The "Blue Model" and Torah Jewry
Walter Russell Mead describes, in his latest essay on the decline of the blue social model, how thirty years ago he viewed the modern welfare state as the summit of human achievement. Today, he rejoices that the blue model has proven itself to be economically unsustainable on the grounds that it has exacted too high a price in human potential.
In 19th century, largely rural America, he argues, people saw themselves primarily in terms of their function as producers. In 20th century America, the "emphasis [is] on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life." The result, in Mead's judgment, is a society of "people rich in stuff but poor in soul – . . . a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement."
Like most of us, Mead has no great desire to hitch up his mule and go plow the back forty. But he cannot escape the fact that a harder life produced more serious, thoughtful people. On the family farm, children were part of the family economic unit from early childhood and took on greater responsibility as they grew older. Families did not just work together; they planned together. Farm kids sat with their parents as they figured out what crops to plant. When they bought shoes or other goods, they knew exactly how much work, planning and anxious calculation went into the money they brought to the store.
Today, by contrast, children are shielded from the great secret of adult life: how much time is spent thinking and worrying about money. Children are not expected or asked to contribute to the family economic unit in any way. The period of being shielded from any serious exposure to the world of work grows ever longer. Adolescence now officially extends to 26 under Obamacare. As a consequence, "young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about," writes Mead.
MEAD'S CRITIQUE of modern consumer society would seem to have little to do with Torah society. There are few couch potatoes among us (though Internet is a threat in this regard.) And while conspicuous consumption is not unknown, mastery of Torah and chesed activities are more admired than a lavish Pesach vacation or expertise in expensive wines.
But along with the blessings of modern affluence – including the ability to provide a long-term Torah education to our children -- there is room to ask whether the hardships of the not so distant past did not bring forth more serious Jews. One hundred years ago, every yeshiva student was known by the name of the town from which he came because it could be assumed that only one or two from that place would be found in yeshiva. Those who did not go to yeshiva were apprenticed out or working by 13 or so. Teenagers did not have the luxury of checking out for a few years: They would have starved.
Not that life in yeshiva was easy. When Rabbi Leib Gurwicz left for Mirrer Yeshiva, his father gave him his overcoat to keep him warm at night when sleeping in the beis medrash. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer's sister sent him sugar cubes to be put into his hot water on those days when there was no home at which to eat teg. (He refused to use the sugar without first receiving assurances that her husband had approved the expenditure.) Rabbi Schach would wear his pants inside out in Slabodka Yeshiva, when they became too worn on the outside.
The Kovno Kollel, the largest kollel in Lithuania, had around ten members at a time, and they were limited to five years support. After five years, the members were expected to take rabbinical position and also to do some fundraising for the Kollel. Today, every young couple expects five years of support as a matter of course.
That so many parents can make possible long-term learning is a blessing. And parents will continue to try to provide whatever they can, and sometimes more than they can, for their children. We have no desire to return to the days when yeshiva bochurim regularly went without food for a day, or had only one pair of clothes, or slept on wooden benches.
But no one would claim that the Torah produced today is greater than that of Europe. There is no reversing the iron law of life that the more one sacrifices for something the dearer it becomes in one's eyes. In our efforts to protect our children from all life's difficulties and fear of denying them anything they may want, we may often be doing them more harm than good.
A Golden Nugget on Parenting from Rav Sheinberg, zt"l
I did not see the following story about Rabbi Chaim Pincus Sheinberg, zt"l, in the vast outpouring of material published in the wake of his passing. I bring it not so much to establish the wisdom of a Torah giant, but because I think this particular bit of advice contains a crucial lesson for all contemporary parents.
An avreich in Torah Ore was offered the money to air-condition his apartment by a relative. He hesitated, however, about taking the offer out of a concern that by installing air-conditioning he might thereby accustom his children to a style of living that they would be hard-pressed to maintain in their subsequent lives. So he brought the quandary to his Rosh Yeshiva.
Rabbi Sheinberg did not hesitate. He told the avreich to install the air-conditioning. Nor did he leave the avreich in the dark about his reasoning. The nature of your children's friends has an enormous impact on their development, whether for the good or the bad, Rabbi Sheinberg explained. Thus it is crucial to know who those friends are. One easy way of being able to monitor your children's friends is assuring that your apartment is an attractive place to gather. The presence of air-conditioning will make it more likely that your children will invite friends to their home and more likely that the friends will be eager to come.
More Flexibility on Israel after the Elections?
President Obama's open-mic remark to outgoing Russian president Dmitri Medvedev – "I'll have more flexibility" after "my last [presumably victorious] election" – should concern supporters of Israel about what the President may have in mind once freed from further worries about Jewish voters and bundlers of donations. That is especially so if Iran succeeds in immunizing its nuclear program from Israeli attack, and Israel's last hope for preventing a nuclear Iran is the United States military.
Stanley Kurtz, who has done more to unravel the tangled skein of relationships and mentors of the young Barack Obama than anyone, suggests that the current love-bombing of the pro-Israel community by the administration owes more to electoral realities than deep conviction. Shortly after moving to Chicago's Hyde Park in 1992, Obama struck up a friendship with former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, then a professor at the University of Chicago, and today the appropriately named Edward Said Professor at Columbia. Khalidi was present at the home of former Weatherman bombers Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn to help Obama kick off his first political campaign in 1995.
Later Khalidi would found the Arab American Action Network (AAAN). Barack Obama and his wife Michelle sat next to Barack's one-time Columbia professor, Edward Said, at dinner prior to Said's 1998 speech at an AAAN gathering in Hyde Park. Said focused on comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, and called for a campaign to stigmatize Israel as an apartheid state. In 2000, Khalidi held a fundraiser for Obama's unsuccessful congressional campaign.
Ali Abunimeh, the vice-president of AAAN, relates how Obama convinced him that night that he was "critical of U.S. bias toward Israel . . . [and] supportive of U.S. pressure on Israel." Later Abunimeh would say, "These were the kind of statements I'd never heard from a U.S. politician who seemed like he was going somewhere. . . . " The same Abunimah wrote a May 2000 New York Times op-ed questioning whether Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and urging readers to be "deeply skeptical" of State Department warnings about Osama bin Laden.
In 2001-2002, the Woods Foundation, headed by wealthy Ayers, and with Obama on the board, channeled $75,000 to AAAN. Khalidi would later credit Ayers with convincing him to write Resurrecting Empire, the central theme of which is that the problems of the Middle East derive from America's failure to pressure Israel to resolve the Palestinian question. At a dinner party on the occasion of Khalidi's departure for Columbia in 2003 (a video of which the Los Angeles Times still refuses to release), Obama famously thanked Khalidi for revealing "my many blindspots and my biases" in many talks over the years.
According to Abunimeh, Obama apologized during his 2004 campaign for not speaking more about Palestine and expressing his hope of being "more up front" after the election.
On the question of whether Obama's early friendships and associations reveal his true leanings, Kurtz notes, "Decades of intimate alliances . . . are a great deal harder to fake than a few years of speeches at AIPAC conferences."