Today They Know It All
Once, young Jews came to college to learn something
Tuesday, August 07, 2018
Project Inspire produced a moving video for Tishah B'Av on the career of Rabbi Meir Schuster, the legendary "Man at the Kosel," who was at the forefront of the modern baal teshuvah movement. Interviewee after interviewee describes Rabbi Schuster's initial tap on the shoulder followed by the questions, "Are you Jewish?" and "Would you like to hear a class in Jewish philosophy?" Actually, the second question, following confirmation of proper Jewish yichus, took many forms: "Would you like to attend a Shabbos meal?" "Would you like to meet a wise man?"
What is astounding is how many responded, "Why not?" with little or no persuasion on Rabbi Schuster's part. In a sense, they were vulnerable and knew they would have nothing to respond if he asked them (as did happen occasionally), "How could you not be interested in your own religion?"
After all, many were backpacking around the world. They might have spent months sleeping on a mat on the floor in an Indian ashram, been robbed and abandoned by pirates in Thailand, or have dedicated themselves to learning various Buddhist chants in Nepal. They were in quest of new experiences — and the further from anything in their lives back home, the better.
So when asked whether they wanted a "Jewish experience," they recognized that it made no sense for them to single out their own religious heritage as the only one in which they took no interest. And they knew that their knowledge of Torah Judaism was in most cases no greater than their knowledge of Buddhism.
Of course, the quest for experience was not an unmitigated blessing. It took many in dangerous directions, some never to return. But it did open young Jews to explore their Judaism to a far greater extent today.
I CAN THINK OF NO ONE in our times who was a more blatant and constant recipient of siyata d'Shmaya than Rabbi Schuster. No one who knew him could have predicted his success. He was the very antithesis of what we would expect a successful mekarev to be, completely lacking the gift of easy speech or sparkling charisma.
The source of that siyata d'Shmaya is not hard to explain. It lay in the intensity of his relationship to Hashem. Those who watched him daven found themselves looking around in the expectation that Mashiach would arrive any moment. A more subtle aspect of the siyata d'Shmaya he experienced has to do with the historical period in which he was active. As noted above, it was a time when young people were searching for meaning, and willing to check out multiple potential paths.
But even Rabbi Schuster could not have achieved what he did in today's cultural environment. For one thing, the multitudes of young Jews backpacking around the world are no longer to be found at the Kosel. And with each passing year, it becomes more difficult to do kiruv work among young Jews, due in no small measure to the fact that today's young Jews (if, in fact, they are Jews) have a far more attenuated relationship to the historic Jewish People by virtue of the rampant intermarriage over the last three generations.
But another difference that cannot be overlooked is the difference between the attitudes young people brought to college 30 or 40 years ago and the attitudes today. Once young Jews came to college to learn something. They knew they were young and relatively ignorant, and looked to their professors to offer them new perspectives and ways of thinking about the world around them.
Too many today, however, view themselves as repositories of all the knowledge necessary to identify which ideas deserve a hearing and which must be silenced. For them, professors are there only to confirm their existing ideology, and heaven help them if they do not. They seek neither new knowledge nor experience. They already know it all.
(Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old democratic-socialist running for Congress from Queens, serves as a representative of her generation. She boasts of her degree in economics from Boston University, but appears to have avoided any economics class requiring math skills. Asked to explain the low unemployment under President Trump, she opined that it was due to the fact that so many Americans have to work two jobs to make ends meet, as if working two jobs creates an employment rate of 200%.)
Young people seeking neither knowledge nor experience, confident that they already possess sufficient quantities of both, are far less likely than their parents' generation to end up at the Kosel in the first place. And if they do, they'll have no trouble telling anyone who challenges them to learn something of their Judaism, "Not interested, I already know everything I need to know."
The increasingly inhospitable soil for kiruv today is just another example of how we are affected as frum Jews by the cultural environment in which we live, even if we are not always aware of its impact on us.
A few readers and at least one editor opined that I had unwittingly done damage to my kavod last week by admitting that Michael Lewis is a better writer than I. I remain unconvinced, however, that acknowledging something that is blindingly obvious can diminish one in any respect.
I consider it a mark of maturity to recognize that there will always be someone smarter, prettier, or richer than you, and to learn to deal with it. In the latter category of learning to live with it, I would place the further recognition that an abundance of brains or beauty or money is no guarantee of living a fulfilled life.
Similarly, I would advise getting over the habit of comparing yourself to others, certainly if doing so makes you anxious or jealous. When Chazal define who is rich, wise, and strong, they do not do so in terms of net worth, IQ, or what one can bench press, all of which are objective measures that facilitate comparison to others. Rather they offer definitions that apply only to each of us individually.
The most important thing for us to know is that we are each here for a reason and each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world. People of superior gifts or achievements often open up new areas for others to contribute; they expand our opportunities rather than limit them.
Yet no one, no matter how gifted in any particular field, precludes the success of others. The Vilna Gaon, for instance, was recognized by his generation as towering over all his contemporaries. Yet it was his talmid, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and not the Gaon himself, who founded what would be become the mother of all subsequent European yeshivos. Furthermore, the Gaon's genius did not prevent contemporaries — such as his own mechutan Rav Avrohom Danzig, author of Chayei Adam — from writing works that are still studied today.
Similarly, the greatest theoreticians in any scientific field are almost invariably dependent on the experimental work of numerous other scientists in the same field.
And that pretty much brings me back to where we started. As great a writer as Michael Lewis is, he would never have written Reb Yaakov or Rav Dessler. The only thing he could do is provide me with unintended guidance how to improve my next biography. And for that I have only gratitude.