Monday, August 30, 2010

Potential Gedolim or Yeshivishe Rednecks?

Guest Post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman

Rabbi Dovid Landesman is a frequent commenter and an occasional a guest poster here. He is a unique individual who identifies as Charedi and yet his views on issues of the day are often in complete concert with my own. And although I can’t really be pegged I tend to most closely identify with what might be called right wing modern Orthodoxy. The following essay by Rabbi Landesman reinforces my belief that moderate Charedim and right wing modern Orthodox Jews are the wave of the future. It is they who will form a new centrism. This new centrism will be a social rather than a hashkafic unit with high compatibility between the two groups.

What makes this particular contribution by Rabbi Landesman remarkable is the consonance it has with my own views on the issues he touches upon in the essay. I have expressed virtually identical views many times. He is about to publish a new book entitled: Food for Thought – No Hechsher Required scheduled for release in January. The following essay is taken from that book.

One of my sensitivities that has become more acute through the years is the discomfort I feel whenever I listen to lashon hakodesh being butchered by speakers who seem to feel that fealty to the rules of grammar, proper pronunciation and emphasis on the proper syllable are the unique purview of subscribers to Zionism and/or Modern Orthodoxy. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l, in a not terribly successful attempt to get us to be serious about our Hebrew language classes in Mesifta Torah Vodaath, told us that he once discovered a major halachic error in a well known acharon that was based on a simple dikduk mistake. Regrettably, we were not suitably impressed.

Personally, I cringe whenever I hear learned rabbis and roshei yeshiva refer to the zechusim [should be zechuyot] of our forefathers, or the outstanding anivus [should be anavah] of the gedolim of yesteryear. No less painful are the announcements in shuls respectfully requesting that the congregants not leave their taleisim [should be tallitot] on the benches or informing them that kiddush dedication opportunities are available for a number of Shabbosim [should be Shabbatot].

A related issue is the tendency within segments of the observant community to consider fluency in a language other than yeshivish as indicative of weakness in one’s level of observance. While that trend might not be new, there was a period of time when this was clearly not policy in the yeshivot. When I was studying in the beit midrash at Torah Vodaath, the yeshiva sponsored a weekly homiletics class with Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’l. The course was ostensibly directed toward talmidim who intended to enter the rabbinate and participation was voluntary. But both R. Yaakov and R. Schorr zt’l made it quite clear that they considered public speaking ability to be important and in no way was its practice to be considered bittul Torah.

Listening to young men and women attending the seminaries and yeshivot of Eretz Yisrael, I am often forced to restrain myself and refrain from reacting violently to some of the expressions that I hear bandied about. I’m not sure how many more times I can silently sit by and hear another young woman describe how kedushadik her trip to Tzefat was or a young man relate how he can no longer daven in a certain shul because of the lack of a Torahdik atmosphere.

Admittedly, am Yisrael has far more important problems that need to be our priority. Nevertheless, I find it necessary to go on public record as decrying this phenomenon which, I believe, is easily rectifiable. It simply demands a bit of effort on the part of rabbanim and mechanchot to teach their charges that lashon hakodesh, as the language that the Ribbono shel Olam used to create the world, has enormous import and therefore deserves to be treated with respect and awe. Furthermore, the schools must emphasize that the ability to cogently and intelligently present one thoughts are a skill that must be developed even if only because it provides one with an opportunity to make a simple, elementary kiddush Hashem.

Why then this rant? I have a gnawing suspicion that the inarticulate nature suggest that you are not a part of this group, use of yeshivish will enable you to reassure your listeners that your core values are still intact.

Often, and this is especially true of new initiates into the yeshiva world, lack of fluency in yeshivish can cause hilarious mistakes. My wife once taught a girl who told her that a friend’s shidduch was mamash gebrochts [she meant to say bashert].

I wonder if there has not been a dumbing down of the general curriculums in the yeshivot and girls’ schools to insure that the forces of modernity and progress not permeate the walls of separation. I admit that I am faced with an internal contradiction here. On the one hand, I fully accept that much of the society around us is inimical and at times even pernicious and we must therefore limit our exposure and create barriers. Nonetheless, the bubble that we have created, along with the introduction of frumspeak and even more frumthink into our schools, has contributed to a qualitative decline in the yeshiva world.

I would add that the downplaying of communication skills has had collateral affect as well; it has led to the establishment of what I refer to as yeshivishe red necks [what an image!] who disdain any knowledge or information that is not clearly related to their limited, immediate interests or whose source is outside their community.

This, in my mind, has to be a serious impediment to two of the most critical components in education – curiosity and creativity. Should we not be concerned that since the passing of R. Dessler and R. Hutner zt’l, no major works of machashavah have been produced – this in a generation confronted by incomparable progress in science and technology?!

A number of years ago, I published an article quoting R. Elya Meir Bloch zt’l who declared that the reason why Agudat Yisrael had never managed to attract the majority of observant Jews in Eastern Europe was that it had always had to wait for the Mizrachi to come out in favor of something so as to determine what it was against. According to R. Bloch, one can not build a successful and popular movement whose focus is on negativity. In my analysis, the yeshiva world today has become a victim of this type of negativity.

Instead of confronting modernity with confidence that our mesorah has the strength to withstand the challenge, we have retreated behind walls whose height and breadth are continuously increased to deal with new potential breakthroughs. Ideas that do manage to permeate the barriers are subject to disparagement as unworthy of debate.

We blame the internet, movies and television for the cancer that we find eating away at our families, ignoring the fact that this cancer is hardly limited to those who have been exposed to the media. In many conversations with roshei yeshiva, teachers and mechanchot, I have heard a common theme expressed; too many kids are just shells. The mechanchim in the trenches do not decry that their charges are hedonists mindlessly pursuing pleasure. They complain that the kids simply don’t care about
anything important.

Obviously, this is not true of the entire student populations of our institutions; there is remarkable hatmadah in many yeshivot and phenomenal acts of chessed in our Beit Yaakovs. Nonetheless, there are also many kids whose minds are as vapid as their expressions. Might it not be possible that our system is what has created this?

In an essay published in 1963, R. Dessler zt’l writes that the yeshivot of Eastern Europe rejected the idea of teaching students secular studies because it was felt that a dual curriculum would prevent the yeshivot from producing gedolai Yisrael. They realized that this decision would result in heavy casualties in terms of the many students who were not suited for this kind of study, but felt that this was a price worth paying.

R. Dessler acknowledges that the Frankfurt derech of T.I.D.E. was far more successful than the olam hayeshivot in terms of producing baalei batim8 committed to Torah and mitzvah observance. However, he criticizes the Frankfurt derech, writing that because of its open nature it failed to produce more than a handful of gedolai Yisrael.

In exploring the issue, I offer the following possibility for consideration. Is it possible that R. Dessler's opinion was really time dependent rather than a statement of policy to be followed at all times? Remember that he was writing in the aftermath of WWII, when the scholarly leadership of observant Jewry had been decimated. Perhaps at that juncture it was critical that the yeshivot cloister themselves so as to rebuild that which had been lost.

Is there not precedent that at certain times, given the exigencies that a community faces, changes are made to best serve the immediate needs of a community? Even the foremost opponents of T.I.D.E. – R. Baruch Ber Lebowitz and R. Elchanan Wasserman zt’l –admitted that given the natureof what was transpiring in Germany, R. Hirsch’s derech was permitted as a hora’at sha’a. Can the same not be said about the founding of the modern yeshivot – e.g., Volozhin?

Is it unreasonable to contend that they were established, as R. Dessler writes, as incubators for future gedolim because at that point in history, it was critical to create a safe haven where Torah could be nurtured in the face of a Jewish society challenged internally by reform and externally by democracy and the industrial revolution?

The essential question is what is the proper structure for the yeshivot today, sixty years after the holocaust, when the observant population has grown to an extent that was unimaginable at the time that R. Dessler wrote his essay. Should we continue using a curriculum designed to develop gedolim knowing that many talmidim will go off the derech because they are not being reached?

Can this still be justified given that the yeshivot have been replenished and thrive? Is there a rationale for our continued focus on the elite when the student population of the schools far exceeds that of Eastern Europe before WWII – both in absolute numbers as well as in the percentage of the observant population enrolled?

Or, perhaps, now that we have an independent state, the yeshivot have a concurrent responsibility to create an infrastructure for the entire community and can no longer consider themselves as proprietors of an ivory tower. Perhaps the time has come to reexamine the curriculum of the olam hayeshivot so that it can serve the general needs of a klal that needs to be self sustaining.

Granted that doing so will elicit a price, for individuals with the potential to become great in Torah may well choose to enter professions if they are given the choice. Indeed, the yeshivot as a whole might produce fewer gedolim if we change the curriculum of the schools and offer more serious limudei chol allowing graduates to become contributors to the State’s economy.

But, in R. Dessler’s own words, perhaps that is the price we have to pay?