When I had more time for posting and commenting on the Beyond BT, I was very busy with the topic of former BT’s, many of whom not only gave up Jewish observance but, for whatever reason you may want to posit, did it with a vengeance. Those days were a lot of fun, positively heady. I got to make very good and stimulating use of my God-given talent for polemics and usually found that critics and ankle-biters preferred to slink away than engage with me, though of course they might not agree with my characterization. To some extent, this post is dependent on some familiarity with the back-and-forth of those days.
Despite whatever points I may scored and whatever lurkers I may have encouraged in these debates, I have always had two nagging question about those days and those arguments: One is, was I right when it seemed that I was right, or was I just a better debater? And the other one is, how much of the vigor of my efforts was motivated not by a sincere belief in the truth at all, but rather an insistence on rationalizing my own choices — choices which are irreversible now, for all practical purposes?
The first question, I decided, shouldn’t nag me so much, because I’m good, but so are a lot of other people who disagree with me. And I didn’t, after all, “win” every point. As I remember it, in the course of the great battles we fought in those days I made concessions and admitted to problems or gaps with the overall worldview I argued for. I will say, thought, that my interlocutors (not only mine, but of the many who basically agreed with me) could or would not answer this question: Separate and apart from your point about Issue X or Issue Y, or the way kiruv professionals or amateurs do or don’t deal with it, what alternative, systematic and internally consistent approach to Judaism do you offer that could possibly be recognized as Judaism? For the premise of the discussion was and is that if your point of view is that this is all a fantastic fakeout, that nothing means anything, then we really have nothing to discuss. We share no common ground.
My experience was, in fact, is that few of the most vigorous debaters are the complete nihilists they perhaps think of themselves as being; after all, if they were, they shouldn’t care about anything at all anyway. Generally people will admit that they aren’t that — that they (a) want to be Jewish; that they (b) want being Jewish to matter; and even that (c) past attempts to redefine or dilute Judaism to the point of eviscerating it of any meaning with respect to how it governs our conduct or our identities have not met the criteria of (a) and (b).
I think I can say, being intellectually honest to myself, that the above “works.” I think I believe that this addresses the first question: We may not have it all figured out, but it seems that we — observant Jews, born that way or otherwise — are probably on the right track.
How about the second question — whether despite that conclusion, is it still all just rationalizing motivated by the fact that the implications of realizing you’re wrong are just too frightening? After all, the fact that no one has a better or answer or even a close tie doesn’t mean your answer is correct. That’s true no matter how “true” it feels emotionally, or what people call “spiritually” (I don’t really know what that means) or even intellectually. How can we separate rational from rationale?
And do we have to?
A very well-respected, very intellectual rosh yeshiva once told me: There comes a point where you can chase your own tail or, perhaps, disappear down your own navel in contemplating your own contemplation. And you’ve simply got to trust yourself to know when you think that’s happening. So let’s have no more of that here than necessary.
But I am going to ask that second question from a point of view that I can articulate today in a way I could not ten or even five years ago: If all this is true, if all this is good, how can so much in our community be so false? How can so much be so bad? How can so many questions be so unanswerable?
The disclaimers must be interjected here, not because it is protocol to do so but because they are appropriate and right. There are so many merits, so many marvelous and unique and extraordinary things to say about the Jewish people, and especially shomrei mitzvos, that my question should vanish before them. I promise you, I’m not just saying this: I could list them for six posts, not a paragraph in one post. They would make BT’s, especially newcomers, feel warm and fuzzy inside.
But my question does not vanish, because so much that is so painful refuses to recede from view and memory. I am thinking not of just individual outrages, but communal ones. Not just trends and phenomena in our community that are hard to understand, but ones which, instead, are all too easy to understand. And these I will not list here, because I am not going to act, even rhetorically, as a prosecutor against the Jewish people, G-d forbid — much less in Elul.
How do these things affect the second question, i.e., “Are you rationalizing?” After all, we all learn early on the aphorism that we “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Fair enough; let’s don’t.
But these things we see, we hear, we experience sometimes cannot but bring us down if we’ve retained our critical faculties, and shouldn’t we?
I also have my own pet issue, which is the flip side of the coin: The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.
I readily understand that view that to aim for compromise is to guarantee mediocrity, but I cannot figure out how it is better to pretend to aim for levels of scholarship, moral rectitude and detachment from physical pleasure that as an empirical matter can be achieved and are achieved by only a sliver of the population — and that are held out for us routinely as the ideal Jewish existence. Could all the cynicism and dysfunction we do encounter, all those unmentioned negatives alluded to above, be the fruit of this cognitive dissonance?
So how can we defend this without rationalizing, when we know we are falling so short of the ideals we espouse? Is it enough to say that it works because pretty much every other way of life can be shown (I posit) to implicate even more untenable compromises? Is it enough to have faith in greater and holier minds than mine that say “yes, do strive for this truth; the striving is the thing”? Is it that by almost any measure the good outweighs the bad? Is it the fact that part of growing up is living with paradox, and realizing that only God has a comprehensive understanding of the whole?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
And if I am, still, rationalizing?
Well, no one’s proved it to me yet. And every day, you see, I think today is going to be the day that it works a little better, and maybe it will. And if it doesn’t, I will know that I fought the good fight.
That works for me.
1. Ron wrote, “Would any of them, if asked to invisibly accompany us as we go about our everyday lives, and if they (foolishly) agreed to do so, be able to tell us that we were meeting our responsibilities as Jews?”
Tzaddikim would provide the appropriate guidance to get where we ought to go.
2. Ron wrote, “But I think a discussion of what a’seh l’cha rav [“make a Rabbi … or Master … or …] for yourself might be fodder for a different post.”
I’d like to see that!
Bob, I didn’t mean to limit my point to shul rabbis. But I think a discussion of what a’seh l’cha rav [“make a Rabbi … or Master … or …] for yourself might be fodder for a different post.
Shmuel, to your question, I am saying that, even keeping contemporary politics out of it, no matter where you land — from the Chazon Ish to the Chofetz Chaim to the Chasam Sofer to R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch to R’ Yisroel Salanter to R’ Chaim Volozhiner; or if you prefer, any of the great figures of hasidic history — very few of the people reading these words (including the one writing them of course) can even approach the standard they all set and advocate for Jewish life. This is true as a simple halachic matter as well as regarding hashkofa [philosophically].
There was a time in Jewish life, especially in mid-20th century America, when it was understood that there were the European-style “very frum” and then there were respectable, clean-shaven American “baalebatim” [“householders” — i.e., laymen] of whom not much could be expected but who were encouraged to educate their children well, to build and support institutions and in general to be inspired by the great European rabbonim.
This paradigm is not really defensible any more. Certainly in the yeshiva-oriented world, where I place my stake, far more is expected of us (in some ways; in other ways, considering the cultural landscape, we have it easier). Whether we do it on the Internet or with the sports pages or, even worse, at the game itself, we (the men) have to answer for hours and hours a week of bitul torah [wasting time that could be spent learning Torah]. In a 24/7 world, the emails and the business day never stop it seems; neither does the social networking, the business development, the self-promotion. How much of this do we rationalize as necessary to support our families or to “relax” that is really just mental candy, the modern-day equivalent of crossword puzzles or Pac-Man … or worse? How many of us can say we reach half of our potential?
A different category: We walk around city streets and work in offices where the concept of modesty has essentially ceased to exist, and while we cannot be entirely blamed for our environments (we do make our choices about where we live and work, of course), how much does this bother us? What efforts to we undertake to avoid compromise in this area? How do we (and here I must be clear I do not mean my family) rationalize the way our own family members dress?
None of this, by the way, is meant to give short shrift to the basic components of observant Jewish practice — in no particular order, Shabbos, kashrus, loshon hora, davening / decorum in shul, sexual propriety, etc. But I think these are areas where we as a community actually have a sensibility that we need to be vigilant about them; those who are not vigilant can readily be understood to be fooling themselves about the propriety of their conduct.
Ok, the question of role models is complicated. Let’s not even talk about superhumans such as the R’ Moshe Feinsteins and R’ Elyashivs and Rebbetzin Kanievskys, while keeping in mind that these are our children‘s idealized role models and are also the inspiration of those local personal rabbis we’re all so eager to get advice from. The same goes for R’ Soloveitchik and his most distinguished disciples. But I juxtapose them in terms of these considerations because I have, in the past, written about how reading and learning about these great people inspires and informs my growth as a Jew. Ideally, of course, we should answer, theoretically, to God, but that truism usually doesn’t get us very far, because we all know that He is omnipresent, He knows everything, and we ignore both these things every day.
Therefore, I ask, going back to the human, at least somewhat accessible role models: Would any of them, if asked to invisibly accompany us as we go about our everyday lives, and if they (foolishly) agreed to do so, be able to tell us that we were meeting our responsibilities as Jews?
Now that we — people such as myself who were not born “frum,” but have been frum longer than they were not frum, and who can honestly say they are capable of much much more growth in terms of both learning and doing — are no longer beginners, we are not entitled to feel satisfied and get “chizuk” [kudos] for doing what was once a stretch. I am speaking here to “advanced students” of observant life, who want to and are arguably entitled to sit at the grown-up table of frum life. Do we dare?
Ron. Thanks for your response. Can you elaborate on what it is that you and/or most of us are doing that isn’t or couldn’t be “respected” by either “role models” or “authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times?” (Mark did point out the use of the internet, although I sense you are talking about something considerably broader.) It sounds like you assume everyone knows what you’re talking about, and apparently some do, but I don’t. Can you please be explicit about it? It sounds like a fundamental issue, and if so, it’s worth fleshing out.
“I also don’t believe most responsible rabbis really want that sort of relationship with their shul members.”
Depending on the situation, this could be a reason to seek out a mentor not in charge of a shul, or other major institution, that could spread him too thin.
The ideal, of course, is to be able get all our needed spiritual guidance through our “own” rabbi. In practice, the immediate topic may dictate which rabbi to approach first. They’re not all conversant in all specialized areas, and Rabbi A may not know to consult B.
Many Jews, unfortunately, do not have their “own” rabbi—local or not—who is familiar with them, friendly, accessible, and knowledgeable. Searching for one is a major task for a BT.
That said, there are real tzaddikim out there who are not our “own” rabbi. Still, what they say and do can be informative and inspirational.
Let me also respond separately to this comment:
There are a couple of answers to this.
First, with all due respect, this formula sounds somewhat facile to me. I might use it in encouraging a child or a beginner. But I don’t think it really answers my questions. I think my second response will make it more clear why.
The second is that there are many ways to “do a mitzvah,” and it is well known that we are judged on the extent to which we meet our own personal potential. I could sit in place and repeat k’rias sh’ma for an hour and technically say I was learning Torah for that hour, but for someone with my skill set and ability that would be very weak tea indeed. On the other hand — and this is part of my struggle — what am I required to do, in fact, if I have an hour to learn, given who and where and what I am?
And why is who and where and what I am sufficient, given who and what I could be?
How much do I have to push to be more?
How much more?
And then, later, how much more still?
And, as the famous story goes, who says I only have an hour?
Shmuel, A.M., let’s put it this way: I am trying to have the discussion here I could have with “my rabbi” (a not-so-straightforward concept in the first place). I think we all have to address these issues, in the broad, general sense.
Moreover, I don’t depend on another individual, rabbi or otherwise, to filter and funnel questions and answers such as these. I am an adult, for one. My rabbi is also not a psychologist. While the contemporary concept of the yeshiva student and the rosh yeshiva is one thing, I also don’t believe most responsible rabbis really want that sort of relationship with their shul members.
Moreover, I have made a significant investment in familiarizing myself with the topics and the substance of the halachic and hashkofic issues I am wrestling with here. I am not a master of these issues, but I feel qualified to discuss them and apply them to my life. When I have a particularly difficult question or an halachic inquiry, I know whom to ask.
Mark, thanks for the explanation. I would encourage Ron to focus on guidance from his own rabbi, rather than on things he thinks a famous rabbi (which is how I interpreted “role models”) might say if he asked him.
Shmuel, here’s my understanding:
The role models and the idealized life of haredi culture would not indulge in many of the activities that we do, like using the Internet, for starters. Even though we might be learning, giving and growing and doing other amazing Torah-oriented activities, those at the highest levels of Charedi spiritual achievement would not respect the way most of us live.
Thanks so much for sharing, but why search for role models when you instantly become a role model simply by doing a mitzvah? Why turn ourselves inside out to garner respect when the only One who really matters is Hashem Yisborach — the One who gave us each our unique past and therefore fully appreciates every move in the right direction?
Am Yisroel is blessed through your sincere struggle, your ahavas Yisrael, and all the good that results from examining your process. But it’s Elul now – month of doing (Sefer Yetzira/Bnei Yisachar) – season to use the past as a springboard and dive into the present. “Doubt” (sufeyk) equals “Amalek” b’gematria. When in doubt, it’s good to simply do a mitzvah… any mitzvah. Hashem is “in the field” during Elul – and maybe one aspect of that field is our “field of endeavor” – our profession.
Yashar Koach and csiva vchasima tova!
Neil, since you understood that part enough to like and respond to it, can you explain what is meant by it?
I actually liked this part:
The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.
I think each person need to strive towards become more than who they currently are. I know this sounds like fluff, but think about this. The Rabbinic authorities, Roshei Yeshiva, Rebbitzens, shul rabbanim etc, the we all look up to are individuals who worked on become more that who they were. That is one trait that they all have and something we can emulate.
Of course, emulate to what degree, is the question.
I think that for every argument, there is a counter argument. This way, we have free choice what to believe. There is good evidence and support to back up information we can give. But whatever information we give, it’s up to the listener to decide whether or not to accept it. We need both logic and faith.
Scientist also believe in something they can’t see. Dark energy which is an anti gravity force in space pulling objects away. They don’t know how or why it does what it does, but they know it’s there.
Ruach is both wind and spirit. We don’t see it but feel it.
What is meant by the following? Can Ron explain what he meant?
“The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.”
Also, Ron wrote above that (pardon the ellipses/dots)”The role models and…many…accepted…authoritative rabbinical sources…could not…respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are…”
Many of the above, especially in recent centuries with the rise of movements such as chassidus, were deeply involved with baalei teshuvah and did respect them for making sincere attempts at self-improvement whether fully successful or not.
We have a certain discomfort about where we are vs. where we want to be, which could lead to despair or to a real commitment to continuing incremental growth.
One difficulty I have nowadays is about role models. People we know well can be good role models, as can recognized spiritual leaders and others in the wider world.
Far too often, people out there that I took to be role models now seem unworthy. These don’t necessarily have feet of clay, but do have major failings that have come to light. It takes a lot of effort to dismiss these cases from my mind and stay positive. I could take the tack of rejecting all aspersions cast on such people, but some seem too well-supported to dismiss. Maybe I can’t conclude, in light of the laws about lashon hara, that a person is a rasha, but I still need to be wary of him, which makes his usefulness as a role model pretty nil.
All this makes it much harder for me to appraise people from a distance. The thought often lurks that I could be betrayed down the road.
Something similar applies to subgroup identification.
Great post Ron. Lot’s of good points.
I like your theory that the cognitive dissonance between where we actually are and where we want to be, creates or perpetuates much dysfunction in our community.