We are all familiar with the expression “two Jews, three opinions.” The fact that the Jewish people are opinionated is nothing new. Our Sages argued and debated endlessly in the Talmud; in fact, the Talmud is one long record of rabbinic disagreement.
Why does controversy play such a major role in our tradition? For one thing, disagreement is indicative of passion. The rabbis debate Jewish law because they are passionate about it, because every halachic nuance is imbued with untold significance and meaning.
Moreover, arguing and questioning, when done respectfully, can yield deeper insight and understanding. Isn’t this what the holiday of Pesach is all about? The Four Questions sets the stage for everything that follows on Seder night. At the Pesach Seder everything is either framed as a question or is designed to elicit one. We are bidden to assist the “Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask” and provoke him to ask. Questioning and debating are the keys to learning and understanding.
In these pages, we raise questions. We do not shy away from controversy or from topics that are delicate or uncomfortable. We take pride in the fact that our magazine is known for offering refreshingly honest and broad perspectives on issues. While Jewish Action is the family magazine of the Orthodox Union, our mission, as stated in each issue, is not to present the opinions of OU leaders, but to “provide a forum for a diversity of legitimate opinions within the spectrum of Orthodox Judaism.”
The role of Jewish Action, as we see it, is not to tell readers how or what to think; it is to present differing points of views—all within the halachic framework—and allow our readers to arrive at their own conclusions. We offer thoughtful, sometimes provocative, articles in order to inspire meaningful conversation and debate.
Sometimes these debates can be intense. Especially because our readership is so broad—it spans the Orthodox spectrum—our articles can provoke passionate responses. But receiving a flurry of impassioned letters and e-mails is actually a positive sign: it shows our readers care deeply about issues, about ideas. In fact, our popular Letters Section serves as an additional forum for the expression of various viewpoints.
Some of our recent issues have elicited unusually strong reactions from readers, and I thought I would take the time to respond to some of their concerns here. First, there was our cover story on communities (“Orthodoxy on the Move: Life Beyond New York,” winter 2013), which some readers felt unfairly overlooked their particular community. We stated clearly in the introduction to the section why we selected certain communities. We deliberately chose to focus on communities across the country “that have witnessed significant growth over the past few years.” The point of the article was not to provide free publicity to these communities; it was to share their stories of success and the secrets behind them. Our goal was to strengthen smaller struggling communities by exploring what it takes to grow a community.
Especially because our readership is so broad—it spans the Orthodox spectrum—our articles can provoke passionate responses.
Another article that some readers took issue with was Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s essay on the painful topic of off-the-derech kids. A master educator and international lecturer, Rabbi Kelemen is also the author of the well-known parenting book To Kindle a Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers. He asserted—somewhat controversially—that there is one main reason why kids leave the frum way of life: a lack of shalom bayis. He wrote,
“We mistakenly think our kids go off the derech because they saw something on a cell phone, weren’t exposed to the beauty of Shabbos or haven’t learned an intriguing Maharal from an inspired teacher. In certain segments of the community, some think that perfectly stable children are spiritually blown to pieces by college courses or cell phones equipped with texting technology. In reality, the crack is in the foundation. It starts at home, and it can be remedied at home. A child’s spiritual health depends on his parents’ spiritual health, their shalom bayis and the love and acceptance they show their child.”
Many readers disagreed with him. They asserted that a variety of other causes are responsible for this phenomenon including learning disabilities, social environment, negative experiences in school, attractions of the Internet, abuse—including sexual abuse—as well as normal adolescent rebellion and the need for exploration and independence. When kids go off the derech, they maintain, it is rarely the result of just one factor; it is usually determined by multiple factors.
One letter writer—a parent of a child who went off the derech—felt Rabbi Kelemen was unjustly placing the blame on parents. She wrote: “Rav Mattisyahu Salomon [the mashgiach of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha] has explained that in today’s times children straying from the path is a magaifah . . . much the same as the staggering rate of cancer. It is happening across the board—in every country, every city . . . within the frum world. No one is ‘safe’ even if parents do everything right . . . ”
Will we discover the cause for the agonizing problem of at-risk youth in these pages? Most likely not. Why then did we publish Rabbi Kelemen’s controversial essay? Because our mandate is to initiate intelligent and lively conversations on issues of importance to the Orthodox Jewish community.
Healthy and vigorous debate has always been the hallmark of traditional Judaism. It has made our tradition strong and energetic, and has helped carry our people throughout the millennia.
I wish you all a chag kasher v’sameach.
Gerald M. Schreck is the chairman of the OU Communications Commission.