Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Right Source of Inspiration

I have a friend who's a teacher in the public system.  It's no secret that schools today don't get much done compared to only a couple of decades ago.  When asked why, he sighs.  "The parents," he says, "want us to teach them everything, how to behave, manners and morals.  They don't want to take any responsibility for that at all.  'We're paying taxes so you do all the work' is essentially what they tell us."
It's frightening to think that this attitude is common.  When I was just a little Lord Ironheart my parents were very involved with my education.  They were in constant contact with the teacher to see how they could help my education along and made sure that they were a constant influence in my life.  They knew that the school was there to impart knowledge but that it was their job to make me a mensch.
Somehow it seems to me that this has happened to a very large extent in the Yeshivah World community.  With the raising of roshei Yeshiva and Gedolim to a near-deified state, similar to what some Chasidic clans have done with their rebbes, the idea of a father influencing his children seems to be on the wane.  Consider this latest article from Rav Yonasan Rosenblum which seems to take for granted that a growing boy's biggest influence should be his teacher, with nary a word about the influence the father and mother should have:
Unfortunately, many yeshiva students today have never experienced a close relationship with an adam gadol (great man), and have no image constantly before them that elevates them and provide strength in moments of weakness. Many do not even know what they are missing. In their immaturity, they have come to view consulting with someone wiser and more experienced, as a sign of weakness and lack of independence. When asked for the name of a rav to whom they are close, they cannot name one.
I am not disparaging the importance of role models in the life of a growing child, especially in an academic setting.  Certainly I found them very important during my training and to this day there are a few I still call for advice on difficult cases and whose words of wisdom influenced my career in lasting ways.  A good teacher can inspire a student to heights of achievement the student himself never thought possible.
However, when we talk about a Torah lifestyle, we are not just talking about a fund of knowledge or the acquisition of critical thinking skills.  We are talking about a set of values that permeate every aspect of one's life.  We call our law halacha because it guides us wherever we go in the world.  Who should be the biggest influence in a person's life in this regard, a teacher at school or a parent at home?
The perception that there are no figures to serve as advisors today is well wide of the mark. But it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who have never submitted to another's judgment or sought the opinion of someone more experienced when confronted with challenges or important life decisions will never be able to positively influence others.
I have a number of friends who developed close relationships with Rabbi Matttisiyahu Solomon when the latter was a young mashgiach in Gateshead Yeshiva. Three of them run major institutions today, and their advice is sought daily. Even the baalebos in the group is the type of person with whom one would be well-advised to discuss any difficult decision. Each of them still consults with Rav Mattisiyahu when they find themselves in tough life situations.
While I would never seek to say something negative about Rav Mattisiyahu Solomon, my question would be: when these bochurim were younger, who were they more likely to go to for life advice, their father or their rebbe?  And if it was the latter, why?
My father never liked the Mishnah in Bava Metziah, the one that ruled that if you could only save your father or your rebbe from a dangerous predicament, that you were to give preference to your rebbe.  Leaving aside the obvious conflict-of-interent inherent in such a ruling (preference being given to the guys who decide on who to prefer) he was always frustated with the idea that there would be someone more important and influential in a person's life than his parents.  He had learned this from his parents, aleihem hashalom, who had been the dominant influence in his childhood in terms of hashkafah and basic moral values.  A rebbe might be there to teach you but woe to the father who abdicated his responsibility to guide the child to adulthood to one.
Perhaps this is one reason so many in the Chareidi community find themselves behaving in ways that no good parent would tolerate.  Consider this excerpt from Benzion Chinn's fine blog:
For me, respect for the law and property are basic parts of my being. To hear someone talk about stealing from the government as something at least theoretically justifiable struck me as morally offensive. Whatever differences and disagreements I may have with my father this is one thing that he deserves credit for. I know this person's parents; they are decent people. Where did he get such a concept in his head? I believe that this is important and not just a theoretical issue of maybe opposing something versus being completely disgusted by it. What will happen when this person is faced with the temptation, when the money is on the table and he has to decide whether to take it or walk away? I would never wish to be put in the path of temptation and do not know ultimately if I would succeed. I am enough of a legalist to concoct all sorts of excuses if pushed to it. I believe, though, that I would pass. There is no way that this person would pass. If, when the issue is theoretical, you are already playing games of maybe than you will take the money when it becomes real. If I were to wave a cheeseburger at this person he would turn in horror. What if I stuck non-kosher money into his face and rustled the bills?
I fully expect to see this person, from a respectable Haredi family and educated in elite Haredi institutions, on the wrong end of some scandal within the next few decades, either beating up a woman for what she is wearing or "cutting some corners" in order to fund the Jewish institution of his choice. At the very least he will be one of the people turning a blind eye and winking and nodding at the whole affair. I was raised to not particularly concern myself with whether other people were dressed appropriately, but with an absolute horror at the prospect of taking money that did not belong to me. That is part of my meta-legal theology, philosophy and moral values. What sort of moral values did the Haredi institutions that produced this person raise him with?
People cannot farm out their responsibility as parents to others who don't have as much connection or knowledge of the child as they do, or should.  I wonder how much of the "flipping out" phenomenon is based on this attitude that allows outsiders to influence one's child more than one has done oneself?
Is it an attitude that "the rebbe" is better at teaching the child because he's a talmid chacham?  Is it the idea that learning is so important that the father would rather do that than raise in son?  Is it now at the point that a second generation, having never experienced guidance from their fathers because they were foisted on the rebbes, is now simply doing the same thing?
It is the responsibility of parents to raise their children, not their rebbeim. Perhaps this is a value we should start to more strongly assert.


David said...

"My father never liked the Mishnah in Bava Metziah, the one that ruled that if you could only save your father or your rebbe from a dangerous predicament, that you were to give preference to your rebbe."

Yeah, but it's simple math. The guys who invented it were probably the fathers of a few people, but the rebbes of many people (including some of those to whom they were also fathers). Thus, since rebbes make the rules, why wouldn't they make a rule that you should save rebbes first? If furriers wrote the Talmud, then you'd save your furrier first.

devorah said...

I don't know who you were speaking to, but this is absolutely not true. The reason why these yeshivos are not teaching kids what they should, is for a number of reasons:

1) A lot more is censored than only a couple of years ago. In the school I teach in, I cannot teach works with any romance or controversial scenes. Therefore, no Jane Austin, no Romeo and Juliet, no Paradise Lost, no To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

2) For girls, they are expected to both have a dual curriculum AND help at home. Therefore, Pesach vacations are longer, and any difficulty or exceptional workload is frowned upon. Complaints are taken seriously from the students and the parents, and teachers are barred from giving too much work. Or too complicated work.

This also connects to the current financial crisis for all schools. Because they rely on donations to pay for their mortgage, etc, they have to take any parent complaint seriously, instead of telling them that the difficult work is what's best for the child. A child complains, the current generation wants to make the child happy at all costs, and voila! Test rescinded. Essay rescinded.

3) For boys, there is a greater push to have them learn for longer hours in a day. A "good" high school now mandates that boys stay until 9 or ten pm, which gives little time for homework. Which means, rarely tests or essays, which is also a huge part of the curriculum. Some high schools have dropped so many general ed courses that the graduates are obligated to take summer courses to obtain their high school diploma.

I don't believe that any school really takes that much of a role in middos or character building.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

When actually reading Rabbi Rosenblum's article, Garnel's words become more on point. It is so interesting that Rabbi Rosenblum actually speaks of the need of a son for a father, the title of his article is actually "Every Son Needs a 'Father'" but then he goes on to ignore this very relationship, ie. the actual relationship of father and son, describing "Father" as a Torah personality who can serve as a life guide. What is really lost is the personal, the idea of a personal relationship. He refers to Yaakov and Yosef but it doesn't even dawn on him that this was a personal relationship of father and son. To Rabbi Rosenblum Yosef thought of 'Yaakov', that adam gadol, the rebbi, the Torah personality -- and that's where he gained his strength. The personal relationship is just ignored -- and that is the root of this sadness.

There is no doubt a value in the objective but there is also value in the subjective. It is not enough that one is able to talk to even an adam gadol without the personal. There is indeed value in meeting great people and there is value in gaining advice from wise people but a personal needs that personal relationship and that is where a real father enters the picture. Even in regard to the mishnah in Bava Metziah that places a rebbi over a father, we are only talking about a rebbi muvchak who has such a relationship and a life connection to the talmid. And still there is indication in the Halacha how special it is when a father also is the rebbi muvchak.

Rabbi Rosenblum is right though -- people do need advice in this world and there is not enough done to create the bonds that we would and should expect to exist in the world of the yeshiva. Yet the Torah commands the father to teach his child. It is the father who has this responsibility of relating and assisting his sons (and daughters). That is the ideal and the personal relationship must be recognized.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Dov Kaiser said...

IIRC, R. Hutner deals with the parent/rebbe distinction in one of his maamarim on Hanuka. He notes that while the rebbe may implant knowledge in the talmid, it is the talmid's parent who lays the ground for that knowledge by imparting proper values first. Obviously this dichotomy is not ironclad, and teachers may well take on some of the "value-imparting" role. However, I agree with Garnel that the father is essential, and R. Rosenblum's article ignores this.

Izgad said...

“I have a friend who's a teacher in the public system. It's no secret that schools today don't get much done compared to only a couple of decades ago.”

Superfreakonomics makes the argument that a large part of this downturn comes from the women’s movement. In an era where there was a glass ceiling you had thousands of talented well educated women teaching in public schools because they had no better options.
I have always thought that Hilary Clinton, certainly a very talented woman, reminded me of a third grade teacher. So what would I rather suffer, Hilary as my third grade teacher or Hilary as the leader in my country?

Garnel Ironheart said...

That's like asking: would I like my scrotum ripped off with pliers or an industrial vice?

I can hear the argument about the women's movement but I don't think that's all it is. There really is a movement away from teaching kids the basics and instead just babysitting them and ensuring they pick up some politically correct values along the way.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Um, I'll not relate to Dr. Ironheart's rather brutal question in the comment above...

I have commented before in other places (came up on BeyondBT a few times) that parents should not in any way abrogate or abdicate their responsitbility to an institution or individual; yeshiva or rav. The Torah's commandment is on the parents (father specifically, but immaterial here) to educate their children. If, for whatever reason, they choose to use a proxy, they are still responsible for the outcome.

What's more, IF I understand our sages correctly, all the times they discuss a relationship with one's rav that is referring to a fairly adult relationship. Most children, even if receiving some formal instruction from a hired teacher (not necessarily a rav) were living and working alongside their families. That is where they spent most of their time - not in school 6 or more hours a day. The parents and neighborhood taught the child derech eretz and basic Torah living and application. A relationship with a rav muvhak, something we sadly don't see much at all today, began most often when one was old enough to begin shifting one's focus - typically adolescence or older. And many people never had such a rav at all.

In practical contemporary terms, parents should choose a school that is close to their values. If such a place is not locally available, then they still must respectfully insist on teaching their child their perspective and values in Torah, even if they differ at times with the classroom teacher.

I think part of the problem is that many working parents feel inferior to the classroom rav or the yeshivah. This is simply wrong. If anything the primary mitzvah devolves upon the parents, and the hired teachers are adjuncts acting at the parents' behest. The teachers should be answerable to the parents, and not this sick reality we see in some places where the schools are testing the parents and selecting which families are good enough. I believe selectivity has some place in higher learning of all sorts; but not at the community level. The inferiority complex that many parents have relative to the schools is part of the problem we need to address.