Thursday, February 05, 2009

Watering our Weeds

Guest Post by Rabbi Micha Berger

In an online discussion, someone lamented the fact that National Public Radio ran a long story about sexual abuse among Chasidim (or perhaps "Ultra-Orthodox" in general; the reporter was inconsistent). He wrote that NPR's story seemed to imply that abuse was perhaps more common among the Chassidim of Williamsburg than elsewhere.

I'm not sure if that's true or not. Remember that with so many children, a smaller percentage would still lead to more cases. My bet is that it isn't, and simply the existence of the study and exploring the topic make it look that way.

However, as I always chime in on such discussions, Torah produces noble baalei sheleimim. And mitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah. If it were to be shown that our abuse and other crime statistics weren't better than the rest of the country's (or even ch"v worse) is would be experimental evidence that what the mainstay of our community is practicing isn't Torah.

Or as RHM pushed me to put it in an earlier iteration: If we view Torah as a tool, it's not being used for the purposes for which it was created.

Li nir'eh the two formulations only differ on the breadth of the definition of the word Torah. In both I'm trying to describe a community that keeps mitzvos anashim eilumadah without yir'as Shamayim, simchah, hislahavus, an intent to reach qedushah, etc.... You can call that keeping the Torah but not using it for what it was meant, or you can call it not really keeping the Torah. The difference is terminology.

The Gra (Even Sheleimah ch 2, I think it's 2:1) explains the use of water as a metaphor for Torah. Learning Torah is like watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds.

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan's metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one's observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita's role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives.

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore -- it's a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei hakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. And even among the masses, an entire "under the table" economy designed to violate "dina demalkhusa dina" (the law of the land is the law), which udebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc... we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I'm not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn't try to explain the tree's relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we're to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

Along the same lines as introducing means of teaching gemara which more frequently links the halakhah to the question of values is one that actually addresses rather than skims the aggadita. Few of us were given any methodology for learning those portions of the gemara. The Maharsha and Maharal are useful source texts for deriving the underlying meaning of some of those fantastical-seeming stories.

Similarly, few men have the tools to learn nevi'im acharonim, sifrei Eme"s (Iyuv, Mishlei, Tehillim), and the other parts of Nakh that inculcate basic values. (Women are sometimes more fortunate in this regard.)

Programs to teach middos are frequently introduced to schools, but the results seem to bear out the fact that middos and emotions are very difficult to change by classroom education. The "how" of running the other classes will have more impact than explicitly
adding middos and yir'as Shamayim to the "what". On the other hand, not dedicating classroom time to the subject will inculcate the attitude that it's not important.

When we teach "Dinim Class", we need to spend as much time on the mitzvos that lack well-defined shiurim, or that relate to interpersonal or fiscal law as we do to Orach Chaim.

And of course, and really first, we need to constantly think about these issues in our own lives and in setting educational policy. These ideas are just to get the ball rolling, not a canonical list.

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being qadosh.