Friday, February 23, 2007

The Trouble with Modern Orthodoxy

I was totally disgusted by what I read this morning in the Jewish Week. It is a story describing the behavior of Yeshiva high school students who are finically well off enough to go to Miami Beach for their winter break. The behavior by these students is quite disgusting. It rivals what is commonly seen the movie screen. Here is just one excerpt:

“The girls, aged 15-18, were so scantily clad that bathing suits would have covered up more. Nothing they possessed was left for the imagination. Thin figured or full, they wore outfits that seemed to say, “I’m here! Come and get me!” The boys dressed in jeans, T-shirts or shorts may have looked fine, but they huddled in groups, beer cans in hand and cigarettes and matches at the ready.”

“The interaction between the girls and boys was grotesque. Hands and mouths were everywhere. Nothing was private, no body part untouchable. A small boy of 15, walking around in a daze searching for his older sister, was easily deterred from his mission by a “friend” who smacked him on the back and said, “Come on, let’s go find us some chicks!”

These are supposedly all observant young teenagers who are Shomerei Tora U'Mitzvos... at least most of them. They clearly do not observe one.

The article does not describe what kind of Yeshiva high schools those students come from. But I think it is safe to say it isn’t Telshe or Philly. This does not mean to say that there aren’t students from those kinds of Yeshivos doing some of those things there too. I’m sure there are. But it would be highly misrepresenting reality to say these students are not mostly from Modern Orthodox homes.

My guess is that one of the reasons for this kind of behavior is the very strong influences of western culture as experienced through the various entertainment media. Movies, television, and some of the more disgusting forms of popular music certainly share some of the blame for producing this kind of behavior. In American culture, what red blooded American teenage male doesn’t want to “go find us some chicks!”?!

But another very important factor is the near lack of proper Torah values being transmitted about interacting with the opposite sex in their homes. It is an unfortunate truth that most Modern Orthodox Jews are more in the category of Orthoprax… or my favorite term for them, MO-Lite. These are Jews who are basically Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus and attend Orthodox Shuls. But they are more concerned with lifestyle issues than they are with Halacha. Their values are not centered in Torah but in other things. Typically, the parent of this type is more concerned with getting his child into an ivy league university than he is with his level of Mitzvah observance. Not they they aren’t committed to observance. They are. They want their children to be Frum. But it is a secondary concern.

Parents contribute to the phenomenon described in this article by encouraging interaction between the sexes at a very early age and at every opportunity. Not that they encourage promiscuity but they are constantly throwing a bunch of teenagers with “raging” hormones into situations that foster this kind of behavior. Whether it is in the mixed atmosphere of the school environment or various teen parties or any other social event. And these teens interact with behavior learned well through the heroes of the silver screen. What young male movie goer doesn’t dream of being another Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise (…or who ever the current movie idol is)?

This is a deadly mix... a formula for producing the kind of behavior that is described in the article.

Modern Orthodox educators have their task cut out for them. This kind of behavior is a self perpetuating machine, exhibited by the parents themselves when they were teenagers. They are not really so disgusted by it. They often just say it is "normal". And they choose mixed gender schools for their children because they want to acculturate their children to know haw to interact properly in western culture, a good goal. But doing it in the way that it is commonly done has considerable negative consequences as is shown in this article. Standards that parents may set for their teenage children seem to be pretty much ignored by them when they go on vacation to a place like Miami Beach.

This is a real problem for Modern Orthodoxy. The Centrist ideals of Torah uMada do not include this kind of behavior, even if one includes in its definition, participation in the culture. And I do. Participation in the culture is only permitted when Halacha is not violated. The number of Modern Orthodox Jews who care enough about issues like this to take preventative measures is small. A minority to be sure.

Those of us who are serious about our Judaism can and do raise fine Bnei Torah. We have prepared our children to be serious about their Judaism. It can be done right. But the fact that the majority of Modern Orthodox Jews are more concerned with their lifestyle choices and seeing to it that their children learn the social graces with “hands on” experience, makes change a daunting if not impossible task.

So in this area, the Charedim win. Their children by and large do not participate in this kind of behavior because of their insularity. But that does not mean we just have to sit back and watch it happen ala the Miami Beach teen scene. I’m not sure how to tackle the problem.

Adult education would seem to be a good starting point. Encouraging more Torah learning on the part of MO-Lites would seem to be a step in the right direction. The more you know the better chance you will be more observant of Halacha. Much of the MO-Lite problem is tied to ignorance of Halacha more so than carelessness. Halachos with respect to male-female relationships are not well known by many Orthoprax Jews. While in some cases this learning might fall on deaf ears, in many cases it will impact positively on their behavior.

I doubt that adult education alone will be enough. But it would be a start. Because the kind of behavior going on in Miami Beach between Kipa wearing boys and their teenage girl friends is nothing short of a Chilul Hashem.