Friday, July 22, 2011

Learning Tradition from Our Past

This is not the first time I’ve seen a picture like this. It is featured on Matzav as part of an article about the Yahrzeit of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch - an early Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva and the grandson of Telshe founder Rav Eliezer Gordon. It is hard to tell exactly who the people in this picture are – whether they are faculty, senior students of the entire student body of the Beis HaMedrash. It is simply labled ‘Telz – Lita’ by Matzav.

Telshe is one of the more Charedi Yeshivos today. Although in Europe it was seen as comparatively progressive it certainly was considered mainstream Charedi. I have also seen similar pictures of students in Mir and in Ponevitch from that era.

Many people long for the days of yore where the level of Torah learning was at much greater heights than it is today. Back in those days it was about quality, not quantity. Today it is the reverse. Assuming that these were students - a comparable picture would have thousands of people in it. Of course there are some very high caliber students in these Yeshivos, but I’m not sure how even they would compare with the students in these pictures.

Learning Torah on an intense and high level in those days was reserved for the elite. Only students with the greatest potential were recruited to spend their days learning full time in a Yeshiva. That approach paid off. The full time students of that era were for the most part brilliant people. Today’s virtually open door policy can’t compete with that.

We blow that generation out of the water in quantity, but in quality – they win hands down. The caliber of that generation of Gedolim do not exist today. There are no ‘Rav Moshes’.

However what we lack in quality has been replaced by Frumkeit – a Frumkeit that relies heavily on appearance. It is an appearance that requires looking radically different than the rest of society. Contrast what we see today - with what is seen in this picture (and others from that era that are very similar).

The people in this picture look quite modern and well dressed. They are all clean shaven and although I can’t say for certain, it does not look like any of them have Peyos. And the clothing varies somewhat. Some are wearing lighter suits; some darker suits; one fellow is not wearing a hat at all, and the others seem to be wearing differing hat styles.

I have been told by people who are very knowledgeable about the Yeshiva world of that era, that this look was encouraged by the Roshei Yeshiva. They wanted their Bachurim (boys) - who represented Torah - to be respected by the larger society. Anything less than the clean cut look in this picture was not tolerated. There are stories about certain Bachurim who tried to grow beards. This was not allowed. They were required to shave. There were exceptions made for those Bachurim from Chasidic backgrounds. But they were in the minority and were not to be copied.

Today, it is all about a uniformity that separates rather than unifies. What was considered a must by Roshei Yehiva in those days is considered virtually forbidden in our day. Today, if student does not wear the uniform he will be ostracized. One will never see anything but sameness in dress. Black suits and hats. White shirts. Today it is about the look – the symbol!

A Talmid Chacham who does not ‘look the part’ will be seen as Krum. There is no concern for what the rest of the world sees. Today it’s all about being different. Peyos are the order of the day. The vast majority of Charedi Yeshiva students have them. Beards are practically mandated after marriage – and if an unmarried student has a beard – wonderful! The idea today is to be as different as can be from the modern world. To be un-modern is to be a Ben Torah. To look modern is to be – well – YU and ‘Nisht Fun Unzera’!

But when it comes to the high level of Torah learning one wonders just how many of today’s Yeshiva Bachurim measure up. Yes - there are some very high caliber students. But what about the typical student that wears the black hat, beard, and Peyos? Are they as much about substance as they are about style?

Lately I have been wondering about that as I over hear conversations between Roshei Yeshiva complaining about the material that comes out of high schools into their Yeshivos. With notable exceptions – the learning is not very high caliber at all. It’s almost like what’s happening in many universities these days. As the population of applicants increases the entry requirements decrease and level of academic excellence decreases.

I do not mean to say that the level of Hasmada – diligence isn’t there. It is. The vast majority of students in Yeshivos try very hard. I’ve seen it. It’s there. (I’m not talking about the small percentage of students who waste their time and don’t belong there – that is a different subject. I’m talking about the vast majority of students that do not waste time.) But is Hasmada enough? I don’t thinks so. It doesn’t really matter what they look like.

Today’s Yeshiva ought to take a cue from the Yeshivos of old and return to the high learning standards of that day. Only the elite should be invited to learn full time- and they ought to have the same look as the students did then. Those Roshei Yeshiva had the right idea. There is so much talk about following the Mesorah of past generations. I agree. Roshei Yeshiva in our day could do a lot worse than following that Mesorah.