Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness
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The Good Old Days
DO WE HAVE A PROBLEM?
It is often true that aberrations are more pronounced than norms. We tend to notice that which diverts from the pattern the most, magnifying the problems. At the same time, identifiable problems can sometimes indicate more widespread concerns that lie beneath. Query, however, whether anyone has empirical data to quantify the problem. But, that there is some degree of problem is evident.
While the large numbers of healthy, interested, growth-oriented Jews should not be ignored, the significant numbers of disinterested, disconnected Jews living within the Orthodox community clearly deserve our attention.
Ours, of course, is not the first generation to struggle with the challenge of spiritual disconnection. The prophet Yeshaya rebuked the people of his day for trampling the courtyards of the Temple, for bringing korbanos (offerings) without proper feeling in their hearts (Rashi to Yeshaya 1:12). In fact, the Torah itself warned of this development. Amidst the admonishment in Parashas Bechukosai, we find the warning, “If you behave casually with Me…” (Vayikra 26:21). Later, in Parashas Ki Savo, the Jewish people are condemned with the words, “Because you did not serve Hashem with happiness and with goodness of heart” (Devarim 28:47). The reference is to a period during which the community is worshiping Hashem, but happiness, or enjoyment in doing so, is absent. These words seem to apply to many around us.
Much of the deterioration in various aspects of Torah life, mitzvah observance, and general sensitivity is merely symptomatic of a larger issue. We are simply less growth-oriented in general, often satisfied with a religious status quo. Inquiries focus on identifying the minimum requirement, an attitude that reflects wanting less, not more. Even the tendency for stringency in some areas reflects a desire to flow with current societal trends more than it does a desire for thoughtful, personal growth. There is much Torah observance, but little enthusiasm. There is much Torah learning, but little evidence of growth.
Priorities often indicate true values and desires. It is no secret that we find time for that which we find either enjoyable or necessary. I encounter many young women who are able to find time to exercise and shop but express an inability to find time to attend a Torah class. While physical exercise is of great importance to one’s physical health, connection to Torah learning is no doubt critical for one’s spiritual health. If only it was recognized as a priority, time would be found. I encounter too many young women with little interest in attending Torah classes or participating in learning groups once they are no longer in a formal setting. Too often, I observe Jewish holidays experienced in practice – with davening in shul and meals at home – but without thought to their significance and meaning. Too many Orthodox Jews seem to be observing mitzvos without connection or excitement.
All of the following seem to be contributing factors: the basics of emunah are insufficiently addressed, the intrusion of secular culture affects our thinking, interests, and priorities, and effective changes are needed within our educational systems. I wish to identify two areas in which the root cause of the growing disconnect between individuals and their Creator may be found.
The first is in the context of our schools. Torah observance has become so routine that many have lost sight of the overall goals in avodas Hashem (service of G-d). The great opportunity to have a relationship with the Ribono Shel Olam (Master of the world) is often ignored. Numerous factors relating to the standard presentation of G-d and His Torah contribute to this unfortunate reality. First, schools often place great emphasis on technical skills. While this is a valuable approach for many reasons, it sometimes sacrifices the need for hashkafah. Second, the nature of learning Torah in a school setting is that the teacher-student relationship envisioned by the Torah cannot be prioritized. As a result, we impart information but fail to give over the warmth of Yiddishkeit, which tends to emerge through relationship. Third, it is difficult and undesirable to connect to G-d when He is often portrayed as angry or punitive.
The second is in the context of the broader Jewish community. American Jewry is blessed with exceptional religious freedom and opportunity, particularly when considered in the context of others in time and place. Torah can be learned while driving, commuting on a train or sitting at a computer. Shabbos observance is relatively easy, as is keeping kosher, with cholov Yisroel and yoshon readily available in most communities. Sukkahs can be constructed in less than an hour with pre-fab kits and rolled out schach, pre-filled, disposable, oil capsules can be inserted into our Chanukah menorahs and more kosher for Passover products appear on the shelves every year. But this ease and convenience comes at a price.
Accessibility and opportunity are accompanied by widespread apathy. Many suffer a lack of enthusiasm for what we have and who we are as Torah Jews. Perhaps it is the ease of access itself that allows for religious practice without much depth or connection. A reduced investment of time and energy may very well translate into a weaker attachment. While the community surely does not seek a return to a life in which religious observance is a struggle, the passion that often accompanies the struggle is sorely missed. When there is a need to go against the grain, we strengthen ourselves to push forward; rarely do we find apathy in those who were forced to fight for their values.
Of additional concern is that along with our community’s growth, we have seen an increase in community fragmentation. While the broader implications of this segmentation and polarization are beyond the scope of this article, these trends leave many community members living within a narrow social cocoon with little exposure to Torah observant Jews with different standards or ideas. As a result, they are not forced to examine their own thoughts or reconfirm their own beliefs and commitments.
Three substantive avenues might be considered to address the identified areas of weakness.
1. Torah education is intended to inspire students towards continued learning and personal development over the course of a lifetime. Our goal is to see these students grow in their connection to Hashem and in their desire to be connected – not simply to know a lot of information. What follows are four recommendations for our schools to work towards this desired goal.
a. Avodas Hashem is a constant balance between ahava (love) and yirah (fear). Our educational system needs to place a greater emphasis on the ahava component, showing children that they are loved by G-d and helping them to create a greater sense of simcha. I am not in a position to say whether this was always the case but it seems to be the case in our generation. We need to speak more of how much Hashem loves us and less of the tragedy that befalls us when we do not adhere to His will.
The world around us is very enticing. We need to paint a picture of Judaism as the wonderful, meaningful and exciting experience that it is. We need to create and model the passion and the “geshmak” (delicious enjoyment) that we want our students and children to have.
b. Connection to the Ribono shel Olam is often developed through a personal connection to individuals who we perceive as being close to Him. Students need opportunities to spend time with teachers outside of a formal classroom setting. This can be accomplished by interacting informally between classes or at school activities, such as Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, and Purim celebrations. Most effective, though difficult to require, is when teachers invite students into their homes for Shabbos meals, to help with Shabbos preparations, or to host class gatherings.
c. We need to model a relationship with Hashem by speaking to Him and about Him so that mitzvos are not seen as separate from Him, our loving Father.
d. Hashkafah should be introduced in a more robust manner, imbued with encouraging messages in general, and specifically regarding personal accomplishment – the ability to struggle in an area and overcome.
2. It may be helpful to encourage the creation of smaller learning groups within the community that can stand as a stronghold as we seem to sail through life. When encouraged, individuals sometimes join together to hire a teacher for themselves. Alternatively, individuals sometimes agree to learn a stimulating text together without a formal leader. In some cases, a shul rabbi or rebbetzin can form or even lead such groups. Topics can include either inspiring lessons to improve connection through regular mitzvah activity such as Shabbos and yom tov, or specific areas of struggle. The presence of others focused on growth, the ability to absorb Torah thought on a regular basis and the discussion of Torah ideas in a social setting can be very powerful.
3. One of the most profound experiences is functioning in the role of religious mentor. Being the individual to whom another individual looks for support and guidance is a particularly powerful experience. It forces one to examine one’s own life. It allows for one to stand in the role of giver, which brings with it a sense of responsibility for another. Having to answer casual questions about why we do what we do forces one to contemplate these questions in a meaningful way. It forces one to stand a little taller. In addition, such experiences allow us to come into contact with, and to be inspired by, people who made decisions to live Torah lives despite their struggles, igniting a passion within ourselves for who we are and what we do.
This suggestion may have different applications in different places and for different age groups. For some it may be Partners in Torah. For others it might be inviting secular neighbors for Shabbos meals. For teenagers it might mean involvement with JEP, or similar organizations, or even simply finding a struggling child a few years younger and offering to function as a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister.” For all, it means taking what we have and expressing a desire to transmit it to others.
May it be that this sharing of ideas in an effort to bring us closer to Hashem will result in the closeness that we seek both as individuals and as a nation.