Years ago (many more than it seems sometimes), I attended the Discovery Seminar put on by Aish HaTorah at my university. The program was divided into two parts. The first was the standard "why be frum" lectures that Aish gives to try and bring in people to its programs and, hopefully, mekarev them to Judaism. The second was the famous talk about the Bible codes, the theory that lots of events were hidden inside the text of the Written Torah and that, using mathemtical formulae and deducing certain patterns, these events could be discovered and used to validate the truth of Torah.
As I recall, the day was quite interesting. The speakers were dynamic and clearly enthused with their subjects. The presentation was slick and any questions people had were quickly answered. If Aish was looking to present Torah observant Judaism in a positive light, they had done a very good job.
Of course, from a cynical point of view, I also realized that any good car salesman also used the same approach in his profession.
As I posted over at Cross Currents, if someone not connected to Judaism is interested in learning Torah and discovering the beauty that is Torah observance, then if that person is going to do so through a kiruv organization, be it Aish, Ohr or Chabad, he must first do his due diligence. A kiruv organization requires members and money to be successful. In order to obtain both, it must sell itself to its target market through advertising, seminars and personal interactions. No kiruv organization is going to present a balanced and fair view of the frum world. It's going to show that its approach is THE approach, that its form of Judaism is THE true form of Judaism and that only its way is the true path to Torah observance.
And this is not to be critical of that approach. Any company which wishes to successfully sell its product or service, be it Dell, Justwhiteshirts, or Ohr Sameach is going to use these methods. After all, at the end of the day rent needs to be paid, programs need to be funded and paycheques have to be issued to the staff.
There, what is incumbent on the participant is a critical eye and a willingness to do background research on anything he is taught. Is this asking too much? I certainly hope not. After all, a car salesman will also present his product in a perect light, have rebuttals for any superficial concerns about his car's safety rating or reliability and sound very convincing when he says that the overinflated manufacturer's suggested retail price is so reasonable that it should be paid without haggling. But who would fall for that?
Having said all that, I realize there are people out there who don't realize the depth of Judaism or the need to investigate the veracity of what the kiruv worker tells them. Perhaps they are eager to believe, or they have an intrinsic trust of the worker because he presents like a teacher and we are all trained to trust our teachers, for better or for worse. But that does not change the underlying obligation to be the savvy consumer in this process. One would do it for a car. For one's soul, could the obligation be any less?
I mention all this because of an article recently published in The Jerusalem Post on one young woman's experience with Aish which reads like a textbook case of how not to interact with the organization.
Certainly the author's bias is presented up front. Words like 'enticed' where 'encouraged' could have worked just as well betray a certain bitterness:
According to the Aish Hatorah Web site, it alone entices more than 100,000 people in 17 countries to its programs annually.
Yet what she presents is both a warning and reminder of the need for people to keep their brains fully functioning when being presented with information in suggestive environments.
Many of the programs offer several week-long trips combining learning and traveling in Israel, Canada or the US. They are ridiculously low-priced, often up to five times less than other tour groups.
The participants pay through other means, though; they absorb a particular brand of Judaism that seems to be an extra ingredient in the twin hallot eaten every Friday evening.
"They overload you with free stuff, and then you work because you want it. You'll do anything," says Sarah, a participant on two Israel programs and several long-term programs in Canada by Aish Hatorah and NCSY.
Note the details. Of course the programs are cheap. Kiruv organizations are very adept at getting wealthy donors on side with the promise of names on buildings and other various honours. These programs have to be heavily subsidized. After all, the organzations are trying to convince the most cynical consumer group in the world, Western youth, about the virtues of its product. To ask them to go on a trip for three weeks at the full cost would discourage most of the target audience. Furthermore, the term "a particular brand of Judaism" is very accurate. Be is Aish, Ohr, Chabad or any other group, they realize their customers know very little but have come looking for answers. So they provide answers. It doesn't matter that in real Torah Judaism one question might have several different but equally legitimate answers. That's too complicated. One answer, one version, they provide a sense of definitive conclusion.
The organizations present their Judaism as the uniquely accurate one, the Halacha that the non-Orthodox have merely forgotten but that all their ancestors invariably followed. Their assumption that all our great-great-grandparents grew up in an Eastern European shtetl contributes to divisiveness among Jews, for it fails to acknowledge that Halacha has had a variety of interpretations across different times and cultures.
A fellow participant on my trip was ignored by advisers when she remarked that for some Sephardim, the only halachic requirement was to be more modest than one's neighbors, and that the stringent laws that guide current frum fashion (good-bye collarbones, elbows and knees) were unnecessary. Outright dismissal of alternative views may drive sales of skirt manufacturers, but it is not beneficial to learning about the history of Judaism.
I agree and disagree with these paragraphs. On one hand, Halachah is what our ancestors invariably followed. The statement that every Reform Jew has an Orthodox great-grandparent and that no Reform Jew has a Reform great-grandchild is inconveniently true. It is only through a lifestyle filled with Jewish observance that one's religious/national identity continues to pass through to one's children and beyond. However, the next part, the idea that all Jews come from stereotypical shtetl dwellers and that this is the kind of Judaism God envisioned and decreed when He gave us the Torah at Har Sinai is absurd. It ignored the wide and wonderful cultural diversity within the Torah world. But again, if one agrees that their way is not the only way, what then stops the interested person from leaving the organization and going to learn about that other way elsewhere?
However, I have no time for the claims that kiruv organizations run their programs like a cult. Of course they do. They want their participants to leave at the end of the program fully convinced they've found the way to truth and happiness and then return for the next program. Any person, young or old, signing up to participate in a kiruv organization, has to be aware of this standard tactic. Claiming afterwards that they were coerced, tired, confused or forced shows a weakness of personality that doesn't produce a life-long observant Jew because as soon as a more seductive, compelling culture comes along, this same person will simply jump ship. Is that the kind of Jew we're looking to produce?
If a person is looking for a religiously fulfilling, spirtually full life, then Torah observance is certainly a competitive option. Ditto if the person is looking for a religion that will intellectually challenge. But to present it as "obvious" through simplistic metaphors and cliche slogans does a disservice to the beauty and depth of Torah.
I wonder what the success of these organizations says of our community. I know of another Jewish group, Nishma, that encourages people to look into the depth of Judaism, understand concepts like eilu v'eilu, and teaches them to realize there are no simple answers to questions. Despite this challenging approach, it remains small and marginal in the Orthodox community. But maybe that's why Aish is successful. People do want simple answers. Being told that the questions are far more important might just turn them off.