Chumrah Done Wrong

She’s no Deborah Feldman. That makes her story so much more valuable to us.

Writing in Tablet, the literary cynosure of every young Jewish iconoclast these days, Avital Chizhik lets us know that she is no dropout, and very much an eager participant in halachic life.

I don’t want to be that girl: the aspiring writer who has broken free of the tightly knit Orthodox community or school system and then proceeds to write about her love-hate relationship with said background. Because the truth is, I’m not that girl who’s broken away. I pray daily, recite benedictions before and after food, study Torah (but not Talmud). I still feel uncomfortable reading Aramaic texts traditionally limited to men. Friday afternoons find me running around the house, covering bathroom lights with special Shabbat covers, choosing tablecloths, filling the hot-water urn. And if it matters, which I suppose it does these days, I dress the part, too, despite being taught otherwise by secular grandparents: I wear modest skirts that reach my knees, sleeves that cover my elbows, and I refrain from any physical contact with males.

I hope that readers will find her tale a success story, rather than the opposite. After graduating high school, she found a community in which she can maintain halachic practice while slaking her thirst for literature and art. We understand that living in two worlds that often clash is fraught, but so is living in a fortress. Especially the way her younger sisters describe it when they get together:

One sister began to cry as told me how her rabbi had told the class that one who transgresses the boundaries of forbidden physical contact, even in the most casual and unaffectionate of manners, a mere handshake, is considered adulterous and thus is deserving of death, according to biblical law. “That just makes me want to go to the Gap and buy a pair of skinny jeans,” she told me, pulling her denim skirt to cover her knees as she sat down.

Another teacher announced proudly that the walls of her house have never seen her hair, just like the righteous mothers of the Talmud. “I sleep with my head covered, girls. Always.” Yet another teacher brought in an article from the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. The story followed a Jew in 1950s Soviet Russia who expressed an interest in studying Judaism but never did so because of the danger involved. The teacher explained: “Girls, what do we learn from this? That this man clearly sinned! One should always follow through with one’s intentions!”

We must hope that something has been lost in the transmission. People often hear things not intended by a speaker; teens are no exception. We cannot rule out the possibility that the actual statements were somewhat different from what was reported. At the same time, it is quite possible that people said something close enough to those statements that they could be confused with the more off-putting version. Teachers (and we are all teachers) might be well served to pause and think whether in the process of inspiring some people, they are turning others off. While it is sometimes impossible to please everyone, some damage can be controlled by being more nuanced.

I don’t believe for a moment that “chumrah” is a dirty word. Being machmir is a legitimate way of expressing love for Hashem and His Torah. Seforim going back hundreds of years have written about the apparent trend to greater and greater chumrah in halachah – and spoken approvingly of the phenomenon.
What is an exercise in ahavas Hashem for one person, however, can be suffocating to another. Both ought to be accomodated. Chumrah should be voluntary, not forced upon a person by social convention or pressure. At that point it really isn’t an expression of greater enthusiasm for halachah, is it? It should never be confused with halacha itself, which always should remain clear, if only so that people will not look down upon others who are good, faithful Jews by obeying the letter of the law and nothing more – or falling back upon it themselves, in times of lesser inspiration. (Chava didn’t fare too well after confusing the chumrah of not touching the tree with the halacha of not eating from it, did she?) Chumrah can be followed for decidedly unspiritual purposes: as a way of outdoing the other, of egocentric competitiveness, and of putting down others. (See the Sfas Emes in Vayakhel תרל”ה, explaining the atmosphere of urgency surrounding the finding that the people were bringing too many donations for the Mishkan. Why did everyone get so exercised about this, necessitating Moshe to call a quick halt to the process? Sfas Emes explains that donations to the Mishkan had to be entirely lishmah. When people kept on offering more and more, Moshe realized that at some point other intentions of less than stellar purpose would intrude. He had to keep the process within the ability of the people to offer their donations entirely as an expression of their love for Hashem. He mentions, in the name of the Besht, that pride in particular can be an unwelcome concomitant of “doing” for Hashem.)

There are people who believe that shaking hands with those of the opposite gender is not only assur, but yehareg v’al ya’avor. Teachers should not be muzzled into not relating this. At the same time, with what we know of what is going on in the minds of so many of our teens (and their parents!), a good teacher ought to be able to relate the difference between committing adultery and abizrayu of ervah. He/she ought to also explain that such a position is hardly unanimous: that frum, pious German Jews shook hands for hundreds of years; that some major figures in the previous generation held that it was mutar, at least in trying circumstances; that R. Chaim Berlin wrote a teshuvah explaining why it is mutar. The teacher ought to be able to adequately explain the position that he/she does not practice, even while promoting the other.

Our Kimchis wannabee might indeed inspire some of her charges by her commitment to tzniyus. But she should be aware of the frightening cost to others. She should anticipate that by lovingly explaining how precious in the eyes of Hashem it is to follow the minimum requirements of the law of covering hair.

The teacher pointing to the Mishpacha article might have achieved far better things in the classroom by talking about inner struggle. Knowing how much of that we all go through, she might have empowered her girls much more importantly by validating the struggle, rather than pointing to someone’s supposed “mistake.”

I imagine that it is hopelessly naïve to think of Avital Chizhik entering the classroom of a charedi school, armed with her experience and with her openness, and transmitting some of it to the next generation.

But we are allowed to dream, I suppose.

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42 comments to Chumrah Done Wrong

  • Baruch Gitlin

    Excellent article (like usual). Thank you.

  • Daniel Eidensohn

    “There are people who believe that shaking hands with those of the opposite gender is not only assur, but yehareg v’al ya’avor. Teachers should not be muzzled into not relating this. At the same time, with what we know of what is going on in the minds of so many of our teens (and their parents!), a good teacher ought to be able to relate the difference between committing adultery and abizrayu of ervah”
    ==================
    This is the view of the Chazon Ish. I don’t understand why you think a teacher needs to confuse young minds with the fact that many halachos are matters of dispute. Are you suggesting that a teacher leave it up to a student to decide? A teacher should be chosen to reflect the desired values and halachic positions of the community. Either they need a different teacher or they are in the wrong school.

    [YA Perhaps that observation might have validity in Israel. (Frankly, with the estimate of 10000 off-the-derech kids in Yerushalayim alone, I doubt it.) Here in the US, the sheer diversity of backgrounds and questions that kids bring into the classroom today make your suggestion impossible to follow. We would need many, many more schools. In many communities, there are no options. It is one size fits all. In such places and is such times, I believe that it is unjustifiable to sacrifice a substantial minority for the sake of a majority that you hope you are protecting (which is happening imperfectly, if at all, anyway.) ]

  • Miriam A

    Unfortunately we’ve become a society where all that matters are absolutes. You wear a slit, or watch movies, go to a museum, read “English” books?- reject! For some reason we don’t believe that one can put an obstacle in the way of getting CLOSER to G-d, instead if there’s slight deviation, it is treated as an utter rejection of yiddishkeit. Sad

  • Bob Miller

    People are free to adopt chumros, although they should consider the potential effects on family and friends. However, the idea of using over-the-top emotional language to scare people into adopting chumros against their better judgment seems really weird. This kind of power-trip manipulation we can do without.

    In fact, over-the-top language is becoming a general problem. Are we thought to be too infantile to respond to reason?

  • Daniel

    amen brother.

  • E. Fink

    Thank you.

  • Arthur

    It works both directions, Miriam. Trying wearing a hat in a MO yeshiva and see what kind of social life you have. I suppose it is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature.

  • Avraham

    Arthur, In all the MO Yeshivas that I have attended, those who wore hats seemed to do just fine socially. I am not sure what you are talking about. At YU, the “Flagship” of MO, there are many, many students who wear hats.

  • David F.

    We’ve sent our kids to pretty much right-wing Charedi schools all the way through. By and large, we have found that for every teacher who sometimes can be over the top, there are at least an equal number [if not significantly more] who are very well balanced and rational in their approach. Furthermore, even the more passionate ones with the over-the-top approaches have much to teach our children and sometimes get through to them in ways that are more powerful than some of the more staid, laid-back rationalists.
    Whenever I read accounts of outlandish statements from teachers, I always wonder why the rational statements didn’t have some counter-affect. There are at least as many of the latter as there are of the former.

  • Steve Brizel

    Yasher Koach to the writer for pointing out that all too often,something is truely lost in the transmission of Tznius-with the equivalent of Sippurei Chasidim and not knowing the differences between a legitimate chumra or kula being wrongly viewed as the practice of Nashim Tzidkanios. Far too often, as in the case of many areas of Halacha, we tend to lose track of what is a legitimate Chumra or Midas Chasidus, what is Assur or Mutar Lchol HaDeos, and what is Bdieved or Shaas Hadchak, as well as how to appropriately teach the values underlying many areas of Halacha. I would recommend that anyone interested in the subject of the linked to article seek if Rebbitzen Abby Lerner’s Mareh Mkomos on her mandatory course in Women in Jewish Law are available. The same is a superb summary and survey of all the relevant issues ( kol isha, hair covering, negiah,women and mitzvos, etc).

  • Abe Aronowski

    Yes, many teachers went overboard, and some were abusive, and brought about tremendous distaste for Frumkeit.

    So, what do we do about it now?

    We should never give up on even the most stubborn OTD individuals. If we could only offer them a spiritually healthy, pleasant place to gather, they might not be as enamored of Footsteps, where OTD individuals find similar individuals and companionship in mockery of religious people.

    Hasidic people are leaving it ALL behind- No Shabbos, No Kashrus, NOTHING, totally choosing to assimilate, calling anyone frum, backward cult-members and worse, and now have the strong support of world famous Jewish organizations (UJA is one), who help them cleanse themselves of religious practices, and with foul tongues mock religious Jews, a result of donations offered by people who dont realize what kind of organizations theyre supporting.

    I havent heard of any outrage towards the below Footsteps- supportive organizations.

    Footsteps is lovingly sponsored by UJA, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, Alan B. Slifka Foundation, Independence Community Foundation, Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, Chais Family Foundation, United Way of New York City, Dobkin Family Foundation, Natan Buchman Foundation, Jewish Women’s Foundation of NY, Solelim, etc.

    Its despicable how Jews can support an organization serving to distance Jews from Judaism rather than bring them closer to it.

    And the religious community is either clueless or behaving as if they are.

  • Harry Zeitlin

    In the present atmosphere, many people seem afraid of speaking for the center because they’ll be accused of not “really being frum”. We need ways to reduce the divisions between our people, not to create ever more barriers.
    Some, but certainly not all, people adopt chumrot as a way of bragging, just as some avoid chumrot out of laziness and some because they want to remain in the center. I strongly agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s comments here.

  • Dr. E

    Many of the teachers in the Chareidi system are products of that Chinuch and have a mere one year of “Seminary” experience before they are credentialed as teachers. That is just not enough time to acquire the breadth and depth to be accurate transmitters of Torah and Halacha to the next generation. Yet these young women are sources of cheap labor to staff the classes. One need to not look that far to hear from the kids themselves that what should be classes in Navi or Chumash are not studies of those texts; they are opportunities for philosophic indoctrination in the spirit of “chizuk”, by teachers with limited backgrounds themselves.

    The world today is complicated and nuanced. Therefore, taking a worldview that everything is black and white (today even literally) does a disservice. Kids will eventually be exposed to others both within the Halachic pale or beyond it. The goal is to somehow keep them within it. Being disengenuous and playing fast and loose with the integrity of established Halachic constructs– passing off chumra as normative Halacha is ultimately counterproductive. Furthermore, implicit warnings by these teachers not to place onself in a situation that will compromise one’s shidduch prospects is equally morally caustic. Kids will soon grow up and discover that they have been duped by those whom they were trained to revere, sometimes disenfranchised to the point of stradling and even crossing the line.

  • cvmay

    Rav Wolbe zt”l has a piece on “FRUMKEIT”, adopting and rejecting chumros. A must read for all..

  • shaya

    Wonderful article! I completely agree with the implied message that we need to present Orthodoxy as something one can follow without abandoning one’s dreams and individuality. I want my daughters to feel like they can pursue virtually any legitimate career or interests, while remaining a proud Torah Jew.

    Building on your citation of Sfas Emes, I’d like to share my favorite quote in chassidus on the topic of chumras:

    “Don’t follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. ‘God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny’ ( Avodah Zarah 3a) -‘The Torah was not given to ministering angels’ ( Berachot 25b) .

    Our rabbis have taught that it is proper for each person to choose for himself one mitzvah to observe with particular care in all its fine details ( Shabbat 118b ). Yet even with your chosen mitzvah, you should not be excessively strict to the point of folly. Don’t let it make you depressed. Simply try to keep the mitzvah carefully in all its finer points, but without excessive punctiliousness.

    As for the other mitzvot, simply follow the essential laws without adding extra stringencies. If only we could keep all the mitzvot of the Torah according to the simple interpretation of the law without seeking to go beyond it!

    There is no need to look for extra stringencies: this is foolish and confusing. The essence of serving God is simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah and carry out many good deeds without seeking out or inventing unnecessary restrictions. Simply follow the path of our forefathers. ‘The Torah was not given to ministering angels.’

    There is nothing that you absolutely must do or else. If you can, you can. But if you cannot: ‘God exempts a person under duress’ (Bava Kama 28b.)”

    (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Sichot Haran #235)

  • Shunamit

    Cvmay–YES! Rav Wolbe’s excellent article should be required reading.

    Rav Adlerstein has done his usual thoughtful, refreshingly honest and compassionate job here as well. Far better and more productive than just ״circling the wagons”. Listening to one another, thinking instead of just reacting, will help us more than ranting.

  • Orit

    My daughter’s teacher said that using the internet, except for work, is avoda zara. So if I shop online, send email to my mom, download a tax form, I am worshipping idols. Just great. I asked my daughter if she thinks watching the Maccabeats (which she did) was avoda zara. She said no. Then I gave her my view. Not every teacher is going to have my exact view. Isn’t that okay?
    Teachers tell kids the Torah said your skirt has to be four inches below the knees…why can’t they say, cover your knees, and some people try to have a “Bais Yaakov” look?

  • Dr. E

    Orit

    The “BY look” has become at best, an exercise in Kool Aid conformity. At worst, it has become an Avodah Zarah in its own right, devoid of any substance, like the idols of the past.

  • Haim

    The adoption of chumros is not the problem. The problem lies in the social conversations including around shabbat tables,proudly discussing which chumras you keep, and judging negatively those who don’t. My kids go to a non co-ed MO school. Many teachers are from “yeshivish”/chareidi backgrounds. All of the rebbeim are rational, and are more than willing to point out differences of opinion among poskim. The female teachers on the other hand, who went to some “seminary” in israel often transmit that there IS ONLY one right way, often not knowing the difference between halakhah, minhag, chumra or superstition.

  • Tal Benschar

    I don’t believe for a moment that “chumrah” is a dirty word. Being machmir is a legitimate way of expressing love for Hashem and His Torah. Seforim going back hundreds of years have written about the apparent trend to greater and greater chumrah in halachah – and spoken approvingly of the phenomenon.

    Yet there are sources which indicates that chumra can be inappropriate as a sign of gaavah.

    R. Yisroel Salanter once gave a biur on the gemara in Chullin where an amora (Mar Ukva) states that he is like chometz ben yayin because his father waited an entire day to eat dairy after meat, whereas he, Mar Ukva, only waits until the next meal (Chullin 105a) (from where our various customs derive to wait 6 hours, 3 hours, etc.)

    Asked R. Yisroel Salanter, what does this gemara mean? That Mar Ukva had such an uncontrollable taavah for milchigs that he could not wait until the next day and had to eat milchigs at the next meal? That makes no sense, if he could wait a few hours, he could wait a day. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine our keeping such a “chumrah.”

    Rather, the pshat is that Mar Ukva felt that he was not on a level to keep such a chumrah, while his father was. That is what he meant by “I am like vinegar the son of wine.”

  • Menachem Lipkin

    What is most disturbing to me about Ms. Chizhik’s article is that, from what I’ve been told, the high school she attended was not a Beis Yaakov, but JEC’s Bruriah in Elizabeth NJ. My oldest daughter attended Bruriah and it’s supposed to be, and was, one of the finer modern orthodox high schools. Maybe it’s the same issue that Haim mentions above, but if Rabbi Adlerstein questions such narrow ideology being presented in a BY, it’s a Kal V’Chomer that it has no place in a school like Bruriah.

  • DF

    RYA – it’s a good article, and makes a good point, and yet it still doesnt quite get it. You speak in the language of “mutter and assur.” (ie, that many poskim say shaking hands is mutter, is not yeherg vial yavor, etc.) But your article doesnt seem to realize that for many othodox Jews, that langauge is the langauge of the yeshivah, and not of real life.

    My parents and grandparents are old time Hungarians – by far the largest group of Holocaust survivors – and are pretty typical. My parents dont speak, and none of my grandparents (or my wife’s granparents, also Hungs, natch) EVER spoke, in that langauge. Whatever they did or did not do was NOT because a rabbi or a sefer said it was muttar or assur, but because it was what they did. Period. They did not try to justify their practices by finding hetterim, nor did they think they needed to.

    You might say, like Hayim Solveitchik said in his famous article on the subject, that that world is gone, but it really isnt. Yes, there are MORE yeshivah graduates today who have adopted this type of parlance – at least while still in their 20s – but there are still a silent majority who are no different than their uprbringing. I dont really know how I would teach this in a classroom. Probably you said it best, that they have to be taught the mattirim. But beineinu, outside of the classroom, we should realize that de facto, and maybe even de jure, it doesnt matter what the halacha seforim officially say.

  • Miriam A

    i The adoption of chumros is not the problem. The problem lies in the social conversations including around shabbat tables,proudly discussing which chumras you keep, and judging negatively those who don’t. My kids go to a non co-ed MO school.

    The real problem as Rabbi Adlerstien noted is that it is not PRESENTED as a chumra!

  • dovid landesman

    When my daughter attended the seminary in Ofakim, she and her classmates did a Purim skit in which a group of Beis Yaakov girls were being taken out to be killed al kiddush Hashem. Their assailants granted them one last request and they collectively made the appropriate berachah. Impressed by their holiness, the assailants decided to allow them to escape, whereupon one of them looked at him crossly and said: “nu, nu, nu – hefsek!”
    R. Yaakov zt”l repeatedly spoke about the fact that he had been learning for many decades and still had not found a makor for “frumkeit.” Sadly, our schools – especially the seminaries both here and in America – are teaching such a distorted view of Jewish life that it is no wonder why the OTD figures are so high. Albeit the lack of accurate statistics, I would not hesitate to say that our schools and the weltaunshaung being taught are far more responsible for the OTD phenomenon than is the internet!
    Through the years, hundreds of seminary girls have shared our Shabbat table, and I never cease to be amazed by the lessons they are being taught by what I can only describe as a group of “sick” morot and mechanchot. As a parent of four girls who went through the system – some in EY and some in LA – I was aghast and angry by what some teachers saw fit to present to them. The parallel problem in the boys schools are the roshei yeshivot, rebbis and mashgichim who make our sons believe that if they do not strive to be a kollel yungerman, they are failures.
    I honestly believe that there are leaders within the chareidi camp who are aghast with the present chinuch situation. Alas, they do nothing about it because they fear the power of certain elements within our camp. I do not have permission to quote them, but I – and numerous others – have heard directly from gedolai yisroel that the present structure is flawed and in need of repair.

  • Joe Hill

    R. Adlerstein,

    You wish that every time a halacha is taught, that all dissenting opinions are cited simultaneously? Any time a child is taught that a certain action is wrong, the teacher mention opinions that posit it is okay?

    What a recipe for confusing our children!

    [YA - And you would like that every time a halacha comes up which seriously divides the community, including the population of the class of students in front of him, that a teacher will instruct teenagers "it's my way or the highway." What a recipe for confusing our children - and turning them into sonei Yisrael!]

  • Allan Katz

    I would appreciate a link to Rav Wolbe’s Frumkeit article

    The problem with chumros is that they usually cause a person to be makil in other areas , they come at the expense of something else

  • L. Oberstein

    I hope that the ever widening gulf between sincere orthodox Jews who hold different views on issues such as those raised in this article does not move us so far apart. Just as one group is offended by mixed seating at a wedding or shaking hands with a client of the opposite gender when closing a deal, there are other,equally G-d fearing Jews, who are repulsed by the ever higher mechitzos and stringencies. Whle many of our youth are indeed growing Brisker Payos and eschuing high school diplomas, others are leaving orthodox observance and even going much farther than that. I wonder which of the two groups is numerically larger.The norfmal middle has to be more assertice and less timid.

  • Daniel Eidensohn

    A partial translation Rav Wolbe’s essay on frumkeit is found on my blog Daas Torah

    The short excerpt can be found by googling Daas Torah Wolbe frumkeit

  • Evan Steele

    After engaging in anticipatory anxiety about the naarishkeit my children might hear from their Rabbeim in yeshiva, I’ve come to what I think is a good method for countering it. It’s less about the specific positions taken than it is the method by which we think about issues.

    Instead of simply providing a strident counter-argument to the Rebbe’s remark, I have an intelligent, nuanced discussion with my children about the issue, including discussing different points of view. At the end of the day, who looks better? The Rebbe who makes some flippant, extreme remark, or me, who honors difference and critical thinking.

    [YA - You are lucky parents, if you got away with this. I would not advise creating a wedge between children and their rabbeim.
    Children must look up to their rabbeim for their teaching to be effective. Somehow, we have to show our kids an alternative way, while still honoring the role and position of those who teach them Torah. You can give vent to your frustration with their inadequacies by speaking to your spouse behind closed doors - but not in the presence of the kids.]

  • Joe Hill

    L. Oberstein,

    What could possibly “repulse” anyone about a higher mechitza?

    R. Adlerstein,

    I presume that on the same token you would insist every Chareidi Yeshiva teach that Zionism is acceptable.

    [YA - Nothing close. I would advise that at an appropriate age students understand the arguments on both sides. After that, rabbeim can and must take a stand to present a conclusion as they understand it should be, and without resorting to mockery and put-downs. It will be healthier for students, and healthier for Klal Yisrael. For students, the alternative is the extreme let down (and sometimes feeling of being deceived) of students who later discover that what was presented to them as clear fact about the opposing side was not so true. For Klal Yisrael the benefit is people who can relate with respect to those with whom they disagree.

    I have a colleague at a high school where I teach very part time whose chinuch was to the left of mine. For years, we "debated" each other. Each of us took the OPPOSITE position of what people would have expected of us. After we finished, we each told the audience why we disagreed with what we had presented earlier! Confusing? Not at the appropriate age. (We did this usually for young adults, but sometimes for high school students.) We did succeed, we think, in demonstrating that we could both be passionate, disagree vehemently with each other, and still be civil, collegial and respectful.]

  • L. Oberstein

    jOE: You ask a question, so I will honor your intergrity with an answer.It may make some people feel more secure if they can totally close themselves into a world without challenges. I attended a shul today where there is a women’s entrance and a seperate men’s entrace and a divider to keep anyone of the wrong gender going to the women’s side from the men’s side,even if they entered by accident.There was a kiddush and it had a high mechitzah in the middle so one could not see the women. There was a mechitza in the shul and my wife told me that although there is one way glass, there was a covering over the glass to make it impossible to see through. The shul was full of young people who voluntariy chose that form of gender seperation. In other orthodox shuls populated by very frum jews, there is seperatation at the kiddush but only that there is a table in the middle and men are on one side and women on the other but one can see the other side. In another shul in this city, the women are actually in a seperate room ,butg that is for space reasons, I think. We all live side by side in peace because we do not impose on one another standards which vary greatly. The problem arises is there is intolerance and coercision. There is more than one way to be a G-d fearing Jew.

  • Joe Hill

    R. Adlerstein,

    How about teaching students both sides of an Eruv, that’s validity is disputed, and their shitta is that it is invalid?

    [YA - Pretty much in synch with what I had in mind!]

  • Shades of Gray

    “After that, rabbeim can and must take a stand to present a conclusion as they understand it should be, and without resorting to mockery and put-downs”

    Rabbi Ilan Feldman discussed this in the Spring 2012 Jewish Action(“The Orthodox Family of the 21st Century: A Symposium”):

    “By nature, a discussion about lifestyle and mission, meaning and purpose, right and wrong, almost inevitably requires the authority figure to justify his or her position in comparison to other positions. Each group must rationalize its existence; in doing so, it is so easy to fall into the predictable trap of condemning others…. Only the most disciplined, tolerant, secure, and loving authority figure will explain the answer while leaving room for, even respecting, an opposing view.”

    [YA - It is for good reason that Rabbi Feldman is one of my closest friends. :-) ]

  • Dr. E

    This type of thing happens all of the time in Right-of-Center schools, where in many cases the statements do not jive with the worldview of the parents (e.g., statements regarding topics like Tzniyus, Zionism, Secular Studies, Kollel-only lifestyles). The question is how parents react to it when kids come home with reports of such rhetoric. One way is to be directly cynical towards the teacher and school. But, how many parents bother to call the teacher for validation or clarification? (I would suggest that this would be a more appropriate first step than immediately calling the Principal). First, politely ask the teacher what he/she said on the matter. If there are any inconsistencies, then paraphrase what he/she was told by the child. Does the teacher own up to it over the phone, get defensive, or deny? Is the statement exclicitly or implicitly consistent with the philosophy of the school? If not, then parents should move up the chain of command. [I did this once and the Rebbe who made the irresponsible statement was reprimanded, and eventually did not last for much longer in the school.]

    The point is that teachers (and schools) have to be made to believe that they will be held accountable for statements that they make to impressionable young people. By parents merely being cynical about the whole situation in front of their kids, no one really wins.

    “After engaging in anticipatory anxiety about the naarishkeit my children might hear from their Rabbeim in yeshiva, I’ve come to what I think is a good method for countering it. It’s less about the specific positions taken than it is the method by which we think about issues.

    Instead of simply providing a strident counter-argument to the Rebbe’s remark, I have an intelligent, nuanced discussion with my children about the issue, including discussing different points of view. At the end of the day, who looks better? The Rebbe who makes some flippant, extreme remark, or me, who honors difference and critical thinking.

    [YA - You are lucky parents, if you got away with this. I would not advise creating a wedge between children and their rabbeim.
    Children must look up to their rabbeim for their teaching to be effective. Somehow, we have to show our kids an alternative way, while still honoring the role and position of those who teach them Torah. You can give vent to your frustration with their inadequacies by speaking to your spouse behind closed doors - but not in the presence of the kids.]“

  • Evan Steele

    [YA - You are lucky parents, if you got away with this. I would not advise creating a wedge between children and their rabbeim.
    Children must look up to their rabbeim for their teaching to be effective. Somehow, we have to show our kids an alternative way, while still honoring the role and position of those who teach them Torah. You can give vent to your frustration with their inadequacies by speaking to your spouse behind closed doors - but not in the presence of the kids.]

    Fair enough, but a very important issue that needs to be addressed as well is the active effort on the part of many, many Rabbeim today to drive a wedge between children and their parents. I could relate many stories of comments made by Rabbeim that implicitly or explicitly convey the message “don’t listen to your parents. They aren’t frum enough,” or “don’t respect your parents’ choices. They are wrong.” One comment suggested that parents consult with Rabbeim more often. Certainly good advice, yet how often do Rabbeim consult with parents before declaring that choices they know perfectly well are embraced by parents are completely, unequivocally assur? Of course, parents and Rabbeim both are responsible for improving communication, but I would suggest that the psychological and spiritual danger, especially in today’s world of at-risk youth, is far greater when wedges are driven between children and parents than between children and Rabbeim.

  • Robert Lebovits

    I have no fear of the chumros that someone chooses to accept based on the piskei halacha or hashkofa of a particular Rov/Rosh Yeshiva. I can respond to those with understanding whether I agree or not. It’s the chumros from “unsere oilam” or “yeshivaleit” of unknown origin that I find so destructive and potentially divisive. They do not lend themselves to reasoned discussion or analysis. They simply ARE, and if you don’t “hold” of them you are excluded from legitimacy.
    Ala DF: I, too, grew up in a Hungarian home where minhag trumped halacha. But my brothers and I were fortunate insofar that when we would come home from yeshiva and demand that kiddush Shabbos morning be made on wine k’shiur and not whiskey, for example, my father would tells we could make our own kiddush and he would happily continue to use schnappes. [P.S. Some years later a talmid chochom showed us a Minchas Elazar where he explains the makor in halacha for using whiskey for morning kiddush in the shiur commonly used.]

  • David F.

    “This type of thing happens all of the time in Right-of-Center schools, where in many cases the statements do not jive with the worldview of the parents (e.g., statements regarding topics like Tzniyus, Zionism, Secular Studies, Kollel-only lifestyles). The question is how parents react to it when kids come home with reports of such rhetoric.”

    If you choose to send a child to “right-of-center” school, you have no right to complain when the views espoused by their rebbeim reflect that hashkafah. It’s no secret where schools stand on these matters. Anyone who sends their child to a school has an obligation to find out the school’s hashkafah beforehand. If their decision was to send – they must understand what they’re doing in making that decision.
    I’ve spoken to my son’s principal a number of times about parents in his school who complain about certain rules that they have about internet, dress code, hair length etc. His frustration knows no bounds because these very parents were the one’s who used all sorts of protekzia to get their kids into the school which didn’t want them in the first place because they knew that the parents don’t share their hashkafos.
    Bottom line: If you don’t like the hashkafos and approach of your kid’s school, send them to a different one. Don’t send them to a place where you are at odds with much of what’s going to be taught.

  • Bob Miller

    Originally, the responsibility to educate fell on Jewish parents. That is still the basic halacha. Then, for reasons of expertise and/or time, teaching duties were delegated to tutors or schools, acting as agents of the parents. We have now progressed to the point that the major educational burden now falls on the schools. Question: If the parent has to pay due respect to the teacher’s point of view, to what extent does the teacher, the parent’s agent, have to pay respect to the parent’s point of view?

  • Evan Steele

    By missing the point, David F. draws out an important distinction in the discussion. The issue isn’t difference. Indeed, the idea that difference can somehow be avoided amongst Jews is laughable at best. It’s about how difference is communicated and addressed. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person who is tolerant of any genuine Torah hashkafa. I therefore have no problem with my children’s Rabbeim having a different hashkafa from my own. I am not disturbed nor threatened by other Jews making different choices than I do. My problem begins when others, i,e. Rabbeim do not afford me the same respect, and insist that their’s is the only way. As I mentioned in my post, I do not belittle or denigrade others’ opinions or choices. All I ask is the same treatment from others.

    Truthfully, in terms of the comment that “If you choose to send a child to “right-of-center” school, you have no right to complain when the views espoused by their rebbeim reflect that hashkafah,” I might say the same about the Rabbeim, namely that if you choose to work in a yeshiva where you know the parent body is not very right-of-center, then you have no right to strong arm children and families into changing.

    Sadly, at the end of the day, what draws parents and rabbeim to be in this situation is, I believe, really one and the same goal. Parents would like their children to maybe be a little frumer than they are, and rabbeim would like to influence children to be frumer as well. If we all have a similar goal, why are we acting like we’re in a battle against each other for our childeren’s neshamos?

  • Chana Luntz

    It is all very well to talk about not creating a wedge between children and their rabbaim (or their morot), but the issue is far more complex (and to my mind fundamental) than that. Let me use some examples which might be perhaps a bit less emotive (but thus more easily seen to be wrong).
    A few weeks ago my five year old daughter came home with her weekly dvar torah, which she is instructed to read at the shabbas table. It went something along the lines of “When we finish a book of the Torah in shul, we stand up and say chazak, chazak, chazak” and then proceeded to learn some moral message from this. She indeed read it very nicely. When I managed to haul my husband down from the ceiling, we then had a debate about how and to what extent we needed to tell my daughter’s kodesh teacher that Sephardim neither stand up nor say chazak, chazak, chazak. Now, maybe my husband wouldn’t mind so much, if it were not for the fact that we deliberately sent our children to a Sephardi school !!! The problem being that it may be nominally a Sephardi school, but the available pool of Sem graduates to teach kodesh here in England are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi – which means we have this problem every single year, in every single class, and time after time (eg both my children keep lapsing into some garbled half and half version of the asher yatza brocha, because they have been inconsistently taught the Sephardi and Ashkenazi version). Another example, I have had to deal with a boy who refused to have his hair cut during the three weeks, because his teacher only taught him the Ashkenazi customs (again in a Sephardi school) and even once we pursuaded him (with great difficulty, and only after he saw it in black and white in a Sephardi halacha book) that maybe this was only an Ashkenazi custom, he still refused, because what would his peers say (peer pressure being everything)?
    So if you average rebbe or Sem graduate is completely incapable of boning up on and teaching multiple halachos, when those relate merely to two recognised and clearly defined sets of minhagim, in circumstances where they take a position in an officially Sephardi school (albeit one where children in the school are demographically around 40% Ashkenazi) – and where they get it wrong so often, clearly and completely and utterly wrong for the majority demographic they are teaching, I am highly sceptical that you are going to get a greater level of complexity or accuracy on matters that are far more emotionally charged, and where the various positions are much more difficult to access. There is a fundamental inability to deal with multiplicity at large in the teaching community that on some level is extraordinary, and it comes across in all aspects of the kodesh teaching available today. So if you are going to advocate suggesting to children the existence of multiplicity, you are by definition driving a wedge between children and their rabbaim or teachers. And you need a root and branch change to kodesh teaching if anything approaching the mindset you are advocating is to be introduced.

    [YA - Excellent points, as frustrating as they are. I would not give up the ship so easily. I have witnessed changes accomplished simply by an administration explaining to faculty the toll that the teaching you describe takes on children and their parents. By instructing faculty to be mindful of the nuances that get covered over, and by ensuring that there are Sephardic faculty on hand who have both unabashed pride in Sephardi minhagim as well as significant background in learning (and can therefore serve as a halachic resource), other faculty gradually can get the message. I've seen it work.]

  • Doron Beckerman

    Regarding Rav Wolbe’s piece on frumkeit:

    He begins the second paragraph of that piece with the following – “Frumkeit is a natural, instinctive urge, to draw close to the Creator.” and later – “.. the approach of frumkeit, is to constantly feel the spiritual pulse, whether it is in a status of closeness or distance, and to force himself to closeness.”

    It is an undeveloped, unrefined, natural urge to draw close to Hashem. The classic frumkeitniks are the seven listed in Sotah 22b – the people who bump into walls because they closes their eyes to avoid looking at women etc., the people who shuckle really hard in Shemoneh Esrei, the people who measure how long their own Shemoneh Esrei took – compared to the other bum who finished 30 seconds sooner, the people who grow the thickest payos they can, and so on. There’s no shikkul hadaas, just spiritual wildness. He’ll shove to get on the bus going to do Bircas HaIlanos on two trees, when there is an Almanah who has one tree right down the block, who loves when people come to her garden to make the Berachah. The shoving Shoteh thinks the people who don’t go on the bus to the two trees are feinschmeckers who don’t really understand what it means to be “frum.”

    A person can, must, develop a sense of caring about the will of Hashem and drawing close by fulfilling it – guided by Daas. When the Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 13) talks about Perishus, he writes that it is for “Hachafeitzim Lizkos Lekirvaso Yisbarach.” IOW, it is the same basic instinct as frumkeit, but it has to be guided by Daas, taken beyond the base, instinctive, selfish ground-level. What Daas dictates as to “what do I want to achieve here” is an important question in terms of application of Daas, but not the definitional demarcation point between “frumkeit” and true striving for Kirvas Hashem.

    It is important to note:
    a) That one can sublimate or ignore even that basic instinct, and not channel it at all. Kirvas Elokim is just not a significant part of such a person’s calculus. For example, one who does not seek to improve his Shemoneh Esrei concentration in any serious way is not utilizing that natural instinct. Most people would probably occasionally stumble over the frumkeit michshol if they were serious about their Avodah, just as most people occasionally fail to apply their Daas in other areas of life. Complaining about “frumkeit” can sometimes come from being a step behind it, not ahead of it. It is from not being a serious mevakesh, as opposed to being a balanced mevakesh.

    b) In other instances, calling people on their “frumkeit” is simply another manifestation of the same “frumkeit”. It is a unbridled expression of a feeling of being close to Hashem because one is beyond all that “frumkeit”, because he is very machmir on not being too “frum” (or frum).

  • shmuel

    In response to Doron Beckerman:

    Both your notes a) and b) are important. I don’t know the solution to a). I think the easy prescription to avoid b) is to avoid “calling people” on things, whether it’s “frumkeit” or anything else.