Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Will the Future of Judaism Look Like?

I’ve discussed this topic many times. But last night it came through to me again as I heard a grandmother urge her grandchildren to seek a university education. 

What makes this particular event so unique is that this grandmother is someone that I would call a Centrist or a Right Wing Modern Orthodox Jew (RWMO) – as is her husband.  But her grandchildren are very Charedi.

As I have explained many times, Centrists are Jews are defined by their meticulous observance of Halacha, their belief in the supreme value of Torah study to which they dedicate much of their time… as well as supporting the elite scholars among us that do it full time. But they also place a high value on worldly knowledge as well as providing for their families.

There was a time when RWMOs sent their children to Centrist type day schools.  Although many still do, there are just as many that send their children to Charedi day schools. They have moved rightward having been influenced in their own MO schools by Mechanchim  that came from Charedi backgrounds.

And once they attended a Yeshiva or seminary in Israel… its all but over for many of them. Many of these Yeshivos and seminaries recruit students in Modern Orthodox schools hiding the fact that they are anti MO. They see themselves as ‘Kiruv’ type schools. What I mean by Kiruv in this instance is changing the Hashkafos of their students from those leaned in their homes to a Charedi Hashkafa. They call it growing.

I of course have no problem with growing, if it means becoming more serious about observance of Halacha and putting greater value on Torah study. But that is not all they do. They also very subtly (or even subliminally)  denigrate Modern Orthodoxy without making any distinctions between the left, right, or center of that Hashkafa. They just see all of MO as light on observance. And they denigrate many of its values learned in the home. They replace it with Charedi concepts of Daas Torah and spell out who they believe is qualified to express it – to the exclusion of all others.

When these young people come back from their ‘gap year’ (so named because it is the gap between high school and college) many of them have changed course and now seek the values that have been instilled in them in their Israeli ‘Kiruv’ schools. In other words - they become Charedi.

After they get married their own children will of course never have the chance to learn about a Centrist Hashkafa. Other than to have it denigrated when it is brought up  by their Mechanchim in the Charedi schools they attend. If you mention a university education to any of them, in many cases it will elicit derisive laughter.

But even without the ‘gap year’ in Israel, the very thing that is the hallmark of a RWMO Hashkafa – meticulous Mitzvah observance and the high value placed on Torah study- may in fact lead them to send their children to a Charedi day school.  These parents are afraid of the secular influences brought into Centrist schools.  They fear that being exposed to it will increase the chances of being enticed to go OTD.

The typical explanation I hear form RWMO’s who have university educations themselves about why they send their children to a Charedi school is: ‘Better to make my kids more frum than less frum.’ ‘I can always make them less Frum.’ ‘It’s much harder to make them more Frum.’

What happens instead is that their children are now influenced by the Charedi environment. They then continue to ‘grow’ in their Yiddishkeit and often end up spending years in a Kollel with lots of mouths to feed and little money with which to do it. And no real preparation for the workplace.

While it is true that in many cases a way is found for them to earn a decent living despite their disadvantaged secular education, it is certainly not assured. And many of them suffer because of it – even to the point of family dysfunction and OTD children.

This is not what Centrist grandparents envisioned for their grandchildren. What they envisioned was a lifestyle that is not driven by a Charedi driven agenda. But by a lifestyle similar to their own where their grandchildren would have options consistent with what they had.

The tragedy here is that this is not the way it was just a few decades ago. When I was in high school, most of the students - even in Charedi Yeshivos - got university.  After high school we attended the Yeshiva in the daytime and university at night. We all got degrees. And many of us used them to get advanced degrees or to go on to professionals schools in order to better our lives and those of our families financially. We  got married. We had families. We worked. We and were Koveih Itim (set aside regular times for Torah study). And we sent our children to good day schools. 

In Yeshivos like Torah VoDaath, Chaim Berlin, and Ner Israel, the vast majority of students did this. It was expected. It was normal. The Roshei Yeshiva encouraged it back then. Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Pam had a degree in math. Chaim Berlin Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner used to meet with the students in his Yeshiva to make sure they were taking the right courses for their own particular situations. Ner Israel was known to have the best arrangement with universities in Baltimore so as to maximize their Torah study without sacrificing their university studies. And it need not be said that YU and HTC were very pro secular studies, having a college right on their premises.

Today, that is all gone. In my view the move to the right was a natural outgrowth of the strong Charedi influences even in Centrist schools and spending the ‘gap year’ in Israel. Not to mention the success of community Kollels that brought with them their Charedi Hashkafos. These Kollels specialize in in-reach. This means they reach out to the already religious. While I believe they have done much to straighten observance and increase Torah study – which is something I enthusiastically support - they have added pressure to move to the right by teaching these values either via lectures or by example. Community Kollel Avreichim tend to be very popular – even charismatic. Many Jews (even from MO backgrounds) want to emulate them. 

This is not to say that I am giving up on Centrist Orthodoxy. Far from it. I believe in it strongly. I believe we Centrists still have a chance to influence the future of Orthodoxy. As I have said many times, there is a new world being created that will be comprised of moderate Charedim who have already learned there is value in university education as it pertains to Parnassa (making a living). They will be the majority. Touro College which caters to moderate Charedim has expanded greatly since its founding.

But that new world will also have Centrists whose lifestyles will be virtually identical albeit with different Hashkafos. These two groups will quite nicely on a social level. My hope is that the unsustainable nature of the Torah only influences will cause it to reconsider their past mostly positive attitudes about a university education. And instead of encouraging every one of their students into an indefinite stay in a Kollel, they will encourage the majority of them to seek a better life through a better education. So that even if they all spend some time in Kollel, it will be with a Parnassa in their pockets. If things go as I suggest they will, the future of observant Judaism will then no longer be Charedi or RWMO… but a melding the two Hashkafos into a new and stronger Judaism.