I studied communications in college where we learned to appreciate the power of speech and that the ability to communicate is an art which must be treated with respect and caution. The orator is an artiste and the speech is his canvass upon which he paints; yet in today’s world automation is replacing communication and discourse is quickly becoming antiquated. Today one can walk into a classroom of kids during recess, or observe a family at a restaurant table, as everyone sits quietly texting one another with their cell phones usually to the person sitting right across from them. When I asked my daughter why she records messages to her friends and sends them via what app as opposed to just phoning her friend and talking directly, she told me simply because it is easier. We have emerged from the telegraph to letter writing to speaking on the phone and back again to texting. Strangely there are some who would call this progressive but from a Jewish perspective it is anything but.
Judaism has always emphasized the importance of speech. The word vayomer (he said) appears 632 times in the Torah and the word amar (to say) appears 431 times. King Solomon proclaimed in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”; quite an instrument for the average person to wield at their disposal. From the Torah’s perception Jews are expected to engage in dialogue, even with God, as exhibited through prayer (in which we are instructed to utter the words clearly so that we hear what we are saying to God during our prayers), and certainly with one another as demonstrated by the commandment to impart the Torah to others. At the same time the Torah requires us to monitor our speech cautiously by refraining from saying certain things such as using Gods name in vein, or making unnecessary vows. The Torah encourages speaking properly but it also extolls silence, advocating a balance in our lives and establishing that abuse of communication in either direction can be threatening to the institutions to which Judaism espouses.
This need for balance has revealed itself most recently on the political scene as well. Many American people are infatuated with Donald Trump for the simple reason that he speaks what is on his mind, even if he rarely says anything substantial or even if it appears that some of the things on his mind border the insane. Yet his recent decline in the polls demonstrates that certain people still value the way things are verbalized and that diplomacy still counts.
Two years ago I started an organization called Makom Meshutaf which promotes Jewish learning and values through educational programming on secular kibbutzim throughout Israel. As an Orthodox rabbi, it takes me time to convince a kibbutz that I have no religious agenda and certainly no intention to coerce, and that my interest is to unite the Jewish community in Israel by means of teaching, discussing and arguing about Jewish principles and ideals which all of us, consciously or subconsciously, share in common. A few weeks ago I called a woman who was the head of culture on a certain kibbutz and who was genuinely interested in what we were offering which led me to believe that the kibbutz would host some of our programs, however I was disappointed to learn that the kibbutz did not share her enthusiasm. Frustrated, the woman asserted that it was foolish and close minded of her colleagues on the kibbutz to reject the opportunity to study and discover traditional texts, yet we, as she put it, referring to the rabbinic establishment at large, were equally to blame because for years we failed to communicate with the country and over time people lost interest; her observation and criticism was resonant and correct.
That same week I was speaking with Rabbi Berel Wein, noted Jewish Historian and Scholar, who was telling me how Orthodox kiruv organizations (“kiruv” from the Hebrew word “karov – close”; hence bringing someone who was distant from Orthodox observance closer to observance) such as Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach and NCSY, enjoyed rapid growth forty years ago but are currently diminishing in size and influence. He explained that most of the people influenced by these movements were youth affiliated with the Conservative movement who grew interested in Orthodoxy. The leadership of these movements however consistently refused to converse with their Conservative counterparts which limited a more expansive effect. While some of the Conservative youth moved towards Orthodoxy, many Conservative Jews swayed towards the Reform movement; consequently as the Conservative movement began to lose numbers and influence so did the kiruv movement. Rabbi Wein wryly concluded that this unwillingness by the Orthodox to converse with the same clientele that it was trying to inspire towards its own persuasion merely confirmed that indeed the Lord has a marvelous sense of humor, and served only to its detriment.
Unfortunately this same predicament exists in Israel as well. Kibbutz Nir Am is situated down south on the border of Gaza and is one of the few Kibbutzim in the South West Region which I have managed to visit; there is good reason for this. Assaf, a member of the Kibbutz, explained to me that Sapir University in Sderot was built through contributions by the Reform movement in the United States under the condition that the local council promotes entry for the Reform movement in Israel to teach Judaism and run services in the surrounding area. Assaf happens to be interested in Orthodox traditions and he prefers if there are classes in the Kibbutz, that they be taught by an Orthodox authority, which explains why I managed to speak in Nir Am twice. However, under tremendous pressure from the local council, Nir Am is being persistently persuaded to hire a female Reform rabbi who will run services and teach in the Kibbutz. Don’t get me wrong, I have Reform rabbi friends who have hosted me as a guest speaker in their Synagogues and we engage regularly in dialogue; something which I strongly believe Orthodox rabbis ought to be doing in Israel as well, but that does not mean that I agree with them. I respect the fact that someone may want to search their Jewish roots by way of the Reform movement, but as an Orthodox rabbi, I am disappointed when I am denied opportunity to present the Orthodox opinion and perspective, much like I imagine the Reform are frustrated when they cannot present theirs. Assaf told me that he has gone to the local rabbinate and explained to them what is going on but his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Truth be told, there is no one to blame for this predicament but ourselves. The Orthodox rabbinate and leadership have consistently approached the secular public and alternative denominations with suspicion and a “holier than thou” attitude and now we are beginning to pay the price. It is only a matter of time before the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States begin to question why they are contributing to a country which subscribes to a rabbinic leadership which does not even entertain engaging them.
While there seems to be a tendency to cast blame or criticism on the observant Jews (perhaps because of the higher moral standard they are held to, fair or unfair as that might be) many secular Jews leave much to be desired by way of deliberation as well. Just recently a kibbutz retracted an invitation for Makom Meshutaf to run a learning program because, as they explained, following the enthusiastic atmosphere which surfaced during the Purim festivities on the kibbutz, some of the members were nervous that more programming involving Jewish themes would foster excessive religious fervor and while their concerns were clearly unjustified, I was reminded of how challenging it was to nurture discussion. Nevertheless, the same week I was fortunate to receive a glimmer of hope and a source of inspiration. I met with the person who was in charge of cultural activities on a different kibbutz who began to tell me that she was fed up with people complaining about the Haredim because while there may be much to complain about in terms of their extremism and narrow-mindedness, the same was true regarding members of the kibbutz movement, who she described as boors who not only knew nothing about Judaism but were also foolish enough to deprive themselves of their rich ancestry. She related how she often converses with her children about why secular Jews still subscribe to having a brit-milah (covenant through circumcision) and celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvah; the significance of Jewish symbols and the traditions that make Israel a Jewish country and their homeland. She did not detail the intricacies of the conversations with her kids, but she did reveal that she was determined to connect with her children by exchanging ideas and partaking in conversation.
This week we usher in the month of Nissan, the month marked by Passover the Jewish holiday of redemption. The Passover Seder remains the greatest national event commemorated by the most amounts of Jewish people of all denominations and all levels of observance. Passover Seder is not merely a formality or an excuse to hobnob with the family; it is about education through communication; it is about rejecting coercion and embracing transmission. The Passover Seder is an empty canvas upon which we are granted the opportunity to paint; it is an opportunity to converse and understand what makes us different; it is an occasion to impart to our children why all Jews regardless of their level of observance should have a Brit Milah and commemorate their Bar/Bat mitzvah. We don’t have to put aside our differences at the Passover Seder, au contraire, we should accentuate, consider and discuss them, but at some point during the Seder we will all read the text which insists that we recall how the Egyptians our enslavers, and so many who have persecuted us since, did not see any differences between us, they looked at us as one in the same – as Jews; and perhaps that is the moment we should look at one another and assert that it is time we did the same.