Shortchanging Our Children
Elul is a month devoted to deepening our connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Ultimately, that process must take place on the individual level. But, as the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Yisrael Salanter each recognized, in response to spiritual crises in their times, it also has a communal aspect.
A short book by veteran mechanech Rabbi Dovid Sapirman, A Mechanech’s Guide to Why and How to Teach Emunah deals with one such contemporary communal aspect. Published by Torah Umesorah, the booklet carries the haskomos of two of North America’s leading poskim, Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu Miller and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Loewy.
Rabbi Sapirman begins with a startling statement: “Emunah is not usually included in the curriculum of our educational system. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs rarely address the thirteen ikarim (principles of faith), and most students don’t even know what they are.”
These subjects are not taught, he asserts, because it is assumed, wrongly, that our children have somehow absorbed emunah by osmosis, as a consequence of being raised in “homes permeated with emunah, trained in Torah institutions, and immersed in a frum atmosphere.”
The result is that our children “accept the doctrines of emunah superficially, because this is all that they know.” But they have not internalized those doctrines and made them their own. “A large percentage of our youth are religious only because they were brought up that way, and they believe only because that is what religious people do,” writes Rabbi Sapirman.
To the extent that our children lack firm convictions in the basics of our faith – Hashem’s existence; Divine Providence, the truth of every word of Torah – they are handicapped. Even if they sail along perfectly comfortable as frum Jews – we are denying them the excitement of an intense relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
The effects of the absence of a deep connection may only manifest themselves later in life. The much discussed phenomenon of “adults-at-risk,” generally results not from any particular trauma, but from waking up one day in mid-life and suddenly discovering that one has no idea of why one is doing the things that one has been doing all one’s life. Rabbi Sapirman describes speaking to many people of various ages who are tormented by fundamental emunah and hashkafah questions that could and should have been answered shortly after the age of bar mitzvah.
If our children have not internalized the fundamentals of emunah, they are vulnerable to the myriad temptations with which they are bombarded. The average bochur in his late teens, for instance, says he believes, “but truthfully he neither believes nor disbelieves. He is simply moving along the conveyor belt that leads him from cradle to kollel.” While he may continue on the belt indefinitely, “woe to him . . . if he is every confronted with fundamental questions. . . . Woe to him, too, if [he is] ever faced with a serious nisayon, like the temptation for something immoral or dishonest.” Confronted with temptation, the simplest path is to succumb and console oneself that he doesn’t really believe – especially if, in fact, such belief as one professes is not the result of any serious reflection.
The accuracy of Rabbi Sapirman’s analysis was recently confirmed by a maggid shiur in one of the major yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael. We were discussing a recent controversy concerning the impact of of learning in Eretz Yisrael on American bochurim. He stressed that the negative consequences of the freedom afforded many bochurim in Eretz Yisrael is almost always a reflection of their weak grounding in the basics of emunah and hashkafah. They have heard many shmuessen on ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah learning), he told me, but have only a very hazy knowledge of the principles of our faith.
As they grow older, many students feel that they are actively discouraged from asking questions, and fear that they will be labeled apikorsim (heretics) if they do. That perception, writes Rabbi Sapirman, is unfortunately often correct. He devotes much of his book to refuting various justifications for this defensive attitude on the part of teachers and principals.
That defensive attitude exacts a great toll. An angry response to a student’s question leaves the particular student at whom it is directed suspicious that the rebbe or mechaneches does not really have an answer, perhaps even that there is no answer. And it raises similar suspicions in those who did not ask as well.
There is no justification for rejecting questions just because the one asking is no longer a child. Certain questions only arise with increased intellectual sophistication, and sometimes answers that were satisfactory for one age are no longer satisfactory for older students. As the great mashgiach of our generation Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe used to say, “There is no such thing as a heretical question, only a heretical answer.”
Even the classic expression of Jewish faith given by our ancestors at Sinai – na’aseh ve’nishmah (we will do and we will understand) – only came after Hashem had revealed Himself, His Divine Providence, and the truth of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy to them through the awesome miracles in Egypt. Our children have not witnessed those miracles, and it is unfair to expect such affirmations from them without having given them the means to absorb the lessons of Egypt.
Any question that will be asked has already been discussed in one of the classic Jewish texts. If the greatest Torah thinkers thought it necessary to respond to these issues, why should they be considered beyond the pale? (Just knowing that the questions have been considered worthy of response by the greatest Jewish thinkers, the Steipoler Gaon writes, is often an important element in strengthening the questioner’s faith.)
Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz taught in Torah Vodaath all the classical works dealing with the basic issues of belief, including The Kuzari, Chovos Halevavos, Sha’arei Teshuva, and the major works of the Ramchal. He knew, following Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, that the only way to defeat negative forces is with a more powerful positive force.
The good news, according to Rabbi Sapirman, is that the vast majority of our young people expect to be frum all their lives and are eager, even desperate, to believe. If we fail to provide them the tools to do so at a deep level, we are seriously shortchanging them.
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 4 September 2009