It’s the season for reflection and introspection. A time for thoughtfulness and sensitivity. A time for learning and lectures. I actually look forward to some of the more thoughtful sermons that are presented this time of year. The philosophical foundations of belief, the meaning of the traditions and prayers, even the concepts attached to proper moral conduct or mussar, are often very inspiring for me. I have noticed some changes over the years, though, and some lectures are no longer quite as stimulating. Rather, some have become tedious, boring.
At first I thought it might be me — becoming cynical with age. I asked others and it’s not just me. The lectures that do not work for us have a certain non-worldliness to them — a certain lack of reality that we cannot identify with. There is a detachment in some of these homilies from the fact that we live and operate in a larger world.
Rava, one of the most cited rabbis of the Talmud advised his students to leave the study hall during the harvest season so that they could prepare for the rest of the year (Brachot 35b). This preparation was not simply for the students to gather food, but also to take part in the harvest process and share in the world of work. This is but one telling directive found throughout the historical and religious record to get out and engage with the world.
In so many places throughout the Talmud we are admonished to combine the world of study with the world outside the Beit Midrash. There are places where we are instructed to learn from the sciences or the merchants of the times so that the world of Torah can be enhanced.
So what happened? Why are so many young men and not so young men still locked inside the study rooms with their books when an occasional trip to the outside world is not only important but enlightening? More importantly, how can one truly know how to apply Torah principles of morality, ethics and honesty when there is no interaction with people, with society and with the behaviors that make up who we are in relation to the outside world? And why are we being lectured to believe that the study hall is the only way to a proper Jewish life?
As we get closer to the holiest of days this question of disengagement becomes more pressing for me. Not because it will change the way I engage with the world but for the way others, particularly younger people, are being increasingly instructed to disengage. They are told that they may not go to a shopping mall and certainly not to the Apple store or bowling, or to a basketball game, all of these places are deemed ”dangerous” to the “soul” of the young person. What is dangerous? The answer invariably includes catch phrases such as: Seeing things, hearing things, and being attracted to things that may “pervert” the identity of a Jewish soul.
I believe that there is some truth to these fears but the concerns are not limited to one religion or cultural group. In our digital society there are numerous concerns. But separating from them is not an answer to dealing with them. Maturity comes with understanding if a threat exists and then finding a just way to handle it. Halacha is replete with real world issues, from torts to marital responsibilities, from leadership to business contracts that must be handled with forethought and honesty.
Along with the message to dissociate and uncouple from the outside world there is an expanding message creep that is geared toward those already established via their careers and professions in the world. Despite making time for regular prayers and study those who go to malls, bowling and the Apple store are admonished to spend even more time in learning. There is little acknowledgement from some of these lecturers that the work they do helps, in large measure, to allow those in the study halls to remain through their financial assistance.
There is little acknowledgement that not everyone is cut out for a life devoted to full time Torah study. But, beyond this lack of recognition for the dedication to a lifestyle that combines true Jewish values with a commitment to everyday living in our greater world there is the patronizing we are sometimes subjected to. It is this patronizing that is making it harder to attend certain lecturers, despite their brilliance, knowledge of Torah, Talmud, Halacha and overall insight. When we are told that a secular education is just not so important or that work as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, school teacher or whatever is just not as valuable as learning, or a university setting is a bad place to be when one has never spent any time there, well, integrity is lacking.
I want to hear solemn, reflective, educational and motivating sermons. But to be inspired and engaged there must be honesty and credibility.