Spring ’12: Responses
For the questions, click here.
Many contributors to our first issue suggested that increasing numbers of observant Jews suffer from the absence of a connection to G-d, Torah and the Jewish people. In this new issue, we asked whether the experience of feeling disconnected is as rampant among observant Jews as suggested, and if true, to identify the causes. We then asked the most important question: what might be done by the community and by individuals to reverse this trend.
In every generation, the outside world stands as a tempting alternative to Yiddishkeit, yet wielding the axe against it has never provided more than a short-term, superficial respite. Only a deep, introspective, passionate Yiddishkeit, bursting with a tangible consciousness of Hashem’s presence, can expose the emptiness of any alternative. Recent decades have shown that for rabbis and teachers, self-revelation – in which they share their own experiences and struggles in Yiddishkeit – has become an absolute educational necessity.
Many of the factors that inhibit connectedness and spirituality within our community can be overcome most effectively through informal educational programming – especially for adolescents, for whom this is essential. In such environments, promoting values such as religious growth, individuality in religious identity, maturation of religious ideals, mentorship, expelling cynicism and embracing questions as an authentic search for religious meaning can all contribute to a more spiritual and connected religious community.
Both Chassidus and the Mussar Movement emphasized the essential need for deliberate efforts to stimulate an emotional dimension to shmiras hamitzvos – both because ahava, yirah and simcha are core Torah values, and because Torah observance without emotion inevitably falls into decline. This vital lesson seems to have been lost on us, as has the pivotal role of the Mashgiach Ruchani dedicated to inspiring emotional engagement in his students. Parents must seek such additions to their childrens’ educational experience, and demand that yeshivos return to these ideals.
As has happened in the past, we are a generation who seem able to relate to the intellectual pursuit of Torah study to the exclusion of service of the heart. We must not deceive ourselves that Torah study alone is adequate. Steps we can take to deepen our connection to Torah and mitzvos include investing more in connecting to Hashem through tefilah, learning to appreciate “hachana l’mitzvah” (preparation for the mitzvah), joining or forming a chevra for mutual support and acquiring a particular approach based on available sefarim.
Today’s teenagers are increasingly disconnected, disenchanted and suffering from a spiritual malaise more severe than any in our memory. The primary goal of yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs today must be, in the words of Sara Shneirer “to make frum girls [and boys] from frum homes proud and excited about their Yiddishkeit.” To provide students with the sense of accomplishment, uniqueness and self-worth essential to their development, we must encourage individualism, validate their struggles, embrace failure, encourage questions and give up the pretenses that taint our chinuch.
The small cadre of American Jews still loyal to halacha aspire to connect to G-d but they are deeply scarred by centuries of bitter exile and unspeakable suffering, during which G-d’s face remained hidden. Nevertheless, Torah observance was maintained in America – primarily through cultural ghettos that strengthened Orthodox identification with community. For a variety of reasons, the walls of the cultural ghettos are wearing thin, and the sense of insular, frum identity is fading, undermining the connection to G-d and Torah, as well. To survive this horrid golus, the connections among Torah Jews must be reinvigorated and intensified and the community must become a sense of pride that is not based on parochialism.
While some of those struggling with spiritual connection grew up without any feeling spiritual ties to their observance, others struggle to rediscover the faded passion that once directed their religious behavior. Spiritual stagnation often results when adults have not contemplated their “god concept” or their sense of the Sacred since childhood. When spiritual development matures over time, with reflective contemplation, with experience, with study, through candid discussion with select others, and with clarification of what we believe, religious practice among the Orthodox may be more fulfilling and rewarding.
Too many Orthodox Jews are simply less growth-oriented and generally satisfied with a religious status quo. Contributing factors include insufficient grounding in the basics of emunah, the intrusion of secular culture and shortcomings in our educational systems. Possible solutions include painting a picture of Judaism for students as the wonderful, meaningful and exciting experience that it is, offering students opportunities to spend time with teachers outside of a formal classroom setting, better modeling our intended relationship with Hashem and introducing hashkafah in a more robust manner.
Although the desire for a deeper relationship with Hashem must come from each individual, there are important environmental factors that have an influence. Examples include one’s general level of satisfaction with life as a frum Jew, opportunities for youthful idealism and for making a difference, limitation of materialism and openness about G-d’s love for us. It is also essential that young people are taught the principles of emunah and that they have role models of great people from whom to learn.
In considering the spiritual needs of Torah-observant Jews today, it is helpful to recognize two distinct groups: those who have consciously and deliberately chosen their observant lifestyle even if raised observant and those whose commitment is derived solely from upbringing. Both groups suffer from oversimplified views of religious experience that fail to appreciate the ongoing, inner struggle characteristic of meaningful growth – whether from an imagined place of strength or from one of weakness. The absence of substantial introspection of the deeply committed also deprives them from being better role models for the less committed.
Numerous, empirical broad-based studies have examined adolescent connectedness to family, school, and community and its impact on their health and adjustment. Since Jewish day schools and yeshivot currently serve as the center of the Jewish community, these institutions need to maintain environments that encourage student feelings of connectedness and to guide parents about how best to provide home environments that promote feelings of connectedness within the family.
There is an urgent need to draw close not only those who are feeling disconnected but also the many others who are feeling relatively uninspired. Our challenge is heightened by the pervasive inroads secular culture has made into our insular community with the advent of the Internet and by the decreasing numbers of individuals who have a rav to follow as their spiritual leader. Some ideas to bring the spirit back into our observance include programs to enhance deeper appreciation of mitzvos, and increased expressiveness of our love for Torah and mitzvos that can nurture devotion and passion in our children.
Connectedness is experienced by different people in different ways – some with outward passion and energetic expression, and others more inwardly. As such, multiple approaches will be necessary. Some suggestions: connection to Hashem can be revved up by shouldering more responsibility for His mission and work; encourage young people to engage in growth experiences outside academic curriculum; providing meaningful challenges through which effort must be applied to make Torah one’s own; setting goals in learning that can be monitored by others and, in particular, learning the works of the Nesivos Shalom.
The root cause of people not feeling a connection with G-d (or with society) is frequently the absence of a true connection with, and appreciation of, their own “self” – a prerequisite for knowing another with any depth. To nurture this connection with self, we must focus far more teaching on midos and refinement of midos and we must recognize and value different talents and abilities and offer frameworks for advancing goals connected with life’s purpose. Key obstacles are lack of time and rampant consumerism.
The alleged perception that there is an “increasing number of Jews across the spectrum who feel no meaningful connection to Hashem, His Torah or even His People” is unfortunately more than a perception – it is reality. G-dliness is no longer felt in most homes; instead, there is the “false god” of money, luxury and the accumulations of goods. Perhaps it is time for schools and yeshivas to create a curriculum whose main goal is inspiration and emotional connection. It is time for a serious consideration of kiruv kerovim.
The need for ‘religious fulfillment’ or ‘spiritual connection’ can too often be a subjective need to feel good rather than a sign of meaningful connection; the overriding goal must be avodat Hashem, service of God, rather than just personal feeling. Moving ourselves in that direction involves a gentle but consistent process of putting God in the center of our decisions.
Religious apathy consistently has been one of our people’s greatest challenges – albeit with varying causes. Some of today’s causes are: we focus on rules but not on their meaning and relevance, we don’t know God well enough and we tend to expect instant spirituality. To address these, respectively, schools should emphasize understanding principles more than acquiring knowledge and adults need a revitalized program of ongoing substantive education, we must focus on issues of faith and the discipline of emunah and we must promote the virtue of perseverance as a key to spiritual growth.
Ideally, learning Torah over the long term should bring about a deeper connection to Torah, and thus to Hashem and His people, but this is too often not succeeding. In recent times, mussar, chasidus, Torah lishma and “Rav Chaim’s derech” played vital roles in forging this personal connection to Torah but various factors have led to a critical distortion in how the relationship between Yisrael and Torah is viewed. To feel connected to Torah, we must know that Yisrael was not created to keep the Torah – the Torah was created for the sake of Yisrael.