The Emptiness is Total
Steve Lipman describes the phenomenon of teens educated in modern Orthodox institutions texting one another on Shabbos in the June 24 Jewish Week. So widespread is the trend that it even has its own nomenclature: "half Shabbos."
Lipman writes of a recent Shabbaton in which 14 of the 17 teenagers present were texting -- most quite openly -- on Shabbos. In a follow-up letter to the Jewish Week, Dr. Scott Goldberg and Dr. David Pelcowitz contest the magnitude of the phenomenon, but not its existence, based on their survey of 1200 teenagers in modern Orthodox institutions. They put the percentage texting on Shabbos at 17.7%, with another 15.5% surfing the internet, and 13.5% using their cellphones.
Even the latter numbers should provoke us to rend our garments. Though Lipman's article dealt with the products of a modern Orthodox education, it would be a mistake for any Orthodox population to imagine itself immune. Worse, those engaged in the behaviors described represent only the tip of the iceberg of those who feel little connection to the fundamentals of Jewish belief – even if their alienation has not yet been expressed in action. Lipman does not describe the teenagers in question as being particularly rebellious or angry -- just bored.
To state the obvious, one cannot send one's friends "Gd Shbs" messages on Shabbos if one believes in a G-d Who sees everything that we do and Who commands us to "guard and remember" the Shabbos. A century ago, Jews cried as they went to work on Shabbos because they feared that their families would starve otherwise. Today, these youngsters transgress Shabbos restrictions casually, without even the lure of any tangible pleasure.
"I was just so bored. I had nothing to do," they excuse themselves. I think it is safe to assume that we are not talking about teenagers who have finished Shas, or TaNaCh, or even the works of the Ramchal, and are stringent not to read secular literature on Shabbos.
Sadly, they have either not been told -- or at least not convinced -- of one of the greatest cures for boredom known to man: The idea that each moment we have the potential to bring G-d's blessings to the world through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Each of us has some unique mission, and that is true whether one is the best student in Talmud or not. Kids who view each moment of time as a precious opportunity – and not as something to be killed – need never be bored. Every neighborhood has those in need – sick or elderly or just lonely – who would delight in a visit from a lively teenager. The best way to convince our children of this point is to live our own lives with energy and enthusiasm.
FRANKLY, EVEN WERE I A SECULAR PARENT, I would tear my hair out, if a child told me that he or she could not go 25 hours without SMSing inane messages to his or her friends. "I'm addicted," they say. Can there be a greater confession of total inner emptiness than these teenagers terror of being alone for a moment to contemplate, or their inability to create a personal identity apart from the approval of their friends.
More than fifty years ago, Harvard sociologist David Riesman worried that Americans were becoming too outer-directed. Such values as they possessed were almost exclusively those of their social group, not internally developed. Conformity to social norms, rather than any firm sense of right and wrong, guided their behavior. Today's teenagers represent the culmination of those social trends run rampant.
Lipman concludes his article with a quote from one of the few teenagers at the Shabbaton not sending messages: "It's a waste of energy to argue with the kids." I suppose she means that teenagers are much more influenced by their peers than anything that their parents or teachers tell them. That is largely true, as any survivor of parenting teenagers knows. On a recent speaking tour in South Africa, one of the most frequently asked questions (albeit in numerous variants) was: How can I convince my teenager to do without a Blackberry if all his or her friends have one? Or how can I keep my teenager from watching movies, if his or her friends have hundreds of them loaded into some hand-held device?
If the question is being asked for the first time in the teenage years, there is no easy answer. Providing a teenager with the strength of character to resist the siren call of friends is a task that must start long before bar or bat mitzvah age. Above all, it means instilling in our children a strong sense of right and wrong. I will never forget the horror on my mother's face when she found me, age five, with some candies that she had not paid for after exiting a local delicatessen, or how she yanked me out of the car and marched me back across the street to pay for them. That incident took place well over fifty years ago, and is still fresh in my mind. In that particular case, I was innocent – my mother had not heard me tell her that I was taking the candies and she should pay for them -- but her revulsion at the thought of stealing left its mark nonetheless.
Parents should talk often about right and wrong, and share with their children the temptations they face and how they overcome them. Above all, children must see their parents' religious behavior as dictated by a desire to live in accord with Hashem's will and not as something determined by "what the neighbors will say." If it is only the latter, their teenage children will justifiably ask, "Why shouldn't I be influenced by my friends, when your own religious behavior is primarily a function of social convention?" "Why do you expect more of me than of yourselves?"
That's last question is one no parent will ever be able to answer. If we leave ourselves vulnerable to being asked, we can be sure that our children will do so in their own minds, even if they avoid addressing us directly.
The proposed San Franciscon municipal ban on circumcision has focused attention on the most ancient of Jewish rituals. Australian actor Russell Crowe was one of the latest to weigh-in. Asked by Jewish friends what he thought of their decision to have a bris for their son, he replied via Twitter: "Who are you to correct nature? Babies are born perfect."
Crowe pretty much summarized the position of the Seleucid Greeks who banned bris milah at the time of the Chanukah miracle. The Greeks worshipped nature, including the human body. They studied nature to derive its rules of symmetry, which they attempted to embody in their art.
What they lacked was any sense of nature as raw materials to be transformed by man in partnership with Hashem. Thus the Jews insisted that physical perfection is only achieved through a creative, positive alteration of the natural body. Only after his bris does the Torah refer to Avraham Avinu as "tam" – complete or perfect.
Rather than viewing nature as a static, self-contained system, the Jews insisted that everything in the created world was brought into being only in order to relate it back to the Creator. In the process, nature itself is altered. As Chazal say, "There is no mitzvah in the Torah that does not contain the power of techiyas hameisim (revivification the dead) -- i.e., the transformation of nature.
The change of the newborn male child from his "natural" state is an act of entering into a covenant with Hashem. A divine covenant, is always effected by an act of cutting – in the case of bris milah, through an act of cutting from the infant male himself. That act of cutting expresses our sense of incompletion without joinder to the other party to the covenant -- Hashem.
Such a yearning for connection to G-d was beyond the Greeks, whose mythology portrayed the gods as subject to every human foible in spades. Those gods involvement in human affairs was capricious, at best, and more frequently malevolent; the best course for human beings was usually to avoid their attention.
How different from the Jewish view of a perfect G-d, Who out of His benevolence brought into existence the entire universe, as a complex, interrelated system awaiting Man to relate all its diverse parts back to the Creator.
That's what Russell Crowe, the modern day Greek, cannot understand.
Sarah Can Write; Why Can't We?
The last thing I ever expected to see in the left-leaning The New Republic was a piece praising Sarah Palin's intellectual attainments. But black linguist John McWhorter, admittedly often a contrarian voice, does that in a recent blog entry. Reading some of the tens of thousands of emails from her period as governor of Alaska, which leading news organizations like the New York Times have enlisted cadres of volunteers to pour over in the search for embarrassing revelations (while remaining steadfastly uninterested in the holes in President Obama's biography), McWhorter is impressed by Palin's "casually solid command of the language" – a command he credits to her early and avid reading. He praises her as one of those whose personal voice can be heard in the way she writes.
McWhorter's meditations on Palin's writing triggered one of my own. It is a tragedy that so many of our children lack the basic syntactical command to marshal the immense power of the written word to connect to others – to move them, to convince, to express one's deepest emotions, to join others in an intellectual journey as one's thinking on a particular topic develops. More on this another time.