Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Fundamental Jewish Value

The problem with any revolution or movement based on novel idea or single principle is that with time dedication to that position overshadows a commitment to the greater values that lead to its development.
How many mass movements have become the victim of success and single-mindedness?  How many revolutions ended with the victors becoming as tyranical as the dictator they replaced?
In the last 300 years two major movements came to dominate Ashkenazic Jewry - the Yeshivish philosophy of the Vilna Gaon, ztk"l and his primary student, Reb Chaim Volozhiner, ztk"l, and the Chasiddic ideology of the Baal Shem Tov, ztk"l.
The Misnagdim of the Yeshivish community believed in the importance of Torah learning. Closeness to God, as defined by Reb Chaim Volozhiner, came through intense learning of Torah Lishmah.  The Chassidim, on the other hand, sought out dveikus through ectasy (the emotion, not the drug), happiness and celebrating one's relationship with the Creator.
While there is a great validity to both approaches the limitations are quite evident in today's Orthodox community.  On the Yeshivish side the original learning of Torah Lishmah has been slowly corrupted into learning for the sake of avoiding the real world's obligations.  Look at the responses from the Yeshivish community when the perceived right to sit and learn on the State of Israel's shekel is challenged.
On the Chassidic side the strong emotional tendencies of the movement have changed from joy and celebration into anger and xenophobia.  Consider the violent outbursts from communities in response to challenges from the outside world or even just a woman in  a tank top who wandered into the wrong neighbourhood.
Yes, there are many adherents to both movements who remain committed to the original ideals of their respective founders but the public face of both groups has changed and not for the positive.  Like any mass movement, a particular value came to represent everything and the original reasons for that value have been forgotten.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, ztk"l, made attempts to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of the Yeshivah community and Chassidus through his philosophy and his writings.  A product of both worlds, he wrote ina way that was a synthesis of the best values of each.    But it is clear, a century or so later, that much of what he hoped for was lost on the masses.  Both the Yeshivish and the Chassidim have ignored him and the Religious Zionist community, for the most part, has concentrated more on his Zionist thinking than on the meta-issue of religious philosophy.
Perhaps it's time for another try.  I'm not suggesting I'm interested in starting a mass movement.  I'm no revolutionary and besides, I have a day job that pays really well.  But I do think it's time to suggest something and get people thinking about it.
Consider: Gratitude.
Over the millenia we have had great Jewish thinkers present many rationales for keeping the mitzvos.  We have had many ideas presented as to how to motivate the Jewish public and bring about achdus.  As our current miserable situation in golus proves, none of them have taken off.
Think about all the books on middos improvement from the Rishonim and Acharonim.  Consider all the sifrei mussar out there.  They were written by brilliant and pious men, they are logically presented and widely read but how many of them really had a mass impact?
I often listen to shiurim while I'm driving in the car and am struck with the disconnect older rebbeim have with their students.  A mature adult understands the value of Torah lishmah and appreciates the opportunity to learn in such a manner.  A 14 year old boy often doesn't.  This is understandable.  What's not understandable is the rebbe saying "I don't see why you're not as excited about this as I am!  What's wrong with you?  Why would you rather look out the window or play baseball than figure out the Ritv"a on this blatt?"  I wonder how many OTD's there are out there because of rebbeim who think that the best way to motivate a teenager or even a younger kid is to tell him there's something wrong if he doesn't find in-depth Gemara learning or davening an amazing and inspiring experience.
How then to motivate?  Again consider: gratitude.
One of the biggest causes of depression that I run across in my daily work is ingratitude.  Not that people are consciously being that way, mind you, but in our modern society it seems to be standard for many folks to always focus on what they don't have instead of what they do have.
I have one patient, for example, that suffers terribly from this.  She lives in a beautiful apartment, is financially secure, has a daughter married to a successful plumber and a handful of healthy, well-behaved grandchildren.  But if you met her you'd think she was living a life of misery... because of the arthritis in her knee.  Not both knees, just one but it's all she cares about.  Everything else in her life means nothing because her knee hurts.  She could just die!  Life's not worth living!  There's nothing good out there!
So again: gratitude.
You could tell a 14 year old boy who doesn't like getting up in the early morning to daven that there's something wrong with him.  You could shout at him that he's not motiovated or that he's going to be committing an aveirah by missing z'man krias shema
But perhaps another approach would work.  You could remind him of all that he has, like his family, his pesonal possessions, his health, his living in a peaceful society where the rule of law usually runs things and that the root cause, the ultimate reason for all this is the chesed of the Ribono shel Olam
When it comes to Torah study it could also be applied.  Imagine telling a young man that his reason to learn is because the Ribono shel Olam gives him so much and all He asks in return is for him to learn about Him and His works in the Torah and Talmud.  He's not learning Torah because he must, because he has no choice, because it's what everyone is doing, because of what the neighbours will say, but because he recognizes what He has done for him and it's only right to give a little back.
You can argue with someone about the importance of keeping kosher or Shabbos until you're blue in the face and it won't work.  Might the approach of reminding him that it's pretty much universally recognized that giving back to someone who has given you something is a positive trait have a better effect?
This also could go beyond such narrow interests.  Look at the surrounding Jewish community.  Too often our Orthodoxy builds walls between us and our non-observant brethren.  We see what divides us and miss all we have in common.  Yet it cannot be ignored that without them we would not exist.  What kind of amazing, growing and prosperous Chareidi would there be in Israel without the hard work of the secular Israeli taxpayers and soldiers?  What kind of Jewish community would exist in North America without the money and organizations run by the secular Jews here?  No, we don't have to agree with their definitions of Judaism but we can recognize that we have much in common with them and focus on that.
Imagine what would happen in Israeli society tomorrow if yeshivos were to start preaching to their students that they much acknowledge all the good Israel as a country and a society has done for them without harping on the bad.  What would that do for the average secular Jew's perception of Torah Judaism?  How would that change the inner nature and character of the Chareidi Jew?
What kind of changes would we see in an education system in which motivation to learn and pray is through wanting to thank God instead of living up to the expectations of others?  How would that enhance the individual's feeling of self and desire to be part of Torah society?
It's not as intense as Torah Lishmah and lacks the pizazz of dveikus but perhaps Hakaras HaTov as a fundamental philosophy is something we need to start thinking about.

4 comments:

Adam Zur said...

The Torah lishma thing has a real grace in my eyes. But eventually I noticed that the Litvaks consider the Torah as a parnasa and the charity they accept as their due for being members of the Uber Race. It has nothing to do with the idea of Torah lishma in which one is dedicated to Torah in such a way that he can’t work and therefore unwillingly accepts charity. I now see Lithuanian yeshivas in Israel as ways of scamming the State of Israel.

The Chasidut of the Baal Shem Tov has areal intensity and so does that of Rebbi Nachman. But again I noticed some difference between the teachings of these great sages and the horrific abuses of the lunatic messianic idolatrous cults that claim to be following in their footsteps.

And the basic approach to Torah I learned in my home was based on the Rambam and I think this is the sensible approach. I do not know why the Orthodox abandoned this approach but they did. after all you do not see many volumes of the Physics and Metaphysics of Aristotle in yeshiva [as the Rambam say in the More Nevuchim] . So they can't very well claim to be walking in the path of the Rambam.

ahg said...

I think it's a great message, but it might not be all that helpful for the teen going OTD.

Imagine telling a young man that his reason to learn is because the Ribono shel Olam gives him so much...

Just as a 14 year old boy may not find Gemara inspiring, so too, he does not feel the hand of God in the world the way someone with more life experience has. The virtue in giving back to the invisible source of all isn't easily recognized.

I think the reason we see frum children who leave the community today go to secularism, and not the more liberal, humanistic, branches of Judaism is not because they feel uninspired by mitzvot that are fundamentally adom L'makom, that only the Orthodox obsesses about, but because they have not been convinced that any of the teachings we hold dear are from God.

Once faith in Torah M'sinai, is lost, (and the reasons for that are too vast for a comment,) then there's little left to convince a teen that any ritual practice is desired by God in return.

Adam Zur said...



The idea of learning Torah Lishma as a prime ideal I found compelling. and the idea of building a society on this ideal I also found effective. I however saw something faulty in this. I am not exactly sure what it was at first but eventually the holes in this system became blatant. So there is a serious disconnection between my own wonderful experience at yeshiva and the flaws that have become apparent in recent years. I think the mildest of complaints i have is that the basic rabbis that follow this system are jerks. There is nothing to distinguish their moral level from the average Joe scum at the local bar. In fact the average drunk Joe in most cases will show a superior understanding of basic human decency than the greatest of all roshie yeshivas. However the level of moral decency of he average yeshiva man is highly superior to that of Hasidim. Most Chasidim show no more morality than the average school bully except given their human intelligence they can often use great cunning disguise their plans as Chabad does.

In spite of the greatness of the original Hasidim today chasidut has become a drug smuggling, child abusing, wife bashing idol cult.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

While there is clearly room for more discussion on the issue of how to practically transmit, apply and use the value of gratitude, the recognition of this value as most significant within Torah does need to be moved to the forefront for a focus on this value indeed could positively affect the Jewish world. While I find that people will run to give tzedakah or experience some form of spirituality, often asking one to recognize what they owe an other and to respond with gratitude is met with coldness. The sense of obligation to the other (or The Other) makes someone uncomfortably feel obligated and people don't like that. The fact is, though, that Judaism is actually built upon this idea -- the concept of hakeret hatov -- and there is good reason for going back to this fundamental Torah and Jewish value in turning our world around to the positive.

Now why did I specifically call it Jewish -- after all I already said Torah? Because, as someone pointed out to me, hakeret hatov is the fundamental mark of a descendent of Yehuda whose very name embodies gratitude. Is that not why Leah Imeinu named her fourth son Yehuda?

I am with Garnel. The answer may be to again bring the fundamental Torah/Jewish value of hakeret hatov back into the limelight.

Rabbi Ben Hecht