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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dough as I Say- the harm being done by some funders of kiruv programs

[This is the second in a series of posts on some of the problems with how kiruv is done. To read the first post, click here.]

Several years ago, I spoke with an advisor from NCSY after a shabbaton. When asked to reflect on the weekend, she told me that while there had been some positives, she was upset that there were nearly 500 kids who attended. Noticing my surprise that this was not a good thing, she explained that there was not nearly enough space, advisors and programming to accommodate that many attendees. When pressed to explain why she thought space had not been limited beforehand, this advisor, who knew the workings of that NCSY region, explained that it was to impress funders, who wanted to see large numbers.

This is just one example of what I consider to be a troubling phenomena; funders of kiruv pushing for high numbers, at the cost of an approach that treats each person as a, well, person. This approach is not only dehumanizing, it also makes it much less likely that the potential ba’al teshuva will have a real relationship with their mekarev, and thus, will have less guidance as they become more observant. Furthermore, it rewards those mekarvim who are willing to buy into this approach, over those who want to do things the right way.

Perhaps, one might object that I am telling people what to do with their money, but I think this is more of a case of giving sound business advice. At the end of the day, a good and ethical businessman wants to produce a good product, and would not sacrifice quality for quantity. This approach might lead to less profits in the short term, but leads to much greater success in the long term. From a business perspective it is true that one can quantify how many people attend a shabbaton, or how many college students a mikarev speaks to each day, but that’s just it. Effective and sincere kiruv has nothing to do with numbers. the goal isn’t, or at least, it shouldn’t be, to reach as many “customers” as possible. The goal is to help people improve on their relationship with haShem, which is an approach which is not limited to ba’alei teshuva.

Objects can be mass-produced. Sincere ovdei HaShem can not. Good mikarvim, and those who fund them, need to know and appreciate the difference.

"Several years ago, I spoke with an advisor from NCSY after a shabbaton. When asked to reflect on the weekend, she told...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

To Maayan on Becoming a Bas Mitzvah


I don’t know if you remember this, but I always speak directly to the one having the bar, or in this case, bas mitzvah, and allow everybody else to listen.

Being that you were born on Rosh Chodesh, you chose to speak about Rosh Chodesh. I’d like to speak to you about two other words which share the שורש of ח.ד.ש.


Tonight, everything is new and exciting. Each mitzva you do beginning tonight will feel exciting as you think about the fact that you are doing it as a metzuvah, one who is commanded, for the first time. Over time however, that natural excitement will fade, and there is the risk that the מצות will start to feel boring or stale. There is also the challenge of having  to do the mitzvos as one who is commanded, rather than by choice. One of the challenges we all have is to try and make each mitzvah that we do exciting, meaningful, and something we want to do. Although we won’t succeed each time, with real effort we will often manage to succeed.

In Shemos 19:1 we read
בחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי:
(א) ביום הזה - Rashi
בראש חודש. לא היה צריך לכתוב אלא ביום ההוא, מהו ביום הזה?
שיהיו דברי תורה חדשים עליך כאלו היום נתנו:

Rashi explains that the Torah used the word הזה rather than ההוא to teach us that we should try to make each day of learning (and I would add mitzvah observance) as exciting as the day we received the Torah. The more you learn about each mitzvah, the more you strive to understand the details as well as the Taamei HaMitzvos, trying to understand the reasons behind the mitzvos, the more you will keep them fresh, exciting and new.


When a child is born we give the parents the beracha that the baby should be raised to Torah, chuppah, and maasim tovim-  The wish is not just that you learn Torah, but also that the learning should be serious and passionate. Don’t be satisfied to just understand it basically. Look deep inside each thing you learn. Search inside it because each word of Torah contains so much within it. There is also something to be learned from the Torah you learn, including your davening. Aim to find something new each time you learn, just like you are doing something new bayom hazeh.

Maayan, you are blessed to have a mother who is a role-model for you in this regard, as well as so many others. Mommy’s commitment to Torah and mitzvot, her love and her hunger for learning are one of the first things that caused me to fall in love with her. Each time I see her light the Shabbos candles, I am in awe, and, I must admit, a little jealous. I wish I could do mitzvos with same commitment and energy that mommy does them. Mommy listens to shiurim while preparing food for Shabbos, and finds time each week to learn with her chavrusa from Partners in Torah.

You are also blessed to have siblings who love you and from whom you can learn a lot. Since you are a woman, I particularly want to mention Chavi who sets an amazing example for what a commitment to Torah, mitzvos and a relationship with HaShem looks like.

I am so happy that you are surrounded by so many people who love you, including family and friends. Still, I am a little sad that my parents are no longer with us and able to be here. I know they’d be very proud of you. I am happy for you that you have such wonderful grandparents as safti and grandpa. who both model for you a commitment to growth, learning, and trying new and challenging things. While I am glad that you are surrounded by many relatives, including uncles, aunts, and cousins, I know that your aunt, uncle and cousins in Israel love you so much and wish they could be here to celebrate with you.

Maayan, you are bright, creative and have a lot of passion. You have a commitment to justice, and a big heart. I look forward to watching you bring these traits to your observance and learning of Torah, and to your performance of mitzvos, and most importantly, your relationship with HaShem.

Mazal tov!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Educators or Salesmen- What is the goal when it comes to kiruv?

One Friday night several years ago, I walked into shul and realized something was going on. The sanctuary was more crowded than usual, and there was a large group of casually dressed college-aged students sitting at several tables. I soon realized that there was a kiruv shabbaton going taking place in my community, and that they had decided to daven with us on Friday night. As Kabbalas Shabbos started, I became aware that we would not be davening in the same way we daven each week. The chazzan, who was part of the shabbaton, sang a great deal, and even started dancing at the end of Lecha Dodi. I remember wondering whether the young men who were attending the shabbaton knew that this was not the typical way we davened each Shabbos, or, quite honestly, any other Shabbos.

I noticed something else that night. As davening continued well past its usual time, a few locals started getting a bit chatty. A counselor from the shabbaton came over to one man and asked him to stop talking, explaining that it would look bad to the shabbaton attendees. It wasn’t until later that I thought about this exchange. Why was the counselor so worried that davening would look “right” to the attendees? What might have happened had it became clear that some people talk during davening?

Over the past few years, I’ve become aware of a certain phenomenon. I’ve met and spoken with a number of baalei teshuva who are experiencing some degree of “buyer’s remorse”. As they’ve discovered that the religious world is more complex than they were taught as they were becoming religious, and as they’ve met our community’s knaves as well as its heroes, they have become somewhat disillusioned. This is not what they thought they were getting when they signed up. For many of those who attended yeshivahs and seminaries in Israel, their formative frum experience involved only being around very inspiring teachers and communities. For some others, they were given a less than clear picture of the complexities of the observant world, leading  some to feel that the one who was mikarev them was more of a salesman than a teacher.

What would be the results if kiruv programs allowed people to see all parts of the frum community, the good, the not so good, and, yes, the ugly? What would be the effect of a Shabbos meal without planned talking points, and where people talked about what they usually discuss, and not what they think the guest should hear? While some people might come away a little less inspired, this approach would allow people to make a real choice about the world that they are choosing. Additionally, this would have the result of fewer people feeling that they were misled by the whole kiruv process. If the goal is not to find new recruits, but rather to educate people about their heritage, an honest and open approach seems like the better way to go.

[I originally wrote this post several months ago, but decided to not publish it. Now, with kiruv back in the news, due...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Torah and Philo-sophy: A review of Torah from Alexandria- Philo as a Biblical Commentator

I’m thinking of a Jewish thinker who showed -some would say, tried to show- that the Torah and Greek philosophy could be reconciled. He lived in Egypt and interacted with the leader of his country. While many would assume I am thinking of the Rambam, I am actually thinking of Philo of Alexandria, who lived more than a millennia before the Rambam, and who, despite being less well-known to many Jews of today, wrote many works where he attempted to show that following the Torah could be reconciled with the prevailing ideas of his time, in a manner that would not be repeated until the time of Rav Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam.

While there are many reasons why Philo and his thought are not known to many Jews who are familiar with Jewish philosophy, among the main reasons are that Philo’s works were written in Greek, and that his ideas are spread out in many different texts. In Torah from Alexandria- Philo as Biblical Commentator, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has eliminated those challenges, and offers many in the Jewish world their first opportunity to study Philo’s ideas. In this work, published by Kodesh Press, Samuel has collected Philo’s thoughts from his many works and organized them according to the books of the Torah. To date, three volumes have been released, covering Bereishis, Shemos, and Vayikra.

While this format has the advantage of creating an easier entry point for the non-expert to study Philo’s thought, it is far from the only advantage to this new and creative work. Samuel begins with a fascinating introduction which includes biographical information about Philo, his general philosophical approach, reasons why Philo was not studied by the rabbinic sages of the Talmud and the Middle-Ages, and much more.  In the main text he includes Philo’s thoughts on each verse, with footnotes which list the original source of each idea. There are also notes interspersed within the text which show places where Philo suggested ideas similar to those of the Chachmei HaShas, the Zohar, Rishonim, Achronim, and more. I found the parallels to ma’amrei Chazal particularly fascinating, as it is not clear whether Philo actually spoke Hebrew, or whether he interacted with the great rabbinic sages of his time. To cite just a few fascinating examples:

  • Philo offers what, at first, appears to be a fanciful explanation of the ישראל suggesting that it combines the words איש ראה א-ל, the man who “saw” God. However, this same explanation is suggested in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah

  • Another example, found in this week’s parasha, for the plague of ערב, commonly understood as wild animals, is explained by Philo as a type of fly. A similar idea is suggested by Rebbe Akiva in Shemos Rabbah.

  • When it comes to the Mishkan, Philo suggests that the commandment to build the Mishkan came before the sin of the Cheit HaEigel, and offers an explanation that is quite similar to that later offered by the Ramban, suggesting that the Mishkan was a portable Har Sinai.

While I can not confirm that the translations are accurate, being that Greek is, well, Greek to me (I’m sorry, couldn’t resist), Samuel’s scholarship and breadth of knowledge leads me to believe that he has done a careful job in this area as well.

Torah from Alexandria will be of great benefit to anyone who is curious about Philo’s thought, those who are interested in Jewish philosophy (a comparison with the Rambam would be an interesting endeavor), or for the person who is looking for a new and unique way to study the Torah. Once again, Alec Goldstein of Kodesh Press is to be commended for making a quality work of Torah scholarship available to the English-speaking world.

"I’m thinking of a Jewish thinker who showed -some would say, tried to show- that the Torah and Greek philosophy could...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, January 5, 2016