Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On Cultural Orthodoxy, Patience, & Meaning

R' Avi Shafran has a very good, thought-provoking post up at Cross-Currents discussing a more obvious phenomenon of today's Orthodox Jewry, the cultural Orthodox Jew:
That would be one who doesn’t limit his Jewish expression to gefilte fish and Chanukah but rather eats only foods graced with the best rabbinical supervision and drinks only Jewish-processed milk; who wears a black hat or fur one, and even a long coat; who prays with a quorum regularly and sends his children to yeshivot and may even attend Torah classes; but who does it all for much the same reason as his less Jewishly active counterparts: Because that’s what Jews—in this case, Orthodox Jews—do. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the Creator. It’s just that he doesn’t give Him much thought—even while living a seemingly intense Jewish life.
The entire piece is a worthy read, but is focused primarily toward its adult readership, asking them to transcend this state as best as possible.

What was not discussed, however, was what we as a community should be doing to create this sense of understanding and appreciation for what we are doing and why - and how to best educate our young children so they will have this sense of feeling and love for the purpose of what they are doing, giving them an anchor to hang on to as they move through life. (As an aside, I believe that not having this anchor and this cultural Orthodoxy is also what contributes to people so easily moving away from Orthodoxy should life move them a bit away culturally from the core part of the community. With nothing substantial for them to appreciate, and no culture, why stay?)

This line of thought brought to mind the recent postings of Yair at Adventures in Chinuch. He recently questioned the wisdom of some approaches in Jewish education, which are dedicated not to the ultimate chinuch of the individuals we are trying to educate, but instead to ease our frustrations with their lack of perfection to date, and stressed the importance of patience:
Suddenly, I had this epiphany: I should only be concerned with how my daughter will turn out in the future, not what she is doing now. So what if she is staying up a late and giving us a hard time? If she’s normally a good kid, then there's no reason to panic. Just think about the positive effects that will result from us showing her patience and understanding instead of discipline.

The art of patience is crucial in both raising children and chinuch in schools. A major obstacle in the world of chinuch is how desperate many of us feel to have our students doing the right thing as soon as possible. We get upset when our students won't daven and we panic when they don't eat kosher. We worry when boys and girls touch. So we take it upon ourselves to band-aid these problems. We force our boys to wear tefillin, and tell our girls how to dress. We sermonize and preach at best, and punish and threaten at worst. So much time and energy is put in to strategies that lead to nowhere but frustration.
This is not to say that patience is suddenly going to be the antidote; he follows up with some great feedback from a pair of principals (Rabbi Dov Emerson of DRS and Rabbi Jonathan Kroll of S/A/R High-School) who share their thoughts on Teaching Meaningful Judaism. R' Emerson notes that we should be spending more time teaching about Jewish philosophy - even to younger students - while R' Kroll emphasizes the irreplaceable importance of positive role models. That last point is a key one: If parents are not particularly tuned in to what they are imparting to their kids, it is going to be very difficult to expect that the kids be overly interested in finding out more themselves.

That said, a point made well by my dear cousin R' Ally is apropos. He discusses loving one another, and makes a key point with a series of questions: (emphasis added)
You are a Charedi Jew. You see a man with a big knit yarmulke "packing heat" [a pistol bi'laz]. You know that his kids go to bnei akiva and that he has a special krias hatorah every Yom Ha'atzmaut. Do you love him?

You went to YU and believe in Torah Umadda. You see a Jew who you know believes that the ideal Jew doesn't go to work rather he learns his whole life in kollel. Do you love him?

Do different Jews really love each other or do we just talk about it?

Do the SAME type of Jews love necessarily love each other?
One of the saddest effects of the consistent infighting in the frum community (though I think it has been improving) has been this lack of love and respect... and how that in turn twists the views of the next generation. When as a people we face threats, our kids see above all else that there is something more than just the specific halachos and hashkafos that each of us follow. I know people who are still moved by the Washington, D.C. rally nearly a decade ago that had hundreds of thousands of Jews of all types there. When we are able to show love and respect for one another despite our differences, it demonstrates that the most important aspect of all is our core beliefs, not the differences in dress or minhag. This lesson is then passed on to our children, who gain a greater appreciation for these pillars of Judaism. When we do not show this love and respect, however, the reverse is what is taught and what is learned.

It is important to note that nothing is a cure-all; these are merely ideas to help us do a little better. As Yair concludes: (emphasis added)
No one can claim to really know what inspires one person and turns another person off. No one can claim the magic formula to mold disinterested Jewish souls into permanently committed Jews. Our ignorance of these matters must compel us to stop forcing religion down the throats of our young men and women. We can't get sidetracked by the fact that many of them are starting off way behind in the race to religious commitment. Like with teeth, we have to chalk up their current level of commitment to the learning curve which will improve, albeit not at the “ideal” rate. With the right amount of understanding, open dialogue and encouragement, we can do a lot more to bolster our future. Just give it some time.


  1. I live in Bergen County and they have been efforts to try to deal with yeshiva costs (a topic for another time I am sure) and there is an umbrella organization NNJKIDS which is trying deal with the issue with all institutions. On there list along with the 5 Orthodox Schools is Solomon Shechter, a conservative school. Would I send my kids there - no. But are they fostering acceptance of Judaism and identification of Torah - yes, and I think that they should be included in this effort. Unfortanatly, I think this is not always agreed with.

  2. As an aside, I believe that not having this anchor and this cultural Orthodoxy is also what contributes to people so easily moving away from Orthodoxy should life move them a bit away culturally from the core part of the community. With nothing substantial for them to appreciate, and no culture, why stay?

    I think having the option of cultural Orthodoxy is what allows so many to stay! I know plenty of Jews who would have left if their choice was believing in (or feeling) everything or leaving.

    You seem to be assuming that children can be "educated" into a "sense of understanding and appreciation for what we are doing and why." It could very well be that they aren't built that way. You might want to consider embracing "cultural" Orthodox Judaism.

  3. Aharon - On the public level I think the Jewish community typically does a better job of this; possibly primarily because of money.

    JA - I think you misunderstood me; I am not against cultural Orthodox Judaism, as it's a reality of life, and agreed that it does help allow many to stay. But the more that are dedicated to the core ideals the better, and the stronger the pull of even cultural Orthodoxy.