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Parshas Vaeira (5771)

Free Judaism and Free Will

One of the popular trends in Jewish outreach these days is to ‘entice’ otherwise disinterested students into joining a Torah learning program or Israel trip through a variety of incentives such as stipends for class attendance and huge discounts on trips.

Of course, there are those who feel that this is morally wrong and even cult-like. Advertising free money if you come to a class about Judaism can be seen as disingenuous and dishonest. They say that it’s one thing if a Jew decides to attend a Torah class of his own free will. But to lure him in with money or a free trip is resorting to trickery and should not be tolerated.

I beg to differ. And I’ll even go a step further. Not only are these types of incentive-based learning programs totally moral and ethical … they are the only hope we have today to stem the tide of Jewish ignorance, apathy, and assimilation.

I mean, just look at the huge success of Birthright – the ultimate “free perk” Jewish program – in which hundreds of thousands of Jewish students, many of whom might otherwise have been totally disinterested in Judaism and Israel, are ‘lured’ into this amazing program with a totally free trip to Israel. Just ten days later, many of them feel like their life has changed forever because of the trip, and they go on to become proud Jews who are passionate about being Jewish and who will do all they can to support Israel. Now think how many young Jews would join Birthright trips if each were charged the real cost of such a trip! Need I say more?

So let me tell you why these programs are perfectly honest and ethical – and I will do so with the help of a verse in this week’s Torah portion.

In Exodus 7:1, G-d tells Moses that he should go with his brother Aaron to Pharaoh’s palace and tell him to send the Children of Israel from his land. G-d then lets Moses know that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh will refuse to let the Jews go even after witnessing all the plagues that would devastate his country.

This raises an obvious difficulty: How can a just G-d Who created man with free will harden Pharaoh’s heart and prevent him from repenting after seeing all the plagues? Why should Pharaoh be punished with more plagues when he had no real chance to change his mind and let the Jewish people go?

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broide (1824–1898), also known as the Alter of Kelm (the Elder of Kelm), has a unique approach to answer this question:

He writes (in Ohr Rasha”z, Parshas Bo) that before the plagues began, Pharaoh had free will to good or evil just like everyone else. However, once he witnessed the plagues – all of which were overt miracles that proved G-d’s existence as well as His Divine Providence over earthly affairs – Pharaoh’s free will was greatly compromised. After all, how can any human being ‘choose’ to do evil in the face of obvious Divine intervention and open miracles?

So G-d “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, i.e. He neutralized the impact these open miracles would have on Pharaoh’s decision whether or not to let the Jews go, thus restoring his true free will just as it had been before the plagues began. And then Pharaoh chose entirely of his own volition to refuse to let the Jews go, and for this he was duly punished by G-d with even more plagues.

I believe that this is a perfect parallel (in reverse) to the times in which we live. You see, the vast majority of young Jews out there today who have rejected their Jewish heritage and who are assimilating faster than you can say ‘Gefilte Fish’, will probably tell you that they made a free-will decision to abandon Judaism and Israel.

This is what these lost Jews might tell you – but for many of them this is simply not the case. One cannot make a true free-will decision to reject Judaism unless he knows what it is that he is rejecting. Sadly, most young Jews out there today have never experienced the wisdom, depth and relevance of Torah and Judaism in their lives nor have they been exposed to the rich history and amazing beauty of the land of Israel. And even those ‘lucky ones’ whose parents sent them to Sunday School or afternoon Hebrew School or even Jewish Day School often had negative experiences due to uninspired teachers and boring curriculums. So if they do ‘choose’ not to have any Judaism in their lives, it could hardly be called a real free-will choice.

A young Jewish fellow was standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem when he was approached by a rabbi who asked him if he might be interested in attending a class about Judaism. The fellow replied that he was an atheist and had no need to learn about a G-d who didn’t exist. The rabbi challenged the young man, “Oh, I see, you’re an atheist! So then you surely must have read through the works of famous atheists such as Schopenhauer, Hume and d'Holbach. We should really sit down together and discuss the fine points of their arguments.” The fellow, now shifting nervously, told the rabbi, “A-a-a-actually, I’m not an atheist, I’m an agnostic!” The rabbi countered, “An agnostic, eh? So tell me, would you say that Bertrand Russell’s agnosticism is similar to that of the Greek Sophist Protagoras or is it closer to Karl Poppers’?” At this point, the fellow was totally flustered and had nothing to say. The rabbi told him, “Listen to me, young man, you’re not an atheist and you’re not an agnostic … you’re an ignoramus! First go to a class and learn all about G-d and Judaism and then you can decide whether it’s true or not!”

Of course, the best solution would be to expose all these young Jews to all that Judaism has to offer through exciting classes and trips etc. This way, after having learned what their Jewish heritage is truly all about, they could actually ‘choose’ to either embrace it or reject it. The only problem is that very few Jews would show up to these programs in the first place.

This is why free perks are absolutely essential and totally ethical if we want the next generation to stay Jewish. These incentives are the only way to get the vast majority of Jews in the door to at least give Judaism a fair hearing. And they are also the only way these Jews can make a true free-will decision about their Judaism. Let them go on a free trip or get paid to attend classes in which they get exposed to all the beauty of the land of Israel and all the wisdom and life lessons contained in our Torah – and then, and only then, can they make a proper decision about how Jewish they want to be for the rest of their lives.

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