Avi Ciment
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The Modern Orthodox Conundrum, Part 3: The Solution

The Solution?

Firstly, what’s really important to you? You can’t dance at two parties. If Torah and mitzvot are not on the top of your list, then your observance — along with your children’s — will reflect that. We either want a serious relationship with God, or one of convenience. We can focus on the material world and all things physical, or we can refocus our attention to our spiritual dynamic, our souls. When I was on the left side of Modern Orthodoxy, while I believed in God and followed the rules, I didn’t do it out of love, but more out of rote and fear. Like most kids, I didn’t view prayer as a real opportunity to bond, praise, and beseech God. I saw it as something I had to get over with so I could get on with my day. I talked during shul incessantly because I didn’t get the memo that I was actually standing in front of God and blowing an opportunity to ask Him for brachos. But circumstances in my life changed, and I suddenly looked at God and my relationship with His Torah more seriously.

Second, schools have to get on board and decide that part of Jewish education is making kids more observant. Many Modern Orthodox families place a very heavy importance on academic achievement, yet aren’t nearly as concerned with Torah and mitzvah achievements.  And their kids pick up on this. Grades and education are important, but to what end? I don’t remember much of what I was taught, but I do remember the nice rabbis who spent time talking to me about things not related to school and grades. But that’s hardly the agenda of most Jewish day schools, where many rabbis are more concerned about whether or not you missed davening or did well on their tests, rather than if you actually believe in God. Most rabbis who work in these schools rarely put their own kids in Jewish day schools and opt for yeshivas because they see the writing on the wall. And that’s why many Modern Orthodox kids frum out once they leave yeshiva day school and attend a yeshiva in Israel, where the rabbi’s sole purpose is to bring them closer to Hashem, as opposed to focusing on grades.

Organizations like NCSY, JSU, Ohr Sameach and AISH do unbelievable work, and we should continue to support them, but they can’t do it alone. Schools need to get on board by acknowledging the problem and working to fix it. Why is 90% of the Jewish education they receive rarely relegated to Hashkafa? Shouldn’t they know why it’s wrong to text on Shabbos or have a cheeseburger. Elliot Resnick, former editor of the Jewish Press, posed a question I have thought about for years: “Is it really more important for the average Jew to know the laws of Eruvin than it is to understand man’s purpose on this earth?” I can’t honestly remember most of the things I learned in high school or college for that matter — but I can remember which rabbis actually cared about me, as opposed to the rabbis who were just phoning it in. Dr. Aharon Wexler further suggests that “rabbis on both sides agree that the failure lies in the deliberate neglect of questions of belief, theology, and the “why” of observance.”

My son told me that many guys attending yeshiva in Israel for their gap year actually went through a “detox period” as they were previously mechalel shabbos, even though they were from observant homes. Why is this “detox” period happening in the first place? This is not a common yeshivish issue.

Third, it’s never too late for parents to bring God into the discussion. Sure, my father sent me to a Jewish day school, but he never relied on the rabbis to introduce me to God and His commandments. Even the few minutes a week he showed me the Chumash on Shabbos, I knew he believed every word he taught me. He also told us about the holy power of the Shema, Shabbos, and Tefillin. Talk to your kids. Explain to them that living a Torah life of mitzvot is the most important — and joyful — thing in the world. They have to hear it, see it, and live it. Chabad works because their passion is palpable. They proudly and openly love Torah, and mitzvot, engendering a far more exciting Jewish experience than your average M.O. shul.

Fourth, do not send your children to a secular college unless they are completely insulated and strong in their hashkafa. And even then, you’re just playing with fire. Practically every Hillel house and campus rabbi I’ve interviewed said that the challenge to remain frum in a college environment, particularly for those dorming, cannot be overstated. (Certain heavily populated Orthodox areas like N.Y. are a noted exception.) A local family I know has a large family of super smart girls who just had to go to Columbia on scholarship. Twenty years later, and all of their children, and grandchildren, aren’t frum, and this was a very nice Modern Orthodox family.

Lastly, the reason Modern Orthodoxy is in danger is the very same reason that Moses Mendelssohn’s Reform movement failed miserably. You can’t change the recipe. When we try to remove and change and ignore certain laws from the Torah, we are simply poking holes in the boat and assuming it won’t sink. And kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away. For you, it’s just eating dairy in traif restaurants. For your kid, it’s texting on Shabbos and skipping Tefillin. And before long, your grandkids and you are no longer on the same page anymore. Chas V’shalom.

Ultimately we must realize that picking and choosing the commandments that appeal to us is a dangerous game to play. When we say, “This law is important but this one isn’t,” it is no different than removing certain ingredients from a recipe. While yeast is a tiny component in the mix, without it, bread cannot rise. Without a tiny rubber 1/4 inch o ring, a pressure cleaner cannot operate with full pressure (I attempted it — big mistake.) Similarly, we are literally diluting the light of God by watering down His most perfect recipe — the Torah! Some mistakenly assume that a quick Shabbos text won’t hurt anyone.  I would only say that a cigarette doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone either. But science has now conclusively proven that untold “physical“ damage is done by smoking, just as violating the Shabbos causes untold “spiritual” damage to us and our children.

We must remind ourselves that the things that we perceive as small are actually connected to things much larger than we could ever imagine. Like Hashem. And our children. And grandchildren. It’s very telling that Mendelssohn was in fact religious and educated but once he messed with the halacha and mesorah, the walls came tumbling down. The proof? Of Moses Mendelssohn’s six children, four converted to Christianity and of his grandchildren, only one was buried as a Jew. Lesson? Don’t mess with God’s recipe.

One day, I had a deep intimate conversation with a very intelligent Chassidishe customer. He says to me, “Avi, I’ve got a question for you.  I noticed this past winter at the Fontainebleau,  many young Modern Orthodox teenagers during winter break were dressed completely inappropriately, sitting on each other’s laps, touching and holding hands. I even saw a few teenagers unabashedly texting on Shabbos. I’m completely confused. After all, it’s one thing to do something wrong and be ashamed of it and try to hide it, as we sometimes do. But with many Modern Orthodox, it’s as if all these laws in the Torah that you’re violating don’t even exist given that you do these aveiros publicly without any guilt or shame whatsoever.”

Ouch! Talk about a full-body slam. And no matter how frustrated I was, I knew he was 100% right. I thought back to when I was in high school and how most guys were never embarrassed to hold a girl’s hand, or talk incessantly during shul. I explained that many modern orthodox Jews don’t know the seriousness of what they’re doing and therefore don’t feel a need to hide it. The Gemara discusses the idea that when a person sins once, he rationalizes it, the second time, he rationalizes that it is permitted, and Rav Yisroel Salanter z”l used to say that the third time, it becomes a mitzvah! All sins are wrong, but a person who hides his sin at least realizes he’s doing something wrong. But what about a person who doesn’t even hide it? And what’s worse, if you don’t think you’re doing something wrong, how can you ever change yourself?

The Talmud Yerushalmi says the one sin for which God can never forgive man is not learning Torah. At first glance, this statement seems strange. After all, aren’t there more unforgivable sins than not studying Torah? The rabbis understood that as long as a person learns Torah, there’s always a chance he can change. However, when a person shuts the door to Torah, all bets are off. That individual will never change because he never knows that he’s doing something wrong in the first place. And eventually, certain laws that were observed and respected for thousands of years, suddenly become out of date and no longer obligatory.

Take a good honest look around you. Observe that most families that have good solid frum children generally treat the Torah and mitzvot with respect and serve Hashem in happiness. Modern orthodoxy is not failing for the families who treat all mitzvot equally and take Halacha seriously, but that represents a shrinking number. The outside secular forces are simply too difficult to withstand for many in the modern orthodox world as the shrinking numbers suggest. When we look for the loopholes and play the pick and choose game, we’re rewriting Hashem’s Divine word, and everything falls apart.

My fellow brothers, no matter how we slice it, the facts speak for themselves. Those who place Torah and mitzvot on the top of their priority list create a strong solid Torah foundation for themselves and their children. Yet history has shown us time and again  that diluting the Torah never goes well for us. Now more than ever, we need Hashem’s Divine protection. What better way to achieve it than by properly observing the greatest gift we could ever want, the true blueprint to living a full, productive and fulfilling life. It will serve us, and our families, well. Both here, and beyond.

About the Author
Avi has published over 200 articles for the Jewish Press, as well as The Jewish LINK, and more, and just completed his second book, Real Questions, Real Answers.
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