The Place of Fire and Brimstone

Once again, a number of recent experiences have converged and coalesced into an idea that I’ve written about before, somewhat, but wish to describe further. It pertains to the realm of discourse which I’ll call ‘charismatic monologue’. Fire-and-brimstone mussar, demagoguery, aggressive kiruv, and dependence of the message upon its deliverer all fit under this umbrella.
For example, I was leaving through the Yediot Acharonot graciously provided by El Al, when I saw an ad (just below an exceedingly bizarre article about a possessed dog in Me’ah She’arim) for an organization called ‘Hidabroot’. The ad says nothing about the organization, and I don’t know a thing about it. I guess it has something to do with dialogue. But the ad features a very slick-looking Rabbi called Zamir Cohen, who will be on a lecture tour in the USA. What can I say, it makes me nervous. As Eliyahu Ha-navi learned the hard way, dependence on an individual’s charisma or ‘evangelical’ frenzy simply obscures, to my mind, the ‘still, small voice’ which is truly the Word of God. It’s hard to hear God when everyone is shouting ‘The Lord is God’.
In March, I interviewed with an organization (that will remain nameless) that’s doing some great things in Israel. This organization has some wonderful community-learning projects in Israel. It is the creation of a very well-known and charismatic teacher/preacher/Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but notice that his picture is displayed at intervals of every few feet in the organization’s offices. It completely rubbed me the wrong way. People asked how the interview went, and I responded, ‘There are way too many pictures of Rabbi X’. It was said in jest, but I was dead serious (Perhaps the greatest lesson my father ever taught me was that there need not be any tension between jesting and being serious). By contrast, in all of Tzohar’s informational literature, the personalities involved in the organization (and there are some wonderful personalities involved – R’ Yuval Cherlow is probably the best known) are never even mentioned. It’s all about the movement, the goals, the vision – never about the personalities and their charisma.
A final recollection is of a meeting that I had last week in Israel with the head of a Yeshiva and related institutions which has sent a number of students to UMD. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the ‘educational’ (I use the term very loosely) methods used to try to ‘persuade’ students that YU would be a better choice than ‘secular college’. In particular, I questioned the efficacy of ‘Fire and Brimstone Mussar Schmuessen’ in this endeavor. In my experience, ‘shtarke mussar’ never really works as a technique of persuasion. It can reinforce a latent value that a group may have lost sight of (i.e., they already embrace that value, but have slipped in their practical fealty to it). Decorum during davening is a good example. Everyone knows your not supposed to do it. Harsh words can succeed in reminding the peeps of what they already know. ‘Fire and Brimstone’ can also succeed in inspiring a group to action. Take a group that hates Jews. A fiery speech might inspire someone to strap-on an explosive belt and detonate it on a crowded Judenstrasse, but it won’t really succeed in turning the Philo-Semite. Thus, I contend, that this Yeshiva’s approach is pretty much just alienating the students – a significant minority if not the majority – who haven’t absorbed the Rabbis’ table of values. This is not only the case with students who wind up attending ‘secular college’ (I insist on putting it in quotation marks because these Yeshivot tend to disparage the idea as a whole, without trying to differentiate between different campuses; for example, Penn is a very different experience from Iowa), but even those who attend YU. The Rosh Yeshiva told me about a student who regretted his decision to attend UMD after attending a summer orientation where student sexuality was a big topic. Here’s his own values conflicted with those prevalent on campus. A year of mussar schmuessen accomplished less than 10 minutes at an orientation. That’s the power of the still, small voice.

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