Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Kiruv Compromise

On the short drive from the men's mikveh to my home on Erev Yom Kippur, I happened to flip on the radio and heard a pre-Yom Kippur discussion between Rav Benny Lau, Rav of the Katamon neighborhood in Yerushalayim and of the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon and an Israeli author named Yochi Brandres (pictured), a well-known media personality and lecturer in Tanach, Jewish and Hebrew literature. (You can listen to the program online in Hebrew here.)
In the course of telling a story about getting along with your neighbors (about 24 minutes into the program), Rav Lau told about how each year, on Kol Nidrei night at the conclusion of the services, they have a program called חשבון נפש ישראלי - "Taking Stock of the Israeli Soul", which brings hundreds of people from the neighborhood for a talk about spirituality, introspection, and self-evaluation, both personally, but also communally and nationally. He told how he happily invited Professor Yaron Ezrachi, a resident in the neighborhood, to speak from the Bimah in his shul. Brandres literally could not contain herself, and toldthe following story. Hearing about the program, trying to catch Rav Lau when she heard about Ezrachi's appearance in the shul on Yom Kippur said to him, "But you'd never invite a woman to speak. You cannot be that open." To this Rav Lau responded, "Would you like to speak this year?" She would. So, on the eve of Kol Nidrei this year, Brandres spoke from the amud of the Ramban shul.
Listening to her, you could hear a sense of excitement and appreciation. She said, "Rav Lau, you know that I've given many different talks in many different shuls; but never in front of an Orthodox shul. I speak every week, and even on the evening of Yom Kippur; but it's always a more liberal synagogue; Conservative, reform, secular; but this is the first time that I will speak before male and female attendees on the evening of Yom Kippur, and I'm looking forward to a very powerful and inspiring experience, in the merit of your openness."
I must admit that I was rather taken aback by Rav Lau's openness. On the one hand, I understand precisely where he's coming from: without welcoming secular people into our communities, without giving them a forum to express themselves and listening to them like we want them to listen to us, there can never be unity in Israel. So I appreciate his program.
But then there's another side. I wonder - and I really don't know the answer to this question - if Rav Lau had his druthers, in his heart of hearts, would he really want to invite a woman or a secular professor to speak from the bimah of the shul on Kol Nidrei night? What I'm really asking is, is Rav Lau in some way watering down his own religious standards for the sake of unity? The answer to seems to clearly be "yes." Unity requires compromise. I have no doubt that Rav Lau adheres to the constraints of halachah. I get a sense listening to the program that the lecture took place at the conclusion of tefillah, and that there's no specific injunction in the Shulchan Aruch against a woman or secular Jew delivering a lecture in a shul on any night, much less Kol Nidrei. But in the words of a colleague, "pas nisht." Is that really necessary? Is it in the spirit of Kol Nidrei?
Rav Lau would undoubtedly say "yes." On the night that we're supposed to stand as a unified nation before God asking for forgiveness; on the night that we giv
e ourselves "permission" to "pray for the transgressors" (which we do at the very beginning of Kol Nidrei), what better night could there be to invite an entire community together to speak about Teshuvah?
I have a different question: Does it work? Is Rav Lau by compromising, bringing Jews closer to classical Judaism, or in some twisted way, somehow pushing them farther away?

Rena has been reading a book called "Mekimi" in Hebrew written by a Ba'alat Teshuva who came from a secular background and eventually found her way back to traditional Jewish life. She didn't just become a Baalat Teshuvah. She went all the way to Breslov. She describes the holiness, simplicity and draw of the Breslov way of life. It seems that while some might find the complexities of a religious life that tries to find compromises to welcome outsiders (a la Rav Lau and his Kol Nidrei speakers' series) appealing, others - maybe even more - are turned away by those very compromises. In their search for spirituality, they're not looking for women speaking to a mixed audience in an Orthodox shul on Kol Nidrei night. They're in fact looking for just the opposite: a community with limits, clear lines, and defined terms. And those people would probably find Yochi Brandres' speech in Rav Lau's shul a reason to turn away from Orthodoxy, and not towards it.
Maybe we need both: the complexity and compromise of Rav Lau, and the simplicity and clear lines of Breslov.
After all, different strokes for different folks.