Friday, February 29, 2008

Yeshiva Transformations into Frumkeit

This morning, a co-worker asked me about an article in the Wall Street Journal by Ben Harris entitled "Jewish Year Abroad" (cite: Attached below was my answer.

Dear Seth,

There are a few levels to understanding this article and what it speaks about.

Topic 1: Going to Israel (or any other yeshiva/rabbinical college) and coming back totally a different person, sometimes a better person, other times brainwashed.

Secular students who enter a yeshiva are highly influenced by those rabbis living the religious life, and they often want to emulate them. This brings a large responsibility on the part of the rabbis to teach them Judaism and to distinguish basic practice from the group's addition to Jewish practice (generally referred to customs (or "minhagim") which various groups add to beautify the observance of the commandments; often these customs have their roots in the mystical or kabbalistic traditions, but if misunderstood can lead to a deviance away from Judaism itself). The problem here is that the rabbis do not distinguish basic Jewish practice and observance of the laws with customs, which lead to individuals alienating those other Jewish observant persons around them with their strange ritual practices (e.g. holding a cup of wine from the bottom instead of the top, or overfilling a cup of wine to the point that it spills a bit -- these are customs which have much meaning, but are often misunderstood and are found to be offensive by those who are not aware of these traditions.)

There is also the idea of what is good and what is evil, and often a yeshiva student learns this, but the Rabbis do not teach them how to understand what that means and how to apply it to the world around them. For example, the secular world is often referred to as not recognizing the Creator, and the idea of separating oneself from the Creator or not doing the will of the Creator is called evil. However, this doesn't mean to live in a mountaintop and separate one's self from society. In fact, it has nothing to do with how a person is to act within society. A yeshiva student often understands this incorrectly and distances himself from society causing problems for himself and those around him. However, if he learned more, he would learn that it is a commandment to live within society and to have a job (called "derech eretz") and to live IN this world and IN society so that he will be able to do the commandments, much of which require one to be in society to perform them. Unfortunately, Rabbis forget to teach this and they don't realize that the students are taking everything they are saying literally and so the problem becomes that the Rabbis don't teach students how to use the information they learn.

Topic 2: Coming back from Yeshiva and changing their behavior (e.g. not kissing relatives of the opposite sex).
Often a yeshiva student returns from rabbinical school armed with the laws of Judaism, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, the general level of observance of the Jewish population (often Judaism is passed from generation to generation in today's world -- in the last 60 years -- without any yeshiva or formal religious education; this is a problem with modern times where parents send their children to public schools and to secular colleges and never send them to yeshiva, or at a minimum, not even to "hebrew school (e.g. Sunday school)" -- and so, these children of the former generation grew up without education and are lacking in their Jewish observance. Then, when their kids "rebel" and go to a yeshiva after high school or college, and when their kids become religious/observant on their own, this is often seen as an affront to the parents who believe they are doing enough, even though they are consistently breaking Jewish laws regularly because of their lack of religious education. Hence, they start screaming about "Jewish unity" and how "these religious people" are separating themselves from the community, etc. when in fact, it is the parents who are lacking in their basic Jewish observance.

My own experience:
This is the jist of it. But as you can see from my own life, my parents grew up secular and some time after college, I became observant and went to a yeshiva for around two years (meaning that I literally lived in a dorm at the Yeshiva and I spent my day, generally 6am until 10pm learning about Judaism and its customs.) Of course, I made a strong effort to not alienate any of my family while this process of becoming religious was happening, and that being said, I did step on a few people's toes, especially before I figured out the what was Jewish law versus what was custom versus what is practiced as a stringency, but is by no means required to be followed (a separate conversation that caused me much angst figuring out what was what). I always kissed my grandmother and my mother, but after yeshiva, not my aunt or my cousins because it is permissible to have physical (not sexual) contact with those of the opposite sex who are your immediate family including grandparents and grandkids, children under the age of maturity, but not those outside these individuals. Over time, you'll see that there are other observances which deviate slightly from the secular-normal (e.g. not working on the Sabbath, eating only certain kosher-certified foods, not being secluded/alone after hours with unmarried women, etc.) but most of them are not even noticeable to the person who is unaware of their existence.

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