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Rabbi Shmuel Silber

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Struggling With Connection: Ancient Challenge, Contemporary Suggestions

THE WORD “CRISIS” HAILS FROM the Latin word meaning decision. Thus, a crisis refers to a condition of instability during which a highly consequential decision will be made regarding a course of action. Are the Jewish people currently in the midst of a “spiritual crisis?” I believe the answer is a qualified yes.

We live in incredible times. Torah is at our fingertips. Men and women (regardless of Jewish educational background) have unparalleled opportunities to learn a variety of Torah subjects – opportunities that just a generation ago would have been reserved for those fully and totally immersed in the study of Torah. Artscroll is readying to launch a Digital Library with a full database and amazing features that will make the journey through the Babylonian Talmud easier and unimaginably more attainable. Completing Shas is suddenly an aspiration within everyone’s reach.

This is but one example, as the opportunities for convenient and accessible Torah learning are too numerous to list. Yet, despite these increased opportunities for Torah advancement, there is also an emergence of a profound sense of religious apathy. Many within our community seem to be going through the motions without the love, enthusiasm and commitment that should accompany avodas Hashem. For many, religious activity has become behavioral in nature. Has this spiritual dynamic ever before been experienced by the Jewish people? I dare say, “yes.” To echo the words of Shlomo HaMelech, “V’eyn chadash tachas ha’shemesh” (there is nothing new under the sun.) One needs only to look through the Niviim and see prophet after prophet exhort the Jewish people for a lack of motivation, commitment and religious energy. Religious apathy has been one of our greatest challenges since the inception of our nation.

Nevertheless, each generation must seek its own remedy. We now appreciate that if many (however we choose to quantify this term) are feeling spiritually disconnected, then perhaps we need to examine how we are disseminating and transmitting our mesorah. As with most of life’s problems, true remedies require an understanding of the problem’s root cause. Why do so many seem dispassionate about their Judaism? After this question is answered, we can address the issues and lay the groundwork for a successful future.

While there are likely a number of causes, I would like to draw attention to a select few and provide suggestions for how they can be addressed:

1. We Focus on the Rules but not on their Meaning and Relevance.

Many can rattle off the complete list of 39 melachos of Shabbos; knowing well the does and don’ts. We may even know what is an av melacha and what is a tolda, what is d’oraysa and what is d’rabbanan. But few seek to understand what Shabbos really is. Do we appreciate the essence of Shabbos? Can we articulate why Shabbos is necessary for our spiritual well being? And Shabbos is just one example. We seem to miss the deeper meaning of many aspects of our Judaism, leaving much of what we do as ritualistic, rote behavior. I believe this challenge affects both adults and children (of all ages).

Our yeshivos and day schools do a wonderful job trying to instill the necessary knowledge to enable our children to become proper inheritors of the mesorah. However, they have a limited time in which to impart information, convey proper instruction, and to inspire. It is in the home where Torah knowledge must come alive. It is parents who must lead by their inspired example, and who must show their children the beauty and warmth of Judaism. It is the job of every parent to convey to their child that serving God and keeping His mitzvos is always a privilege and never a burden.

That being said, I believe that our educational institutions should examine their curricula to make sure that we are giving our children the meaning behind the things we ask them to do. It is important that we not just teach the rules but that we convey the deeper meaning, as well. Greater emphasis should be put on understanding rather than on covering ground. We must enable our students to see the applicability and usefulness of what they learn.

Many of us are products of a yeshiva/day school system that filled us with incredible amounts of information (and for that we must be eternally grateful); but we still lack the answers to the most basic of all questions, “why?” Why should I do this? Why should this matter? Why is this important (to me, my people, my God)? And as children grow up and assume multiple layers of responsibility – pressure, deadlines, expectations – they settle into routines, satisfied to “get-by” by going through the motions of halacha. A child has a lifetime to learn; but appreciation for and understanding of the Torah and mitzvos must be instilled at a relatively young age. We must create systems of adult education that enable members of our communities to continue their Jewish education in a significant and substantive fashion. Torah learning for adults should not consist of merely catching a shiur here or a dvar Torah there – or even being satisfied with an hour of daf yomi. We must create a system in which developing substantive Jewish knowledge and understanding becomes a real and life-long endeavor. Creation of an adult education model that focuses on the meaning and applicability of the various facets of Judaism will arm the learner with the knowledge to feel a sense of connectedness to, and meaning within, their Judaism. Communities must conduct an educational needs assessment for their adult populations, one which identifies the weak spots in communal understanding and then create an adult education system to address these needs.

2. We Don’t Know God.

In any relationship, passion requires knowledge of your partner. While we surely are incapable of comprehending the full profundity of God, the attempt to appreciate the Ribbono Shel Olam is a pre-requisite to spiritual inspiration.

The Rambam (Yisodei HaTorah 2:2) writes: “What is the path that leads one to love and revere God? When a person begins to contemplate God’s actions and awesome creations and through them sees the awesomeness of God … He will come to love and praise God.” Despite our inability to comprehend the totality of God, we must strive to appreciate whatever is within our grasp. In order to feel inspired/connected, we must know (at least in some small fashion) with whom we are trying to connect.

A relationship with God requires learning about God, and exploring issues of faith and the discipline of Emunah. Just saying “I believe” is insufficient. Nor is it realistic to assume that someone will just fall into belief simply because it is all around him or her. We must contemplate and cogitate in order to connect.

A relationship with God must begin in one’s formative years. As we begin to teach children the episodes and events of the Chumash, we must see these narratives as opportunities to teach pivotal lessons of emunah (Why did God create the World? What does He need from us? How was Avraham able to listen to the command of Lech Lecha issued from a God he didn’t know or see? What did Avraham think of God when he was commanded to sacrifice Yitzchak? Why does God always feel the need to test us?). This process must again be a parent/school partnership. From the school perspective, it may be of greater benefit to learn less commentary and use the episodes themselves as a foundation for launching age-appropriate, emunah-based discussions. Parents must be armed with a well-rounded understanding of the basic principles of emunah and use “teachable moments” to make sure our children are not just growing in their behavioral Judaism but are maturing spiritually as well.

Our children are questioning even when they don’t articulate those questions. Cultivating a chinuch approach that encourages an understanding of Hashem (recognizing that we will always fall short) will enable children to feel connected, not just to the Biblical personalities but to God, Himself. It is not enough to discuss Hashem with our children; we must help them understand Him.

Yet, again we are confronted with the above-mentioned dynamic – many of us lack the basic understanding of emunah-based principles. This must be part of the adult education framework discussed in the first section. We must always remember that it is never too late to acquire the necessary knowledge to build a meaningful relationship with God.

3. We are Looking for Instant Spirituality

We live in an age where everything must be “on-demand.” If it takes too long to get “something” a plan must be devised to circumvent the wait. While this may be beneficial in certain areas of life, it is highly counter-productive in the arena of spiritual development. An inspired Jewish life requires much work and exertion – there are no short cuts. As the famous adage states, “the greatest segulah to become a talmid chochom is to sit and learn.” Inspirational Judaism requires a daily commitment to Torah, tefilah and chessed, even though these activities often do not feel “uplifting.” In fact, perhaps it is these very moments of challenge that test the true mettle of our spiritual commitment. One must learn the art of commitment to the service of God even in the absence of spiritual fire-works. If a person maintains his commitment over time, all will coalesce, and the feelings of connectedness, inspiration and zeal will come. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev extols the ability to self-inspire through diligent, sustained and committed work as the pinnacle of spiritual accomplishment.

In a culture dominated by instantaneous results, it is difficult to promote the virtue of perseverance. Nevertheless, it may be the key to spiritual growth.

This is the most difficult challenge to overcome because the values we need to become spiritually successful are counter-cultural. However, I do feel that if the first two issues are handled in a methodical, thoughtful fashion such that people begin to see the meaning and beauty in their Judaism and begin to feel connected to a God they are struggling to understand, we will begin to develop the staying-power for the life-journey ahead.

We must remember that our people has faced these challenges throughout the generations, but we remain strong, committed and filled with beautiful and holy potential.

Let us hope that in the merit of trying to raise the level of spiritual consciousness throughout the ranks of our people we will be privileged to come closer to God and to one another as well.

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

Rabbi Shmuel Silber is the rabbi of Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland.

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