Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hard Questions About Kiruv

I have been involved with formal and informal outreach for more than 15 years but have only recently started to ask myself a few pointed questions, which I share, anticipating that they will be of value to others.

How do we ensure that those we help to become involved in Jewish observance stay tolerant of others who have not taken the same bold steps as they? Surely we don’t want Ba’aley Teshuvah (the newly observant) to regard their family members as sinful failures. It is likely that their childhood homes were the incubators within which they learned a sense of social justice, the pursuit of truth and the dedication to family values and were therefore indispensable to their ultimate discovery of a Torah lifestyle. Do we, as the facilitators of religious seekers’ spiritual growth constantly emphasise this, or do we see their families as opponents to be defeated?

Perhaps worse, it seems that the newly-religious sometimes maintain their relationships with non-observant friends simply to try to make them religious. It seems improbable, but is it just possible that we encourage it? Picture, if you will, Bob and Jenny, old friends of John (now Yochanan) and Sheila (now Sheindy). Bob and Jenny are unlikely to feel kindly disposed to their newly-religious friends (or indeed Judaism at all) if they discover that Yochanan and Sheindy have only remained in contact with them in the hope of making them frum.

While it is beneficial to develop a confident and firm attitude to one’s own Jewish life, will the products of outreach also remain open-minded towards those who have adopted a different style of Orthodoxy from their own? This can be very painful: I recently heard of a case where two scarcely-observant friends from a traditional community became religious and went off to Yeshivos in Israel: one to a modern-style establishment, the other to a Charedi institution. The acrimony between them over religious issues is now so ingrained that when they come home for vacation, the local rabbi struggles to contain their feuding.

To what extent do we encourage our charges to recognise that integrating key aspects of their previous existence into a newly-observant life is indispensable to mature religious development and a healthy emotional future? People who come late to Judaism are often strongly attached to certain expressions of culture such as art, music and literature, and also to sport. Might it be a little off-beam (and not such great psychology) to encourage them to relinquish these when they become observant? For a time, the excitement of their newly-found Torah life will carry them through, but afterwards, sometimes years on, an inexplicable sense of emptiness may develop. If not addressed, many of us have seen this develop into unhappiness and even doubt about the fulfilment offered by a religious life-style; in extreme (but not uncommon) cases it may lead people to re-evaluate their original decision to become observant. And, crazy at it might seem, addressing this pain may well involve advising people not to adopt new religious stringencies or say more Tehillim (psalms). It could even mean helping them to reintroduce long-abandoned cultural experiences into their lives, albeit with careful guidance. Could The Beatles, Monet or the Boston Red Sox be part of the solution, rather than the problem? Despite conventional wisdom, might it be better to help the newly-observant recognise that they can be fully-fledged members of the religious world without discarding major aspects of their previous lives.

But most importantly, do we constantly re-examine our motivations in helping others to become more observant? Do we focus on them as individuals or see each of them as an opportunity to make another ‘notch in the shtender’? Is it faintly possible that some outreach is conducted with the objective of turning people into a pre-determined product which merely mirrors the kiruv-professional’s own life-style and affiliation? Many people are critical of a certain Chassidic group, whose objective appears to produce new members of the sect, but might some parts of the kiruv world be doing the same thing? Are religious neophytes just potential new members of our group, to be steered into a particular life-style and social-setting? Might, we perhaps without even realising it, envisage the newly-interested couple a few years into their religious journey living in a certain neighbourhood in a certain type of home, their children attending a certain type of school, with certain rabbis advising them, with certain aspirations: he learning in a certain type of institution, wearing a certain type of hat, she pushing a certain type of baby-stroller while wearing a certain type of hair-covering?

To be fair to the incredible outreach professionals who dedicate their lives to sharing the beauty of Judaism with others, many potential Ba’aley Teshuvah are drawn to monolithic parts of the religious world without much encouragement. They may consider what is on offer there ‘more authentic’ with the perceived benefits including rigidity of lifestyle and the comfort of not having to make one’s own decisions. Yet, if we actually encourage that outlook by role-modelling the religious world in that way, we may risk a potential tidal-wave of disaffection and disillusionment ahead of us.

There are, of course, many possible causes of religious disenchantment, including those completely beyond the control of the outreach professionals who engaged the Ba’aley Teshuvah in the first place. These may include pre-existing emotional instability, the unexpected pressures of living in religious society, the disappointing discovery that the Orthodox world isn’t actually perfect, and even a sense of personal failure in comparison with one’s perceived religious responsibilities. Each of these deserves a separate treatment, but we will focus here on religious disillusionment stemming from the outreach process itself.

I hope that it’s not too controversial to suggest that the objectives of outreach are to help each Jew reach his or her full potential as a human being, ultimately through Mitzvah observance and Torah study. Presumably we should get to know those who seek our guidance: learn to love them as individuals; discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Developing a sense that the religious needs of each person we meet differ considerably from those of every other can be difficult, but might we be doing those with whom we work a disservice by adopting any other approach? The Sages teach:

When a man mints many coins with one stamp, they all look the same, but while the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, minted each person with the ‘stamp’ of Adam the First, no one looks like any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

If God created us as individuals, it should be the role of those privileged to help His children along their journey towards Him to foster that individuality. Shouldn’t we try to craft a tailor-made religious path for each of our students? Despite the complexities of doing this, it might just enable them to benefit from the wonders of Torah life without stifling their personality or crushing their need for self-expression.

Is it just possible that the multi-chromatic vision of the Jewish world isn’t the common one in the kiruv scene because some of those in charge don’t subscribe to it? Some of us may have come to believe that there is a single optimum way to be a Torah Jew: one ‘correct’ approach to all Jewish issues, one best way of observing halakhah (Jewish law), one ideal mode of living and one supreme authority for Jewish life. May I suggest, perhaps contrary to prevailing norms, that a kiruv operative would see it as a sacred duty to learn about (and hence validate) the range of Jewish possibilities and to incorporate that into his or her kiruv practice. After all, the magnificent system of thought and practice called Judaism really does have a multiplicity of expressions. Finally, might an outreach professional who thinks that it is his or her mission to turn an eclectic group of non-observant Jews into a bunch of religious clones be in the wrong job?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful essay. It gives proper focus to our goals. Makes one ascertain his motivations are for the sake of heaven. And will ultimately draw one to G-d. As Hillel says "love mankind and draw them near to Torah" - by truly loving a person(he will see that he is only interested in his best)and he will then be successful in drawing him close to Torah. Yasher koach!