The Swinging Pendulum of Yiddishkeit

By “Always a BT”

I have noticed a phenomenon of late that makes me ponder the proverbial swinging pendulum of Torah observance. It hit me recently, having attended a number of simchas & observing the dress & mode of conduct of my own generation in stark contrast to that of our children.

My husband & I became frum as college students in the 70’s. After we got married, we settled in another city where we amassed a group of friends that can only be described as eclectic. Our FFB & BT friends alike grew in Torah as we built careers and raised our children. Our street had many frum families with similar age children, a rarity in our “out of town” community at the time. The kids all played together (boys AND girls!) and we (mothers especially) became as close as family. There was a climate of mutual understanding and respect that still exists 25 years later.

Our “Yeshivish” friends moved a little to the right of their childhood upbringing, with more time for learning, chumrahs, etc. Our “MO” friends also moved a little to the right, the women giving up pants and/or covering hair and the men more dedicated to learning, davening with a minyan, etc. (full disclosure: I hate labels but can’t figure out how to get my point across without them).

The level of Torah learning has increased substantially for both groups in depth, breadth & commitment. But, I have observed that the children of my FFB friends have either moved further to the right (i.e., kollel lifestyle, more chumrahs, less secular media etc.) or dropped Yiddishkeit altogether (although generally without any hostility). The children of my MO friends (both boys & girls), have become, for the most part, much more learned textually than their parents but slightly less (for lack of a better word) careful in their observance of mitzvos. The clothes are a little tighter, the skirts & sleeves a little shorter, the hair a little less covered, the boys a little more lax about minyan attendance, shomer negia, etc. Is this just a reflection of the hefker world we live in?

Additionally, my BY educated daughters have many classmates who go all the way through the system & can barely maintain a kosher kitchen and, despite many years of learning Halachas of Shabbos, etc., really don’t have a working knowledge of the hows & whys. My gut feeling is that this is a result of emphasizing academics over hashkafa and chesed done outside the house as opposed to chesed within the home, where children can learn by implementing what is taught at school. My girls learned these things, not as subjects taught in school, but while helping at home and during discussions at the dinner table.

In general there is more knowledge, but less observance. It’s baffling to me that with all this (re)dedication to learning Torah something is getting lost in the translation from text to practice. Isn’t the purpose of Torah learning to become closer to HKBH by achieving a greater love, understanding & observance of mitzvos? Or, is this trend just the natural phenomenon of the pendulum swinging the other way?

Has anyone else noticed this?

20 comments on “The Swinging Pendulum of Yiddishkeit

  1. Always a BT – sounds like you and your husband are doing a wonderful job of living as a “דוגמא” (an example) for HKBH, the Jewish people and humanity itself..yasher koach!

    May we all keep living as “rebels” l’shem shamayim..

  2. Zensci,
    Please don’t be troubled by the previous quip about my “rebellion”. My friends find it comical more as a commentary on my being nerdy than anything else. While my fellow baby boomers were experimenting with um, other things, I was hosting Shabbos meals & learning Torah. Not exactly the disco/party hardy experience of the 1970’s college scene.

    Most of my friends know my extended family & have trouble remembering that I am, in fact, a BT because I was raised with more knowledge & observance than most BTs (at least around here). They are amazed when my mother quotes some obscure halacha or Torah fact seemingly out of nowhere (& she’s usually right!). And that (for the last 4 years) she reads 2-3 hours of Tehillim a day–although she’s not what one would typically think of as a “frum” person.

    We are grateful that our families have come to appreciate & respect our commitment to a life guided by Torah–even when they don’t understand or agree with our choices.

    I’m sure everyone who participates on this site can attest to the challenges & sacrifices we all make in the name of Torah (starting with Yeshiva tuition). I know for myself and my husband, every challenge has made us stronger & we cannot imagine feeling fulfilled living any other way. If we can convey this to the next generation, we will have done our job.

  3. I don’t know what to think. I grew up in a traditional non-Orthodox family, and I knew how to keep a kosher kitchen. There was very little I didn’t know except for the details of kashering for Pesach.

    That there are older bais yaakov girls who don’t know much about what’s allowed in terms of kashrus or food prep on Shabbos is very surprising.

  4. The fact that they find it comical illustrates how different it is being FFB vs BT. Frankly, I would even venture to say that the fact that they are NOT able to fully relate to your sense of “rebellion” is actually on some level a little troubling and disturbing…

    In this regard, BTs may have a greater capacity for spiritual growth, (not to say that there are not many FFBs that are on quite high levels..of course there are) it’s just that it really depends how the Jewish Tradition is introduced, taught and how one “discovers” Judaism as one is growing up and/or making teshuvah as an adult that ultimately determines how one connects to the Jewish Tradition in the long run.

    Furthermore, I truly believe that it is not for nothing that Avraham Avinu (a convert) and Moshe Rabbeinu (a baal teshuvah) are the two most influential Jewish leaders who all Jews strive to model their lives after!

  5. Micha,
    You summed up my point so eloquently.

    Ironic that you should mention becoming frum as an act of rebellion because that’s exactly what I did! I was raised very traditional (kashrus, Shabbos, holidays) but not 100%. I hated the hypocrisy I saw at home & decided if I was going to do what I already knew to be right, then I was going to become Shomer Shabbos & kashrus, etc. 100%.

    BTW, my FFB friends find it comical that becoming frum was my preeminent form of rebellion.

  6. Micha,

    I think you make some good points.

    In the end, being an observant Jew I think is a kind of “social protest” in a not so different way from that of when young people were rebelling against societal norms in the 60’s.

    Of course, Judaism does so from a place that helps shape and mold our behavior, thought processes, responsibilities and intentions for the good (l’shem shamayim) and not for the freedom to do whatever one wants or impulsively feels like. And I think it is this notion that has to be overtly exemplified well by parents and leaders in a Jewish community devoted to observing the Jewish tradition.

    Study Shas all you like but if you don’t “hear” the hashkafah and mussar and gratitude that lies between the lines of the Torah and Talmud..then in my opinion you are missing the whole point in what it means to be a person who strives to be religious.

    Albert Schweitzer (not a Jew) said it best:
    Being an “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

  7. The problem might even be that we’re making it too easy to be an observant Jew. In a world where you can buy redi-2-eat premade chalav yisrael lasagna, we took the willingness to sacrifice out of the culture.

    Yes, we still kill ourselves to make (or try to make) tuition. But for corners that could be cut without risking acceptance in the “frum” social group…

    Also, our education is overly formal. R’ Moshe Feinstein was once distressed when he heard two boys in MTJ arguing. They were learning the issue of shomerim (“guardians” — including actual guards, borrowers, renters, and other people left responsible for your property). A boy borrowed another’s shaver, and the shaver broke during usage. Well, RMF wasn’t too distressed about the argument itself, it’s unrealistic to expect a dorm to be without them. But neither boy related the problem to the gemara they were spending all year learning!

    Similarly, we teach all these things, but without children seeing the behavior modeled in real life, it won’t get applied. They end up two compartments in their heads — stuff to know, and stuff to do.

    Last, we need to distinguish between inspiring ideas (hashkafah) and providing proper motivation (mussar). There are two distinct areas to becoming more spiritual — the mind and the heart. The mind can be filled with books and in a classroom. The heart requires experiences and exercises. We aren’t doing enough of either among ourselves.

    So our children don’t live in a society whose norms model the behavior they’re learning about in the abstract.

  8. Nancy,
    Just remember that every step counts & each step is further than you were before. We each have our own journey.

    I didn’t mean to imply that my girl’s school did not do their job. Their school is actually more about hashkafa than academics, but many of the girls still learn Torah like a “subject”. The majority of graduates are “fine, caring people with a good grasp of Jewish ideals”. I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression. My kids have told me about incidences regarding basic Shmiras Shabbos, kashrus, etc. that girls were clueless about, (i.e., while cooking for a school event), which I found surprising because I would expect a 15-18 year old girl to know how to run a kosher kitchen & many girls don’t.

    Most importantly, I think we’re both lucky that our children pick good friends.

    As far as Yiddishkeit being “hard”, I think living is today’s world is difficult in all aspects and being Jewish just mirrors those challenges.

  9. Nancy, do you have a mentor whom you can call with questions? Do you have host families with whom you can spend Shabbos, Yom Tov and Pesach? Do you have a network you can draw upon for support?

  10. As a BT from a VERY secular background, I envy all of you. I’ve got so much catching up to do! No, becoming more observant isn’t easy. I also drive myself crazy because I am not perfect, but this journey certainly is meaningful.

  11. I agree that we shouldn’t treat being Jewish as a “burden.” But we shouldn’t “sugar coat” Judaism either. Being Jewish is in fact “hard” I think because we challenge ourselves by upholding high standards for ourselves to strive for and hopefully meet. Nothing that is really meaningful and truly of great value comes “easy”.

    The reason many Jews left to go find “limos” instead of Torah was not because being Jewish for them was just “too hard” it was because it was no longer meaningful for them to want to continue with the Jewish Tradition.

    I say don’t ever make Judaism “easy” but do make it more meaningful.

  12. We never felt that our daughter’s BY high school overemphasized academics vs. midot, hashkafah, practicality, etc. She and her friends turned out to be fine, caring people with a good grasp of Jewish ideals.

    We know mileage may vary, so don’t over-generalize.

  13. Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal also made a very important point on this topic. He lamented the fact that the Jews of the 1920s said to their children,”Shver tzu tzein a Yid,” “it’s hard to be a Jew,” and, “Keeping Shabbos is better than having limousines and mansions.” What happened was that the Jews of the next generation decided that being Jewish was too hard for them, and that they would rather have the limos and the mansions instead of Shabbos.

  14. Judy, I absolutely agree that having a grasp of practical halacha is very important..HOWEVER if one does not think and consider how all of this practical halacha makes an impact on the development of one’s spiritual and moral consciousness and how that explicitly relates to the mission of the Jewish tradition (on the levels of the individual, community, the Jewish people and humanity as a whole) then I think the whole point in being Jewish begins to somehow slowly breakdown for most people.

    Many Jews are taught to “do” mitzvot and not taught how to strive to connect with the “meaning” and spiritual significance of the performance of their halakhic actions, so that the performance of mitzvot for some becomes like a kind of behaviorism that no longer fully promotes the development of one’s neshama. This is but one factor that I think contributes to many Jews no longer feeling strongly “connected” to what living the life of an observant Jew is all about.

  15. I also noticed what Always a BT is talking about: more knowledge, less observance. For example, the Halachos of the Three Weeks / Nine Days seems to be something they never deal with in school. Likewise, bishul b’shabbos and the concepts of “yad soledes bo,” “clei rishon,” etc. At one point my youngest daughter had three separate Chumash classes in her Bais Yaakov high school curriculum, but no emphasis on the practical halachos she will need to run a Shabbos kitchen. It seems increasingly that I see more and more FFBs at these ladies’ shiurim who have no prior notion of what the Rav is talking about. There are young women who graduate elite seminaries and can do text learning inside the Mishna Brurah and the Shulchan Aruch and yet don’t know that Tishrei doesn’t have “mevarchim chodesh” or the amount of flour that requires one to “take challah” from a dough with a brocha, or how to kasher a shechted chicken through soaking and salting. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t increase their knowledge of text learning, but as Always a BT is saying, it seems to be more academic than practical.

  16. This is an issue that is often thought about by many (I believe), yet rarely verablized over a Shabbos dinner with others.

    I wish there was a pill you could put in the separate-sex water fountains in day schools/yeshivos/Beis Yaakovs, etc that would magically make fundamentials of Yiddisheit as important as memorizing minshayos and Tehillim.

    Alas, we can only look within our own families and daven that we live our lives in a way that our own kids will see what we hold so dear. Pointing out things that impress you and are meaningful is a good start. This past Shabbos a Rebbe in a local high school let my son (age 13) borrow a gorgeous chumash he brought with him during leining. The Rebbe knew that my son would enjoy following leining with Rabbi Yonah Weinrib’s Illustrated Chumash.

    I told my son that this is a lesson in chessed and ahavas Yisrael. Any yid who is willing to think of another is miles ahead of the game.

  17. Zensci (#2)
    Very good point; I hadn’t thought of that. It probably holds true for adults as well. Maybe that’s why we are seeing so much sheker in business in the frum community.

    Micha (#1)
    I agree completely that there is not enough hashkafa taught in schools (& probably not enough taught at home either). It is my understanding that boys get even less hashkafa than girls. In my girl’s school, hashkafa is often taught when the teacher goes “off topic”. That’s often the best (& most interesting) part of the course. That’s what stays with my kids far beyond text learning.

  18. In agreement with Micha, I would just add that in today’s world even if one is FFB for all intensive purposes everyone now CHOOSES to be Jewish. There’s no barrier to anyone choosing whatever life they want to live in this day in age. Therefore, this is the challenge that Judaism of the 21st century must address. Jewish education in the home and the school must discuss the philosophical and spiritual basis of living an observant Jewish life (even if fundamentally as observant Jews we keep mitzvot because we are commanded to do so)and young people must be inspired to want to sacrifice their life, even die (hopefully figuratively not literally), for the Jewish Tradition. In the end, this only comes by way of people literally feeling like they are incredibly proud and in love with the goals and mission of the Jewish Tradition and of being a Jew.

    That doesn’t mean the Jewish tradition as all perfect answers for every little thing in life but it will mean at least struggling with every little thing in life in the quest to understand what it means to exist and grow in this reality created by HKBH.

  19. I think it’s a zeitgeist thing… Our children are growing up in an era where people aren’t expected to sacrifice. So, while we have a huge industry to make it trivial to have enjoyable kosher food, this generation will cut corners rather than go too far beyond that.

    Compounding the problem is that we do not systematically engage our children in the study of their ideals once they leave pre-1A. By neglecting the teaching of hashkafah — even so far as ignoring or running through the aggadic portions of the gemara, or teaching Tanakh without an eye to the theological and ethical questions — we are failing to inspire them. We aren’t giving them enough motive to follow through on what they learned.

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