Sunday, December 16, 2012

What Is the Biggest Problem Facing Judaism?

This week Mishpacha Magazine had an article that asked what may be the most important question one could ask about Judaism. What is the biggest existential issue plaguing the Jewish world in our day?

They asked a number of prominent respondents from a wide spectrum of Hashkafos. From Rabbi David Neiderman, a prominent leader of Satmar that heads many of their organizations on one end - to  Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the OU and Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, Associate Professor  of Psychology at YU’s Stern College for Women.

Mishpacha received a wide variety of answers. Interestingly none of them said it was the move to the right.

More importantly no one said that sex abuse is that issue. I tend to agree. Of course to the increasing numbers of victims and their families - that is the biggest issue plaguing Judaism today – a Holocaust in fact.   While I agree that this is a major problem and the one in most need of immediate action, I do not see this by itself to be the biggest issue.  Although I do believe it is a major contributor to it.

The respondents each stated what they thought. I will briefly list what each one of them said.

Jonathan Rosenblum thought it was the idea that too many of us do not think about honoring God. In a nutshell he says that this leads to not thinking about which of our actions constitute a Kiddush HaShem or Chilul HaShem. In many cases we tend to think only about ourselves and our own limited communities and never give a thought to how those outside of our word see our actions and how our behavior impacts on their perceptions of Judaism as a whole. I think he’s right.

Rabbi Niederman (without saying so directly) spoke about the dire poverty he must constantly encounter in his Kehilla in Williamsburg. His point being that without a means of sustenance, spirituality doesn’t even begin. Ein Kemach Ein Torah.  To him, poverty is the primary existential threat to Judaism.

Rabbi Weil spoke of the spiritual holocaust of assimilation. A holocaust that he says causes more Jews to be lost from Judaism than the actual Holocaust. 56 percent of all Jews are intermarrying. The great boon to Jews in America  is its biggest bane. Because of our broad acceptance - it is easier than ever to become completely assimilated. The largest bloc of Jews under 40 are choosing not to live as Jews.  The American ideal of freedom and our widespread acceptance is in fact the double edged sword that is both helping us and skewering us. On the one hand observant Jews have been so accepted that we are invited to serve at the highest echelons of government. But at the same time the freedom this country offers allows us to shed any semblance of our Judaism.

Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, a published ArtScroll author and head of a Jerusalem based women’s seminary says that our educational system is failing us in the self esteem department. Our students are being brought up to believe that if one does not attain the ideal state of a Jew as defined by the particular Hashkafa of their schools, they are not worthy of God’s love. The push to perfection has created an entire population of young people who feel themselves unworthy, no matter how accomplished they are, they feel they fall short of the ideal expected of them. Thus feeling worthless!

And finally there is Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried. He takes a typically academic approach rejecting all anecdotal information that often inspires various media to become experts about what is or isn’t important. He says we ought not try and isolate issues. Instead he says that all issues need to be studied by professionals which include the entire spectrum of the Frum world - rabbis and lay leaders. Such studies ought to include an interdisciplinary team of professionals – along with ‘a social scientist or two’. After clearly studying and defining those issues - we can develop solutions to them.

Of all the approaches mentioned, it’s hard to argue with Dr. Fried.  What better method can there be for determining  that than a scientifically designed study that will be objectively conducted and analyzed by the widest variety of people and professionals available to us.

But I do not agree that anecdotal experiences ought to be ignored. I don’t think Dr. Fried would say that either. I think what he is saying is that it ought not be the determining factor in what is the most important problem plaguing our society today. I think he would include anecdotal evidence in his study. How much weight he would give it is another question.  But I don’t think he would ignore it. At least I don’t think he should.

In my view, just about all the responses had merit. I have discussed these issue many times right here on this blog. While I agree that they all need further study, I also believe they are essential problems facing us. I think any study would corroborate that. Which ones are greater or lesser is what study would tell us.

My own view of things is that there is a tremendous amount of disillusionment in the Orthodox world. For a multiplicity of reasons. I see it very often in the comments section of my blog. I attribute most of it to a failure of the educational system in just about every category mentioned by the respondents.  Every single issue can – and should be dealt with by parents and educators. First in the home and then in school.  And often it is not.

I do not believe that there is a single school in the entirety of Orthodoxy that has it completely right. There are tremendous failings in Jewish education that I think can be boiled down to 2 issues.

One is the failure to implement the dictum of Proverbs (Mishlei 22:6) Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko – educate the child in his own way. Whether it is in the Charedi world of Torah only or in the Modern Orthodox world of academic pressure to get your child into the best universities. There is a lack of focus on those children that are either incapable or uninterested in those goals. To that extent they can become very disillusioned with the version of Orthodoxy they are part of.

Part of Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko is the ability to effectively deal with some of the more serious questions of faith that young people are increasingly experiencing in the near instant exposure they get to information outside the classroom. Information that leads to difficult questions of faith. Leaving dysfunctional families and sex abuse aside - if I had to pick one thing that can hurt Judaism the most that would be it.

The other is something along the lines Jonathan Rosenblum mentioned. Young people are simply not inculcated with a sense of the importance of Kiddush Hashem versus Chilul HaShem. Although there are exceptions, there have been far too many instances in some communities that are oblivious to it. Which results in behavior that is a Chilul HaShem. One that they are not even aware they are doing until they get caught. The fact is that these kinds of ethics are not being taught in some schools.

Of course dysfunctional families and the way sex abuse is treated are both highly contributory to the fabric of Judaism too. In both cases, it ought to be a primary function of all of observant Jewry to rid these two maladies from our lives.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address Rabbi Weil’s concerns. Assimilation to the point of non-observance and even intermarriage is a huge problem that ought not to be ignored. Thankfully there are outreach organizations doing wonderful work in that department. Not the least of which is the OU’s own  NCSY. Although by far there is not enough outreach in general to attack the enormity of the problem. How to change that paradigm is the topic of another post.

But before we try and change the world, we must first put our own house in order. Because if we don’t there will be a lot more assimilation and intermarriage happening. And it will be happening to us.


I’ve decided to take my own very unscientific poll about the subject matter of this post. The top right margin contains a question and list of choices regarding the question this post asks. I have added a couple of possible answers in addition to the ones discussed in this post.  I also left out assimilation as a problem because as important as it is, I see it more as a result than a cause. Please take a moment to click on one of the responses. If you are so inclined feel free to explain why you voted a certain way. Or to ask why I've included or left  something out.

The poll will last until 12:01 Tuesday morning. I will post the results later that morning and perhaps a word or two about what I think they show.