Sunday, March 16, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - March 2008

There have been about two-hundred of these newsletters in the thirty-five years that
I have been president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. I believe that this is the first that includes material published elsewhere, an editorial written by Rabbi Moshe Grylak, the editor of Mishpacha which is an excellent weekly magazine published in Israel in Hebrew and English language editions. Its readership is primarily in the yeshiva world. Mishpacha has given us permission to circulate what Rabbi Grylak wrote.

The editorial isn’t his first excursion into the difficult journalistic territory of describing painful developments in our community and even sharply criticizing certain yeshiva-world practices, as well as the leadership of this vital segment of Orthodoxy. There have been pieces challenging attitudes and practices that have come to be accepted, although they deviate significantly from the way our community was led in previous periods. Rabbi Grylak has asked sharp questions about the extraordinary situation in Beitar and Kiryat Sefer, large and expanding fervently Orthodox towns in Israel where Orthodox Jews who are thought to have deviated even minimally from certain mores have been harshly treated and forced out or excluded. This is a disgraceful development.

For all of the departure from the norm of Orthodox journalism that invariably dictates avoidance of criticism of the yeshiva world, Rabbi Grylak’s writings, as well as other material of a similar nature that has been published in Mishpacha, have been respectful and judicious.

This writing mirrors much of what I have written and said for more years than I can recount, my feeling that, as I put it in a speech twenty years ago at the Torah Umesorah dinner when I was the guest of honor, through our exclusionary attitudes, decisions and other actions, the yeshiva world has become engaged in “Richuk Kerovim,” the alienation of those who are close. As our community has grown stronger and more self-confident and has numerous impressive achievements to point to, we have embraced ever-more restrictive approaches that were not part of our mindset a generation ago when we were far weaker but were led by Torah giants of transcendent stature.

There is now a culture of exclusion and prohibition in the yeshiva world, a dynamic that feeds on itself and therefore accelerates. In recent days, there was the extraordinary ban on a concert scheduled in a Madison Square Garden auditorium. The prohibition has been effective and the concert has been cancelled. Painful scars remain. If the event was deemed inappropriate in any way, a prohibition was in order, although its sponsorship by a respected Israeli charity and it already being scheduled and planned at great cost should have been factors that were taken into account. What is striking about this episode and even frightening is the violence of the language utilized in the ban, the impression being that in addition to prohibiting that which may have been inappropriate, the intent was to destroy.

The language utilized in this issur or prohibition that was signed by many prominent yeshiva deans and rabbis ought to be contrasted with the prohibition declared a half century go by eleven great Torah leaders, the foremost being Rav Aharon Kotler, ztl, against participation in the Synagogue Council and other rabbinical and congregational bodies together with Reform and Conservative clergy. This was probably the seminal event in the contemporary development of American Orthodoxy. For all of the enormous significance of that prohibition, the statement announcing it does not come close in vehemence to the language employed in the prohibition of a minor event and a particular singer who apart from being a truly religious Jew has done much chesed through his personal visits to critically ill children in our community.

Our leadership needs to reflect on this episode and also what it means to lead. They should pay attention to a recent article by Jonathan Rosenblum, also in Mishpacha. Its title was “Bans are not Chinuch,” a title that tells it all and echoes an article that I wrote several years ago called, “Lead Us by Teaching, Not by Prohibitions.” I have often underscored that in the more than twenty years of his leadership of the Torah community in this country, the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood rarely issued or joined in prohibitions, the Synagogue Council issue being the great exception. Rosenblum quotes Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the eminent Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, as saying, “One does not educate with issurim.”

I am pessimistic that the forces within our community that impel the flow of harsh statements and prohibitions will be tempered any time soon or that the attitudes that foster exclusionary and too often cruel policies regarding yeshiva admission and retention will be altered. We are increasingly trapped in a culture of prohibition and exclusion and this means that we are increasingly at war against our own. Only when our Roshei Yeshiva who are our leaders and certainly merit our respect speak out against harsh policies and come to understand that refusing to sign prohibitory statements may be a greater manifestation of authority and leadership will the darkness be lifted.

It is not possible to know how many we are losing because of our harshness, how many we are losing because we are too ready to demonize and cast out. I continue to believe that the primary contributory factor to Rabbi Grylak’s “Chareidi Gehinnom” is the outside world, its strong seductive pull away from Torah values and practices and not what parents do or schools do or Torah leaders say or sanction. Parents, schools and Torah leaders are contributory factors when they fail to sufficiently appreciate that there are good children who cannot study for long hours or who are not ideal in their behavior, children who need to feel that they are loved and respected for who they are and who are not cast out, either literally or through painful words. Because this truth is not sufficiently appreciated, our words and actions contribute to a limited extent to the statistics of drop-out from Yiddishkeit.

Furthermore, prohibitions and the harshness of some of our pronouncements and actions make it more difficult for us to retain or reach out to our youth who are at risk. We could retain more at-risk children and reclaim some who have moved beyond being at risk if we would show more kindness, more patience.

The message conveyed by the Rav Shach incident that Rabbi Grylak recounts is that there is much wrong with our approach and attitudes. I am skeptical about certain of the details – the original source is a book – yet what is striking about this episode is Rav Shach’s anger at the Roshei Yeshiva who came to see him about expelling a student for a very serious violation of halacha. For the Gadol Hador to call these Roshei Yeshiva “murderers” is more than extraordinary. What is also remarkable is Rabbi Grylak’s writing about this in a publication that is embedded in the yeshiva world. We are, after all, taught from a young age to have enormous respect for Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders and not in any way to criticize them. Rabbi Grylak conveyed the story although he was cautioned not to “write about this issue.” His answer was, “I’m not writing it, I’m screaming it.”

This is probably the most troubling aspect of what is happening within our community. There is spreading discontent over the culture of issur. In all my years of klal activity I have never seen similar pain or heard such words of criticism as are now being expressed in yeshiva-world families among whom obedience has been the hallmark. I have heard nasty words about Torah leaders from outside of our four cubits and I have been the target of nastiness and hostility because of my advocacy of the primacy of the Torah world and its leaders. Never has there been such anguish and even discontent within our own ranks.

I cannot adequately express the pain that I feel now over this brief essay. This world has been my spiritual home and much more. It is what I have given much of my life to. I am crying inside as I write these lines. Something is terribly wrong. The culture of issur is wrong. The alienation of too many of our young is wrong.

The existence alone of what is referred as the Chareidi Gehinnom should give all of us pause.