Getting Out to Go Up
Success breads its own challenges. And the phenomenal growth of Torah learning in our times is no exception. The Torah community has produced, and continues to produce, thousands of fine talmidei chachamim. Only a limited number of these scholars will find ready opportunities to give over their Torah knowledge to others, especially if they insist on living the major centers of Torah learning – Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in Eretz Yisrael and Lakewood in America. '
Some bochurim, even very fine ones, are affected at the beis medrash level, when they look around and see that there are many others as good or better in learning, and calculate that their chances of every finding a shtelle are very slight. For others the problem only starts after years in kollel when they begin to dry up inside from lack of opportunity to share their Torah learning with others and enter the category of those who learn in order to teach.
Many of the latter have the capabilities to make major contributions and there are communities which would be eager for what they have to offer. But they lack the initiative to leave the comfort of one of the great learning centers.
I've noticed over the years that one of the most prominent mashpi'im in Jerusalem almost always advises those who consult with him about whether to take a position abroad to do so, unless the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against success. I'm convinced that he does so not just because he believes it is every Jew's responsibility to spread Torah, but also because he thinks his talmidim will grow from having to take responsibility for the level of Torah in a particular place and not just being another face in the crowd of lomdei Torah.
On a recent trip abroad, I ran into the son of a well-known Jerusalem rosh yeshiva. Far from being depressed about living far away from his family, he told me that he was trying to convince one of his brothers to join him. The reason: "There's so much to do here." In Jerusalem he would have been one of thousands of budding Torah scholars, but in chutz l'aretz, even in a large Torah community, he was already, at a relatively young age, a maggid shiur for older teenagers and a rosh kollel.
On the same trip, I heard stories of how an old friend from Jerusalem had taken an established, but declining yeshiva high school and infused it with a bren in learning that no one had thought possible. This particular friend was already a successful teacher in Eretz Yisrael and had produced a number of important seforim, but he had never taken responsibility for an institution. I was amazed to hear that someone whom I had always known as easy-going had added an entirely new dimension to his personality with the assumption of responsibility. I could never have imagined him laying down the law to talmidim who showed up late to davening or decided that they needed a few days of skiing holiday in the middle of the zman. But he has.
He still wins over talmdim with his infectious enthusiasm, but as the head of the learning program, he quickly realized that without rules it is impossible to instill a proper appreciation of the chashivus of Torah learning. Though my friend's initial move abroad was on a trial basis, it was clear from the start that his impact was far too great to consider returning to Eretz Yisrael any time soon. He has not only transformed the beis medrash program in the school where he teaches, but had a major communal impact through his shiurim.
Another friend, now serving as a rosh yeshiva in the United States, tells me, "Baruch Hashem that HaKadosh Baruch Hu arranged it so that I was forced me to do what I always wanted to do." He felt he had the kochos hanefesh to shape young men in their late teens and early twenties at a crucial juncture in their lives and that there was a large audience for his unique combination of deep hashkafa and insights into personal growth. But if financial exigencies had not necessitated, he would never have had the courage to leave the comfortable environment of Jerusalem.
Of course, not everyone who ventures outside of the major Torah centers is blessed with such great accomplishments that they never have any second thoughts about their decision. Most of the above anecdotes are about individuals who were already recognized as talmidei chachamim, who then found an appropriate outlet to share their knowledge. But even they found that new responsibilities encouraged further growth.
There are legitimate reasons for hesitation before venturing out of the major Torah centers – e.g., concerns about the quality of the children's education; the lack of a large circle of like-minded families; the lifestyle amenities of large Torah communities. But many of these concerns have countervailing advantages. If the schools are weaker, fathers may spend much more time learning individually with their sons. Children in out-of-town communities are more likely to look at other Jews, regardless of their current level of observance, as fellow members of Klal Yisrael, and to learn how to interact with different types of Jews.
Where there are no schools comprised exclusively of children of kollel couples, parents will make a much greater effort to instill their children with a positive identity as Torah Jews, as opposed to just relying on them to pick up that identity by osmosis from the school or the neighborhood. One of my mentors once told me: "I raised half my children in Tel Aviv and half in Bnei Brak. And those raised in Tel Aviv came out much stronger." The former were forced to develop a positive identification, whereas the latter just learned to imitate what they saw around them.
Against the risks entailed in leaving the comfortable environment of a large Torah center must be weighed the risk of going through life without opportunities to give over Torah, without a feeling of accomplishment or of being in any way distinguished from thousands of other lomdei Torah.
For those weighing the comparative risks, perhaps there is something to be learned from Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov left Eretz Yisrael as part of the Divine plan, not as a punishment for his sins – the lens through which we most frequently view Galus. On one level, the stones that Yaakov placed around his head on the first night of his journey from Eretz Yisrael represent the many different places into which Jews will go into Exile. Ultimately, all the lessons learned from the challenges of those disparate places will be melded into one large matzeiva proclaiming the unity of Hashem.
At another level, the bedrock from which the stones come represents the strongest element in any place. In each and every place, there are elements that can provide us with a foundation and protect us from the wild animals – i.e., threats -- of that place. Just as Yaakov's full development required him to leave the safe confines of the beis medrash of Shem v'Ever, so too does realization of our life's mission often requires us to leave our comfort zone.
The irrational fear and loathing of believing Christians on the part of non-Orthodox Jews and their utter lack of reticence in expressing that loathing endangers Jews in America. The latest evidence: a screed attacking Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow by one Joshua Hammerman, an "egalitarian" Jewish clergyman and J Street Board member from Connecticut.
Tebow is the NFL player most vocal about his religious faith and most prone to expressing his gratitude to G-d for his on-field successes. Despite unimpressive individual statistics, Tebow has led his team to a succession of dramatic late fourth quarter comebacks, and even introduced a new verb into the lexicon – "Tebowing" – after the prayerful position he occasionally assumes at crucial junctures in the action.
Writing in the New York Federation-funded Jewish Week, Hammerman expressed his fears that the Broncos might win the Super Bowl. "If Tebow wins the Super Bowl," Hammerman suggested, "it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques . . . and indiscriminately banishing immigrants." There is not one shred of evidence connecting Tebow, in word or deed, to any of Hammerman's list of horrors. The article was out-and-out slander of Tebow based on nothing other than his evangelical faith.
Fox News exposed the Hammerman's attack on believing Christians to tens of millions of viewers, and subjected it to well-deserved criticism. Eventually, theJewish Week removed the piece from its website and Hammerman issued the usual mealy-mouthed apology – "if I have offended anybody, I'm sorry." But what astounds is the fact that Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt did not realize in advance how profoundly offensive Hammerman's piece would be to American Christians, including many of Israel's strongest supporters, or how the damage would be multiplied by the title "rabbi," which Hammerman has appropriated.
Before he finally apologized, Hammerman attempted to defend himself on the grounds that Tebow is associated with the Southern Baptists, who have spent millions of dollars on campaigns to "save" Jewish souls. (In an egalitarian aside, he admits he would also "have issues" with Orthodox Jews who expressed any concern about the state of his "soul.")
Needless to say, I'm not enthusiastic about Southern Baptist programs to "convert" the Jews. But if Hammerman and his fellow heterodox clergymen had done more to teach their congregants anything about Judaism – instead of conveying the message that religious faith is something to be sneered at – they would have nothing to fear from "conversion" campaigns.