Thursday, August 2, 2007

PENN yifteh l'vavchem

A disclaimer: The contents of this missive are not directed toward any particular student but, rather, at a phenomenon that I feel dutybound to address. The opinion voiced is my own; students will find that there are those whose opinion they hold no less highly, whose views can be source supported even though their conclusion may be diametrically opposed to everything I wriet. That said, I do hope that students - and more importantly, their parents - will read these words with an open mind and hopefully, feel the need to respond, comment or even disagree.
Rambam, in a letter to the Sages of Lunel in which he describes his day-to-day activities, describes his anguish at having precious few hours availble for Torah study due to the demands made upon him as a physician to the royal court in Egypt. I cannot imagine that there was a less prestigious medical position open in thirteenth century Fostat/Cairo, or that there was a more effective means of interceding on behalf of his fellow Jews than that afforded him by his office. Nevertheless, instead of finding fulfillment in his work, Rambam describes it as rakchut vetabachut - literally, pharmacology and cooking - and makes no mention of the influence he had. Rambam's works were priceless contributions to the society around him; however, in terms of his personal fulfillment, they were secondary, for they detracted from the time that he could have spent deepening his understanding of Torah. Remember, we are referring to the preeminent Torah scholar of his time, the man whose burial place is adorned with the accolade mi-Moshe ad Moshe lo kam k'Moshe, a giant whose level of knowledge is beyond comprehension. Yet this very same Rambam informs his correspondents that he would have gone farther had he not been distracted by the time he had to devote to his medical duties.
Let's switch into the world of conjecture for a moment. Rambam could have supported himself as a rabbi or teacher. For reasons we do not know, he chose not to, as was the case with many of his contemporaries. Even rishonim who held clerical offices - e.g., Ramban or Abarbanel, often supported themselves through outside occupations. Perhaps they were the forerunners of the Torah im Derech Eretz school and held that only through direct involvement in general society can one demonstrate the eternity of Torah and create the community of Yeshurun that is man's mission. Perhaps they were proponents of Torah U'Madah and believed that there is a separate world of knowledge that G-d wants you to be familiar with - a world that cannot be mastered without serious study. Whatever the case, the rishonim clearly held - as expressed by Rambam - that this involvement came at heavy personal cost. [For those interested, read Abarbanel's Introduction to Sefer Melachim where he discusses the study of philosophy and its link to the Inquisition.] Continuing with Rambam; let's imagine he were alive today. Which undergraduate school would he choose? Argument could be made that as a physician he owed it to his patients to receive the finest training possible and might therefore seek admission to the Ivies [assuming that these schools are indeed the finest available]. But, being aware of the anguish that he expressed in having so few hours available for personal Torah study, do you think he would have applied for early decision at Brandeis, Columbia or Princeton so as to be able to enjoy the "college experience." Do you think that Rambam, or any of the proponents of Torah im Derech Eretz or Torah U'Mada [and there is a vast difference between the two], would have ever suggested that the pre-eminence of Torah with those educational formulas can be questioned.
There is something fundamentally wrong with being more familiar with Shakespeare that with the Sheiltot, or in maintaining that the contribution of Johan Sebastian [their Bach] can be compared with R. Yoel Sirkes' [ours].
I find it difficult to understand how anyone with a serious commitment to and understanding of Judaism and Torah can somehow rationalize that at the age of eighteen or nineteen, they [or their son or daughter] can survive without a formal, structured program of Torah study. Unless ours is an unparalleled generation of geniuses [who successfully hide our erudition behind an impenetrable cloak of modesty], I would venture to say that all concerned would agree that basic familiarity [in the best of cases] with the first ten or so blatt in five or six masechtot is simply insufficient. Judaism expects scholarship from everyone according to their level and every Jew is required to continue his learning whenever feasible. When he has gained the wherewithall - both in skills and in motivation - to continue those studies and insure that they remain - qualitatively if not quantitatively - as important to him as his pursuit of other fields, then he can begin his immersion in secular learning.This is not to suggest that there is no validity in a non-utilitarian approach to the accrual of general knowledge. But one must bear in mind that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Hutner - the three gedolim usually cited by those who seek to rationalize the full immersion into academia - only began their academic careers after thye had been steeped in Torah in their homes and in the yeshivot they attended. I doubt that any of them would feel that a 12th grade Yeshiva education in the US can in anyway be considered equivalent to learning with Reb Chaim, the previous rebbe or the Alter of Slobodka and Rav Kook!
What is the motivating factor among students and their parents who choose to attend the Ivies or other such institutions rather than availing themselves of the services of a university that has a structured program of learning [YU or TOURO] or by attending yeshivot offering joint programs [NIRC]? I would conclude that they are blinded by the prestige associated with acceptance by these hallowed halls of secular learning. For some reason, acceptance at KBY or GUSH just can't match the adrenalin flow of receiving the anticipated acceptance letter from Harvard or Yale! Remember, we're referring to those who pay lip service to the primacy of Torah, yet they are still driven to apply [and devoutly pray for accepance] to top tier colleges. Something has turned their hearts away from what they know is the proper path. What is this insiduous power that can befuddle the mind and prevent it from making the appropriate decision?
PENN YIFTEH LEVAVCHEM - Penn has seduced their hearts. There is so little prestige associated with being accepted by YU, no bragging about registering at Touro and no admiration for those attending NIRC/Hopkins. Let's be honest - the decision isn't based on the fact that Wharton students earn x more dollars than graduates of SYMS. It's about kavod and parental pride. What would a parent use for one upmanship at the kiddush at Young Israel?! In too many segments of our community a talmid chacham is but another synonym for a "good for nothing." To be sure there are parents who will loudly brag about their son who graduated from Columbia and is taking a year or two off to study for semichah at YU. However, remove the academic title of semichah and the parent will suddenly become reticent about discussing the child's whereabouts! Moreover, we all well know what would happen to that same young man if he informed his parents that he had chosen not to continue on in medicine, law, business et. al. but instead had decided to become a rabbi or teacher so that he would have more opportunity to learn and would be able to live in a society more supportive of that desire. You'd have Slaughter on Amsterdam Ave. The only equivalent shock level that I can imagine is having an MO kid tell his parents he's moving to Israel - but that will be dealt with in a subsequent post.
It would be interesting to see a study on the median income of graduates of the Ivies, YU and NIRC ten years after they enter the workforce. I suspect, however, that most students and their parents would ignore the data. PENN YIFTEH LEVAVCHEM - when one's heart has been seduced, facts become meaningless.


Neil said...

"Rambam could have supported himself as a rabbi or teacher. For reasons we do not know, he chose not to, as was the case with many of his contemporaries"

Actually we do know quite clearly. Rambam in pirush hamishnayot in perek 4 of avot as well as in Hilchot TT says quite explicitly that it is prohibited to derive monetary benefit from teaching of Torah.

Anonymous said...

as it says about mordechai in the megillah once he became mishnah limelech he was "ratzu lirov echav" he dropped in stature in the sanhedrin because as the miforshim explain he was osek in being mishna limelech and had less time for torah

Anonymous said...

if you read the rambam in mishna torah and how the commetaries understand it he didnt prohibit a person from being a paid rabbi only that a person may not say i wanna make money so lets go into the rabbinate. however if a person wants to teach torah and get paid so that he may live then according to many of the commentaries understanding of mishnah torah it would be permitted

Neil said...

Please read Pirush Hamishnayos that I cited. Rambam is quite harsh in his critique of deriving benefit from Talmud Torah. All my point is that given what he writes there it is indeed quite clear why he did not choose to support himself as a teacher. Whether you can justify such a position within the Misheh Torah based on the Nosei Kalem or based on other authorities is a seperate issue.

Penn Grad said...

I have mixed feelings on this topic. I myself attended an elite program at Penn, but I do see the other side. On the other hand, let's not obfuscate the facts: It is a fact that if you are interested in Engineering, there is no such option in YU exept for the dual Columbia-YU program. And if you get into MIT or Harvard, whose engineering programs simply blow away Columbia's (or Penn's), that is a difficult decision to make. If you are interested in business, Wharton blows away Sy Simms, hands down. There's really no comparison. If it's salaries you are interested in comparing, I know top people in my program (an elite dual-degree Wharton program) who got 150-200K salaries after bonus their first year out of school, where the salary could easily grow to 500K and up in a matter of years. Ivy's really do open doors that would otherwise not be open. Especially if you are near the top of your class, YU or Lander's can be very limiting. Again, there are other critical considerations that you mention in your post, and I don't disagree with you. But you have to have an accurate picture of the trade offs you are making.

Anonymous said...

well he may have taken a harsh position in perush hamishnayos but the Nosai keylim are explaining the rambam and they seem to say that he isnt paskening that way

penn grad said...

The kesef mishna disagrees with the Rambam - but we already knew that. I'm not sure who you are referring to other than the kesef mishna, and he's not the last word on what the Rambam meant. There are plenty who take the Rambam at his word, even if we don't paskin like him.

onlyajew said...

I have to agree with Neil on this and I'll go one step further. The Rambam is VERY clear-hilchos talmud Torah perek gimmel siff yud alef-a person should in this order-get a job, get a house, get a wife. No perush could misrepresent what he means there. It is obvious that he is not into Kollel for everyone and is turning over in his grave as he watches Klal Yisroel commit suicide led by the very type of rabbis that would have banned the Rambam's seforim in a heartbeat had they lived in his day. It seems to me from his aristotalian background that he would have been quite the Ivey student...

Additionally people like to bring the last siff in trumas and say that the Rambam says everyone who reaches a certain level should learn all day (although not get paid for it btw) but it is clear from there that anyone would be able to do that- Jew or non Jew- although the level of knowledge he is talking about there, we have yet to see in most humans alive today.

Anon. said...

A well written post. I am one of those people who gave up a spot in a prestigious school to attend a Jewish university and continue Torah study-- primarily for the reasons cited here. I have to agree with Penngrad--it certainly is no easy choice (even after the fact), and it is a real tradeoff, with serious elements given up. But on the whole, the phenomenon described in this post is far too prevalent.

reika said...

First, a minor quibble. Pinchas didn't ask Moshe what to do, since it's halacha *v'ein morin kein."

Main point: your comments presuppose that all the names appended did indeed agree with the issur and signed it. Anyone familiar with the scene in Yerushalayim knows that it ain't necessarily so. Furthermore, the rule is that "ein ladayan ela mah she'einav ro'ot." The gedolim can only judge by what is brought to their attention, and thus their knowledge of the reality is what is filtered to them by others. They didn't prohibit the concert that was. They prohibited the concert they were told would take place. (The separation of men and women was total, not as the ban intimated would be the case.) The same phenomenon happened with the ban on The Making of a Gadol. Not one of the ones who banned it read so much as one word of the book. They could'nt -- the book was in English, which they don't read. They were told excerpts, and how accurate or representative those excerpts were, who knows? Also, once one or two of the gedolim sign, the others will go along, whether or not they have any independent knowledge. After all, if Rav Elyashiv banned it, can Gadol X disagree?

charadiation said...

your comment belongs on the next post - halachah v'ein morim kein. However, I do not want to lose it and my techno skills are weak - thus, it stays here.
l'gufo shel inyan: I have very personal experience regarding "the hadling of a gadol". Might even publish it as a book - there's a new publisher called banned looking for manuscripts that will be sold on e-bay. I agree that this happens and happens often and even think that I have insight as to why it happens. In this case, and at this point in time, it is irrelevant as I was attempting to explain the rationale of the ban.
In regard to your comment about the gedolim being coerced to agree with Rav Elyashiv; look back at political pashkvilim [what a wonderful title for a doctoral thesis] from twenty years ago and you will see that the name Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was rarely included.

Velma said...

Great work.