Can Orthodoxy get better market share?

Despite the best and sincere efforts of numerous Orthodox kiruv organizations, the vast majority of world Jewry will never become Orthodox, at least as Orthodoxy is presently conceived. This is not to say that we should throw in the “kiruv” towel (though a less condescending word would certainly be beneficial to the effort). It is rather to say, that if we truly believe that it would be beneficial for the Jewish people if more of our numbers were observant of Halacha, then it behooves us to take a hard look at the primary reasons that we remain but 10-15% of the population. Some of these reasons (such as “Lots of Jews don’t believe in God”, or “Lots of Jews just like eating shrimp”) suggest little to us in the way of remedial steps. By the same token, there are reasons for Orthodoxy’s demographic underperformance that do in fact lend themselves to remediation. In some cases, not coincidentally, these remediations would be welcome purely for their own sake as well. Their potential for making Orthodoxy more attractive would be an additional windfall. 

What then are the remediable reasons that the great majority of Jews don’t and won’t consider Orthodoxy?  I’ll list the four that come to my mind, and elaborate on each of them over the next few weeks. Please accept them in the spirit in which they are being offered – as food for thought.    

(1)   Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.

(2)   We impose ideological, not Halacha – based, non-egalitarianism (or anti-egalitarianism).

(3)   We convey the impression that honesty and universal empathy are not among our core religious values.

(4)   We’ve unnecessarily narrowed the spectrum of acceptable “Orthodox belief”.


(1)   Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.

 Halacha – as it is designed to do – regulates every aspect of our lives. But within these regulations, there are always layers of restriction, historical layers, and legal layers. If in fact, the sheer difficulty of Orthodoxy is a factor in consigning halachik observance to permanent minority status among the Jewish people, it would seem that it’s incumbent upon to peel back some discretionary layers, and make it easier. The Halachik concepts “it is a time to do for the Lord”, and avoiding “stringency that brings about [non-halachik] leniency” come to mind as useful tools. I’m suggesting, for example, that we wager that invoking legitimate leniencies regarding the duration of the niddah period, or concerning the acceptability of dishwasher use for both dairy and meat (not simultaneously), might pay off handsomely in terms of total number of Jews observing total number of mitzvot. And what about applying this calculus to “kitniot”? Have we reached the point in history at which the prohibition of kitniot is resulting in more chametz being eaten (by those who now won’t even try to observe), rather than less? And how big might our gain be if we made a point of providing communities with reliably kosher non-glatt (= less expensive) meat? (And for God’s sake, can we stop taking back long-standing permissive rulings about Shabbos elevators?!) With genuine humility I hasten to add that these kinds of decisions would require significant community consensus, as well as the careful deliberation of minds much greater than my own. But the absence of these deliberations and consensus building seems like a dereliction of duty in the present frame.


More to come.  



8 Responses to Can Orthodoxy get better market share?

  1. Rabbi Haim David Halevi (a traditional Judeo-Spanish Sephardi), following his teacher Rabbi Benzion Uziel (also Judeo-Spanish) said that Beit Hillel prevailed over Beit Shammai because the former knew the human condition and tended to leniency as a principle. See “The Love of Israel as a Factor in Halakhic Decision-Making in the Works of Rabbi Benzion Uziel” (

    A student of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s remarked to me that Rabbi Halevi was the last of the great poseqim. And – surprise, surprise! – no one pays any attention to Rabbi Halevi! Israeli dati schools use his Kitzur Shulhan Arukh Meqor Haim, but this book is merely the pisqei halakhah from his Meqor Haim Ha-shalem. (The full Meqor Haim is a five-volume layman’s halakhic compendium which follows Rav Kook’s clarion call for halakhah and hashqafa to be taught as one, so that halakhah ceases to be dry and unimaginative. The result is similar to Rabbi Hirsch’s Horeb.) Imagine using Sefer ha-Hinukh or Horeb, with all of the explanatory and philosophical content removed, leaving only the bottom-line halakhah – that’s what the KSA Meqor Haim is like compared to the full Meqor Haim Ha-shalem.

    Being lenient, compassionate, open-minded, tolerant, and flexible today is a sure way to be consigned to irrelevance.

  2. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    Fabulous article and well-presented concept, something I have long felt needed saying.

    The rub is this: Easing up on Orthodoxy will be perceived by both extreme wings as a dilution of the ideal. Those searching constantly for new leniencies will jump on it & turn their Judaism into basically Conservative, while the far right will deny the concept because it is too lax.

    While I love the idea, I think it will join other great ideas that remain archival because they just cannot be put into practice, such as socialism and Torah im derech eretz.

  3. David S says:

    What is really needed is a democratization of the Beit Din. Maimonides had great faith in observant non-rabbinic judges, why cant we do the same?

  4. OTD for a reason says:

    Great article. In the 17 years that I was Orthodox I saw Orthodox practice in my community slide increasingly to the right, to the point that I no longer recognized it. I grew weary of the “chumrah of the month club.”

  5. Pierre says:

    R. Lopes Cardozo made a similar call, emphasising the need to..emphasize how much Torah is already kept by the “non-observant”, in terms of Mitzvot bein Adom l’Chavero, supporting Jewish identity and causes, etc. I can’t find it on his website though;

    Appeals to Rambam and “rationalism” are complex; Kellner himself wrote a piece called “could Maimonides Get into Rambam’s Heaven?”, and that’s a really good question, considering how small the Jewish world would be if we held EVERYTHING like Rambam..but BOY they’d be really rational and logical!

    I fight the urge to also comment how infrequently throughout Jewish history Jews have been unanimously and consistantly observant, and how many entire generations and Sages of the Talmud would be considered “off the derech” if held to the parameters of the most consistantly knowledgeable and observant Jews of today (how many of their kitchens could we eat in? Or on Pesach?…). When there was large scale PUBLIC observance (now matter how “hard” it must have felt), it was vastly coerced, and when they power to coerce was gone – Jews left;

    Since we can’t really stomach any more unconscious policing of ourselves and coercion of others perhaps the time has come to apply certain of the kiruv standards ACROSS THE BOARD – as in apply the same communal parameters in mainstream communities as is used in kiruv contexts; aliyot for every/anyone, no locking the parking lot gate, making a mezumin with people who aren’t frum, etc, etc, etc….But should we also apply the Kiruv standard of “anything for chizzuk or chinnuch”; any lie, any half-truth, say anything to keep or draw people in the fold?

    There are consequences to dropping communal standards as well as having standards.

  6. Shachar haamim says:

    orthodoxy needs to focus on in-reach/retention – not on outreach. Orthodoxy loses more that it regains from kiruv. I would even venture to say that the majority of baalei teshuva are actually attracted to a more rigorous, chumra laded version of orthodoxy, thinking that this is somehow legitimate.
    however, one must approach this issue with a healthy dose of reality. let’s be honest – most people who find kitniyot on Pesach don’t go out and buy pitot. they go out and buy chumus with r. ovadia yosef’s kosher le’pesach leochlei kitniyot……….

  7. Pondering says:

    I have been learning a bit about how stories are the most powerful way that religions and cultures pass on not just their practices but their traditions and values. It made me think that perhaps some of the problem is that we’ve yielded aggadah and hashkafa to the non-Orthodox, somehow thinking that the stories and philosophy of Jewish life “do not have any teeth” and so are irrelevant. But the laws – except for those who just like rigor, as noted above – just do not capture people’s souls the way the stories do.

    Perhaps we need to reclaim and tell some of these stories as a way to convey what it really means to be a Jew. That will be a lot more powerful to the non-Orthodox than telling them which fork to use, or giving them a list of acceptable hecksherim.

  8. RyanP says:

    Rabbi Kanefsky, I like where you’re going with this.

    The ultimate question is: does Orthodoxy want to be the religion of the entire Jewish people, or does Orthodoxy want to be the religion of the Orthodox only?

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