Sunday, November 09, 2008

Changing the Paradigm

I feel sorry for Jonathan Rosenblum. His writings of late have increasingly reflected a realty which I have been writing about for a long time. For this he is being criticized by many Charedim – even mainstream ones. I heard a lot of this when I was in Israel recently. It was a sort of, ‘Come on, Jonathan!’ ‘We all have problems there is no need to constantly cry over them… and make us look so helpless!’

I can certainly understand their consternation. No one likes to see their warts exposed to the world, and certainly not by someone who identifies as Charedi. When I say exactly the same thing, it can easily be dismissed as coming ‘from the enemy’. But Jonathan has credibility. And when he - and I - and many others say the same things people ought to pay attention.

The truth shall set you free. And Jonathan speaks the truth. One of the very first things he says in a column published in Mishpacha Magazine – reprinted on Cross-Currents is the following:

A shmuess given in Lakewood Yeshiva, for instance, about the proper uses of bein hazemanim will find a receptive audience. The same shmuess given outside the walls of a yeshiva, and particularly if enunciated in the form of ban, might be widely ignored. Rather than influencing behavior in the proper direction, the most immediate impact would be to lower the stature of gedolei Yisrael and their edicts in the eyes of all those who ignored the ban.

These facts cannot be disputed. The stature of Charedi Gedolim is being diminished. The anonymity that the internet provides - enables even Charedim to vent their frustrations in ways that – were identities to be known - would ostracize them in own community.

Jonathan recognizes that reality. Pointing it out should not be a reason to dismiss him. It should rather be taken to heart. The fact is that the Charedi world is in trouble and the diminished stature of the Charedi Gedolim will not serve this community well.

The biggest issue facing them now in my view is due to an ideal that has been built by the pioneers of the current state of the Torah world - the ideal of learning full time for as long as possible. This mindset is now stronger than ever:

The ideal of long-term Torah learning for all males promoted by the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael and Rav Aharon Kotler in America has completely transformed the Torah world over the past half century. The strength of that ideal ensures that the ambitions of males in the community are directed towards gadlus b’Torah.

I would posit that the ideal they sought has exceeded their expectations. Israel now has tens of thousands of young men now learning full time without end and without having prepared for the workplace at any level – should they somehow reach that end.

Rav Ahron Kotler was not of this mindset. He was the leading pioneer of the ‘Torah revolution’ in America. Yet when he was asked how long one should stay in a Kollel his answer was, ‘two or three years is enough for anyone’! I’m sure that this will be denied by those who simply cannot believe he said that. But my sources on this are pretty good. It was heard directly from Rav Kotler by an early Talmid of his and repeated by a friend of his on a widely read e-mail list.

When Rav Kotler died his Yeshiva had less than 300 students. And that was considered wildly successful. Now there are over 5000 students there and I was recently told that his Yeshiva in Lakewood has ambitious plans to double in size!

Is this the wisest use of all of our talent? Is this what Rav Ahron Kotler really wanted? Did he expect every single Jew to go this route – to learn in Kollel indefinitely - without any preparation for the future to support his family?

It is my impression that very few if any of those whom many consider Gedolim actually feel this way. Why they are reticent to say so publicly is beyond me.

If good jobs are scarce now for those well trained in the general population - how many good jobs will be available for the untrained young Kollel fellow? And that’s if they are even moved enough to get a job. The pressure to stay in Kollel is enormous. Those who are advised to leave for the workplace are exceptions that are given on a one by one basis. As a group they are urged to continue learning in Kollel for as long as possible.

We need to face the urgent reality of now. Money is drying up. Charity campaigns will not be enough to stem the tide of poverty, especially in this current world-wide economic crisis. There has to be a sea change in attitude in the Charedi world.

The Kollel has to be returned to its original intent - as a bastion of Torah learning for the best and brightest, not for the masses as it is now. I don’t expect the Charedi Gedolim to embrace my Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada - or that of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz’. But I do hope that they re-assess their reticence to speak out on the current malaise. The paradigm has to change. There has to be a greater emphasis on working - and preparing for it.

I do not expect - nor do I wish for - a devaluation of Torah learning. But a sense of proportion is sorely lacking. It would enhance the Torah world immensely if - instead of trying to double the size of the enrollment at Lakewood they would raise entry standards. Those who are denied entry need not feel belittled.

Rejecting someone from entry into Lakewood (or any Yeshiva like it) need not mean that one is considered less intelligent. It should only mean that one’s talents lie elsewhere and that they can better serve God in areas more suited to their talents.

If that happens the entire Torah world will benefit. It may take some time to feel the impact. And the economic crisis will certainly slow things down. Hopefully the Charedi Gedolim realize that. They should therefore seek with haste to change the current paradigm. Because if they don’t it may change without them in a direction neither they nor any of us want to see.