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.