My op-ed “Under the Guise of Learning in Eretz Yisrael ” in the July 23 Hamodia has occasioned more than the usual amount of comment, both in the form of an unusually large outpouring of published letters to the editor and in phone calls and private comments conveyed to me. Some of those comments have been favorable, even effusively so, and some no less critical – at least one anonymous caller took the time to call from the States to convey his opinion that I had lost my Olam Haba, chas ve’shalom.
Most of the comments to date have focused on what I am assumed to have meant rather than on what I actually said. About the latter there has been relatively little dispute. So perhaps it would be well to first review the areas of broad agreement. My first major point was that the year or more of learning in Eretz Yisrael has changed in important ways in recent decades. Whereas once only individual bochurim, who were self-selected and tended to have high aspirations in Torah learning, came to Eretz Yisrael to study, today it is pretty much assumed that all yeshiva bochurim will spend one or two years in Eretz Yisrael. The latter run the gamut of commitment to learning and spiritual levels.
One or two readers did write that I should not overly idealize the situation of 35-40 years ago when they studied in seminary or yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. But, in general, there was agreement that the situation is radically different today. Whether that reflects a change in the quality of bochurim or has some other explanation can be debated. At least one maggid shiur in a major yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, who learned in Eretz Yisrael as a bochur, told me that in his opinion the major difference between then and now is not the quality of the bochurim but the multitude of lures to which today’s bochurim are exposed, which simply did not exist then. He mentioned Internet and DVD’s at the top of the list.
My second major point was that parents should not feel that they have fulfilled their parental obligations with the provision of a plane ticket, tuition, and spending money. They do not cease to be parents just because their son is thousands of miles away, and that means that they still have a responsibility — perhaps even a greater responsibility given the temptations — to monitor his behavior and spiritual development. I included an illustrative, but by no means exhaustive, list of ways that parents can remain involved across the ocean.
On this point, there was absolutely no disagreement. As far as I’m concerned, if the piece did nothing more than encourage parents to remain actively involved and provided them some tools for doing so, such as ongoing contact with their sons’ rebbeim, Dayeinu.
My final point was that parents must know their sons well before sending them to Eretz Yisrael to learn. Convincing themselves that their sons are perfect and their emunah rock-hard, when that may or not be the case, does not serve their sons well. When the freedom afforded by learning far from home in Eretz Yisrael proves too much for a particular bochur, it is often comforting for his parents to assure themselves that they sent him from home without blemish and whatever occurred happened only once he left the United States.
There are no doubt such cases. But, according to those knowledgeable in the field, it is more common that what may have only been small imperfection in the foundation was exacerbated in the conditions of freedom far from home. In some cases, bochurim took more efforts to conceal certain negative behaviors – watching movies, Internet use – when they were in yeshiva in the States than they do once they are further away from home. But the behaviors were present, even if to a lesser degree, prior to arriving in Eretz Yisrael. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that several problematic and potentially addictive behaviors – e.g., drinking and gambling – are more often encountered in the American chareidi community than in the Israeli. Excessive drinking was once considered not to be a “Jewish” problem. But those days are long gone.
SO MUCH FOR WHAT I DID WRITE. But authors are responsible not only for what they write explicitly, but also for the way that their words will be understood – chachamim hizaharu b’drveichem. So I’d like to clarify some of those matters which were read into my words.
Some, I am told, assumed that I was writing with one or two specific yeshivos in mind. That is not true. The dangers are far more widespread than any particular yeshiva or yeshivos. At the same time, that does not mean that I was writing about all yeshivos or that there are no differences between them. Investigating those differences is one crucial aspect of parental responsibility. The size of the yeshiva, the percentage of bochurim living in dorms, the existence of clear rules and expectations and the strictness with which they are enforced vary greatly from one yeshiva to another. All these factors can make a great difference, and it is incumbent on both parents and bochurim to sit down and discuss these matters. At the same time, there are no fixed rules that apply to every bochur. A large yeshiva, with many maggidei shiurim to choose from, for instance, might make it easier for a particular bochur to find a shiur suited to him and develop a close relationship with a rebbe than would a smaller yeshiva.
At least one letter writer understood me to argue that because times have changed since Rabbi Nachum Partzowitz, zt”l, sat in a relatively small beis medrash in Mirrer Yeshiva and was readily accessible that bochurim should no longer come to Eretz Yisrael to learn. That was not my point. The writer was quite right in saying that just because some things have changed does not mean that everything must change. One of the reasons that we do not learn judicial punishments from a kal ve’chomer is the limits of human logic to determine the consequences of different circumstances. On the other hand, when circumstances change, we should at least note the changes and ask whether they have implications for other decisions.
Frankly, I’m amused that anyone thinks I have an opinion about what percentage of bochurim should come to Eretz Yisrael or where they should study. As President Obama might say, such issues are both above my pay grade and way beyond my areas of competence. At the very most, I am pointing to certain considerations that parents and bochurim might keep in mind, and which they can discuss with whomever they consult on such issues.
It is clear that at least for the foreseeable future the overwhelming percentage of yeshiva bochurim will spend one or more years learning in Eretz Yisrael. There are, at present, few yeshivos for bochurim of a certain age in America. Whether more such yeshivos come into being will depend on parents and bochurim and upon the various American roshei yeshiva and representatives of daas Torah. (Extraneous considerations, like concern about shidduch prospects, will also no doubt continue to play a role.)
Perhaps the most outraged callers were yeshiva bochurim who charged that I had implied that most or even a significant number of bochurim, increased their exposure to negative influences during their time in Israel, and had thereby lessened the honor of yeshiva bochurim. Let me be clear: I am not a sociologist and I did not conduct surveys of the various yeshivos with large numbers of bochurim from chutz l’aretz. Even if I had done so, the results would not really give a full picture because we could never know how many of the same bochurim who experienced difficulties in Eretz Yisrael would also have experienced problems had they remained in the States. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that remaining in the States is a fool-proof vaccine against all social ills, and for some bochurim remaining the States, where they may have already fallen into bad company or ways, might present similar or greater dangers.
Over the last several weeks, I have received lengthy calls from bochurim who assure me that in their yeshiva no more than 5% of the bochurim are not shteiging in learning. And I have also received calls from respected avreichim, who learned in Eretz Yisrael as bochurim and who retain contact with the yeshivos in which American bochurim learn, who tell me that the scope of the problem is greater than suggested in my piece.
I suspect both are right – each one according to the slice of the reality with which he is most familiar. While it might be useful to have accurate figures on the percentages of bochurim engaging in problematic behavior, for our purposes it is sufficient that parents and bochurim alike recognize that problems can develop or become more severe and take precautions accordingly.
One last point: I did not mean to imply that Eretz Yisrael, the very air of which, Chazal tell us, makes one wise, somehow corrupts those who come here to learn. Eretz Yisrael is the world center of Torah learning, and contains the largest number of exemplars of the ideal of Torah l’shma. There is an intensity of Torah life, removed from excessive gashmus, that is not found anywhere else in the world. For those seeking aliyah b’ruchnios, the chances of reaching their full potential are greater than in Eretz Yisrael than anywhere else.
Against this ideal is the reality that some unspecified percentage of yeshiva bochurim far from reaching their greatest potential while learning in Eretz Yisrael experience various forms of spiritual decline.
The only purpose of these articles has been to stimulate discussion so that parents, bochurim and roshei yeshiva can properly balance ideal versus reality for each individual bochur, and begin to develop the tools to make it more likely that each bochur reaches his maximum potential wherever he is learning.