Misguided Zeal?

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Fist in the Air

I’d like to discuss a recent incident that took place at the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS) in Florida. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg invited motivational speaker Matthew Kelly to speak. From there, things got ugly. (It bears mentioning that BRS is an OU-member synagogue, though I’ve never been there and I don’t know Rabbi Goldberg.)

A particular individual started a campaign to get the event canceled. The objection was that Mr. Kelly, a practicing Catholic, is what one would call a “missionary.” On the surface, that seems a very reasonable complaint but the word means different things for Jews than it does for Catholics. When we use the term, we generally mean people who stealthily attempt to lure us away from Judaism by misrepresenting our faith and theirs – and such people certainly do exist and prey on Jews. What Kelly does, however, is what we would call kiruv rechokim – he attempts to bring members of his own faith closer to their own religious heritage. He doesn’t proselytize to other faiths.

According to a blog posted by Rabbi Goldberg, he received harassment that included being assured of a “special place in hell,” being told that he “dishonor(s) the memory of those killed in the Holocaust,” and being called the most evil person since Korach. His wife was likewise harassed, being told that it was her job to be like the wife of the Biblical Ohn ben Peles and, in Rabbi Goldberg’s words, “stop her wicked husband.”

Ultimately, the event was canceled, not by Rabbi Goldberg but by Mr. Kelly. In his letter to the rabbi, Kelly described how the “hate campaign” grew in intensity: “disagreements became harassment, harassment became bullying, bullying turned into threats lightly veiled as warnings, and finally, the warnings became all out threats.” (Apparently, he was also called an “anti-Semitic idol worshipping missionary bozo.”) While initially concerned for Rabbi Goldberg’s safety, that was Rabbi Goldberg’s call to make. When his own safety was threatened, Kelly decided he had to withdraw.

Online, the protestors rejoiced in their success but were they correct? In his blog post, Rabbi Goldberg describes how the people who mobilized to prevent a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s Name) ended up perpetrating one. He writes:

“Through their absurd campaign, the critics who have spread lies, slander, hate, and threats have also ironically spread more of Christianity’s teachings, tenets, and texts to the Jewish community than Matthew Kelly ever has or would. Through their campaign they have achieved exactly what they illegitimately declared Kelly was going to do – they have driven Jews further away from Judaism.”

Based on online comments, it seems that the protestors continue to disagree with Rabbi Goldberg’s perspective. Such is to be expected, one imagines. I would like to address another question: that of the protestors’ zeal.

Zeal is a tremendous thing. It’s a praiseworthy character trait. Not everyone exercises the opportunity to stand up for God’s honor. At the golden calf, Moses called out, “Whoever is for God – to me!” (Exodus 32:26) and the Tribe of Levi rushed to his side. Rashi on this verse cites the Talmud (Yoma 66b) that their zeal was a sign of their righteousness. We even learn from the incident of Pinchas that zealousness can sometimes imbue one with extra-legal authority (Sanhedrin 82a on Numbers 25:7). Zeal is good but it can also be misplaced.

We see a lack of zeal following the incident of the spies (Numbers chapters 13-14). The spies claimed that the nation would not be able to conquer the Canaanites. Rather than trust in God, the people cried. They complained. They even planned to go crawling back to Pharaoh. They demonstrated a complete and utter lack of zeal. As punishment, they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. The adults who left Egypt would die out and their children would be the ones to conquer the land.

This is a familiar story but it has a lesser-known epilogue, at the end of Numbers 14. After the nation was sentenced to perish in the wilderness, the people finally got the idea that zeal is desirable. They got up early, intending to conquer the land then and there. Moses said, “Why bother? God isn’t with you so you cannot succeed!” The people persisted but their invasion was driven back by the Amalekites and the Canaanites.

This contingent was certainly zealous but that’s not how the Torah remembers them. It calls them “insolent” (Numbers 14:44 and Rashi there). Their hearts may have been in the right place but their cause wasn’t just. That makes all the difference. (King Saul also had a problem with misguided zeal – see I Samuel 13:11-14 and 15:14-23 for two prime examples and their consequences.)

Let’s get back to Boca Raton. I think we can all agree that a missionary proselytizing in a shul would be a terrible thing and should be protested but is that what happened here?

Kelly’s faith is not a secret. If you visit his web site, you’ll note that the initial portal offers two options, each leading to the web site of separate endeavors that Kelly has founded or co-founded. Clicking “Business Development” takes one to Floyd Consulting; clicking “Spiritual Development” takes one to Dynamic Catholic. These are separate enterprises with completely different agendas. Kelly has a sterling reputation; he has addressed government officials, college students, and more than forty Fortune 500 companies – audiences that have no interest in hearing about Kelly’s faith, which is fine because there is no record of him ever proselytizing to his business audiences. In short, the zeal here appears to be misplaced.

Surely Kelly’s business practices are informed by his faith, as they should be, but he properly compartmentalizes his discussion topics. Let’s contextualize that:

Imagine, if you will, an Orthodox Jewish scientist who gives a daf yomi shiur in his community. We’ll call him Shlomo. (I assure you, there are many such people.) Shlomo is invited to guest lecture at a local college about his area of specialization, molecular biology. Then someone finds his daf yomi shiurim online and starts a campus protest. “We don’t want that Jew coming here and teaching his Talmud in our science classes!” “He’s going to teach Creationism!” The protest intensifies until Shlomo feels compelled to withdraw.

Doesn’t that sound wrong? Yes, Shlomo is an observant Jew. In context that means that he tries to be honest in business and refrain from gossip. He won’t lecture on Shabbos or eat in the school’s non-kosher cafeteria. But we all know that Shlomo’s expertise in gemara would be reserved for his daf yomi shiurim; he’s perfectly capable of discussing molecular biology without bringing Rashi and Tosfos into it. If we heard of such an incident, I’m fairly confident that we’d all complain that it was thinly-veiled anti-Semitism.

Zeal is important but it can be misdirected. It’s such a powerful tool that it’s our responsibility to ensure that it’s always used properly. The same piece of gemara that tells us that zeal conferred extra-legal authority upon Pinchas also tells us that he first invested the proper legwork to ensure that his cause was just. As we see from the would-be invaders of Canaan, misguided zeal can do more harm than good.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.