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.

-Dixie Yid

(Picture of Lincoln Square Synagogue courtesy of

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Shorty said...

I had learned, that during Tefilah, we gradually move from the "physical" to the "spiritual" in stages. It seems too, that for Baalos Teshuvah this is a good strategy too - especially those that are "thinking about it" or maybe feeling nervous. I know I was. It all seemed a little overwhelming and thoughts like "can I do this?" were frequent.

So I think it makes a lot of sense to give some groups of people a lot of explanation on the "practical side" of Torah and gradually move more to the "spiritual side"...many of us have feet a little too rooted in the physical world. So we need a bit of bridge to see that to live more spiritually so to speak, one doesn't need to leap across a giant chasm.

I know when I started to approach a local Jewish group, I was invited to join a Tefilah class, and I thought, i'll go this once, but this isn't really what i am interested in. Then, I learned that I can Daven quite easily, gradually added in more prayers...same with Shabbat...oy I couldn't observe Shabbat, no email? No lights? I live in the country its not i tried, one Shabbat, no computer. Not too hard. Ok, then the phone, then the lights, then "all out"...and well, here I am, baking Challah lighting candles and keeping a Shabbat Cholent in a slow cooker. When you take things in "smaller doses" you realize that the Mitzvot are do-able. I find for myself, as I did one little part of a Mitzvah, then i wanted to know how much more of it can I do or what other Mitzvot can I do.

Does this make sense??

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

It definitely makes sense. And I guess you're right. It's connected to the idea of taking it slowly. You can only receive as much "light" as your vessel can contain. As we slowly grow, our capacity to receive more light increases and this process continues ad infinitum as we continually progress. You're making a lot of sense Shorty!

-Dixie Yid

Anarchist Chossid said...

Very nice article. The problem with Lincoln Square approach is that that is the goal.

I was talking to my rabbi’s son recently. He received nothing but a standard yeshiva education and is now in business. He told me how learning Gemara really provided him with tools for success in his business career (by sharpening his logic, by discussing situations similar to those that come up in real life, etc.). But — he hastened to add — of course, this is not why you should study Talmud! This guy has learned Ch-s 4 and 5 of Tanya (and much more of Chassidus) and knows the real reason we learn Torah. He looks at the practical benefit he got from it as a positive side-effect but by no means the main goal.

In MO world, the last part does not exist. Many Jews from this world look at Torah not as a way to connect to G-d, but as a G-dly advice on how to make our physical lives happier and more successful. According to one opinion, this was the difference between Yakov and Eisav. The latter used spiritual as a guide in his physical matters, while Yakov used physical as a way to rise to a higher spiritual level.

I agree with the statement that sometimes one has to fool yetzer ha’rah and nefesh ha’bahamis. But “Lincoln Square” approach, in my opinion, is not the way to do it. You can attract people to Judaism through showing them the warmth of Jewish communities, by engaging them on intellectual level, by showing them internal emotional, intellectual, historical, rational richness and meaningfulness of Judaism — or whatever works for an individual. Not a utilitarian approach of “what is it good for?”

It doesn’t get too much time for my rabbi to get young people thinking about G-d and the purpose of our existence in his Tanya class. It may take time for them to get to that level, but the more you do, the more it works. The more honestly you do it, with as little compromise as possible, the more it works. People appreciate honesty and truth. “Taste G-d and see that he is good.”

Arguing that we should start off with “Lincoln Square” approach and proceed to “Chabad seminary”, right-wing, ein-od-milvado approach is the same as arguing that initial attraction between a husband and wife must be purely physical, and their relationship must be based solely on that attraction at first, and only after the marriage will they (hopefully) attain the deeper level of relationship. If they know such a level exists… I don’t think that’s the proper way to go about things.

Anonymous said...

"We" have various drives and needs as individuals, so "we" don't all benefit optimally from the same exact path into (or in) true Yiddishkeit.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Crawling Axe,

Thank you. I would argree that it is not the ideal to start out with the "Lincoln Square" approach without any "Step 2" in mind. However, I would disagree with what you said at the end that one shouldn't do the "Lincoln Square" approach, even as a "Step 1" to a more G-d centered step two. I think that the Kedushas Levi is affirming that focusing on the worldy benefits of the Torah at the beginning is a legitimate and necessary approach to avodah. The purely spiritual approach just isn't able to help people fight their yetzer hara properly at the beginning.



-Dixie Yid

Menashe said...

And I think both of you are right! This doesn't sound like a jewish conversation at all..

I am hardly one to argue with the heiliger kedushas levi whose haskama we just read in tanya yomi [if the alter rebbe sought his haskama, then i shudder to think i have any ground to disagree with him. nevertheless I will go out on a limb..]

The lincoln square/kedushas levi approach is the correct one, at least to begin with, for someone that needs it. Plenty of people who end up in the chasidic world would never have joined if it weren't for a "chabad house" / MO approach to yiddishkeit that eases them into observance. Then again there are also plenty of others who for whatever reason skipped that stage and went straight for the ruchnius. But this can and has been disastrous in some cases. People in both categories are coming to mind now.

As long as stage 2 is the end goal I have no problem with using the MO approach as a stepping stone. And even going to stage 2 directly is also an excellent move as long as it is balanced and well thought out.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Agreed! Just like those women at Beis Chana were looking for a G-d centered approach, and that is what they were taught. For some people, that may speak to them right away and they should be taught on that, higher level earlier. However, that is, like you said, with the caveat that this is done in a balanced, healthy way.

What did you mean by it not being a Jewish conversation though?

Kol tuv and a gut Shabbos, a gut Chodesh and lichtig Chanukah!

-Dixie Yid

Alice said...

What a great and useful post!