Rabbi Heshie Billet
Where We Are and Where We Are Headed
Chazal tell us that Yiftach in his time was like Shmuel in his time. At first glance there can be no comparison between the two. Shmuel was a holy man, a Levi, and a great prophet who is compared to Moshe and Aharon. Yiftach, on the other hand, came from an apparently lower class family and was undisciplined. What both have in common is that they were Judges in their respective times and leaders of the Jewish people.
Our rabbis recognize that different eras present challenges unique to their times. Sometimes we draw on Yiftach skills and sometimes on Shmuel skills, and sometimes on what is available at the time. Our community must address the problems of our times and the problems that the future will present. For example, the community has adopted mental health services as a legitimate means to solve certain problems, something almost unheard of fifty years ago.
There are so many known and not-yet-known things that the community, its lay leaders, and rabbis will have to confront and face in the coming decades. It has always been hard for a theologically conservative world to engage progressive modernity. But we live in the real world, and engage we must. How far we will go is an unknown. What we do know is that we cannot compromise eternal values. The question is: how close are we prepared to come to learn and confront problems with modern tools and new perspectives? Proximity can bring incredible solutions. But proximity is fraught with risk. Is the reward worth the risks involved?
The Jewish community must make a close inspection of itself and try to examine potential issues and possible solutions. This essay presents a few examples of the challenges we will face going forward in the coming years and decades
There are many in all sections of the Orthodox community who have been blessed with affluence. Chazal observed that the more we have, the more we have to worry about. Those who are not wealthy have different financial concerns.
Our assets impact on many aspects of our lives, but not on all. I will comment on some universal issues related to affluence, as well as issues associated with the broader community. I speak as a YU ordained rabbi of a large “modern Orthodox” congregation. I also list the points that I make in no particular order of priority.
At times, affluence leads some astray into the domain of greed. Chazal say, “he who has one hundred, wants two hundred.” Sometimes that desire for more leads some to use illegal means to achieve their goals. Although most Torah observant Jews are honest, too large a minority fall prey to the temptation to cheat friends, associates, or the government. Sometimes it is Orthodox institutions that perpetrate these crimes. Ethical conduct must be a priority for individuals and for religious institutions. Our community, schools, and rabbis must make a more determined effort to inspire Orthodox Jews with honest values. Institutions should be discriminating in whom they honor and whose money they accept.
The financial gap between those who are wealthy and those who are needy has become apparent in the tuition crises facing schools and their parent bodies. Our parents demand the best in Jewish education. Many cannot afford to pay for it. This matter divides into several areas of concern:
1. In the modern Orthodox community, there are too many who cannot afford to pay tuition. Too many are removing their children from religious day schools and high schools. Some advocate Jewish charter schools and some public schools. The schools are under tremendous pressure to retain high standards with quality teachers. But they are not collecting enough tuitions and other monies to pay for these.
2. The inability of schools to pay a living wage for good rabbeim and morot discourages talented people from going into Jewish education as a profession. In some circles, parents who seek marriage partners for their children do not see Jewish educators as good candidates for sons and daughters-in-law, and also for mechutanim (parents of sons- or daughters-in-law), since they fear they will have to single-handedly subsidize the income of the young couple over the course of many years.
3. The growing multitude of young people in kollel today means that we need to think ahead to the day when they will need to support themselves and their families. Even those whose parents or in-laws have the means to support them today cannot expect such support for their children. More of those in kollel will need to be encouraged to pursue careers. If present post-high school secular institutions are considered bad environments, then we should be creating kosher ones to service our community in the same manner that Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s daughter did in Israel. Other positive responses in Israel have been Nachal Charaidi and Shachar Chadash, two programs which incorporate members of the Chareidi community into the army in combat, intelligence, and technology units. They all contribute to society, learn a trade, and will earn a living once their army service ends. In the USA, we will have to be creative to achieve similar ends.
Cell Phones and Technology
Another outgrowth of socio-economic reality is the cell phone. I am not referring to adult use of cell phones. Clearly that is a legitimate mode of communication today. But what about children being provided with cell phones? At what age should a child be provided with a mobile phone? When is it legitimate for a parent to say that a child must be able to communicate constantly with parents? I imagine that the recent Leiby Kletzky tragedy will motivate more parents to give their young children phones.
It is not unusual for fourth and fifth graders to have a mobile phone. Texting between kids in and out of school is a major problem for educators. Children are at times immature and their messages to peers are cruel and painful. Lashon hara is easily spread via the phone’s features. In addition, texting on Shabbos is a new phenomenon amongst a minority in our community. Furthermore, the modern cell phone is connected to the internet which, despite all of the rabbinic declarations, cannot be hermetically sealed and censored from many users.
We have the whole world, including the worst of the world, in our hands via technology. Internet, iPads, iPods, and similar devices are very attractive gadgets. How will the next generation of children grow up when you add facebook and twitter and who knows what else to other challenges technology will bring to our children’s fingertips?
Internet and Rabbinic Leadership
The history of the Jewish people includes disputes between rabbis and laity. At the same time, rabbis have always been seen as important links in the chain of tradition and their views and authority have been generally respected. The growth of internet use has brought new tensions to the lay/rabbinic relationship. Internet allows for easy access to news and opinion. It is not uncommon to see sharp disagreement with rabbis, even gedolim. It is very easy to do this on the internet because it is not stated to the rabbi’s face and it can be anonymous. This has led to deterioration in the authority of rabbis in the Orthodox community. On occasion, the dissatisfaction with the rabbis is legitimate. Rabbis must make every effort to be judicious in their declarations. It could be that the age of the kol koreh is coming to an end. It could also be that our major lay organizations have to create new channels of communication between rabbonim and the hamon am using the very tools that threaten rabbinic authority.
The proliferation of small minyanim in the homes of wealthy people might satisfy the davening and culinary needs of those who attend those minyanim. But these places do not share with mainstream established synagogues in supporting broader communal needs. We need a greater sense of communal obligation. It is long overdue to create old fashioned kehillot in America.
As a synagogue rabbi, I might be over sensitive about this issue. Shul membership is costly. But shuls are generally prepared to accommodate people based on what they can afford. It would be wonderful if more families would join community synagogues. Torah educated people would have a great impact on the less learned lay population. Minyanim within the shul could be created to satisfy the specific spiritual needs of different groups of people. The achdus, the unity, that can emerge from this is worth a try.
Doctors tell me that never before has there been as great a problem with weekend alcoholics. They are the products of Orthodox shuls of all different hashkafic backgrounds. The more affluent we are, the more liquor we can afford, and the more expensive liquor we purchase. It is bad for people’s health to overindulge and it is terrible for young people to see it and learn from it. The response to this problem must come from the rabbinic and lay leadership of the Jewish community.
There is a whole new genre of female Orthodox models and attractive clothing designed to meet the tznius lengths required by halacha. One only needs to search online to find this information. Shaitlach today are more attractive than ever. The more affluent the family, the more expensive and attractive the wig. The best wigs are made out of human hair. Louboutin shoes and other expensive designer clothes are a reality of affluence. This is a feature of wealth, not religious hashkafa. In my experience this prevails across the board amongst many families in the broader Orthodox community. Educating our men and women to understand that tznius is a lifestyle and not measured purely in inches is vital.
The Times, They Are A-Changing
In my view, rabbinic leaders need some professional training as well. They are living in the most rapidly changing times in history. They need to be trained in modern counseling skills. If they are going to advise married couples with domestic problems, they should either be trained professionally or trained to know their limits. Rabbis must understand domestic violence, sexual abuse, and illnesses like drugs, alcohol, and gambling better than they do now. Rabbinic pronouncements about mesirah, turning perpetrators in to the government for sexual abuse crimes, domestic violence crimes and white collar crimes as well must be revised in the USA where all are equal before the law.
The ability of existing communal organizations to address some of these issues very much depends on their malleability. Are they open to change? Are they prepared to use modern survey and research methods? Are they prepared to be self critical? Can they exchange preconceived operational notions for new methodology? Will the rabbinic and lay leadership of existing communal organizations license change? Orthodox Jews are often resistant to change. When it comes to eternal values and objective Jewish law, they have no choice. But within the framework of the normative halachic system, there are differing opinions on specific issues. Certainly, when it comes to using methods outside of the system which assist and enhance the success of our commitment to perpetuating our values in a more effective way, there should be a lot of flexibility.
There is much more to be said about the future, independent of the socio-economic realities. There is a need for the lay and rabbinic community to change some long held assumptions in order for them to effectively retain roles of leadership and authority. Certainly, there will be differing views on the points I raise and points raised by others. It is not too late for the discussion to begin with mutual respect and resolve to bring a better tomorrow.