Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger
The Battle for the Jewish Soul
Orthodox society, both as individuals and as a community, must deal with a great many challenges. These include: the high cost of Torah education, earning a livelihood, while simultaneously being dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos, learning-disabled children, children turned off to learning, the shidduch crisis, the rising divorce rate, the high cost of the frum lifestyle, etc. These challenges create a high level of stress on many members of our society. Addressing these issues will require communal will and dedication. But with sufficient determination and commitment, these challenges can be met.
For example, when our community began to fully understand the requirements of special needs children, we created special schools and programs to accommodate them. We lobbied government to provide equal assistance to that granted to students attending public schools and created community-based programs to assure that all children are given access to available services. The impact of these measures on the children and their families has been extraordinary.
There is one fundamental challenge, however, for which the solution is far from evident: shaping the Jewish soul. This challenge is at the core of many issues that face us. We seek to create a Torah community based on Torah-committed Jews who think, feel and act in ways that are ne’eman laShem ule’soroso—in consonance with Hashem’s will and His Torah. Such Jews must possess a Torah consciousness and perspective regarding all that they view and everything that they do. An adult Jew should view the world and act within it, not out of coercion, but as a natural, instinctive consequence of deeply felt belief and commitment.
We no longer live in splendid, Torah-based isolation. The influence of the broader world, with its corrupt morals, false goals and twisted views of the “good life,” seeps into our world inexorably and stealthily. That influence affects both children and adults within the community. How can we remain immune?
Immunity from the influences of the world requires simchas hachaim, true satisfaction with one’s self and one’s life. The individual who lives with joy does not look to outside sources for pleasure and satisfaction—it is within him, a part of his psyche that needs no replacement or supplement. Those who are truly happy with themselves are happy with their community and happy with their G-d. No void exists that must be filled with external influences. That is true for adults and even more so for our children.
Tragically, however, for many in our community, the Torah is but one of many lifestyle choices. One can choose intimacy with the Ribono shel Olom or intimacy with a wide variety of beliefs and disbeliefs. Intimacy with the Ribono shel Olom is hard to achieve and is not a natural outgrowth of the environment in which we live today. The joy of Torah and the Torah way of life has never taken root in the hearts of many during their formative years, when the world outside offers so much to compete with it. They never gain the simchas hachaim needed to fortify and protect them throughout their lives.
Global connectivity brings the outside world into constant clash with Torah values. When magazines and television and displays of immodesty in public were the problem, individual communities could isolate themselves from these influences. But how does one insulate a child from a telephone or from an electronic game that some other child brings to camp? Or from other children eager to share their new-found worlds with every potential friend they meet.
Contact with other Jews – even those with peyos, a large tallis katan and prominent black yarmulke – can carry the potential for withdrawing a step or two from the path of kedushah. Two Jews can look much alike, even pledge allegiance to the same rabbeim and leaders, and yet their souls can be totally different from one another. One may be unsatisfied or unfulfilled as a member of the Torah community. He thinks he needs something more and remains ready to commune with a fellow who is attracted to baser instincts, if only the opportunity arises.
Friends may no longer be people with whom you speak face to face; they are now electronic, virtual connections on a computer. The ease with which immodesty can be accessed is mind-boggling compared to earlier generations. Individuals become addicted to pornography, to texting, to social media. Compare television of thirty, or even ten, years ago to television today. Compare radio of that time with radio today. Every car has a radio, and cars themselves have become the instruments of desire that can replace the quest for spirituality.
The largest opportunity for chillul Shabbos to a child today is not turning on a light bulb; it is texting one’s other “shomer Shabbos” friends. Texting is a private affair—no one has to know. The family may not own a television, and still television and far worse forms of entertainment are in the hands of the children.
Given these opportunities in youth, a Torah soul cannot develop, and joy in life cannot take hold. Some children rebel openly. But many others go along with society; they dress the part of a Torah Jew, they attend Torah schools, they frequent shuls and Torah lectures, but they do not possess a Torah soul. It is just part of a habitual lifestyle, along with their other activities and thoughts of a decidedly non-Torah character. They remain unfulfilled and unhappy, and are left to seek satisfaction outside the bounds of Torah.
The greatest threat to American Orthodoxy is the loss of souls in the midst of great communal growth. There is a sad, but all too often true joke: “Er davent un der Ribono shel Olam”—he prays without the Ribono shel Olom; indeed, without involving Hashem in his prayer at all.
Our highest priority must be to provide every member of our community, children and adults alike, with the means to attain simchas hachaim. That is no easy task.
It will require a paradigm shift of major proportions, yet in can be achieved in stages. First, we must rethink our values, beginning with a modest shift from the material to the spiritual. Each of us must strive to provide an example of a life led according to Torah values. That, in turn, will require stepping back from the whirlwind existence that has overtaken our lives. We will have to consider a restructuring of our educational institutions to assure every child an environment in which he feels cared for and valued. Happy children will be happy adults. Happy adults will have happy children.
Instilling simchas hachaim is the critical battle of our times. We need to arm ourselves to wage it.
Our connection to the Ribbono shel Olam, as individuals and a community, will always remain the chief priority of the Orthodox community. But the community faces many challenges of a practical nature, which would not disappear immediately, even if our spiritual connection were greatly strengthened, and it behooves us to consider our approach to addressing these challenges. We seek an overall methodology that can be applied to any communal challenge.
First and foremost, we must recognize the primary role played by Daas Torah, by the gedolei Torah, who are the einey haeidah, possessing both the view of the past and the vision of the future to guide us. Their ability to do so, however, depends on their being presented the issues in a way that provides them with the necessary informational and analytical basis to make decisions.
Often we approach issues in a distorted fashion. In particular, we are too quick to blame people for the travails they are experiencing – whether it be older singles, children floundering in school, or those having difficulty supporting their families. We tell the young single she is too picky, the floundering child that he is not trying hard enough, and the unemployed person that they are not taking the required steps to find a job. And so on, and so on.
Such accusations may be accurate in particular cases, but when the numbers of singles is in the hundreds or thousands it is no longer credible that all of them are too picky, or that large numbers of floundering children are just lazy, or that all those unemployed are not seeking employment actively enough.
In each of the foregoing examples, even a bit of empirical research would demonstrate that the “victims” reflect larger phenomena over which they have relatively little control as individuals. The shidduch crisis is caused primarily by the age gap between boys in our community marrying girls three or more years younger than them, on average. Many children are failing in school due to learning disabilities. The growing numbers of those struggling with parnassah cannot be separated from the perilous state of the national economy. And the large number of those who are employed but still struggling to make ends meet has a good deal to do with communal norms and the rising costs of an Orthodox life, including, first and foremost, educating our young.
In short, the solutions will have to be found at the communal level, and not through lecturing individuals on their failures. For instance, we have to do a better job of identifying learning disabilities at a younger age, in order to help students find the best way to compensate for them.
In all of these cases, the underlying facts must be investigated and revealed. Objectivity and reasoned analysis is needed in researching the causes of communal challenges. Hypotheses must be generated and then tested against the empirical findings.
Often well-meaning individuals believe that they know how to solve a problem. They base their solutions on intuition and little else. Although they mean well, their approaches are often doomed to failure, because they do not really understand the true causes of the problems they are trying to solve. This wastes both time and financial resources and precludes putting into place more effective responses.
In generating hypotheses, many different voices must be heard, and the issues must be examined from different perspectives. Creating a think tank, both to generate hypotheses and to test various approaches, would be an important step in the search for communal solutions. The syntheses of the viewpoints and perspectives represented by the diverse members would be valuable in generating possible approaches. In the end, a small number of possible approaches would likely emerge, and these, in turn, could be subjected to empirical verification.
Daas Torah is often called upon to deal with societal issues. But to do so the gedolim need accurate information. The proposed think tank is meant to provide input to decision-making by the gedolim, not as an alternative. The possible approaches that it presents will provide Daas Torah with the necessary information to render decisive decisions.
Group-generated hypotheses, which are either verified or refuted by empirical research, would be an important tool in a general framework of addressing societal challenges.
Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger is the Chairman of the Board of Agudath Israel of America.