Sunday, July 9, 2017

Too Much Pessimism - Educational Goals

Here is a link to an article [from 5 years ago but still relevant] and here are two reactions:

To the Editors,

I read with great interest the spring issue of Klal Perspectives, in which the subject of large scale spiritual numbness in the Torah world was taken as the latest and newest crisis facing Klal Yisroel. The mere fact that it is an issue being discussed, however, is indicative of some level of spiritual vibrancy that we still maintain.

I ask you though, is the present situation that much worse than what Torah Jewry has faced during the last half millennium? Is today’s situation worse than that of 1492 Spanish Jewry, where fully half of the Jewish population chose to remain outward Christians rather than forsake their material possessions? Was not the Chassidic movement of the 1700’s a direct outgrowth of the large scale spiritual malaise that afflicted much of the masses of Eastern Europe? Didn’t German Jewry of the 18th and 19th centuries abandon Torah in such jaw dropping numbers that Frankfurt – once the crown jewel of Torah scholarship – could barely put together a minyan of shomrei Shabbos in 1850? Didn’t Vilna of 1939 – once considered the “Yerushalayim of Lita” – have 2/3 of its school children enrolled in anti-religious schools? Of the millions upon millions of Jews in Europe before WWII, why couldn’t the largest yeshiva muster more than four to five hundred students?

To be sure, the great men of that time were far greater than anything we today could imagine and even many of the “amcha” (simple Jews) were, in their own way, spiritual giants. But is it wise to believe that we somehow have a new and terrible situation on our hands? Isn’t the current situation just a continuation of the larger reality, which we sometimes call ‘galus?’

Mr. Moishe Bane’s article (“Merely Coping,” Spring 2012), which touched on the ideas of hester panim and a two thousand year time period during which we haven’t intensely experienced our Father in Heaven, seemed most relevant to me. Simply put, we are nearing the end of a two-thousand-year marathon, during which millions of our brethren have dropped out; we are simply the weary she’airis haplaitah (remnant) holding on for dear life, desperate to see the time that we will be reunited with our Father in Heaven.

It seems to me that our generation suffers from something far worse than spiritual numbness: rampant pessimism. When did it become fashionable to label every problem our community faces “a crisis?” Why is it that too many of the articles bemoaning our generation’s spiritual state can be condened into the following: “Frum Jews are shallow automatons and only care about their image. Let’s blame the rabbonim, Agudah, yeshiva system, etc.”

I firmly believe that this pessimism is influenced by the secular media, which peddles frightening news as a means of garnering attention. How sad that we have allowed that to seep into our community.

Finally, while I thoroughly enjoyed R’ Moshe Weinberger’s response (“Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul,” Spring 2012), I couldn’t help but be bothered by his inclusion of the 90,000 people finishing daf yomi and of the endless gemachs as somehow indicative of a generation of religiosity without soul. It takes great effort for one to arise at the crack of dawn to do the daf, or to do so after a hard day’s work. Many of us find our seder in the morning to be a mechaye nefesh (life-giver) that sustains us throughout the day. Chessed, too, is not just an external act to most people, but rather it is a way we express our love of Hashem and His children.

Call me naïve, but I suspect that had the generations past seen how we are holding on despite of all the difficulties we’ve faced in this country over the last hundred years and that we continue to face today, they would be proud of us in spite of any shortcomings.

Meir Goldberg

Rutgers Jewish Xperience

Lakewood, New Jersey

by Rabbi Yitzchak Talansky

Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s article, “Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul,” must strike a chord in anyone concerned with the malaise affecting our society. However, his presentation of the nature of the problem, its source, and more significantly his ideas for how to deal with it, give pause for thought. To a degree, this is an issue of emphasis, for

רחמנא ליבא בעי is surely part and parcel of our religious outlook, and a yiddishkeit performed by rote, devoid of the fire and passion that so characterized previous generations, is hardly what we are striving for.

Having said that, I propose that the problem lies not in the paucity of emphasis placed on experience and connection, but paradoxically, on the overemphasis of these elements. Almost without noticing, we have adopted the strategy of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” But unfortunately, we have entered a losing battle, because in trying to make the experience of Judaism better than the rest, we have agreed essentially to compete on their terms. By “their” I refer to the modern gentile world, which is characterized by a sophisticated as never before appeal to the senses.

What Rabbi Weinberger essentially advocates is a return to Tevye the milkman. Indeed, it certainly would be preferable if we lived with the kind of everyday relationship with Hashem that he did. But I seriously doubt that short of moving back to Anatevka, we will be able to replicate the feeling of dependency that Tevye had when he mounted his horse, – when we turn on the ignition in our Toyota. The gentile world has very much succeeded in strengthening the apparent causal nexus in life, (to a degree, that actually was their goal,) and we will have to adapt to this new reality. We ignore it at our own peril.

However there’s an even more basic issue. Although there certainly is a prominent place for emotion and feeling in avodas Hashem, one cannot build his religious foundation on it. Human emotion is too fickle; like grains of sand, it blows this way and then that way. One may be inspired to great heights, moved to high levels of deveykus, but then it wears off. By nature inspiration is sporadic, not the solid stuff necessary to build a bedrock of religiosity. The foundation must be built on the solid rock of commitment, and then reinforced with an iron sense of accomplishment. In contrast to emotion, commitment, a firm intellectually based decision to follow a certain path, is by definition, long lasting.

After the first step of commitment, comes connection, which results from involvement, primarily in learning. Not because the laws of a cow that gores will consciously give one a feeling of closeness to G-d, but rather because learning represents the actualization of commitment, which subsequently yields the fulfillment that accompanies accomplishment. For actualizing a commitment is the greatest accomplishment of all, and will naturally be experienced as such, with one critical caveat; people are trained to understand what they’re doing.

This then should be our two pronged educational goal;
glorifying commitment fulfilled
recasting learning from an endeavor whose sole purpose is defined and measured in terms of intellectual advancement, to one that carries ultimate meaning in and of itself as the fulfilling of a commitment.

To sum up, what strengthens more than anything, a person’s commitment to Torah and mitzvos is a feeling of accomplishment. Rather than increasing the shabbatonim and storytelling quotient in our educational system, we should increase the stress on the accomplishment that is learning.

“The defectors who simply couldn’t go on hiding and faking,” are empty because they have been raised in an environment that inculcates a need to feel constantly “high.” The antidote to this poison is not to try and outdo the other side with an even bigger high, but to reject the whole approach outright. “Lord get me high, get me higher,” sang Reb Shlomo a”h, but he was singing to people who were lost. People who had no commitment, who whose entire frame of reference was secular. This is still employed with some degree of success for that target audience by some in the kiruv industry. But that is not the approach for us. “Lama Nigara?” Because we thankfully, are not starting from ground zero.

Instead we should inform/teach those “who listlessly drag their feet through the motions of avodas Hashem,” who evidently have some degree of commitment, that it is a great and wonderful thing they do. Not a charade, but rather, an incredible accomplishment. Living with Hashem’s dictates, following His Torah, learning His Torah – even without any great kavanos, and intentions, indeed without any intentions at all – there’s nothing more significant in the entire creation. And then to encourage them, that when one does all this with fervor, it’s that much greater. As the Nefesh Hachaim stresses over and over, actions trump intentions, they come first and are more significant even when devoid of feeling.

Yes, we will be going against the tide. In a consumerist world which values experience above all, and has raised the attainment of new and varied experiences to the highest of levels, we will be saying no. But our adherents will come to recognize the joy and value in commitment, of sacrifice, of earning something through self-denial, of sticking-to-it even when you don’t feel like it. They will be energized to try harder, because they will find satisfaction and fulfillment in the effort expended itself, rather than in the experience promised to them.

With the proper training… sacrifice breeds fulfillment.

The reason ”something inside has died,” is not because it was a candle in the wind, but because there’s no longer a candle underneath at all. That being the case, a million sparks and attempts to light it will fail. What is needed is the laying of a solid foundation of commitment, followed by a strong sense of accomplishment. Rabbi Weinberger himself unwittingly alludes to this solution when he writes that “Our communities…..are swarming with Jews….who feel little connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu…..this is apparent to anyone who has taken a peak outside the beis medrash.” Exactly.

This is not about intellectualism per se. It’s about commitment. Intellectualism is for the minority, but then again, the subset of people who can rise to the level of שויתי השם לנגדי תמיד by emphasizing relationship with Hashem, while existing in the modern workplace is just as small as the intellectual elite. But commitment is democratic; everyone can do it, and everyone can feel fulfilled from it. Young and old, male and female, more spiritual types and less spiritual types, ffb’s and bt’s.

Rather than merely noting that “the most sought after speakers and teachers are not known for their scholarship, but for their ability to inspire….by sharing their own experiences and struggles, we should be donning ashes and sackcloth over such a state of affairs! NCSY has won. It has replaced shiurim in our community’s intellectual life. Of course it has, it requires little effort and makes you feel good too. What’s not to like? But… what do you have to show for it, down the road?

Parenthetically, this whole approach has its roots in the twin devils of narcissism, and the need for instant gratification. “How do I feel?” starts with a concentration on “me.” Furthermore “How do I feel?” implies, how do I feel …at the moment. I want to feel close to G-d, and I want it now. Right now. What is actually needed is patience – patience to work slowly over a lifetime to instill in one’s heart the real relationship with Hashem that only comes by going down that road. “The Jew has taught me how to wait,” remarked Henrik Ibsen the Dutch playwrite. Halevai that it would be so today.

There’s an inescapable irony in Rabbi Weinberger’s observations, that the Aish Kodesh himself was bemoaning his lack of soul (understood, at his lofty level.) And at 40 years old no less. The attainment of an ongoing relationship with Hashem, keenly felt, is presented as a fairly simple accomplishment, accessible to one and all. In reality, it’s a madreiga of the highest order. It comes only after a lifetime of hard work.

Going to a shabbaton and being uplifted by the experience is very nice, but it’s fleeting. Viewed in a certain way, it can actually be dangerous because it gives people the impression that they are achieving something, when in reality they are simply answering emotional needs –having little to do with religious devotion, – that find redress in that type of setting. True, NCSY employs this method to great effect, but again, with a particular audience and with a very specific end-goal in mind, moving the kids on to yeshiva. It’s not a model to emulate for mainstream chinuch.

The end result of the kiruv oriented approach is that after 12 years of yeshiva education, and many more years of hearing inspirational speakers, people are left with very little content. No wonder they feel empty.

Incidentally, this approach has ramifications for many areas in life. When a couple expects to be inspired in marriage all the time…..well, we see what the end result often is. Contrast that with the approach that both partners understand that they are in it for the long haul, for better or for worse. That’s a marriage based on commitment, and it looks completely different.

A friend of mine with twenty years’ experience teaching limudei kodesh on Long Island in a well respected Modern Orthodox high school shared with me a few years ago the school’s educational goals. He said that all they try to do is get the kids to Israel. When I inquired as to why they didn’t think they could accomplish anything more substantial in four years, he responded that they were too busy being mekarev the kids to teach them anything. But these kids get to Israel needing more kiruv than ever!

Can this be called successful education? Maybe things would look different if the kids came out knowing something, and appreciating it. If graduating boys knew 10 daf, (20?) and had it drummed into them that this is an amazing accomplishment, an accomplishment for the ages, they would feel differently about themselves and their relationship to Yiddishkeit. If girls knew a whole sefer of Tanach well, maybe they would feel like they are getting somewhere. (This approach is as equally valid for girls, as it is for boys.)

Is the entire phenomenon of daf yomi not an exemplary proof of this approach? Forgive me daf yomi attendees but, it’s not the intellectual accomplishment. (As a pundit once said, when the Romans outlawed Torah learning, they didn’t have daf yomi in mind.) It’s the experience of learning, of fulfilling a commitment, – ingeniously celebrated with glossy saturation PR campaigns, and attendant mass gatherings. The results speak for themselves.

Indeed, the approach that Rabbi Weinberger advocates, is playing out before our eyes within the modern American yeshivas in Israel. Each succeeding yeshiva that opens, waters down its content a little more in the interest of kiruv. The end result is that this year, there is a new “yeshiva” opening that unabashedly announces on its web site that it offers gemara for a grand total of one hour a day, four days a week. Mind you, this is not a yeshiva for slow learners, or for intellectually challenged students. They are trying to get kids who are heading to the finest of colleges. Their pitch is…kiruv.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all panacea, and each one will find the path that suits his neshama. But the path to emunah for our generation, is the emunah gained from detecting and concurrently participating in the commitment that has characterized klal yisrael since its inception. As a matter of fact, this idea is inherent in the very meaning of the word “emunah.” which is correctly translated as “unswerving,” or “steadfast,” and relates to actions.

אל אמונה ואין עוול or ידיו של משה אמונה עד בא השמש

The English word “faith” represents a Christian concept.

As a program for school curricula, I propose that this emunah can be gained in two complementary ways;
appreciation of limud torah. When a student is involved in learning, over time he slowly perceives that he is part of an unbroken chain of commitment stretching more than three thousand years. In this commitment he is joining thousands of others great and small, he is in the same game and on the same team with the likes of Rava and Abaye, Rashi and Tosfos, the Vilna Gaon and R’ Akiva Eiger, as well as with untold thousands of simple but committed Jews just like himself. This should be stressed and brought out in the classroom, for it bestows a sense of transcendence.
history. Students who know Jewish history, – and secular history as well to provide context, – will be overwhelmed by the commitment that Klal Yisrael has shown to its ideals in myriad situations and places. This, too, affords them a context in which to see themselves as part of something larger than their individual selves.

“Making use of the methods commonly used in outreach such as storytelling, music, shabbatonim etc.” will lead to a completely superficial educational experience. Rather than the warm brand of experiential Yiddishkeit R’ Weinberger espouses, we need to get back to basics.