In it he poses the following dilemma: Judaism is losing Jews to assimilation, and at the same time we are losing Judaism to the world because of haredi-style isolationism and fear of the outside. Fewer and fewer people inhabit the center where they are committed to Judaism and deeply engaged with the world simultaneously.
This has elicited an angry response from the haredi Agudath Israel of America. They accused Rabbi Sacks of an “astounding ignorance of reality,” stating that, “not only are haredim in the workplace and the 'outside world,' but the haredi universe has played a leading role, if not the leading role, in outreach to the rest of the Jewish community.” They conclude that “Rabbi Sacks appears not to know the world he arrogates to judge.”
The statement then goes on to argue that whilst the haredi world does work hard “shutting out pernicious elements of the surrounding culture,” they claim that “shielding oneself and one’s family from such negative influences is precisely what Judaism asks of Jews.”
This is a very mean spirited attack on Rabbi Sacks. Clearly Rabbi Sacks is talking about a Judaism that engages with the world because it respects what secular society and wisdom has to offer. Members of the haredi Agudath Israel of America engage the world simply in order to serve their own aims, such as making a living or protecting their own interests. They do not engage the world in the way Rabbi Sacks is suggesting. Neither is Rabbi Sacks suggesting that the “pernicious elements of the surrounding culture” become part of the life of a Jew.
Team effortAll of this is simply a distraction from the fact that Rabbi Sacks has made powerful observation about the shrinking Jewish center and one which needs to be addressed. Yet the question begs to be asked why are Jews abandoning the center in droves?
Tragically, I think the answer is that the center has not been successful at communicating a compelling case for itself and at the same time has been subjected to a sustained attack from all sides. From the haredi perspective, those in the center, let’s call them centrist or modern Orthodox, are seen as slackers and insincere about their Judaism.
From the secular perspective, being committed to Judaism involves sacrificing many of life’s material “joys” for little perceived reward. As an Orthodox Jew you can’t enjoy your kid’s soccer game on a Saturday morning, the places you can eat at are extremely limited, the pool of people you can date is staggeringly small, the list goes on. In the final analysis, there needs to be a compelling reason to remain in the center.
Despite the strong efforts of great communicators such as Rabbi Sacks and others, the message seems not to be getting through with sufficient success. For example, there are few decent websites dedicated to disseminating Torah from a Centrist or Modern Orthodox perspective. Those that attempt to fill that void charge steep fees for downloads and have only very poorly organized written content. You thus have to be highly motivated to use those sites.
Haredi-style sites, conversely, offer their classes for free, have a much greater selection and contain a huge amount of well-organized written content. Of course secular knowledge and ideas are ubiquitous.
Centrist Judaism needs to communicate its case in a compelling manner to a wider audience, and Rabbi Sacks is the prime candidate to lead the way. And he has decided to spend his time doing just that.
Yet even a man of Rabbi Sacks’ talent cannot do this on his own. It needs to be a team effort. Now we know that Agudath Israel of America won’t be joining that team. But those who care about this issue will be inspired by Agudath Israel of America's opposition and will continue marching forward.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life