Susan Hornstein

Damaging Messages Accompany the Torah Thoughts

I recently heard a talk by a rabbi from an American yeshiva in Israel. The talk was given in a mainstream Orthodox community in the United States. The rabbi is learned and charismatic; it is no mystery that his students flock to hear him teach. He delivered a message about the spark of God in us all, the tzelem Elokim with which all humans are created, and about the power of gratitude to transform our perceptions of our lives. It was great.

I am, however, deeply worried. Interwoven in his talk were three incredibly damaging messages. These messages are being delivered to our young people and we need to know about it.

First, the misogyny. While speaking of the power of gratitude, this rabbi told a story of a kollel student whose wife gradually engages in what today would be called “quiet quitting.” Puzzled by the fact that his dinner is not ready when he arrives home, his house is in disarray, and his children appear untended, the student consults his rebbe. The rebbe admonishes the student that he has not been sufficiently grateful to his wife. While gratitude was his main point, and portraying the wife as the mechanism for getting what the student needs or deserves was surely the side point, he went on to make his case even more strongly. Quite incidentally, even under his breath, he threw in a quote that appears in Talmud Bavli Berachot 57b, “שְׁלֹשָׁה מַרְחִיבִין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, אֵלּוּ הֵן: דִּירָה נָאָה, וְאִשָּׁה נָאָה, וְכֵלִים נָאִים.” “Three things ease a man’s mind: a beautiful abode, a beautiful wife, and beautiful vessels.” It doesn’t get more objectifying than that. In my opinion, this Talmudic passage should be relegated to the 99% of the Talmud that no one ever quotes. Are we teaching our young men who are about to enter the stage of looking for a stable relationship that a woman is an object, that she should be beautiful and that she should be focused on meeting his needs?

The second damaging message was disdain for non-Jews. This was especially puzzling, given that part of his main point was the dignity of humans, based on their being created with tzelem Elokim. Surely this is true of all humans, Jews and non-Jews alike. But his stories were peppered with examples of clueless, shiftless non-Jews. He explicitly called non-Jews promiscuous. It is very different to make a claim that Jews are chosen by God for a mission, than to claim that Jews are superior to other human beings because of being chosen. It is untenable to claim that non-Jews are categorically not mission-driven, or not deserving of our respect and high regard. It is dangerous to send young Jewish men, the exemplars of Jewish learning and observance, into the world with that attitude.

The third message relates to mental health. Our young people (and our older people too) are in a mental health crisis. Some experience abusive relationships, some deal with depression and anxiety, eating disorders are rampant, and every audience includes people dealing with these issues. Gratitude is crucial, and can transform how we deal with the obstacles that arise in our lives. But to imply that the primary impediment to happiness is that one isn’t grateful enough for the good they have is to minimize the very real issues that people deal with every day. And, he even said explicitly that the reason people are not more blessed by God is because they were insufficiently grateful to begin with. Do not tell a young man who has been abused by his uncle that his problem is lack of gratitude and that God is punishing him as a result. Do not tell a student with depression that he can fix all his problems by changing his attitude, perhaps causing him to reject the medical care that might save his life.

I reckon that most of the people present at this talk were swept along by the charismatic rabbi, enchanted by his stories, and impressed at his erudition. The fact that these dangerous messages were interspersed, with varying degrees of explicitness, is scary; they were swallowed with the spoonful of sugar with which he delivered them. I am terribly concerned that these are the messages being imbibed by our young people at this very impressionable moment in their lives. Parents who are sending their children to gap year programs – do your research. Be aware. Speak to other families. Choose a program that reflects your philosophy, or at least, does not espouse ideals that are odious to you. There are wonderful yeshivot out there, and a variety of other programs to enrich our young people, ones that won’t slip in misogyny, racism, and dangerous ideas about mental health between the pages.

About the Author
Susan Hornstein is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat. She holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology, and had a long career in User Experience Engineering. She is a conductor for HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, and a founder of the Women's Tefillah Group of Raritan Valley. She lives in Highland Park, NJ. She and her husband have three grown children, all involved in Jewish education.
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