Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 22 June 2009

Simplified Options

Writing in The Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt tackles the thorny problem of how we religious Jews should relate to our non-religious brethren:
How should Orthodox Jews relate to other Jews in modern society? Should they emulate Noah, who obeyed God’s command to build an ark and separate himself and his family from the rest of the world that was literally drowning? Or should they follow the example of Abraham, who argued with God in order to try to save the lives of the sinful inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Off the top, both examples are, when analyzed, not exactly the best ones to make Rosenblatt's case in either direction. Noach, did not separate himself from the rest of humanity. As Chazal make abundantly clear, during the 120 years he spent building the ark, he was in contact with other folks. He hid the purpose of the ark, to survive a coming global calamity, from no one. When the mabul came, he didn't enter the ark because he was frustrated by his neighbours and wanted to get away from them. He did it so that he wouldn't be killed.
Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, was a much different case. Rather than go to people, he waited for people to come to him. Yes, his tent was open in all four directions so that any wayfarer could enter no matter what direction he approached from, but the wayfarer still had to approach. Other than the three angels, Avraham didn't exactly go door to door and ask people if they'd put tefillin on today. As for the example of Sodom, Avraham may have prayed for them but he didn't associate with them, not one bit. His only conversation with the king of the city is terse, along the lines of: Take your stuff and screw off buddy.
Amongst today's Jews, there are a few Noah figures. Chabad comes to mind, although they don't actually promise an apolcalypse but they are rather active in trying to get people to come closer to Torah and the Ribono shel Olam. However, there are no Avraham figures out there, people who have compassion for the worst of what's in this world and who would fight to the death to protect them. So neither model seems an appropriate for the today's Orthodox Jewry.
Fortunatley, the featured figure in his article, Rav Benny Lau, seems to be quite the sensible fellow:
Rabbi Benny Lau, a popular Jerusalem spiritual leader and director of the Center for Judaism and Society at Beit Morasha, an Israeli academic center for Jewish studies and leadership development, posited those two biblical extremes in discussing the topic "If I Forget Thee Tel Aviv: Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to World Jewry and
Humanity" on a recent Sunday at a local forum. He came down squarely in the Abraham camp, asserting "we should not accept the view of some Orthodox Jews who want to stay on the ark, believing that the outside world is dangerous."
In arguing for compassion and engagement, he also disagreed with the interpretation of Rashi, the most famous biblical and Talmudic commentator, who, in discussing a Talmudic point about what should be done if a convert to Judaism wants to go back to his old life, concludes, "we don’t care."
Times have changed, said Rabbi Lau. "My reaction is just the opposite. Our slogan should be ‘I care.’"...
Asked by moderator Eugene Korn, a rabbi and scholar in areas of Jewish ethics, to address the situation in Israel, Rabbi Lau said it was "a tragedy" that many secular Israelis think rabbis concern themselves only with matters of kashrut, the Knesset and money, and that Judaism has little to say about health care or issues of social justice.
He said he would like to do away with the word "Orthodox" and other denominational divisions, preferring the notion of "living with mitzvot."
"When you are confident with yourself, you can be open to others," Rabbi Lau said. "When you are fearful, then you are closed."
While there was strong agreement among the panelists and moderator of the program, the fact is that many if not most Orthodox Jews here and in Israel eschew contact with other communities, either out of lack of interest or fear that such associations can weaken the core.

Unfortunately I think there's good reason for that fear and lack of interest. As Western society continues to polarize between the radically religious and the fanatically uninterested, there is less and less common ground for the two sides to meet and have coffee over.
Yet as religious Jews it is our responsibility to show our non-religious brethren all that is fulfilling and uplifting about Judaism. Instead of focusing on how to make life more difficult with the latest chumra-of-the-week, we should be bringing people into our homes on Friday nights and teaching them zemiros. Let them see the positive and perhaps it will have the effect it must have.
In the end, it's not Noah or Avraham that is the ideal role model for Orthodox Jews, but rather Aharon HaKohen who, as Avos tells us, loved peace and pursued it. He did go door to door, not to inflict religion but to show kindness on his contemporaries. Instead of sitting on our haunches and feelings self-righteous in the knowledge that we have the right path, we should be trying more to share that truth kindly with others.

1 comment:

David said...

Well, I've enjoyed a few good Shabbos meals. I don't consider warm fuzzy feelings much of a basis for belief, but, as I've said before, if more Orthodox Jews were thinking along the lines you seem to be, I think the religion would be much improved. Yiyasher Koach, rebbe.