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An Orthodox tent for Talia Lavin’s inner self

Reflections on the New Yorker article, 'Off the Path of Orthodoxy'

In the July 31, 2015 online edition of The New Yorker, Talia Lavin, a young adult who grew up in a Modern Orthodox community in the New York metropolitan area, and who graduated from a Modern Orthodox high school, published an article called “Off the Path of Orthodoxy.” As an Orthodox rabbi who has worked in Jewish education for the past almost four decades, the following sentences by Lavin provide me with an opportunity to share some reflections on what I have seen and heard, and how I myself have taught as an educator over the past four decades:

My own life in the years since leaving my faith has involved a complex process of reinvention. Even though I did not experience the educational and economic challenges others have faced, the transition was wrenching, and involved an erasure and redrawing of my moral calculus and place in the world.

The “others” in this quote refers to the experiences of those who have left ultra-Orthodox communities and have encountered often tragic, and deeply existentially disturbing challenges. We read more and more of these tragic, dramatic narratives in the news. Lavin, though, in these short sentences towards the end of the article, highlights issues that require serious attention by the “modern” Orthodox community. Her remarks apply to all “modern” Jewish schools, schools that try to balance Judaic and general curricula, some that are co-educational, that promote the arts in different ways, that serve populations that favor admissions to competitive colleges, and whose graduates seek material security and participation in society.

The first important point is her decision to enter into a process of “reinvention.” As Lavin so powerfully describes, there was not enough room within the context of Orthodox Judaism for her to invent herself. In other words — without my feeling the need to note that Lavin might very well still cherish many memories and experiences from her childhood and schooling — the orthodoxy she experienced growing up she found and finds to be too narrow and rigid. What Lavin is saying, from my perspective as an educator, is that those who taught her Torah in the name of orthodoxy, who interpret its modes of thought and who clarify how to observe holidays and mitzvot authentically have not left enough room for the individual to evaluate, discover, explore, interpret, choose, and then build commitments for themselves.

The message I extrapolate from Lavin here is that the Judaism Orthodox educators have created, the Torah they try to bequeath to their students, has not been flexible enough, kind enough, non-judgmental enough, or compromising enough for individuals who want to find a place for themselves inside of the tradition that is also theirs. Lavin’s is a heartfelt cry to us, the educators and rabbis. “Teach me a Torah that will value my journey, that will value my life-choices as choices seeking meaning. Teach me a Torah that will challenge me with sophistication and depth but without judging me or demanding that I accept all forms of observance or else have no place within the community of young Jews who could build lives and identities affiliated with our people.” Instead, Lavin found that — with all of the intelligence, passion and commitment amongst her rabbis and teachers notwithstanding — what her teachers and rabbis demanded as a criterion of approval and authenticity is, ultimately, submission to rabbinic authority.

I believe that we must take this message to heart and look inwards. For the many, many young adults for whom Modern Orthodox education works, we have achieved great success against the challenges that the post-modern world poses to Jewish continuity. Those individuals continue to lead meaningful religious lives and affiliate with or create new synagogues, and send their children to or build new Jewish schools. Nevertheless, I suspect that there are hundreds of Talia Lavins out there who have remained silent and simply left their world of Jewish observance, learning and communal life behind.

My response is to develop the image of a tent. The tent of Modern Orthodox Torah must be made wider. It must be broad, not narrow, accommodating, not rigid, flexible with all sorts of nooks and crannies within which growing young people can find a space that fits them, not squared-off at the corners. Modern Orthodoxy needs to offer a Torah that is kind to the wayfarer, that is empathic to the doubter, that appreciates the complexities of building an identity through which young Jews can connect to the broader world and society around them. It has to recognize that living lives filled with halakhic contradictions is not the same as building a life that is devoid of Jewish meaning.

Can we not find a Torah that will inspire and offer sources of meaning to these young adults? Modern Orthodox education has to acknowledge that being a member of the Jewish people is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and that there is no such thing as “more Jewish” and “less Jewish.” As Modern Orthodox educators we need constantly to find ways to listen to our students and affirm the validity of their experiences. Once we do that, our responsibility will be to facilitate the ways in which our students — with whatever life-choices they make for themselves — can find ways of discovering meanings for themselves in the Torah that we teach them.

More than anything else, our task as Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators is to facilitate meaningful processes of teaching and learning Torah with everyone, and not to teach towards a singular product in which everyone looks and thinks and behaves the same. Our teaching must be process-oriented, not product-oriented, distinguishing Modern Orthodox pedagogy from the pedagogy of kiruv, which is fundamentally a pedagogy of indoctrination. (Sometimes a pedagogy of indoctrination is important; for example, in training soldiers. However, I question whether or not a military model — a tzivos Hashem — is the correct response for the search for meaning and identity in a post-modern world.) Our responsibility is to believe that the Torah has messages and values that can speak to the experiences of our young students at all stages in their development, and to accept, acknowledge and allow them to make their own choices of what they will do with those teachings.

In order to teach this way, we first need to re-orient our thinking and take our students’ experiences and feelings seriously as authentic and valid. Perhaps the first pedagogic step in this direction as Modern Orthodox educators is to listen more than dictate, to hear more than lecture, to understand more than establish bottom-lines. Perhaps, as Modern Orthodox educators, rabbis and teachers, we need to believe that our task is to teach people as much as it is to teach texts. I suspect that most Orthodox teachers ultimately see themselves as teaching text — and believing that the students are either “in or out.” The result, as we see, is that more and more young people are opting “out.”

This does not require the teacher to avoid challenging our students. I never met a student who did not respect an honest challenge, as long as they felt respected by the teacher’s ability to listen and affirm their experiences. These challenges can be halakhic, or theological in the area of emunot v’deot; they can be in the area of behavioral commitments or character development — as long as we facilitate a true dialogue with out students, allowing them the full freedom and range to think and be as they choose to build their lives, conveying, ultimately, unconditional love and acceptance for who they are as members of an extended Jewish family.

I read Talia’s words and I look inward and ask: “Have we created a Torah that is gentle? That nourishes the creative spirit of each human being? That values human experience and can therefore be a wellspring of meaning for every Jew, and by extension, for humanity? Have we created a Torah that speaks to the yearnings and fears, the needs and the priorities, the values, the questions and the confusions of the young?” Lavin’s self-imposed exile from the world of her ancestors suggests powerfully that we have not. Her need to reinvent herself suggests that we have taught her a formalistic Torah, one of absolute, abstract categories, a one-size-fits-all Torah, and to find herself, she needed to leave. Dare we make excuses in the face of this claim rather than re-evaluate our vision of Jewish education?

Young people — indeed, all people who live in the modern world — need to invent themselves. They need to make choices about how to live, and those choices in turn enable them to recognize an emergent self. This also includes the people most deeply immersed in the teaching of Torah, those most passionately committed to its values and norms.

The following well-known midrash underscores the very crisis Lavin’s piece addresses:

Why must the daily tefillah reiterate the ‘God of Abraham, the God or Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ Would it not have sufficed to have said, ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’ It is because in every generation, every person must find their own way, build their own unique relationship with the God of our people.

Instead of creating schools that value questions more than answers, that emphasize human dignity and diversity, and that acknowledge the journey that every person must make throughout her life, Lavin’s experience suggests that we have created schools and communities in which the values, the norms, and the accepted patterns of behavior, are all pre-determined. Our youth are telling us that this creates too small a tent.

My reading of Talia Lavin’s article is that she wanted to hold on to her inner self, to discover it, to develop an identity that would be her own, and her religious education did not provide any paradigm for enabling her to do so. Perhaps the only paradigm she encountered ultimately was binary: all-or-nothing, right-or-wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her sentences suggest to me that she would have been served better through nuance, compassion, flexibility, and creativity. Indeed, my perception is that young people of this generation live in and see a world that cries out for inclusion, non-judgment, nuance, contrasts, diversities, joy, beauty, awe, flexibility, and infinite possibilities.

There are, indeed, young adults who have received “modern” Orthodox educations, have grown up in “modern” Orthodox communities, and who are satisfied with the love and stability their communities provide, and therefore continue to live Orthodox lives. These young adults affiliate as Orthodox. However, from my experience, they are often denigrated as “Orthodox lite.” Wives wear pants, the adult men and women socialize with each other, they attend the theatre and movies, they read secular books, they seek entrance into excellent universities and professions. In effect, this stratum of the Modern Orthodox community sometimes must live the double-life of knowing that many Orthodox rabbis and school administrators disapprove of their priorities. Without documenting this phenomenon, I am suggesting that the sector of the Orthodox community that has not made the decisions Talia has made, live, to some extent, “in the closet of don’t ask don’t tell.” This phenomenon, too, bespeaks of an Orthodoxy that is too judgmental, that has not yet found a way to convey interest in and support of many of the decisions young adults make as they build their lives.

Perhaps the most tragic implication of my reading of Lavin’s article so far is the dearth of strong rabbinic voices defending the idea that living a full life of civic responsibility in the modern world is itself replete with deeply authentic religious values. Every business transaction challenges the participants to consider religious values in making all sorts of decisions. Every socio-political event in the news calls out for a clarification of values that are the substance of Torah wisdom. Opinions about and analyses of these realities are all infused with religious values. Torah has much to contribute to bio-medical decisions. In other words, where are we locating “religious values?” How are we framing the issues and identifying the sources to satisfy the deeply felt needs, the yearnings, the challenges, and the attitudes that our people feel living in the world today?

Binary models and simplistic modes of thought that do not withstand the test of honest analysis or reflect the experiences of our youth. Orthodox education all too-often has taught an image of Torah that projects abstract, absolute, halakhic categories with little toleration for “wiggle-room,” or for alternative paradigms that might reframe an issue. I fear that many youth experience the image of Torah they have been taught as one that cannot include other categories for interpreting their experiences or acknowledging their feelings. I fear that a significant portion of our youth are voting with their feet, and telling the rabbinic establishment that such a view of religion leaves them feeling that Torah has nothing to do with the world as they experience it.

If the only Torah we teach is one of abstract, a priori, halakhic categories, then it seems that they will have none of it. Such is simply not compelling for the courageously discerning, independent spirit of our youth, and if Lavin is any indication, our youth are leaving. The Torah that is filled with depth, creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and progressive thought is not being taught to our youth. Has the possibility of teaching such a Torah been silenced in our times completely? Is the only Torah to be taught a Torah by rabbis and educators who have chosen an abstract, categorical, formalistic Torah? Can there be no other voices?

This leads me to the second point for reflection. Lavin wrote: “…[her… transition has] involved an erasure and redrawing of my moral calculus and place in the world.” What motivates, what forces a young adult to erase the modes of thought, the messages, the teachings of her past, in order to redraw a moral calculus and place in the world? My answer to this question is heart-wrenching but rings true: lack of inspiration. I fear that our schools and our rabbis do not inspire. When I consider this answer, I do not mean that our schools and rabbis and camps lack storytelling, and niggunim, and Carlebach minyanim. I mean, they might well lack deep engagement with the truths that young people feel and experience in a world that is chaotic, violent, and altered as a result of telecommunications beyond what anyone born before 1990 can fully appreciate.

I look back on the worlds of my teaching career, and I say in response to Talia Lavin’s courageously honest piece, that I fear — I do not make this absolute claim, but I fear — that perhaps for the first time in the history of the Jewish people, we run the risk of teaching a Torah to young people with the result that many of them feel that Torah and our religious traditions have little meaning for them in today’s world. This means that we have not discovered how Torah addresses the demands of modernity and of post-modern life.

If my reading is correct, then we cannot afford to ignore Talia’s message. Let us ask ourselves: do young adults feel (not “think;” but, “feel”) that Torah speaks to the pain of LGBTQIA individuals trying to build or remain in community? Do they feel that Torah has something substantive and nuanced to say about the complexities of the State of Israel? Do they believe that Torah has something compelling to say about poverty or racism or power or violence? About the methodical and on-going abuse and violence against women world-wide, even as we have entered the 21st century? Lavin’s closing remark causes me to pause, pose these questions, and worry that youth feel that the Torah has little to say on these subjects.

A commitment to the rituals of our religious tradition requires one to feel that those observances speak to sensibilities and feelings of meaning and importance in the world — and Lavin’s critique of her education is that the Torah she has learned falls short of much that she experiences as real. Even if some of my examples are couched in hyperbole, from my experience they do not fall far from the realities I have experienced from students directly.

We cannot afford to create a way of teaching Torah that youth hear as narrow and judgmental, because they will continue to conclude that the Torah as we teach it is irrelevant. How painful, as educators, to confront the reality that after a robust exposure to the teaching of Torah, many of our youth conclude that those teachings — coming from people who they know love Torah and Judaism — have little to say to their experiences of the world. How painful, and how can that be? If we acknowledge that the world is distinguished by the phenomena of diversity and complexity and nuance and change, how can we not infuse the Torah we teach with those same sensibilities so that our youth can feel nourished and influenced by the depth and meaning Torah can afford them?

Our youth need to hear voices of Torah that speak to the neshama of an increasingly small world, voices of compassion and sensitivity and an appreciation of difference. Elul is upon us. Some of us are already reciting selichot. If we are all educators — rabbis, teachers, and parents — then the greatest ashamnu to take to heart is the denying to our youth of a tent of Torah that is broad, wide, deep, accommodating and flexible — a Torah that recognizes the sparks of holiness in every single individual’s own life-journey. They need to hear of a Torah that provides a wide enough space for everyone to find their own place in it.

It is time for us rabbis and educators to start chanting words we feel so powerfully, with intentionality and mindfulness: ‘etz hayyim hi, lemachazim bah, d’rakheha darkhe noam, vkhol netivoteha shalom — the Torah is a tree of life, lending support to those who hold on to it, for its pathways are pathways to pleasantness and a holistic sense of life.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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