A Torah Personality’s Pain

Not everyday do you get a call from a Torah personality asking you to spend more time on the internet, rather than less. But that is just what happened to me a few days ago.

I can’t mention his name. Nor can I tell you how he happened to come across a story that touched his curiosity. Once he read it – or, more accurately, once he saw reader reaction to it – he was so disturbed that he asked me to write about it, since he couldn’t do so himself.

Akiva Finkelstein is an 18 year old from Bet El. An honor student in a dati Leumi school, he trained for eight years, and became Israel’s welterweight champion, and representative at an international competition in Armenia. Scheduled to fight motza’ei Shabbos, a change in the rules demanded that he be weighed in on Shabbos itself. His father flew in to help argue the case for him, and convinced the powers that be that Akiva could not get on the scale, but it would be OK if the officials lifted him on to the scale. At the appointed hour, the overall boss balked at this in a monumental act of small-mindedness, and told Akiva that he would either step on the scale himself or be disqualified. The secular Israeli coach urged him to do it. Akiva refused; in a single instant, he sacrificed eight years of training.

Back to the phone conversation. The Voice at the other end spoke not so much about Akiva’s decision as the reactions to it on some website. He said that there were three kinds of reaction. Two were expected. Some cheered Akiva on, speaking of his kiddush Hashem and his exemplary commitment to principle. Others mocked halacha itself, arguing that some silly old religious rules should not have gotten in the way. Both of those reactions came from predictable parts of the population.

He asked me to guess the third reaction. I did, and got it right. It was the third reaction that got him upset. These comments gave Akiva no credit for the decision, but denigrated the eight years of training. Think of all the Torah he could have learned in the time he spent outside the Bais Medrash! Akiva was a loser, and so were his parents.

The Voice at the other end was no great fan of boxing. But he termed this third reaction “sick,” and asked what is becoming of us in the yeshivah world. Whether he had spent his time wisely or not, how could they – however many or few of them there are – not fail to see the beauty of that boy’s heroic decision? How could they believe in a one-size-fits all Yiddishkeit that left no room at all for individuality of expression? Even if they took justifiable pride in their own constancy in learning, did they have no regard for the way others who could not understand that devotion would look at them – and at Torah itself? Did their immersion in Torah have to mean that they would be oblivious to the world around, and uncaring about their impact upon it? Is this really where the triumph of the remarkable resurgence of limud Torah in our generation had to lead? Do we want to pay that price?

I had no answers, of course. Listening to him was hard, but also reassuring. I had asked myself those questions at times, as had most of my friends. It was good to hear that someone with far more Torah under his belt felt the same way.

Most impressive to me was the chief concern of the Voice. “How could they write so contemptuously? Didn’t they realize that the boy might read their words himself, and how hurt he would be?” Of all his concerns, the lack of menschlichkeit pained him the most.

The Voice insisted that it was the duty of those of my generation to try to wrestle Torah back to a position of equilibrium with other realities. I protested that the most my friends and I could do was to remind those who felt crushed and weary that they were not alone, and most importantly, that the emes of Torah was more important than any of its distortion.

The Voice had no solution. Just pain. But he wanted it expressed, even anonymously. I hope I have done justice to it.

[Postscript, Sunday 4PM PST By now the editors have rejected literally scores of comments, all of them conveying their displeasure with a Torah personality preserving his anonymity. There is nothing wrong with these comments. They were rejected simply because they all say the same thing. We have also received a longer guest contribution from Dr. Yoel Finkelman, an observant (but not haredi) social scientist whose specialty is the haredi world. It will appear in a few days, and undoubtedly inspire even more discussion. For the moment a few observations will have to suffice. 1) The vast majority of those who have complained about the anonymity of The Voice have not provided their own names. Instead, they have hidden behind screen names. Could it not be that some of the reasons that inform their decision to do so might not apply to Torah personalities as well? 2) Assume for the sake of argument that anonymous Torah personalities cannot be effective leaders. Is it true that every Torah personality has it within himself to be a leader? Is it not true that only certain people have the skill set to be leaders? Rav Soloveitchik famously said that he was not a manhig, but rather ta melamed. (“We make a bracha each day referring to the Ribbono Shel Olam is ‘melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael.’ If it is good enough for Him, it is good enough for me.”) R Elyahsiv, asked by R Shach to assume a mantle of leadership, refused. Begrudgingly, he agreed only that “If they ask me questions, I will give answers. The subject of this posting was one individual who is not a leader, albeit an important figure and thinker. Does he deserve everyone’s venom for not assuming the risks and consequences of speaking out publicly?

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53 comments to A Torah Personality’s Pain

  • Yaakov Menken

    I’ve only now followed Rabbi Adlerstein’s link to the original article, after posting an understanding of the Voice’s position in comments to Yoel Finkelman’s post. But now, having read the article, I am bothered by something — to the point that I will share it with you, knowing full well *I* will now be categorized by some as one of those “kanaim.” I believe there is a fourth option which the Voice didn’t separate from the third.

    Like Halpern, my grandfather was a wrestler, who turned down the opportunity to try out for the 1936 Olympics because of where they were held. I’ve already stated clearly that this boy made a Kiddush H’ by refusing to get on the scale. But… but… boxing? It’s not about whether every kid is suited for Beis Medrash alone. I don’t think we would talk about the Kiddush H’ done by the gambling prodigy who refused to participate in a tournament that ran into Shabbos… would we?

    Here’s the problem: the entire purpose of boxing is to beat your opponent into unconsciousness. I know there were a lot of Jewish boxers, but today we know the sport routinely causes permanent brain damage. This isn’t marathon running, baseball or even football — it’s much, much worse. It is incredibly violent. And for that reason, I have to admit I also find it turning my stomach to talk about the sport, regardless of how excellent it was that the boy refused to step on the scale. Is it wrong to think that others might have steered him towards a more civilized [sic] sport? That, I think, is a fourth option, and not everyone criticizing the boxing is therefore simply a zealot.

  • Bob Miller

    Rabbi Menken,

    Anonymously lobbing snarky public comments at the Jewish boxer is not the same as advising him in private to pursue a more fitting career path.

  • Yaakov Menken

    Bob, that is true, but I think you, too, paint the comments with too broad a brush. Some of them, at least to my eye, were directed not to the boy but to his parents, wondering why they did not steer him towards a more refined outlet for his physical talents. That is not the same as saying that every boy belongs only in the Beis Medrash.