Isaac Kaplan

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Brooklyn And "The Basics"

My good friend Michelle has a piece discussing how a rabbi, in a speech about derech eretz, made a big deal about some senators drinking directly from a water bottle, rather than from a cup. Her piece brought to mind a thought I've had for a long, long time, so I guess it's appropriate to discuss it now.

I find that in Brooklyn, most rabbis and rabbeim will almost never discuss a "basic" halachic or mussar issue. Instead of talking about tznius and covering your knees, rabbis will discuss whether hagbah is done with a 180 angle or a 360. It also reminds me of a story that happened when I was in high school. A rabbi came to speak before rosh hashana, and was talking about making kabalos. The rabbi said not to go overboard with kabalos, and that we should simply make a kabala to learn 5 extra minutes a day. The rabbeim in the high school got all upset. What do you mean, you're telling them to learn ONLY 5 minutes extra!? They should be encouraged to learn much more than that! Never mind that R' Schach ZTL once was mekabel to bench from inside a bencher till Chanukah, but I guess we're better, right?

Why shun the basics? Two theories:

a) Many Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs are obsessed with image. They're competing with each other to be the best so they can get all the richies to give them dough. So only the yeshivos and sems that focus on the most arcane and extreme elements of halacha and hashkafa have a shot at being the Harvards of Brooklyn. If a kid came home and said "my rebbi gave a shmuz about how we should be respectful to our parents," people would say, yeah, I knew that in first grade. What kind of morons are in that yeshiva, that they have to hear the basics? But when you talk about water bottles, you give the impression that, "our bochurim are so great and so refined, that the only thing left for them to focus on is drinking from a cup instead of a bottle!"

b) This one's more pertinent to shul rabbis. Congregants who hear about the basics feel like their intelligence is being insulted. "Why is the rabbi talking about being careful with hilchos shabbos? What does he think I am, an Am Ho'Oretz?" So the focus on the arcane, to me, is a form of the rabbis trying to score points with the congregants, and to give them that feeling like "wow, I know all the basic halachos, so now we can focus on the hypotheticals that happen once every 50 years!" How else do you explain these discussions about hagbah, when many people are struggling with basics in areas like brachos, shabbos, lashon hora, tznius, etc.?

One person who didn't shun the basics? The Ramchal, ZTL, who said that Mesilas Yesharim was not full of earth-shattering chiddushim. Rather, it was merely a reminder of the basic tenets of mussar, which we all too often forget about. Many people could take a lesson from him.


Anonymous big bro said...

How about the idea that the rabbis themselves want to look smart? It's different than #2 because it's not about how the congregation comes across as much as how intelligent the rabbi looks. If he gives a speech on the basics, he looks like a buffoon. If he talks about the one in a zillion scenarios, he's a genius.

11:54 PM  

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