Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Are All Ideals Worth the Price?

Several years ago I had a conversation with a very successful outreach - or Kiruv professional who confided that his father, a renowned Rosh HaYeshiva had repeatedly turned down his invitation to address his organization. The reason he gave was Taruvos – the intermingling of the sexes that took place among the young people involved.

His son explained that if these young people were asked to come to events that were separated by sex, his Kiruv organization would shut down. American youth simply do not know or understand the Halachic requirements of the interaction between the sexes. And they certainly do not understand many of the Chumros – the religious stringencies many people have that are the result of these Halachic requirements.

That did not move his father. He passed away never having addressed his son’s Kiruv organization.

In the world of Yeshivos, these Halachos and Chumros are a matter of common knowledge and practice. But Chumros are often taken by students as Halacha because there is rarely any distinction made. The Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim are so focused on keeping the sexes apart, that they will rarely point out what is Halacha and what is Chumra. Young students rarely end up finding out those distinctions by themselves.

I understand the concern of the Roshei Yeshiva. I also understand their insistence on separating the sexes during adolescence – a practice I generally agree with in the classroom. But in my view they do a disservice to the truth by hiding distinctions between Halacha and Chumra.

This very strict way of dealing with the intermingling of the sexes is so strong that at times it becomes counterproductive. I believe this was the case with that Rosh HaYeshiva who refused to address his son’s Kiruv group. These were mostly young kids from non religious backgrounds. They were all there eager to find out what Orthodox Judaism was all about. They spend every organizational event being inspired to Orthodox Judaism and treated to all forms of it. Being denied the Yeshiva perspective denies them a very critical and important part of Orthodoxy.

Thank God that not all Roshei Yeshiva feel this way. NCSY of the Midwest currently has many events where Roshei Yeshiva of all stripes participate including representatives from the right. These mixed groups are addressed by Roshei Kollel of Lakewood and Roshei Yeshiva from Telshe - and many other Klei Kodesh including Agudah Poskim and even various Chasidic Rebbes. They understand that just because they do not approve of mixed sex event - that does not make it forbidden to address such a group. It is only Halacha that dictates that.

As a result, these NCSYers are treated to a wide array of Hashkafos. And the result is that the many who are motivated to become observant are drawn to the Hashkafa that is most appealing to them. Without such diversity, there would be a lot less people opting for an observant lifestyle.

This morning I was made aware of a Rosh HaYeshiva that refused a recent invitation to address a co-ed religious high school. I’m not exactly sure why he did that and cannot imagine what he hoped to accomplish.

I suppose he felt that it was inappropriate for a Right Wing Rosh HaYeshiva to be addressing a co-ed high school.. How will that look? What message will that send to his students? …or to the entire Yeshiva world when they find out? Will it be perceived as some sort of endorsement?

And there is the fact that the umbrella organization of many religious elementary and high schools, Torah U’Mesorah no longer allows new co-ed schools to be formed under its banner. Old schools are grand-fathered in. This high school is therefore still under the Torah U’Mesorah banner.

As an aside - I do not understand this new rule. There are religious parents who insist that their children attend only co-ed schools. And there are non religious parents that will not even consider sending a child to a non co-ed school. There is therefore still a great need for co-ed schools, even in today’s ever rightward moving religious environment.

This Rosh HaYeshiva’s refusal to address these students denies them an opportunity to see what his own world is really like. And if these students find out that he was invited and rejected them, that will certainly not serve the cause of Achdus or Orthodox Judaism. Does he not realize that there are students in that school that just might buy into his version of Orthodoxy – given the chance? Must he deny them that opportunity?

This is yet another missed opportunity for true Achdus. Even factoring the possible reasons I mentioned - I do not understand why he refused. Certainly there was no Halacha violation. What a tremendous Kiddush HaShem it would have been! Was it worth the price?