Putting Out the Fire
Your Unique Role in Bringing Jews Closer to Torah
By Aharon Ungar
Targum Press, Inc., 2007, 141 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 29, 2009
Many individuals are convinced that they know the truth, the meaning of life and the behavior that people should adopt. They feel compelled to share their knowledge because of their love of people and their fear that unless they become involved and teach the truth to those who do not know it, these people will be harmed. Some add, in this world and in the next.
In 1929, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known as Chofetz Chaim, after the title of his book on ethics, suggested that observant Orthodox Jews should reach out to their non-observant brethren, teach them the life giving truths of Torah, and do all in their power to bring them to the beliefs and practices of Torah Judaism.
Some Orthodox Jews have accepted this rabbi's teaching in different ways. Followers of the Chassidic Lubavitch Movement, for example, are frequently seen standing in Jewish areas trying to persuade fellow Jews to put on the teffilin, articles worn by Orthodox Jews during morning prayers. Many synagogues have outreach programs to the unaffiliated, including special explanatory services for Jews with little knowledge of their religion. Aharon Unger has a reasonable expanded approach.
Ungar was a successful Florida businessman. He and his wife founded Diabetic.com. They sold the business and settled in Israel where Aharon Ungar is studying to become a rabbi, like many members of his family.
He introduces his book with approving statements of rabbis who agree with his approach and the manner in which he presents it. The rabbis praise him for the uniqueness of his ideas, his insights, his positive and practical view of life generally and of Orthodox Judaism in particular, his convincing presentation, and his ability to clear up misconceptions. They call his book excellent, as they should.
One could argue that Ungar ought to have deleted the comments of one of these rabbis. This rabbi called the ideas of the non-observant "the apikorsus of old (that) has dissolved into sheer ignorance." The term "apikorsus" is a derogatory and belittling epithet. It compares the insulted individual with the hated Greek philosopher Epicurus who denied the existence of God. However, Ungar was wise to include this rabbi's diatribe because it stands in sharp contrast to and highlights his own reasonable human approach.
The book's title reflects the idea that there is a fire burning in Judaism, a raging destructive fire of the ignorance of the value of Orthodox Judaism that leads to assimilation, and the need to extinguish this fire.
The answer to the problem, Ungar informs us, lies in kiruv. This Hebrew word means "drawing near." It is the identical root used for the Hebrew word for sacrifices that were brought in the ancient Temple of Judaism. The English "sacrifice" denotes giving up; while the Hebrew contains the idea of "drawing near" to God, seeking to feel the divine in one's life. Similarly, kiruv requires the drawing near to the non-observant person, understanding his or her needs, empathizing with them and dealing with the other as a fellow human being, not as a misguided fool.
Martin Buber, who Ungar does not mention, spoke of the "I Thou" close relationship that should exist between humans and God; kiruv talks eloquently about similar inter-human relationships. One is reminded of the biblical command, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
Ungar's primary thrust is to enlist all Jews to perform kiruv. He lists ten personal benefits that people can derive from such activities. These include being forced to reexamine one's own ideas. This leads to self advancement and to obtaining the incomparable pleasure that comes from helping another. These benefits develop out of the "I Thou" relationship with another, but with kiruv, Ungar states, there is an additional religious and spiritual feeling.
Ungar suggests that a first step in kiruv is to introduce the non-observant Jew to the Shabbat. He is certainly correct. Judaism has taught for centuries that more than the Jew keeping the Sabbath, the (observance of the) Sabbath has kept the Jew (as a Jew). Ungar states that when the Sabbath observance is performed in the home, these two factors – the Sabbath and the home - create a strong bond to Orthodox Judaism. He offers many ideas how this can be done effectively.
The second focus, according to Ungar, is the synagogue. Ungar points out how many synagogues alienate both its regular parishioners and new comers because the congregants have a sense of being judged both unfairly and improperly, and women and children feel excluded.
But the heart of Ungar's presentation is the discussion of ninety nine kiruv ideas. These include the development of a synagogue program called "Turn Friday Night into Shabbat," and getting involved in local Jewish Federations and not shun them, as many Orthodox did in the past, because their leaders are not observant Jews.
Ungar's fine work is contains an appendix of thirteen pages in which he describes a host of resources that persons interested in performing kiruv can use.
All in all, Ungar has produced an exceptionally well-written book that offers the basic information that people need to know not only to bring Jews to Orthodoxy, but to draw people together in fellowship.