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.
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!
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.
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.
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.