Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Kabbolas HaTorah in the Modern Era

Tonight we celebrate receiving the Torah at Sinai. How ironic it is that just a few days ago an explosion of commentary began about the veracity of just that. Did this event that Jews have celebrated since it was mentioned in the Torah actually happen? I am a firm believer that it did. As I’m sure many Jews are - even non observant ones.

But there are increasing numbers of Jews that do not believe that. They are usually intelligent and thoughtful ones. Those that see evidence (or lack of it) that makes them cast doubt on these things. Some become atheists, others re-invent the theology to fit with the new information. That is what the Conservative Movement does. And that is what James Kugel and Zev Farber did.

This is increasingly becoming a factor in the OTD (Off The Derech) phenomenon. There are many reasons why people go OTD. They include dysfunctional families; victims of sex or physical abuse; victims of an educational system that does not speak to them – allowing them to fall through the cracks; and some just want to get out of a stifling environment.

But in an increasing number of cases, truly thoughtful people with big questions are finding answers that steer them away from belief. Especially when they do not get satisfactory answers from their teachers.

There has been much discussion among Jewish educators about how to deal with the OTD problem. I don’t think that there is a silver bullet approach to a phenomenon with so many different causes. There has to be a multi pronged approach. We need to deal with each element of cause separately since they are not necessarily related. Some are a bit easier to deal with than others.

Issues like family dysfunction seem to have a more hopeful solution- if not necessarily an easy one. But at least we know that getting a child out of a dysfunctional situation will go a long way towards preventing him from leaving the fold.

Abused children are a bit more difficult. We have a long way to go before we can achieve the kind of love and acceptance of victims of abuse that would keep them in the fold. The usual state of affairs tends to victimize a survivor of abuse  even more.

That of course further alienates them form staying the course of religious observance. Having been treated like a pariah who accuses 'innocent' people – often people of great stature – of horrible crimes tends to spawn disbelief and denial in their communities which turns the victim into a victimizer. But even there as hard as it is, we know the solution. It is to treat the victim like a victim and the abuser like the sick criminal that he is. And to embrace the survivor with love, compassion, and to assure the therapeutic rehabilitation of his self image.

When it comes to those children who fall through the cracks of the Jewish educational system, that too has a solution. Even though it is an uphill battle to train teachers to teach to every child and not just the bright and motivated students, that can eventually be fixed. There are some very good teachers that do that now, the rest need to be trained to do it. Those that can’t be trained need to be weeded out of the system.

In my view the biggest problem is among the very bright students who seek answers to serious questions and don’t get them. We want to the brightest Jews among us to contribute their talents to Judaism. But they are the ones most difficult to keep.

There too the answer lies in our educational system. How, for example, do we answer a student that realizes that the universe is about 15 billion years old – when the Torah teaches that it is only about 6000 years old? How does evolution fit in with creation? What about the bible critics that show literary evidence that the Torah was written in different periods in history by different people? What about geological findings that contradict things like the Mabul? Or archaeological digs that question the occurrence of major events in the Torah like Yitzias Mitzraim (the Exodus from Egypt) of the Jewish people?

There are a host of questions like this. They are genuine and being asked by serious people with no other agenda other than trying to find the truth.

For me - this is the biggest problem of all. I too have these questions. And yet I am a believer. Why I am - is for another time. I’ve discussed it before. But this topic is beyond the scope of this post.

The fact is that there are many very smart people who have these questions and remain believers. That’s because they did not automatically accept the conclusions those outside the communities of faith have offered. While these answers may satisfy the questions, they are not the only answers to those questions. There are many possible ways to explain contradictions between science and Torah. Or to disagree with the bible critics whose conclusions are not conclusively proved.

Furthermore what many people think is a contradiction – really isn’t. For example the age of the universe and the theory of evolution do not necessarily contradict Jewish theology.

In my view, there has to be a serious effort at re-educating the educators. This means that an oft given  response by a teacher that a question itself is Apikursus has to be jettisoned from the educational playbook. This response is – in my view – the single biggest turn off to a serious student seeking truth. Telling him that the question is Apikursus implies that his deepest and most sincere questions makes him an Apikores.

The correct approach is to listen to the question and treat it just as legitimately as a Kashe on a Tosephos; to be trained to answer them in ways that will not turn a student away from Judaism; and to be honest enough with a student to tell him if he doesn’t have an answer.

And many questions do have satisfactory answers. For example the age of the universe. When a student discovers that scientific evidence shows that the universe is about 15 billion years old, a religious teacher has to acknowledge that it can very well be the case. And that believing it does not contradict the Torah.

The days where one can teach the kind of dogma that the universe is unquestioningly 6000 years old are over. The internet has changed that educational paradigm forever. Evolution must be taught in the context of our theology of creation. Knowing how to answer the bible critics has to be learned. All this should be a mandatory training for all future Mechanchim, no matter what stripe of Judaism, Chasidic, Charedi, or Modern Orthodox. Because the internet is there for all to access. And you don’t want that to be the only source of answers to those questions.

As we enter the season of Kabbolas HaTorah this evening – I hope that our educators will re-dedicate themselves to teaching Torah in ways that will prevent any further erosion of belief among our young.

Good Yom Tov.