Monday, November 1, 2010

Looking for a remedy in all the wrong places

I would first like to issue a disclaimer stating that I usually don't read Mishpacha Magazine - the few encounters that I have had with the publication have given me sufficient reason to avoid reading it, despite buying it every week for my wife, l'kavod Shabbos Kodesh. I don't enjoy the subject matter they choose to feature, the writing style (or lack thereof), and the advertising (although that is not a complaint specifically against Mishpacha; these advertisements are featured in many publications). I do realize that I have a bias, but I have tried to ignore that several times when the cover has caught my eye (e.g. a few months ago, "Breslov Revisited" with Rav Weinberger and Rabbi Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute) with a subject that had tremendous potential and/or interest to me. I try to read such articles without prejudice and with an open mind.

That said, I found last week's cover story ("Hanging on by a Fringe") about outwardly frum teenagers struggling with serious hashkafic issues to be very disappointing.

While the cover blurb seemed very promising ("It's not about rebellion. It's about emptiness"), hinting that our mechanichim (educators) and Rabbis may finally be getting to the crux of the problem, the article itself ultimately seemed to present the same problems we have been dealing with - in a different form. Instead of an outward rebellion that manifested as dangerous behavior coupled with an external display in terms of appearance, we have kids who "dress the part" but are engaging in the same negligible activities as their "street" counterparts. When trying to determine the cause for such behavior, the interviewees quickly resorted to blaming external sources, including the same old villains: society, the Internet and modern technology that makes it more accessible, etc.

One of the anecdotes provided was about a yeshiva boy (a very good one, according to the article) in his late teens, preparing to go to the Holy Land for a year of learning. He "chanced" upon a neighbor's unprotected unfiltered (because his home naturally was protected with Pentagon level security) Wi-Fi connection, and happened on inappropriate images from websites of ill repute. These images led to a downward spiral that caused him to nearly shirk everything and have a serious spiritual setback.

No one is arguing the fact that the Internet can be an extremely dangerous place, and a filtering system and/or a buddy system like WebChaver is a prerequisite for safe Internet usage. However, to blame the Internet - effectively attributing the causes of our spiritual failings to it - is not only wrong, it increases our risk for more danger, because we are focusing on the wrong issues.

Moreover, some of the "professionals" correctly described the problematic element of indoctrinating kids through the educational system to carry out our religious duties by rote performance. This is obviously an issue, one that has been prevalent for quite some time. And although there is value in initiating children to the performance for the sake of getting them accustomed to it, that is a very basic level that needs to gradually be enhanced and deepened with explanations that suit their maturity to instill in them an appreciation. But by bombarding these kids with all sorts of proofs that illustrate the validity of the Torah is not the answer. Even if such tactics don't further confuse the kids, exacerbating the situation, this approach does not effectively address the real issue at hand, where the core of the problem lies. The intellectual rejection (or even ignorance) of Judaism and the tenets of faith is but a veneer that hides what is really deficient in our youth; no amount of dialectic will be enough to heal the gaping wound that is the essence of our spiritual atrophy, and ultimately it will not be able to staunch the flow.

In short, this article and many like them are only addressing the symptoms, and not the root cause.

It is my firm belief that many of our anxieties, including this problem, can be traced back to a severe lacking in recognizing God in each of our personal lives, and understanding the close relationship we have with Him.

Reb Shimshon Pincus OBM declared many years ago that we have "constructed a yiddishkeit devoid of HaShem", and I believe that this is in part what he was referring to. If each of us were able to feel God's presence in our lives - as a "living" "breathing" entity, as it were - many of our problems would be nonexistent. For all intents and purposes, we have relegated God to abstract, profound thinking, beyond the ken of the layman (it can be argued that this is the case even among the scholarly). Even the terms we use, such as "yira'at Shamayim" create a distance, a curtain between God and ourselves, so that we can comfortably discuss an idea (fear of Heaven) without really giving any thought to Who is in Heaven. This results in a serious emptiness,a God sized hole in our souls.

 If we truly appreciated God's presence in our lives, if we worked on feeling Him and His love, that would be a deterrent for many things, and not out of fear. If I am sensitive to God's feelings for me (so to speak), then the activities and things that create an adverse reaction in our relationship would be anathema to me. The first time the aforementioned teen stumbled on that dirty website, his initial impulse would be to fling away the offending device, because of the sensitivity to the precious nature of his personal relationship with God.

This is not limited to teenagers, either, and is another point that the article missed. As Reb Kalonymos Kalman writes in Chovat HaTalmidim, children base their actions on the adults in their lives, and gauge the suitability of their deeds according to the reactions of their elders. Additionally, children are especially adept at detecting insincerity and hypocrisy - and they learn from it. How else do you explain the people who wake up for vasikin, go to shiur without fail, and then commit the most heinous transgressions? If these people would but once ask themselves "And what does God have to say about this?" with real honesty, they would never step out of place. The numbness that the article should have discussed is present in all of us, at every age level, at every level of religiosity, without exception; it may very well be the avodat haYom for our generation to rekindle this feeling of closeness with God.

If you disagree, just look at the renaissance of Jewish literature concerning this topic that has gained an ever increasing popularity over the past few years. The Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh series, etc. all focus on this important foundation of Torah true Judaism: God loves you, and wants to be a part of your life. He cares for you, and takes care of you, and wants you to be like Him. We must increase our focus on this; if we do, I can almost guarantee that we won't need articles like this one anymore. But forget about all the peripheral issues, forget the proofs and the filters and all the other things that get rid of the symptoms while the body continues to weaken...


micha said...

I believe R' Feldman's point was that we need more role models -- rabbeim who inspire and (easier to find) older bachurim and avreikhim to look up to. His emphasis was in finding a geshmak in learning.

The thesis of the article could have been that building ever higher walls simply doesn't work. You just get kids who will keep the chitzoniyus and STILL not be shomerei shabbos. They stay within the communal walls, but gain nothing from it.

But it seems that the writer was too married to the "protect ourselves" way of dealing with crises.


Neil Harris said...

What the writer should have done, as I actually emailed Mishpacha, was to have listened to R Weinberger's Shabbos Shuva Drasha, specifically the last 12 minutes.

micha said...

From my father, the mashgiach at the kollel where we daven. (Okay, really he's the rav's chavrusah, "mashgiach" of a kollel of three.) He just told me this during my walk home from the bus this evening:

People daven like they're talking to someone on a cellphone, and they aren't sure if there is someone listening on the other end.

You talk, because that's what you're supposed to do, but there is no way it can hold your attention.