Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Kiruv and the Lowest Common Denominator

It seems that for some of the less intelligent minds in the blogsphere, any attempt to stand up for Jewish beliefs and Torah ideals is equivalent to trying to mekarev a non-observer. I like to contest that thought because I am definitely not into kiruv.
Well, I should make such a blanket statement. It is my personal position that anyone actually seeking the truth of Torah, who wants to enter the world of valid Torah observance, should be welcomed in, treated with respect and taught the truth of the Creator of the world in all its glory.
It's the person who shows up at kiruv functions but isn't really interested in much more that I don't really have time for.
For me, kiruv should be reserved for the sincerely motivated. I happen to believe very strongly in Torah and that it's the best lifestyle out there. As a result, I don't think it should be marketed, made attractive, or dumbed down just to bring out a larger number of people whose involvement will remain, at best, peripheral.
Too often I have seen the result of this Lowest Common Denominator type of outreach. It results in people coming out who claim to be interested in Judaism but who have no interest in any of the obligations that come with a Jewish lifestyle. They want the humantaschen but chas v'shalom you should expect them to sit quietly through the megillah reading, if they come out for it at all. They'll come out to the exciting and friendly Friday night service and then get in their cars and drive home, even if they live only a few blocks away and you won't see them again until next Friday night. Come out on Monday morning at 7 am to put on t'fillin and daven? Not for them, nossir.
Yet too often programs are developed around attracting just this type of crowd and it results in a dumbed-down form of Judaism that has two main negative outcomes:
a) it turns off many of the genuinely frum people in the community. Who wants to come out to a program where being religious means being ignored while being intermarried or obviously uninterested in anything other than the fun aspects of the religion makes you a VIP?
b) it creates the impression that to be a fully functioning member of a religious Jewish community isn't so hard - you just have to show up and you're on the same level as the guys who come out to shul twice a day, no matter what the weather, who revolve their lives around Torah and mitvzos. And if you're promoted to the "top" just by showing up, why go further? What point is there?
For these reasons I personally believe in a simpler version of kiruv - live a proper, ethical, Jewish lifestyle, be the example Torah demands of one, and hope that those who are searching for God's truth notice it and are attracted to it.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

It is said that there were three responses to the advent of Reform Judaism in the 19th Centure. One was the response of the Chatam Sofer -- to entrench, dig in and protect the Torah world from the onslaught of the Reforem. A second was that of R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch which was to go out and outreach to the non-religious, namely kiruv. The third was that of the Malbim -- namely to build oneself up with learning and then, like an overflowing cup into which water is poured, let the overflow water everyone else. This approach would seem to be the one for which you advocate -- and it clearly has its merits.

Further on the inherent philososphical problems with kiruv, may I direct you to an article I wrote on the subject, entitled "Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa" at

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Izgad said...

I think the solution to this is to have different groups with different standards. So Aish can have their thing and it will require very little to be accepted at one of their functions. On the other end of the spectrum you can have a hard core Yeshiva in which either you are fully committed to Judaism, learning full time and do not watch TV and if you are not living up to this you are quickly shown the exit. Most of my problems with the Haredi world would disappear if it were acknowledged that their way of doing this is meant for a small elite and not as a way of running a Jewish community.

e said...

i Believe this is the idealogical machlokis between Ohr Samaich and Aish Hatorah

David said...

Interesting. The kiruv stuff does take on several cult-like aspects. I went through the Aish program at a time in my life when I was rather receptive to it. Of course, what Aish sells you (compatibility of science and Torah, "provability" of Torah, etc., compatibility of the Torah lifestyle with the modern world, etc.) doesn't really hold up quite as well as they'd like you to think.

In the end, I think you're right, Garnel-- pushing the stuff too hard may bring in a few more people, but probably not for the right reasons. If I had it to do over again, I would not have chosen this life, and have to admit that I feel somewhat betrayed by the sales job I got. Oh, well-- caveat emptor.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

David, I think that's a great point and something I say to people who criticize Aish when they discover all the imperfections of the frum world.

Listen, when I applied to med school, I went out and researched what it would involve and spoke to friends who were in the program about the good and the bad. Then I threw my hat in the ring. A decision as important as a life long career, after all, shouldn't be made on a whim or a stance of impassioned idealism. How much more so the decision to become frum?

I do think the frum lifestyle is the most reasonable for a Jew but then, I'm happy to admit there are problems with it, like there are with any lifestyle. It's not a nirvana, it's not the answer to everyone's problems, but it's still, in my opinion, the best option for someone who wants to be the best Jew they can be.

But to each their own. That's my opinion, it's what works for me. You have to do what works for you.

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

How does your attitude of

But to each their own. That's my opinion, it's what works for me. You have to do what works for you.

measure with this attitude?

If we saw our neighbor’s house on fire, we would call the fire department and do whatever we could to extinguish the blaze. The sight of a fellow Jew cut off from any relationship to Torah and mitzvos should inspire a no less powerful impulse to do something. If we don’t respond, Rabbi Shapira said, it is either because we are not ma’aminim and do not really believe in the Torah or because we are not mentschen, and so the suffering of our fellow Jew does not touch us.

[Note: I am not talking about differences in practical applications, but just the contrast in attitudes.]