By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Opinions  | 

Yeshivas and Universities Manufacture False Consciousness: The Dualistic Debacle of Torah Umadda

Over the past few years I have explored Israel’s rich and varied society, searching for inspiration and intent on learning about my new home. This search has naturally brought me to many a place of higher learning and to many new relationships. From acquaintances at university to my good friends at a number of yeshivot, each individual has added to my appreciation and understanding of contemporary Judaism and Israeli political life. Apart from the deep, engaging conversations, amid the enlightening novelties and intimate reciprocity that I’ve shared with my new friends, I have noticed a troubling trend that worries me greatly.

For years now I have been looking for people who share my vision for society, life and politics. Throughout my high school, college and yeshiva experience I have conversed, argued and criticized my mentors, family and friends for their inability to rise above the nonsensical and irrelevant politics of ideas and concretize their views in a coherent understanding of reality. I found many of my friends interested in serious discourse, only to then feel disappointed upon realizing that their worldly limitations effectively restricted their ability to talk about anything important. Sure, I could always find friends and teachers who could talk about sports, current events and my superficial individual experiences or, in contrast, about God, religion and speculative ideology, but I could never find people with whom I could converse about reality and material philosophy.

When my father frequently complained of the immense burden of day school tuition, my rabbis, friends and mentors all looked upon us in suspicion. “Two thousand years of exile and you complain of some financial distress!” “You must make sacrifices for the eternal well-being of your soul and the continuity of the Jewish tradition!” When I began to search for answers regarding my disaffection from the barbarous nature of politics and post-modern civilization, I again met with frustration or suspicion from my peers and mentors: “You’re not applying yourself, you don’t care enough about your future.” I would sometimes protest but to no avail. Reality, in its rawest sense of deterministic futility, would await me at every turn, unable to inspire me to fulfill my potential, undeserving of my idealistic spirit.

Instead, I lost myself in the verbosity and complexity of medieval philosophies, classical Talmudic theology and the esoteric worlds of literature and mathematics. I found my spirit wanting of material wealth, strength, fulfillment and engagement, but I could not escape the abstract constructs of educational abuse. Some of my friends chose to throw themselves into the material realm, investing many hours in girls, sports and money while others settled on Talmud, scholastic curricula and philosophy. I personally tried to bridge such worlds by studying languages and politics, but I remained a geeky, Western ideologue, unable to come to terms with my reality.

As much as I tried to explore my worldly feelings, sexual desires, strengths and confines, the dual system of Torah Umadda, enforced by a rigorous educational regimen and reinforced by communal and religious expectations, slowly erased my individuality, leading to many years of introspection and confusion. I could not fully identify with my intellectualized, castrated self, as my rabbinic and philosophic figures had encouraged, nor could I reconcile myself with the coarse, unrefined barbarity that I encountered in the “real” world. I had been conditioned to seek out holiness in reality (Torah Umadda), and my expectation for such a lofty material life actually led me to disaffect from the worldly qualities of my spirituality. I rarely enjoyed davening or performing the mitzvot — I could not see God’s influence on my everyday life, and I rejected the esoteric nature of intellectualized spirituality, Talmud Torah. On account of my dismissal of society’s crude material interests and my own lofty goals for personal spiritual growth, I could internalize neither the lowly material reality, nor the fetishized spirit. Overawed by the innocent spirituality of my righteous peers, I felt impure, though still not impure enough to fully identify with the materialistic desires of my worldly counterparts. I was lost in myself.

These factors came to the fore in my first year of yeshiva. I justifiably sought out redemption from my internal dissonance through spiritual means, and only later did I realize that such a desire lacked logical coherence. Why continue to raise my expectations for my spiritual self, why intensify the disconnect that I felt between my reality and spiritual presence? I was looking for a way out from such a conundrum. I felt that losing myself in my soul, completely sublimating my worldly desires, would allow me to function in society. I did not think of the physical ramifications of such a deprivation of my physical prowess, and I suffered for mistaking religion as a deus ex machina.

Barukh Hashem, my physical confines and revived consciousness of my inner bestial spirit did not allow me to lose myself as planned in the complexities of rabbinic wisdom. As much as I tried to force myself to close myself off from worldly thoughts, I could not bring myself to such a sophisticated “suicide.” I did not give in to the religious system of sexual and material suppression, and I began to question the merit of it all. If religion could not allow me to grow as a person, if it continuously plotted against my human spirit, I could not honestly accept the dictates of its practitioners and missionaries. Something was affecting my rabbis and their Torah.

The modern yeshiva system bears a striking similarity to the monastic system of medieval Europe. Monks and nuns historically separated themselves from society, seeking out isolation and meditation instead of engaging with society and struggling with her collective sins. Owing to their precept, “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house,” (Matthew 13:57) traditional Catholics have always demurred from actively pursuing religious fulfillment through a synthetic experience with reality. Philosophical dualism, accompanied by a mythos pervaded by praise of martyrdom and a pious indifference to worldly affairs, contributed to Catholicism’s inability to evolve with society, papal corruption and eventually the Reformation.

In response to modernity, though, the religious establishment did not entirely suffer. While many of the younger, more progressive generations actively rejected the teachings and way of life of traditional religiosity, many spiritually inclined youths made their way into the priesthood, sometimes in protest of irreverent liberalism (e.g. during the German Kulturkampf). Others went the way of the intelligentsia, studying in universities and contributing to secular society.

For the Jews, much the same occurred. European Jewry, once uniformly traditional, opened its doors to the secular culture of the Enlightenment, and many Jews went off the derekh. In response, Eastern European society adapted and became ultra-observant, wary of any outside influences and closed-off to the progress of the day. Such closed-mindedness culminated in the devoted sects of Hassidim, who, owing to the non-rational, reactionary premises of their new communities, dealt with their goyishe surroundings as completely alien to their internal identities. We gained much from the reinforced ghetto mentality of the Ostjuden, but we also lost touch with reality. We managed to keep the majority of Jewry religious until the early 20th century, but we left ourselves helpless and self-absorbed. This material disconnect, our inability to adapt to modernity and adopt Zionism as a political and religious necessity, contributed to our ultimate decimation.

Today, Israel’s society is torn asunder by an increasingly threatening divide. On the one hand, secular society languishes in a xenomanic neo-liberal absurdity, while on the other hand the ultra-Orthodox suffer from primitive tribalism and systemic corruption. The dati community also suffers from such a dissonance, and we need to finally address the time-old question of dualism. I see the immense financial, emotional, intellectual and political resources that pour into yeshivot and universities. It pains me to see my young, strong, smart and curious friends fall into either the banal intellectual struggle of intellectualized Talmudic literature or the mundane oppression of hyper-intense academic studies. Were it not for the innately speculative nature of yeshivot, were it not for the aggressive materialism that plagues universities, I would not constantly lose my friends to such soul-sucking morbidity.

In order to bring religion into our lives and rid ourselves of the unholy spirit of neo-liberalism, we must know whom to fight. When society bifurcated away from the golden mean to the far-flung reaches of mystified religion and the lowly levels of deterministic savagery, we lost our presence in authentic, material reality. Our inability to process our physical being and spirit thereby made us vulnerable. When we unsuccessfully attempted to synthesize reality, outside forces monopolized on our weakness and robbed us of our resources, freedoms and our souls. By investing in universities and yeshivot, the corrupt establishment reinforces the dualistic trap that ensnares our youth. College students lose touch with their souls while bochurim forget about their lives and worldly talents. School becomes a dehumanizing psychic nightmare and yeshiva a cold ghetto. We must recognize the corrupt nature of such systems of population control and begin the fight. We will purge the manipulations, reject our impure reality and rid ourselves of false gods.

“If we [...] do nothing but engage in the canonical prayer, petition God, and invoke His name, the imperialists and the oppressive governments allied with them will leave us alone. If we were to say ‘Let us concentrate on calling the azān [call to prayer] and saying our prayers. Let them come and rob us of everything we own — God will take care of them! There is no power or recourse except in Him, and God willing, we will be rewarded in the hereafter!’ — if this were our logic, they would not disturb us.”

—Ayatollah Khomeini

Let my people go!

Photo Caption: Oppression.