a lot of slick, false advertising with no real value behind it. I am neither aware of people in kiruv who function this way, nor the truth of the idea itself.

    Pesach, I love you like a brother, and am intimately aware of many of your frustrations with the establishment. Also, it is true that to secure funds for kiruv, donors are often more interested in statistics and results than in things which take longer or are more important. But this is not unique to kiruv, or even to frumkeit. How many doctors bemoan the fact that actually caring for the patient is no longer valued by the medical establishment? I think you are being way too harsh in condemning a profession that, for all its faults, is mostly done by people of integrity and yiras shamayim.

    1. I'll respond point by point, with the exception of A which Micha has answered.

      B) First date? Fine.Second date? fine. Only show the truth after we are married? Wrong.

      C) it's not provided that it is clear what the real purpose of the trip is.

      D) I don't most are being dishonest. I think most are not well educated, and think they have proof for what is unprovable.

      E) No proofs for God (and thus Matan Torah) work. There might make things that help me believe but that does not make it a proof.

      F) throughout my posts I made it clear that there are those who do these things and those who do not. I have seen much of what I describe personally, and spoken to others who have seen the rest. While mostly unintentional, there is a lot of damage being done within the kiruv industry.

      If someone invited you for lunch, giving the impression that he cared, but he really had a different goal, that of getting you to lend him money, and each subsequent interaction was with this goal in mind, how would you feel? How would you feel being treated like an object, or being treated paternalistically by someone who is sure they know what you need best?

  3. a) The point of the Kuzari, sha'ar 1, is that proofs don't work -- whatever one philosopher can "conclusively prove", another proves the opposite. I mean the Greeks lack the ancient tradition, so they relied on the best they had, but we...

    Then around 850 years later, they made his argument that tradition is more reliable than a proof into a proof.

    BTW, the Kuzari Proof itself is an example of (e) a proof that doesn't work.

    1. Perhaps I'm remembering incorrectly, but doesn't the Kuzari offer the mesorah as the reason why we should accept Judaism as being reliable? What does it matter whether or not we call it a "proof"? (To be honest, I don't even know if kiruv pros even call it a proof. They simply use it to explain why we believe as we do.)

    2. No, they make a big deal about how one can prove it's impossible to forge a story (1) about a miraculous event, (2) that happened to a whole nation, (3) of millions of people, (4) to the body of descendants of those people.

      The Kuzari, OTOH, is invoking "reliabilism" -- we trust sources that we know from experience to be reliable. Personally, especially since I am teaching in a generation where only a minority of Jews believe and in a zeitgeist where appeal to authority evinces cynicism, I invoke first-hand experiences.

      And they're wrong, it is possible. There are examples across central America and the Natives of the Mid-West. Or Thebes. Pointing to Xianity, Islam and the Mormons is insufficient.

      (For that matter, how far is it from the Palestinian narrative? No, nothing miraculous in that case, but all the families named al Misri [from Egypt], al Mougrabi [Morroco], al Lubani [Lebanon], al Halabi [Aleppo, Syria], and so on, they're all convinced the narrative of the PA about being the descendants of the Canaanites, and simply that their family is one of the few exceptions.)

      Second, and this may explain how the counterexamples emerged, the assumption is made that the claim is made out of the blue, in a single stroke. It doesn’t account for gradual acceptance of a story. Say something starts out as a myth about a subset of the people, and it’s known to be a bed-time story. The next generation it’s “some say”. Over several generations, it can become “official history” about everyone, with no one generation having that moment of “Why does he know all about this event, and we never heard of it before from our grandparents?”