Guest Post: Dear Dad, Mom and Chaim
Last week's post, Why Do Centrists Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?, garnered a lot of interest. One reader sent in the following letter that he had written to his in-law's family (identifying details have been altered):
Dear Dad, Mom and Chaim,
I am writing this to all of you to clarify why I think it is a mistake to choose a haredi yeshiva for next year. I hope you find time to discuss this together, and I am available if you wish to revisit the issue with me.
Until now, Chaim, you have been in an American center-right high school. The school prepares you for college, but the emphasis is on a yeshiva experience. Students are expected to wear black hats, and, explicitly or implicitly, your school places you within the yeshiva (or “yeshivish”) culture. Now, you are choosing a school for next year. This decision deserves serious consideration that includes an examination of what you, as a new adult, think about yourself and what you think about your relationship to Am Yisrael, Torah, and God.
Some people believe strongly that their entire purpose in this world is to learn Torah. Even if they have to work, they believe it is an unfortunate reality that they have to do so, one that, in an ideal world, would never materialize. They spend each and every moment of their time outside of work (or other necessary activities) learning Torah. They do not practically believe there is any good to be gained by interacting with secular culture, and purposely have nothing to do with secular music, art, literature or even science. These people do not read Blake, Tennyson, or Milton – nor do they find value in Hume, Kant or Schleiermacher. Museums and art galleries are of little value or interest. This is the type of philosophy your high-school projects. This is also the philosophy Merkaz, Mir, Toras Moshe and other schools in Israel espouse.
When a student from a different background attends these types of schools, one of two things can happen: 1) they can buy into the views of the school 100% (I have a number of friends who went to modern-orthodox high-school with me, who, when in Yeshiva in Israel "frummed out" and took on the worldview I described above). Alternatively, 2) the student can bifurcate his (or her) world - they can split their life into two pieces: when in Yeshiva, or around their teachers from school, they pay lip service to the school's philosophy, they wear black and white, they live in line with what their teachers expect. However, outside of school, they live within the guidelines of their more open, modern background: they watch television and movies, listen to secular music, find (forbidden?) pleasure in their required readings for English Lit., and generally, enjoy other activities of which their school would not approve.
I am not going to deal with the first possibility in this email, since it is internally consistent, and does not produce cognitive dissonance (a feeling of going against what you think you are meant to believe). The student simply takes on his school's philosophy as his own. However, the second alternative (2 above) is very important, and requires examination. The question is, does it lead to a healthy religious and social result for the student? Can a student really be sincere about his relationship with Hashem and Torah in his "school persona", while his "outside-of-school persona" acts (guiltily?) against the philosophy he learns in school?
This comes to a head when the student is outside of the yeshiva or school system, perhaps a few years later. Does he abandon the values of learning Torah to the secular enticements around him that he always enjoyed, or does he maintain a connection to Torah learning and Torah love? After all, the secular world which the student also loves is worthless and denigrated, without any holiness, according to the school's teachings. How long can a person maintain the tension between what he loves and what he is told is right? How long can a student live with loving things that his school teaches him are antithetical to a Torah-true lifestyle? At what point does he perhaps throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting not only the lesson of the school that there is no value in the secular things he finds so pleasant, but ditching the whole committed religious lifestyle, which, as he has always been taught, is available only through fidelity to the school’s religious philosophy?
When he goes to college, does he maintain his "school persona" or shed it? Is it really a genuine part of him or is it just a mask, a costume, he puts on to make his school happy, that he removes when he can?
Chaim, you are a wonderful, thoughtful and deep 12th grader - and you find fulfillment in many things that your school might consider worthless. I know, because I did (and do) as well! So do your mom and dad. Your parents see spiritual and religious value in things that are not simply "yeshivish". Your dad's antique car restorations, the music in your home, your mom's insistence on exposing you to the wonderful literature that makes up a well-balanced western mind, these are all things that your parents find to be full of value - not only value, but also fulfillment - and yes, religious and spiritual importance. Your father would not be the same religious man without his understanding of the subtleties of a carburetor, or his hard work in family court. These aspects of his personality imprint themselves indelibly upon his Talmud-learning, and make it unique. Your mother would not be the same person without her skills as a social worker - and you would not be the same adult you are today without all these things.
Precisely because of how important the secular world is to your family and you - and how much it influences your life (and mine and your parents!) - you should not agree to live with tension between your school or yeshiva, and your passions.
There is a whole world of Jewish people out there who share your family's passion for things that are outside of the beis midrash. In a different kind of yeshiva, your interests in literature, science and philosophy would not be seen as shameful things to hide but positive attributes that complete you as a Jew. Your love of surfing, of art and of music can be seen as a positive religious act. Your interest in furthering your education and looking forward to a meaningful career can be seen as more than an unfortunate necessity but instead as a foundational religious activity of supreme importance and value.
You owe it to yourself, Chaim, to experience that view of Torah - to see an unapologetic view of a Jew who is completely involved in the world, and finds in that involvement spiritual and religious fulfillment! These areas of life become hand-maidens to the rich intellectual Torah life you will continue to live, and you will know that to the extent your knowledge is lacking in secular areas, it is lacking in Torah as well. This view can transform the rest of your life from one of unfortunate necessity to blossoming meaning.
If you go to a haredi yeshiva, you will continue on the path of driving a wedge between Torah and the world in which you engage. On the other hand, if you go to a school that teaches the bedrock of the modern-orthodox hashkafa, you will have an opportunity to see how Torah and the world around you assist each other in making you a complete Jew: Talmud study and the classics of literature and philosophy, a career and sincere involvement in Torah learning, all come together to complete the rich tapestry of your soul. Most importantly, you will not have to choose between being loyal to the teachings of your teachers and following those passions you know have value - rather your passions and the teachings will fulfill each other in harmony. What a missed opportunity, and one whose loss you will suffer for years to come, if you opt out of learning the philosophical underpinnings of the life you have been raised in so far!
Chaim, you stand at the threshold of adulthood. I have the highest regard for the path in which your parents are raising you - Torah with secular knowledge. I encourage you to consider very carefully where you go next year, and I encourage you, if you do end up going to a haredi school, that you find someone (it can be me or someone else) with whom to learn hashkafa, so that at least you have a taste of the kind of Jewish thinking I describe above, and never, out of ignorance, throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Love to you all,