In last week’s essay (1), I suggested that we take much more notice of the Jewish people’s spiritual uniqueness and of the power of Judaism, so as to deeply inspire possible candidates for conversion, especially those who are living in Israel and are of Jewish decent though not halachically Jewish.
Too little attention has been given to this matter, and most conversion programs have implemented nothing even close to what we have suggested. They pay lip service only.
It is as if the heads of these programs no longer believe in the power of Judaism, or have not understood the sweeping ideological dimensions of this phenomenon. So they offer a lukewarm introduction to Judaism’s thought.
There is absolutely no point in teaching the intricate laws of Shabbat unless the candidate has a deep understanding of the ideological basis of Shabbat and is shown how these laws emerge from this ideology. This is true regarding every other aspect of Judaism as well.
It cannot be done in a few standard classes, quoting several authorities and thinkers. It requires in-depth treatment in which candidates can state their own opinions and are encouraged to argue with the teacher. The last thing that should happen is for the teacher to spoon-feed the students. One cannot inherit Judaism; one can only discover it on one’s own with a little help from a great teacher.
This problem is widespread not only in conversion classes. It is a tragic malady afflicting a large part of mainstream Orthodoxy. We teach our children Talmud and Halacha, but little time, if any, is given to the great musical symphony behind the Talmudic texts, or behind the halachic codes such as the Mishnah Berurah. What is the point in teaching them these texts when they have little or no idea of what they are actually studying?
Mainstream Judaism has lost its belief that Judaism is something unique and is actually the greatest idea that was ever launched in world history.
We see this decline in the fact that by now many rabbis are rewriting Judaism in ways that make it dogmatic, small-minded and ultimately just like another mediocre religion that is completely disconnected from reality and no longer has much to do with what Judaism actually stands for.
It is no surprise, then, that this kind of Judaism is losing many of its young people.
To argue that most people have no interest in Judaism is a fundamental mistake. Most human beings long for meaning in their lives but are unable to find it on their own. Some don’t even recognize their deep desire for it.
Just as a human being who’s never had an encounter with classical music won’t know what he’s missing until he is introduced to Mozart, Beethoven or Bach, so it is with Judaism. But it all depends on who is playing the music. Performing music is more than just playing musical notes. It is liberating them from the confines of those very notes while not transgressing them. The notes are only the departure, not the arrival.
Who will not be deeply touched and feel their souls bursting out of their bodies when they hear the late famous pianist Annie Fischer play Schumann’s Klavierkonzert in A minor (2)? Heaven descends on every sensitive human soul that hears these sounds as the intimate reverberations burst out of the instrument, which is more than just a piano.
Suddenly, the listener feels his soul being touched and taken on an incredible journey, which he has never before known. A whole new world opens up and man becomes transformed. Just as a symphony is a mission in which all the emotions of the composer, the conductor and the musician come together, so it is with Judaism. Judaism is a mission, and it is one that most people in the world long for. Every human being carries the potential to look at a pile of stones and imagine a cathedral.
Most people want to be part of a mission, but since it was never offered to them they aren’t even aware that it is what they are seeking.
Somehow, many rabbis and teachers seem to have lost their own search. If you have not been to paradise, you cannot lead another through this heavenly experience. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said that the great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.
Still, one cannot expect that all candidates for conversion are alike, and surely it will take time before they can grasp the uniqueness of Judaism and hear its music. Some will never be able to grow into it; others will need a long time, and for some the commitment will be too much.
How can we deal with this problem? Stay tuned.
- Thoughts to Ponder 453 – “Conversion Is Not About Halacha.”
- Watch and listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkMQ1q4V4Vs
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
1) Do you agree that the way Judaism manifests today has turned it into just “another mediocre religion that is completely disconnected from reality” and that has little to do with the real Judaism?
2) Even if you do not fully agree with the above statement, do you support the essay’s contention that not only converts but all Jews are lacking a fundamental, inspiring education? If so, how can this be rectified – in general, and by you in particular?
3) Do you feel that you long for a mission but it has never actually been offered to you or clarified for you? Does the nature of this mission lie necessarily within Judaism, for you (or indeed for all Jews)?
4) Do you sense that your rabbis and teachers have indeed lost their own notion that there is a mission to be fulfilled through Judaism?
Robert Haralick says
Delete the first reply. I omitted six words from one of the sentences. Here is the updated version.
Rabbi Cardozo is correct. Not just in the conversion process,
but in the living of Torah authentic Judaism. There is an inner
part and an outer part. The outer part is behavior in accordance
with Halacha. The inner part is the living joy, the radical
amazement, the excitement of having a sense that the presence of Hashem is there in every one of our circumstances. That each one of the people who enters our lives is in some way a messenger from Hashem. That our inner feeling is a complete love for Hashem. The consequence of this way of living Torah authentic Judaism is that one does not experience or nurture negative emotions. There are many negative emotions. Anger, for example, being the clearest outstanding one. If we should be angry, we will immediately lose the sense of the presence of Hashem. Anger or any negative emotion, cannot exist within us simultaneously with the conscious presence of Hashem.
Having a negative emotion is equivalent
to Idle worship, for we are putting something else ahead of the
experience and interaction with Hashem. Negative emotions move us away and separate us from Hashem. Do not think of this understanding of negative emotions as psychology. It is authentic Torah spirituality.
To understand the sad state that rabbinic Judaism is in today,
just recall how many times we have seen our rabbis angry or with
any other negative emotion. Halachically they may be perfect. But
their living inner experience may be far from authentic Torah spirituality.
Just as Rabbi Cardoza states. Judaism needs to be taught differently — not just in engaging questioning of Halacha. The inner part of Judaism needs to be taught along with and integrated with Halacha. There needs to be balance. Then there is the possibility of transcendence: making or converting every one of our situations to ones which bring into our world Godliness, virtue, and holiness.
David Lloyd (ben Yaacov Yehuda) Klepper says
At Yeshivat Beit Orot, I do not feel that the spiritual qualities of Orthodox Judaism are lacking. As a Hesder Yeshiva, following closely the teachings of the great late Rabbi Cook, the connection to the land and Jerusalem are emphasized, and our location gives us a daily dose of the beauty of the City. I have had criticism from white-and-black dress Yeshiva friends of our policy of allowing different points of view and different minhaqgim to be enjoyed and appreciated. For example, the students decided that our Yom Kippur service would use Ashkenasi minhag for the Hasan’s Amidah, but Sephardic for the Musaf, so we could enjoy a variety of music and thought. One teacher discusses spiritual connections and does not hesitate to involve non-Jewish connections where applicable. I think I am very lucky to have discovered this Yeshiva and very lucky they let me live and study and pray with them. But then in 1970 discovering Shearith Israel in New York, with its 1st-Class music and visual beauty, and the warm hearts and more informal music at the Mount Zion Sephardic Congregation in 1966 were also strokes of good luck that allowed me to grow spiritually while adopting one Mitvah at a time.
I think everyone who makes Aliyah has a sense of mission, and I am not an exception. I want my prayers, study, friendship with others, and any professional work I do to strengthen and unify Israel and the Jewish People. At the present minute of my life, I am doing my best to undo the harm Kerry and Obama are doing and find keeping connections and concern with old friends in the USA an important part of that effort. I hope circumstances will allow this concern to pass. I did have a connection with the Islamic Center in New York, was even a witness at a Muslim wedding, and hopefully these experiences can be put to good use in the future.
Regarding conversion, I am sure there are Rabbis who do meet the official approval and that also meet your requirements, but finding them may not be easy.In New York, the Rabbis associated with Shearith Israel meet your requirements, I am certain. Converts get invited to Shabbat meals, taught songs as well as Halachah, and can be inspired by the beauty that surrounds them.
Sarah Dekelbaum says
I am absolutely on the same page, or screen, with you! One of the problems of modern Jewry is the exclusion of women in traditional practices. Whenever I receive mail soliciting donations, rarely is a woman pictured in the brochure of the Orthodox institution. And rarely is a woman listed on the board of that organization! It is difficult to relate. So many women are deeply connected to Judaism spiritually, but are disconnected in practice and “dummied down” learning.