Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Response to Criticism

     About a week and a half ago, I received my very first piece of email condemning this blog. I read it and responded, and even received a response back. I debated whether or not to write about it here, but  I finally decided to address certain points in the letters, since they are typical of the pro-kiruv ultra-orthodox mindset, and I believe that they can be used as a teaching tool. Out of respect for my detractor's privacy, I am not including any (non-general) identifying information, and I am not including her emails in their entirety. I do appreciate the fact that she took the time to email me and I also appreciate her willingness to stand behind her views. I recognize that it takes a lot of courage to do so, and even though she and I disagree, opening up a healthy dialogue is a positive step in understanding each other.

Text Excerpts from First Email (Spelling and grammar have not been corrected.)
 "The teachers and Rabbis and all the people doing the kiruv to help young people to come back to their roots and their heritage are not Ultra Orthodox.  They are normal orthodox Jewish people who live what they teach.  If you don't believe what Kiruv teaches and think that it is some marketing strategy or sales ploy, think again."
"Stop trying to take beautiful Jewish neshamos [souls, italics added] away from a priceless heritage that was given to them by Hashem." 
"You are bringing darkness into the world.  I don't usually take the time out of my day to speak to people like you, but maybe you need to question what you are doing and question where you come from and who you really are."

"Also remember that Hashem watches us.  Everything we do and say.  You are  not in charge.  Hashem runs the world not you.  If you are born Jewish, to a Jewish mother.  Wake up.  Open your eyes.  The Torah is instructions for how to live our lives.  This is not your purpose in life to destroy lives.  Hashem wants all his children to come back.  Everyday a person should say to themselves what am I living for ? What can I change?  Words from Rabbi Noah Weinberg.  A man we hold close to our hearts.  He lived his life for the sake of saving the Jewish nation.  You are causing damage that is all you are doing.  It is the same as murder, to take Jewish people away from Torah."

"One thing you need to understand is when you said that it should sell itself and not be used as "marketing strategy"  What are you doing to change some ones life for the better?  Sometimes it is necessary when it comes to young people especially, to give them glitz and glamour to help them to understand.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Nothing to do with marketing."

"Don't carry on with what you are doing or you might have many regrets later on."

Text Excerpts from Second Email
(Spelling and grammar have not been corrected.)

"I don't want to get into too much details of the Torah because it is very difficult to convince a sceptic of the Torah, about the beauty of it and the depth of it.  It also will be very difficult for you to understand at this point in your life, because you are not in that space of spirituality.  and Yes I do believe that the only kind of spirituality is that  of the Torah.  Saying that Hashem runs the world is not a claim of mine, its the Truth and hopefully one day in time, in the right time you will see it.  The reason why I say you are destroying lives is because Kiruv helps to stop assimilation.  Your mission is not going to help Jews to come back to their heritage, but to take them away and help them assimilate ie marry non Jews.  The Torah is a blue Print of the world, is a guide to help us live our lives properly and the way Hashem intended.  Good luck with your mission." 

"We all come into this life to do something important.  I can tell you that what you are doing by telling people that kiruv is a scam.  That's not the job you came to the earth for.  A person needs to delve into and learn Torah  with a qualified teacher in order to understand its essence.  You cannot just pull out parts of it that you see fit to criticize without seeing the overall picture and understanding the overall picture in depth.  Only Hashem knows and understands all things and knows and understands why he created the Torah.  Everything else is an illusion."

My Thoughts
  • The writer of this email admits to believing that there is only one kind of spirituality and it's from the Torah. So right there, whatever you believe has already been crossed out of existence. You cannot possibly claim any spirituality unless it's from an orthodox perspective of the Torah. You think you're spiritual? Nope, sorry! This way of thinking is very arrogant. A good teacher learns from his/her students, but this black and white thinking is prevalent in kiruv. Ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach assumes that whatever you're doing, if it's not orthodox, then it's wrong.
  • The writer claims that kiruv/outreach is not about marketing, but later claims that "sometimes it is necessary when it comes to young people especially, to give them glitz and glamour to help them to understand." Of course, we are all aware that this is marketing, however, the "glitz and glamour" is there to attract potential recruits and keep them interested. Never mind that much of what is used to attract, such as Torah Codes and other pseudo-science, have been disproven and criticized.
  • The email writer claims that God is in charge of all things, but then accuses me of trying to lead  Jewish souls to assimilation, of bringing darkness to the world, and of being like a murderer. Later, she claims that "Hashem runs the world." If we go with her feeling that God runs the world, then I'm sure he's well aware of what I'm doing (assuming we are working within a belief system that allow for the existence of a higher power) so then it's really between this god and myself. Enter in the Jewish claim that people were given free will, despite God running the world, thus taking some of the onus off of God. However, God is supposedly aware of what I'm going to do, prior to me actually doing it (again, assuming that one believes in God in the first place.) Warning me of possible regret makes no sense here, because if she believes in God, then it's already written how this will pan out. (I'm noticing that this is so strange here, because of the cyclical nature of the argument itself: you have free will to do what God already knows you're going to do. I'm not saying this to offend believers, but even this argument, used in many kiruv discussions that I've attended, really seems only to confuse the focus of the new recruit, as do many of the other topics often discussed.) Back to the original point of this bulleted statement: if God is in charge of all things, then supposedly, what I am doing is part of this "all things."
  • She claims that my mission won't help Jews come back to their roots, but will lead them to assimilation and/or intermarriage. All of ultra-orthodox kiruv believes that which is not orthodox outreach will cause assimilation and intermarriage. It doesn't matter if you are an active member of a liberal Jewish denomination or background (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, etc.) whatever it is that you are doing, unless it is orthodox, is leading to the demise of the Jewish people.
  • She claims that "Hashem wants his children to come back." She later claims that "only Hashem knows and understands all things and knows and understands why he created the Torah.  Everything else is an illusion." If only God knows and understands, then that should tell us right there that nobody else can not possibly understand God, his reasons, nor his actions. When tragedy occurs, orthodox people often say "baruch dayan ha-emet," meaning that God is the true judge and whatever he has done, it is for the best and we, as humans, don't have to understand it, nor his reasons. (This is often comforting to people in mourning.) In that case, the writer of this letter cannot claim that God wants Jews to be orthodox or to "come back." (We can assume, based on her other statements, that she doesn't want Jews to be Reform.) If only God understands and knows all things, then orthodox kiruv, in its very essence, is presumptuous, as it works only on the presumption that only orthodox interpretation and adherence are what is expected of Jews. 
  • The last point that I want to address is about this line: "You are causing damage that is all you are doing." The damage I am causing--if any at all--is to those who may now think twice about Jewish outreach, its underlying messages, its goals, its supporters, and its motivation. A savvy person wouldn't take a hundred thousand dollars and invest it in the first business opportunity that presents itself, no matter how exciting the package. Instead, a smart person would research different investment opportunities, and educate him/herself before making any long term decisions that could affect his/her future and financial security. Ultra orthodox outreach often works on the premise that kiruv professionals will be able to "wow" people and turn them on to orthodoxy, maybe even send them on an outreach trip, and transform people's lives before they can arm themselves with the other side of the story. If, by providing information, I am causing damage to the kiruv industry, then I know that my efforts are not wasted.
     I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, even we disagree. Feel free to post in the comments section. And thanks to all of you who have been reading this blog and driving up my reader stats. The few minutes you spend here is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dress Codes and Losing One's Autonomy

Anoymous, Brooklyn, NY, 2013. Click to enlarge.
     R' Moshe  (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) was  considered to be one of orthodoxy's leading rabbis on Jewish law in the 20th century. Prior to World War Two, he was already setting up orthodox learning in America. He is well respected by many kiruv organizations, including, but not limited to Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah. This sign (see picture), found in Brooklyn and subsequently posted on a message board that I read, shows his words used in order to emphasize the ultra-orthodox community's importance on how women dress. While this sign is not something that would normally be shown to those first learning about orthodox Judaism and certainly wouldn't show up on college campuses, I felt that sharing it on this blog gives a bit of insight into the ultra-orthodox community--those who support, sponsor, and lead kiruv/outreach efforts. The point of the sign is that women must strictly follow the laws of tznius [modesty] otherwise they will be "severely punished." This particular sign states that the "urge for pritzus [immodesty/sluttiness] has found its way even into homes of shomrei Torah, [Torah observant Jews] luring them into wearing short garments." Further down, it is mentioned that even the shape of a bas yisroel's [Jewish woman] knee is forbidden to be seen, whether walking or sitting, and that it is her husband's duty to supervise her to make sure that she is in line with the laws of modesty.
     This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with dress codes of a particular community. After all, schools, sports teams, and businesses often have some degree of enforceable guidelines for dress. We expect that when the Devils are out on the ice, they are wearing the appropriate uniform. However, it's doubtful that Marty Brodeur wears his uniform out of fear. While I can understand that in order to be a part of the ultra-orthodox community, one must follow certain guidelines, I find this poster to be disturbing on several levels.
  1. Through the use of fear and coercion, women are forced to dress in a way that conforms to the community's strict standards. Telling women that they will be "severely punished" if a lone knee is viewed is a deplorable way to enforce orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Stating that "in the merit of tznius [modesty]... may we soon merit the redemption" implies that any woman not conforming is keeping moshiach [the messiah] from coming. This sets the stage for community reinforcement of this "rule," by not only men, but women, who then begin to police each other as part of a modesty squad.
  2. Men are suddenly saddled with the responsibility of determining whether women are dressing in accordance with the community's standards. The individual woman's autonomy, even in determining what she wears, is removed, in favor of placing all women in a heteronomous state.
  3. The very bottom of the poster states that "lengthened clothing results in lengthened years." The threat of death, or a life prematurely cut short, is used to coerce women into following these guidelines for dressing. 
  4. The very first statement implies that women cannot control their "urges" to dress immodestly.  
     When researching outreach organizations that approach non-orthodox Jews, not only is it important to understand their motives, but it is important to understand how their teachings can be later used to wield power over those who ultimately join these communities.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Aish HaTorah and Multilevel Marketing Scams

(Photo source: All Twitter)
     I've been approached countless times in the past year by too many people, each wanting me to get involved in one multilevel marketing scam or another. I've been approached to join businesses and/or purchase products, by well-meaning people who were convinced that 1. my life would be better if I got involved with them; 2. I didn't know what I was missing; 3. they could help me make big money fast!; 4. this new business would make my life exponentially better. Yes, I know I mentioned that already, but that part gets mentioned so many times, that it deserved to be mentioned again. A friend recently made a good point about such businesses. "If these businesses are so great and if the products are so good, they should be selling themselves. I shouldn't need to be convinced to get involved in a business venture. The business venture and products should speak for themselves and I should be approaching you to find out how to get involved."
     I feel the same way about orthodox Judaism. If this product is so great, it should sell be able to sell itself. Aish HaTorah's Kiruv Primer lists the four universal needs, as pointed out by Rabbi Noach Weinberg,  and attempts to use tactics to recruit non-orthodox Jews to ultra-orthodoxy that are very similar to those used by people selling the opportunity to engage in multilevel marketing.
1. Meaning

Weinberg claims that without Torah, life and the world have very little meaning. He states that "With the Torah, the most mundane and routine activities of life are elevated. With the blessing "Asher Yatzar," even going to the bathroom becomes an opportunity to enhance our appreciation of G-d's[sic] greatness and our love for Him"(Coopersmith 50.) In some communities there are even blessings uttered before sex.*  Some may find this spiritual. Others may find it obsessive-compulsive. Rabbi Weinberg finds that the "Torah lifestyle removes the specter of meaninglessness that haunts our non-observant friends and neighbors.... It rescues us from foundering helplessly in a sea of confusion and illusion"(Coopersmith 50-1). This claim is quite biased and presumptuous, at best. Just as multilevel marketing people believe that without their product, or without becoming a business associate, the rest of our lives are mundane, the ultra-orthodox Aish HaTorah outreach professionals believe the same about non-orthodox Jews.
2. Lasting Pleasure
Weinberg claims that Western ideology is all about escapism, "designed to distract from the reality of life" but that "to be fulfilled, a human being needs higher, more sublime pleasures than the experiences a physical world can provide"(Coopersmith 51). If we trust Rabbi Weinberg, we would automatically assume that he knows what he's talking about when he states, as if factually, what a human being needs to be fulfilled. A charismatic leader or speaker from any walk of life, can elicit a chorus of hallelujahs and applause if he or she is believable, excited, and promising that his/her product and business can provide beauty, health, and a secure future. In this case, Weinberg tries to convince his audience that without Torah, a Jew will always be left wanting something, and without Shabbos (the Sabbath day of rest,) people "feel an emptiness in their lives--despite being "free" to partake in all the pleasures the world offers"(Coopersmith 52). However, with the Torah, people get the full range of pleasure. Sounds like our pyramid scammers: you may think you're happy, but you're nowhere near as happy as you could be if you just used our products and joined our business.
3. Tools for Living
 Under this heading, Weinberg claims that "there is nothing inherent in Western life that imbues man with the clarity or focus to live life effectively"(Coopersmith 53) and that
left to his own devices, man is bound to confront obstacles which he is ill-equipped to surmount. The evidence is all around us. The rampant problems plaguing our society--divorce, drug abuse, depression, suicide, alcoholism, murder, rape--speak loudly enough (Coopersmith 53). 
However, if people ultimately acquiesce to outreach professionals and accept ultra-orthodox Judaism, they will gain clarity and focus for effective living. Multilevel marketing recruiters make similar claims. Their product and this business opportunity will give you a clarity that everyone else is lacking. At the very end of this section, Weinberg does leave readers with the disclaimer that "while Torah society is not entirely problem-free, most of the difficulties that do exist occur precisely when its members subordinate Torah values to that of popular culture"(Coopersmith 54). So if you leave popular culture behind completely, you'll never have a problem. It's only when you allow popular culture into your life will you have troubles.
4. Reaching Our Potential
Weinberg states that "Western culture spawns generations of people who are frustrated at not being able to realize their potential, people who are confused about who they are and what direction their lives should take"(Coopersmith 54.) So don't worry your little heads. Line up for a dose of ultra-orthodox kiruv from Aish HaTorah and they'll help you realize your potential. Wait, I've heard this before. I may be successful in my present field, but what's this? If i get involved in, let's say...Amway...I'll be able to reach my potential? What? I'm not really all I could be? And you can help me attain this potential?
     Aish HaTorah uses tactics similar to cultish multilevel marketing shemes. Much like multilevel marketers, they attempt to convince you that there is something lacking in your life that you need and they are the only ones who can make sure you get it. And make no mistake about it, kiruv professionals coming from the Aish HaTorah school of thought will be relentless. Rabbi Noach Weinberg instructs fellow outreach professionals that they have no choice but to do kiruv:
G-d[sic] sends a limited number of opportunities for growth and spiritual  closeness into everybody's life. Your "chance" meeting with another Jew may just be the last door that will ever be opened to him. The very first principle you have to understand is that there is no choice. It's you or nothing. When you realize that, you will find a way to become effective, because necessity is the mother of invention (Coopersmith 31.) 
Feeling a bit uncomfortable? Sort of like you're being pursued?
That's because you are. Multilevel marketers are told to look to their friends, family, neighbors, community members, workmates, classmates, etc. for business. They tell you that everyone is a potential customer or potential client. It is up to you to pursue your contacts and turn them into one or the other, or both. But shouldn't it stand to reason that if pyramid schemes and ultra-orthodox Judaism were perfect business and living models, that they would sell themselves?

Coopersmith, Yitzchak, ed. The Eye of a Needle Aish HaTorah's Kiruv Primer. Southfield: Targum/Feldheim, 2005. Print.
* specifically Chabad communities. Chabad and Aish HaTorah stress different customs. See Rabbi Fishel Jacobs' book Family Purity. Campus Living and Learning, South Royalton, 2000.