The schism between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in this country is not only ideological (as to whether God or man wrote the Torah, for example) or increasingly political (whether President Bush’s support for Israel makes him worthy of our backing). Each group also has the perception that the other is not doing enough communally and philanthropically to bolster Jewish unity and survival.
One evening last week, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt spoke to a group of about 50 young alums of Yeshiva University and issued a challenge, asserting that Orthodox Jews are not fulfilling their communal, moral and religious obligations to support the rest of the Jewish community.
Citing a comment he heard a few years ago from an Orthodox Jew to the effect that “we all know that non-Orthodox Jews are a lost cause, and it’s just a matter of time” before they assimilate, Steinhardt said this attitude is not only self-righteous and “myopic,” but goes against the mandate of Jewish law. He cited Maimonides, who asserted that one must not remove himself from the community.
Steinhardt, who prides himself on being provocative and confrontational, charged that the Orthodox community is “losing its ability to share in the joys and sorrows of the Jewish community,” and that this is a tragedy for all concerned.“We are becoming two different peoples,” he said, and we will all suffer because of it.
The philanthropist had been introduced by Yeshiva University President Richard Joel as “my extraordinarily difficult friend with the largest heart in the Jewish world,” the two having been partners in bolstering Hillel when Joel headed and revived the Jewish campus organization before coming to Yeshiva two years ago.
Joel and a number of the young graduates questioned elements of Steinhardt’s thesis, or pointed out the long list of religious institutions that require and receive Orthodox support, like synagogues, mikvehs and yeshivas.But Steinhardt questioned why so little Orthodox philanthropy went to non-Orthodox causes, like Jewish federations, from whose programs Orthodox Jews benefit, and why the Orthodox community “isolates itself from other Jews and ideas.” He said the dictum of the famous rabbi Hillel, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” applies.One could respond, though, by noting that the other two-thirds of that famous quotation also applies: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if not now, when?”
Orthodox Jews feel they are the spiritual, educational and physical backbone of the Jewish community, ensuring survival by maintaining religious tradition, teaching Torah to the next generation through an emphasis on day schools and yeshivas despite the enormous financial burden of high tuitions, and having large families, which offset the low birthrates of other segments of American Jewry.
Orthodox leaders have long criticized the federation system for not supporting day schools sufficiently, even though the schools have been shown to be the most effective means of countering assimilation. What’s more, these leaders say, they give more philanthropic dollars per capita than any other segment of the community, and they bear the burden of supporting a host of Orthodox institutions and chesed activities here and in Israel.Steinhardt insisted, though, that much of the support for Orthodox causes comes from non-Orthodox givers. (Indeed, most of the major funders of YU are not Orthodox; Steinhardt is not one of them.)The day after the alumni event I spoke with Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, president of the Orthodox Union, who said there was “some truth” to Steinhardt’s thesis, particularly in Orthodox Jews giving less to federation out of a sense that the charity should be doing far more to offset the high cost of Jewish education.“But the trend [in communal participation] is going in the other direction,” he said, pointing out that a number of Orthodox Jews are increasingly active in secular Jewish organizations, from AIPAC to federations, as both lay and professional leaders.
“More and more people are becoming involved,” Rabbi Weinreb said, “in a giving way, not a taking way.”In the end, much depends on how one looks at the equation in terms of who is to blame for the rift among Jews. In a sense, each side believes its form of Judaism will be the only one to survive, so why bother making up with the other?Steinhardt is right that many in the Orthodox community feel the non-Orthodox are doomed to assimilation and that the primary Orthodox contact with non-Orthodox is through kiruv, or religious outreach, which can be seen as condescending.The Orthodox say they only want to bring the beauty of a Torah life to more people. But it’s not surprising that non-Orthodox Jews resent that their rabbis are perceived as illegitimate by Orthodox leaders here and in Israel.
On the other hand, many Orthodox Jews blame the non-Orthodox for changing the halachic rules that have been in place for thousands of years, most notably those defining who is a Jew. They maintain that the Reform decision to allow patrilineal descent almost three decades ago is the primary cause for the notion of two Jewish peoples, not one.
There are no simple solutions here, but it’s important to recognize the problem and its weakening effect on all segments of the Jewish community. Orthodox leaders need to do more to make all Jews feel respected, while the non-Orthodox should be placing greater emphasis on the importance of religious tradition.
Education is key for all sides, not only in the teaching of history, rituals and text, but in instilling in a new generation the values of and appreciation for Klal Yisrael, the precious concept that all Jews are truly bound together and responsible, one for the other.