Making the Torah Real
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 12, 2009
Two students in one of Jerusalem's high school seminaries came to interview me last week for a documentary about how to internalize one's Torah studies. I was impressed both the seminary's sponsorship of such creative projects, and even more so by the ability of these young women to zero in so sharply on the central challenge that faces every believing Jew.
The task of integrating one's Torah learning into one's life challenges every one of us – each on his level. For no one, however, is it achieved automatically or without effort. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used to give an example of how easy it is to create a chasm between one's Talmudic studies and "real life."
He described a yeshiva that is currently studying the laws of damages in Bava Kamma. One of the principles discussed by the Gemara is "adam muad l'olam – a man is responsible for the damages he causes. One day bein hasedarim, one of the boys knocks over his roommate's alarm clock, which crashes to the floor and breaks. The one who broke the alarm clock and the owner approach their rebbe to find out what the din is. The former protests that he did not intend to knock over the clock – it was an accident.
Lack of intention does not happen to be an exception to the principle of adam muad l'olam, and if the question had been posed on a Gemara test, the boy now pleading his innocence on that basis would likely have answered correctly. But when it comes to his own life, the Talmudic principles fly out the window and are forgotten. Talmud and life become two separate realms.
The Chasam Sofer was once asked how he could pasken very complicated shaylos so quickly. He responded that when he learned a Gemara, he first crystallized the principles that emerged from his learning, and then he tried to imagine all the different circumstances to which those principles might apply. Thus when a case involving those principles later arose before the Chasam Sofer, he found that he had usually thought about just such situation previously and how the principles would apply. Unfortunately, few of us learn like the Chasam Sofer in this respect.
Nor is the problem of integrating principles confined to young yeshiva bochurim. I can personally think of at least three cases of machlokes, involving some of the leading institutions in the Torah world, in which the dispute resolution mechanisms given us by the Torah have either failed or never been tried. I know virtually nothing about any of these disputes, and have no opinion one way or the other about the rights and wrongs. But I am convinced that all the parties involved could cite a wealth of sources about the importance of resolving disputes via a beis din, as opposed to a secular court or any other tactics. When that does not happen, the problem is, at least in part, a failure of integration of Torah principles when we are personally concerned.
I CONFESS to being an avid reader of many of the serials that run in these pages. For one thing, I appreciate fictional works both as sociological data and for their ability to explore some of the challenges of contemporary Torah life in a nuanced fashion. One enormously popular serial has been justly praised for its realism, and the absolute ordinariness of the central character. I fully share that admiration for the author's ability to produce a fully believable main character.
What is interesting, however, is that the central character -- presumably the product of a Bais Yaakov education -- has never had, throughout all the ups and downs of her relationship with her husband, a single thought that related to Hashem or any aspect of the Torah she learned. I mention this not as a criticism, but as a compliment to the author for having subtly alerted us to a problem in our own lives.
My recent piece on the traps of the imagination for yeshiva students who find themselves highly sought after in shidduchim elicited a similar observation. After it was posted on a website where Orthodox writers address contemporary issues from a Torah standpoint, one Reform reader commented that the piece was a searing indictment of the Orthodox community. That comment, I think, is a bit overblown. It would only be valid if one imagines that all Torah Jews are ethereal beings, unafflicted by any of the common failings of mankind. No frum Jew subscribes to that illusion.
Nevertheless when so many young men seem confused between the qualities that make for a fun date and those upon which a successful marriage is built, when one of their first questions is rarely, "What kind of mother will she make?" there is room for concern. Middos and yiras Shomayim are the qualities most emphasized by the gedolim in their discussions of what to look for in a shidduch. To the extent they are less emphasized by young men in shidduchim, we again have a problem of integrating Torah teachings into our lives.
The entire mussar movement sought to provide the tools to take that which we know theoretically and make it part of our basic hard-drive. As the author of Mesilas Yesharim states in his introduction, his purpose is not to teach his readers anything new but rather to remind them of what they already know. In short, mussar is supposed to make us think.
In that respect, I pointed out to my young interviewers, ba'alei teshuva might have a bit of an advantage. For every ba'al teshuva at least once in his or her life had to make a major decision requiring deep thought about the principles upon which they would base their lives. They could not just go with the flow of the society into which they were born.
The natural tendency of every one of us to go with the flow creates the risk that our life choices will be determined more by what the neighbors do or will say than by the Torah that we learn.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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