Monday, September 08, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - September 2008

Torah and mitzvos constitute an ideal world, a world in which our obedience to the commandments frees us from slavery to our ego, desires and impulses and also from slavery to the outer environment which compels us to yield to hedonism and fleeting pleasures. The world of Torah and mitzvos is ideal not in the sense of a utopia that exists in the mind and is beyond our reach. By ideal is meant a state of perfection achieved through obedience and service to Hashem. This world is at once nearby and elusive. It is, in the words of the Torah reading in several weeks, not in heaven or in a distant place but very close. It is within our grasp through fulfillment of the mitzvos, yet because of failings that are inherent in the human experience, we fall short.

There is thus a gap between our ideals and our reality, a disconnect between how we are required to act and how we do act. The life of a religious Jew is a struggle to control and overtake the appetites and inclinations that create the disconnect between what is required of us by Torah and mitzvos and our behavior. In varying degrees and ways, our thought, speech and actions compromise our compliance with Torah obligations. The distinctive characteristic of a religious person is to know this, to acknowledge the disconnect and to work at self-improvement. Among those of us who are righteous, the gap between the ideal and practice is narrow, in some measure because these individuals are blessed with elevated attributes but surely also because of their struggle to draw close to the ideal. That some of us succeed provides assurance that the disconnect can be challenged.

However, the powerful forces that induce wrongful thought, speech and action are always alive in our lives. As the Talmud teaches, the more we triumph over wrongful inclinations, the more these inclinations seek to entrap us. These negative forces serve as justification for what is wrongful, so that we come to think of inappropriate behavior as appropriate. We are taught that when a sin is repeated and then repeated again and again, it becomes permissible in the mind of the transgressor. The justification of wrongdoing serves as the guardian and advocate of wrongdoing.

For improvement, this barrier must be recognized and then challenged. Rambam accordingly underscores that the process of teshuvah requires the conscious acknowledgement that what is wrong is wrong. This is never easy, yet our religious commitment provides an opening and opportunity for halachic and hashkafic improvement so that we can triumph over wrongful inclinations. This opportunity is particularly heightened in the period beginning with Elul and extending through Yom Kippur when we are more alert to the obligation to engage in self-assessment and, at least for a while, to draw closer to the standards and behavior required of us as observant and obedient Jews.

The prayers and confessions recited during this period are essentially personal expressions that relate to personal shortcomings. This is as it should be because departures from Torah standards in thought, speech and deed are, in the main, personal defects and it is a hallmark of religious life that we take responsibility for our behavior. Even when the expressions are in group terms, as in the Avinu Malkeinu recitations, the reference is primarily to the individual wrongdoing of the many and not to the collective sins of the community as a community.

For our communal sins, by which is meant not the aggregate of individual wrongs but departures from appropriate Torah behavior that have become ingrained in our community so that many of us are entrapped by wrongful societal and communal imperatives that are difficult to resist, there is a paucity of liturgical language and opportunities for acknowledging the wrong. There are, of course, gatherings, more often for women than for men, where effective speakers implore us to improve in one way or another. These are sincere occasions and they evoke a desire to change while the speeches are being heard. Yet, they are also invariably and without intention superficial occasions, if only because the words that are spoken are divorced from reality, the reality being potent forces that compel adherence to practices that do not necessarily conflict head on with Torah requirements but which are nonetheless divorced from the life of Torah and mitzvos.

What is involved is not a blatant violation of halacha. Rather, there is an embrace of values and attitudes that are discordant with Torah values. A useful illustration is hedonism, the excessive and relentless pursuit of material things and pleasures. The consequence of hedonism is not the commission of an overt sin – although there is a negative impact on the giving of tzedakah – but the dimunition of our community as a sacred people. It is remarkable that at a time when there is a sincere and enhanced commitment to Torah study, there is a parallel sincere and enhanced commitment to living it up.

At the communal level, there is a disconnect between Torah values and societal appetites and impulses that pull in a discordant direction and there is too little in our liturgy and mussar that may serve as restraint on wrongful communal behavior. Nor is the Elul through Yom Kippur period, whose salutary effect on individual reflection and teshuvah is evident, a time for greater fidelity to Torah norms at the communal level. There is no apparent narrowing of the communal disconnect between the ideal and reality. In fact, in one crucial respect, the communal disconnect is enlarged during this period.

This is because Elul and Rosh Hashanah coincide with the opening of the school year, the period when there is a spirit of renewal as children begin another year of Torah study and, hopefully, a year that will result in further growth of their religious commitment. Ever since the Talmudic period, it has been accepted that the establishment of schools for religious study is a communal responsibility. This means that there is a communal responsibility to provide the opportunity to study Torah to all children. This communal responsibility extends to children from marginally observant homes whose parents are willing to send them to a yeshiva or day school, children who in today’s usage would in the main attend schools with a kiruv orientation. We do have such schools, although they are scarcely provided for by our community and few Orthodox Jews any longer pay much attention to them. It is no wonder that enrollment in these schools has declined and since few mainstream yeshivas and day schools now accept such children, an ever-increasing number of Jewish children are being deprived of the opportunity to be nurtured in our noble heritage which is the great treasure of our people.

That is one communal disconnect in Torah education and it is a disconnect that is most pronounced at the start of the school year in the month of Elul.

Another disconnect is that during the same period, retention and admission decisions are made by school officials. This is a period when our well-advertised ideal of providing a Torah education to our community’s children is put to the test. Such decisions are also made throughout the year, often in the form of students being told that they must leave. While there are situations that justify parents being told to find another school for their children, what has erupted in our ranks is a culture of rejection, a set of attitudes that have become embedded and which result in an expanding array of situations where it is regarded as the right and “Torah” way to deny admission or re-admission. I regard this culture of rejection as anti-Torah. It encompasses children from homes that are not sufficiently religious, children with even mild behavioral problems, children who are not sufficiently bright, children who have committed minor misdeeds, children from poor homes and much else.

The number of children who have been affected by the culture of rejection is in the thousands. I wonder whether during Elul there are principals or other yeshiva officials who pause and reflect on the relevance of this period as they reject students. Are there principals who say that precisely because it is Elul it is necessary to admit a child who has a particular shortcoming? Are there principals who say that because it is Elul it is necessary to give a student another chance? I know that some do, but far too many do not. I am astounded by the willingness of principals to cavalierly reject students in the month of Elul. How easy it is for them to expand the gap in Torah chinuch between our rhetoric and the ideal on the one hand and the reality on the other hand. The culture of rejection in Torah chinuch is at its strongest during the period of teshuvah.

Why do I write of a communal disconnect when the decisions to accept or reject students are made by individuals? Let the principals and deans bear the burden of guilt, not the community. At a Torah Umesorah convention years ago, Rav Elya Svei, the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva whose illness has deprived us of the guidance of the outstanding figure in American Torah chinuch in the past generation, noted that Rav Mendelowitz, ztl, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath would fast on the day that he was required to fire a rebbi. Perhaps principals should be obligated to fast on the day that they expel a student. The question, however remains, in what way is our community responsible for the actions of principals and deans?

One answer is that they are community leaders and what they do carries a communal imprimatur. Another reason is that the culture of rejection arises in some measure because parents pressure schools to turn away certain students.

I know that these words will have little or no impact, that they repeat a message that I have been sending for more years than I can remember. We have ignored the sacred words of the Chazon Ish that I have printed in this space. Still, I believe that the message is necessary and we are obligated to challenge the culture of rejection. I should note that over the years I have been involved in a number of admission and retention decisions where I have prevailed in the direction of retention and admission. In each of these situations, my faith in the student has been rewarded.

We often do not see the outcome of a rejected child. He or she is gone and out of sight and definitely out of the thoughts of those who made the decision to reject. The sin is therefore easier to bear and yet greater in consequence. When Joseph was sold by his brothers, they first cast him into a pit so that he was out of their sight and they went on with their shepherding. Years later in Egypt, they did not recognize him and the reason they did not recognize him is because in a meaningful sense they did not recognize him as their brother when they committed their original sin.

As Jacob was about to be reunited with the son he thought had died, he initially saw the agalos or wagons that Joseph had sent and this prompted him to think of the last time that the father and son were together and studied the laws of eglah arufah, what is required of the elders of a community when an unidentified corpse is found. They must proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” Rashi asks, “Can we even imagine that the elders of Beth Din are murderers?” He responds that what they are proclaiming is that “we did not see this man and we did not send him away without sustenance and proper accompaniment.” Their transgression was the failure to see and to provide sustenance, which is a metaphor for Torah. The elders were all righteous people and Torah leaders and they therefore bore a great responsibility. Not seeing can be sinful.

Those who make retention decisions in our schools and who partake of the culture of rejection are in the aggregate good people. Yet, they sin when they do not see, when they send away. Elul should be a time when they see and do not send away because this is a time of drawing closer to G-D and Torah and mitzvos, a time for teshuvah.