By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Features  | 

The Tower of Bavli: Schottenstein Syndrome and The Dangers of DIY Torah

Over the course of the last generation, a revolution has taken place. Torah, once the prized possession of the few privileged students of venerable yeshivas and rabbinic dynasties, has gone the way of most of academia and worldly knowledge. More and more we desire to acquire its awesome metaphysical insights, and more and more we find it easily accessible and within reach of even the most uneducated and impoverished of our communities. Anyone with a reasonable attention span and a willingness to study intricate law can now pick up a range of specially produced sefarim, from Schottenstein (Artscroll) Gemaras to easily digestible Parsha interpretations, from straightforward sifrei mussar to the burgeoning field of halakhic guidebooks. The authors of the Kizur Shulkhan Aruch, Mishna Berura, and, among our contemporary society, Shemiras Shabbos Kehilkhosa and Peninei Halakha, all have explicitly stated in their mission statements that the purpose for their sefarim was to clarify and elucidate the complexities of torah sheb’al peh; to lessen the onus laid on the average Jewish baal habos when inquiring into questions surrounding halakhic decisions, responsa and ideas. These books have made it extremely easy and accessible for the vast majority of us yidden to rid ourselves of doubt, consult the book and live fulfilling lives as God-fearing, Torah-keeping individuals.

What’s more, as a result of the general fluency of many sectors of the Jewish population to the basic halakha and scriptures, and in response to the general curiosity of myriads of idealistic young men (and some women), Torah has been resurrected from the ashes of Auschwitz to the most productive period the Jewish people has ever seen. More talmidim study Torah today than ever before. More Torah is taught and rehearsed by thousands upon thousands of yiddishe yingerleit (youth) who day-in and day-out devote themselves to the continued development of Torah literature and the sustained transmission of our dear mesora to future generations. More Rabbis than ever roam the streets of Lakewood, Brooklyn, Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and the Jewish people feel great confidence in her ability to continue her interminable divine task, and remains assured of her great fidelity to her hallowed tradition.

I have much appreciation for the greats of Torah and the forward-thinking zadiqim who worked tirelessly to bring this revolution about. I love and respect dearly those Rabbis and leaders who engaged the tired and wounded spirit of a rejected nation and reinvigorated her following the great failure that was modern Europe. In America and Israel there arose leaders who wholeheartedly and undeniably saved the Jewish people from the abyss of cultural memory — addressing the spiritual, national and political needs of a nation left-for-dead — and maintain her until this day. I don’t regret the great strides that Torah has made over the past few generations, but I do feel uncomfortable with the great uncritical praise heaped upon these apparent successes. I have attempted to locate my disaffection and my consternation regarding post-modern Torah society in an attempt to reassess my experiences with this all-important tradition, and in honest introspection as to why I do not connect.

I write to you out of disappointment, out of frustration and regret. I did not apply myself to study when I could have. I did not dive into the pool of endless wisdom that is the Torah when I had the chance, and now, as I grow older and must condition myself for the years of mindless adulthood that await me, I feel that I offer myself, and you, an explanation, an attempt at describing the reasons why I was not able to internalize my experience as a talmid and grow in Torah.

When I first approached Torah, it must have been within the context of my relationship with my father. My father introduced me to the basic ideas, tenets and practices of the Jewish faith. My teachers encouraged me to develop my curiosity and abilities in connection to the Torah, while my friends and family offered me the basis for building a realistic Jewish lifestyle. Along the way, though, I began to suffer from a disaffection that has plagued me throughout my years of high school and yeshiva. Instead of becoming enthralled by the extreme vastness of the Jewish canon and the rich diversity of the great works of God and our people, I felt lost in a maze of endless intricacy, of indeterminable length and depth and of ideological confusion and isolation. The Torah that I was exposed to, the great wall of the Jewish people, overwhelmed me, struck me as threatening, intimidating and judgmental and limited my ability to enthuse my boyish idealism and materialize my supposed potential in reality. I sat through shiurim, nonchalantly recording the material necessary to pass my tests, to increase my knowledge and navigate the world of halakha lemaase, but I failed to internalize my studies, failed to connect with the material, and thus with the masoret, and never quite felt satisfied with my achievements.

As I began to grow and explore, the spiritual guidance that had been provided to some degree throughout my childhood did not keep pace, and my questions and desires quickly overtook my ability to maintain a meaningful, intimate connection with my mentors. I did not necessarily need a helping hand in the technical aspects of study; I was an adept student able to progress as demanded without disproportionate input from my teachers, but my spiritual side was left aside, unable to cope with the material nature of a grade-oriented, non-idealistic environment. My spiritual connection with Torah began to degrade as I became more aware of the disconnect between myself and my rabbis. No longer could I expect the individual treatment and patience I received as a child. Along with my general upbringing, I learned to grow up, become a man and learn to learn as a way of life. While I developed relationships with my Rabbis, I failed to identify with their way of life and their ideologies.

What was missing was the human aspect of the relationship, and, hence, also the metaphysical. The Torah that I learned in my teenage years, while comprehensive, impressive and challenging, failed to connect me to the personalities of my teachers and failed to engage me on a personal, spiritual level. The externalization of the inherent properties of Torah through intellectual stimuli, broad grading practices and rehearsed dogma restrained my ability to internalize what I learned and make the Torah part of my soul. A general alienation permeated my High School and yeshiva learning experiences, characterized by my desire to come close to the masoret, and the typical rejection of such overtures, yielding to the mundane explanations of “tradition,” “responsibility,” “Holocaust” and conformity. Though I did not reject all that I learned, it became increasingly difficult for me to accept a Torah that lacked what I considered the most important feature: persona.

In our fast-paced post-modern world, we often forget about the importance of human interaction. We meet each other online, interact virtually with a worldly apparatus that cannot be seen nor inquired of (i.e., the cloud) and have slowly become encumbered and addicted to new-fangled technological “advancements” that have eased us in our modern inconveniences, but have also robbed us of our humanity. While we rejoice in the material bounty that God has made for us, and in the relative stability and security of our times, we suffer incontestably from the biggest plague of mental illness, social stratification and disaffection in modern human history. Relationships, landlines, paper currency and idealism have long since receded from our cultural memory. They have been replaced by technology, individuation, financial monoliths and bare subsistence. Our lives, while physically blessed, have been spiritually cursed, and, sadly, Torah has not been spared.

When the individual mindset of a postmodern talmid meets the human reality of the masoret, he suffers not only an initial withdrawal from the intransigent and didactic nature of previous generations’ Rabbis. He also fosters within himself a deep-seated ill-will towards the continued educational investment in “accessible Torah.” The transformation of Torah from an elite, unconventional pursuit, a deeply meaningful undertaking with great personal, spiritual and national consequences, into an every-day, every-man, impersonal and individual rite of passage has allowed for Torah to lose its stature as a highly mystified and deeply treasured object. We have become too accustomed to thinking of Torah as an easily accessible and powerful supply of spiritual enlightenment, and instead of admiring her from afar, we disrespectfully encroach upon her borders, plunder her metaphysical qualities and drag her down to our level. We thus colonize her richness, exploit the true indigenous lomdonim, bring with us new spiritual diseases and disrupt the wider spiritual ecosystem. We constantly sit and ponder the intellectual maze of our treasure, but as we have gained confidence in our own abilities, and in Torah’s genial character, we risk nullifying the true holiness of millennia of masoret, or worse, deifying ourselves by limiting and simplifying Torah.

Instead of approaching God’s teachings in fear and trepidation, unwilling and authentically uncommitted, we indifferently open up sefarim, indulgently anticipating spiritual progress. This heavy-handed approach, while it may allow for some superficial growth, must be checked and reassessed. While it may seem beneficial to us now that many individuals who could not connect to Torah in the past structure have received an entry pass into our yeshivot, I would warn that such an impression obscures the damage that such an approach incurs. When we separate the Torah from the national spirit, when we isolate the written books/guides from the living, breathing masoret, we not only harm the further development of Torah, we also endanger our continued existence.

The impersonal atmosphere bred by the disintegration of Torah from an inherent, natural, national pursuit, into stores of collected knowledge stored in the cloud and pored over daily by thousands upon thousands of talmidim must be remedied if we are to succeed in imparting to our offspring the genuine and imperfect experience of limud torah. Our spiritual lives, like our material counterparts, do not behave as do data. We change, live, die, grow and regress. We are of a dynamic nature, much unlike the simplistic resources most of us now rely upon. Torah must not become a dry, didactic experience, ruled by a monopoly of printed material, and disconnected from the living nation. If we don’t refocus our learning on the human aspects, on the living qualities of an inspired tradition, we risk becoming neo-Karaites, interested only in the literal meaning of the elucidated text, and unwilling to engage in the continuous struggle of the milkhomsa shel torah.

Our general humanity fails us today, but through an authentic connection to Torah we may learn again to interact with God and with ourselves. The next time you find yourself at a loss while learning or possibly confused about what the halakha demands, don’t run to your post-modern, post-Masoretic accessories. Engage your peers, engage your Rabbis, engage the masorah and ask the shayla!

Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee. Deuteronomy 32:7


Photo Credit: Aryeh Schonbrun

Photo Caption: An everlasting legacy