Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Monday, June 21, 2004

Europe: Overrated?

In my years of yeshiva, I have incessantly heard how great Judaism was in Europe, and how much greater they were when we are now. I'm sure many of us can recall our rabbeim saying, "oh, in Europe, the davening was incredible..... and the learning was amazing; to get into Yeshivas Ploni, you had to know 800 blatt ba'al peh!.... the mesirus nefesh...." You know what I mean.

Yet, upon further investigation, Jewish life in Europe wasn't all it's cracked up to be. Rav Avigdor Miller ZT"L, in Sing You Righteous pg. 201, discusses how some writers blame the Holocaust on our failure to "fight back." Within this discussion, Rav Miller gives a vastly different picture of Europe:

"That G-d planned the destruction in order to wipe out the sinful tendencies of European Jewry, in accordance with the prohecies of the Scriptures, did not occur to these misinterpreters. That the worst defection from the Torah since the beginning of our nation's history had taken place in Europe, and was therefore visited by the greatest retribution in history, was not mentioned by any of the writers, and thereby an immense opportunity to learn the intended lesson gets lost."

Whoa! My Rabbeim didn't tell me that part of the story. So who to believe?

Based upon something my Uncle Harvey said, I believe both views are true. He explained that in Europe, the yeshivos were interested only in producing gedolim. The focus was only on the exceptional students, while the masses were left by the wayside. (The exception probably being the likes of R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose "Torah Im Derech Eretz" mehalech was meant to keep the masses frum.) As a result, the yeshivas had incredible hasmada, and produces some truly great people. But many yeshivos weren't geared towards the mediocre bochur, and as a result the temptations of the Hasklah were too much to bear.

In fact, it's quite possible to conclude that this approach may have partially caused the drastic consequences that Rav Miller described. If the yeshivos didn't appeal to the mediocre bochurim, perhaps that approach was a factor in the mass assimilation, and ultimately, the destruction of Europe. The question is, however, can we truly blame the mass assimilation on this approach? Or was it merely a consequence of people falling for the Enlightenment and the general yetzer hora of that generation? And perhaps the fact that rabbeim today keep bringing up the greatness of European yeshivos is a proof that this mehalech is still the way to go, and that this mehalech is a solid mehalech. Perhaps we should have emunas chachamim that their mehalech is emes and wasn't at all a factor in the assimmilation that occurred.


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