Foreword to Spring 2012
LAST AUTUMN, THE MAIDEN ISSUE of Klal Perspectives asked contributors to identify the most serious challenges facing American Orthodox Jewry. One of the repeated responses was that many observant Jews suffer from the absence of a connection to G-d, Torah and the Jewish people. In this new issue, we asked whether the experience of feeling disconnected is as rampant among observant Jews as suggested, and if true, to identify the causes. We then asked the most important question: what might be done by the community and by individuals to reverse this trend.
Thirty people were invited to contribute, and eighteen agreed. Those solicited included pulpit rabbis, educators, outreach professionals, roshei yeshiva, community activists and researchers. Contributors uniformly agreed that the problem of being disconnected is real. The only people who declined to support this observation were three roshei yeshiva teaching post-high school yeshiva students. These roshei yeshiva, serving in three different types of yeshivas, each advised that they were unqualified to address the questions because they had no familiarity with the problem. They explained that their students were all intensely connected and involved, and they had no indication that this strong connection weakened in the years after the students leave yeshiva.
Numerous writers noted that the problem of Jews being disconnected is not at all novel, and has plagued our people throughout the millennia. Authors cited the calls of the earliest prophets for a refocus on religious passion and intensity. The problem continued up and through today, as reflected by the advent of the mussar movement and of Chassidus, both referenced by many contributors.
There was also a general view that achieving a feeling of connecting is vital. Rabbi Ahron Lopinasky cited two reasons: “First, ahava and yirah and simcha are core Torah values, and second, when Torah observance reflects solely a sense of duty and obligation, the commitment withers and atrophies.” Rabbi Gidon Rothstein cautioned, however, that “While it is certainly enjoyable when we find activities that provide satisfaction and fulfillment, we cannot use those feelings or their absence as the barometers by which we judge success.” Rabbi Rothstein cautioned against confusing serving G-d and personal fulfillment: “Many Jews – even highly observant ones – seek only ‘personal fulfillment,’ which to them means ridding themselves of obligations, thereby freeing themselves to act as they wish.” Rabbi Rothstein continued: “As Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, zt”l, pungently commented, ‘The problem with American Jews is that they don’t want to daven, they want to have davened.’”
Notwithstanding the repeated accusations that this disconnect reflects laziness and apathy, there was some sympathy for the disconnected Jew. Rabbi Benzion Twerski suggested that, unlike the apathy prevalent prior to the advent of Chassidus, many contemporary Jews recognize that they are missing something: “The only difference between the days of the advent of Chassidus and today is that in our day we know, at least in our hearts, that we should be yearning when we are not, and that we should be singing, though we may not.” Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser related the same theme, as did Rabbi Moshe Weinberger in describing his arrival to deliver a lecture at an outreach seminar, only to find that many of the attendees were fully observant Jews, searching for the same depth of passionate Judaism being taught to the non-observant. Moishe Bane suggested that Jews can hardly be held wholly accountable for a lack of connection after suffering for two thousand years in a bitter exile of hester panim.
Authors provided a wide array of possible sources of the disconnect felt by so many Orthodox Jews, as well as possible solutions and responses that might be pursued on either a communal or personal basis.
Rabbi Goldwasser, among others, noted the intrusive nature of external influences such as the Internet: “The information highway has, with unprecedented speed, breached our fortifications and penetrated the security of our homes.” Rabbi Shalom Baum, however, cautioned against placing too much blame on the Internet, suggesting that the true problem is not external influences but rather that “we avoid the importance of being more inwardly focused.” Similarly, Rabbi Weinberger, though noting the extreme dangers of the Internet, warned against focusing too heavily on attacking the damaging effects of technology: “if on Monday, the anti-Internet convention takes a powerful swipe at the latest technology, by Tuesday the kids (and the young at heart) discover something better and faster.” Rabbi Weinberger joined others, such as Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox, who explained that many dispirited Orthodox Jews complain that “spirituality was never well defined and was never really talked about either at home or in yeshiva education.”
This absence of focus on the internal meaning of mitzvos was a repeated theme. Rabbi Shmuel Silber lamented that “we focus on the rules but not on their meaning and relevance.” Rabbi Silber noted that while schools play an important role, “it is at home where Torah knowledge must come alive.”
Rabbi Silber and many of the other writers, however, focused primarily on the role of education in influencing the degree of disconnect experienced by community members, suggesting numerous changes in yeshiva education that are necessary to enhance the sense of connection to G-d. Rabbi Yitzchok Feigenbaum took our schools to task for failing to prepare our children to live as well-adjusted, religious Jews. He noted that our schools overly emphasize external accomplishments and fail to provide opportunities for personal success. Rabbi Feigenbaum also emphasized that schools must facilitate individualism and encourage the questioning of religious ideas, both of which are necessary for a deeper and more meaningful engagement with Yiddishkeit. Finally, he argued that schools must validate, rather than ignore or dismiss, the religious struggles that students confront. Mrs. Chaya Newman echoed the view of many others that yeshivas teach only information, but fail to inculcate other dimensions of Yiddishkeit: “Perhaps it is time for all schools and yeshivas to create a curriculum whose main goal is inspiration and emotional connection.” Mrs. Shifra Rabenstein similarly argued that “teachers impart information but fail to give over the warmth of Yiddishkeit.” Several writers suggested that the more important supplement to be added to school curricula is increased focus on the reasons behind mitzvos and the basics in Jewish thought. In the words of Rabbi Weinberger, “The thirteen fundamental principles of faith must become a basic part of the curriculum in all schools and shuls.” This point was reiterated by Jonathan Rosenblum, who wrote; “To the extent that our children have not internalized the fundamentals of emunah, they are vulnerable to the myriad temptations with which they are bombarded.”
Rather than criticize our schools for the limited preparation for spiritual growth provided by our educational system, Rabbi Yaakov Glasser argued that schools cannot be expected to provide that dimension of the students’ growth. Rabbi Glasser observed that the academic structure of schooling necessarily requires a focus on grades and measurable accomplishments, which is antithetical to an environment conducive to spiritual exploration and development. Mrs. Rabenstein addressed this concern by suggesting that teachers spend more time with students outside the classroom. Similarly, Rabbi Lopiansky noted that the great European yeshivas were primarily led by major personalities, who served as both mentors as role models of connecting to HKBH. He urged yeshivas to renew their focus on hiring rebbeim whose lives exemplify spiritual heights, and who could thereby serve as spiritual mentors to the students, a view shared by others. Rabbi Glasser, however, took a different tack, suggesting that students need the additional dimension of informal education to address many needs that cannot be met in the classroom. Rabbi Glasser noted that informal education models provide students with a non-judgmental environment that allows for greater individuality, a safer context for questioning and exploration of ideas, and often an oasis from the cynicism that permeates many classrooms.
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky presented a completely different approach to the absence of connection, suggesting that “the root cause of people not feeling a connection with G-d (or with society) is frequently the absence of a true connection with one’s own self.” Rabbi Karlinsky first explained that being in touch with one’s self serves as the predicate of understanding the concept of relationships. Moreover, it is critical to the appreciation of one’s own self-worth – also a critical predicate to developing a connection with G-d. Rabbi Karlinsky also noted that the prevalence of materialism dampens one’s potential for spiritual connections, a lament shared by others. Rabbi Dovid Goldman suggested a focus on the holistic needs of others, as well as one’s own potential and the role that Torah plays to meet our own needs. Moishe Bane suggested that a threshold prerequisite to connecting to G-d is a connection to the Jewish community, but that current social values and lifestyle influences stymie opportunities for the creating of deep and intimate connections among peers. Jonathan Rosenblum pointed out that one’s ability to connect o HKBH is often directly related to the degree that one’s overall life experience as an observant Jew is positive.
Certain writers suggested that a significant source of the lack of connection is the rote by which many Jews observe mitzvos, but writers could not understand why people fail to pay more attention to mitzvah observance. Rabbi Lopiansky explained that G-d gave us the gift of “habit” to allow us to preserve our concentration for the more important aspects of life. Unfortunately, “the tendency to allow habit to control our behavior also affects important activities, including religious ones.” Rabbi Twerski, among others, highlighted the ease by which so many mitzvos can be observed by virtue of the conveniences now available. As Mrs. Rabenstein observed, “Perhaps it is the ease of access itself that allows for religious practice without much depth or connection.” Rabbi Twerski suggested that the absence of the effort to prepare to perform mitzvos has reduced peoples’ feelings and emotional connection to the mitzvos. “Preparation is not an issue of necessity; rather, it is a vital manifestation of our excitement about the amazing opportunity to serve Hashem.” Rabbi Twerski suggested that preparation can also take other forms, such as studying the halachos and meaning of a mitzvah prior to its performance.
Finally, many contributors suggested a wide array of writings that could serve as a source of hashkafic guidance, as well as inspiration. Many writers suggested the Nesivos Shalom, by the Slonimer Rebbe, zt”l. As described by Rabbi Adlerstein, this sefer is widely read because “He speaks often and speaks practically about the quality of connection with HKBH, because that is what it is all about…We should not underestimate the boost that we can get from this set of seforim.” Rabbi Adlerstein suggested additional readings, as did Rabbis Fox, Twerski and Weinberger.
The discussion in these submissions certainly do not exhaust the topic, and are intended to lead to further exploration. For example, though Rabbi Feigenbaum addressed the needs of high school girls, none of the writers addressed whether there are distinctions in the degree of connection felt by men and women within the community, and whether solutions may differ among the genders. While there were suggestions that excessive materialism may play a role in stifling spirituality, there was little discussion of the influence of financial challenges. Based upon studies of the communal integration of baalei teshuva, Judith Cahn presented research that evidenced the interplay between being connected, generally, and feeling connected religiously. But, other than general references by Rabbis Goldman and Karlinsky, there was very little discussion about the relationship between actual happiness and success and the feeling of being connected to G-d. Similarly, there was no discussion of the possible interplay between a person’s capacity to express gratitude and the feeling of a connection to G-d.
We believe that this issue of Klal Perspectives simply scratches the surface of this central topic. We invite our readers to participate in this crucial discussion, specifically by sharing brief descriptions of communal and educational models with a proven effectiveness at creating and enhancing connection. Submissions should be no longer than three paragraphs and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.