Isaac Kaplan

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

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not #1, But Definitely Top 10

I'm usually a fan of Rabbi Yakov Horowitz's material, but I just can't agree with his latest post.

To summarize for those not willing to read the article: Yonason Rosenblum decries the extravagant Pesach celebrations at hotels. At one point, he quotes a rav saying that "Pesach in hotels" in the biggest threat to yiddishkeit today. And Rabbi Horowitz basically (and correctly) says that such a statement is ridiculous. However, he goes on to give the hotel guests a free pass:

For each of the past eight years, I have accepted invitations to join a total of four different Pesach hotel programs as a scholar-in-residence. Throughout that time, I never saw any of the exaggerated claims made by that Rav – guards at tea rooms, waiters almost trampled, and on and on. And to imply that there is “no ruchniyus” in a comfortable setting where mothers and grandmothers who toil all year long raising their children and volunteering for chesed activities can peacefully sit at the table and enjoy the Seder and their families is untrue and condescending.
This is where have to disagree with Rabbi Horowitz.

I'm not going to rehash the whole "materialism" and "gashmius" bit, although that's obviously a primary factor here. It's been done a million times before. I will say one thing, however:

Perhaps nothing signifies the obsession with materialism more than going to hotels for Pesach. Rav Soloveitchik compares the holiness of the Seder night to Kol Nidrei night (interestingly, one rav pointed out that on Erev Pesach this year, we will lain parshas Acharei Mos, which contains the krias hatorah of Shacharis and Minchah of Yom Kippur). Yet Pesach has gone from an ultra-spiritual experience to an ultra-materialistic experience. In a way, it's worse than the fancy car and the fancy home, because it's killed the meaning of one of the most weeks of the year.

-- But to me, the biggest reason why this makes the top 10 is the staggering sum of money that gets spent here. One rav told me that he heard this has become a billion-dollar industry. I’m almost certain that’s an exaggerated figure, but at the same time, when you see the pages and pages of resorts advertising in the Jewish Press, there are definitely tens of millions being spent here. And at a time when aniyim are suffering, mosdos are suffering, and there are so many great causes that can use the cash, this is terrible.

And granted, the richies also blow plenty of money on fancy houses and fancy cars. But in those areas, they don’t spend much more than the average Joe. How much more does it cost to lease a Lexus than a Toyota Camry? On the upside, probably about $10,000 a year. And when it comes to buying a house, in most frum neighborhoods, even a shnooky house costs an arm and a leg.

But even with inflation being another excuse for kosher retailers to jack up Pesach food prices, there is a significant cost difference between making Pesach at home and going to Cancun.

And all that money that aniyim and mosdos will never see is why I think this makes the top 10 list.

- So what’s the solution?

I don’t want takanos. The wedding takanos became the biggest joke in Flatbush. Plus, it would cause a serious loss of money to Katz, Lasko, Chaim Kaminetsky, and others. As much as these programs are wrong, I don’t think it’s fair to cause them to lose parnossa.

Then you have the people that say the rabbis should give mussar about the topic. Yeah, because that’s worked really well with TV, tznius, and materialism in general.

My suggestion? Start a campaign where the richies will match their Pesach travel expenditures with a matching contribution to tzedakah. (Of course, we would need a minimum threshold. The people spending Pesach in Fleischmann’s don’t need to get involved, because they’re probably in a hotel for the right reasons.)

I would love to see various mosdos and organizations band together to form such a plan. I would definitely list the donors in a full-page ad in the Yated and Jewish Press, thanking them for these donations. These richies love recognition, and if everyone sees they gave 75 grand to tzedakah, that’ll give them their glory. I would even try to get the more generous richies on board first, to try to pressure them to get everyone else involved.

Maybe we can’t stop people from going away for the holiday. But if we can at least give the aniyim and mosdos some of that cash, that's progress.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Ess Shver Tzu Zayn A Yid"

In my years in the yeshiva system, there was one anecdote that has recently bothered me. Maybe it wasn't the anecdote per se, but the way the rabbeim delivered it.

Here's the anecdote:

In the 1920's and 1930's, many American Jews assimilated. One gadol attributed the mass assimilation to a common saying that reflected the attitude of the Jews at the time: "ess shver tzu zayn a Yid - it's hard to be a Jew." Many Jews felt that their religion wasn't much more than a difficult burden. And at a time when many frum Jews were looking for jobs on a weekly basis because they couldn't work on Shabbos, perhaps we can't blame them for having such a negative attitude.

In any case, the lesson is: don't treat Judaism like a burden. Don't say, "it's hard to be a Jew."

This story bothers me on multiple levels:

1) Sometimes Judaism can be difficult. Keeping kosher in a small town in Middle America? Not so easy. Paying 5 tuitions, a mortgage, etc. in the tri-state area in 2008? Painful. Besides, Pirkei Avos discussed the concept of "l'fum tzara agra." Sometimes, Judaism is hard.

2) My bigger problem is, the rabbeim provided no solution to this problem. It's like a father telling a depressed kid, "cheer up." What the heck is that? For most people, emotions don't work like the on-off switch that turns on a light. They can't just get happy.

And in the same vein, if a kid finds Judaism to be a meaningless set of burdens, what's he supposed to do about it, after hearing the above? Just feel like an even guiltier schmuck for having those thoughts? That's really productive.

After telling such a story, a rebbi has got to follow it up with a discussion of what's great about Judaism, what's great about Torah and mitzvos, and the tremendous opportunity we've been presented.

3) And that leads into my third point: too many mechanchim portray Judaism as a bunch of meaningless burdens. They suck all the life and beauty out of Yiddishkeit, instead ranting about TV, concerts, and "kids these days." And then on top of that, they'll tell over an anecdote like the above. Again, just to make the kids feel even more guilty, I guess.

The best rabbeim I had weren't the ones who shouted until they were blue in the face about how evil girls are. The best rabbeim were the ones whose faces shone when a kid had a good pshat to offer, when a kid brought clarity to a difficult sugya. But that's a discussion deserving of its own post.

-- So in the end, I've got no problem with the anecdote - besides, the Torah says that one reason for the Tochacha is not serving G-d with joy.

But if there are no solutions given about how to get to that level of joy, then telling over the anecdote is pointless.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Death of Quality

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
- Woody Allen

There's an ad for a yeshiva which I find very disturbing. The yeshiva claims that by the time the kids get out of there after 12th grade, they'll have finished shas 40 times. And before that, while in grade school, they'll have memorized Tanach and Shisha Sidrei Mishna. Sounds amazing, doesn't it?

This place rubs me the wrong way in so many ways I don't know where to begin.

First off, the way they hype the kids coming out knowing all this stuff just sounds like a "get rich quick" scheme. From the get-go, something smells fishy. If only Rav Eli Teitelbaum zt"l were still around to tell these guys off the same way he ripped the MLM and network marketing schemes.

And assuming that, in fact, the kids will go through shas 40 times in high school. One of two things is going on: a) the kids are killing themselves and are having absolutely no free time at all, or b) the quality of those 40 times is basically non-existent. And this place claims they're gonna have a strong secular studies department, too. Whoever these kids are, I feel for 'em, and hope they stay frum after all this.

But what really gets to me is the learning by rote and the sole focus on bekius. If you're finishing shas 10 times a year, good luck squeezing a Rashi into the mix, let alone a Tosfos. It's scary, in so many ways:

- 1) Are these kids going to learn how to learn, how to think in terms of lomdus? No. Suddenly, that's not important. I know some will say that once they get to Israel, they'll start learning b'iyun. And at that point, their knowledge of shas will be extremely helpful. But let's be realistic: in many ways, they'll be way, way behind their peers, and they may be screwed up for life.

It's one thing if a kid joked around in high school and didn't learn much. Perhaps once he gets to Israel or Yeshiva Gedola, he can get serious and start thinking in learning. At least he hasn't developed any bad habits in his approach to learning.

However, a kid who goes to this school will have to develop a totally new approach to learning: after 12 years of pure memorization by rote, he'll suddenly be faced with unfamiliar rishonim and acharonim, as well as the formidable challenge of making sense of a challenging sugya. That's a tall, tall order, especially for someone entrenched in a diametrically opposite approach to learning all his life.

- 2) Besides, is there any precedent for this derech halimud in our mesora? Many of the same people who trash YU for not following the mesora are suddenly clamoring to send their kids to a place whose derech halimud flies in the face of everything we were taught about R' Chaim, R' Akiva Eiger, and the K'tzos, for starters. (Not to mention that we'll be lucky if these kids even know the names of those acharonim when they step out of high school.)

This yeshiva claims that some of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel support a similar yeshiva in Israel, but so what? What's appropriate for Eretz Yisroel may be totally inappropriate for America. (If anything, the precedents set by the likes of R' Shraga Feivel, R' Hutner, etc. have proven as much.) Have any American gedolim signed off on this place?

- 3) Also, a school like this can only thrive in an era of image-itis. The fact that people go for this, it just goes to show that it's all about results these days, all about the numbers. Not about quality, just quantity. These fathers just want to brag that their kids finished shas forty times. Never mind that they probably went through it the way Woody Allen "went" through War and Peace.

Many times in life, quality isn't sexy. Quantity is.

- 4) Finally, I also believe that part of the appeal behind this school is that the kids will be so busy memorizing that they won't have time to think. Many right-wingers are anti-thinking; after all, it makes a rebbi's job easier if he doesn't have to answer a kid's tough hashkafa questions!
Thinking has become evil. Drinking kool-aid is the way to go.

One of my favorite gedolim stories was in the JO eight years ago, in an article commemorating the twentieth yahrtzeit of R' Yitzchak Hutner, ZT"L. He was on a bus when he saw one of his talmiding sitting with a sefer, learning on the bus. Rav Hutner turned to the talmid and said, "nu, so when do you have time to think?"

If only we had more rabbonim like him around these days, we wouldn't have schools like this, schools that represent the many ways this generation has gone wrong.