Many of you know the accomplished talmid chachim, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein as the co-founder of the popular Cross-Currents web site.
Rabbi Adlerstein will be traveling to the East Coast to be the
Scholar in Residence at
Congregation Ahavas Yisroel 147-02 73rd Avenue on this coming
Shabbos, Parshas P’kudei, March 7th-8th.
Rabbi Alderstein will be speaking three times and we invite anybody in the neighborhood next Shabbos to please come and listen. Here is the schedule:
“Orthodoxy and Orthodopraxy – Deed and Creed in the Light of the Rambam’s Ikarie Emunah”
Friday Night, March 7th, 2008 – 9:00 PM
Shabbos Morning Drasha (Shacharis begins at 8:30 AM)
“Maharal and Rav Kook’s Views on Aggadah”
Shalosh Seudos – (Mincha begins at 5:10 PM)
In anticipation of his visits, we took the opportunity to ask Rabbi Alderstein a few questions:
Q) Why did you originally start Cross-Currents?
[RYA] While he may be surprised for the credit, Cross-Currents owes itself to the vision of the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a. Jonathan Rosenblum and I are kindred spirits in many ways. We were both involved in different ways in trying to change the way media looked at Torah and Torah Jews. It happened that I was visiting Har Nof the same time the Novominsker was there, and Jonathan and I decided to go over and lobby for his support for a dedicated effort at frum hasbara. It didn’t take much lobbying. The Rebbe was ahead of us. He felt that it was important for Torah Jews to correct misconceptions, even if such attempts would convince no one. Kavod HaTorah itself, he said, required that we polish up the luster lost to those who tried to cheapen it. Am Echad was really born at that meeting. Among other ideas, he suggested a regularly published English language journal of creative and topical Torah thought whose target audience would specifically lie outside the traditional boundaries of the “insider” community. Both Jonathan and I wound up campaigning against that idea as too costly in terms of both money and investment of man-hours. The idea remained in limbo until the ubiquitous use of the internet changed much of the calculus. Yaakov Menken kept pushing me to get involved in a blog. At the time, I was self-publishing a listserv-based e-magazine on items of interest to the Torah Jew appearing in general literature. It occurred to me that if I changed my publication into a group blog, we could accomplish what the Rebbe had suggested, essentially cost-free. Yaakov and I put together a tentative list of invitees. We were interested only in people who had already written enough that they had some name recognition in the general Torah public, and we quickly got together a list of what today are considered senior contibutors. The rest is history. We are certainly not one of the largest mega-blogs, but we know that thousands are reading us, and many of them are passing along our material to secondary and tertiary markets. Reuters religion page has us listed as a permanent link; influential people in several non-Jewish communities are regulars, along with movers and shakers in the non-Orthodox Jewish world.
Q) What has changed as a result of your experience?
[RYA] I am far more conscious of the capacity of the e-published word to cause massive chilul Hashem, and zeh le’umas zeh, for incredible kiddush Hashem. It boggles the mind that intelligent frum people are not conscious of what they are saying when the entire world is listening, and any remark displaying the slightest bit of prejudice or narrow-mindedness becomes quick cannon-fodder not only for those who mock us, but even for those who wish to annihilate us, c”v. On the kiddush Hashem side, I realized that diversity would stand us in much better stead than sameness, so it became important to me to try to recruit accomplished writers from a broader segment of the Orthodox world. We brought in people further to the right, and people in the center. We have also struggled with guidelines for comments. We are among the strictest in what we will dismiss outright or edit, and we still make mistakes in letting too much through. On the other hand, when we have asked the question, the Torah voices we’ve consulted have urged us not to turn Cross-Currents into an e-magazine with either no comments, or a small handful. They felt that part of the message that we are trying to convey is that we are confident enough in our emunah and our reasoning to be able to handle criticism and disagreement. We’ve steered a middle course between the muzzles imposed by some print publications, and the anything-goes attitude of some of the blogosphere. I’ve also had to yield partially on my concept of the purpose of the blog. I wanted – and still want – all pieces to contain a mixture of creative reaction to current affairs and some Torah content. I’ve argued with colleagues that if a piece could have been written by someone who did not learn in a yeshiva or seminary, it doesn’t belong in Cross-Currents. Not everyone agrees with me.
Another change occurred as I saw how many people were looking for a forum for intelligent discussion of current affairs within the parameters of the Torah community. As Cross-Currents grew, so did a parallel movement in the opposite direction. For a variety of reasons, there is a strong push in some circles (for reasons that have much validity in those circles) for greater and greater insularity. Baalei Teshuva – not all, but certainly significant numbers – are negatively impacted by this. Many of them had and continue to have important ties to the larger world. Part of what made Torah attractive to them was the promise they were given that Torah has something to say about each and every issue that Man faces. These baalei teshuva were starting to see that many of the people around them not only had nothing to say about these issues, but they were completely unaware of them, and when informed about them did not deal with them with any great insight – Torah or otherwise. I believe that it is important to show such people that there are people in the Torah community (closet Hirschians, lots of RWMO and LW haredim, and iconoclastic bnei Torah of all stripes and descriptions) who do share and live by the vision that enticed them to join the ranks of the Torah committed in the first place. This has become a large goal, at least of mine, for CC: giving chizuk to those who for whatever reason are somewhat connected with general thought and issues, and view this involvement positively.
Q) How has the Internet positively or negatively effected Torah observance?
[RYA] It has done both. It has put more Torah material into the hands of people, more opportunities to meet and engage a larger circle of Torah friends, more chances at gaining chizuk from others. On the other hand, it has added many levels of transparency to the Torah world. Faults and deficiencies are not only quickly exposed, but even magnified. This means that some old techniques of community control (not a bad thing in and of itself when done well) and of kiruv are going to fail more quickly. I was always an opponent of using iffy and even false methods to attract people to Yiddishkeit, even when the supposition was that the ersatz would soon be replaced with something of greater value. I was, and continue to be, opposed to the use of the so-called Bible Codes for this reason, as well as ill-founded and poorly conceived “proofs” that won’t hold up to scrutiny. In the internet age, kiruv organizations that use superficiality even as temporary bait are flirting with disaster, as their falsehood will be quickly observed and held out for ridicule. It is yet another reason that the “mass-production” of kiruv is bound to lead to much heartache and personal tragedy, and that parts of the kiruv world need a mid-course correction.
Rabbi Adlerstein is the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He holds the Sydney M Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. He is a co-principal in Jewish Mediation Service, which applies a Jewish ethical approach to problem solving. Rabbi Adlerstein received his ordination from the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in New York. His translation of Be’er Hagolah, the classic defense of rabbinic Judaism by Maharal of Prague, was published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, whose new edition of Ramban he is currently assisting in editorial review.