Skip to content

Jonathan Rosenblum

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Creating an Environment for Developing Closeness to Hashem

“I HAVE SEEN THE ELEVATED ONES  (bnei aliyah), and they are few,” say Chazal (Sukkos 45b). From this statement of Chazal we learn at least two things. First, that creating a close relationship with Hashem is hard work; much more is required than just the verbal expression of desire for such a relationship. And second, those who are zocheh (merit) to achieve the most intense connection to Hashem have always been, and always will be, a small minority. There are no magic formulas for achieving that relationship.

Yet if few of us will ever merit the title ben aliyah, one characterized by constant striving, nevertheless, each of us is capable of achieving a closer connection to Hashem, and it is possible to identity some of the conditions for doing so.

Environment Counts

At best, one can help those who are seeking a deeper, more intense relationship with Hashem. But no one can create that desire for a relationship. That must come from the person himself.

One crucial determinant of how likely a particular Jew is to seek out a relationship with Hashem is his or her general level of satisfaction with life as a frum Jew. An early emotional attachment to an Orthodox lifestyle is not a sufficient condition for the subsequent development of a rich and rewarding intellectual attachment to Hashem and religious observance. But it is something close to a necessary condition. Long before a child possesses an intellectual apparatus capable of thinking about Hashem – beyond He is up, down, and all around – the environment into which he is born will help determine how likely he or she is to one day seek Him.

To the extent that a child perceives his world as a basically good place, he is much more likely to seek to draw close to He Who brought the world into being and sustains it. If, one the other hand, those who represent “religion” in the child’s eyes are cruel or abusive, his interest and feeling of connection to the “religious system” is likely to be very attenuated.

Products of dysfunctional families, especially where the parents or other family members are physically, sexually, or verbally abusive, will obviously have great difficulty identifying with a religious system that has not protected them in their most vulnerable years. In the rarer cases where the abuse is at the hands of an authority figure representing the “system” outside the family, the natural reaction of a vulnerable child will be to distance him or herself from that system.

Familial dysfunction and severe abuse, while growing problems, are far from the norm. Less dramatic but more pervasive messages can also distance children from identifying with life as observant Jews. Even when a child is already capable of beginning to think about Hashem, his or her general comfort level and satisfaction with his life as a frum Jew will have a lot to do with his or her ability to relate to Hashem.[1]

Let us say, for instance, a boy finds Gemara difficult from the beginning, or he concludes that he will never be one of the outstanding students in the class. If he is also told that the only future in store for him is full-time Torah learning, he will feel that he has been trapped for life in a system in which he can never excel.

Over the course of his years in yeshiva, he may hear dozens of times the supposed ma’amar Chazal: “eleph nichnasim v’echad yotzei l’hora’a – a thousand enter the beis medrash and one [of them] merits to become a great halachic authority.”[2] The implications of that statement are never fully spelled out, but the youthful listeners could be forgiven for concluding that the remaining 999 are cannon fodder for the production of the one great talmid chacham, and that their lives are of no intrinsic significance. That is not a message designed to attach children to the religious world in which they have been born.

By contrast, it is hard to imagine a more empowering message to Jews of all ages than that each Jew has a unique role to play in the Creation – a way of proclaiming Hashem’s glory, by virtue of his unique circumstances, talents and challenges – that no one else ever had or ever will have. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s classical work Nefesh HaChaim is an explication of how every action, word, and even thought of a Jew has the power to connect Hashem to our world, and to open up the conduits of Divine blessing. I cannot think of a greater antidote to unhappiness than the realization of the ultimate significance of one’s life and everything one does. What Jew would not wish to attach himself to a system that invests him with such power to bring about tikkun olam?

That sense of empowerment should not be confined to the purely conceptual level. Concrete activities that draw out youthful idealism – and which, incidentally, often provide opportunities to shine to those who might not do so in the classroom – reinforce the sense of one’s life as of great significance in the cosmic scheme of things. Those activities draw the child into the religious world that nurtures the feeling that one’s life counts. I once asked a great-grandmother, who had been one of the teenage volunteers working long hours under the leadership of Elimelech “Mike” Tress on wartime rescue activities, whether things were better then or now (when religious standards are so much higher and knowledge greater). She did not hesitate: “Then we really lived; today we only compete.”

The more the religious environment in which our children mature provides them with a sense of the importance of everything they do, the more they will want to develop and deepen their connection to Torah and the Ribbono shel Olam. Or so it seems to me. As others have pointed out, informal education activities can be as important as formal ones in creating this awareness of the contribution every Jews has to make.

There is one more crucial “environmental factor” that must be mentioned in the context of developing our relationship with Hashem and His Torah. More than a decade ago, the Sunday morning session at the annual convention of Agudath Israel of America devoted a session to the topic, “Living a Life of Ruchnius amidst Gashmius.” Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman practically blew me out of my seat below him on the podium, when he bellowed out the first line of his speech, “This topic is a mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. The two are in inherent conflict with one another.”

The Vilna Gaon explains in numerous places that ta’ava and chemdas mammon are the great impediments to a life of Torah and mitzvos. As Chazal say (Yalkut Shimoni Devarim 830), “Before a man prays that the words of Torah be absorbed into his innards, let him pray that food and drink not be absorbed therein.” A person can be blessed with great wealth and nevertheless attain a high spiritual level, and poverty is no guarantee of spiritual success. But to the extent that we are absorbed by the pursuit of material pleasures, we will not be involved in the pursuit of spiritual riches, and may even deaden ourselves to them.

Nearly every mechanech in Israel who deals with American students comments on the devastation of the too-great materialism from which many of the students are coming. When teenagers hear their parents discussing the wealth of others, getting excited about brand names and fascinated by every new gadget, those tend to be the things that become important to them as well. Before the Torah can even begin to get through, the mechanchim must devote much time to breaking the “idols” of America. Easier said than done.

Being Comfortable with “G-d talk”

Every student who ever spent any time at Aish HaTorah heard the founder, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, relate a frequent conversation with his father as a young boy. His father would ask him, “Noah, who loves you more than anyone in the whole world?” The invariable answer: Not Tatte, not Mommy. Hashem loves you more than anyone else.

The message itself is one of crucial importance. The principal attraction of Breslav chassidus today is the need that so many have to hear a message of unadulterated Divine love. One avreich, for instance, firmly believed in G-d; the only problem was that the G-d he believed in was one with whom he found himself in an antagonistic relationship. He viewed Hashem exclusively in terms of punishment for any failure in thought, word, or deed.

The point I’m making is that it is possible to instill a “G-d consciousness.” But it requires constant reinforcement. And in this respect, it is possible to apply Reb Noah’s techniques with young-adult ba’alei teshuva to those fortunate to have been born into the Torah world. One of the major presenters of Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminar – the son of a European-educated talmid chacham and a product of the most intense, American yeshivos – told me that he only learned in his mid-30s from Reb Noah that it is possible “to be a totally erliche Yid and yet still daven every tefillah with kavannah.

Providing the Tools

In general, there is a certain imbalance in Torah chinuch today – too much emphasis on covering ground and too little on providing the context for all the information. Students may know a lot of halacha, but have given little thought to what the goal of the mitzvos is and what kind of human being Hashem seeks to fashion, i.e., what Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch called “Divine anthropology.” Nor are we providing our students with the full range of resources within the tradition for dealing with the questions in emunah that will at one time or another trouble every thinking person – e.g., tzaddik ve’rah lo.

Rabbi Dovid Sapirman begins A Mechanech’s Guide to Why and How to Teach Emunah (published by Torah Umesorah, with the haskomos of two of North America’s leading poskim, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu Miller and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Loewy) with a startling statement: “Emunah is not usually included in the curriculum of our educational system. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs rarely address the thirteen ikarim (principles of faith), and most students don’t even know what they are.”

These subjects are not taught, he asserts, because it is assumed, wrongly, that our children have somehow absorbed emunah by osmosis, as a consequence of being raised in “homes permeated with emunah, trained in Torah institutions, and immersed in a frum atmosphere.”

The result is that our children “accept the doctrines of emunah superficially, because this is all that they know.” But they have not internalized those doctrines and made them their own. “A large percentage of our youth are religious only because they were brought up that way, and they believe only because that is what religious people do,” writes Rabbi Sapirman.

To the extent that our children lack firm convictions in the basics of our faith – Hashem’s existence; Divine Providence, the truth of every word of Torah – they are handicapped. Even if they sail along perfectly comfortable as frum Jews – we are denying them the excitement of an intense relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

The effects of the absence of a deep connection may only manifest themselves later in life. The much discussed phenomenon of “adults-at-risk,” generally results not from any particular trauma, but from waking up one day in mid-life and suddenly discovering that one has no idea of why one is doing the things that one has been doing all one’s life. Rabbi Sapirman describes speaking to many people of various ages who are tormented by fundamental emunah and hashkafah questions that could and should have been answered shortly after the age of bar mitzvah.

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. The average bochur in his late teens, for instance, says he believes, “but truthfully, he neither believes nor disbelieves. He is simply moving along the conveyor belt that leads him from cradle to kollel.” While he may continue on the belt indefinitely, “woe to him . . . if he is every confronted with fundamental questions. . . . Woe to him, too, if [he is] ever faced with a serious nisayon, like the temptation for something immoral or dishonest.” Confronted with temptation, the simplest path is to succumb and console oneself that he doesn’t really believe – especially if, in fact, such belief as one professes is not the result of any serious reflection.

A maggid shiur in one of the major yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael recently confirmed the truth of Rabbi Sapirman’s description and the dangers posed. American bochurim coming to learn in Eretz Yisrael, he told me, have in general heard many shmuessen on ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah learning), but have only a very hazy knowledge of the principles of our faith. That is one of the reasons, he said, that so many fall victim to the lack of supervision they experience when studying in Eretz Yisrael.

If one speaks to yeshiva bochurim, one finds that even the best and most diligent among them have very little grounding in the classic texts of Jewish thought. They may have learned Mesilas Yesharim in mussar seder, and a bit of Sha’arei Teshuva in Elul. But of Chovos Halevavos, Derech Hashem, Tomer Devorah, Da’as Tevunos, and even the yeshiva classic Nefesh Hachaim, they know little.

And that is a tragedy. As one who came to many of these seforim later in life, I can remember the exhilaration that comes from suddenly finding clarity where before all was murky. Upon learning Derech Hashem for the first time, I kept asking myself, “What did I think until now?”

Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz included all or most of the seforim listed above in the curriculum of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, in his day, along with Maharal, Tanya and Oros Hateshuva of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.  At the most basic level, they validated the basic questions of emunah that will arise, at one point or another, for most students. If the greatest Jewish thinkers addressed these questions, one need not feel guilty about asking them. As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe used to say, “There are no apikorsus questions, just apikorus answers.”

One or more of these seforim, or more contemporary works dealing with the same issues, will likely provide the inquiring student with the answers to the questions that trouble him. There is no single sefer to which every Jew will respond but I do believe that there exists a sefer that will speak to every questing Jew. We owe it to our young to expose them to the treasures of Torah thought so they can find an approach that speaks to them.

The Importance of an Example

In my experience, nothing strengthens emunah like exposure to a real ba’al emunah. With respect to this topic, I have no choice but to resort to personal experience.

For well over a decade I attended the Thursday night shiur of Rabbi Moshe Shapira (and still try to read the write-ups of the shiur), and I was also privileged to be part of a small va’ad of his on Perek Chelek for many years. I will confess that I never once dreamed that I had fully understood Reb Moshe, and there were times when I wondered whether I had understood anything at all. Yet I never doubted the value of the shiurim or vaadim. Because from each one I came away with an overwhelming sense that for Reb Moshe everything fits together in a perfect unity, from the letters of lashon hakodesh to the most obscure midrashim. And the knowledge that all is clear to him was always comforting to me.

I have also attended a morning shiur for fifteen years or more, with Rabbi Chaim Raff, a maggid shiur from a major Yerushalayim yeshiva. Those attending include a few, like myself, with more traditional yeshiva backgrounds, and many who identify with the national religious community in Israel. Yet each member of that shiur will attest, without hesitation, that the daily exposure to Rabbi Raff has changed their lives and their avodas Hashem. It is impossible to be in his presence without wanting to lift oneself up and be more like him.

Rabbi Raff shines. And the sense of amazement and awe that he brings to every word of the Mesilas Yesharim or the commentary of the Gaon on Mishlei, not to mention his evident joy in Gemara uplifts us and attaches all of us to these texts. I am filled with pity whenever I talk to a yeshiva bochur and he tells me that he has no one in his life who inspires the same awe and, yes, love in him that Rabbi Raff inspires in me and in the other members of my shiur.

Rabbi Lopiansky describes in this issue the change from the mussar yeshivos of Europe – where the dominant figure was often the Mashgiach (e.g., the Alter of Kelm, the Alter of Slabodka, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz) – to the present day when the role of Mashgiach has been devalued to that of a policeman. Sadly, at least in Eretz Yisrael, the situation is worst in the most elite yeshivos, which also tend to be the biggest. Not only do even the best bochurim have no figure of whom they are in awe, they often do not feel that there is any authority figure in the yeshiva who knows them well enough to guide them personally.  Roshei yeshiva are too frequently more involved in ensuring that their top talmidim receive an appropriate apartment upon marriage than in providing individual guidance to those same talmidim on how to develop their kochos.

This is a tragedy for yeshiva bochurim, many of whom do not even fathom what they are missing.

Let’s Not Forget the Positive

As we noted at the outset, there always has been and always will be much room for improvement in our avodas Hashem. At the same time, it is important to mention that there is a tremendous thirst in our generation for a closer relationship to Hashem and a great deal of spiritual striving in all segments of the Torah world.

No piece on spiritual connection can ignore the explosion of Torah learning among those no longer in full-time learning, particularly of daf hayomi. The commitment required to complete the daf hayomi itself bespeaks a quest for spiritual growth, and it is hard to imagine anyone successfully completing daf hayomi, even at a superficial level, without becoming a more elevated person than when he began.

For women, “Amen groups,” and various other initiatives reflect the same desire for spiritual growth. The proliferation of works on tefillah, and the popularity of works like Rabbi Heshy Kleiman’s Praying with Fire, also show the desire of many Jews to strengthen one of the crucial connections with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

Many are drawn today to more esoteric realms of Torah thought. Rabbi Moshe Shapira, Rabbi Zvi Meir Zilberberg, Rabbi Avrohom Schorr, the Tolner Rebbe, Rabbi Asher Weiss – each with his own distinctive style –  all give numerous shiurim every week and attract hundreds of seekers. Rabbi Yisroel Reisman’s shiurim on Tanach draw nearly a thousand people on a weekly basis.

I have been in a number of shuls in which the rabbi has succeeded in lifting up entire congregations and instilling within them a new enthusiasm for Torah learning and mitzvah observance. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger has created in upscale Woodmere a congregation worthy of the name Aish Kodesh. Rabbi Zev Cohen in Chicago and Rabbi Moshe Hauer in Baltimore have succeeded by offering an astounding array of Torah shiurim to their congregants. I can think of at least two networks of mussar vaadim for lay people that have come into being in the last decade or so.

Many years ago, I heard the late Rabbi Simcha Wasserman say, “Don’t become a salesman for Torah; the Torah doesn’t need salesman.” That remains true today. All that is needed is to make the Torah available – taught by those who have experienced its power – and it will pierce the heart of any Jew who opens him or herself up to hear.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist, author, biographer and lecturer.

[1] See Dr. Judith Cahn’s piece in this issue for a description of the impact on the children of ba’alei teshuva of the parents’ feelings of being successfully integrated into the religious community, or the lack thereof.

[2] Though this particular ma’mar is frequently quoted, it does not exist. The actual ma’amar Chazal may be interpreted in an almost diametrically opposite fashion: “A thousand enter to the study of Mikra; one hundred to the study of Mishnah; ten to the study of Gemara; and one goes out to l’hora’a.” The meaning would not appear to be that one thousand students learning in the beis medrash are necessary for one great talmid chacham to emerge, but rather that each Jew has a level of Torah learning that is suited to him. If a beis medrash of 1,000 were needed to produce one great posek, we could not explain the Chazon Ish or, lbch”l, Rav Elyashiv, neither of whom learned a day in advanced yeshivos.

No comments yet

Comments are closed.