On Being Aished
‘Being Aished’ is the common phrase students at Aish Hatorah use to describe the reasons for their drastic lifestyle (and worldview) change as they become religious. This article is written as a detailed critique of Aish’s practices including a discussion of Aish as a Cult; all coming from my experiences with the organization in addition to further research.
Table of Contents On Being Aished ....................................................................................... 1 Aish Through My Eyes ........................................................................ 2 What is Aish? ........................................................................................ 2 My History of Involvement ................................................................. 2 Issue: ‘Scientific Proofs’ & Intellectual Honesty ............................... 3 Issue: Honesty ...................................................................................... 4 Issue: Obsession for Fronts ................................................................. 7 Issue: Miscellaneous ............................................................................ 7 Discussing the Comparison with a Cult ......................................... 8 In Fairness (a Defence of Aish) ......................................................10 References to Other Impressions ...................................................11 Online Opinions ..................................................................................12 The Odd Couple ..................................................................................13
Aish Through My Eyes
What is Aish?
Aish Hatorah is an Orthodox Jewish organization which has its centre, and Yeshiva, in the old city of Jerusalem. Founded by Rabbi Noah Weinberg in 1974, their stated mission is "providing opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds to discover their heritage." At their yeshiva, a range of classes are taught. ‘Essentials ’ which tackles issues of Judaism’s relevance in the modern world and the core principles of faith . ‘Intermediate’ and mor e advanced programmes offer courses in Talmud, Tanakh, Hebrew and Jewish Philosophy. For women there are a number of offered courses as well. These include ‘Jewel’ and ‘Gem’, both learning programmes for different age groups, and EYAHT, a full time seminary under Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg (Widow of the late Rabbi Weinberg). Around the world they are mostly known for their Discovery Seminar , a crash-course offering ‘scientific ’ evidence as proof of Judaism’s truth and validity . Over 100 000 people worldwide have attended this seminar. In addition they are also well known for their low priced Fellowships programme. This is a few weeks long programme where students are taken through a Discovery Seminar in Israel in addition to travelling Israel as tourists. Aish branches outside of Israel host Shabbatons (Friday night communal dinners featuring an Aish Lectur e), and offer heavily subsidised trips (i n addition to Fellowships) overseas including destinations like Australia and South Africa. Finally, ‘Earn & Learn’ is a programme launched wher e students are paid to attend classes once or twice a week covering similar topics to be found in an Essentials or Intermediate class in the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva. As to what they are about, no-one says it better than the founder: “Today we’re losing 20 000 Jewish kids a each year to assimilation ” he says referring to the high intermarriage amongst Jews and assimilation as a “Spiritual Holocaust”. He views the s tudents of his Yeshiva as an army to combat this assimilation. Stating, “ The only way we can survive is to go out ther e and get them *the atheists+. If we don’t they’ll come in here and get us. ” “You give us any secular professional to learn with us for 3m onths and we’ll turn him around to our side. If he’s a University professor, so much the better. The more intellectual he is, the easier the job. ”
My History of Involvement
To give some context as to where all this is coming: I went on an a 3 week Aish Fellowships Programme at the end of 2007, after Grade 12 (Matric). Following that, as a direct result of the ‘ epiphanies ’ offered to me on the trip, I made the decision to go to Aish Hatorah’s Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem for a gap year after highschool. The intention of this Gap Year was to investigate all the claims for and against Judaism in the most intellectually honest way I could manage. After my gap year I also attended an Earn and Learn Programme in Johannesburg.
Issue: ‘Scientific Proofs’ & Intellectual Honesty
One of the most notable issues to me was the nature of the ‘Proofs ’ offered in favour of their conclusions. Their conclusions being something approximately in the order of: God (of the Personal God of religion type) Torah from God (Literally the 5 Books of Moses) (By extension the books of the Prophets and Writings) Oral Torah (The Commentaries, The Talmud and Authority of the Rabbinate) ‘Living up to the Truth ’ Becoming an Orthodox Jew in the way presented by Aish. As Rabbi Gottlieb (Not of Aish Hatorah, but Ohr Somayach) says it, “Therefor e, Judaism is the only responsible way to live.”(Link)
One of the pieces of evidence raised was that of Chazal (The Sages) being aware and quite knowledgeable of modern day science back in their days, which they couldn’t have possibly known if it were not for the hidden insight of the Torah. For which it is often claimed it can be turned over and over, “ For everything is in it”. Presumably we are led to believe this includes accurate History, Science and quite possibly the Dalai Lama’s favourite colour. Examples of this include the knowledge of the only four non-Kosher animals with only one sign of being kosher. It is forgotten that there is a slight issue of this not actually being the case, in addition to the fact that the Hare or Hyrax mentioned is said by the Torah to ‘chew the cud’ (ruminate), which it does not(Link, Link, and one more for good measure Link) Now there is actually a lot more to this, commentaries debate which animals were actually being spoken about, for instance, but that’s exactly the point, no due consideration is given to the complexities at hand. Instead a bite sized tidbit of misleading info that presents their version of Orthodox Judaism in a True (with a capitol T) light is presented without even a hint that it is n’t the whole truth. Another example used is how Chazal supposedly knew the current day estimate of the number of the stars. This, I think, is discussed rather well over here: (Link). In fact for those who have this idea of Chazal having known intricate knowledge of the Universe a few thousand years ago, I invite you to improve your education here (Link). Another example to show is Gerald Schroeder ’s theory of the account of Genesis and the Big Bang as being entirely compatible. I have yet to find a Physicist who has concurred with his use of Special Relativity equations, never mind the issue that one seemingly has to consider God moving relative to the universe to st accomplish this. What can certainly be seen is that whether or not you manage to say the 1 day represents X nd Billions of years and the 2 day Y etc in a physics-consistent way, one still runs into the icky problem of the order of development in the perspective of science NOT being like the order of development of Genesis (despite a lot of forced interpretation). Of course, in truth, it very quickly becomes an involved discussion of questions like “What is the Firmament?”, “Does his application of Physics make sense?”, and “Which interpreters do we have to essentially pick in order to force this possibility? ” And, again, that’s exactly the point. People are encouraged to walk away with the “Wow, a 3500yr old document (Let’s not even start with Documentary Hypothesis) knew truths that science is only just perceiving now!” rather than giving an interesting topic, the relevant tools and the intellectually honest desire to look at both arguments for and against (don’t forget counter -arguments). There are a multitude of Proofs offered in this way: Cosmological, by Design, the Kuzari (Mass Revelation) Argument and the issue of Objective Morality only being possible only with God (Someone in Aish needs to decide if this is a proof or a ‘scary’ consequence of there being no God). And just as many hyped up stories or co-inky-dinkies (which somehow ‘prove ’ by the sheer number of them rather than actually being proofs in themselves) like: The Cohen Lineage (Link) , the Nuremberg Trials Executions having ridiculous comparisons to the story of Purim (Link), miracle stories and/or moral strength of great Rabbis (same stories in any religion for their religious leaders), the success of Jews academically, the existence of Israel , the survival of the Jewish people, the lack of violent crime amongst Jews (don’t mention the excessive white collar crime) and finally Torah Codes (Link). The classic Torah Codes; for which the only major proponents are Michael Drosnin and
Harold Gans. The rest of the mathematics community consider it debunked. Of course in this highly technical and evocative debate only someone like (Dr.) Harold Gans is presented who represents both sides of the argument. Keep in mind, it’s easy to win a debate and convince the audience you’re being comprehensive when you’re the only one doing the talking. There is a hidden irony here. Torah is presented as having access to hidden knowledge of the world and it is modern da y science that confirms it, not vice versa. You’d think this is done to appeal to people’s confidence in science with ideas like the Age of the Universe and a Flat Earth, and say that there isn’t actually any conflict between the two, in fact science is contained within Torah. The irony here is that you will very very often encounter the assertion that scientists hate god, religion and are part of a global conspiracy to mislead people. Or, the less harsh, but equally foolish assumption that The Scientists make the boldest claims from the most inconclusive evidence. Evolution, palaeontology and cosmology all seem to fall in this Bold Claims category. It is two-faced to suggest to students that science is right as we are, as well as tell them in an undertone that scientist hate god or are blind to “the spiritual world ” and everything said in the name of science should be suspect. A friend of mine in Aish Yeshiva explained to me how all of science is done by collecting a few data points and drawing a straight line and then extrapolating from that, “ but how do we know the laws of nature have always been this way?” he tells me. What a straw man you have there. I also remember how a Rabbi told me, after I mentioned a billion year old Un iverse that, “ the scientists, they don’t have a Meso rah (“Tradition”) like we do ”, which is how we know its approx 6000yrs old and they don’t presumably. Thank God they don’t have a Mesorah, they’d get nothing done and science would fail to be the empirical study of the Universe that it is. All this, because they don’t want to encourage intellectual honesty (creating a critical thinking person) nor do they wish to cultivate a passion for investigati ng these potentially emotion-filled and meaningful questions. They want to hurry you to what they believe is the inevitable conclusion, in awe of the One True Religion and most importantly observant and marrying another observant Jew.
I noticed, among others, that Aish presents their Judaism as the uniquely accurate one; the one the nonOrthodox Jews have merely forgotten/abandoned but that all their ancestors invariably followed. You are given the impression, if not told outright, that this is Torah-True Judaism, loyal to what the tex ts dictate Judaism is. All this is done to the exclusion of the multitude of Jewish sects ; each seeing Judaism in a very unique light. Even less reprehensible groups (in orthodox eyes) like Modern-Orthodoxy in comparison to Reform are excluded from mention and being worthy of investigation. The impression given about the Aish Hatorah yeshiva is of it being all encompassing Orthodoxy such that you are able to express your Jewish convictions in the form you choose. The reality of the yeshiva is quite different. The Rabbis which make the atmosphere, classes and personal chats are mostly of Charedi -Judaism, Me’ah She’arim more specifically. And you can see this by unspoken expectation (from both students and Rabbis) that those who become religious adopt the black and white uniform, by the very pointed effort NOT to c elebrate or in any way acknowl edge Yom Yerushalayim or Yom Ha’atzmaut nor make space for those who do, by the prominent anti -secular statements (Don’t da re mention Tel Aviv) and, it goes without saying, the far right-wing rhetoric. Related to this, a Reform Jew (Link) claims she was told Aish ’s Fellowships was pluralistic in order to attract her on to the programme only to find out it means ‘Orthodox’. I cannot vouch for this myself. When I went on the Fellowships programme, while I don’t remember being told this explicitly, it was obvious to everyone what they wer e affiliating themselves with. Then again this is South Africa, where Reform and Conservative are insignificant and so very few equate Judaism with anything other than Orthodoxy. Of those who believe in a religious Judaism it is Orthodoxy. Or in the case of the non-observant, the Shul that they don’t go to, is an Orthodox one. Many S. African Secular Jews perceive Orthodoxy to be correct and true (or at least intrinsically
meaningful), but that they simply choose not to live by an orthodox lifestyle. (Completely my impression, for those who disagree with the previous sentence.) Another dishonesty I encountered through Aish is their misrepresentation of the facts on the ground of the state of the r eligious Jewish Community. The picture painted is of purpose, meaning, happiness, fulfilment and spirituality with future images of the most romanticised concept of marriage ever with smiling laughing kids. This is contrasted with the image of the empty lifestyle of secular youth full of sex, drugs, crime, vanity, instant-gratification, meaninglessness and immorality. Never did I ever hear a speaker or trip leader discuss any problems within the Orthodox world. Of child abuse, oppression of women (such as the inability to procure Gets (Jewish-law divorce certificate)), poverty (often by choice), depr ession, repression, closedmindedness. Now obviously many of Aish would say that True Judaism isn’t for any of the above. Sure, okay. But is it not disingenuous to present a false dichotomy between an empty evil secular world and the Garden of Eden in the or thodox community? The obvious reason for this , correct me if I’m wrong, is TO create this false dichotomy; because we all know that people are heavily influenced based on what feels good, and what they are told is good is what Aish wants them to be, anything else is mere excuses to revel in disgusting ecstasy of vane instant-gratification and immorality that won’t make you happy in the long run. One should be wary of those that vilify one worldview in order to elevate their own. While searching through the net about Aish I came across the sale of this book: The Eye of the Needle: Aish Hatorah’s Kiruv Primer by Yitzchak Coopersmith. Kiruv refers to outreach; bringing Jews back to Jewish orthodoxy. I think the paragraph detailing the book is a gem. Pay attention to the Italics (by me).
“ People are sometimes reluctant to teach evidence for G-d's existence because they feel that this reduces the reality of G-d's existence to a logical theorem and trivializes Judaism. This is indeed true for an observant Jew, who not only believes in Hashem, but has experienced His presence, whether through davening, Shabbos or learning Torah. For this Jew, limiting an awareness of Hashem to "scientific reasoning" deprives him of a much greater, more meaningful religious experience. However, a Jew who does not believe in G-d must first be convinced of His existence before he can begin to work on developing a relationship with Him. In his case, intellectual evidence is a necessary foundation for an appreciation of Judaism and a relationship with G-d. Everyone understands that it would be absurd to limit one's appreciation of his mother to an analysis of genetic similarities. Someone who has been raised and cared for in his mother's home should have progressed much further. But an adopted child, who is trying to determine the identity of his natural mother, cannot be expected to create a relationship without real evidence that this particular woman is in fact his mother. Finally, while there may be a slight risk in teaching evidence to religious people, because an occasional person may get confused, there is no such risk in offering "evidence" to non-believers. Since they do not believe in G-d to begin with, logical evidence can only enhance their commitment.”
Does anyone else find it odd that teaching evidence for God redu ces the r eality of Gods existence? One would think that if anything it would make it more real and immanent. Anyway, that’s another subject and not the meat of this paragraph. In the second last sentence the subtle point is made that the ig norant, “ Emuna Pshuta ” (simple faith) is preferable to educating religious people because they may become “ confused” (I read as, “doubtful ”). For the non-r eligious however, hell, let’s throw everything out the bag because it can only improve their observance. To spell it out: The ends justify the means. What’s important here is that you end up a practising and believing orthodox Jew just like the author, how you get your intended target ther e is unimportant. Is the aim here to create a critical thinking independent human being, whom incidentally Aish are confident will come to the conclusion orthodoxy is true? No. If it wer e, they would ‘educate’ the r eligious in the hope that they would make their own choices whether or not Aish liked them at the en d of the day. Instead the aim is creating orthodox Aish clones. Relating to the last paragraph: I remember being told a story of the Rebbi lying to a (soon to be interfaithmarried) couple in order to get them to split up. Whether the story is true or not doesn’t matter and I certainly don’t know. When I asked the Rabbi at Aish Hatorah’s yeshiva telling my class this story if that was okay, he responds “It is permissible to lie and decei ve if the goal is holy ” without batting an eyelid. And no, being ‘Holy’ here isn’t referring to make a bride feel beautiful on her wedding day by lying to her if necessary, it means Damned Lies in order to get your subject to make the religious choices you value. I wish I could say this attitude represented only a tiny portion of the Kiruv bunch, but if the implicit mind -set of the Kiruv book above and my numerous experiences are anything to go by it is much greater than a mere handful.
Here I want to tackle the issue of ‘Data Manipulation’. This issue was brought to my mind by a particular Blogger. When a person interested in becoming religious and Torah values etc asks what the Torah says about [insert here either: Women, Non-Jews, Genocide, Mysticism (will explain this one soon)] they are very likely not going to be told about all the (understatement warning) ‘controversial ’ passages in the Gemorra relating to the above topics. Tell the truth, the whole truth and then come tell said person however it is you deal with those obviously sensitive questions. It is an outright lie to make it sound as if the Torah and every major personality in the Torah is the greatest feminist, or more liberal than Liberals and pretend that it’s the first and last word on the matter. Women are not allowed to be witnesses, Non-Jews have had some rather nasty things said about them and Genocide is what religious Jews are commanded to do against Amalek and all this from basic texts, the Torah and Gemorra, and these are all small examples of which there are many. To clarify: I am not saying Judaism is sexist, warlike etc. Ther e are those who interpret it in that way and there are many more that do not. However when you are asked a question which seeks an objective and comprehensive answer on a sensitive topic and you manipulate the data to say what you like (to sugar-coat) instead of presenting facts and encouraging discussion, you are a devious liar. Now how the hell does Mysticism fit in here? Well it doesn’t fit it, if we’re considering disgusting immoral statements. How it is often dealt with is in the same manner. I’m using the term in a very broad way. Should someone ask something like, “Has God always been believed in as being incorporeal?” or “Are the 13 principles of faith universally agreed on? Have they always been?” and the answer is given is the same watered-down, dogmatic, data-manipulated way as the Moral topics, then this Mysticism topic fits in. Often it can be done by reading in metaphor where the commentator is talking quite literally or vice versa. When you give a commentator his opinion instead of the other way round, because it doesn’t fit in with your view, you commit the same treason to the Torah you claim to respect. I have been known to harp on about this, so I ’ll make an extra-special effort to keep this short. In Orthodox circles the statement, “You ’re not allowed to believe in” X is often pronounced by people having a discussion. Do tell your Kiruvee that at the end of the day if you were not allowed to believe that the Earth is round, then reason be damned because somehow you would convince yourself t hat it is flat. In short, you really aren’t intellectually honest if you use and believe the phrase; “You’re not allowed to believe” has any meaning . The Kiruvee has the right to know you’re a self-deluding fool , but it’s okay, you can tell him/her that he/she’s not allowed to believe it. Last in this sub-heading: For context, Eyaht is a seminary run by Rebbetzin Weinberg, the wife of Rabbi th Weinberg, the founder Rosh Yeshiva of Aish Hatorah who has since passed away as of the 5 of February 2009. A quote (Link):
“ When I went to Eyaht, the Weinbergs were pretending to live in 1 apartment. Eyaht girls are in the apartment daily basically cleaning, cooking, etc but under the guise that we were learing to be Jewish women. We were also privy to the “workings” of the Weinbergs home. Eyaht girls were never invited for Shabbat, despite cooking the majority of the meals. We were told that the Weinbergs only have family for Shabbat, no guests. Half of the apartment was off limits, supposedly because of sniyut. Rabbi Weinberg was never around and most of the women assumed that he was busy studying Torah and that they lived a very sniyut life. When I found out that the Weinbergs were separated, I called an Aish Rebbetzin to ensure it was not Leshon Hara. This woman confirmed the information but did not understand why I needed to know the truth. She told me that they were not informing anyone because they did not want to hinder the shiddach opportunities for their 70+ grandchildren. The Weinberg’s supposedly have been separated for years. She also told me some additional information, not positive things, about Eyaht, which why in her words, “Aish does not encourage women to go Eyaht.” I was stunned. My friends and I were never discouraged from going to Eyaht or taking things “with a grain of salt,” while we were there. Many of the women who go to Eyaht do so for the dream of having a wonderful HAPPY marriage. The Torah world seemed like the perfect solution for the divorce crisis in the secular world. R. Weinberg dishes out HER thoughts on marriage and how to have a proper Jewish home. We all think she is living the perfect frum life with her “talmid chacham” husband; the whole concept is romanticized. I am positive that the vast majority of Eyaht girls do not know about the Weinbergs. It would probably crush them to know that their life was dictated by a woman who is living a lie herself. No one likes to feel duped, especially when you have changed your life 180. ”
Issue: Obsession for Fronts
It is relatively well known that Aish Hatorah is behind the production of the movie Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West. This movie was criticised as being hysterical, islamophobic and propaganda. Aish had denied any involvement with the production of the movie, though I don’t know if that h as changed over the last few years. Consider that Aish is supposedly apolitical and it was alleged this DVD was released to influence American elections. Never mind the vile and often hypocritical hate-speech… Anyway her e’s the links for you to read all ab out it. No need for me to paraphrase.
1. Exposed: The Jewish Week Uncovers Aish HaTorah's Illegal Election Meddling 2. The Atlantic reports on the Jewish 'hysterics' behind 'Obsession'/'Third Jihad' campaign 3. CAIR calls for FEC investigation of Aish Hatorah cult's involvement in phobic 'Obsession' movie 4. WHO IS BEHIND THE ‘RADICAL ISLAM’ DVD?
By the wa y, I was at the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva in 2008 when they ‘pr emiered’ their latest instalment, ‘ The Third Jihad’ on the night of Tisha Báv. It was quite a rancid attack on Islam, though I do remember a token one line disclaimer at the beginning saying it was not referring to all Muslims. I left a note of what I thought about it; we wer e all asked to write what we thought on a piece of paper. Doubt it did anything. In addition of being accused of making Front organisations in order to make and spread their film Obsession, they have been accused of being behind a number of other companies such as Honest Reporting and Jerusalem Online University (Link). All very serious allegations, and from what I know, all are unanswered by Aish.
Rampant Racism amongst rabbis . There were a number of Rabbis who made racist remarks about everyone from Arab, Christian, Muslim, Sephardi and Black people. Two of the Rabbi’s, initially from South Africa, made remarks constantly about “Shochs ” and the favourite, “Kaffers ” to the effec t of them being less than human at best. Don’t forget the often heard, “Goy ” in a very non -flattering way. Among the students who consider themselves Aished, I noticed that a number of them stated outright that they have many friends that they no longer have all that much in common with any more, but that they r emain friends in order to Kiruv them. In addition a lot of these students thought of their secular families back home as a hindrance that needs to be defeated in order for their ‘transformation’ to be complete. Truly role-model worthy behaviour. Rejection of enlightenment values as Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, Aish's joint UK executive director, told the Sunday Times: “ 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 .” Many really want the ghettos again to force Jews to remain enclosed in their Ghetto Judaism. They prefer this over the alternative of the freedom of choice and information to choose their own path in life. But this echoes the point I’ve made many times so far. More Religious Jews is preferred to more intellectuall y honest people. Last but not least, Aish Hatorah contributes to one of the great social problems facing Israel , namely, unemployment. Many of these graduates never move on and become stuck in a Kollel system, not supporting their own families with a job, but instead become an unnec essary burden on the state. It must be said that the amount of students that do this is not nearly as many as some other yeshiva’s and I definitely (to their credit?) heard a number of Rabbi’s mention the importance of being abl e to earn ones Parnassa (Livelihood).
Discussing the Comparison with a Cult
Aaron Joshua Tapper [To whom I am very grateful for the access to his paper which I have quoted from throughout this entire article] wrote a paper for the Jewish Journal of Sociology in 2002 titled, “The ‘cult’ of Aish Hatorah: Ba’alei Teshuva and the New Religious Movement Phenomenon”. In it Aaron compares Aish Hatorah to New Religious Movements (NRM) of America in the 60s and 70s such as the Unification Church, Church of Scientology, Transcendental Meditation and ISKCON (known as the Hare Krishna’s ). Following is a summary of Aaron’s Paper: Borrowing from Brian Wilsons definition of a NRM, “…new cultural lifestyle, a level of engagement markedly different from that of a traditional church of Christianity; Charismatic Leadership, predominantly young and drawn in disproportionate measure from the educated and middle-class sections of society; social conspicuity; international operation and emergence within the last decade and a half”. Aaron’s working definition of a NRM is , “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 excessive focus on fundraising.” It should be said, before Aaron’s comparison with NRMs is , that Aaron made a point of not using the term ‘cult’ to refer to Aish or other organisations with which he was making the comparison, but rather the term NRM. As he says, “This is because of the pejorative connotations of the term cult.” Charismatic Leadership: Rabbi Weinberg is a passionate charismatic leader. Many of his created courses are still used to this day at Aish. Though he was often outside the Yeshiva raising funds his presence is still felt at the Yeshiva. He is often quoted by the teachers, many of whom were ordained as Rabbis by him. “Aish Hatorah’s success can largely be attributed to Weinber g’s passion and the manner in which this is conveyed to his students, as well as to his donors.” Submission to Authority: Student’s are taught to submit to the authority of the orthodox Rabbis. There is no plurality in the interpretation of Halakha and only the ultra-orthodox view is allowed and valid. Non-orthodox and even some Modern Orthodox understandings are invalid. Moreover, Teachers denigrate other Jewish denominations in addition to non-Jewish traditions. Rigid Ideology, Fundamentalist Theology: Unlike some orthodox communities Aish teaches that both Oral and Written Torah were received directly at Sinai and that this understanding is definitive. In addition there is a major chasm between themselves and the Secular. Rabbi Weinberg: “ We have truth and meaning on our side, and we must be pro-active in exposing the secular confusion, emptiness and contradictions…Not only has secularism drawn away a major part of our people, but it has seeped into the observant community as well. Up until recently, The Jewish People never knew of juvenile delinquency or any of the horrific abuses out there today.” In many of the Aish classes you will hear of the “Us vs. Them” where’s the world’s successes are due to ‘us ’ at the problems on ‘them’. Students are actively discouraged from spending time on any activity deemed to be ‘Western’. Apocalyptic Beliefs: A Messiah will come and teach all of humanity to keep Torah in their appropriate way. He will come on any day should all Jews follow Halakha. Communal Lifestyle: Aish owns some 20+ buildings in the Old City including dorms, classes and admin offices. Students live in a very isolated close knit environment living in (largely subsidised) dorms with their meals in the Aish Dining Hall. They are often invited to stay at the Rabbi’s for Shabbat and go there for meals furthering their connection with them. Not initially, but inevitably, students are encouraged to wear the dress standards (being the black and white uniform) and other externally displayed Mitzvot. Changing one’s dress gives one greater acceptance in the community. Isolation: The students are aggressively encouraged not to return to the secular world and to remain in the fold. They are often reminded of the “Spiritual Holocaust” of the secular brethren who go ‘Off the Derech’ (Off the path of orthodoxy), that they may fall into old habits and lose their place in the World to Come. Hate/Fear of Outsiders: Aish is careful not to allow non-Jews into the institution. Prospective students must fill out a questionnaire that questions the ‘Jewishness’ of them and their family. They require that non -Halakhic Jews must convert in order to enrol at the institution. Some teachers have asserted that non-Jews don’t have Jewish souls and are in essence different from a Jew. Non-Jews are limited in what they may be taught, if they are taught in the 1 st place. My own point to add: Throughout the year I was aware of couples who were taught and spoken to privately
by the Rabbis. In these couples one of the partners were Jewish. They did this in an effort to get the Jewish partner to pull out of the relationship or at the very least that the other partner would convert to Judaism and not allow the Jewish one to ‘marry out’. Active Missionary Work: Weinberg taught that a major purpose of being taught at Aish is to then follow in Outreach. Since Frum (Religious) from Birthers (FFBs) have trouble integrating the newbie students into the world of orthodoxy, Ba’alei Teshuva are encouraged to enter the Kiruv world. These graduate Kiruv Rabbis are taught Aish’s teaching techniques and they speak the language of those their constituencies to better persuade non-religious Jews to attend their classes. “People feel comfortable with us; we’ve walked in their moccasins” Aish’s Model of Kiruv closely matches the 5 Tier Model of the Unification Church spelled out by John Lofland. 1. Picking Up Recruiters approach members of the public directly or indirectly (such as using the media). Aish widely uses the indirect method, however in Jerusalem active, face to face, missionary work is pursued. Free lodging and food is offered in exchange for attending lessons. At Hebrew University free pizza and use of washing machines was used there. Recruiters try to develop relationships in an extremely friendly manner. Programmes like Speed-Dating serve to gain Aish notoriety and name recognition for this purpose. 2. Hooking Through face-to-face interaction it is made clear to the potential recruit that s/he is welcome to join. Sometimes a ‘buddy’ is assigned to that recruit to connect with the recruit on an emotional level. This is facilitated by numerous programmes that Aish authors including lectures, trips and communal dinners. Recruits are asked to join mailing lists informing them of upcoming events and the recruiters themselves are taught how to engage in conversation to develop closer relationships with recruits. 3. Encapsulating This occurs in weekend trips. A group collective focus is created in which participants and expected to engage in all the group sessions together. Aish offers weekend trips to keep Shabbat with them. Other trips like Fellowships are created to allow deeper commitment to study in an Aish environment. Their schedules are all day long and the recruiters are asking to focus all their attention on the programme they are attending. Many are misled on the exact nature of the programme regarding the amount of class, male/female separation and the ‘plurality’ of the programme. 4. Love-Bombing This is the welcoming of a recruit into the community and where one is encouraged to participate in a more permanent basis . Once welcomed into the community recruits are invited to Rabbi’s and teachers for meals in a very open-armed and loving way. In the context of Aish warm environment recruits are given the opportunity to study in Yeshiva for an indeterminate length of time, often free of charge. 5. Commitment This is the time a recruit must decide to commit on a permanent basis to the organization. For instance: after the initial casual Essentials course one must decide to commit to the minimum of 5hrs a day in the Intermediate Course at the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva. In addition, a potential Semikha (Rabbinical Ordination) student has a written commitment to work for Aish in future in return for financial assistance. Aish’s missionary activity is what most distinguishes it from other Jewish Education organizations. Many in the Jewish Community voice opposition to Aish activities, often citing the concept that Judaism is a non-proselytizing religion. Excessive Focus on Fundraising: Aish raises close to 20 million dollars annually (year 2000 estimate). Aish solicits funds and public endorsements from famous figures, gaining itself credibility, legitimacy and further fund-raising success. These figures include: Kirk Douglas, William Shatner, Steven Spielberg, Larry King, Michael Milken, Jeffery Katzenberg and Noah Wyle. (Their involvement as a result of a Discovery Seminar or having attended an Aish FundRaising Dinner.) Notable Non-Jews who have donated include: Tom Cruise (I kid you not), Nicole Kidman, Ronald Reagan and former USA Ambassador to the UN, Dr Jeanne Kirk. For Organisations that have donated we have Time Warner, Walt Disney and Showtime Network. Ironically many of the donors, Jewish even, would be unable to have their children study at the Yeshiva as they are not Halakhically Jewish. As a further irony, in Aish’s Audio Library there are lectures lambasting The Unification Church as a “closed cult” and its members as “drones ” and “zombies ”. In regards to their Donor and well -known Scientologist Tom Cruise, Scientology has been referred to as a “destructive cult”. Aaron Tapper concludes that though Aish is somewhat founded on traditional Judaism it is like a NRM. (I ’m sure you thought to yourself that, “hey, that’s pretty normal ” regarding items such as Apocalyptic Beliefs and the nature of the Oral Torah.) It differs in that it targets only Jews and not everyone. How it differs from other Jewish Outreach is that it has an intensely aggressive Outreach Strategy and in its sophisticated fundraising.
In Fairness (a Defence of Aish)
Earlier I mentioned the presentation of Aish’s mantra as Unique and True to the exclusion of other Jewish sects. I think it is important to mention the following in Aish’s defence: In all fairness, this attitude is very common amongst the orthodox (umbr ella term) and understandable (despite whether or not you agree), after all many of the tenets of Reform and Conservative Judaism are directly opposed to Orthodox dogma. I, for one, don’t expect the Catholic Church’s Out reach to mention Hinduism as a legitimate alternative. Now you may think the comparison is too extreme, but from the eyes of orthodoxy it isn’t that far off, and it’s quite something to think someone else’s beliefs are foolish, but it’s another to expect him/her to adopt different beliefs because you find them offensive. This also applies in regards to the expectation of there being a home at Aish for something like Modern Orthodoxy. Simply put: most of the Rabbis are the furthest thing from Modern Orthodoxy; it’s no surprise that it is frowned on openly. In addition it seems to be commonly accepted, rather naively, that Refor m and Conservative are offshoots of Judaism and what Orthodoxy (of the mor e Charedi flavour) we have today is as old as the R eligion/Nation itself. For some reason people think of Moses coming down from Sinai with Peyot, sorry Pey’ez, as if what Charedi Judaism is today were not forged in the ghettos. For those who didn’t catch the hint with [Peyot/Pey’ez] is that there is also a Sephardic flavour to orthodoxy. And no, the difference amongst different Orthodox groups is often mor e than Halachic decisions and often has strongly differing elements of Theology (for lack of a better term). So there is an underlying ‘common knowledge’ that their version of Judaism is fundamental, it’s hard to say it’s the worst thing ever for presenting this, as it’s hardly a new concept. I heard it said that people will always say that someone who converts to another faith is brainwashed. And it’s a fair point. It is incredibly dismissive and naïve to think that everyone’s choices are made for them, but not me. By and large, Aish’s programmes, seminars and Yeshiva all have a very clear agenda (In which the organisers totally believe themselves). If people find their arguments to be convincing, they are responsible to themselves to do their own research about all the claims they heard. Your opinion, at the end of the day, cannot be dictated to you. Should you submit to someone else’s opinion, for whatever reason, that is a choice that you are responsible for. That being said, it is not fair to say that Aish just offers a product which people choose to agree or not, like a political party. Eddie Izzard remarks about how guns don’t kill people, but they sure do help. I think it’s the case here, Aish can’t give you your opinion but the infectious Group -think, group polarization, love bombing and the sale of a beautiful orthodox lifestyle sure do help in shaping your opinion. This is manipulative and, to an extent, forces people hands because what they want to be true, they will want to find a way to make it so. In addition, it should be mentioned , some people simply don’t have the critical faculties or the confidence to even dare challenge what they are told. What can be done for them? At Aish, the knowledge that they are considered a cult by many is common. They certainly don’t see themselves as such and if ‘Cult’ brings up images of malignant manipulation of commoners by evil people who should know better, then I would have to say that they cer tainly are not like that. They sell a product they believe in, often in a very intellectually dishonest way. An oft-r epeated joke to the accusation tha t they conduct in brainwashing is, “Sometimes brains need a good wash”. I used to laugh at that, now it puts a bad taste in my mouth. I saw this sentence in a blog and I just had to show it to you: To paraphrase the quote attributed to Bismarck “baalei tshuvah are like sausages , it is better no t to see them being made.”
References to Other Impressions
It is interesting to see how missionaries converting to another religion or other streams of Judaism other than orthodoxy are received to vociferously, however missionizing Kiruv is perfectly acceptable. It is also odd to notice how accepting of pseudo-spiritual airy-fairy nonsense many of those taken in by Kiruv organizations are. I know many who would scoff at sightings and stories of UFO’s but would then take hold of your palm and tell you your future and who consider astrology, witchcraft, Wicca-magic, ghosts and new-age spiritualism as legit and real. Anyway, enough of my opinion, here is a collection of other opinions I thought should be mentioned: “If you do not have evidence of money and if you have very real, challenging questions about the Aish presentation of Judaism, you won't last long at Aish. Conversely, that sa me student, full of probing questions and not buying the Aish spin, will last fa r longer if h e or his fa mily are wealthy. Aish actively weeds out nonconformists at all levels of their prog ramme. Anyone deemed to be "no t Aish material" is quickly pushed out. This pro cess is relentless and hea rtless. ” (Link) 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 pu rely by th e To rah. He will not eat in my house and adheres to every single mitzvah.' (Link) “I am reminded of a sto ry of an individual I first met in the ea rly 80's who, while many of his friends attended my shiurim at that time, stayed a way. I spoke to him about why he doesn't co me. His answer was that he didn't need it. He learned the tru th in Israel and had no questions; it all seemed so obvious and intellectually co rrect, he had no questions thus no need for a class built on questions and no need for further study of what he thought was basic. A few years later, I ran into this person. At that time, he was a PhD candidate in Talmud at a leading university and was not observant in the least. To illustra te his p resent lifestyle which did not include any practice of Judaism he told me tha t, while he apprecia ted th e intellectual challenge in Talmud thus stayed with it as an academic vocation, the way he ma rked the previous Yom Kippu r was by going skating and having pizza with a Chinese girl. I asked him what happened. He told me that while he was doing his Master's he avoided any course on Biblical Criticism for why did he need this, as he termed it, "foolishness." When he was applying for the PhD, though, he was told that he would never get this degree if he didn't take at least one course in Biblical Criticism so he decided to take a su mmer course in this subject just to get it over with -- but h e already know how ridiculous it was. Within one month of starting that course he dropped everything and it was my p ercep tion that th e reaction was so violent and abrupt because he also felt ex ceedingly foolish in adopting this p revious dogmatic approach against Biblical Criticism. I then actually reminded him of our conversa tion and how he thought he knew everything and didn't need further study of hashkafa and thought. This is the problem. If something simple and ultima tely without dep th is presen ted as th e grea test wisdom in the wo rld, eventually this weakness will be found out -- and the result will be that people will turn against the whole enterprise thinking tha t the simplicity that is inherently lacking is all that this system offers and there is no need to investiga te fu rther. In bringing people to Orthodoxy, one may think that they are doing a great service in presenting everything as neat and clean bu t in the end, when the co mplexity and difficulty in understanding Torah comes out, the reaction to being misled with the presentation of simplicity may be drastic. ” - Rabbi Ben Hech t (Link)
“Is it faintly possible that so me outrea ch is conducted with th e objective of turning people in to a predetermined product which merely mirrors the kiruv-professional’s o wn life-style and affiliation? Many people are critical of a certain Chassidic group, whose objective appea rs to p roduce new members of the sect, but might some parts of the kiruv wo rld be doing the sa me thing? Are religious neophytes just potential new members of our group, to be steered in to a particular life-style and social-setting? Might, we perhaps without even realising it, envisage the newly-interested couple a few yea rs into their religious journey living in a certain neighbourhood in a certain type of home, their children attending a certain type of school, with ce rtain rabbis advising them, with certain aspira tions: he learning in a certain type of institution, wea ring a certain typ e of hat, sh e pushing a certain type of baby-stroller while wearing a certain type of hair-covering?” (Link) If you are not o rthodox, Minister of Information Becher wan ts to boss a round who you can and cannot marry, and as a religious rule, orthodox Jews don't get ro mantically involved with nonorthodox Jews. In other words, "You can only marry with other Jews, but us Jews a re more equal than the rest of the Jews and we are too good for you." (Link)
While I was at Yeshiva in 2008 there was this article written by Danielle Kubes which caused quite a stir within Aish Hatorah’s Yeshiva. ( Link) And the Aish response: (Link) http://www.frumsatire.net/2010/06/28/top-10-kiruv-indoctrination-practices/ - Satire at the practices of Kiruv. http://www.frumsatire.net/2010/05/13/so-you-want-to-be-a-kiruv-rabbi/ - For a laugh at the stereotypical Kiruv rabbi. A piece of satire. http://www.aish.com/spirituality/odysseys/Next_Year_In_Jerusalem3_Part_1.asp - A mother ’s perspective who she says lost her son to Aish. God is a mafia boss - Blog by Frum Heretic
http://www.rickross.com/referenc e/ultra-orthodox/ultra1.html The Pain of a Jewish Mother: A cautionary
http://www.jewishsocialist.org.uk/aish.html#note7 – Are young, thinking Jews being targeted by a new
http://modernorthoprax.blogspot.com/2009/01/kiruv-ethics.html - Rules and principles that should be
obeyed in Kiruv. ( http://kvetcher.net/category/aish/)-Website down as off 03-04-2011 – A whole host of articles regarding Aish Hatorah
The Odd Couple
Finally here’s a rather harsh, but not too far off, if at all, cartoon . See here for the information surrounding the cartoon.