Friday, December 09, 2005

Who Is Myopic?

Up close, Michael Steinhardt is terrific. He's serious about Jewish life, charming, lots of fun and, of course, smart. From a distance, the picture is somewhat different. What is impressive is his boldness, his reaching out for new ideas and big projects aimed at counteracting the bad mathematics of American Jewish life Birthright Israel is the best example of this side of the picture. The other side includes an embrace of anything goes Judaism that is unfortunately accompanied by a debunking of our traditions and values.

According to Gary Rosenblatt's sensitive report last week, Mr. Steinhardt spoke recently to a group of Yeshiva University alumni and criticized the Orthodox for being myopic. While he is not a poster boy for the delicious aphorism, "If you want to know what God thinks about money, look who he gives it to," it is a stretch to say as Richard Joel, Yeshiva's president said, that he has "the largest heart in the Jewish world." As the Jewish world is powerfully driven by the twin imperatives of fundraising and public relations, rich people tend to have wonderful qualities that expand as their wealth expands. There are abundant examples of dreadful people who get such awards as "Humanitarian of the Year."

Anyway, Mr. Steinhardt - a good man - faulted the Orthodox for "not fulfilling their communal, moral and religious obligations to support the rest of the Jewish community." Is he kidding? What else is maintaining a significant and expensive network of day schools if not the fulfillment of a religious, moral and communal obligation? It is no answer to respond that the Orthodox are providing for their own - in large measure they are - because in addition to religious education being a religious, moral and communal obligation, day school education benefits all of American Jewry. Also, nearly all of the special education, outreach and immigrant schools and programs for youth at risk available in our community are under Orthodox sponsorship.

Mr. Steinhardt further questions "why so little Orthodox philanthropy went to non-Orthodox causes, like Jewish federations, from whose programs Orthodox Jews benefit." Here, too, the record does not support the criticism. For openers, the Orthodox benefit minimally from federations and what benefits they receive have generally been reduced in value and, at times, in dollars over the years, no matter what contradictory puffery is emitted by the federation world. Who benefits from federations and whether these benefits are meaningful is an important question that begs examination in view of the place of the federation network in American Jewish life.

In channeling contributions to causes that they sponsor, the Orthodox are following Michael Steinhardt's example. I'll bet my next to last buck that no more than a pittance of his formidable philanthropy goes to federations, the reason being that he wants to have control over what he gives to. There is a collateral reason, which is that he does not have an excess of faith in the efficacy of the Jewish establishment, believing that he can do a better job placing his bets and money on his own initiatives. These factors are increasingly true of other major donors who continue to give to Jewish causes. Why should the Orthodox think or do differently?

The primarily voluntary social service network established by the Orthodox dwarfs in the number of people reached and served, specifically including the non-Orthodox, what the federation world does. The gap becomes wider each year. If I would list each significant Orthodox chesed initiative and provide a single sentence describing what it does, a month of columns would not come close to containing sufficient space to do the job.

The major issue posed by the Steinhardt challenge is involvement, the failure of Orthodox Jews to be sufficiently engaged with the non-Orthodox. He asserts that this is contrary to Maimonides' teachings, in the words of the article "that one must not remove himself from the community." Maimonides is relevant to the issue, but he teaches exactly the reverse in describing a situation that echoes contemporary American Jewish life. Those who wish to explore whether I am accurate can examine Laws of Ethics (Hilchot De'ot), chapter 6, 1.

Putting aside the question of whether the Orthodox have room for more on their communal plate, are they obligated to be engaged in the fashion insisted on by Michael Steinhardt? Many are, in fact, engaged, whether in education, outreach, charitable activity or in other ways, as I am. But must we ignore the widening chasm as secular Jews move further away from our traditions and values? The Jewish establishment has made a sincere effort to accommodate the Orthodox on kashruth and, at times, Shabbos. Yet the secular and the Orthodox are further apart than ever in values and ideas. Are the latter required to ignore the funding of or involvement in activities that debase Judaism? Are they to ignore the overwhelming support among our secularists for gay marriage? Or the widening opposition to even a minimum place for religion in American public life? Are the Orthodox to be blind to the all-out war waged by the Jewish establishment against aid to parochial schools? What about intermarriage and its consequences?

The sad fact is that when the Orthodox and non-Orthodox interact, there's a good prospect that the food will be kosher but the values will be chazer treif. As assimilatory forces alive in American Jewish life take an ever-increasing toll, there will be even less common ground and reduced prospect that Orthodox engagement will have an impact.

This may sound too pessimistic. Mr. Steinhardt also criticized the Orthodox for believing that the non-Orthodox "are a lost cause." This isn't the case, although prospects for Jewish continuity among a majority of American Jews are bleak. Interestingly, in a meeting several months ago, not set up at my initiative, Mr. Steinhardt was pessimistic about the Jewish future of non-Orthodox Jews.