Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi
Parashat Toldot-includes current events
(from 00:28:15 to 00:32:28)
Rav Avigdor Miller on the Poor Apikores
This Jew grows up “captive” (literally or figuratively) in a completely non-Jewish environment with no chance of learning about Judaism or fulfilling mitzvot.
Their lack of mitzvah observance grants them a status of “innocent” in Shamayim.
And understandably so.
Like many other frum Jews, I was taught that all non-religious Jews (including many formerly religious Jews) fall into the category of tinok sheh nishba.
In other words, they aren’t accountable for their transgressions because it’s not at all their fault. And as to why they don’t come back to the fold—or why they don’t even consider authentic Torah Judaism an option—well, that’s all part of the tinok sheh nishba dynamic.
(And granted, there is also tremendous anti-Torah propaganda in society today.)
But I started having experiences that made me question this oh-so comfortable outlook.
Tinok sheh nishba has more to do with a person being held accountable in the World of Truth.
And that’s where things get dicey.
Just because I want to be generous-minded doesn’t mean that my generosity holds any water in the Heavenly Beit Din.
Having said that, all my learning has shown me that I’m still more accountable for my sins than they are for theirs.
I’ve committed myself to Torah. I’ve read the mussar books.
Believe me, I have what to answer for!
But just like I need to be honest about myself and my own accountability, I always need to be honest about the terms and ideas presented in halacha and Chazal.
Circumstances showed me that the label of tinok sheh nishba isn't so simple as to mindlessly apply to every single non-frum Jew...
An Authentic Tinok Sheh Nishba
My chassidish friend had a coworker who, upon finding out my friend was Jewish, responded, “Oh, you’re Jewish? You know, some of my relatives are also Jewish.”
“Like who?” said my friend.
“Like my mother.”
Turns out that this person’s Jewish mother died when he was very young and his non-Jewish father married a non-Jewish woman.
Understandably, this unwitting Jewish child felt his non-Jewish stepmother as a real mother. To compound things, their area hosted very few Jews and certainly no religious Jews.
I think we can all agree this person fits the classic definition of a tinok sheh nishba.
(And just for knowing, my chassidish friend invited him to her Seder that year, where she and her husband introduced him to Judaism.)
But let’s go on to people considered tinok sheh nishba, and yet...
Exhibit #1: Just Breeze On By
All the guys working there were young energetic frum guys. They were bouncing around and having a great time. They related to my aunt and I with good humor and friendliness, making us feel like we were part of their gang.
With my aunt standing right there, I explained as inoffensively and nicely as I could that I needed the food wrapped in a way that it could go into a non-kosher oven. My aunt was feeling so comfortable that she intervened to explain that her home wasn’t kosher, but she wanted to be able to warm up food for me.
(I think she was also testing them to see how they'd respond to her open declaration of kefirah.)
The guys didn’t break their jolly stride.
They pulled off enormous swathes of tin foil and started wrapping my food with gusto.
The frum guys were so good-natured and understanding, I felt truly grateful toward them. My aunt was smiling the whole time. Even after we left, she continued smiling for the next couple of blocks.
It was a big kiddush Hashem (and thank you very much to all of you frummies who treat your customers with such grace and understanding wherever you are—kol hakavod on the wonderful kiddush Hashem).
This aunt has also met other frum Jews and they have also treated her with graciousness and open arms.
Yet she continues to sporadically attend their Reform congregation and boasts of activities like when they organized a choir to raise money for iffy environmental causes.
Seeing as she lived her whole life between Brooklyn and Long Island (not exactly frum-free areas) and seeing as she has encountered very nice frum Jews who even spontaneously invited her and my uncle to their home for Shabbat, does she truly fall into the category of tinok sheh nishba?
Exhibit #2: My Ego Doesn't Let Me
His love and passion for Judaism is contagious and his favorite part of the Torah is Sefer Iyov (Book of Job). The son of very assimilated parents, he also grew up in Brooklyn and had a lot of interaction with tepid Orthodoxy.
He never would’ve married a non-Jew, but the Conservative-which-is-actually-radically-Liberal movement of Jews told him that their “conversions” are completely kosher (even though their “converts” needn’t keep the basic 10 Commandments, let alone other vital mitzvot, like taharat mishpacha, etc.).
So he married his non-Jewish girlfriend who agreed to “convert”—which means he was living with a non-Jewish woman for most of his life and none of his children are actually Jewish.
In their later years, both he and his non-Jewish wife repeatedly experienced many positive interactions with fully Orthodox Jews, including Chabad shlichim.
During a visit, I once said to him, “I don’t mean this offensively at all and I hope you’ll take this in the spirit I mean it in…but I can’t help thinking that you would have made a really amazing and wonderful Orthodox Jew. And I mean that in the nicest, most respectful way possible.”
He quickly reassured me that he knew I meant that as a compliment and that he definitely took it that way—and that he was even honored that I thought so highly of him.
Then he mulled over his response.
Finally, he said, “I really thank you for that praise. And yeah, I think I could’ve been Orthodox, but…” He sighed and shook his head. “I’m just not knowledgeable enough to really fit in with the other Orthodox guys.”
“You could catch up!” I blurted out. After all, this guy had a degree in engineering from an Ivy League college. And he also knew Hebrew.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’d rather be a knowledgeable Conservative Jew than an ignorant Orthodox Jew.”
I couldn’t believe he actually said it outright. (Also, I’d no idea he felt this way.) He was basically saying that becoming frum wouldn’t be comfortable for his ego. He was choosing his religious system based on his ego, of all things.
How’s that going to hold any water in Shamayim?
And is that tinok sheh nishba?
Exhibit #3: Just If You Hold a Gun to My Head
But is she?
The product of a completely assimilated Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, she attended Hebrew school held at the JCC on Wednesday nights throughout her high school years. It featured an eclectic mix of teachers, including some frum teachers. One of her favorite classes was Mishna taught by an Orthodox rabbi. Her other favorite class was taught by a Chabad rabbi. (His classes were always packed—much more than anyone else’s, including any of the non-Orthodox teachers.)
When I became frum, I hosted her as a single woman. Once, we even spent Shabbos by a frum family in Far Rockaway. She also spent Shabbos with me and my husband in Eretz Yisrael in a charedi neighborhood with no cars or radios on Shabbat, the whole Shabbat atmosphere, etc.
As far as I know, not only has she met frum people, but all of her interactions with frum people have been extremely positive.
When I once mentioned how I always thought she was the smart one in our relationship, she looked uncomfortable and said that she always thought I was the smart one.
Flabbergasted, I pointed out that she was scoring straight top marks in honors calculus in 12th grade while I took dumb-people algebra (where they spread the algebra over 2 years rather than one) and even then, I needed to go to summer school to make up for flunking it. (Admittedly, failing beginners Algebra had more to do with lack of effort than lack of intelligence, but still.)
“Yeah,” she said, “but that’s not really intelligence. On the other hand, you think about things.”
“So do you,” I said, recalling many of our past conversations.
She shook her head. “No. Maybe I’ll listen to a discussion of stuff and even participate. But just on my own? I don’t really think about things. I mean, you actually pondered whether God exists and you researched it.”
“So did you,” I said. “I mean, you were an atheist at one point, then you decided you kind of believe in God now…”
“No," she said. "Atheism was just a stage because I was really into Ayn Rand at the time. But I didn’t really THINK about it.”
Then at one point, she said, “If someone would hold a gun to my head and say, ‘Choose any religion in the world—but you MUST choose one’—I’d choose Orthodox Judaism.”
“Really?” I said. “Not Reform?”
“No,” she said. “The only religion I’d want is specifically Orthodox Judaism.”
She’s married to a non-Jew and keeps absolutely nothing of Judaism. Not Yom Kippur, not Chanukah, nothing. (If she’s invited by other assimilated Jews to attend a Seder—however they do it—she’ll go, but she doesn’t do it on her own.)
Is she a tinok sheh nishba?
And are her reasons for not doing teshuvah going to hold water in the World of Truth?
Honesty & Accuracy
And like I wrote above, Hashem holds me more accountable than He holds them.
I’m just asking about as far as the definition goes—in all honesty—are the above people really tinok sheh nishba?
And will their excuses (ego, an unwillingness to really think about things, etc.) be accepted in the Heavenly Beit Din when the time comes?
And are their reasons being accepted now?
No offense intended, just being honest and above-board about the whole issue because people like to throw the term around (as I myself used to) and now I question whether it's correct to do so.
However, many of these same youth also have at least one parent and people in their community who bend over backwards to grant them unconditional acceptance, in addition to numerous organizations, volunteers, and schools that cater to them.
Rabbi Wallerstein has spoken about his own experience of deciding between rejecting Torah based on dysfunctional experiences or embracing Torah & becoming a powerfully effective force for good in the Torah world.