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From Jewish Socialist 52 • October 2006

Playing with fire

Are young, thinking Jews being targeted by a new Jewish fundamentalism? Clifford Singer investigates

'What are the key values needed to perfect our world?' asks the voiceover. A good question deserves a good answer, and it is provided by the words that float across the screen: 'Social Responsibility ... Women's Rights ... Environmentalism ... Activism ... Equality ... Freedom of Speech.'

Chanukah: This Is Your Light is one of 20 introductory films on Aish HaTorah's website, and presses all the right buttons for the young progressive Jew. Aish (as it likes to be abbreviated) is a success story of Jewish outreach, with its mission to 'stem assimilation by reaching out and building bridges between Jews of all persuasions'. It boasts 2 million web visits each month, a mailing list of 170,000 subscribers, and offers programmes in 80 cities around the world. Aish is also the inventor of 'speed dating', and hosts popular evenings where Jewish singles meet each other in quickfire succession.

The organisation has been praised by Bill Clinton, Michael Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Al Gore, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Elie Weisel, Larry King and Steven Spielberg, who is quoted as saying: 'Thank you Aish HaTorah for the good work you do and the message you put out. I could have used you in my life about 25 years ago.' [1]

The breezy prose on Aish's website, with its tales of personal growth and acts of kindness, suggests an organisation that is liberal and broadminded, with a dash of Californian self-help therapy. But the values that guide Aish are not those of Liberal, Reform, or even Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its credo is that of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi movement. Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah) insists on the inerrant truth of the Bible, which it believes was dictated by God to Moses.

However, Aish differs from traditional Haredi groups in three ways. Firstly, its outreach work, which aims to convert secular Jews to Orthodoxy, is its overriding priority, not merely a spin-off. Orthodox converts – or ba'alei teshuvah (those who have repented) – make up most of its membership, and its yeshiva programs combine traditional Talmudic studies with intensive training in outreach and leadership skills.

Secondly, it has hitched its social conservatism to an aggressively neoconservative stance on the Middle East. Its donors and well-wishers may include liberals and conservatives, but the political voices on its website extend from the right to the far right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, Natan Sharansky, Melanie Phillips and Charles Krauthammer.

Third, it advocates a 'one step at a time' approach to Judaism, allowing members to develop their observance at their own pace. For Aish, this is testimony to its openness and tolerance, and it has certainly succeeded in attracting those who would be otherwise repelled by the 'black hat brigade'. But critics say Aish uses this approach to hide its true aims from prospective recruits. Aish's outreach work is focused mainly on the under-30s, who it attracts with slick advertising and hip graphics that give little hint of its ultra-Orthodox agenda. Some parents have accused it of having a cult-like influence on their children.

How has Aish overcome such controversy to become a multi-million dollar operation, occupying a prominent place in Jewish life? The organisation began life as a small yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1974, founded by US-born Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Weinberg came from a non-Hasidic tradition – known as Lithuanian Judaism or Mitnagdim – but was influenced by the success of the Hasidic Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who pioneered Orthodox outreach in the 1960s.

Schneerson was part of a generation of Orthodox Jews that had fled to the US to escape the Holocaust. At first, the community was inward-looking, keen to insulate itself from the 'treyf' (unkosher) state that was now its home. But as it grew in confidence, Schneerson's followers began to recruit among other Jews. At the same time, there was increasing concern among Jewish leaders over out-marriage and assimilation rates. By the late 1960s approximately one in six US Jews were marrying non-Jews, a three-fold increase on the previous decade. And many Jews were leaving the community, in some cases to join new religious movements like Hare Krishna and the Unification Church (Moonies), which had disproportionately high Jewish memberships.

For some Jews influenced by the counterculture, Schneerson's Hasidism, imbued with celebration and mysticism, provided an alluring alternative to the dreary ritual of mainstream Judaism. Others took their spiritual search to Israel, where they found a welcome in institutions such as those run by the charismatic Weinberg. Four years before founding Aish HaTorah, Weinberg had established the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, which was also dedicated to kiruv (orthodox outreach). But his split from Ohr Somayach heralded a more far-reaching vision. Adam Ferziger, Fellow in Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, writes:

Ohr Somayach felt that success was determined by whether a newly observant student dedicated himself to a life of learning. Rabbi Weinberg, in contrast, hoped that once a student had adjusted to religious life, he would either become a kiruv worker or join the secular workforce. Through his interaction with other Jews, he would have the ability to help the weakly affiliated become observant.

Aish Hatorah has developed an entire ideology and system of outreach. In order to make sure that its approach is properly implemented, its leaders foster an 'Aish culture' among their students, who are viewed as the future of the institution. It is, indeed, this 'Aish culture' that is the most distinctive characteristic of Aish Hatorah’s Rabbinical Ordination/Leadership Program (ROLP). Even the more traditional classes on subjects such as Talmud and Jewish legal codes focus on that which one needs to know in order to become an effective outreach rabbi.

Ferziger adds:

A particularly unique aspect of ROLP is the significant amount of time spent training the students to deal with questions that they will be asked when they are out in the field. The students practice simulation games in which they debate their position against rabbis who assume the roles of non-affiliated Jews, reform rabbis, potential donors, and so on.[2]

Underlying Weinberg's zeal is his belief that 'if 20,000 Jewish kids were being killed each year, you'd be jolted into action and launch a movement to save them. Today, we're losing 20,000 Jewish kids each year through assimilation.' [3] Aish rabbi Daniel Mechanic is even blunter: 'The Jewish people are currently experiencing a spiritual Holocaust. That is why Aish HaTorah stands at the front of the battle against rampant assimilation and intermarriage.' [4]

The Aish armoury of tools to reach the uninitiated includes: Discovery seminars (one-day crash courses offering 'scientific' proof of the Torah's divine origins), Shabbatonim (Friday night discussions hosted by a rabbi), subsidised trips abroad (destinations include Israel, Australia and South Africa), and the Aish website (www.aish.com) translated into five languages.

The organisation tailors its message to niche audiences. Its New York website has the slogan 'Adventures in urban Judaism' and is full of attractive, clean-cut twentysomethings who look like a Gap advert. The UK site uses rave-type graphics and music to advertise its summer trips, entitled 'Ozzy Hip Hop', 'Israeli Trance' and 'New York Vibe'. 'Israeli Trance' promises white-water rafting, quad biking and beach barbecues along with an opportunity to 'thrash out' major issues such as 'Judaism meets science', 'Does God exist?' and 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'

Aish Los Angeles targets 18-22 year olds with a $99 'Paradise Adventure Tour' to Costa Rica. It is a tempting offer but the devil is in the small print: 'This program is heavily subsidized. Participants agree to participate fully in all events and activities on the schedule to receive the advertised price... Failure to attend may result in the participant forfeiting his or her subsidy for that day (up to $250 per day).'

Like the evangelical Protestant Alpha Course and Catholic Opus Dei, Aish has a particular penchant for the young and affluent, and restricts many of its activities to 'YJPs' – Young Jewish Professionals. New Yorkers can join the Aish MBA Community, a 'group of Jewish business leaders and students who are exploring their heritage while advancing their business acumen,' while London professionals can attend Aish in the City lunchtime meetings, hosted by media and telecoms corporation IDT.

Aish also offers an Executive Learning Program, providing personal tuition by a rabbi. Participants have included corporate executives and Hollywood stars. 'Learning one-on-one with a rabbi is what's "in" these days in the States,' Rabbi Ephraim Shore, a former Aish HaTorah executive director, told Ma'ariv in 2000. 'Celebrities will come, learn for an hour a week and then visit Israel – and they become our international ambassadors. Some may donate to Aish HaTorah and help the organisation with forming further contacts.' [5]

Following a flattering full-page profile of Aish in the Jewish Chronicle in 2003, one mother wrote to complain: 'Aish prides itself on being dedicated to preventing intermarriage, something which I uphold. What I do not uphold is the way in which it attracts young Jewish men and women to take part in a cheap holiday and then, little by little, as they attend their events and educational study groups they become "Aished". My son did exactly that... Aish has completely changed his life and mine.'

She added: 'I agree with [Aish UK joint executive director] Rabbi Schiff that "God would prefer 50,000 proud Jews" to "50 frum [religious] Jews". My son was a proud Jew and has now become a frum Jew. Many would applaud that, but not me. His life is ruled purely by the Torah. He will not eat in my house and adheres to every single mitzvah.'

Another parent wrote: 'Despite Aish’s modern marketing methods, and what Rabbi Schiff claims... in reality Aish has no regard for the 21st century. It takes people born Jewish and turns them into extreme Jews, with no thought for their families. Aish would argue that its mission is to stop assimilation, but the reality is that it creates fanatical Jews, with little regard for the fallout effect.'

Similar views are expressed by a mother on Rick Ross's cult-watch website: 'Although I am resigned to my son choosing a very different lifestyle than mine, I feel it is a loss. My child can never travel with me, eat in my home – or really be a part of the rest of our family and friends. The hardest part is now I know that this is not what my son actually planned for himself, but rather the direct result of how he was influenced through what began as a vacation trip to Israel.' [6]

In his 2002 paper for the Jewish Journal of Sociology, Aaron Tapper concluded that Aish exhibited each of the characteristics of a new religious movement (a term he preferred to 'cult'). He defined these characteristics as:

a charismatic leader; submission to authority; a rigid ideology, including a fundamentalist approach to theology; a promotion of apocalyptic beliefs; a communal lifestyle; isolation from one's family; hate and/or fear of outsiders; active missionary work, including attempts to convert outsiders to its way of religious life; an an excessive focus on fundraising.

Noting the contrast between the organisation's public and private face he added:

Aish HaTorah is much more open and candid about its ultra-Orthodox perspective in the environment of its yeshiva, whereas in other venues – such as in its outreach centers and the programmes offered there – Aish HaTorah advertises itself as a pluralistic, all-inclusive environment.[7]

In Aish's defence, many former members testify to having benefited from their time in the organisation, and Tapper possibly overstates his case when he compares the Unification Church's strategy of 'love-bombing' (enveloping recruits in feigned love) to the 'extremely warm environment, in both [Aish's] outreach centers and its yeshiva'. However, Tapper should be commended for asking the right questions when so few others have. Mainstream Jewish institutions and media outlets have fawned over Aish HaTorah while failing to offer any scrutiny of its outreach methods. Even if Aish's activities have divided only a minority of families, that is a troubling record for a 'pro-family' organisation, and at the very least community newspapers like the Jewish Chronicle have a responsibility to follow their readers' concerns.

One reason Aish is given such an easy ride is that many Jews share its obsession with 'marrying out'. Even the mother who despaired of her son's transformation felt compelled to preface her letter by proclaiming her opposition to intermarriage.

But there are cracks in the veneer. While Aish has made great use of the internet, so have its critics. At Ba'al Teshuvas Anonymous (www.offthederech.blogspot.com), former members discuss the kiruv movement, where, in the words of the site's editor, 'the ends justify the means'. One contributor writes: 'Ohr Somayach and Aish have really bad reputations not just because the world is anti-fundamentalist but because many of us who spent time in their hallowed halls have told our survivor tales to the world.'

Contributors are particularly critical of Aish's claim that the Bible contains hidden, divinely-inspired codes. This notion forms the centerpiece of its Discovery seminars, which use 'scientific methods of research to explore the authenticity of Judaism and its relevance today'. Aish claims more than 200,000 people have attended the seminars, and guest hosts have included actors Ed Asner, Kirk Douglas and Elliot Gould. Ominously, the seminars employ a system called Failsafe, 'based on analytical techniques used by the Mossad'.

In 1994, the respected journal Statistical Science published research by three Israelis, Doron Witztum, Eliayahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg, which appeared to show that the names and dates of birth or death of important Medieval rabbis were encoded in the Hebrew text of Genesis. They used specially written computer software to look for equidistant letter sequences, in which words are formed by taking, say, every 50th letter within a certain passage. The theory was championed by Harold Gans, a former US Defence Department cryptologist and Aish lecturer, who claimed to have found evidence of other codes.

Aish had no doubt about the significance of these findings. Its Discovery blurb states: 'The Torah Codes definitely exist. They foretell names and places of events throughout human history: Holocaust, Sadat, AIDS. Torah Codes cannot tell us information we don't already know. But what they do tell us is that the author of the Torah knew minute details of world history, to our very age.' [8]

Unfortunately for Aish, most experts thought otherwise. Mathematicians Dror Bar-Natan and Brendan McKay uncovered similar 'codes' in War and Peace and Moby Dick. They later co-authored with Maya Bar-Hillel and Gil Kalai a detailed refutation in Statistical Science, and were among more than 50 mathematicians and statisticians who signed a public statement that declared: 'The almost unanimous opinion of those in the scientific world who have studied the question is that the theory is without foundation. The signatories to this letter have themselves examined the evidence and found it entirely unconvincing.' [9]

Meanwhile, Menachem Cohen, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, rejected the theorists' textual reading of the Bible.[10] And Barry Simon, an Orthodox Jew and IBM Professor of Mathematics at California Institute of Technology, criticised both the theory's science and its use within outreach: 'Can one tell a lie to non-religious Jews to get them to keep Shabbos? Everything that I regard as central to Judaism tells me that the answer is "no". Not only do I, a halachic [religious] layperson, think this, but also rabbonim [rabbis] that I’ve consulted say unequivocally that something you even suspect may be false should not be used as part of outreach.' [11]

Aish was particularly galled by the opposition of Orthodox experts and tried unsuccessfully to silence them – not with science but with a rabbinical ruling that warned: 'It is clear and certain to me that all those who fight against the issue of hints at equidistant skips do a very great injustice, and even those who fear God’s word who join these fighters and become, God forbid, partners in this impure construction are destined to be brought to account.' [12]

Meanwhile, some Christian writers seized upon Bible codes to find evidence for their own beliefs, leading Aish to further tie itself up in knots as it attempted to defend the concept while denigrating many of its proponents. But still Aish clings to the theory. Perhaps it fears that to let go now would undermine the whole edifice of Bible 'proofs'. Or perhaps it just cannot resist the power of an outreach tool so seductive to an audience brought up on The Matrix, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.

Aish is less reticent about sharing ground with the Christian fringes in its enthusiasm for intelligent design – the concept that evolution is not a natural process but is directed by a supernatural 'designer'. Most other Jewish organisations, left and right, religious and secular, see it for what it is: an attempt by a Christian fundamentalist organisation, the Discovery Institute (not linked to Aish's Discovery seminars), to impose a creationist agenda on US schools and institutions – an agenda that is spreading to Britain and other countries.[13]

But Aish is a keen proponent. An article on its website, 'Rationality vs Randomness', by nuclear physicist and Discovery lecturer Gerald Schroeder, concludes: 'randomness cannot have been the driving force behind the success of life. Our understanding of statistics and molecular biology clearly supports the notion that there must have been a direction and a Director behind the success of life.' [14]

When a judge ruled against forcing high school science teachers to teach intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, the Anti-Defamation League, showing uncharacteristic insight, stated: 'For Jews and other religious minorities, it's an important issue because the religious freedom we have through the separation of church and state has allowed us to flourish as communities and has enabled us to be equal partners in this country.' [15]

Aish takes a different view. One website contributor writes: 'Jewish leaders should stop worshipping at the wall separating church and state, and stop trying to be more pious about that separation than the US Supreme Court. Let them focus their energies instead on the preservation of a 3,500-year tradition.' [16]

Ironically, Aish's attempts at reconciling science with God have proved too much for some of the Haredi rabbis it follows. In 2005 another article by Schroeder, 'The Age of the Universe', was withdrawn from the Aish website. Schroeder uses relativity theory to argue that each of the Bible's six days of creation equates to a segment of the universe's real age of 15 billion years. When the article was reinstated, the following passage had been added: 'Let me clarify right at the start. The world may be only some 6,000 years old. God could have put the fossils in the ground and juggled the light arriving from distant galaxies to make the world appear to be billions of years old. There is absolutely no way to disprove this claim.' [17]

Aish shows no such vacillation in its stance on the Middle East. Despite traditional Haredi antipathy towards Zionism, Aish has adopted a right-wing brand of Israeli nationalism that mostly manages to avoid the Z-word. Many articles on its website are reproduced from American conservative journals such as The Weekly Standard and National Review, and the themes are depressingly familiar: the Palestinians are solely to blame for their predicament; the territories are 'disputed', not occupied; the Gaza pullout is a reward for terror; the illegal settlers are heroes and patriots.

According to its statement of policy, 'Aish is an apolitical organization, takes no political positions, and endorses no parties or candidates.' Some of its articles carry additional disclaimers such as 'Aish.com is non-political, and the ideas expressed here are those of the author alone.' Yet web visitors will search in vain for counterbalancing views.

A section of Aish HaTorah's website is devoted to Jerusalem's spiritual and historical importance for Jews – and why it is of less significance for Muslims. Aish's Old City yeshiva remains the focus of its activities, and it is currently building a spectacular outreach centre opposite the Western Wall, on land sold to it by the Israeli government for the token price of one shekel. Aish supporters are invited to donate to a $40 million fund to help build and equip the high-tech centre. Its highlight will be the 'state-of-the-art Kirk Douglas Presentation Theater' which features a '15-minute multi-media extravaganza that will put Aish HaTorah on every tourist itinerary'.

In 2001 Aish set up two pro-Israel lobbying groups. Hasbara Fellowships, launched jointly with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains university students to be 'effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses', and supplies them with speakers and resources. But it has stepped beyond mere 'advocacy' to defend Israel's expansion of West Bank settlements, even arguing that such 'activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forced the Palestinians and other Arabs to reconsider the view that time is on their side'.[18] Like Aish, it plays host to the controversial right-wing polemicist Daniel Pipes, who argues that Israel 'must achieve a comprehensive military victory over the Palestinians'.[19]

Aish also founded Honest Reporting, a web-based operation that monitors the media for 'anti-Israel bias'. Honest Reporting has claimed to be independent from Aish for several years, but its UK branch, launched earlier this year, boasts an Aish-registered website domain name and contact address. Honest Reporting is particularly critical of the British media and last year gave its annual 'Dishonest Reporter' award to the BBC, which it accused of 'naivete, dishonesty, forcing facts to conform to a narrow worldview and, arguably, a desire to inappropriately influence events'.

A favoured tactic is to bombard reporters who have criticised Israel with angry emails. Journalists Robert Fisk and John Pilger have both reported having their in-boxes swamped with abuse following censure by Honest Reporting. The Guardian's David Leigh told a similar tale: 'Emails clicked in to the letters page by the hundred, all making the same weirdly alliterative points. This followed publication of a Guardian article trying to understand the motivations of the Palestinian bus driver who ploughed into a queue this month, killing eight Israelis. The mysteriously similar emails – from all over the world – started coming in, too, to our foreign editor; to our website; and to the personal email address of our Middle East correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg. They were inconvenient, and also sometimes a bit scary in their violent tone – "The bloody Guardian... Have you killed a Jew today?... Are you anti-Jewish?"' [20]

Aish HaTorah's increasingly hawkish stance on the Middle East mirrors American Orthodoxy's rightward drift. Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, writes:

Orthodox organizations have forged political alliances that are anathema to the organized Jewish community, with some courting Evangelicals and others on the religious right. The just-completed 2004 presidential election campaign illustrated how out-of-step Orthodox Jews were with the mainstream of the American Jewish community. Pollsters have put the overall Jewish vote at 75% for John Kerry and 24% for George W Bush. The Orthodox vote is believed to have gone in the reverse proportion, with three quarters of Orthodox voters supporting the candidacy of Bush. (By contrast, one pollster has claimed that Reform Jews went for Kerry by a margin of 85% to 15%.) Some have dismissed this sharp disparity as an aberration caused by the desire of Orthodox Jews to reward Bush for what they perceived as his strong support of Israel. But this begs the question of why Orthodox Jews should have looked at things this way, whereas other Jews had entirely different interests or perceptions. It is far too early to tell whether the Orthodox vote, which in previous elections conformed to the strongly Democratic tilt of the Jewish community, will continue to favor Republican nominees. But for now, the divide within the Jewish community suggests a very different political mind-set operating in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox camps, and it is unlikely to change anytime soon.[21]

One reason for this right turn may be that organisations like Aish do not simply reflect Orthodox Jewish opinion but help to shape it. While an often rancourous debate has taken place on the political influence of America's pro-Israel lobby, little has been said about the influence of lobby groups on the Jewish community itself. Perhaps Hasbara Fellowships has less impact on campus life than it does on the Jewish students it recruits as its ambassadors. They are inducted into a political culture in which the voices of hardline neoconservatives take centre stage while even moderate voices for territorial compromise are sidelined.

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, Aish's joint UK executive director, told the Sunday Times last year: 'Up to 150, 200 years ago, you had no secular Jews. I don't know when the rot started, but the Enlightenment brought in this concept of humanism, telling Jews they could live secular lives. The floodgates opened. And all these hitherto Orthodox kids just ran.' [22]

If the way back to Orthodoxy is through Aish, then today's young Jews would be wise to keep running.

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Footnotes

  1. www.aish.com/aishint/celebrity_endorsements.asp Back to reference
  2. Adam S. Ferziger, 'Between Outreach and "Inreach": Redrawing the Lines of the American Orthodox Rabbinate', Modern Judaism, 2005 Back to reference
  3. www.aish.com/seminars/discovery/Info/what_is_aish.htm Back to reference
  4. www.aish.com/seminars/discovery/Codes/rabbi_daniel_mechanic.htm Back to reference
  5. Ma'ariv, 7 April 2000, reprinted at www.aish.com/aishint/about/press2.asp Back to reference
  6. www.rickross.com/reference/ultra-orthodox/ultra1.html Back to reference
  7. Aaron J. Tapper, 'The "Cult" of Aish HaTorah: Ba'alei teshuva and the new religious movement phenomenon', Jewish Journal of Sociology, 2002 Back to reference
  8. www.aish.com/seminars/discovery/Codes/codes.htm Back to reference
  9. www.math.caltech.edu/code/petition.html Back to reference
  10. www.talkreason.org/articles/cohen.cfm Back to reference
  11. www.wopr.com/biblecodes/TheCase.htm Back to reference
  12. See Menachem Cohen's account at www.talkreason.org/articles/cohen.cfm Back to reference
  13. See Lenny Flank's history of intelligent design and the role of the Discovery Institute at www.talkreason.org/articles/deception.cfm Back to reference
  14. www.aish.com/societyWork/sciencenature/
    Evolution_Rationality_vs._Randomness.asp
     Back to reference
  15. The Forward, 20 January 2006, reprinted at njdc.typepad.com/njdcs_blog/2006/01/the_antiscienti.html Back to reference
  16. www.aish.com/jewishissues/jewishsociety/Hebrew_School_Daze.asp Back to reference
  17. See Shmarya Rosenberg's account at failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2005/01/the_times_they_.html
    Schroeder's original article is at www.geraldschroeder.com/age.html Back to reference
  18. http://www.israelactivism.com/article.php?articleid=278&table=factsheets Back to reference
  19. www.aish.com/jewishissues/middleeast/The_Only_Solution_is_Victory.asp Back to reference
  20. www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4140042,00.html Back to reference
  21. Jack Wertheimer, All Quiet on the Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdemoninationalism in the United States, American Jewish Committee, 2005 Back to reference
  22. Sunday Times Magazine, 6 February 2005, reprinted at www.davidrowan.com/2005/02/sunday-times-magazine-jewish.html Back to reference

 

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2 October 2006, revised 1 December 2006

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