The Price of Success

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Mishpacha Magazine
August 25, 2005

Reading the lead essay in the June issue of The Jewish Observer, “Struggling with Success,” by Rabbi Mattis Roberts, I was reminded of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” In a series of essays in The Jewish Observer in recent years, Rabbi Roberts, the Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah in Queens, has established himself as a thinker of exceptional depth and insight.

Rabbi Roberts guiding insight is that the task of yeshivos has changed greatly from that of the yeshivos in Europe. The European yeshivos were “designed to serve an elite, to mold a select few into the Torah leaders of the next generation.” Those selected into the major yeshivos had already demonstrated “outstanding scholastic ability.” The European yeshiva can be likened to the Mishkan – a gathering place for loftiest of human endeavors, the learning of Torah lishma.

By contrast, the modern American yeshiva has had to take on a completely new function. It is not only a Mishkan, but also Noach’s Ark, a place of refuge from the pernicious influences of the surrounding society. Far from being elite institutions, modern yeshivos are institutions for the masses. As a consequence, students of differing abilities and from widely divergent backgrounds are all gathered under one roof.

Fulfilling the dual function of producing outstanding Torah scholars and serving as an ir miklat (city of refuge) from the surrounding society has not been easy for the yeshivos (and by extension the kollelim). The fulfillment of the latter function derogates, to a certain extent, from the former.

As Rabbi Roberts observes: “Today’s yeshiva bochur has no need to validate his decision to stay in learning: ‘Everybody is doing it.’ Consequently many never undergo the intense soul-searching that once preceded such a decision and the solemn commitment it involved. Accordingly, they also do not experience the ascent to true greatness that such commitment produces.”

Ironies abound in Rabbi Roberts’ account of the changing role of the modern American yeshiva, and his insights have implications for beyond his topic. The current challenges are largely the result of the remarkable and totally unforeseen successes of the American yeshiva system over the past sixty years. With the possible exception of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, no one foresaw in the early 20th century that the yeshiva system would one day “mushroom into a mass movement.”

Well into the ’50s, over a decade and a half after Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, began his lonely struggle to plant the ideal of long-term Torah study lishma in America, there were barely a hundred young Torah scholars in America engaged in long-term yeshiva or kollel learning. Today, there are thousands.

The temptation in the face of such success is to simply continue on the path that has given rise to that success in the first place. But the matter, as Rabbi Roberts shows, is not so simple. For growth involves more than a change in quantity; it involves a change in quality as well. The small intense core group that heeded Reb Aharon’s call did not just grow into a larger group of similarly committed and gifted individuals. Rather it gave rise to a large society of many different types and capacities, and of varying spiritual levels.

And that diversity is a major challenge. Rabbi Roberts sums up the matter well: “[T]he larger our society grows, the more different types of people it includes. And the same dynamic that benefits some is extremely harmful to others.”

GENERALS, IT IS SAID, ARE ALWAYS FIGHTING THE LAST WAR. The classical example is the Maginot Line built by the French across their entire eastern border with Germany between World War I and World War II. The Maginot Line was believed to be impregnable, and indeed it was never breached. Unfortunately, the German forces, at the beginning of World War II, simply went around the line, through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, and brought about the surrender of France in a matter of weeks.

Our Sages were acutely aware of the problem of relying exclusively on the tactics of the past. That is why they tell us, “Yiftach in his generation is like Shmuel in his.” Each generation is provided with its own Torah leaders because it is never possible to just go on doing what was done before.

Reb Aharon Kotler once told a father who complained to him that his son had answered Reb Aharon’s call, “Mi La’Hashem Alei,” and had failed to find himself as a kollel yunge man, “We are in the midst of a war, and in any war, there are casualties.” As a consequence of the war Reb Aharon waged, the entire vibrant American kollel world came into being.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s war is necessarily the same, or that the same tactics will prevail. It is one thing to lose soldiers in the heat of battle, and another to lose them after the war is already won. I once heard the late Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, say, “I want to take out a full-page ad in all the chareidi papers: ‘The War’s Over. We Won.'”

That does not mean that a change of tactics will ever be easy or rapid. Rabbi Roberts surveys the solutions that have been offered to the challenges he describes, and concludes that they are either unrealistic or will only generate even worse consequences of their own. He rejects, for instance, the idea of a two-tiered Torah educational system consisting of yeshivos on the traditional European model for the most talented or dedicated students and another system designed to produce Torah layman, infused with Torah values but prepared for interaction with the world beyond.

Such a system would exclude many who only blossom into outstanding students after years in yeshiva. In addition, it ignores the immense impact of intense yeshiva study even on those who go on to become baalebatim, and through them on the entire community. And finally, it is unrealistic in today’s Torah society to think that any parents or students will opt for what is viewed as the “second-tier.”

We must never forget, as Rabbi Roberts points out, that many cures are worse than the disease. But certainly no cure is possible without a clear understanding of the “disease.” We are indebted to Rabbi Roberts for his razor-sharp clarity in analyzing one of the many challenges facing the Torah community in an ever changing world.

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1 Response

  1. Elozor Preil says:

    I suspect that the elitist nature of our yeshiva system today is a contributing factor to the “children at risk” syndrome prevalent in our frum communities. After all, if the sole measure of success is excellence in learning, and Reuven is not cut out for a life of “zitzen und lernen”, then Reuven will feel like a failure as long as he remains in yeshiva. Without alternative yeshivos or life models, where should he go and what should he do?

    In other words, have we raised the bar so high and defined acceptable behavior so narrowly (e.g., white shirts only) that many of our young men see no place for themselves in this community?