Watering our Weeds

The following post (originally written Feb 2009) was greatly expanded into “Watering our Weeds” (MS Word, PDF), an essay in Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse vol. I (pp. 220-233), a book by R’ Dr Daniel Eidensohn with the assistance of Dr Baruch Shulem.

In the full version, I

  • further develop the argument that the evidence of our community’s state is not consistent with the Torah’s self-description;
  • add to the point made by the Gra by comparison to a similar position held by his talmid, R’ Chaim Volozhiner;
  • draw out how our observance falls short of their descriptions of following the Torah; and
  • outline the beginnings of a plan to close that gap.

The perspective of that paper, like this blog entry, is primarily to motivate people to join this great work. The work which not coincidentally is what AishDas is all about.

However in the printed essay I also touch on the spiritual crisis caused by people hurt by an abusive authority figure, or even just disillusioned by reading of some sexual or financial scandal by someone who we thought represented Torah and Jewish Tradition:

This critical issue does not merely invoke pragmatic questions; it harbors the potential to cause a crisis of faith – for the victims certainly and for the rest of us. If we alone follow the Truth, why is it not self-evident in the ethics of our community? Can we be surprised that it leads many victims r”l of the improper behavior to conclude the Torah does not hold the truth? Or that we have “kids at risk” who perceive the gap between expectations and results as evidence of hypocrisy? The Torah describes an appealing ethical community that people would be inspired to join, not something we would have to promote and sell. And yet, despite all our efforts at kiruv, the intermarriage rate in the Diaspora is sixty times the rate of baalei teshuvah choosing to join Orthodoxy

Again, see the published version here. And now, the original, left just to preserve the pieces I didn’t think were fit to print, and to tempt you to read the full version…


In an online discussion, someone lamented the fact that National Public Radio ran a long story about sexual abuse among Chasidim (or perhaps “Ultra-Orthodox” in general; the reporter was inconsistent). He wrote that NPR’s story seemed to imply that abuse was perhaps more common among the Chassidim of Williamsburg than elsewhere.

I’m not sure if that’s true or not. Remember that with so many children, a smaller percentage would still lead to more cases. My bet is that it isn’t, and simply the existence of the study and exploring the topic make it look that way. However, just the fact that it’s not self-evident that our communities are far less plagued by these blights — from this issue to fiscal impropriety to violent crime — is itself very significant.

As I always chime in on such discussions, Torah produces noble baalei sheleimim. And mitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah. If our abuse and other crime statistics aren’t clearly superior to those the rest of the country’s (especially after correcting for other socio-ecomic factors) it would be experimental evidence that what the mainstay of our community is practicing isn’t Torah. And it should be obvious.

Or as R’ Harry Maryles pushed me to put it in an Avodah discussion: If we view Torah as a tool, it’s not being used for the purposes for which it was created.

It seems to me the two formulations only differ on the breadth of the definition of the word Torah. In both I’m trying to describe a community that keeps mitzvos anashim milumadah without yir’as Shamayim, simchah, hislahavus, an intent to reach qedushah, etc…. You can call that keeping the Torah but not using it for what it was meant, or you can call it not really keeping the Torah. The difference is terminology.

The topic of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, a cure or a poison. Similarly Torah, causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what’s in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that’s in his head will grow.

As they wrote “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” [Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal], and as they wrote “To those on the right the medicine of life is in it, and to those on the left, the poison of death.” [Shabbos 88b]

Therefore one must cleanse one’s heart every day before study and after it of impure attitudes and middos with a fear of sin and good deeds.

This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom”. They were was about this they hinted when they said “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it.” (Berakhos 8a) And when they said “Whomever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty.” (Ibid 55a) Also when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a) they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age he shouldn’t distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he couldn’t be helped.

One must inspect which evil middah is strong within him, and after that clean it out. Not like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires a lot of slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah” (Abayei, Ibid 17a) in opposition to the “snake was sly”.

One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah, isn’t helped by all the legal fences and protections that he does. For any disease which isn’t cured from within…Even the fence of the Torah which protects and saves will be useless because of his laziness. (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 25:5)

- Vilna Gaon as quoted in Even Sheleima 1:11

The Gra, in a quote that pretty much declares the essential need for a Mussar Lifestyle (“Mussar” with a capital M, as later developed by the movement), compares learning Torah to watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds. Learning Torah without attention to middos will simply produce more forceful personalities with bad middos. Learning without mussar (lowercase “m”, a commitment to spiritual development in general) is worse than valueless; it can be destructive!

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan’s metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one’s observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita‘s role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives. (When it’s not merely reduced to a fantastic tale to keep younger students’ attention.)

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore — it’s a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei chakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. Or today’s news — someone selling shaatnez talisos. And even among the masses, an entire “under the table” economy designed to violate “dina demalkhusa dina” (the law of the land is the law), which undebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc… we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I’m not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn’t try to explain the tree’s relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we’re to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

An aside:

I don’t think the current problem dates back to R’ Chaim’s day. In R’ Chaim’s day, the battle wasn’t against apathy, it was against competing Isms. (Thus all his antipathy against Zionism.)

Also, in R’ Chaim’s day, his message wasn’t only his lomdus. It also included his amazing lifestyle. I Googled looking for stories of RCB’s gemillas chessed, I couldn’t find a good source, so here’s some chapter headings: playing horsey with the local children (no one wanted to be the horse), playing Cowboys and Indians and being left tied up (and he wouldn’t let the gabbai untie him, the children would be disappointed; instead he waited until they got back from dinner), people coming in and out of his home (the time he put down a pen in the middle of writing chiddushim and a homeless guy walked away with it was just typical), the time he forced Brisk to be mechallel Yom Kippur to bring money for pidyon shevuyim – and the captured man was actually guilty of being an (atheistic) Communist!, etc, etc, etc…

Along the same lines as introducing means of teaching gemara which more frequently links the halakhah to the question of values is one that actually addresses rather than skims the aggadita. Few of us were given any methodology for learning those portions of the gemara. The Maharsha and Maharal are useful source texts for deriving the underlying meaning of some of those fantastical-seeming stories.

Similarly, few men have the tools to learn nevi’im acharonim, sifrei Eme”s (Iyuv, Mishlei, Tehillim), and the other parts of Nakh that inculcate basic values. (Women are sometimes more fortunate in this regard.) When we teach “Dinim Class”, we need to spend as much time on the mitzvos that lack well-defined units of measure and limits of obligation, or that relate to interpersonal or fiscal law as we do to the rites in Orach Chaim.

Much can be done without a change in what is taught, but in how it’s taught. After all, our current emphasis on Talmud Bavli dates back to before Tosafos. To them, it was already an old practice to center education on the Bavli, and they need to explain why that’s so, despite the beraisa‘s recommendation one divide one’s time equally between Tanakh, halakhah and gemara. They expected Bavli to be learned in a manner so that one pulls out from the mixture all three. These lessons of machashavah and mussar, of the inspiring conceptual ideal and the means to live up to them, could in theory be pulled from gemara alone. I believe it’s more difficult, but that question should be seriously considered before toying with a priority system that predates much of what we do from how we wash our hands upon waking up to the choice of prayers with which we embellish qeri’as Shema before going to bed.

These are the questions me must seriously explore if we are to weed our garden.

And of course, and really first, we need to constantly think about these issues in our own lives and in setting educational policy. These ideas are just to get the ball rolling, not a canonical list.

And in fact, that underlies the concept behind The AishDas Society . (Please see our Mission Statement paper. For all the time the chevrah put into honing it just so, it would be nice if people actually read it.) To quote from that paper, “To be observant not merely out of habit or upbringing, but to connect with every deed on an intellectual and emotional level.” The intellect needs the Maharal, or RSRH, or Besh”t or… AND the heart needs to be refined so that one actually translates that to action. And THAT becomes AishDas, “the synthesis of the fire and the law, a whole that is greater than its parts.” (The mission statement itself is about what TADS offers to help that actually happen.)

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being qadosh.

2 thoughts on “Watering our Weeds

  1. Pingback: Book Announcement: Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse | Aspaqlaria

  2. I found a related gemara — Ta’anis 7a:

    “R’ Bana’ah would say: Anyone who toils in Torah lishmah, his Torah becomes an elixir of life (sam chaim) for him. As it says ‘Eitz chayim hi… — It is a tree of life for those who grasp it.’ (Mishlei 3:18) And it says ‘It will be cures for your leaders.’ (v. 8) And it says, ‘Those who found me found life.’ (ibid. 8:35). Whereas anyone who toils in Torah but it is not lishmah, it becomes a poison (sam maves) for him….”

And your thoughts...?