Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Where Are They Now?

Maybe it takes a Baal Teshuva. I truly believe that these are the Jews that God loves the most. A Baal Teshuva is someone who has repented from sin. This can apply to those who went off the Derech - meaning they were once observant, became unobservant, repented and then returned to observance.

Most often however the term Baal Teshuva is used in reference to those who were never raised religious. They were born in to a secular home and had no real idea what Judaism is all about.

As I have said in the past - someone who comes to observant Judaism on their own is on a level of spirituality that those of us raised in religious homes can only aspire to. I’m not even sure most of us can ever fully achieve it without the benefit of the search for truth that a Baal Teshuva or a Ger (convert) goes through.

We who are born into a religious home are raised to be Frum from the very first moment of our own physical awareness. There is no search. It is instilled in us from the very beginning. The Baal Teshuva on the other hand has to search for it – and find it. He (or she) has many options to choose from in life. He is given every opportunity to choose different paths in life and yet chooses a life of observant Judaism. A lifestyle that limits the freedom he is accustomed to. And yet that is the life they now prefer. They have found Emes.

One of the more famous Baalei Teshuva is Rav Shlomo Wolbe. He is best known for his magnum opus on Mussar, Alei Shur. Never having been a fan of Mussar I was not much aware of his writings until I happened upon volume two of his work. Therein he writes on the topic of ‘Frumkeit. It was an eye opener for me. His views on this subject exactly coincided with my own. What does he say about Frumkeit? He frowns on it.

Frumkeit is an external display of religiosity. But it is an illusion and not real. It is wearing religion on one’s sleeve – making a statement - so to speak - about how Frum one is. Rav Wolbe says Frumkeit is the antithesis of what God wants. He does not want displays of religion. What God wants is sincerity of belief and action. It is the internals – not the externals that are important.

Frumkeit is what results when one is overly concerned with their own personal religiosity rather that the welfare of others. When one is so egocentric one will almost always make mistakes in the name of Frumkeit. This says Rav Wolbe comes from a lack of Daas – the knowledge of what God wants - derived at through clear thinking and deep understanding of the Torah.

Without Daas one can end up becoming the classic Chasid Shoteh – the religious fool! This is illustrated in the Gemarah by example. It decribes a situation where a religious Jew sees a naked woman drowning and is afraid to save her for Tznius reasons.

I think this type of thinking can be extended to include many of situations today that end up in a Chilul HaShem -situations where choices are made for one’s own personal Tzidkis. Like beating up women who sit in the men’s area of a bus. They are displaying their Frumkiet in the ways of a Chasid Shoteh.

But this is not the only area where Rav Wolbe shines – and reflects my own thinking. Via an article in the latest issue of Mishpacha Magazine I have now been made aware of another piece of his personal wisdom. It is the wisdom of Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko. This phrase did not of course originate with him. It is found in the Gemarah and originates in Mishlei (22:6). What it basically says is that one should find out what a child aptitude is and educate him that way.

To me this is a no brainer. But to much of the Charedi world – especially in Israel – Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko practically doesn’t exist. In fact in Israel there is no such thing. With rare exception every child is educated to become a Talmid Chacham and nothing else no matter what. It doesn’t matter what their strengths are. Those strengths are ignored. Its “Torah in the morning, Torah in the evening, Torah at supper time” to turn a phrase in a popular song of the fifties.

In America the situation is a bit better since most Charedi children generally get a secular education too. But it is not much better. In many cases secular education is looked at as a necessarily evil to be ‘put up with’ until after high school. Its importance is minimized to the point of negligibility. Only Torah study is to be taken in earnest. Intensive Torah study is the only type of study that is encouraged among young Charedi students.

So it doesn’t matter if a child has an aptitude towards a field other than pure Torah study. If it exists it is discouraged. Highly intelligent young people are seen as potential Gedolim and are steered in that direction no matter what. Those children are told that with their intelligence they should focus on becoming a Gadol in Torah.

The bright students who are convinced to do this indeed do quite well in their Torah studies. But have they fulfilled their Tachlis – their purpose in life? Or have they only fulfilled the Tachlis of their mentors? In Israel there is barely a ghost of a chance that a child can develop his aptitude in a field - a field that he could excel in with far greater success than he did as a Talmid Chacham. Yes he may have achieved moderate success in his Torah learning - but at what price?

His Chinuch was not given Al Pi Darko. A bright student with a natural interest is science might have produced a cancer researcher that found the cure for cancer. And a Frum cancer researcher would not necessarily be an ignoramus in Torah. He could still be a Talmid Chacham and continue learning Torah every single day. But if not educated Al Pi Darko the potential loss to Klal Yisroel, mankind, and even to his own self achievement is enormous.

Is there any Gadol who would agree with this? I think Rav Wolbe was such a Gadol. He did not say so in so many words (as far as I know) but he did practice it with his own son, Rabbi Avrohom Wolbe.

When he was an adolescent living in Israel Avrohom Wolbe asked his father whether he should strive to be like him. His father said no -his strengths lie elsewhere. After receiving Semicha R’ Avrohom told his father that he wanted to join the army. His father gave him his blessing. Rav Avrohom went on to become a mental health professional who deals with at risk children. He now lives in Monsey, New York - and he had his father’s full approval about how he turend out.

Rav Wolbe’s son related an interesting story about his father. He once entered his father’s Beis HaMedrash in a short sleeve shirt to Daven Mincha. A student came up to him and asked, “How can you do this to your father?” (i.e. how could he walk into the Beis Hamedrash in improper attire?) But as Rav Avrohom relates the story, his father was never concerned with image. He was only concerned with Halacha.

This is yet another example of the attitude about Frumkeit by Rav Wolbe (senior).

Like I often say of that generation of Gedolim - where are they now?