Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Daas Torah and the English Language

There are couples who made Aliyah as newlyweds many years ago. And yet their Israeli born children speak English so fluently that if they moved to America, no one would know they weren’t born there. Similarly there are families who made Aliyah as newlyweds whose children barely speak a word of English. And even if they do, it is a broken barely understandable English with a heavy Israeli accent.

This is true in both Dati Leumi communities and Charedi ones. But I do not cast any aspersions on any of them. People who are born and raised in foreign countries can do quite well speaking their native tongue. There is no need to learn what is to them - a foreign language. Or is there?

Clearly the inability to speak English puts Israelis at a disadvantage.

First let me say it is troubling that in some cases - grandparents cannot communicate at all with their grandchildren because of a language barrier. In fact it is more than frustrating. It is just plain wrong. It is bad enough if parents on their own decide to speak only Hebrew to their children. That is quite common among Religious Zionists from America that have made Aliyah.

But when it is given as advice for religious reasons, it is a crime – in my view. And yet there are some so called Charedi rabbis who when asked - tell new immigrants to not speak any English to their children. This was recently the subject of an article in the Jewish Press. It was in the context of American grandparents who were disappointed that they couldn’t communicate with their grandchildren. When the grandmother was asked why not - she explained it as follows:

Her son had asked his rav after the birth of their first child whether they should speak English to her. The rav told him that only Hebrew should be spoken until their kids are older and in school. Something about English could be a “foreign” influence and might negatively impact the children’s love for Eretz Yisrael.

Although the Rav made concessions to the need for grandparents to be able to communicate with their grandchildren, his solution hardly solved the problem. He said that once the children were fully immersed in their religious studies, English could then be introduced to them.

The problem with that is that once the children learn the vernacular, they have little interest learning a foreign language. And the older they get the harder it becomes. The young children think: Why bother? Just so they can speak to a grandparent when they visit?! It’s not worth the trouble in their minds. They only see their grandparents once in a blue moon anyway and at that time they will struggle through it.

What struck me most about this story is the same thing that struck Jewish Press columnist Cheryl Kupfer, the author of the article. It is something I have written about in recently. Something that is even being noticed (finally) by even the Charedi establishment. It is the over reliance on rabbis to run one’s life.

This decision by the rabbi in this case is so stupid and foolish - that it is mind boggling that he is given credence about anything - even in Halachic matters. Anyone with even a modicum of intelligence knows that children will pick up the native tongue very quickly just by living there. If English is not the first language and spoken in the home it will not easily be picked up later.

English is an important language. It is the language of world commerce. It is the most widely spoken language in the Western World – and even in some parts of the Eastern World. It is the first language of the most powerful country on earth and in many other countries. It is the second language of just about every other country. It is the language of the ‘air’ – pilots and air traffic controllers of every single country must communicate in English. The list of why English is important goes on.

And yet this Rav thought it was inappropriate for the children to learn it. Why? Because of some imagined nefarious effect English would have on the Yiddishkeit of the children! As though native Hebrew speakers would be immune to those influences.

What about Kibud Av V’Em? The parents of those children certainly had a responsibility to see that their own parents could have a relationship with their children. That requires communicating with them. When children struggle to communicate with them it has the opposite effect.

This Rav apparently does not value the biblically mandated Mitzvah of Kibud Av V’Em we just read about in last week’s Torah portion. I’m sure he would vehemently deny that – but actions speak louder than words.

But perhaps even stupider than this Rav is the fact that the parents think to even ask such the questions. This is yet another illustration of the abdication of common sense in the right wing world.

The problem is that some rabbis like the one in this story have power over the lives of others and they apparently believe they are serving God by telling other people what to do in every facet of their lives. They therefore do not discourage questions like that. Instead they answer them. Stupidly sometimes as was the case here.

How did we get here? How did the Charedi world get to a point where they ask Shailos like this to their rabbis and treat the answers as though they were written in the Torah? The answer can be given in two words: Daas Torah.

This community has been harangued so long to believe that one must ask Shailos about everything to ‘Gedolim’ (or their surrogates) that they have come to believe it is a Halachic imperative to do so. With few exception there is no one in their camp telling them not to. Certainly not the Rav in this story.

I don’t think one can count the number of times the phrase Daas Torah was used by speakers at the last Agudah convention as a near synonym for God Himself! Well… if one has God at their disposal for all questions in life - major or minor, why not take advantage and ask them every little thing? What’s the harm?

I’m sure that’s the thinking.

The answer is that they are not asking God. They are asking a human being that has an agenda and that may not be all that wise. And when that happens a lot – you get stories like this.

It is long past time for the Charedi world to wake up and see what is happening to them. To be fair I am sure that many if not most Charedim still use common sense when making decisions – and do not ask their Rav every little thing. But there are a significant number of them who do and seem to understand Daas Torah as abdicating virtually all common sense.

I don’t know what the numbers are. But to one extent or another it is apparently a big enough problem in the Charedi world that even the Yated has addressed it. It will serve Klal Yisroel much better if the masses who think this way are disabused of that notion - and are rehabilitated back into the world of the sane.