“Well, they’re a bit extreme, but they do such good work bringing people back to Judaism!”

This is a crosspost by bananabrain, the e.e.cummings of The Spittoon


david t from harry’s place forwarded me this cartoon by eli valley, whose satirical strips appear monthly in the leading us jewish magazine “the forward”.

on reading it, i didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. on one hand, it’s a caricature of the position of the kiruv (”outreach”) organisations, but on the other hand, once you start digging into their theology, their internal politics, their fundraising activities and their influence on the jewish community and israeli politics, it’s hard not to find them scary.

i’ve been thinking about this for a good long time, because as an observant jew, albeit one who became observant as an adult, i am constantly aware of the phenomenon of the ba’al teshuvah, the “penitent”, the returner-to-traditional-judaism. when you’re trying to do this, the kiruv organisations are the first to stand up and say they’ll help. however, i never took them up on their offers, because i could see where it led and i had seen its effect on friends and family when conflict arose. i won’t say that i’ve never met fantastic rabbis from chabadproject seedaishor the jewish learning exchange – but i was always aware of the kiruv undercurrent and kept my involvement at arm’s length. it would appear, however, that not everyone is in possession of the requisite confidence and critical faculties to counter the half-truths, mendacious reasoning, tendentious interpretation and evangelistic love-bombing; people want their outer message of family values, Torah and a truly integrated lifestyle to be true – and so it is.  and, yes, of course these people are often more amusing than scary:

well, the world would be transformed all right, but something vital would be lost – and that is the vitality of religious biodiversity. there has always, *always*, *always* been variation in both belief and practice, there has *never* been a time in which we all did exactly the same thing and observed a uniform code of dress, behaviour, ritual and belief. maimonides’ “13 principles of faith” divided the community for a century. the hasidim and mitnagdim fought like cats and dogs (and continue to do so) – the accommodators of modernism and the NAY-SORRENDUR vanguard, the rationalists and mystics, the scholars and the businessmen – we’re all necessary just as much as we always have been. what i really, deeply object to is this idea – shared either overtly or covertly by all kiruv organisations, is the concept that we must all dress like this:

what do you mean its very very very very dark blue?

and spend all our time doing this:

hevruta study in a yeshiva

and everyone else should just be happy to pay for us to do this, because after all – we’re doing the world a favour by sitting and studying Torah all day. now, actually, i don’t entirely disagree that studying Torah a lot is a good thing for the world, but i also note that the sages expected us to Get A Job and Pay Our Taxes as well. rashi had a job. rabbi akiva had a job. maimonides had three jobs. now, suddenly, we’re expected to all wear the black-hat uniform and aspire to a life of Torah study?

i’m sorry, it’s never been like that and, hopefully, it’ll never be like that. but of course, we must remember what the consequences of not being like that are, in the view of the people in the ultra-orthodox world who fund the kiruv organisations. i was not entirely surprised, of course, to find that these cartoons are supposed to have caused the haitian earthquake – that’s right, because G!D Is bound to kill thousands of people in the caribbean just to get the jewish community’s attention.

this sort of thing is a wake-up call. these people are not the future of judaism – they are our wahhabis, generous, well-funded, well-organised and intelligently marketed – and puritanical, intolerant and disingenuous. just as we outsourced islamic education to the saudi international dawah programme a generation ago and are now reaping the dubious benefits, we are in the process of handing these people the future of jewish education. we should take ownership of our own Torah back before it’s too late.