Friday, January 02, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - January 2004

A letter published recently in Yated Ne’Eman, the yeshiva world’s English-language weekly, highlights what is often missing as our schools attempt to imbue their students with proper midos. The letter writer told of her son’s rebbi who teaches with his feet on the desk. You might expect that such behavior would not be tolerated, that the rebbe would be admonished and told that he must immediately cease conducting himself in such a fashion or he will be let go. Sadly, at least at one yeshiva “a feet on the desk” rebbi is being tolerated by the principal who is aware of what is happening. Perhaps worse yet, when the mother sought the counsel of a “renowned” religious educator, she was told to do nothing.

That was bad advice. The rebbi is in effect telling his students that crude behavior is entirely compatible with Torah values. There is more than a slight prospect that this wrongful conduct will be imitated by students. I wonder what the renowned chinuch expert will say if years from now a young man who has abandoned yiddishkeit says that he rejected a religious life because of what happened in that classroom years earlier.

The situation that I have described is admittedly an extreme example, although it is also real. What isn’t extreme is the failure of our yeshivas to sufficiently influence students in the direction of proper midos, this despite much talk and mussar lectures, much seeming attention to ethical conduct. Too often the rhetoric is divorced from behavior. The point is made sharply by Dr. Abraham Twerski, one of our community’s treasures, in the latest issue of Jewish Action, published by the Orthodox Union. He asks, “Why does a shiur in some of the great mussar works often remain but a superficial exercise?” The question suggests the answer.

It is evident that girls are more open to ethical instruction, probably because of their more gentle nature. As for boys, their energy level and drive are characteristics that scarcely mesh with the restraint that is at the core of proper midos. The situation is not helped by the six-day yeshiva week and the long hours each day, usually in very limited space. A rough edge and competitiveness are everyday ingredients of yeshiva life. Students are expected to challenge and not always to be polite, as is evident in classrooms and especially in chavrusa study. In a sense, in yeshivas there is built in antagonism between midos and the culture of Torah study.

The difficulties facing yeshiva educators have been heightened in the contemporary period because of negative influences outside of the school, nearly always in the general society but also too often in the home. There is a coarsening of language, images and attitudes and, inevitably, most yeshiva families are affected to one extent or another.

The challenge facing our students and educators is to articulate a voice and a persona that impart sincerity, even sanctity, to what is being advocated. This is a Herculean task for the reasons that have been articulated here and also because our educators – and especially the rebbis – are themselves human and prone to shortcomings. Like their students, the long school day and the culture of yeshiva life can take a toll in the form of incautious language and even other improprieties. It is a tribute to the skill and character of nearly all rebbis that they are able to inspire their students and to teach them, at least to a degree, proper conduct.

When a rebbi has his feet on the desk or uses coarse language or eats in the classroom – something that happens too frequently – they are teaching their students that it is acceptable to be coarse and crude. They are inculcating in their students values and behavior that are hostile to what the Torah wants of us. When principals ignore wrongful behavior, they are adding to the problem.

Lest I be misunderstood and because I have great respect for those who teach our children, I need to distinguish between inappropriate language and conduct and incautious language. Speech is our main means of communication. The more we speak – and rebbis have to speak quite a bit in classrooms – the greater the prospect of what can be called sloppiness in what we say. I know this failing quite well. In speaking to parents or students, educators are likely on some occasions to say things that they have not thought through or wish they could take back. What occurs between a rebbi and a student or an educator and a parent constitutes a relationship. In all relationships, things are said that should not have been said. To maintain a relationship, it is necessary to downplay and even forget that which is incautious and also inconsequential. I have no sympathy for those who can parse out of thousands of words spoken by an educator a phrase or a sentence or language that should not have been spoken. Like the rest of us, rebbis must be judged by the total picture and not by an occasional failing.