Monday, December 17, 2007

The difficulty of engaging in honest dialogue with Orthodox Fundamentalists

[I will open this post up for comments when I return from my hiatus some time early next year (probably late Feb, maybe earlier). Commenting is currently turned off. I invite the reader review the entire dialogue here and make his or her own determinations]

This post presents a candid discussion about the nature and difficulties of engaging in honest dialogue with the Ultra Orthodox in general and those involved in Jewish Outreach in particular (known as "kiruv professionals"). It is a record of a recent email dialogue with an active commemorator of the Ba’ali Tshuvah blog - - BeyondBT.

The dialogue itself, as well as the summary below, provides valuable information and insight into some of the major issues that an intellectually honest BT must deal with when questioning the person or persons claiming to be teaching him/her about Judaism. It also exposes the reader to the kinds of techniques employed by Jewish outreach people to sidestep the most difficult questions about Orthodox Judaism. It is my sincere hope that this material, which by the way is not meant to be a scholarly work, be used as a starting point for the deeper research and soul searching that is necessary when considering a life altering decision to become Orthodox.

Why I am publishing this dialogue

BeyondBT is entitled to believe anything it wants; it’s a free country. But when it becomes a conduit for evangelizing an ideology that typically requires momentous life changes and sacrifices, it looses the right to forbid challenges to its beliefs, to remain unquestioned and unchallenged. If BeyondBt and similar outlets do not want their beliefs questioned then they should stop advocating them and they should certainly not, as is their policy, censor comments that respectfully challenge Orthodox dogma. In another words, once they disseminate their views in an attempt to influence others, I (and others) have the right to ask, “Why?” And I (and others) have the right to expect an intellectually honest response without obfuscations, evasions or pseudo-philosophical word play intended, consciously or not, to avoid substance.

Furthermore, I (and others) have the right to expect BeyondBT, as well as other active professional and amateur Jewish Outreach workers, to make full disclosure of their biases - - to inform others that the answers provided to common questions about disconfirming realities are always filtered through and the product of an ideology that prohibits any open-minded, open-hearted quest to corroborate the veracity of its doctrines. Most importantly, people have the right to know that kiruv people expect prospective BT’s to be open, vulnerable and willing to change but that they, themselves, have no intention of reciprocating.

I am well aware that the vast majority of this dialogue would have been censored by the BeyondBT administration, as well as any other Jewish Outreach blog sites, and I also admit that such suppression may appear justified from the point of view of a certain self-serving, contrived "spiritual" ethic. But, I also must say that, in practice, this attitude encourages a fundamental disrespect and superior attitude toward those for whom it claims to be helping, and a manipulative, controlling attitude towards those who have extended their trust. It is for this reason that I am sharing this correspondence (personal statements have been removed); It is an imperative to make others aware that the Kiruv industry in general and BeyondBT type outlets in particular, can not, as a general rule, be trusted to make the kind of full and honest disclosure of the facts that are necessary for anyone to make a life altering decision. In addition, publishing this dialogue provides a window into the difficulty of fruitful and honest dialogue with any individual who has strong preconceived notions that do not allow well established facts to interfere with their beliefs.

The dialogue: The four Questions

In order to keep the dialogue productive and honest, 4 straight forward questions were posed at the outset of the discussion. They were taken from the comment section of Naftali Zeligman’s essay

  • Does Torah contain statements of fact (use any definition you choose) that can be proved or disproved by an objective outside observer?
  • If it does, what are they - formulate them. If it does not, any claim that the torah is true is mere opinion, but tautological, devoid of content- -an empty assertion, sort of like "Jesus is God, read the bible," as I've seen on some bumper stickers.
  • If you are willing to assert that Torah has at least some truth to it, i.e., contains factual and provable statements, would you also be willing to take the next step?
  • If so, would you to draw up a list of verifiable Torah statements, preferably such that, if disproved, would change your attitude to Judaism.
  • These questions, which were asked over a half dozen times and which were never answered, go to the crux of the issue, which is whether Torah is a document which relates provable facts. If it does not state a fact that is susceptible to confirmation it becomes a document of mere opinion. Is that what BeyondBT is saying or has he completely defaulted in expressing his own true belief?

    The importance that all parties accept the possibility that they can be wrong

    A 5th question related to BeyondBT’s willingness to accept the possibility that he could be wrong in his belief was also repeatedly posed and not answered. The absence of an answer was not just discourteous, it was something much more; it reflected a lack of integrity and goodwill that is a prerequisite for any good faith discussion. Both parties must be willing to make this admission.

    If the potential BT, who does not have the time or background to thoroughly research the issues, or other interested persons, for that matter, is to trust their mentor, they should be certain to require this requisite before entering into any dialogue. Obviously, one can NOT be confident that the information they receive is credible if those communicating are unwilling to subject their assumptions to objective scrutiny. At a minimum, the outreach worker, if he is to act in good faith, must disclose that his own dogma precludes him from ever entertaining the possibility that his tradition could be in error. We would demand such disclosure in any other area of ones life. I see no reason to act differently in an area that is so elemental.

    I addressed this point in my opening email that set forth the ground rules for the dialogue. BeyondBT never even once acknowledged what I had written there even though I thought I could not have been more clear. I wrote:

    "The bottom line is this; if you have integrity, you must be willing to shift your initial position in conformity with the evidence. After all, how can you have integrity when you expect people to be open to your persuasion, an influence which may result in an individual making momentous and sometimes irreversible life changes, when you your self will not reciprocate the openness. With this in mind, I ask you - - BeyondBT, are you willing to consider the fact that you could have made a major life decision based on error or is it already a forgone conclusion that this could not be the case? If it is already a forgone conclusion that you are correct, why are we even having a discussion? Wouldn't it be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty for you to engage myself and others when you fail to extend courtesy and decency with regard to disclosing your intransigency?"

    Again, this question was NEVER answered, let alone acknowledged.

    Obfuscations, Evasions and Pseudo-Philosophical Word Play

    Moreover, it is ironic that BeyondBT and his Rabbi, who immodestly assume the strength of their presumptions, have the temerity to ascribe close mindedness to others, such as Naftali Zeligman, author of Letter to My Rabbi when they themselves are unwilling to ever consider that they themselves could ever be wrong. I was deeply disappointed and to some extent taken aback when the Rabbi of BeyondBT failed to address the critical issues that Naphtali Zeligman's essay methodically laid out. Instead, he excused himself from this request by dismissing Zeligman’s competence in Torah and by implying that Zeligman did not have the requisite openness that would justify his time. The Rabbi provided no support for his opinions and presumptions and he *seemed* to be imputing to Zeligman, maybe in a way that betrays his own projected intransigence, a close mindedness that I do not perceive as consistent with the tone of Zeligman’s letter. But Zeligman would be in a better position to speak on his own behalf concerning the matter. I would have expected that our Rav would have extended the gentleman the *benefit of the doubt,* but this was unfortunately not forthcoming.

    Overall, BeyondBt did not make comments in a manner that contributed to the debate. He did not respond to the majority of my points. He either evaded them outright or he summarily dismissed them without any close scrutiny; no critique or honest evaluation was offered, other then to characterize evidence, that contradicted his assumptions, as conjecture or the empty and unsubstantiated musings of archeologist and academics. I would have expected a serious email setting out his own qualifications and endless notes backing up his conclusions, with sources and counter sources. I saw none of that. I find such behavior to be exasperating and immature. I would find such an approach unacceptable in my professional life and I see no reason why I should be any more tolerant of it when I am talking about a much more important issue.

    The dangers of the fundamentalist outlook

    Former fundamentalist Christian, Raymond E. Griffith, provides a very interesting account of the intellectual dishonesty, moral shortcomings and existential fear that pervade the fundamentalist Christian mind, which is eerily similar to what I experienced in the behavior of BeyondBT. I could not have described my respondent any better. Mr. Griffith, partly in an autobiographically manner, writes of the fundamentalist

    "He honestly believes he is right, but his belief in his belief is more important than the belief itself. Since this is under attack, he is in trouble. His attempts to escape the dilemma without confronting the fact that he is wrong are, of course, dishonest. But he doesn't see this. He has put up this desperate mental barrier that he cannot cross without devastating his self-concept and his faith. You are essentially correct that it is "denial, aversion, obfuscation and a moral inability to admit any error", but it is more than that.

    That's why they're always so hesitant to answer any questions. In all my debates with them, I've noticed that inarguable losses are snipped and ignored (to be revived later on) but no point is ever actually conceded. …………………………………..Again, the objections to their arguments do not matter to them. They have been mentally conditioned to ignore it. ................. They are not here to learn. They are here to teach others the truth. Remember, they have absolute truth, so they don't have anything to learn at all!

    Also very telling was Griffith’s admission that "at times I did feel forbidden to concede. After all, my opponents just had to be wrong, no matter how reasonable they were."

    The challenge then is not just for the inexperienced and trusting BT, it is also for the fundamentalist adherent. The arrogance, the supreme confidence that their ideology is inerrant, as well as the repression, dissociation, and denial that act outside the fundamentalist’s awareness, ultimately hinders the very thing that they value most --a connection with the Creator.

    In closing I want to share with you Rabbi Emanuel Rackman's apropos words concerning the tragedy of the fundamentalist mind set. He writes, in One man's Judaism, that "A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic...., but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential intimately to discover its creator.” According to Rackman the tragedy here is not just that fundamentalist certainty inhibits the good: thereby hindering the development of the noble trait of humility, as well as ones sensitivity of the divine; it also imbues the bad because “man's certainty with regard to anything is poison to his soul.."