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Ominous, Treacherous Infiltrators?
"Infiltrators" who are "a danger to society." "Duplicitous" "fifth-columnists." Members of an "ominous rebellion" who have "lost all traces of G-dliness." "Treacherous frauds."
Who is the latest issue of Ami magazine, in its article "The Imposters Among Us," describing? Jews for Jesus? Da'at Emet? Rabbi Leib Tropper?
No. It's describing sincere Jews who are shomer Torah u'mitzvos but who, tragically, no longer believe in any form of Torah min haShamayim. Not the kind who campaign to bring down Judaism. Not the kind who try to turn people into skeptics. Not the kind who are looking to give up halachic observance - people who dress frum but eat treif or break Shabbos when nobody is looking. Just regular Torah Jews who wrestle with their no longer possessing Orthodox beliefs.
Now, of course the lack of Jewish belief is a problem - for the people themselves, and sometimes for those around them, despite their best efforts not to cause problems for others. But is this hostile description of them as an evil menace really warranted?
I know that this article had to be edited out of concern for getting in trouble with the kannaim (the bane of all Charedi publishing, preventing people from saying what needs to be said). I can understand that Ami magazine, as a Charedi publication, has to reassure its readers that there aren't any genuine intellectual challenges to Charedi Judaism. I can even sympathize, notwithstanding my distaste, for Ami seeing it as necessary to describe these people as possessing a "superficial grasp" of Torah and secular thought, as being "almost mentally ill," as having "closed their minds to reason." But is it really necessary to be speak about them as though they are evil? To warn about their being a "danger to society"?
The intellectual challenges to Judaism are very real. Fortunate are those of us whose sense of Divine providence in Jewish history, and whose appreciation of the nature and role of the Torah, as well as other factors, enables us to maintain belief in revelation; but if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are nevertheless intellectual challenges to which Judaism presently does not have a good response. Can we really be hostile towards those who consider the challenges overpowering?
Again, I am not talking about those who decide to give up their heritage and work insidiously to make others do the same. Such people do exist, but they are not what the Ami article was referring to. It was referring to the many people who still want to be good Torah Jews. They want to keep mitzvos and are serious about their halachic observance. They enjoy learning Torah. They want to contribute to Orthodox Jewish society. They have no desire to turn others into skeptics or to undermine Torah society in any way. Reading the Ami article, one receives the impression that it would be best if we could strap everyone into a lie-detector and grill them about their beliefs, with those failing the test being thrown out of society. Is this really what Ami wants?
Historically and traditionally, this is not how Judaism operated. To sure, there are certain dogmas which were always a vital part of Judaism. But as long as people observed mitzvos, were upstanding members of the community, and did not overtly rock the theological boat, they were never grilled about their private beliefs or lack thereof. (The Kohen Gadol had to swear allegiance not to change the avodah - not about his beliefs, which in any case would not be helped by an oath!) Rambam was very much an aberration from normative Judaism in his great emphasis on beliefs. When the Gemara talks about accepting converts, it requires only their commitment to the Jewish people and their learning of mitzvos and says nothing about their beliefs.
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin does declare that those who express certain heretical beliefs have no share in the World-to-Come. Interestingly, atheism and polytheism are not amongst them. Also interesting is that it describes people who "say" various heretical beliefs - not those who believe them. This isn't to argue that Chazal considered it acceptable to be an atheist - rather, to point out that Chazal were not overly concerned with addressing the requirements of a person's private beliefs; instead, they were concerned with peoples' expressed beliefs insofar as they affect larger Jewish society. Menachem Kellner has convincingly argued that this Mishnah is a polemic against those undermining Jewish society - in that particular historical circumstance, by their expressing solidarity with Sadducee beliefs. But even if one disagrees with that interpretation of this Mishnah, it is clear that overall, Chazal were much, much more concerned with a person's observance of halachah and place in Jewish society than with his private beliefs or lack thereof.
Ami magazine claims that these "Orthoprax" people (I dislike the term, for reasons that I will explain on another occasion), even if they are kollel yungerleit, are worse than Orthodox Jews who behave inappropriately: "At the end of the day, the man who behaved incorrectly but is still a believer can touch non-mevushal wine and it will remain kosher; if the yungerman touches it, it is rendered non-kosher." But that is not the case. As long as the yungerman conceals his lack of belief as a private problem, nobody - including Poskim - is going to say anything, just like almost nobody cares what Chabad shochtim actually believe (even though some would like them to formally declare that the Rebbe is not God). On the other hand, Orthodox Jews who cheat and steal and engage in perverse behavior and so on, while not making wine non-kosher, have indeed "lost all traces of G-dliness" and are a terrible threat to Torah society. And, if I recall correctly, the notorious butcher in Monsey that sold treife chicken was Orthodox by Ami magazine's standards; whereas the "Orthoprax" people described by the article would never do such a thing.
Ami magazine compares non-believers to Baal-worshippers(!). Such a comparison is utterly misplaced; these people are not abandoning any form of Torah observance. Much more accurate would be to cite Chazal's expression of Hashem's sentiment: "Would that they abandon Me and still observe My Torah!"
Most ironic is that the article claims that the solution is to expose more people to emunah-education such as the Discovery-type material provided by Project Chazon. While I have no doubt that such seminars boost the emunah of average people, they have the opposite effect for the more intelligent, educated, critically-thinking types that are the subject of the article. The shoddy arguments and intellectual dishonesty that is rampant in these presentations have the effect of turning such people off from Judaism. These seminars are part of the problem, not part of the solution. (I plan to describe my own suggested solution in a future post.)
Someone who seeks to undermine wider Jewish society, either through the expression of ideologies or through their behavior, can be described by the adjectives used by Ami magazine, and should deservedly be declared persona non grata. Not someone who privately suffers from a lack of belief, and tries their best to be a good Torah Jew despite that. They are still ami.