In one of the many discussions I have had about going OTD (‘Off The Derech’ - dropping observance of Halacha) I recall the late Rabbi Dovid Landesman making an interesting observation along the lines of: Are our children today ever really ‘On the Derech’?
What I think he might have meant is that Jewish education today does not spend any time inspiring our youth about Judaism. (But it is also true that schools are not the first line of defense in this regard. More about that later.) I believe this phenomenon is an across the board one – applying to just about every stream of Orthodoxy – from left to right. The areas of concentration are mostly about the ‘what’ - not the ‘why’. The assumption being that children from observant homes (which is the majority population of day schools and Yeshiva high schools) were all raised to be observant. Children are ‘programmed’ to follow Halacha. They know no other way of life.
The focus in most schools is on studying the actual Halacha – learning how to do each on properly. Not on why we should be religious in the first place. The majority of the day in virtually all Orthodox schools is spent on Torah study and (in most cases) secular studies. Depending on what side of the Orthodox spectrum any given school is on - is to the extent of how much of its time is spent on one or the other. In a right wing Yeshiva, the focus is on Torah study while in a left wing Yeshiva, the focus is on academics. However in either case, there is little time if any spent on the inspiring students to appreciate and value their religious heritage.
That might help to explain why so many of our youth go OTD. It’s because they never were inspired by the religion in which they study so meticulously how to observe it. I think Rabbi Landesberg’s point was (if I recall correctly) is that without that kind of preparation it is understandable that they might become more inspired by other things. If one only goes through the motions of observance out of habit without any emotional attachment one can be more easily swayed by things that actually do grab them emotionally. Some of which might be Apikursus and anti Torah. Which is much more easily accessed today.
While there are many reasons why any individual might go OTD some of which I have discussed in the past, I do think Rabbi Landesman was right about this aspect of it. Although there are some notable exceptions, there is just not enough inspiration transmitted to our young. Not in the home and not in school.
The question is, what can we do about it? Is there something we can focus upon that will inspire our young to embrace it all? I think there is. It may sound like a cliché, but I believe that Shabbos is the one thing that we can inspire our children by to fully appreciate Judaism as a whole - if it is treated properly.
I think that helps explain why Shabbos observance is used as the barometer of observant Judaism. If one is Shomer Shabbos, one is considered observant. Even if there are some occasional lapses in other areas of Halacha.
Why is Shabbos considered the determining factor of observance? Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldsmith has penned an excellent article on the OU website that might provide the answer. It resonates with my own perception and experience of that day.
While I admit that as a child, I found Shabbos to be restrictive and therefore off-putting, I have since come to appreciate the holiness of that day and the tangible benefits that make it not only the holiest but the most beautiful day of the week.
The idea of shutting down the ‘mundane’ in favor of the holiness of Shabbos is something I look forward to all week. The following is a brief picture of my own experience. Although it is incomplete, I hope it helps illustrates my point.
Friday is the day I immediately begin to prepare for Shabbos in numerous concrete ways. Unlike the rest of the week every room in the house is brightly lit (except for the bedrooms). The dining room table (which is only used on Shabbos, Yom Tov, or special occasions) is set with fine linen and fine china.
We sanctify the day over wine and begin a multi course meal. This is the only day of the week where we are completely unplugged. It is the only day that we have the luxury of spending quality time with our family. We have leisurely conversations without being interrupted by all the technology we have become accustomed to during the week (e.g smartphones, TV, and the internet).
Going to Shul on Shabbos is an entirely different experience than it is during the week. It is far more relaxed. No one is in a hurry to get somewhere else (work - or what have you). Shabbos afternoons are spent reading or with Seforim that I never seem to find the time for during the week. The meals are far more elaborate. No one is in a hurry to leave. The days restrictions severely limit where - and how far - you can go.
The restrictions that used to be so off-putting to me as a child are the very thing that make this experience possible. When in the past I have described Shabbos to some of my non Jewish friends they were envious of me. I told then they could in theory pick a day to do the same thing. But they quickly responded that much as they loved the idea of what Shabbos - they did not want to give up the freedom to do whatever they wanted – whenever they wanted. And even if they could, it would likely be impossible to get other family members to do it.
It is therefore forced nature of the day that makes it what it is. Without that - it is nearly impossible to duplicate.
I am not saying that all of this is the reason that Shabbos was mandated for us by God. What I am however saying is that the benefits I described are what makes Shabbos inspirational for me. If that can somehow be transmitted to young children – it will go a long way to making Judaism itself more inspiring for them.
Is it the schools that should be doing this? Not as a first resort. The place these feelings need to originate is in the home. It is the parents that must transmit those feelings by actually feeling it themselves. You can't fake inspiration. Children will always pick up on their parents true feelings. If a parent does not truly appreciate Shabbos, that is what will be transmitted to children.
Schools can at best be a reinforcement to the inspiration I believe Rabbi Landesman said was missing in too many of our young today. But it best begins in the home by parents role-modeling it. But it has to be real.