Making the Torah Real

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Two students in one of Jerusalem’s high school seminaries came to interview me last week for a documentary about how to internalize one’s Torah studies. I was impressed both the seminary’s sponsorship of such creative projects, and even more so by the ability of these young women to zero in so sharply on the central challenge that faces every believing Jew.

The task of integrating one’s Torah learning into one’s life challenges every one of us – each on his level. For no one, however, is it achieved automatically or without effort. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used to give an example of how easy it is to create a chasm between one’s Talmudic studies and “real life.”

He described a yeshiva that is currently studying the laws of damages in Bava Kamma. One of the principles discussed by the Gemara is “adam muad l’olam – a man is responsible for the damages he causes. One day bein hasedarim, one of the boys knocks over his roommate’s alarm clock, which crashes to the floor and breaks. The one who broke the alarm clock and the owner approach their rebbe to find out what the din is. The former protests that he did not intend to knock over the clock – it was an accident.

Lack of intention does not happen to be an exception to the principle of adam muad l’olam, and if the question had been posed on a Gemara test, the boy now pleading his innocence on that basis would likely have answered correctly. But when it comes to his own life, the Talmudic principles fly out the window and are forgotten. Talmud and life become two separate realms.

The Chasam Sofer was once asked how he could pasken very complicated shaylos so quickly. He responded that when he learned a Gemara, he first crystallized the principles that emerged from his learning, and then he tried to imagine all the different circumstances to which those principles might apply. Thus when a case involving those principles later arose before the Chasam Sofer, he found that he had usually thought about just such situation previously and how the principles would apply. Unfortunately, few of us learn like the Chasam Sofer in this respect.

Nor is the problem of integrating principles confined to young yeshiva bochurim. I can personally think of at least three cases of machlokes, involving some of the leading institutions in the Torah world, in which the dispute resolution mechanisms given us by the Torah have either failed or never been tried. I know virtually nothing about any of these disputes, and have no opinion one way or the other about the rights and wrongs. But I am convinced that all the parties involved could cite a wealth of sources about the importance of resolving disputes via a beis din, as opposed to a secular court or any other tactics. When that does not happen, the problem is, at least in part, a failure of integration of Torah principles when we are personally concerned.

I CONFESS to being an avid reader of many of the serials that run in these pages. For one thing, I appreciate fictional works both as sociological data and for their ability to explore some of the challenges of contemporary Torah life in a nuanced fashion. One enormously popular serial has been justly praised for its realism, and the absolute ordinariness of the central character. I fully share that admiration for the author’s ability to produce a fully believable main character.

What is interesting, however, is that the central character — presumably the product of a Bais Yaakov education — has never had, throughout all the ups and downs of her relationship with her husband, a single thought that related to Hashem or any aspect of the Torah she learned. I mention this not as a criticism, but as a compliment to the author for having subtly alerted us to a problem in our own lives.

My recent piece on the traps of the imagination for yeshiva students who find themselves highly sought after in shidduchim elicited a similar observation. After it was posted on a website where Orthodox writers address contemporary issues from a Torah standpoint, one Reform reader commented that the piece was a searing indictment of the Orthodox community. That comment, I think, is a bit overblown. It would only be valid if one imagines that all Torah Jews are ethereal beings, unafflicted by any of the common failings of mankind. No frum Jew subscribes to that illusion.

Nevertheless when so many young men seem confused between the qualities that make for a fun date and those upon which a successful marriage is built, when one of their first questions is rarely, “What kind of mother will she make?” there is room for concern. Middos and yiras Shomayim are the qualities most emphasized by the gedolim in their discussions of what to look for in a shidduch. To the extent they are less emphasized by young men in shidduchim, we again have a problem of integrating Torah teachings into our lives.

The entire mussar movement sought to provide the tools to take that which we know theoretically and make it part of our basic hard-drive. As the author of Mesilas Yesharim states in his introduction, his purpose is not to teach his readers anything new but rather to remind them of what they already know. In short, mussar is supposed to make us think.

In that respect, I pointed out to my young interviewers, ba’alei teshuva might have a bit of an advantage. For every ba’al teshuva at least once in his or her life had to make a major decision requiring deep thought about the principles upon which they would base their lives. They could not just go with the flow of the society into which they were born.

The natural tendency of every one of us to go with the flow creates the risk that our life choices will be determined more by what the neighbors do or will say than by the Torah that we learn.

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10 Responses

  1. Observer says:

    Tzippi, of course I’m not “paskening”. But, I do think that looking at what passes for Jewish literature tells us something. So does looking at what editorial decision get made, since one of the major criteria used is whether people are going to want to read this stuff and another is whether the content fits in with the hashkafa of the magazine. And when character, as in Hearts of Gold, seem like only slightly exaggerated versions of people or characters you know or know of, the story can be a healthy discussion starter.

    In fact, some of it doesn’t seem exaggerated at all. Those of you who have taken shiduch inquiry calls have probably taken calls that sound much like the call described there.

  2. tzippi says:

    Re my comment from a minute ago: perhaps I was too hasty. I don’t want to do a wholesale condemnation of the ouvre (and I have yet to write my own book). There may actually be something to what #7 said. We are living in a superficial world, in superficial times; it is no wonder that we are not as deep as we could and should be.

  3. tzippi says:

    To #7, please don’t pasken from what passes for Jewish literature these days!

  4. Observer says:

    “What is interesting, however, is that the central character — presumably the product of a Bais Yaakov education — has never had, throughout all the ups and downs of her relationship with her husband, a single thought that related to Hashem or any aspect of the Torah she learned. I mention this not as a criticism, but as a compliment to the author for having subtly alerted us to a problem in our own lives.”

    What is even more disconcerting is how often this happens. Take two earlier stories serialized by the same magazine. In Hearts of Gold, most of the characters never seem to think in terms of what Halacha want and how the Torah should really apply to their lives – even the “good guys”. But, at least there it’s clear that this is part of the problem, even though it’s not stated. And, in the sequel (which is not serialized), the issue is more explicitly addressed. So, that one is not so bad from this point of view – but considering how believable so many of these characters are, it’s pretty scary. Is this really how people think and operate?

    Another serial (Hidden promises?) tells about the turmoil that strikes a Yeshvish Chareidi family when their “top” learner son-in-law gets attracted to Chassidus. Some of the main do talk and think about Avodas Hashem, but it’s somewhat bizarre. The shver insists that his son-in-law is wrong, because the only valid path to connection with Hashem is through learning Gemoroh. The wife goes one better – the problem is essentially that her husband is not doing what her father does. For instance, she can’t fall asleep after she hears her husband doing something her father never did- he actually sang songs from the Hagada to their infant son! Everyone admits that the young man is still sitting and learning with great hasmada, but it’s being treated like such a tragedy that there is serious suggestion of divorce, and the parents nearly mess up a shiduch for their son because they are so tied up with this “terrible” event. And, throughout this whole mess, with the exception of the young man himself (who constantly discusses the relevant issues with his Rebbe) none of the main characters ever think of consulting a Rov or mashgiach ruchani or some such person to help provide clarity on what the Torah REALLY wants in a case that causing the possibility of a divorce.

    The thing about this one is that the characters are mostly such caricatures that it’s possible to dismiss this. But someone did think that was a reasonable story line, which is scary, too.

    With the exception of the young man himself

  5. ClooJew says:

    Rabbi Berel Wein, shlit”a, taught us many years ago: “People make a mistake. They think that life is life and Talmud is Talmud. They don’t realize that life is Talmud and Talmud is life.” I never, lulei demistafina, forgot that.

  6. Ori says:

    S: There is a widespread saying which fosters this attitude: “We don’t pasken from the Gemara.”

    Ori: The Talmud was written when Jews did pasken from the Mishnah. Maybe it would be more effective to teach the Torah as a Torah of life, of daily practice, if it was taught from the Shulchan Aruch – with a Talmud like commentary that argued about each point.

  7. S. says:

    There is a widespread saying which fosters this attitude: “We don’t pasken from the Gemara.” Whatever the intentions behind this saying, however much it is true, or at least true for neophytes, so long as this is repeated in just such a formulation people, especially young people, simply are unable to see the Talmud as the source for halacha, at least not without special effort to tie the two together.

  8. Shades of Grey says:

    “It would only be valid if one imagines that all Torah Jews are ethereal beings, unafflicted by any of the common failings of mankind. No frum Jew subscribes to that illusion”

    My thoughts are that it took time for the community to recognize that Orthodox Jews are not perfect.

    For example, years ago, Rabbi Dr. AJ Twerski was intimidated when speaking on domestic abuse; Dov Hikind was criticized a decade ago for speaking on the radio about “Kids at Risk”. More recently, Rabbi Horowitz wrote( Mishpacha 194 “Human Problems) ” there is a virtual media ban in our charedi papers on any negative news”; Jonathan Rosenblum wrote(“In Praise of Fiction”), “somehow the fact that the stories are in a fictional form, even if they are “true”, makes them less threatening, less subject to the charge of washing dirty linen in public.

    If it’s so simple that “no frum Jew subscribes to that illusion”, why is there so much resistance, as above? On the other hand, progress has been made in publicly addressing “sensitive” issues, and that is a hopeful sign. Also, the zealous elements who intimidated Dr. Twerski are, no doubt, not the entire community.

    From another angle, as a young yeshiva student, I had a dichotomy between reason and emotion: intellectually, I grasped that there are thought processes inherent to most species of the human race; however on a deeper and emotional level, I was convinced that I was an anomaly, since there were standards of how certain sensitive concepts were related to publicly(a mentor told me that others suffered from similar cognitive dissonance, but it took a while to truly believe that!).

    In short, I of course recognize the value of, and the need for social norms, sensitivities, and appropriateness, but the fact that such social norms exist, would perhaps render Jonathan Rosenblum’s statement a little more complex.

  9. Nathan says:

    In addition to yeshivah students studying mussar books, maybe they should also produce small plays, designed to illustrate good and bad charachter traits. This experience may help to integrate mussar principles into the behaviour of the students, not only into their minds.

  10. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > But when it comes to his own life, the Talmudic principles fly out the window and are forgotten. Talmud and life become two separate realms.

    The Chilonim used to have a saying for this whenever a story broke in the news about someone from the Chareidi community caught in a crime: Zot hadat aval zeh rak esek. That’s the religion, but this is just business.