Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Neither Temimah Nor Meshivas Nefesh

Guest Post by Dovid Landesman

I do not for a moment question the Lakewood rosh yeshiva’s right to his personal opinion regarding the propriety of establishing Jewish institutions for professional education. Nor do I see what he reportedly said regarding the educational efforts of the late Dr. Lander z”l to be scandalous. If anything, they are a rehash of the well known opinions expressed by Rav Baruch Ber zt”l and Rav Elchanan hy”d in response to Rav Schwab’s query vis-a-vis opening a Torah im Derech Eretz yeshiva in Germany. Both gedolim wrote that the hashkafah of Rav Hirsch was a b’dieved, permissible only as a means to fight haskalah and Reform. Interestingly, neither Rav Bloch of Telz or the Imrei Emes of Ger [who also received Rav Schwab’s query] agreed with their stated position.

What I do object to, however, as a Jew who self-identifies as chareidi, are the implications of the rosh yeshiva’s missive that Lakewood alone represents the true derech ha-chaim. To my simple mind, this is historical revisionism at its most pronounced and is symptomatic of what has increasingly become the narrow weltaunschaung of a yeshiva world that denies the concepts of eilu v’eilu and shiv’im panim laTorah. One can only imagine what the rosh yeshiva might have said had HaModia chosen to publish a retrospective in appreciation of Zevulun ben Yaakov!

Worse, to my thinking, is the upshot of what I consider to be his unfortunate decision to allow his remarks to be made part of the public record and it is to this aspect that I address these remarks. On numerous occasions and in numerous forums I have raised the suggestion that the root cause of the “off the derech” phenomenon can be directly traced to the yeshiva world’s castigation - both expressed as well as silent - of those who choose not to be full time learners as second class Jews.

The frustration that this attitude has engendered within the yeshiva world among bachurim who are either incapable of devoting the hours required or whose personal interests lie elsewhere has created a subculture within the Lakewood [in its wider application] world of young men. Many of them take this rejection personally and their self-esteem is shattered, leaving them the option of rejecting major parts of the value system that the yeshiva world should ideally represent.

Others, wary of separating themselves from the yeshiva world, choose to go through the motions; walking the walk and talking the talk but not really achieving much. In many ways they are even more worthy of our sympathy than those who leave the fold, for their bitterness and frustrations have few avenues of expression.

To be sure, the olam hayeshivot - at least in the format created by Rav Chaim of Volozhin - was always focused on a Torah only agenda. The heads of these yeshivot never saw themselves as creating klalcentric [for lack of a better word] educational institutions. Rather, their schools were meant for the elite, admissions policies were rigid and they were content to allow the local communities to be responsible for educating the masses.

In the aftermath of WWI, and even more so immediately after WWII, the thrust of yeshiva education in the United States changed dramatically. Unlike Eastern Europe which had no government required public education, the Jews in the US were required to attend schools. For the most part this requirement was greeted enthusiastically. Most parents saw education as the key to success in becoming American.

Because the chadarim and after school Talmud Torahs were incapable of providing their charges with a level of Jewish education that could counteract the influence of the public schools which almost all Orthodox Jews attended, the yeshivot were forced to transform themselves into community institutions serving the entire spectrum of observant Jews. To be sure there were exceptions to this rule, most notably Rav Aaron’s zt”l BMG which never had a hundred students during his lifetime.

It was only after Rav Aaron’s passing - and even more so after the untimely passing of his son, Rav Shneur zt”l - that BMG [Lakewood] became the archetype of American yeshivot. One factor in this development was the increasing affluence of American Orthodoxy which became - in the seventies and eighties - capable of supporting its own institutions without relying on the largesse of non-observant Jews who had heretofore provided the bulk of the funding. This allowed the institutions in America to emulate the TO agenda of the pre-war yeshivot of Europe.

Another critical factor was Rav Dessler’s interpretation of the gemara which states elef nichnasim v’echad yotzeh l’hora’ah. In his opinion - and this became mainstream yeshivishe hashkafah - sacrifices were to be made by the klal for the benefit of the individual. According to this formulation, the yeshiva curriculum and focus was centered on producing yechidei segulah even if this could only be accomplished at the expense of the bulk of the talmidim. I would add, although Rav Dessler never wrote this, that this was a hora’as sha’ah [temporary directive] necessary to rebuild the yeshivot that had been decimated during the war. I am not certain that Rav Dessler intended that this process be continued sixty years after the war ended.

Given these factors, it is understandable why the Lakewood rosh yeshiva would disapprove personally of Dr. Lander’s monumental efforts. What I find difficult to condone, however, is the suggestion that his Torah is the only one that can be categorized as both temimah and meshivat nefesh. To cite a commentary of one of the talmidim of the gaon as the prevailing attitude of gedolai yisrael throughout the generations is but another attempt to rewrite history to match one’s personal beliefs.

Moreover, the attitude of roshei yeshiva, mashgichim and rabbeim who continue to preach that to be chareidi is not contingent on dikduk in mitzvot but is rather to subscribe to the notion that engaging in derech eretz is somehow an indication of personal failure is a danger to the continued vitality of Judaism. I fear that their stubborn unwillingness to face the needs of the entire klal will in the not so distant future strengthen the radicals in the MO world who seek to divorce themselves of any contact or identification with the yeshiva world.

We are in the middle of bein hametzorim and it is the primary purpose of this period to focus on the causes of the destruction and the prolonged exile. Claims that only the Torah of Lakewood is temimah do not, in my opinion, do anything to hasten the end of galus.