The pre-Succos issue of the Hebrew Mishpacha carried a far-ranging interview with the Tolne Rebbe, shlita. Rarely do Torah leaders of the Rebbe's stature address the burning issues of the day in such a bold and open fashion.
The first subject to which the Rebbe addressed himself was the "drop-out" problem, which he labeled a bleeding sore in our community. Even when the actual dropping-out takes place in the teenage years, the causes are often to be found much earlier. As the Rebbe put it, "Not every child who suffers will drop out, but every one who drops out has suffered."
In discussing ways to alleviate those wounds, the Rebbe sought to identify structural problems in our educational system, rather than attributing everything to particular familial pathologies. He noted that five hundred years ago the Shulchan Aruch already established 25 as the maximum number of students in a classroom. And yet classrooms of 30 and more – sometimes much more – are the norm in many of our schools. Even those teachers determined to treat each student as an entire world unto him or herself find themselves incapable of doing so with so many students.
In addition, many rebbes and teachers are not adequately trained. Though learning disabilities are a leading predictor of dropping out at a later stage, many educators neither know how to recognize them or how to deal with a child who suffers from them. Early intervention programs that provide individual attention to children who need it, or even that extra dose of encouragement that some children require, are lacking, and those that exist are under-funded.
To the problems the Rebbe mentioned could be added others, including the grinding poverty, and even hunger, in which a growing number of our children live. Too many of our young feel trapped in a one-track system in which they do not find their place or see a future for themselves.
The problems are not just structural but attitudinal, including an elitism that puts too great an emphasis on certain intellectual strengths that manifest themselves at an early age. That elitism serves neither the favored nor the disfavored. Those who are not quick or who are late bloomers develop a negative self-image, and those blessed with the easily identified gifts may never work hard enough to develop them. The Rebbe related how he once asked a number of excellent eighth-grade rebbes to identify those students who would develop into great Torah scholars. Five years later, only one of the twenty boys thus identified was even viewed as a "star" in his yeshiva.
SO FAR-RANGING was the Rebbe's interview that almost everyone is sure to find something with which to cavil. I, for instance, was uncomfortable with the seemingly blanket statement that separate educational systems should be created for the children of ba'alei teshuva. For one thing, the term ba'al teshuva encompasses many different types -- from those recently inspired by an Arachim Seminar to those who have learned for many years in yeshivos and kollelim, yet came from non-observant families.
With respect to the former group, encouraging them to integrate quickly into the mainstream chareidi society of Bnei Brak or Jerusalem can be both unrealistic and fraught with danger. For this group, new educational frameworks, along the lines of the SHUVU system created children of immigrants from the FSU, might be necessary. Otherwise many of the thousands of children being registered for Torah schools every year will likely leave the Torah educational system along the way, as either they or their parents are unwilling for them to continue in a system where secular studies end completely at 13.
There is no comparison between the recent ba'alei teshuva and those who have learned for many years in Torah institutions. From the children of the latter group will come many of the outstanding talmidei chachamim of the next generation, just as many of the outstanding younger roshei yeshiva in Israel today come from non-chareidi homes. To permanently segregate children of long-time ba'alei teshuva just because they have non-religious grandparents would represent a huge loss for the Torah community.
I DO NOT IMAGINE for a moment that the Rebbe would take umbrage at any caveats I might offer. On the contrary, I'm sure that he would welcome any thoughtful criticism as an occasion for refining and reformulating his own thoughts more precisely.
How do I know? Because the last topic he addressed was the lack of tolerance for different groups and opinions within the chareidi world. He attributed that lack of tolerance to a certain small-mindedness resulting from generational decline and an inability to grasp the multi-faceted nature of Torah.
It is easier and safer to live in a world in which there is only one right answer to any question. Yet the fact remains that almost any issue worth discussing allows a variety of viewpoints and approaches.
Part of the problem is distortions of the concept of "daas Torah," which is more frequently wielded as a club than understood. The basic principle is easily grasped: If the Torah is the blueprint of the universe, our best guides in life will be those who have immersed themselves to the fullest extent in Torah, with no personal interests.
But one commonly drawn corollary does not follow: i.e., that all those who possess daas Torah will view any situation in the same light, and therefore anyone who does not think like my Rebbe or Rosh Yeshiva, ipso facto, lacks daas Torah. That view flies in the face of the sharp differences, often vehemently expressed, between towering and revered Torah luminaries over the ages.
The belief that there must be a unitary approach to every issue, incidentally, causes columns like this one to be frequently misread. Readers assume wrongly that the writer views himself as the mouthpiece of daas Torah, and therefore read each column with one question in mind: Does this conform to the daas Torahthat I recognize? The result of this sort of reading will usually veer between disappointment and rage.
Most chareidi columnists in my experience entertain few such illusions about their own daas Torah. Though they express opinions, they are acutely aware that each word could be qualified in many ways and that they might even be wrong. In short, they are far less sure of themselves than they may sound. Often they are seeking only to provoke discussion of the issues facing our community in the hope that solutions will emerge from those with the responsibility for making the ultimate decisions.
That is why I am personally so grateful to the Tolne Rebbe not only for addressing so incisively a number of crucial issues, but no less so for showing us how we might learn from those of differing views rather than simply dismissing them out of hand.