Saturday, September 01, 2001

September 2001 - RJJ Newsletter

The yeshiva world has been central to my life for more than half a century. This world encompasses yeshivas and many organizations and institutions, as well as the families that identify with this sector of Orthodoxy. The yeshiva world also is the embodiment of a particular outlook that relies on the leadership and guidance of Roshei Yeshiva. This world has been the focus of my communal work ever since I met the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, the transcendent Torah personality in the entire American Jewish experience, fifty years ago. His wisdom, courage and determination placed our community on a course that elevates Torah study and Torah living. Nearly forty years after his passing, the great Rosh Yeshiva remains alive in our lives, inspiring new generations.

There is glory in Klal Yisroel, especially in the yeshiva world. It is evident in thousands of homes where Torah study is paramount and chesed is innate, where there is modesty and dignity and Jews walk humbly before G-D.

There is also evident difficulty, even pain, in much of the yeshiva world, as we sense from the ever-increasing flow of letters we get importuning us to assist families whose situation is desperate. Our families have grown constantly larger. This inevitably means great financial pressure, probably in a majority of our homes. Tuition obligations alone engender extraordinary stress and to these there are added the regular costs of a religious Jewish life, as well as social expectations that increasingly affect the behavior of both parents and children. The Jones may not be Jewish, but living up to the Jones isn’t just for others, for Gentiles. Conspicuous consumption is more than alive in our homes and in our minds and it takes a particularly brutal toll among families of limited means and extended obligations.

Thousands of our fathers work long, hard and honorably, knowing that at the end of the day they shall not earn sufficiently to provide for their families. Many of our mothers also work and what they earn only eases the pressure; it does not remove it. Stress is a constant presence in a great number of yeshiva world homes. Mothers have the additional responsibility of tending to the children, helping with homework, giving each child love and care, while understanding that each child is distinctive and needs special attention. Fathers seek time to learn with their children and time for their own Torah study and, of course, to daven three times a day in shul. While these pressures envelop many families, parents and often children find ways to engage in acts of chesed, to give tzedakah, show kindness to neighbors, as well as relatives, friends and even strangers.

I remember well how the great Rosh Yeshiva loved the Americans, both older people who were at times borderline observant and the students who then formed the yeshiva world. He really wasn’t able to communicate with most yeshiva students, yet he was able to palpably sense their goodness and their edelkeit and to gain strength from their values and sincerity, even in a sense from their naivete. As he inspired them, they inspired him. As in his aspirations for Torah study, his vision of a Torah community was achieved.

The struggle that is now endemic in many yeshiva world families adds to their glory, and to the kedusha of the entire Torah world. Each day is for them a day of service of G-D, a day that includes so much that is good. This is the great story of the yeshiva world, as it essentially came into being in the 1940’s and 1950’s. As I write, I think of the memorable hesped of the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva, shlita, of Rav Shneuer Kotler, ztl, words that echo still: “You can now go before your father and say ‘I have fulfilled your mission, I have fulfilled your mission.’” So too can much of the yeshiva world say to the great Rosh Yeshiva, “We have fulfilled your mission.”

The story of obedience, tznius and service to G-D, is the primary contemporary story of the yeshiva world. But sadly it is not the only story and it is a story that is not sufficiently told or appreciated. We increasingly see another picture and although it involves relatively few, it has in some disturbing ways become the dominant picture. This is a story that includes wrongdoing and its tolerance and perhaps worse yet, the glorification of excess and the corollary abandonment of the essential Torah ideal of hatznea leches. We are living through the distortion of basic values and their replacement by practices and attitudes that are antithetical to proper Torah living.

A few rotten apples usually spoil the barrel. It isn’t surprising that the relative few among us who value money and ostentation cause so much shame and pain among Orthodox Jews. However these people may look, their exterior is totally contradicted by their inner selves. They receive attention, which they eagerly covet. To outsiders – and, at times, even within the yeshiva world – they seem to be representative of the larger community. To an extent, there is an interesting explanation to this. The ideal of hatznea leches inevitably results in what is good and just in the lives of yeshiva world families being expressed quietly and with dignity, even being hidden. The glory of the yeshiva world is in the ordinary Torah living of thousands of families, not in publicized events and the hoopla that has become too common. It perhaps may be suggested that there is an element of Hester Panim in the hidden character of proper Torah living. Modest behavior is inherently not calculated to attract attention. Usually, but not always, exposure is given to those who seek exposure.

The problem we now face arises in large measure from the prominence given to what is vain and immodest to the core. Contrary to what has been for so long the profile of the yeshiva world, we now have a fast crowd, people who share not at all the ideal of hatznea leches. It increasingly seems that among young Orthodox Jews, including some who were educated for extended periods at our best yeshivas, there is an instinct to put on display values that are hostile to Torah living. These people set the pace and style and call the shots. We now have our own jet-setters.

What is especially painful is the way that certain Roshei Yeshiva and other prominent Torah personalities are too eager to associate with persons and conduct that should be anathema to them. Instead of avoiding the fast crowd, they give it encouragement and words of praise. They are buying into the hoopla and even adding to it.

This is a sensitive story and it is difficult to provide details without running the risk of giving offense. The Torah world is sufficiently under attack and admittedly it may be best to refrain from criticism. On the other hand, what is now occurring in parts of the yeshiva world is both powerful and dynamic, which means that it is expanding and that unless the present situation is counteracted and arrested, we are certain to witness further deterioration in our community.

The pursuit of money, the constant tumult, the lack of restraint – these and other unwelcome attributes have become a lot more prominent in the recent period. I believe that many of us sense that this is the case and know what I am referring to when I write about our fast crowd. Among Orthodox Jews within my circles of contact, there is a lot of quiet talk about behavior and attitudes repugnant to Torah values.

I have reflected much over what I am writing here and I have come to believe that to be entirely oblique about what is wrong is not sufficient. Accordingly, I will touch briefly on certain of the cornerstones of the behavior and attitudes that need to be rejected.

It is wrong for yeshivas to honor persons who have been charged with serious crimes, something that has happened on more than one occasion recently. I believe that it is inappropriate for Mashgichim to give mussar or ethical discourses in which they implore us to act with restraint in homes that are drowning in ostentation and worse. I believe that it sends the wrong message when so-called missions to Israel and the Former Soviet Union are accompanied by an excess of hype and noise, as if there is no purpose in going unless tons of publicity are generated. Yated Ne’eman, essentially the yeshiva world’s newspaper, illustrates how far we have sunk into practices that should be alien to people who proclaim hatznea leches as an ideal. We are routinely treated in its pages to institutional exhibitionism as schools and causes place page after page of ads, trumpeting themselves and making bloated claims. I do not blame the newspaper, yet we ought to recognize that a pattern has been established. The message we get is that without screaming in public, there is no way to get attention. Of course, it may be that some of us are trying to emulate the prophets of Baal on Har Carmel who yelled ever more loudly to their false god.

What I have written here is but a small part of a growing problem. More than specific actions or events that merit criticism, what is troubling is the emergence of what I have referred to as a fast crowd, mainly younger people who have money or want others to think that they are affluent. They act with little restraint. For all of their vanity, as well as the sham that is their exterior, they have become far too prominent in our community and far too representative. They hurt all of us, even though overwhelmingly yeshiva world families adhere to appropriate principles and practices.

As I write, I think of the remarkable incident reported twice in the Talmud. Rav Yosef, the son of Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi, became deathly ill and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness, his father asked him, “What did you see in the next world?” He answered, “I saw an upside down world. Those who are on top in this world are below in the next world and those who are lowly here are honored there.” His father said, “My son, you have seen a clear world,” a world where people occupy the positions they merit.

There is in this a merit of consolation about our present situation, for in the world of truth, truth will prevail. But we live in this world, which is not a world of truth, and we face the reality of giving prominence and honor to those who do not deserve to be esteemed. The world of Torah, even on this earth, is the world of truth and it should not be too much to ask that at least in the four cubits of halacha, we maintain appropriate standards.