Been There, Done That: Why Being Frum Is So Boring
By: Rabbi Feigenbaum
Published by: The Klal Perspectives Journal


“SO YOUR PARENTS PUSH YOU into the right Bais Yaakov, you go to the right camp and seminary and build your resume. Then your father buys you some cliché to marry, you have a daughter that you push into the right school, camp and seminary and you build her resume so she can marry a cliché. Then we all die.” This overview of Yiddishkeit did not come from visibly “at risk” teens. The above summation of life’s goals comes from your establishment, “good family, good girl” Bais Yaakov girl. And there are hundreds like her. It is the girl’s equivalent of “Rebbe – another day, another daf – till I snag a good shidduch, live off my shver and then get out.”

It was in a very insular and protected frum community where I was asked by the senior class, “Doesn’t everyone do Yiddishkeit just because everyone else does? No one really knows if it is true – right?” Then there was a lively discussion about goyish music – with the students all well versed in the latest singers. Underneath the (double-starched, designer) white shirts and buttoned up uniforms, we have a generation with too many teens who are disconnected, disenchanted and who firmly believe (as one teen put it) that “the emperor has no clothes.”

These young people have no vision; they don’t even have any pride in being contributing members of Klal Yisroel. On the whole, we may be successful in ensuring that our teenaged children do nothing terribly bad, but we are failing to inspire them to doing anything terribly good either! Just surf through the social media. Speak with your children’s camp counselors, and it will be evident that the pervasiveness of cell phones, Internet, and boy-girl relationships are merely external manifestations of a spiritual malaise more severe than any in our memory.

In truth, Klal Yisroel actually had the exact same situation over 3,000 years ago. Chazal tell us that Bnei Yisroel in Egypt were idol worshippers and on the “49th level” of impurity. Yet we are also told that they did not change their Jewish names, language or dress. Thus, you had a Jew named Moishele, with the “gantze levush” (overt Jewish clothing) singing karaoke in an Egyptian bar on Friday night – in lashon hakodesh! To rephrase that in today’s terms, they walked the walk and talked the talk, but they had all but severed their connection with their source. And as a result, they were rotting inside, with no morals and skewed hashkafos (beliefs and perspectives). That is much of today’s generation!

To Take it Deeper

Chazal tell us that ain haShechina shoreh ela mitoch simcha – the Divine Presence will not rest on someone unless they are in a state of simcha – joy. And Chazal tell us that ain simcha k’hatoras hasefaikos – there is no greater joy than resolving one’s doubts. The greatest doubts we all have are doubts about ourselves. Do I make a difference? Where do I fit in? And, this is especially true for teenagers. Without addressing these issues and resolving these doubts – we can all DO Judaism (walk the walk) but may never connect to the Divine. That is the state we are in today.

Why Today?

  • Western culture today puts its primary emphasis on external accomplishments and on “the bottom line,” downplaying the importance of the process: we think too little of our personal struggles, private milestones and small, yet significant, victories. This attitude has seeped into Torah society.
  • The outside world is much scarier than ever before. I tell my students all the time that I am in awe of how they handle nisyonos (challenges) that never existed in my days or ever before. However, the Torah community has reacted to this new reality by “circling the wagons,” attempting to insulate our children through a patchwork of rules and regulations. In the process, we have lost sight of positive education. With all the focus on form and externals, the content, beauty, and hashkafa of Yiddishkeit is taken for granted.
  • The elephant in the room – shidduchim. We put form over content here as well, directing our children to do what is best for their shidduch resume rather than what is best for their neshama. As a young lady once told me, “I always thought I would marry someone who liked me. It appears that I am supposed to marry someone who likes my school.” This focus, and its inconsistency with our assertion that our foremost concern is avodas Hashem, is not lost on our teenagers, who view the world in black and white and are quick to cry hypocrisy.
  • A student once exclaimed to me, “I wish I would have been alive during the Holocaust – I could have been a hero and someone would have written a book about me. Now I am just another good girl who does chesed.” Everyone wants to move up a step, improve on the past, and feel they have conquered new heights and done something for the greater good. But what is left today? Taliesim will never slip again, no one is forced to work on Shabbos, everything is kosher, and chesed is institutionalized. Where is the next Torah frontier to conquer? The easiest way to get that feeling of growth is to focus on the external – anything you can do I can do stricter, and the school with the most rules wins. Why? Because internal growth is hard to measure and, for societal reasons, frum people are not comfortable talking about “connections to Hashem” and “spiritual growth.”

Possible Solutions

Sara Shneirer was quoted as saying that the reason she started Bais Yaakov was: “To make frum girls from frum homes proud and excited about their Yiddishkeit.” This must be the goal of our Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. We cannot take for granted that just because our children speak and dress Jewishly – just like the “lo shinu es l’shonam etc.” in Egypt – that somehow they will magically find Yiddishkeit more pulsating, exciting and satisfying than the outside world (which they all know about). Mechanchim (educators) now understand that the key is to give our talmidim and talmidos (students) a sense of accomplishment, uniqueness and individual self-worth as a contributing member to Klal Yisroel in their own unique way. The question is – how?

Encourage Individualism: We must each appreciate our respective, unique roles in Klal Yisrael, and this must begin with how we are educated. “She (Frau Sara Shneirer) loved her girls and respected their differences. She did not wish to transform the seminary into a melting pot. She instilled behavioral rules . . . but she respected the students’ distinctive characteristics and lifestyles.” How many of our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs are perceived this way by their students? Educators and parents must have the confidence to articulate to their students and children that Klal Yisroel is made up of twelve different shevatim (tribes). Each had its own path through the Yam Suf (Red Sea), with its own distinct flag, role, color of stone on the choshen (breastplate of the High Priest), and its own Nasi (leader). If teens see just one path available to them (or if teens sense that any other path, though theoretically open, will disappoint the adults who are important to them) their only alternative will be to opt out. Simply put, if chinuch is experienced by teens as “beds of Sodom” (which had one size – anyone too tall would have their feet amputated and anyone too short would be stretched out to fit), many of them will necessarily emerge crippled.

Validate their Struggles: Rav Dessler, in his essay “Nekudas Habchira,” points out that true growth comes only from conquering struggles. As great as Lot’s mesirus nefesh (self sacrifice) for hachnosas orchim (welcoming guests) was, such hospitality came naturally to him and was not a zechus (merit) that could save him from the destruction of Sodom. The merit that saved him in Sodom was his struggle to keep Avraham and Sarah’s secret (that they were not brother and sister) when he entered Egypt with them, though that information could have earned him favor and riches from Pharaoh. Though not betraying his sister and brother-in-law was hardly an impressive feat when view objectively, it was a monumental challenge for Lot personally, and he was rewarded for overcoming it.

As adults, we must view our avodas Hashem in this manner, and once again it begins with how we are taught while still young. Our children must be made aware, through every means available, that their worth is NOT the package they were handed as a gift from Hashem (last name, intelligence, financial status, appearance, etc.) but rather what they do with those gifts. In our homes and schools, we must emphasize that the stars and leaders are those who conquer their struggles, not those who rest on their laurels and naturally rise to the top by virtue of their gifts.

Embrace Failure: A major cause of our lack of simcha is our inability to cope with life’s inevitable failures and shortcomings, and the overall feeling of impotence that follows. We must learn to cope with, and grow from, failure. This learning must begin with youngsters, who also need much more room to exercise their decision-making muscles. No one learns anything without practice. How will they learn to make decisions, and to take responsibility for both successes and failures unless they are encouraged to make such decisions? How will they learn to handle failure if they do not have opportunities to fail and get back up?

Our community must reintroduce the emphasis on sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam (seven times the righteous falls, and gets up) – the tzaddik is not someone who never falls, but rather someone who gets back up. As Rav Hutner, zt”l, explains, it is actually the very falling that creates a tzaddik! One who confides in a friend or Rebbe of a yerida (fall) should be made to feel like a hero! He should be told that the pain this causes him is a sure reflection of a serious connection to the Shechina (presence of G-d) and that he is surely on a good path. This attitude would encourage real internal growth; even without ever having a book written about us, we can each be a true Jewish hero. As a student once told me, “You let us make dumb mistakes without feeling dumb for making them.”

Honesty in Chinuch: This demands a change in the culture of our schools and in our entire education system. Schools today are judged by whom they admit (or better – whom they reject) rather than by the type of student they produce. We all smirked when we heard Rav Shteinman, shlit”a’s comment that if Avraham Avinu or Rivka Imeinu were applying to school today, no yeshiva or Bais Yaakov would take them. But it is true. Parents need to stop using schools as vehicles to create an image. Principals are forced to betray their educational values for fear of losing their parent body. All this reinforces in our children (who know very well how the system works) that form and externals are key, thus increasing their sense of emptiness.

Principals must be allowed to educate freely without fear of reprisal by parents. School rules must be made for the good of the students, not for the image of the school. Kids smell that. Rules that cannot be enforced should not be introduced, and children should not be required to sign declarations that are known to be false. These practices reinforce the destructive culture of form over content. The structure of hashkafa, mussar and halacha classes should be designed to ensure that our students will be prepared to live with kedusha once they have moved beyond high school. They should know the sources for what we ask them to do, what is d’oraysa, what is minhag, what is a school rule, and what is simply community shtik (i.e., unimportant). They should be taught the reasons and beauty behind what we ask them to do. And if we don’t know – we must admit that we don’t know.

Encourage Questions: Rav Wolbe, zt”l, (as quoted by his son-in-law at a Torah Umesorah convention) said: “There is no such thing as an apikorsus (heretical) question – there are only apikorsus answers.” Students and adults alike throughout our community are finding that there are serious questions that require discussion. Yiddishkeit cannot remain in the “fairytale” state of elementary school, which was based on The Little Midrash Says. They must see the depth and truth – and their thinking must be encouraged and validated. When questions are avoided, the result is not increased commitment. To the contrary – it promotes the assumption that there are no answers, – and THAT is apikorsus.

One Last Concept: In the gemara in Bava Basra, we find that a sale forced upon a seller against his will can sometimes be ruled a valid sale, while a sale imposed on a buyer will never be enforced. The Ketzos HaChoshen explains that this halacha reflects a truth of human nature. A person can adjust to losing something he wanted to keep but something can never become his if he does not want it.

The same is true in Yiddishkeit. Our students and children can adjust to restrictions and can be forced to give things up. But it is impossible to acquire a connection to Hashem if they do not choose it for themselves. There is no means to make Yiddishkeit our own unless we appreciate it on our terms, perceiving its beauty, absorbing its value and developing a personal connection that will define our existence.

One Last Suggestion: Though a broom is crucial to the upkeep of a shul – and without it, davening in the shul would not be appropriate – I have never seen a broom with a silver handle. The Sefer Torah, by contrast, is beautifully adorned with silver and is treated with the utmost kavod. The message is unmistakable – we come to shul to honor the Torah, not the appearance of the building.

Whether we intend them or not, such messages are communicated about the importance to us of the inner experience of ruchniyus in similar ways – by the relative emphasis we place on the various elements of our lives. If we want ruchniyus to have the pride of place it deserves in the lives of our children, we must ensure that these values are noticeably honored and respected above others.

Thus, rebbes and moros must have the availability to stay after class and talk to our children because, thanks to their sufficient salaries, they are not rushing off to other jobs at our children’s expense. They should be able to spend time at night calling parents or preparing differentiated worksheets for different students, because Baruch Hashem, we have taken care to provide for their worldly needs. Furthermore, our children should see their rebbes and moros treated as royalty by laymen, boards and parents. Only then will our children believe the words we mouth to them about the beauty of Torah, the value of getting a good chinuch, and of acquiring good midos.

Jean Piaget, the noted educational psychologist, was known for espousing the concept that education means giving students the tools to figure things out on their own. L’havdil, we find a similar concept in the davening. In every shemoneh esrei (and in many other tefilos), we say “Elokeinu vElokei Avoseinu” – in that order, identifying Hashem first as our Elokim and only then as Elokei Avoseinu – that of our forefathers. We recognize our own relationship with Hashem before we say Elokei Avoseinu – a reference to our mesorah. If we want our children to follow in our footsteps, we must give them the space and encouragement to first create their own personal relationship with ruchniyus so they can appreciate their priceless heritage.

Until that happens, don’t be surprised if the speech you give your daughter about the length of her skirt, or your son about his quick davening, will only elicit in their minds the observation that “this emperor has no clothes.”