Thursday, December 25, 2008
Should We Teach People That The Torah is the Best Worldly Tool?
When I was first becoming observant, one book that had a great effect on my thinking was Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. It was written by a non-frum sociologist who immersed herself in two different communities of Baalei Teshuva to learn why they chose to become observant and in what ways they differed. She spent a few weeks studying at a Beis Chana Chabad Seminary for Baalos Teshuva and several weeks with the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a center for many modern orthodox Baalei Teshuva in Manhattan.
One of the major impressions that I had from this book, which, to me, reflected negatively on the modern orthodox approach to teaching Baalei Teshuva at Lincoln Square, was that their whole approach was completely this-world centered. They taught how Judaism and observance leads to a better life in this world. They showed people how being observant was healthier physically, emotionally and socially. They showed people how, if they became more observant, they could have better lives in this world. This was their main approach to outreach.
In contrast, the approach at the Chabad seminary was to encourage the women to grow in their committment to Yiddishkeit by focusing mostly on the spiritual side of it. They showed the people there how they could transcend this world and connect to G-d through keeping the Torah.
My impression was that the more "right wing" approach was to take a more direct route and actually focus on the real deal, which is that religion is supposed to bring a person closer to G-d, not merely a more "effective" life in this finite world.
However, I saw a very interesting Kedushas Levi in Parshas Vayishlach (5th piece) which speaks about this basic concept. He talks about two different stages in a person's development. He says that when one is first beginning to get closer to G-d, the yetzer hara is very strong. The person is still so steeped in "this-world", that they have no language or frame of reference for really focusing on the transcendent, which just doesn't move the person at that stage because he just doesn't speak that language yet. In order to grow in observance at that stage, a person can only fight their yetzer hara by focusing on all of the good things of this world that a person gets by keeping the Torah. In such a way, the yetzer hara is pacified and lays off a bit, and the person can grow.
But in "stage 2," when a person is already davuk, cleaving to Hashem, then he should no longer focus on the good things of this world that the Torah will bring him. Rather, he should only focus on giving nachas ruach, pleasure to Hashem as his only motivation. At this stage, the nefesh haEloki, the G-dly soul, is so revealed that one does not need the crutch of focusing on the worldly benefits of Torah anymore to subjugate the yetzer hara. The lure of greater deveikus with Hashem and the ability to give Him nachas ruach through one's avodah is incentive enough.
After seeing this piece in Kedushas Levi, I realized that both approaches, the Lincoln Square approach and the Chabad approach from that book are both necessary for different people, and for the same people in different stages of their development. I don't actually know whether the teachers at Lincoln Squqre are actually aware of "Stage 2" or not. I don't know if they intended to help influence the members of their community to the more spiritual, G-d oriented, transcendent side of Yiddishkeit when they were ready or not. But the Kedushas Levi is teaching that this method should not be shunned. It is something necessary for each of us in the beginning stages of our avodah (which can often take a lifetime) and should be used without embarrassment because for those of us coming from a secular culture, the worldy benefits are the only ones which will speak to us until we learn how much more is out there.
I don't think that only one or the other approaches are right. We have to know ourselves to discern which strategy to pursue when fighting our own yetzer haras and which is the right approach when teaching others. We have to know which language we and others understand and which we don't. IY"H, we should all be zoche to take the right approach in our own inner work and when trying to be mashpiah in a positive and productive way on others.
(Picture of Lincoln Square Synagogue courtesy of gis.net)
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