Is Judaism Really That Simple?
As I continue my journey in my first year here at YU, I continue to look back to my year spent studying in yeshiva in Israel for inspiration and hope. I do not believe that it is an overstatement to say that this applies to most, or nearly all, of the students here at YU. While life seems to continue normally here, something is different. Something has changed post-Israel.
While it is wonderful to recall the experiences that we had in Israel - what we learned, how we matured, and the blast that we had - what is often not discussed are the challenges one faces upon returning home after a year or two of study. The issue that I would like to discuss was raised by the articles “When ‘Chosen’ Becomes Racist” and “Extremism: Thoughts From a Religious Zionist in YU” in the February 19 issue of The Commentator. These articles spoke about the development of attitudes within our community typically associated with right-wing Orthodox Judaism. In writing this article, I intend to explain the development of such attitudes within our community and the challenges faced by those who adopt them. By doing so, I hope to demonstrate that the development of a proper hashkafa, or religious outlook, is very complex.
Based on personal experience, as well as many conversations with friends, various educators, and rabbanim, I have to come to understand that the sad reality I am about to recount to you is not an anomaly, but rather quite ubiquitous within the Modern Orthodox community here in America. The truth is, that while we may wear our Torah U-Madda t-shirts, enjoy a nice round of “Ki Mitzion Teitzeih Torah” on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, sincere regard for Torah study is severely lacking in our communities.
In the typical Modern Orthodox home, Shabbos table discussions will primarily revolve around mundane matters. If parents have high school aged children, the discussion will mostly focus on academics, summer internships, college plans, and future career paths. Little time is spent speaking about the parsha or other Torah related subjects. When children want to raise an interesting Torah question or thought, they are often met with snores and their parents’ sudden need to use the bathroom. Parents will give their children severe rebuke for poor performance in secular subjects but will simply shrug when they hear of similar performance in Judaic subjects. Parents will tell all their friends about how proud they are that their son has excelled in his secular subjects, but will view excellence in Judaic subjects as insignificant. Thus, many parents are unknowingly raising their children in a way that will leave them apathetic towards Torah study.
Unfortunately, because of this apathetic attitude towards Torah study, the Torah education in our high schools is not quite where it should be. Students lack both the skills and the motivation to gain them to study Torah seriously. While rebbeim in our high schools may be top notch educators, the overall indifference to the study of Torah that exists is making their jobs extremely difficult. If the message that students are getting from their parents is that the only thing that really matters is whether or not they get into an Ivy League college, how can we possibly expect them to take their Judaic studies seriously?
Going back forty years, it was very rare to hear of someone who would pack up his belongings and head to Israel to learn in yeshiva. Only a very serious and motivated student would embark on such a journey. Thus, the yeshivas that took American students thrived and successfully produced many bnei Torah, many of whom became rabbanim and educated laymen. However, as the years passed, the idea of studying in Israel became more widespread and normative within our community, exploding in the last couple of decades. The average onlooker would probably look at this as a positive development and see this as a strengthening of religious practice. However, I have understood from experience that this development has created other problems. As studying in Israel became more of a norm in our community, the “senioritis” mentality also grew within high school students. People often speak about how such a mentality has negatively affected students academically. However, what people do not speak about, is what this has done to students religiously. What respect and seriousness students do have for Judaic studies and religious pursuits is discarded for a year of fun and excitement. Students expect that they will “frum out” and get back into it in Israel. Many high school rebbeim, fed up with this mentality, eventually despair of properly teaching their students. At that point, they stop taking their job as teachers seriously and simply hope that the rebbeim in Israel will work their magic and steer their students onto the right path. Such a development has negatively impacted the younger grades as well, as it is the senior class which has the power to influence the overall tone and attitude of the school.
It is within this context that the average Modern Orthodox person now enters yeshiva in Israel. Many yeshivas catered to American students nowadays have lowered their standards to about absolute zero, expecting that the average student they get will lack both the skills and motivation to independently pursue Torah study, especially Gemara. It is their job to first motivate students to want to learn, and then to teach them how to learn by building them from the ground up.
At some point, many students will begin to take their Judaic studies and overall dedication to an observant lifestyle much more seriously. As a result of this, many students begin to look back to their pre-Israel lifestyle in a very negative way. This leads them to cast aspersions upon the religious sincerity of their parents and overall community. They then reject many of the beliefs and practices of their communities and adopt more radical views, ones that they believe to be representative of true Torah values.
However, upon returning to YU, such people will face complexity. They will encounter people who appear to be deeply rooted and connected to Torah yet still hold onto what they perceive to be flawed beliefs of the Modern Orthodox community. These people will then be stripped from their comfort zones and realize that the world is not as simple as they had previously thought it to be. Although YU is an Orthodox institution and the majority of its students are Orthodox, uniformity of religious thought is certainly nonexistent. Students here in YU constantly discuss and debate various religious issues pertinent to our community. If someone has simplistic views on religious issues, he will quickly realize that such issues are not as simple as he has made them out to be. He will be introduced to viewpoints that he had considered to be incompatible with Torah values. He will be forced to think about ideas that he would have otherwise not thought about deeply had he not come to YU.
While we study here in YU, it is crucial to never forget the importance of critical thought in all areas of life, especially religious ones. Studying in YU truly affords a fantastic opportunity to engage in such critical thought, as we have so many different kinds of people to discuss it with. My advice to you, my fellow students, is to not let such an opportunity slip through your fingers. Sit down with someone a little different than you and engage in a calm but serious discussion about religious issues. Speak your opinion, don’t be shy, but don’t be deaf to your fellow’s point of view. Think. Analyze. Don’t take things for granted. Only then can we develop into thinking and mindful religious individuals.