Sep 29, 2012

Our Evolving Headspace

Years ago, I read an interesting article called, "Replacing Secular Values with Torah Values" in which the baal teshuva author wrote about her struggle to adjust her thinking to Torah values:

"When I first came to Israel ... I was already technically religious—I kept Shabbat and kashrut and wore mostly modest clothes—but my values and beliefs were still half-and-half. It took hearing a real Torah perspective on certain issues (mostly relating to Eretz Israel and Jewish morality) to shake me up and help me see that while my behavior had begun changing to be in line with Torah, my thinking still had a ways to go. I resolved to work to change my thinking as well as my behavior, until both would be according to Torah.

"I found this second round of changes to be more challenging than the first. After all, in order to keep Shabbat, you just have to not do work. It might be difficult or frustrating, but in the end, it’s a simple physical act. Even when I felt like turning on my computer on a Saturday morning, I could just force myself not to. When I found myself thinking something that clearly came from my old perspective and was not in line with Torah values, I couldn’t force a change. I had to be patient and spend a lot of time learning and growing before those thoughts would be replaced by something better."

This got me thinking about what secular values and ideas have crept into the minds of those who have grown up with a Torah education.  In discussing this with others, we came up with a long list:

feminist ideas such as women are wasting their lives if they are only raising their children

what I do defines me and gives me value (as opposed to working solely to support oneself)
vegetarianism as a philosophy
emphasis on appearance (ex. "body sculpting," fashion)
the packaging (chitzoniyus) is all important
when anything is wrong, therapy/medication is the answer
life should be easy and comfortable
compassion for the wicked
the inherent value of secular education (not merely as a means to earn a living)
secular humanism
democracy (when no, parents and children are not equals, and yes, there is a hierarchy among Jews according to Torah)
youth worship
it's not my fault (it's my genes, my parents, my background, my brain chemistry)
happiness is the goal ("Whatever makes you happy")
romance, falling in love and living happily ever after, love conquers all
esteeming oneself

I deserve, I'm entitled
questioning the sanctity of life
questioning the blessing of having numerous children
independence as a value (we should be feeling utterly dependent on G-d)
that feelings are sacred (If I feel something, then who are you to tell me I'm wrong for feeling that way?)
"it's none of my business" "live and let live" (when applied to ignoring wrongdoing)

It's interesting that many of these concepts were not even prevalent in the secular world until recently, and are still not prevalent in certain parts of the world.  Today, some of these ideas can be found even within sheltered frum communities.  They sometimes appear in our frum publications and in lectures given by frum speakers.  If we can mentally step back and look around us with some measure of openness and objectivity while also reading memoirs and other material which convey the mindset of Jews of decades and centures past, it can be enlightening to see how we've changed.  It is eye-opening to see what we take as "givens" which were not "givens" in a previous generation.  It can be illuminating to examine how we think.


Sep 28, 2012

Under One Roof versus Independence

One view:

"I like the idea of my children beginning their married lives in Eretz Yisrael.  It allows them to establish themselves as a couple without hanging onto Mommy's apron strings."

Another view:

"I like the idea of my children beginning their married lives close to home.  It allows them to ease into married life with the support of family."

Is one view better than another? It probably depends on the individuals involved, the couple, the sets of parents, and how close they are.

What was done in previous years and countries? You read of couples moving in with parents when it's her parents and couples moving in with parents when it's his parents, very different scenarios! Sometimes, this was in a distant city, and without modern communication the married child was all but cut-off from his or her parents. You also read of couples growing, marrying and dying in the same town.  In the Soviet Union it was commonplace for young couples to share a small apartment with parents due to the lack of available apartments.  It's astonishing to read of numerous people living together in two room apartments and having guests too!

What they did back then does not sound contrived; it wasn't a trend of young couples doing this or that.  It was a pragmatic decision usually based on finances.  Today, along with concerns about finances, we are even more concerned about our emotional temperature and that of young couples.  How will we feel, how will they feel; our privacy, their privacy, and the all important independence.  

Different times, different concerns.

Sep 23, 2012

You Need a D&C (Determination and Commitment)

Surgical solutions to obesity are written about here and there in frum publications.  After one such article, someone wrote a letter to the editor expressing her surprise that the woman in the article who had lap band surgery feels guilty for taking the easy way out:

"As someone who underwent the same procedure, I think it's basically the only way out and not so easy at all ... Actually, you need major determination if you want to be successful."

She repeats the warning, "If you want to be successful, you need to be extremely determined and committed."

I seem to be missing something here.  If you need to be extremely determined and committed with the lapband surgery in order to be successful, why can't the identical determination and commitment be applied to proper eating without undergoing surgery? Can she muster that singlemindedness only upon going under the knife?

In an article about lap band surgery I read, "The most important aspect to the success of lap band surgery is its follow up care. Without suitable modifications in lifestyle, it is not possible to lose any weight through lap band surgery. It is not easy to lose excess weight; however with the right attitude and commitment, it is possible to change your life for the better."  Hmmm. Again, wouldn't modifications in lifestyle and the right attitude and commitment make all the difference without surgery?

Blessed will be the person who can devise ways of helping people gain control and learn self-restraint with the power of their mind.

Sep 20, 2012

When Pointing Fingers is a Good Thing

In a letter to the editor of a frum publication, a parent writes, "I have often wondered about the emphasis rebbeim place on having students keep their finger on the place.  Several years ago, my son was a third grader who had a difficult time with this practice....  He was a good student who knew the material and was not disruptive in class.  Yet somehow, keeping his finger on the place and chanting the pesukim in unison with the class was just 'not his thing.'"

I'm not going to discuss the merits of finger-pointing here.  What concerns me about the letter is that this is a third grader who doesn't do what his rebbi says to do.  The rebbi is the authority in the classroom, just as the parents are the authorities at home.  When the rebbi says to keep your finger on the place, this is not optional, to be done if a child feels like it or not! Whether or not the child knows the material is not as significant as the child obeying the authorities in his life.  If a child feels that he can decide to do his "own thing" when it comes to his third grade rebbi, what will stop him from deciding that certain mitzvos are just not his thing?

This leads me to the topic of choices.  It is very popular nowadays for parents to give choices to children as young as toddlers.  Do you want the Rice Crispies or the Corn Flakes? The red shirt or the green shirt? The idea is that if a child is able to make choices from the youngest age, this will train them to make choices when they are older, and if a child is able to make choices this will make him feel empowered and wonderful about himself.

Rabbi Aaron Dovid Gancz, a mechanech, says offering these choices to children undermines the foundation of kabbolas ol we want to instill in them.  Giving many opportunities to choose ruins the child for life, he says.  Why? Because it is not training him to be a soldier in the army of Hashem.  Because the child's feelings and preferences have been given so much importance.  A child who has been trained all his life to think, "What do I like? What do I want?" never to learns ask himself, "What does Hashem want from me." R' Gancz concludes, "Chinuch is based on mesorah from G-d Himself.  It is absolute truth and there are no choices."

Back to the third grader for whom pointing at the place is not "his thing," that's the problem right there.  Who asked him whether it's his thing or not? His rebbi said everyone should point, and everyone should point.  The parent thinks the issue is the value in finger-pointing.  The actual issue is kabbolas ol.

Sep 19, 2012

Me-Centered Hypersensitivity

It was refreshing to read a letter in a frum publication decrying the popular practice of castigating readers for insensitivity, for no matter what people say to the sick, mourners, childless, single, they are bound to be hurting someone's feelings.

The letter-writer (Francesca Zuckerman) recently sat shiva and she said, "Things that upset me one day, could sooth on another.  The shiva visit I found most touching, my sister found irritating.  The rav my brother felt was the highlight of the shiva for him, I was sure had overstayed his welcome."

She went on to say so eloquently:

"It seems we have traded our Jewish value of being sensitive to the feelings of others, for a Western, politically correct, me-centered hypersensitivity.  How often do we hear people crying 'insensitive' to something that really could be totally pareve, or treating an everyday event like a nisayon? ... We have become experts at tending to our own wounds, but unaware of those of others."

Then her wise conclusion:

"I am not advocating ignoring another person's tzaar.  Yes, when meeting an avel (or anyone suffering), we should try not to say something hurtful.  But at the same time, a person in pain has to realize that no one knows what is in his heart, and his pain stems from his nisayon, not from the people around him who cannot guess what he feels."

When people say and ask foolish things, let's regard the remarks as just that - foolish.  The intentions are almost never malevolent.  Don't we all have memories of words that slipped out that we soon regretted? Let us not allow those who made a mistake or those clueless people out there to ruin our day.

Sep 12, 2012

Fallible Experts

I keep on bumping into articles and true stories in books about experts who made pronouncements and were proven wrong.  Examples include those who said a four minute mile is impossible (as I posted recently), doctors who said a baby has no chance of survival (she went on to marry and have children), and doctors who said an autistic child would never talk and he went on to become a professor.

Experts share their expertise on politics, the economy, world events and the weather and are not infallible.

What is their track record? Are they way more right than wrong? I don't know.  I know that we revere experts and take their word for whatever is their topic.  Or we take their word when it coincides with our beliefs.

Perhaps G-d makes them wrong some of the time in order to give us a chance to bring Him into the picture.  If experts were right 100% of the time, it would make it almost impossible to have hope, to believe in a different outcome.  Being wrong some of the time ought to make the experts humble.  At least, it should reinforce our belief that G-d is in control.

Sep 4, 2012

What Moves You May Not Move Me

Back in April, I wrote: here about people who are moved by different things, and what appeals to one in his mitzva observance or in not violating a prohibition, may not speak to someone else. 

I was reminded of this today as I was reading about a former Mirrer talmid who said there were countless times that he was tempted to enter a business deal that wasn't perfectly honest, but then he thought, "How can I do this? Rav Nosson Tzvi [the rosh yeshiva] respects me!"

It's like when Yosef Ha'Tzaddik was on the verge of sinning and he saw the image of his father Yaakov which prevented him from sinning.  In both cases, the motivation was not the prohibition involved, that G-d said, "do not commit adultery," "do not steal," but an image of someone respected whom they could not let down.

Our minds work in interesting ways, don't they?

Sep 3, 2012

No Inevitability

The Gemara says that we read the curses in Parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana so that, “tichleh shana v’kililoseha” (may the year and its curses end).  Rabbi Breitowitz points out an astonishing concept:

It seems to us that the reason things are a certain way today, is because that is how they were yesterday and the day before and things don’t tend to change.  We are in a routine and our life is set up a certain way. We need to know that even if that is true as a rule, there is no connection between the last day in Elul and the first day of Tishrei. Whatever the decree is for the last day of Elul was decreed last Rosh Hashana, and whatever happens in Tishrei is rooted in the new year’s decrees! However, if things remain the same maybe it’s because we didn’t change.

The idea of there being a fundamental disconnection between the old year and new year can be reassuring or frightening, depending on how last year went. If it was a bad year, you can come to Rosh Hashana with thoughts of a fresh start, that if things were bad last year that doesn’t mean it will be that way this year. It gives us hope. But if things went well last year, on Rosh Hashana you can think – this may not continue!

To take Rosh Hashana seriously means that you realize a change and new decrees are taking place based on new considerations and this point is driven home by Chazal with “tichleh shana …” There is no inevitability of the curses of the previous year.  May we be inspired to make it a good new year.

Sep 1, 2012

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel z'l

This is a follow-up post to this post in which I said I looked forward to reading the books about R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel z'l.  I have a few pages left to the Artscroll book and my recommendation is: read it! I enjoyed it very much.  His accomplishments were astounding, from becoming the huge talmid chacham, masmid, and marbitz Torah that he was when he was coming from an all-American life in the mid-West where he wasn't an astonishing ilui, to his absolute love for Torah and his desire to promote it anywhere, his genuine love for people, and all with a normalcy that endeared him to thousands and to this reader.