As our community has grown stronger and more self-confident and amassed numerous impressive achievements, 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. Recently, there was the extraordinary ban on a concert scheduled in a Madison Square Garden auditorium. The prohibition was effective and the concert was cancelled. Painful scars remain.
Certainly if the event was deemed inappropriate in any way, a prohibition was in order – although its sponsorship by a respected Israeli charity and the fact that it had already been scheduled and planned at great cost should have been factors taken into account. What is striking about this episode – 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 ago by eleven great Torah leaders, the foremost being Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, against participation in the Synagogue Council of America 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. And yet, for all of the enormous significance of that prohibition, the statement announcing it did not come close in vehemence to the language employed in the prohibition of a relatively 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, a much-respected writer who lives in Israel. The article’s title is “Bans are not Chinuch” and it echoes what I wrote several years ago under the heading “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 of America issue being the great exception. Rosenblum quotes Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, the eminent rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, as saying, “One does not educate with issurim.”
There is, I think, a collateral issue arising from the process that results in certain prohibitions. When the subject is of a general or Klal Yisrael scope, Torah leaders invariably take the initiative and carefully ponder what to say and how to proceed.
When what is being banned is far more limited, however, there is a good chance the initiative comes from an individual who solicits support for his position, going from one rosh yeshiva or rav to another conveying the claim that something wrong is being done and needs to be prohibited. This often occurs over the phone and often without the reflection and consultation that should accompany prospective bans. The assumption is that the person who wants something prohibited is trustworthy. The process strikes me as a form of rechilus – carrying tales – or outright lashon hora. Is this appropriate?
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 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. 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 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 number of dropouts 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.
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 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.