Monday, October 15, 2007

Skeptics and Dropouts

There is an important article in the Jewish Observer (...aside from the child molestion problem in the Jewish community which I discussed in a previous post) that addresses many of the issues discussed on this and many other blogs.

The perspective of that article is pretty much the same as my own. It should be noted that many of the criticisms made about my perspective on this issue can be made against this article as well. And I invite those critics to do the same here. If they believe what they say when opposing my perspective than it stands to reason that they should equally oppose the perspective presented in the pages of Agudath Israel’s official magazine.

It should also be noted that nothing gets published in this periodical without the official approval of the Agudah Moetzes. How do I know? It should be obvious from the stated editorial policy of the Agudah about the requirement to ‘listen to the Gedolim’. But I have also been told explicitly by an insider at Agudah that the all or most of the articles published in the Jewish Observer are read and approved by the Yoshev Rosh (head) of the Agudah Moetzes, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow. As such, I think I can safely say that the article represents the Moetzes thinking on the matter... or at least Rabbi Perlow’s.

The article is excellent except for one caveat which I will address below. It is a description of a growing problem among religious adults. This subject has been a staple of the blogging world. For those who read this blog regularly the following excerpts will sound very familiar.

One of the things that I have stated time and again is that the Yeshiva educational system falls short. In Right wing Yeshivos especially, it does not prepare students to encounter the secular world. So when exposed to it, some can in go off the Derech.

I think that many Charedim who have become skeptics are victims of that. This is not to say that they all would have remained believers. But had they been given half a chance to be better prepared at least some of them would have remained believers and Frum as the article points out:

If Yeshiva graduates were better equipped from a philosophical, Hashkafic and Emunah perspective, they would not become unglued and de-stabilized when they face challenges to their beliefs, questions about Torah, or just the inevitable bumps in life’s journey.

One of the greatest mistakes one can make is to reject a question or questioner out of hand. Our experience has shown us that for a frum person who is experiencing doubts and questioning an axiom of Torah, nothing is worse than being made to feel abnormal or crazy or to be told “don’t ask questions”, or “what are you? An apikoros!’

On the contrary, a person suffering from a spiritual existential crisis is in tremendous pain. They need to feel validated and encouraged to ask whatever questions are causing them confusion. Our prime directive is to listen to and accept without prejudice or criticism (or even reaction) any question at all on any topic.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by ineffectual teachers who suffer from burnout:

The phenomenon of a burnt out teacher who is not able or willing to relate to his students and disseminate the rich beauty of Torah in a manner that will build a deep foundation is often the catalyst for an “Adult at Risk time bomb” that ticks softly until a full blown crises detonates it.

(Some) have attributed their problems to negative experiences during their formative Yeshiva years for us to believe that such cases are anomalies.

I often get harangued from the Charedi world about the evils of the secular world. Here is what the article and by definition the Agudah Moetzes says about that:

Continuous negativity toward everything in “the outside world” sows the seeds of destruction. A plethora of studies in the fields of psychology and education underscore the importance of positive reinforcement and of building students’ self-esteem of students in order to ensure an all-round balanced and happy individual.

A recent story shared by a bitter, former-yeshiva student with one of the co-author’s makes the point about the consequences of being over-critical:

A yeshiva student was happily dancing at his former room-mate’s wedding, and pushed his way “to the middle of the circle” to entertain the chosen and kallah (successfully, we should add) with a break-dance (ask your teenager if you don’t know what this is). He was in a great mood, full of Simcha, full of love for his fellow Jews, and feeling good about himself, until his Rosh Yeshivah pulled him aside at the chasanah and strongly criticized him for a dance step “from the street.”

What will the Rosh Yeshiva say after 120 years when he learns that his comment was one of a series of little pushes, and perhaps even “the last straw,” that eventually sent this promising student “out of the circle completely” and out of Torah observance?

The following is the one instance where I believe that the Jewish Observer is guilty of a either a blatant lie or a gross distortion. Here is their editorial insertion:

(The authors do not, of course, condone a ben Torah break-dancing or engaging in any other behavior derived from secular culture that isn't consistent with Torah value.)

But that is untrue. In the comments section of Rabbi Horowitz’s website where he posts the article as originally written, the author, Rabbi Mordechai Becher responds:

The JO placed it there without consulting me. Breakdancing does not bother me in the least. No "blatant hypocrisy," just some "frum" editing by JO.

Why must the Jewish Observer resort to tactics such as this to make an Hashkafic point? If they disagree they should say so and not imply that the author of the article does not approve of a ben Torah break-dancing.

As a poster on Areivim put it:

The editors unaccountably sides with the Rosh Yeshiva who nudged the boy in the wrong direction, even as they print an article which offers it as an example of what not to do and a diagnosis that such an incident was indeed a cause in nurturing the phenomenon this issue is trying to counter.

I could not agree more.

But that aside, the points in the article are well made and the Agudah Moetzes agrees with them. And for that they deserve much credit.