Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Truth, Belief, and Dropouts

One of the major problems in male Chinuch in the Torah world is the over focus on Gemarah. The problems with that singular issue are enormous and in my view have a lot to do with the increase in dropouts from Judaism. If a child is not cut out for that type of learning he can easily lose interest quickly and become bored with school.

But because of parental and community pressure he will go through the motions and end up hating his educational experience - and as well – he may resent his parents and teachers for making him do that. He can then easily end up hating his religion too. This can quickly lead to dropping out of observance completely.

I see this more and more in some of the finest of families right here in Chicago. The ones I see are Charedi in Hashkafa. This is not to say that there aren’t any modern Orthodox dropouts. There certainly are. Why do I see more Charedim in this predicament? I believe it is related to the fact that the more one dimensional a curriculum is – the more students there will be that simply do not have any interest or are simply incapable of keeping up.

But that isn’t the only problem. There are important subjects in Judaism that are virtually ignored in most Yeshiva curriculums. The more Charedi they are the more they are ignored. One of them is in the area of basic belief or Emunah. That is due to the almost obsessive emphasis on Gemarah . There are other reasons for dropouts. But I think these are very significant ones.

This might be a surprise to the ‘uninitiated’. How can matters of faith not be taught - at least at a basic level? The explanation is rather simple.

An article in Cross-Currents by Jonathan Rosenblum explains it quite nicely. It is presumed by Torah educators that basic belief is a given in a child raised in an Orthodox home. It therefore need not be dealt with at all once in school. By then it is believed to be so ingrained that it not of any concern.

Well that is partially true. Belief is instilled indirectly but not with any great depth. The focus is on ritual. Belief is not really discussed at all in most homes. And that is understandable too. How many kindergartners think about belief? By the time one has questions they are so indoctrinated into Judaism that most students don’t need or want to question their beliefs.

That is enough to keep most students religious. It is simple faith – Emunah Peshuta. Difficult questions they may encounter are often treated with a shrug. They realize these questions are not easily answered but it doesn’t concern them. They trust the Mesorah. They also know that many great religious minds grappled with these questions. They do not feel the need to have them personally answered.

But there are a significant number of young people who are not satisfied with this approach. Questions of faith matter to them. Unanswered questions trouble them. If they are not dealt with it often leads to dropping out of Judaism.

There are some who will say that that most dropouts simply do not want to live with the hardships that observant Judaism requires. Keeping Kosher and Shabbos is not easy. Sexual freedom is much more fun than the restrictions placed upon one’s sex life by Halacha.

I’m sure that’s true in some cases. But clearly that is not the only explanation for the increase in the numbers of dropouts. One cannot overlook the one dimensional education forced upon them and the complete void in dealing with matters of faith.

The information age is in full gear. And it has certainly contributed to the dropout problem. If Emunah is not internalized and deep it can easily be lost on the information highway. One can find all manner of skepticism on the Internet. This has led to hundreds if not thousands of unprepared young people to become skeptics and even atheists.

Skepticism didn’t start with the Internet. Many great scientists, philosophers, and theologians have asked these questions throughout the ages and have themselves become skeptics and heretics. And universities are not reluctant to teach all of it.

All of this undermines the simple faith of those with questions. Basic assumptions begin to be questioned.

Questions of faith can come up from the most unexpected places. In today’s ‘Daf Yomi’ we had Chazal’s description of some basic astronomy. According to the Gemarah - that the earth rotates fully on its axis in a 24 hour cycle - does explains the sun's apparent motion. According to Chazal the earth is stationery relative to the sun. It is the sun that travels. It moves east to west. Once below the horizon it slips under the edge - and above -a dome and then traverses backwards - west to east - until it reaches the eastern horizon then slips back in below the dome to restart its daily visible movement westward.

Gemaros like these demand explanations to questioning minds. The worst response is to either ignore questions - or treat the questions themselves as heresy. But as Jonathan points out in his article - Rav Shlomo Wolbe says there is no such thing as a heretical question. There are only heretical answers. The question then arises, which answers are considered heresy and which are legitimate? Back to this question in a moment.

The bottom line is that as the current system exists very few Mechanchim know how to deal with these issues - nor does the curriculum exist in most schools that does so . All too often the response by a Mechanech is to try and scare off the questioner by telling him his questions are Apikursus – heresy! That might work for a third grader. But it will not work for most high school students. More than likely they will be turned off rather than sacred off by such answers.

Joanthan touts a new book that deals with this very issue:

A short book by veteran mechanech Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, A Mechanech’s Guide to Why and How to Teach Emunah deals with one such contemporary communal aspect. Published by Torah Umesorah, the booklet carries the haskomos of two of North America’s leading poskim, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu Miller and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Loewy.

Normally I would applaud such a book. But Rabbi Miller’s approbations tell me not to trust it. He is a vehement opponent of Rabbi Natan Slifkin and has called Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to explaining the kinds of Gemaros I cited above - heresy. This - despite the fact that Rabbi Slifkin cites universally accepted Rishonim to back him up.

This is no way to treat people with serious questions who may find Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to be the most satisfying among the various legitimate approaches. If his view is the same as universally accepted Rishonim, it is outrageous to call these views heresy. Because that makes what these Rishonim believed heresy as well!

To limit legitimate alternatives of explaining contradictions is to limit the ability of some to have true faith.

So I am skeptical about this book. But I do agree with the premise of requiring more time be spent on Jewish thought. It ought to include as wide an array of legitimate Jewish thought as possible. It will perforce be at the expense of the time spent on Gemarah. But it will be time well spent.