There’s No Such Thing as Kiruv

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the whole idea of Kiruv lately, due to various circumstances in my life right now. I’ve come to the conclusion that there simply is no such thing as Kiruv, at least not in the sense that most people use the word, where “kiruv” is an action that a “kiruv worker” does to any secular 20-something who wanders their way.

If you think about the Hebrew word, “l’karev,” the whole idea that Kiruv is something you can do to another person just sounds absurd. The word means “to come closer.” You yourself can approach a certain destination, but you can’t “come” someone else to something. You could maybe push them, but that’s not very effective in the long run. You can bring someone somewhere, but only if they want to go. If they don’t, it’s called kidnapping, and it’s totally uncool.

So if there is no such thing as kiruv, what do kiruv professionals do? And how can we work towards a stronger observance of Torah in modern Jewish society, which we can probably agree is necessary? I believe that what is commonly referred to as ‘kiruv’ is actually a mix of hesed (kindness) and chinuch (education). We need to forget kiruv and focus on our obligation to be kind and to teach Torah.

While this might sound like quibbling over terminology, I believe that it’s important to define these terms carefully. Use of the word ‘kiruv’ leads to a perception that there’s a mitzvah to make, as in entice/guilt/force/convince by any means, people to be religious that stands apart from education and kindness. This leads to kiruv gimmicks, and leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

The mixed-up terminology also leads to two misguided perceptions: that average people need training to do kiruv, and that relatively minimal training is necessary to do kiruv. In reality, anyone can and should do kindness, and only those who have a very solid base in Torah study should work as educators.

As a side note, one of the more annoying experiences I’ve had with kiruv workers, who have had just enough Torah training to go out and spread the word, is that several have given me overly basic, not entirely correct answers to complex questions. There’s been a definite tendency to say “When you keep mitzva X, a benefit is Y,” when Y is often tangentially related at best. As an example of an incorrect answer, I was told repeatedly that all decisions of Chazal get their authority from the verse “Lo tasur m’divrehem.” When I was in seminary, we learned that that verse is about something different, and Chazal’s ability to make laws is actually a much more complex matter, that major rabbis disagree on even today. I was very unimpressed by the kiruv workers who were either ignorant of the truth or chose to simplify it (i.e., lie) in order to make it easier for the not-so-religious to accept.

Another problem with the word ‘kiruv’ is that it turns the act of bringing Torah to our fellow Jews into a verb, when it should actually be a state of being. My non-religious friends are unlikely to start keeping mitzvot just because I told them it’s a good idea. (And even the most fancy kiruv tricks like using Bible codes and historical proof are basically a fancy way of saying “because I said so.”) However, if my whole way of being—my behavior, my family life, my mood—is better because of Torah, then they just might decide to take something on. In my opinion, this is what the phrase “ohev et ha’briot u’m’karvan l’Torah” means. Love people (important note: Loving the people came first, not teaching them Torah—another thing that Kiruv pros would do well to remember), and through your genuine love and your personal example, bring them closer to Torah. As support for this, a famous example of Kiruv in Chazal is the case of Aharon HaKohen, who brought people back to observance through friendship and personal greatness (as opposed to, say, gematria and misleading lectures about observance).

I also blame the whole Kiruv industry, as it’s come to be known, for adding to this disconnect. By having ‘kiruv professionals,’ we start to feel that it’s someone else’s job to worry about spreading Torah. Every Jew should be spreading Torah by living it. If my behavior and my very presence don’t make people who meet me gain new appreciation for Torah (which, at this point, I sincerely doubt they do), then I have a lot to work on. Also, there may be someone out there who only I can successfully encourage. If I leave it to the pros, it might never get done.

Finally, the idea of kiruv leads to the unfortunate phenomena of a lack of hesed. I’ve met more than a few religious folk who are in need of something, say a nice Shabbat meal or a place to pray on the holidays, and feel that their needs are being ignored because they’re already frum. As if helping them won’t add the imaginary “notch to the belt” that some on BeyondBT have mentioned, so why bother?

I’ve also met not-so-religious folk who are ignored because they are “too old” or too set in their ways, and are basically considered lost causes. In my opinion, this is the worst downfall of modern kiruv. When we realize that ‘kiruv’ is actually hesed, it becomes ridiculous to avoid doing hesed with those who want it because we prefer to do it with others. Or to choose our hesed project based on what we’ll get in return.

I also believe that kiruv workers who take the tack of only dealing with, say, college or post-college 20-somethings from non-religious but usually affluent backgrounds are shooting themselves in the foot. Showing the 20-somethings that Torah is fun and cool and cute young people do it might make for a good show, but quietly demonstrating acceptance of all fellow Jews, no matter what their situation regarding (for example) willingness to change or drug abuse, will show them real Torah. If we believe that real Torah must be replaced with nice shiny Kiruv Torah in order to work, then we lack faith. And in that case, we should not be teaching Torah at all, but rather hurrying ourselves to the beit midrash, or to a nice open field for a serious talk with Hashem.

To sum up, using the word (and associated mental concept) “kiruv” can lead to:

1. “Notch in the belt” thinking.
2. The idea that misleading people about mitzvot and about what they’re getting into in general is a valid and effective way to increase observance, which leads to
3. Insufficient/inaccurate explanations about important topics and
4. Shiny Kiruv Torah (SKT for those of you who like abbreviations) instead of RT—Real Torah.
5. A lack of willingness to help those who don’t make good kiruvees (kiruv targets?)—very much related to #1.
6. The idea that Kiruv is something we do, regardless of who we are, and not something we are, no matter what we’re doing.
7. Non-Kiruv workers (NKWs) being somewhat lax in their own responsibility, because they feel that the professionals are taking care of things.

OK, I think that covers it for now :). Any thoughts?

Originally Posted June 05, 2007

Replacing Secular Values with Torah Values

Before getting into my latest question/difficulty, I would like to give a quick follow-up on my last post, “Trying to Pray”. I wish I could say there was some dramatic change and my prayers are now impassioned and sincere. Unfortunately, were I to say that, I would be lying. What did change is my perspective, thanks to a wonderful story I read. I can’t remember where it was written, or who was involved (maybe someone who remembers these kinds of things will be able to help—I hate telling unattributed stories), but here goes:

A depressed Jew went to his Rebbe and explained his problem—he felt uninspired in his praying and learning, and in fact didn’t enjoy doing either. The Rebbe answered him by saying that he (the Rebbe) was jealous! He himself enjoyed praying and learning so much, that he felt that he wasn’t fully serving Hashem in either, because his own enjoyment meant that he was never praying or learning for Hashem’s sake alone. Meanwhile, the other man had the opportunity to pray and learn only for the sake of heaven, with no personal enjoyment acting as an ulterior motive.

Since reading this story, I’ve been trying to approach my prayers with the attitude of “here is an opportunity to really serve Hashem.” I might find praying difficult, but that just makes my efforts to pray all the more important. In fact, I do feel that I grow more in twenty minutes of prayer (with a lot of effort to focus) than I do in several hours of preparing for Shabbat guests (a mitzva I love to do).
Read more Replacing Secular Values with Torah Values

Trying to Pray

As everyone knows by now, Israel is in serious trouble right now. Three soldiers are being held hostage and many have been killed. Many civilians have been killed and injured in the constant rocket attacks. Over one million Israelis in the north are sleeping in bomb shelters.

There’s nothing like watching the disaster unfold to make me realize my own helplessness. In an instinctive reaction, despite my many years living on my own and the fact that I am now married and expecting a child of my own, I spent much of the day trying to call my mother. I also did laundry—constant, obsessive washing of anything in the house that might have once touched dirt. But the one, most important thing that I should be doing, I just can’t. I can’t seem to pray.
Read more Trying to Pray