Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A Religious Charedi Rebel

Dr. Yehuda Sabiner (VIN)
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Rav Chaim Soloveichik is one of the most influential religious Jewish figures of the modern era.  In the present day, where there is an unprecedented number of people studying Torah - it is his methodology of studying Gemarah  that has been adopted by virtually all Lithuanian style Yeshivos. His worldview about secular studies has been adopted by the vast majority of Yeshivos, too.

Or has it?

The typical Charedi understanding of R’ Chaim’s approach to attending a university is that he was vehemently opposed to it. Which is true. But what is not understood by this community is the reason he was opposed. Which has nothing to do with being against secular studies. He was opposed to it because of its negative influences on the Jewish soul. The ideology espoused in most universities of his time was heretical and yet taught as truth. The cultural influences there were immoral by Torah standards. (One might argue that those standards have even gotten a lot worse in our day. But I digress.)

The Charedi world certainly would agree with this. But they assume that R’ Chaim’s objections included all secular subjects. Even those that had nothing Jewishly objectionable in them. 

In this they are absolutely wrong. There are two stories that illustrate this. 

One is that he approved of the marriage of his oldest son, R’ Moshe, to a woman that loved and frequently quoted secular literature. Surprised by this, R’ Chaim’s  community activists asked him how he could approve his son’s marriage to a woman that read and quoted such material? Was he not vehemently opposed to that? 

R’ Chaim answered that they misunderstood his opposition. He found nothing wrong with secular studies that were not anti Torah.  As long as it didn’t negatively affect her religious observance he had no objection to her. His objections were only to the negative influences.  

The second story is even more telling. One of R’Chaim’s own nephews -a brilliant student who studied in his Yeshiva - approached R’ Chaim one day and told him that he had always wanted to  be a doctor, and asked him if he should go to medical school. To which R’ Chaim responded, ‘Of course you should go!’ ‘You will be saving lives!’

It might be hard for today’s Charedi Roshei Yeshiva in Israel to wrap their collective heads around that response. If any one of their students would ask them the same question they might get a response like this: 
“You really need a psychiatrist, that’s just unrealistic. You won’t get in, you can’t. You won’t go against your entire community,” 
That is exactly the response Yehuda Sabiner got when he asked that question to a member of the Yeshiva staff where he studied.

I believe this is the typical kind of response anyone who dares to ask that kind of question will get from Roshei Yeshiva in Israel. Now it’s true that Yehuda was a Gerrer Chasid. Chasidic leaders like those of Ger are even more opposed to college than non Chasidic religious leaders are. But not by much. (If at all, really.) As Yehuda noted
 I don’t think it’s unusual to find a Chareidi doctor in Israel, they usually come from abroad, but I don’t know anybody else who came from the Chareidi consensus to this vocation. 
They come from abroad.  I tend to believe him. As is well known, the Cheredi world in Israel does not offer their male students any secular studies at all in high school. Even in elementary school the only subject they teach at any level is basic arithmetic. And in the case of Ger, it appears they don’t even do that. As Yehuda noted - he attended a school that had no secular studies whatsoever: 
“I didn’t even know multiplication tables” 
The resistance he got was pretty fierce and it included his own wife as noted at VIN:  
Sabiner wasn’t daunted by his lack of secular knowledge, nor was he discouraged by his teacher’s mockery or even by his wife’s tears. 
Yehuda has succeeded in achieving his dream against all odds. But that is because he is probably very bright and hugely motivated. It isn’t easy to go from not even knowing multiplication tables to becoming a doctor. Most people under these circumstances couldn’t do it. If you are not given the basic knowledge and study tools needed to succeed at a university level , how are you going to succeed in medical school? Only the select few that have the brains and motivation that people like Yehuda do can ever hope to do that!

How can a community survive without doctors? If they cannot produce any, how will they get any decent medical care? The typical answer you might hear is that they rely on others for that. Non Jews or secular Jews.  And that in any case the ultimate Healer is God. It is God we need to beseech for our good health. Not man. 

Yes, God is the true healer. But what some in the Charedi world often forget or ignore is that God has actually given us the delivery system for that healing: Modern Medicine. Of which doctors are an integral part.  

Does the Charedi world believe that going to a non Jewish or non observant Jewish doctor is preferred over a religious one? 

They might respond by saying that they can have religious doctors. Those that  can’t make it in learning’ can go to medical school? 

Really? Only those with lesser intelligence should consider going to medical school? I guess so. There is no way they will encourage their best and brightest to leave the Beis Hamedrash! That is where they will draw their future Gedolim. Only those with lesser intelligence should become doctors.

If that is true, then I would never go to a Charedi doctor. Unless he ‘rebelled’ against that Hashkafa and went to medical school anyway. Like Yehuda did. I’m not interested in a doctor that is not bright enough to make it in learning.

This is where R’ Chaim parts company with current mainstream Charedi thinking in Israel. R’ Chaim did not tell his nephew, ‘You are too bright to leave the Beis HaMedrash.’ ‘You could be a Gadol in Torah.’ Instead his nephew became an exceptional doctor. R’Chaim understood that each of us has our own God given unique talents which should be pursued for the betterment of Klal Yisroel. One should use their intelligence toward that end rather than divert it to study Torah only.

If only the Charedi world would adopt R’ Chaim’s actual world view rather than what they think it is, the Charedi world in Israel would have a robust secular studies curriculum to go along with their robust religious studies curriculum. But nothing has changed thus far – and I do not see it changing in the future. As I recently said in another context: None are so blind as those who will not see!