Posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
The other day my wife and I walked passed a massive tree and marveled at how its roots were exposed above ground. These roots can still fulfill their function to absorb water, store nutrients, support the tree, and prevent erosion of the soil, but the tree seemed exposed, perhaps even naked.
Similarly, our roots are private. We share our branches and leaves with the world, even our trunks, but our roots remain underground to be clandestinely nourished and protected.
Upon reflection, I realized that this tree was strong and beautiful enough that it could expose its roots to the world. There was no shame. Too often, we leave our deepest selves below ground, so no one can see. When we hide our depths from those close to us, we often hide from ourselves as well. To be sure, most private things are appropriately shared privately; this is modesty. But what would a world look like if everyone kept the holy and meaningful below ground? Conversely, what would a world look like if we all put some of our roots above ground to share our sources of nourishment and empowerment?
Most of our roots stay below ground due to insecurity and the fear of exposing our deepest longings, dreams, fears and weaknesses. Here there is a clash between aspects of our modesty (keeping things private) and our humility (willingness to show our weaknesses). But perhaps even more, we leave our roots below ground because we ourselves question whether or not they are good. On some level, perhaps we disbelieve in the goodness of our own souls and belief systems.
To create change today, we must move from a faith-based activism to a faith-rooted activism. In faith-based activism, we as Jews merely act together based upon our collective cultural values, but in faith-rooted activism we bring our deep spiritual and emotional wisdom to the surface. Our faith informs not just why but how we engage with the world. We bring our roots to the surface to share, discuss, inspire and mobilize.
Most Jewish social justice activism remains comfortable on the faith-based level leaving spiritual depth below ground. Today, we must return to faith-rooted activism. We must not enter Capitol Hill as cultural Jews but as representatives of G-d, Torah and our tradition. It takes soul power to keep the flame of social change alive and thus we must not keep our deepest roots below the earth.
Teaching about social change, Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel, taught the importance of “bringing up the sparks” to make all holy.
The general conception of striving for equality, which is the basis of kindness and the pure love of people, is seen in the mystical interpretation as bringing up the sparks that are scattered among the husks of unrefined existence, and in the great vision of transforming everything to full and absolute holiness, in a gradual increasing of love, peace, justice, truth, and compassion (Orot HaKodesh 2, 322).
It is the “husks of unrefined existence” where we can find the sparks to transform the world. Rav Kook continues that if we neglect our spiritual roots keeping them hidden from the surface of reality, while dealing with material justice issues, then we merely act like children unaware of our very existence.
Should a man want to build a completely structured cosmology without the aid of any spiritual emanation, by the calculation of material necessities, we may watch this child’s game in perfect ease, since it builds a shell of life without knowing how to build life itself, whereas we can draw closer and be strengthened more in the bond of the inner light of holiness (Igrot HaReayah 1, 45).
Faith is not merely our motivation for acting, as the word of G-d must do more than just awaken our conscience. The role of religion is to agitate us to courageously go deeper into our spiritual and emotional existence and to bring those deep truths to the public sphere. Only when we share our roots can we truly change the fabric of our society and the depths of our world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.
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June 11, 2012 | 6:31 am
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
Lessening the gap between the rich and the poor is one of the most crucial moral issues to address in America today. Much of the problem has to do with fair wages. Some progress has been made. At the beginning of 2012, eight states raised their minimum wage, yet the federal wage floor for most workers today remains at $7.25 an hour. The integrity of our labor system is broken and we must respond.
This is not a particularly new problem. The national minimum wage began during the Great Depression and Congress has adjusted the rate sporadically, but has not indexed it to price changes, often resulting in decreasing value in constant dollars.
The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed during the New Deal, established a minimum hourly wage of 25 cents in October 1938. Afterward, it was raised intermittently, reaching its highest value in constant dollars in 1968, at the peak of the “Great Society” of President Lyndon Johnson. Afterward, the minimum wage stagnated, although in 1989, during the Presidency of Republican George H. W. Bush, the minimum wage was raised with bipartisan support, passing the House by 382-37 and the Senate by 89-8. Today, politics has trumped justice.
The issue has become too muddied with partisanship. There was no increase from September 1997 until July 2007, at which point the minimum wage had fallen 22 percent in constant dollars while corporate profits had increased by 50 percent. (Time Magazine, July 24, 2009); Even then, the wage was only raised in three increments, rising from $5.85 in July 2007 to its current level of $7.25 by July 2009. Some have noted that the decline in value of the minimum wage has coincided with the decline of the American middle class, as previously the minimum wage offered some families the chance to climb into the middle class, but now the gap is too wide.
Some argue that raising the cost of labor will hurt workers, since employers can hire fewer workers. At times, this may be true, but many have shown why this is false. Speaking to this issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow stated that “…the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.”
Indeed, minimum wage workers tend to work in industries that cannot be outsourced or eliminated (e.g., the fast food industry), so it is unlikely that a rise in minimum wage would reduce these jobs. One significant study looking at the food industry found that raising the minimum wage did not lower employment, and dozens of studies have confirmed these conclusions. For example, a study looking at airport employees found that not only did higher wages not lead to lower employment, but that it led to a reduced employee turnover.
We must consider not only the micro-economics but also the macro-economics. There is evidence to suggest that when low-wage workers have more spending-power, this will create jobs and create more demand for labor. For example, in 2006 the Economic Policy Institute estimated that raising the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 would increase consumer spending by $5.5 billion, thereby supporting the economy.
Economists suggest that most often, higher labor costs are transferred to consumers in higher prices and to a smaller profit margin, but not to a reduced employee size, since a certain number of employees are needed to function properly.
At the end of the day, minimum wage reform is still not enough. Even if we raise the rates, it will not be enough to push low-wage earning families above the poverty line. We must embrace a living wage to achieve that, but we also need an accumulation of small wins to improve lives: raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative. The 2010 U.S. Census laid out the extent of poverty in graphic detail:
• Nearly 47 million people live in poverty (15 percent), the highest number recorded. Of these, more than 20 million lived in extreme poverty (i.e., an income less than half the poverty level)
• Among children, 22 percent live in poverty
• More than 17 million households (14.5 percent) are food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States
• 50 million people lack medical insurance, which will become more critical if the Supreme Court declares the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional
There are many national attempts to raise the minimum wage in motion. For example, proposals that New York State’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is lower than that of 18 states and the District of Columbia, be raised to $8.50. This increase, sponsored by the New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, would put higher wages into the pockets of more than 880,000 workers, and this would go right back into the economy. Mr. Silver said: “When you work full-time at the minimum wage, you are poor in New York. You’re not making enough to get by. We want to have people able to support their families, plain and simple.”
Raising the minimum wage helps poor families move out of poverty, spurs job creation, and stimulates economic growth and thus it is our Jewish obligation to lead this fight for justice. The Rema teaches that when one is involved in a communal issue of public monies one must engage (act and vote) “l’shem shamayim” (for the sake of heaven; i.e., for the right reasons not based on self interest) (Choshen Mishpat163:1). It is crucial that Jews fall out on the right side of this national debate as advocates for systemic change for the poor.
Raising the minimum wage is actually a mitzvah. The Rambam says that ensuring others have work that can sustain them is the highest rung of the hierarchy on how to give tzedakah (Mattanot Aniyim, 10:7). In Judaism, tzedaka does not mean charity but justice. We rectify social wrongs and fulfill our obligations through the giving of tzedakah. By raising the minimum wage, we are enabling others who work to move out of deeper poverty. The Rambam is dealing here with private voluntary giving; this value is all the more true when being applied to a system of legislation, as the mission of the Jewish people is to perpetuate our most precious values of the good and the just into broader society. Our messianic dream is the creation of a society where Torah values are actualized in the world to create a more just and holy civilization.
The rabbis already limited the wealth of owners selling essential food to help the poor through the laws of “onaah.” The owner could not keep more than 1/6th profit in order that others could be sustained as well (Bava Batra 90a, Choshen Mishpat 231:20). For the rabbis, the value of maintaining an orderly just society where the needs of all can be met trumps the full autonomy of owners to maximize their profits to no end.
The primary wage responsibilities fall upon employers. Rebbeinu Yonah, the 13th century Spanish rabbi, taught:
Be careful not to afflict a living creature, whether animal or fowl, and even more so not to afflict a human being, who is created in G-d’s image. If you want to hire workers and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household. You should not disgrace them, for you shall command them respectfully, and should pay their salaries (Sefer HaYirah).
Rebbeinu Yonah is teaching that when we hire a worker and find that they are still poor after we pay them, then we must treat them as “members of our households” (b’nei beitecha). If we choose to become an employer then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.
The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the Biblical prohibition of oshek (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of social wrongs (lifnei iver) linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.
Today, one working in New York City on the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will have a gross annual income between $12,000-$14,500, based on a 35- to 40-hour work week, after which Federal and state income tax, Social Security, and other taxes are deducted. These workers, often working multiple jobs, beg for food, pile on debt, and take handouts. It is evil to argue that one working all day every day should live in poverty. There is no theory that trumps the imperative for basic justice in a nation with record corporate profits. As Barbara Ehrenreich, who once described her vain attempt to survive on a wage (above the minimum) in Nickel and Dimed, wrote in 2007: “There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the …states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification.”
Today, we can act to create change! We must make our Jewish voices heard in Congress at this crucial time where legislators are deciding whether or not to raise the minimum wage. Uri L’Tzedek and partners now have over 400 clergy members calling for a rise in the minimum wage in New York. Has your rabbi signed on? Have you signed on?
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.
June 7, 2012 | 5:16 am
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
On our wedding day last year, my wife and I decided that, due to our Jewish convictions, we would no longer drink milk or consume any dairy products. This is a vow we have remained deeply committed to, but we never expected it to become mainstream. Then we found out that one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities in America, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, has made public that he had stopped consuming dairy products due to kashrut concerns. I now feel our once-private decision is worthy of a discussion on a larger level.
Jewish law prohibits consuming the milk of a tereifah (an animal that is sick or injured, and therefore unkosher), (Exodus 22:30; Bekhorot 6b; Chulin 116b; Hilchot Shechitah 10:9; Shulchan Aruch YD 81:1); the Talmud lists 18 different organic diseases or conditions, and the Rambam has 70 (Hilchot Shechita 10:9). However, because the milk we buy in stores today comes from different cows and is all mixed up, as long as we know that the majority of the milk (“rov,” Exodus 23:2) comes from healthy cows, then we may consider it all kosher without any examination(Chullin 11a-12a).
On the other hand, when even a minority (mi’ut ha’mazui) of the cows are shown to be frequently sick, then Jewish law requires that we must examine the animals to confirm there is no problem (Hullin 11a, 12a; Bi’ur ha-Gra YD 1:4). Dairy production has generally not been considered a problem, and thus the authorities of kashrut have been lenient on consumption.
That situation may be changing among some halachic authorities. Rabbi Schachter, the leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, is not an animal welfare activist, but he is a halachic adviser to the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and is unwavering in his commitment to the integrity of Jewish law. He believes that today we cannot be sure that more than half of the cows producing milk for mass-market consumption aren’t injured, sick or have adhesions (growths on the lungs). In an article for YU Torah Online, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman reported that a rabbi in South Africa observed that 95 percent of cows at dairy farms there have adhesions. Another rabbi observed that, at one dairy farm in America, 80 percent had adhesions, (letter by Rabbi Hershel Schachter to Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitz, 3rd Tishrei 6767).
We don’t milk our own cows in our backyards anymore, and most small dairy farms have long been put out of business. Today, it is very likely that unkosher milk is all too often being mixed together with kosher milk at unacceptable levels. As Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote in an article on the online site Tradition: “In the modern age, commercial dairies collect milk from, literally, hundreds of cows. Milk from all of these cows is combined, pasteurized and then bottled. Statistically, since a mi’ut ha’mazui [a frequently found minority] of dairy cows are indeed treifot [not kosher], it is virtually certain that milk bottled in a dairy [farm] contains an admixture of non-kosher milk,” (Contemporary Halachic Problems, Volume 6, “Is the milk we drink kosher?”).
A tereifah is an animal that will not live for more than 12 months (tereifah einah chayah). If these statistics are accurate, and a substantial portion — if not a majority — of dairy cows qualify as tereifot, this means that these animals are so sick that, according to Rabbi Schachter, more than half of them are dying. The fact is, the milk industry is potentially of greater concern for observant Jews than the meat industry, as the slaughtering process requires checking the killed animal’s organs for illness, necessitating more care to avoid abuses. Checking for sicknesses and internal adhesions not visible to the eye cannot be done in the dairy industry in the same way, as the animal is milked, not slaughtered.
For those among us who have always attempted to follow halacha to the letter, this matter is worthy of consideration, as it is for anyone who cares for animals and the ethics of how and what we eat. The dairy industry has changed drastically since the original leniencies on drinking milk and consuming other dairy products in America were given decades ago. Consider some of the conditions of the modern dairy farm. Dairy cows are chained by the neck to their stalls and are given electric shocks to ensure that they keep their backs in one position, so that their urine and manure fall in a gutter, and the stalls do not have to be cleaned for each cow individually.
Cows are impregnated yearly, which causes tremendous physical strain on the animal, and, after each birth nine months later, the calves are taken from their mothers immediately. Male calves are then slaughtered for the veal industry, which is even more abusive.
About one-quarter of the animals used to make ground beef are worn-out dairy cattle. These animals are the most likely to be diseased and filled with antibiotic residues. These dairy cows tend to be less healthy than cattle in a large feeding lot due to the stresses of the industrial milk production process. Dairy cows, under optimal conditions, could actually live up to 40 years, but they are often just slaughtered at age 4 due to the decline of their milk output and the strain that results from mistreatment.
Researchers have opened our eyes to very real problems in today’s dairy industry. Bovine growth hormone is given to cows to give them unusually large and heavy udders, resulting in increased infection rates, which then lead to the administration of antibiotics. The hormones and antibiotics are in the milk consumed by humans, adding to a possible increased risk of cancer and overexposure to antibiotics.
Cows are hooked up to electronic milking machines several times each day. These machines give off electric shocks and create lesions and mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands).
In light of all of this, it seems to me that, from a halachic standpoint, let alone an ethical standpoint, it is no longer acceptable to support the dairy industry as it operates today. We must communicate to the industry how we, as Jewish consumers, feel about these abuses and support healthier, more ethical options. In the meantime, we must also consider moving toward almond, soy, rice and coconut milk alternatives, until the dairy industry cleans up its act. There is no shortage of affordable, healthy, tasty alternatives, so it is relatively easy for us to make the change in accordance with our consciences.
Rav Schachter has taken this legal stringency upon himself. Following his lead, it is time for us all to consider these conditions to determine where we personally fall in this struggle with ethical consumption. The value the Torah seems to be teaching is that treating animals properly is part and parcel of kashrut; that leads to the argument that unethical, inhumane practices are not only a violation of the prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (inflicting pain on animals) but often result in the production of treif milk.
While we wait for the dairy industry to clean up its act, what will happen to those big muscles and strong bones our moms and commercials told us milk will help build? As it turns out, the nutritional information provided to consumers has not always been accurate. Many of us have been misled to believe that milk is the best source of protein, calcium and vitamin C. The National Dairy Council (NDC) is a marketing arm of Dairy Management Inc., an industry body whose purpose, according to its Web site, is to “drive increased sales of and demand for U.S. dairy products.” The NDC naturally does not share the negative public-health consequences. Since the 1950s, educators and governments have allowed the NDC to become the largest distributor of nutritional-education materials in the country. In fact, the health risks of dairy consumption, according to health experts at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, include osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, lactose intolerance and vitamin D toxicity, among others.
Added to all this is the fact that the environmental harm caused by carbon dioxide emissions from today’s industrial farms is known to be worse than the pollution caused by our automobiles. Experts estimate that if all Americans ate a vegan diet, that alone would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent. Changing our diets is the most powerful way to help the environment.
While factory farms control most of the dairy industry, there are some smaller dairy farms striving for better. One such innovator I met at the Hazon Food Conference a few years ago was Albert Straus, who is the president of Straus Family Creamery. This cutting-edge dairy farm north of San Francisco is deeply committed to more sustainable production that is also totally organic, contains no genetically modified organisms (GMO-free), minimally processed, contains no additives and is certified kosher. They also allow their cows to graze in the fields. But while Strauss products are available at Whole Foods locally, many small farms like this are drowned out by massive commercial producers and the large number of brands available in large supermarkets.
The future lies in the regulation, or lack thereof, by legislators and in the spending patterns of the consumers. One should also remember that organic milk may be healthier because the animals ate organic feed and weren’t given synthetic hormones or medications, but that doesn’t mean it is cruelty-free. Also, Chalav Yisrael (milk produced under kosher supervision) is no different, as much of it also comes from regular commercial farms that merely set aside times to produce supervised milk.
In Jewish law, if an animal is abused, we may not benefit from it. Until we can be totally sure that most cows are not treif anymore, we must be stringent on this Jewish law to ensure that we are not consuming the milk of sick and abused cows. The Jewish people need to be at the forefront of reining in the excesses of the industrial farming age.
Next time you stand in the dairy aisle, consider trying a dairy-free month for Jewish law and ethics and for your health.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.
June 6, 2012 | 5:39 am
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
I have been serving as a Jewish outreach professional for the last 2 years as the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel. I am so fortunate to be able to spend my days talking and learning with students about their life journeys. At its best, Jewish outreach provides a student alienated from Judaism with a warm, inclusive, sophisticated, honest entry point into finding his or her voice and place within the Jewish tradition and community. At its worst, outreach is deceptive, closed, and arrogant. It can be hard to tell the difference, because both types of outreach are done with a smile and bowl of cholent.
Surveys of the American Orthodox community show the need for, and possible results of, kiruv (bringing another closer to the tradition). Of those adults who were raised in an Orthodox home, only 41 percent now identify themselves as Orthodox. On the other hand, 57,000 adults who were raised in a non-Orthodox household identified as Orthodox as adults. Among Jews attending synagogue, only 14-18 percent of those age 45 or older are Orthodox, while the percentage soars to 34 percent among those age 18-34. Since this study the numbers have increased significantly. The Orthodox outreach movement is working and only growing rapidly.
Orthodox groups engaged in kiruv include the National Jewish Outreach Program, with events at 3,700 locations throughout North America (and nearly 40 nations); Chabad, with its more than 3,000 emissaries (shluchim) in 70 countries; and groups such as Aish HaTorah, JAM, Maimonides, and Ohr Somayach. Of course there are thousands of other professionals (across the ideological spectrum) at Kollels, Hillels, shuls, and schools also doing significant outreach work. There are so many responsible and ethical Orthodox outreach professionals in the field that we cannot let those who are more narrow and deceptive ruin the perception of the rest. Outreach professionals are often courageous leaving their comfort zone to engage others in the tradition in inconvenient ways. However, many have been very critical of some kiruv tactics, especially among the Hareidi, for refusing to acknowledge any opinion but their own and for not answering difficult questions. One critical blog quoted Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s critique of this closed, fundamentalist mindset that can be found:
A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic…, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential intimately to discover its creator. (One Man’s Judaism)
Kiruv, when done immorally, encourages a break from one’s family and friends who are not observant, pushes the student to make quick changes in observance, uses Bible codes and flawed philosophical logic with those who cannot detect the difference, uses alcohol to attract students, offers theological certainty, suggests that if one is religious they will be successful in all while dismissing the complexities of all human relationships and struggles, and promises a life of bliss if one merely chooses the true path.
When I was learning at an outreach yeshiva in Jerusalem, there was a sign above my bed that said “Don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out.” I was confused why open-minded thinking wouldn’t be in sync with sophisticated religious learning. I heard the most repulsive thing on campus once when I was in college which I have hesitated to even put in writing. I recall a group of us being told by an outreach professional (while being served “a l’chaim” – shot of liquor) that “shiksas are for practice” (that non-Jews, spoken about derogatorily, are for practice before one ultimately must settle down with a Jew). I was beyond appalled but also confused because this seemed to be a pious Orthodox rabbi giving me advice. While there have been many negative interactions, I am certainly very grateful for the great support that so many outreach organizations provided me during my religious journey.
We must call for an end to these practices. We must not become more concerned with charisma and gimmicks than truth, service, and piety. Are we willing to sell anything just to get five more “unengaged” Jews into the room or to prevent inter-marriage? Jewish integrity demands more. Bad kiruv claims the ends justify the means (i.e. do whatever it takes to make people more religious). Good outreach sees the individual as an end him or herself acknowledging their Tzelem Elokim (that they are created in the image of G-d). Further, the Rambam taught that “ki ha’seichel hu kavod Hashem” (intellect is the glory of G-d). To cheapen Torah to gimmicks is an affront to G-d and to man.
Irresponsible outreach prioritizes and encourages a more insular sense of community and a more narrow worldview. This is most troubling on campus when we should be educating young Jews how to be in the world not to escape from it. I have now encountered students at university who deny evolution, global warming, and the value of secular wisdom due to inappropriate kiruv influences. One can legitimately deny grounded scientific theories with inquiry, research, and humility but not based on five minute conversations with rabbis who speak with certainty yet are untrained in scientific research and methodology.
To be sure, I am an Orthodox rabbi and one of my personal spiritual goals is to help others grow in their observance level. My colleagues and I strive to do that with honesty, intellectual openness, and on the terms that students are interested in. I would like to inspire my Jewish students to be more frum (inspired toward deeper religious commitments). But I want to guide others to where they want to go, not coerce them due to some alternative motive of mine.
Kiruv and pluralism need not contradict if one adopts a constructivist-contextualist approach. I can embrace the fact that very different responsible choices about one’s religious life are valid yet still want others to adopt a position more similar to my own. I respect their past narrative in its proper context and so I must respect their choices yet I also, as a religious educator, hope to partner with them to be inspired to reshape their future narrative not through an invasive imperialism of the soul but rather through a dual liberation. The one doing the kiruv should also expect to be mekaraived (be brought closer) in the process as well. To me, religious outreach is about engaging in partnered salvation from the world that is to the world that ought to be.
The best outreach involves chesed (acts of kindness). It is through giving to others, social justice work, service projects, and inviting others to have an impact in the world (all infused with Jewish learning and conversations) where we can empower others to learn and grow in their tradition, as individuals, and as citizens. It is the most honest and effective approach that conveys Judaism is ultimately about service and giving, love and justice.
The more we intentionally try to change young Jews, the more we mess them up. The great 15th century kabbalist Meir Ibn Gabbai taught that influencing humans is similar to playing a violin. If you place two violins with their strings facing one another and draw a bow across one string, the same string on the other violin across from it will vibrate as well. So, too, with souls. We do not manipulatively reach out and touch another’s soul. Rather we turn our soul on and encounter one another honestly. That is the way Ibn Gabbai teaches we can best achieve a spiritual awakening for ourselves and others. We owe our students the most attractive, powerful, and compelling models of Judaism. But more than that, we owe them honesty, patience, and respect.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.
June 4, 2012 | 8:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
Is there anything that we will not put a heksher on? Has pleasure become the guiding religious principle? Many pockets of the American Orthodox community have become so consumed with Jewish law that values and limits on pleasure have been dismissed.
At first glance, the data offers an ambiguous message. For example, a 2008 article estimated that Orthodox Jewish families spent 25%-35% of their income on activities associated with being Jewish. The Orthodox also had less income than families than other Jews, as a 2005 report from United Jewish Communities noted.
These data appear to reflect continuing trends. Nevertheless, they may not explain what is happening today. What does Orthodox spending on Jewish experiences mean? Does having an income less than other Jewish families necessarily mean that Orthodox families have not been lured into an American consumerist pattern? Rav Aaron Lichtenstein, in an essay titled “Glatt Kosher Hedonism,” talks about the problem of the American Orthodox culture today:
I mention this point particularly to an American audience. In recent years, one observes on the American scene a terribly disturbing phenomenon: the spread of hedonistic values, but with a kind of glatt-kosher packaging. There was a time when the problem of hedonism for religious Jews didn’t often arise, because even if you wanted to have the time of your life, there wasn’t very much that you could do. The country clubs were all barred to Jews, there weren’t many kosher restaurants, there were no kosher nightclubs, etc. In the last decade or two, a whole culture has developed geared towards frum Jews, where the message is enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, and everything has a hekhsher (kosher certification) and a super-hekhsher. The message is that whatever the gentiles have, we have too. They have trips to the Virgin Islands, we have trips to the Virgin Islands. Consequently, there has been a certain debasement of values, in which people have a concern for the minutiae of Halakha (which, of course, one should be concerned about), but with a complete lack of awareness of the extent to which the underlying message is so totally non-halakhic and anti-halakhic (By His Light).
The goal of religious life is to choose the most noble of life paths and to strive to fulfill our highest values during our limited time on this earth. Judaism is certainly not an ascetic religion, but the danger of inappropriate or excessive pleasures has constantly been reinforced. Rabbeinu Bachye Ibn Pakuda, the 11th-century Jewish philosopher in Spain, addressed how pleasure, when over-embraced, can lead to a person’s destruction:
The instinct attracts them to an indulgent lifestyle and a pursuit of wealth, enamoring them of this world’s luxury and prominence, until finally they sink in the depths of the sea, forced to face the crush of its waves. The (material) world rules them, stopping up their ears and closing their eyes. There is not one among them who occupies himself with anything but his own pleasure—wherever he can attain it and the opportunity presents itself. [Pleasure] becomes his law and religion, driving him away from G-d. As it says, “Your own wickedness will punish you, your own sins will rebuke you….” (Yirimeyahu 2:19), (Chovot HaLevavot 9:2).
While the Jewish legal system includes legal rules and precedent, the guiding forces in the halakhic process are the meta-halakhic values. The Jewish tradition has purpose, meaning, and ethics, and thus the application of the holy law ensures that the intentional values are maintained. Overemphasizing the strict adherence to law (ikar ha’din) at the expense of going beyond the law (lifnim mi’shurat ha’din) is oversimplifying religion and missing the point. The Ramban teaches that one can be “naval birshut haTorah” (a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah) if they only follow the letter of the law. There is, of course, not one ethic but many that guide our religious lives. Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzberger explains the importance of embracing a pluralism of Jewish ethics that …
… manifests itself in the readiness to operate with a number of independent ethical norms and principles such as concern for love, justice, truth, and peace. Since they frequently give rise to conflicting obligations, it becomes necessary to rely upon intuitive judgments to resolve the conflict. There is, however, another dimension to the pluralism of Jewish ethics: it is multi-tiered and comprises many strands. It contains not only objective components such as duties and obligations, but also numerous values and ideals possessing only subjective validity. Moreover, the pluralistic thrust of Jewish ethics makes it possible to recognize the legitimacy of many alternate ethical values and ideals (Ethics of Responsibility, 5).
It is time to revitalize a values discourse in the American Orthodox community. How do we salvage the community by enhancing our collective discourse and priorities toward our raison-d’être? This is not only the work of rabbis speaking from the pulpit and educators speaking from the classroom. It is the responsibility of every parent to properly model for their children how they use their free time and resources, and the duty of every community member to reinforce during conversation.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.