Why American Jews Reject Torah – Some Pain, Not Much Gain

Having been heavily involved with Kiruv and BTs for many years, it has always bothered me why we have such a low success rate of attracting people to Torah. I’m not talking about becoming fully observant, but rather about showing interest in Torah learning and practices.

My experience interacting with BTs and non-observant chavrusas, friends and relatives drives my thinking. I have also discussed this for countless hours with others involved in kiruv. I would like to share some of my thoughts on this matter.

I think the main reason Torah is rejected is because most non-observant Jews come to the conclusion that increasing their Jewish knowledge or practice will not significantly increase their pleasure or happiness and is therefore not worth their effort. They come to this conclusion largely from their observation of Torah observant Jews.

Let’s dig deeper using the four human dimensions: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the physical dimension, Torah requires us to limit our physical pleasures in the areas of food, sensuality and sun and fun activities. Most non observant people enjoy their restaurants and vacations, and even with the tremendous increase in kosher restaurants and resorts, it doesn’t compare. In regards to financial stability, the higher costs of Torah living, specifically tuitions, gives an advantage to the non observant.

From an emotional vantage point most non observant people seem to control their anger, envy and desire for honor on a level with the typical observant Jew. Although Torah provides the prescription for great relationships and emotional maturity, the typical secular person also has decent relations with their spouses, children, friends and relatives. Regarding happiness, the growth of the positive psychology movement with its focus on happiness has provided more paths for non observant Jews.

In the mental domain, non observant Jews find meaning in their jobs, communal activities and political discourse. Although Torah learning and mitzvah observance provides additional avenues of meaningful activities, this is not always observable.

The spiritual domain is one in which Torah provides a tremendous advantage. However, belief and connection to Hashem is difficult to measure. In addition our davening and observance of mitzvos performance often lack observable degrees of spirituality and purposeful living.

In summary, I think the secular lifestyle provides an advantage in the physical sphere and can approach the typical Torah life in the emotional well being and happiness areas. Regard meaning and the mental dimension, Torah has the potential to provide advantages. In the spiritual and purposeful living arenas, Torah is clearly superior.

So why do most observant Jews think a life of Torah is better, while most non-observant American Jews are not convinced? I think the reason is that most people are more focused on the lower realms of physical pleasure and happiness than they are on the higher ones of meaning and purpose. Torah observant people experience all the realms so they typically live a more fulfilling life, while the non observant experience more physical pleasure and decent degrees of happiness.

Perhaps if we were even more focused on living a Torah life of purpose and meaning, it would lead to more demonstrable contentment and happiness. If the non-observant could observe the clear advantage of Torah in three of the four human dimensions, they would to want to find out more.

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

The Ramchal on the Power of In-Depth Torah Study

In Part II, chapter 5, section 3 of Derech Hashem, Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato explains that Hashem sustains and provides spiritual energy to the world through Hashpaos, which Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates as Influences.

In Part IV, chapter 2, section 2 on the Study of Torah the Ramchal states:
Of all the Influences that God causes to emanate from Him for the sake of His creations, one is higher than all the others, being more dear and precious than anything else that God created. This Influence is the closest thing to God Himself that can be found in Creation, its loftiness and excellence resembling God’s own to some degree. Through this Influence God enables creations to actually partake of some of His Glory and Perfection.

This Influence, however, was bound by God to yet another creation — the Torah — which God designed specifically to carry this Influence to the physical world. In practice, the Influence arrives by means of two activities, namely, the speaking and understanding the words of Torah.

In Part IV, chapter 2, section 3 the Ramchal continues:
It is obvious that the higher the level of comprehension, the higher will be the corresponding Influence derived through it. An individual who understands only the language of a Biblical passage is therefore not equal to one who understands its meaning. Likewise, one who understands only its superficial meaning is not the same as one who delves more deeply. Furthermore, even when one does go into the deeper meaning, the more he delves, the higher will be his level.

It is an aspect of God’s love, however, that even the lowest level of comprehension can transmit a degree of this Influence. Everyone who comprehends any element of the Torah can thus benefit from this great Influence, merely as a result of what is bound together with such comprehension.

In Part IV, chapter 2, section 4 the Ramchal continues:
One level of the Torah’s Influence is therefore to reward the effort that people put into it, according to the true measure of that effort. Besides this, however, there is another aspect and level, and that is to rectify creation as a whole. There is no element in all creation that is not rectified through the Torah. Furthermore, each element of the Torah has the ability to perfect some part of creation.

An individual who wants to serve his Creator with complete devotion must therefore involve himself in every aspect of the Torah to the best of his ability. Through this, he can take part in the rectification of all creation.

Rav Aharon Feldman on the Attack on Torah in Eretz Yisroel

R’ Yaakov Menken at Cross Currents wrote up this important talk from Rav Aharon Feldman discussing the governmental anti-Torah atmosphere in Eretz Yisroel.

Shabbos Parshas Chukas was the annual “Shabbos of Chizuk,” when leading Rabbis at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College (which is located in Baltimore County, about 5 miles north of the Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore) spend Shabbos in the community, speaking to encourage Torah study and learning. The Rosh Yeshiva [Dean] himself, HRH”G Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, spoke at the Agudath Israel of Baltimore after mincha.

I was surprised that he chose to speak about the situation going on now in Israel, on a Shabbos talk intended to strengthen learning and attachment to the Yeshiva. But the Rosh Yeshiva explained that this discussion is critical. The situation is very serious, and many American Jews don’t understand the extent to which this is so. People think, what is wrong if Orthodox Jews serve in the Army? And what is wrong if they study math and science, like American students do?

The following day, I wrote up my best recollection of the Rosh Yeshiva’s remarks, for his corrections and approval before publication. But even better, the Rosh Yeshiva was invited to deliver an improved and expanded version of his remarks to a larger audience in Toronto, via video. With appreciation to the Rosh Yeshiva and the organizers, the following is excerpted from both addresses.

One must begin with history. At the founding of the state, the Zionist establishment needed to show that all of Jewry was under their umbrella. The state and religious Jews, though, had diametrically opposed definitions of what it means to be a Jew. The Zionist definition is a nationalist one. According to the religious definition, a Jew is part of a nation that received the Torah at Har Sinai, adheres to its laws, and believes that it is a nation because of the giving of the Torah.

Some Jews chose not to back the state. Our Gedolim felt that they could join with the state, on condition that they be granted autonomy. They would have their own education system, and other autonomous rights. This was the basis of the status quo agreement. Whatever took place before the formation of the state would continue in the same manner: the laws of marriage, Shabbos as a day of rest, and religious Jews would have an autonomous education system.

Soon after the founding of the state, Ben-Gurion went to visit the Chazon Ish to persuade him that religious Jews should be drafted into the Army. Ben-Gurion said that the state could not survive without it. The Chazon Ish countered that the Torah could not survive with it. The Torah has a 3500 year record of survival, while Zionism was a nationalistic theory with no real ideology — and the latter must yield.

The Chazon Ish knew that Torah learning could not flourish, and Gedolim could not develop, if youngsters spent three of their most formative years in the Army. But even more important, Ben-Gurion wanted the Army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, to forge them into a new nation. Charedi Jews did not, and do not, want to be melted down. Living in an environment of chilul Shabbos, rampant immorality, and questionable Kashrus is toxic for our youth.

What Charedi parent in the United States would send his son to dorm in a co-ed secular university for three years? There are parents who do this, but we also know the tragic results. This is why we have separate schools, separate newspapers, no television, no unfiltered Internet. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on education systems that isolate our children from secular culture.

The politicians’ promises to the Charedim are like all promises of politicians. You don’t need to be a general to understand that a general cannot issue a command to march tomorrow, call up the commander of the Charedi unit, and have the other say “wait a minute, tomorrow is Sukkos, I have to ask my Rav if we’re allowed to march.” You can’t run an Army in that fashion, and the Army itself says so. Benny Gantz, Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, told Shas Knesset member Nissim Zeev that it is simply not practical to have large numbers of charedi-only units. An Army must be integrated, and at the most they could handle one more battalion like Nachal Charedi.

The Hesder model is not truly separate, and the results are predictable; a large proportion of them are lost to Judaism. According to Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rosh Yeshiva of the Religious-Zionist Yeshiva Har Brachah, 20% come out completely secular. Those who return to Yeshiva are weakened in their commitment to Torah. When I moved to Israel, the Religous Zionist party had thirteen seats in the government, and today they have five. This is in no small part due to the secularization of their youth in the Army.

Even were it true that it had the status of pikuach nefesh, which it does not, Charedim cannot serve in the Army. Spiritual pikuach nefesh is of no lesser importance than physical pikuach nefesh. We should have the status of conscientious objectors in any democratic society.

So they say that instead, students should leave Yeshiva and stop learning Torah for “public service.” How absurd! Learning Torah ensures the survival of the Jewish people; it has done so for thousands of years, and, as we have seen before our eyes, it rejuvenated American Jewry after the Holocaust. Learning Torah should not be considered on a par with changing bedpans in a hospital?! How outrageous that this should be suggested in a Jewish state! Without Torah, there would be no Jewish state, no claim to the land of Israel. How can learning Torah not be considered a valid public service?

Now let us turn to the attempt by the government to introduce secular subjects into our educational system. We may wonder, why do we object to introducing the same subjects taught in American Torah high schools? But we cannot judge Israel like the United States. The problems and challenges are different, and the ways that we must respond to those problems are different.

Lapid’s party says that they have to impose these changes on the Charedim, because they will not do it otherwise. How helpful! Did he ask the Charedim what they want? Shouldn’t the natural leaders of the Charedim be consulted before making such changes?

One of Lapid’s cohorts, who is a Rabbi, has said that the Gedolim are against any changes in their society for “corrupt” reasons. This is the word he used. He obviously never came into contact with Gedolei Yisroel. According to him, only Lapid is uncorrupted, only he does not care for power and fame — he whom Time magazine describes as “walking with the swagger of someone who expects to become Prime Minister.” Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman shlit”a, Rav Chayim Kanievsky shlit”a, Rav Shmuel Auerbach shlit”a, cannot be trusted to care about the Charedi community… only Lapid, the television host turned politician, son of perhaps the most rabid charedi-hater in Israeli history.

Nowhere in the world would they act so paternalistically towards a minority. Imagine the United States government telling the Amish, “you are not productive enough, and this is why you are poor. Therefore we are enacting laws to force you to stop using the horse and wagon. Oh, but we’re not doing this out of discrimination or lack of respect for what you’re doing, but for your own benefit.” What an uproar would sweep America!

Why does this happen in Israel? In truth, it doesn’t happen in Israel either, except with the Charedim. Do you know how they teach arithmetic in Israeli Arab schools? “Ten Jews are standing at a bus stop. A suicide martyr kills seven of them. How many Jews are left?” Yet we dare not interfere with their educational system.

Even from a secular standpoint, the primary purpose of education should not be to expand a government’s tax base, but to educate young people to be human beings. Thank you, Mr. Lapid, but we don’t need your help. We don’t need the assistance of a morally bankrupt society, in which you can buy nearly everything with bribery, in which two presidents and seven ministers have been indicted. We don’t have 60% of our children coming to school with weapons. We don’t need abortion clinics or drug rehab centers. Our students are educated not to lie, cheat or steal, but to love Jews, love Judaism, honor their parents and respect authority. If anything, the secular education system, which is producing a decadent society, should be copying our system, not trying to interfere.

Moreover, Gemara prepares a person for modern technology more than even math and science. When our students enter job training, they score higher than their secular counterparts, because their minds have been developed. A recent United States Department of Education study concluded that in order to deal with the computer-based society of the next decade, education should not emphasize facts, but critical and logical thinking. And this is what Gemara does to a mind.

The real reason why they want to change our educational system is not our purported poverty, but to secularize us. They are afraid that we will outnumber them in 50 years, and they are trying to “solve the problem” at its root. Stanley Fischer, a secular Jew who is Governor of the Bank of Israel, said that unless the situation changes, Charedim will constitute the majority in another several decades — and something must be done. Ephraim HaLevi, a former head of the Mossad, said that the Charedim are a greater threat to Israel than Iranian nuclear weapons, and Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, said something similar.

In Lapid’s words, “we have to break down the ghetto walls,” and this is “an historic opportunity to bring the Charedim into our worldview.” This is the real issue. And although Lapid and his cohorts deny it — depending upon the audience they are addressing — the question is whether we will be permitted to maintain our lifestyle.

This is why there is such demonization of religious Jews, especially since Lapid was elected. In the newspapers, you can see caricatures of religious Jews no different than those in the most anti-Semitic journals. Television hosts and nightclub comedians serve up a constant flow of ridicule. When a crime is committed by a Charedi Jew, the newspapers invariably report that it was a “Charedi crime.” Would the American press report a criminal as “black” in similar fashion?

One of the slogans that brought Lapid to power was “sharing the burden.” The claim is that the Charedim take billions from the government in welfare, and do not pay taxes, thus they must be forced to work and pay taxes. This is sheer demagoguery. Even those in Kollel have wives who work and pay taxes. Every item purchased in Israel carries a 17% and now 18% VAT except fruits and vegetables, and the Orthodox, with their large families, are the largest block of consumers. Half the cost of an apartment in Israel is taxes.

Why should the government take their tax money, and put it into services they don’t use? Why should they pay one billion dollars annually for television, plus for sports stadiums, university buildings, and even police and prisons that their population rarely needs, if ever?

The Charedim bring in more tourists than any other sector. There were over 250,000 people Lag B’Omer at Meron. El-Al would go bankrupt if not for the Charedim. Every year, 20,000 students come to Israel from the United States and Europe to study in traditional yeshivos and seminaries, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the Israeli economy.

We support our Kollelim; the government gives minuscule amounts. We put up new buildings with our money to which they contribute nothing. How dare they take our taxes, use the money for services of no use to us, and then claim that we are not “sharing the burden?”

Please be advised, Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Lapid, that we do not feel that we can survive as a nation with your proposed laws.

I will give myself as an example of what is going to happen. I moved to Israel with three small children 50 years ago, with tremendous difficulty. I wanted to study Torah and experience the Kedushah of Eretz Yisrael. I only moved there because I was assured that we could raise our children as religious Jews, without government interference and without them having to go into the Army. This might not be true any longer. If you pass a law saying that it is criminal not to enlist in the Army, then although I love Israel no less than I did 50 years ago, and have for 50 years built up my entire family structure in Israel, I will nevertheless do everything possible to pull my family out. The dedication of my future descendants to Torah is more vital to me. We will pack our bags, as Jews have done many times throughout our history, and escape from this danger. Spiritual danger is more devastating than physical danger. It is tragic that a Jewish state will force me to do this, but it is no less dangerous for me and my future because it is a Jewish state.

Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Lapid, don’t try to wreck our lives as Jews, and don’t tear apart this country. Because that is what you are doing with your misguided efforts to change our way of life.

Read more: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2013/07/04/wake-up/#ixzz2YPPxzTAV
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The Primacy of Torah and Mesorah

In line with my work at my School Management Software company, InfoGrasp, I had the privilege of attending the Torah Umesorah convention at the Split Rock Resort in the Poconos this past Shabbos. It was a wonderful experience of learning, shmoozing, sharing meals, davening and spending Shabbos with 1,800 Torah-first Jews.

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Rabbi Horowitz, one of Beyond BT’s Rabbinic Advisors, who mentioned that the second volume of the Bright Beginnings series was just released. Among the many hats that Rabbi Horowitz wears, is his dedication to help Jews learn Torah, by giving them tools for skills based learning. He related an anecdote of a BT who had tried to learn Hebrew for many years and was helped tremendously by the first Bright Beginnings sefer. Although the BB series is geared for children in the younger grades in Yeshivos, there was a special sparkle in his eye in the fact that these efforts were also helping BTs thirsting for Torah.

The whole convention is focused on helping Jews learn, understand, embrace and live a life of Torah. The majority of participants are Rebbeim and Morahs who are constantly looking to improve their learning, avodah and chinuch. Many of the the leading Roshei Yeshiva of America, including Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin and Rabbi Dovid Harris addressed the critical issues of the day including teaching reponsibility, individualizing chinuch, showing love, being careful when rebuking, and just about every other chinuch issue you can imagine.

To highlight the fact that today’s students have to be treated much more carefully then in the past, a well-respected Rabbi and Teacher related a story about his high school graduation. The valedictorian was the student with the best grades who gave a serious dvar Torah. The salutatorian was chosen by his peers and gave a humorous portion followed by a dvar Torah. The speaker, who was the salutatorian, related that in the middle of his humorous section the Rosh Yeshiva shouted out, “Smith, I had higher expectations for you”. Can you imagine the effects of such a comment today? He finished his salutatorian speech with a strong Dvar Torah to which the Rosh Yeshiva gave a hardy Yasher Koach.

This year the guests from Eretz Yisroel included Mrs. Rena Tarshish, a former American, who is now the head of the Mesores Rochel Seminary in Yerushaliyim. My wife said she mesmerized the women with her explanations of how to approach Medrashim and how to properly channel your emotions, among other topics.

Another guest from Eretz Yisroel was Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, one of the leading Kabbalists of our generation. Rabbi Hillel has written Faith and Folly: The Occult in Torah Perspective, a clear and concise guide explaining Kabbalistic practices and what is sanctioned and what is forbidden today. He also has a sefer, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, which has essays on Shabbos, Yom Tov, Prayer, Teshuvah, Torah Study, the Jewish home and the Wisdom of the Kabbalah. It’s a personal favorite, so it was a special treat to hear him speak.

He included a thought, that he had related at the Siyum HaShas, from Rabbi Chaim Voloshin. It says in the Chumash that at the giving of the Torah the Jewish people heard what was seen and saw what was heard. Seeing refers to what we can experience through our senses, while hearing refers to what we can’t sense, but can only understand by way of a moshol. Normal we can physically sense and see the physical world, but we can only understand the spiritual world through mosholim. At the giving of the Torah, there was a reversal and the Jewish People could sense the spiritual world as if it was physical, and could only understand the physical world through mosholim. He stressed that one of the things we need today, is to try to view the world through a spiritual lens, and we need truly learned people to guide us on that path. We must be careful to not fall prey to the Pop Spirituality that is prominent in our time.

As BTs we gave up many secular pursuits to live a Torah-first life. It’s encouraging to know that there are thousands of students, teachers, Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva who are focused on a Torah-first life of growth, learning, teaching and serving Hashem, like we are. And they’re available here to help us and our children live a life of Torah and Mesorah.