Jewish Journal

Are we our own biggest problem?

by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

November 11, 2009 | 3:15 am

Despite the best and sincere efforts of numerous Orthodox kiruv organizations, the vast majority of world Jewry will never become Orthodox, at least as Orthodoxy is presently conceived. This is not to say that we should throw in the “kiruv” towel (though a less condescending word would certainly be beneficial to the effort). It is rather to say, that if we truly believe that it would be beneficial for the Jewish people if more of our numbers were observant of Halacha, then it behooves us to take a hard look at the primary reasons that we remain but 10-15% of the population. Some of these reasons (such as “Lots of Jews don’t believe in God”, or “Lots of Jews just like eating shrimp”) suggest little to us in the way of remedial steps. By the same token, there are reasons for Orthodoxy’s demographic underperformance that do in fact lend themselves to remediation. In some cases, not coincidentally, these remediations would be welcome purely for their own sake as well. Their potential for making Orthodoxy more attractive would be an additional windfall.

What then are the remediable reasons that the great majority of Jews don’t and won’t consider Orthodoxy?  I’ll list the four that come to my mind, and elaborate on each of them over the next few weeks. Please accept them in the spirit in which they are being offered – as food for thought. 

(1) Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.
(2) We impose ideological, not Halacha – based, non-egalitarianism (or anti-egalitarianism).
(3) We convey the impression that honesty and universal empathy are not among our core religious values.
(4) We’ve unnecessarily narrowed the spectrum of acceptable “Orthodox belief”.

(1) Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.
Halacha - as it is designed to do – regulates every aspect of our lives. But within these regulations, there are always layers of restriction, historical layers, and legal layers. If in fact, the sheer difficulty of Orthodoxy is a factor in consigning halachik observance to permanent minority status among the Jewish people, it would seem that it’s incumbent upon to peel back some discretionary layers, and make it easier. The Halachik concepts “it is a time to do for the Lord”, and avoiding “stringency that brings about [non-halachik] leniency” come to mind as useful tools. I’m suggesting, for example, that we wager that invoking legitimate leniencies regarding the duration of the niddah period, or concerning the acceptability of dishwasher use for both dairy and meat (not simultaneously), might pay off handsomely in terms of total number of Jews observing total number of mitzvot. And what about applying this calculus to “kitniot”? Have we reached the point in history at which the prohibition of kitniot is resulting in more chametz being eaten (by those who now won’t even try to observe), rather than less? And how big might our gain be if we made a point of providing communities with reliably kosher non-glatt (= less expensive) meat? (And for God’s sake, can we stop taking back long-standing permissive rulings about Shabbos elevators?!) With genuine humility I hasten to add that these kinds of decisions would require significant community consensus, as well as the careful deliberation of minds much greater than my own. But the absence of these deliberations and consensus building seems like a dereliction of duty in the present frame.

More to come. 


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