Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Baby, the Bathwater, and the Rest of Us

On Seinfeld, George’s father, the irascible Mr. Costanza, invents a holiday he calls Festivus, which, among other requirements, calls for an “airing of grievances.” As I travel through the Jewish Blogosphere, I often wonder if I am trapped in a Seinfeldian—er, make that a Costanzian—universe, where it is perpetually Festivus, a constant airing of grievances.

It was ever thus.

Jews have always aired their grievances; we—the Divinely named “stiff-necked people”—never were the grin-and-bear-it type. “We remember the fish we had in Egypt!” our forebears cried to Moses, days after being released from bondage. You’d think we’d have been happy to leave the fish behind with our captors. Indeed, the whole story of the wilderness is a litany of complaints. Even the unflappable Moses becomes unnerved.

Today’s complaints center around the perceived rigidity of Orthodox society, it’s foibles, it’s hypocrisies—both real and imagined. In truth, we have little to complain about. The bitter poverty that many of our ancestors experienced a century or two ago, deficiencies meant not mere discomfort, but starvation, are completely foreign to us. The anti-Semitism of yesteryear—not the vandalizing of tombstones, but the attack of living people: pogroms, rapes, beatings, murders—these are off our radar screen.

And yet.

The critical soul, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So we find what to complain about. Despite our collective wealth; despite our historically unparalleled educational system; despite the social security networks we have put in place; despite our acceptance socially, economically, and politically by the non-Jewish society in which we live; despite the triumph of the Torah lifestyle in twentieth-century America, after having been wholly dismissed and ridiculed at the start of that century—lamrot hakol, despite it all, we find reason to complain.

Not that all our objections are illegitimate, but we must keep them in perspective.

It pains me deeply to see many of today’s youth shucking off the mantle of Torah, a mantle for which their grandparents sacrificed flesh and bone, for reasons that are, for the most part, unreasonable. If you believe everything you read on the blogs, it seems that a lot of kids today are fed up with the stiffness of the yeshiva system and the lack of satisfactory answers to legitimately perplexing questions.

But what is more astonishing is the reaction of these self-proclaimed “searching” youth. Lacking a sound answer to a troubling question, many will ride the question off into the sunset. If the rabbi can’t answer my question satisfactorily, they reason, then the question must be stronger than the answer. Ergo, I have found my way out of the confines of this religious stranglehold. I’ve stumped the Torah!

Not quite.

In reality, this track is intellectually dishonest. If you believe the rabbi to be the supreme know-it-all, the voice of Torah, and the interpreter of all its mysteries, then, by definition, his answer represents the complete, authentic Torah response. And if that is the case, like it or not, you must accept it as such.

If, on the other hand, you suspect that the rabbi is mistaken, or not fully knowledgeable in the matter, or lacking the means to understanding where you are coming from—then you admit that the Torah remains perfect and pristine, and does indeed possess your answer. It’s just that the rabbi does not. In this case—and 99 percent of the time, the underlying feeling of most youth is that it’s the rabbi who falls short—then the proper response is to toss out the rabbi, not the Torah.

In fact, such disappointment ought to stimulate a higher respect for, and a stronger commitment to, the Torah—as if to say: “Rabbi, your answer is shallow; it’s unreasonable. Surely, the holy, perfect Torah cannot be adequately represented by your inadequate analysis!”

And yet, that’s not the response. We toss out the Torah alongside the rabbi—the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Why is this? Again, it is the warped, intellectual dishonesty of the yeitzer hara, the product of an outsized desire to let oneself off the hook.

For some reason this is not what happens in the business world. Every year, thousands of businesses fail. Statistics show that four out of every five start-up businesses will not succeed. And yet, every year people take the plunge—they start new businesses. They take an idea, invest time and money, even go into debt, just to give it a try. And some people do this many times over. They never give up.

Why?

Because they believe in capitalism. They believe that they can become rich. Their business may have failed, but their faith in business never fails. Not once have I witnessed a failed businessman become a communist!

The verse in Mishlei tells us, “Im tevakshena kakesef, vechamatmonim techapsenah—If you seek it like silver, and like hidden treasure you search for it, then you will understand fear of G-d and find knowledge of the L-rd." If our quest for the ultimate jewel of Torah is unwavering, we wouldn’t let poor responses get in the way of our questions; we wouldn’t let poor teachers absolve our obligation to find the truth; we wouldn’t allow our baser desires to mask themselves as intellectual rigor.

No.

We would, instead, search for and seek out satisfactory answers; we would pursue and promote rabbis who understood us at our own level; we would dig and dig in the minefield of Torah, knowing that all is contained therein, and carve for ourselves a unique niche in the bedrock of Sinai.

28 Comments:

Blogger thekvetcher said...

all joking aside as we didn' really hit it off so well earlier. such are the circumstances of life. please translate for us the meaning of Lulie demastifina . excuse the spelling all the best

Tue May 31, 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

no worries, kvetch...

Lulei demistafina means "Were I not afraid." It's a phrase used by many of the Biblical, Talmudic and halachic commentators when they want to say something controversial. They say, "If I were not afraid, I would say..." and then they say it. Its a signal of humility, as if to say, who am I to propose such an original idea.
But then they go ahead and say it.

Tue May 31, 08:28:00 PM  
Blogger thekvetcher said...

now that makes to of us who are not afraid to say what we want.
i just like to mess with the frummies. its all because of yeshiva. check out my latest.

Tue May 31, 08:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mirty said...

Lulei Demistafina, you have your own blog! About time I guess.

No matter what wonderful things we have in life, we are living in a "gilded cage" if our souls are not free. You say, seek and search. I agree. But why limit that search to Orthodoxy?

Tue May 31, 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Sorry, the Festivus reference caught my eye. I am ready for the feats of strength.

Wed Jun 01, 02:48:00 AM  
Blogger brianna said...

Hmm, is this is in response to something? I wonder.

CJ, there's a difference between the kids who ask questions and find the answers bit by bit in sefarim and from people they respect and kids who just throw off the yoke of Torah because they have questions that aren't being answered.

Most kids who just want to be free don't bother searching for the answer. They just go do whatever they want. But there's a group in middle that is neither here nor there. The kids who don't give up on their search will find the truth. The ones who don't bother will go 'off the derech'. The ones whose future lies in the hands of the adults around them are the ones you have to worry about. If they are helped in the right direction, guided towards Torah and it's infinite wisdom they'll stay frum. If not, they'll be lost to us.

Thought I'd mention that.

Wed Jun 01, 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

Yes, Bri! I would be remiss if I did not make public mention that it was a recent post of yours that put my creative wheels in motion.

I think you are absolutely correct that many kids "don't bother"; it's too convenient to just give it up, provided their kesher to Torah isn't very strong to begin with. Otherwise, their neshamos will tug at them to find answers.

The argument I wanted to stress in my post is that to simply give up based on QUESTIONS rather than ANSWERS is intellectual and emotional laziness, not critical thinking. You can blame the yeshiva, but you have to blame yourself as well.

Mirty, I seek truth wherever it is to be found--and it is found in Torah. I don't subscribe to a concept called "Orthodoxy." I think you of all people need to bury that word and its concomitant connotations.

Jack, BRING IT ON!!!

Wed Jun 01, 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Mirty said...

OK, just one more question. Do you really look like George Clooney, Mr. Cloo?

Wed Jun 01, 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

...so they tell me.

Wed Jun 01, 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

CJ,

I disagree with your Moshol to capitalism. Many of these kids amanate from a Da'as Torah society, where the Rabbi is the be all and end all of Torah, who then starts spouting crap about Goyim, Reform Jews, Slifkin, people who ask too many questions, girl who don't wear the right coloured skirts, etc etc. Youth notice hypocrisy and bullcrap pretty quickly. So if not ALL goyim are shetufey zimah etc, who says anything else He (meaning the godlike-Rabbi figure) said is true. It takes guts and luck to have the ability and opportunity to differentiate between Halachah and Minhag, Torah and plain old bigotry.

(Revenge is a dish .... !)

TRK

Wed Jun 01, 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

TRK,

Even if what you say is true, which has not been my experience, once again you're left with the connundrum: If my Rabbi's word is the Word of G-d then I must obey; if not, then I must seek out the Word of G-d or another Rabbi. Mema nefshach!

btw, I find it fascinating that the only people who deify Daas Torah are those who are busy criticizing the deification.

Wed Jun 01, 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Jack, BRING IT ON!!!

I once read a Gemara that said you shoud never embarrass a man who has a blog. This leaves me with a dilemma because in the Feats of Strenght I am undefeated. ;)

Wed Jun 01, 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

George,

"btw, I find it fascinating that the only people who deify Daas Torah are those who are busy criticizing the deification" - care to explain?

Thu Jun 02, 01:51:00 AM  
Blogger Shopaholic said...

Please, please can someone explain to me whats "lulei demistafina"???
Thanks

Thu Jun 02, 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

It seems we're going to have to do this at least once per post, so here goes:

Lulei demistafina means "Were I not afraid." It's a phrase used by many of the Biblical, Talmudic and halachic commentators when they want to say something controversial. They say, "If I were not afraid, I would say..." and then they say it. Its a signal of humility, as if to say, who am I to propose such an original idea.

Thu Jun 02, 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger AnotherNYJew said...

Either put the definition in your profile, or in the sidebar on the left (I can show you how) and then you can just tell people to "look to the left." Do you use it in conversation as much as you do in comments? Keep up the good work.

Thu Jun 02, 10:50:00 PM  
Blogger AnotherNYJew said...

Although saying "Look to the left" may send them to DovBear ...

Thu Jun 02, 10:51:00 PM  
Blogger Veev said...

I have to tell you, I really enjoyed your posts. You are right about the kids just throwing it all away in the name of an inexperienced Rebbe, or not enough counselors to go around.

Also, your writing is superb. Are you, by chance, a professional as my Dear One is?

Thu Jun 02, 11:08:00 PM  
Blogger Alisha said...

I agree with all you've said on a theoretical level, but I think you're missing one main point that The Rabbi's Kid hit on peripherally. That is, you're talking about spiritual choices made by kids. Adolescents. People who may or may not have yet reached emotional and intellectal maturity, whatever that vague state is. That is why the true burden of keeping youth "on the derech" belongs to parents, educators, communal leaders, etc. Such adults have a responsibility, not necessarily to know all the answers, but to know the appropriate way of responding to the the questions and directing them to wherever the answers can be found. And if they are approached by a kid who is searching, who possibly has a different hashkafa than their own, this means having the humility to admit that their specific interpretations are not the only one within the sphere of Torah. I believe that honesty and mutual respect among adults -- in a word, menschlechkeit -- is most essential to retaining the allegiance of the next generation. People are much more likely to value a religion if those who represent it show themselves worthy of respect.

Thu Jun 02, 11:09:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

I gotta tell you, that DovBear has quite a following.

Thu Jun 02, 11:27:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

Alisha, Excellent point. I'm not necessarily out to "blame" the kids. Certainly the parents and educators must own up to the responsibility. So in a way my comments were directed at the kids after theyve grown up a bit.

Having said that I would also argue that many an 18-yr old, and even a 16-yr-old can think mature thoughts. I know I did. So I think they can take the post too and use it positively.

Thu Jun 02, 11:40:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

veev,

Many thanks for the compliments.

Who is your "dear one"?

Thu Jun 02, 11:41:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

AnotherNYJew,

Thanks for your feedback and assistance.

Fri Jun 03, 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger EN said...

Nice post. You bring up some very nice points.

Fri Jun 03, 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger Veev said...

Sorry, Cloo. Thought I linked to you from AirTime's blog. He would be my DearOne.

Sun Jun 05, 10:57:00 PM  
Blogger ptjew said...

Cloo "Lulei demistafina" This post doesn't make much sense to me.

Not once have I witnessed a failed businessman become a communist!

Now that's funny.

I too am on a quest for the answer. Cloo maybe you know why was Rebeca 3 years old when she married Isac?

Tue Jun 07, 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger rockofgalilee said...

cloo,

you're missing the middle stage. (From a software developers perspective) The front end of Judaism is the rabbi. The backend is the Torah. If the front end doesn't work that brings about a lack of confidence in the entire application.

While there might be (and we know there is) a very strong back end, if the application keeps crashing the users very rarely say lets keep the backend and get a new front end. They actually go searching for a replacement application.

rock.

Wed Jul 06, 06:06:00 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

I might be too late on this one but here goes:

2 points. Ine: It's not that Jews are complainers. Most people, by nature, find things to complain about. You cannot for today's jewish society for not understanding the previous generations' larger problems. Tey have not, as you mentioned, experienced such things. So to blame them for that is a little unfair.

Two: I do not disagree with your points. However, you own argument is not as simple as you make it. Take it and make is about Christianity: Either the Priest is all knowing and therefore we must accept his answer, or the Priest can be wrong but the New testament is still pure. Does your argument still hold water?

Anyway, your stuff is thought provoking. Nice blog.

Wed Jul 20, 10:29:00 PM  

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