Oct 19, 2012

Challenging Ourselves

"The not-yet-frum may not know a lot of Torah (yet), but we err when we treat them as a remedial group."

So said Rabbi Moshe Taub of Buffalo in an article in Ami magazine.  He describes someone involved in kiruv who, instead of giving lectures on light subjects and on topics that that typically draw people in ("The Kabbala of "... this or that), gives over what he hears in Gemara shiurim from someone considered a top Litvishe rosh yeshiva.  These shiurim are complicated discussions on the Gemara and the men he is being mekarev haven't even learned Chumash! Nevertheless, he is able to present to them the Gemara and commentaries, the questions and the resolution, and has made people frum in this way.

Artscroll biographies have been mocked for portraying gedolim as brilliant and perfect since childhood, putting them completely beyond the reach of the average Jew.  R' Taub says that throughout the year, we convince ourselves that we are not on "that level" of the people we hear and read about.  Although it is true that people can be dismissive when they read about people who do things way beyond what the average person does, the opposite is true too - we can be uninspired if we are not challenged to go beyond what we think we are capable. 

I am reminded of a description of the Arrowsmith approach to learning problems.  The usual remedial approach is to assess a student's strengths and weaknesses and to design a program that works around the student's weakness.  If they find it difficult to learn visually, they learn by listening instead.  With Arrowsmith they do the opposite.  If the student finds it difficult to learn visually, they concentrate on improving their ability to learn visually! They don't accommodate weaknesses; rather, they work to raise the student's capabilities. 

A lot of outreach lectures and classes are easy-listening.  That's fine, as long as real learning takes place too.  I admire the baalei teshuva who started with no, or minimal, language skills and progressed to being able to read and understand texts in the original.  Wherever we are at, in learning and doing, let's see how we can move forward.


  1. Unfortunately one of the biggest complaints that the not-yet-frum have when listening to a frum person give a shiur is that the lecturer is often peppering the lecture with commonly understood (to frum people) Hebrew words. There are those, however, who will gravitate toward being treated like an equal when it comes to intellectual achievement and will be capable of rising to the level that they are being brought into. Treating long time BTs like newcomers inhibits growth but it might be very discouraging to some to be expected to understand the language after only a short period of time.

  2. I think that the problem is found both among BT's and FFB's, albeit in different manifestations. Some truly want to change and grow in leaps and bounds, and so you can demand from them much more, and they will then really blossom. Others don't want to change, and so you have to keep things light, give attention the listeners' interests, etc.