Learning Torah Is Equal to them All

On Shavuos, many of us will stay awake throughout the night, learning until we daven k’vasikin (pray at dawn). But as we finish our final cup of coffee and pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge for a moment that for many this is a weekly practice. And we should ponder, further, how unique this makes our nation.

During my first year in college, a lighthearted op-ed in the town newspaper complained that it was difficult to hire a student babysitter due to frequent breaks and vacations: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving weekend, winter vacation, reading period, post-exam break, and the list goes on. I responded with a letter to the editor, co-signed by my roommates, arguing the importance of independent research and our other efforts outside the classroom.

All of that was true, of course. But as I continued my college career, I slowly learned things covered neither in class nor the student handbook. Rules such as “9 am classes are for freshmen,” “the weekend begins on Thursday evening,” and “you need to be on the field by 4:30” were as important as any published by the school. Our schedules were augmented by sports, theater, music, the school newspaper, debating clubs, and even campus businesses. And, of course, that op-ed had a point: the weeks of classes and exams added up to barely six months of the year.

To say that going from college to yeshiva involved a culture shock is the quintessential understatement. The baseline expectation suddenly became nine to ten hours of learning every day plus 90 minutes of davening – for nine months or more each year. “Extracurricular activities” included eating, sleeping, and doing laundry.

But more than that – even in the best of colleges, the respected students are the top athletes, the editor of the newspaper, the top debater. Genius and innovation are respected, but due to talent more than dedication. In yeshiva, the greatest respect is reserved not for the natural genius, but for the student who commits himself above and beyond the norm.

It is the study of Torah that has produced a nation that excels in intellectual pursuits. Jews constitute just 0.2% of the world’s population, but over one-quarter of the winners of the Nobel and similar prizes in research fields are Jewish. From where did the Jewish people gain its phenomenal dedication to intellectual exploration and inquiry? Without recognizing the role of traditional Jewish learning, it is difficult to find an answer free of racial overtones.

But despite much-deserved admiration for scholarship in medicine and physics, Torah remains unique. Upon completing a Masechta (Tractate of Talmud) or Seder Mishnayos (Order of Mishnah), part of the “Hadran” compares Torah scholars to others. It says, “we toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward.” Is that really true? Is there no compensation for other forms of “toil?”

The answer speaks to the unique nature of Torah: other fields reward not the effort, but the results. Even an hourly employee will be dismissed if the work product is considered deficient. Only in the field of Torah scholarship is the effort an end unto itself.

Nearly 30 years ago, an article in a prominent newspaper lionized yeshiva learning. It compared a yeshiva to an elite music conservatory, and asked readers to imagine the pride that they would feel if the world’s best violinists gathered in their city to practice their art 10 to 12 hours each day.

The newspaper was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the article, written by a non-Jewish writer, concerned the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. It is a sad truth that such articles are not written by Jewish writers, whether in American Jewish community papers or in Israel. In Jewish circles, these same scholars are described as lazy, or taking too many vacations – and the material they study deemed unnecessary.

Without question, no kollel should harbor a yungerman unwilling to do the work; to do so is both dishonest and gives our detractors the ability to make absurd generalizations. But neither can we fall prey to their slanderous, sweeping judgements. The average yungerman is not merely the best of our nation in our own eyes. By any impartial standard, the intensity of his scholarship deserves admiration, respect, and our support.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.

Leading the Blind

The results of recent Jewish community surveys are alternately delightful and dismal, exciting and excruciating. The growth of Torah-observant households is a stunning phenomenon, while Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen observed, “the sky is falling for the rest of the population.”

Given this dichotomy and the urgency of the problem, we might imagine that everyone would want to know what it is that we, the Orthodox, are doing right. But apparently we would be wrong. Despite multiple surveys detailing the divergent trajectories of young traditional versus liberal Jews today, we have seen no studies dedicated to understanding our successful formula. Instead, Federations and well-meaning philanthropic foundations continue to invest great sums of money on projects whose claim to promote Jewish continuity is nothing more than conjecture — with predictable results.

As we all know, the Torah community is thriving. In less than a decade, the number of Orthodox Jews grew by over 100,000 in the New York area alone, according to the UJA/Federation survey — over 20%. In Baltimore, a similar survey showed an increase of 50%. Last year’s Pew Survey reported more modest growth nationally, but noted that while 11% of adults 18-29 are Orthodox, the same is true of 27% of Jewish minor children. 60% of Jewish children in the New York City area live in Orthodox homes.

But a birth rate of over five children for the average charedi family is only one important factor. According to the Pew Survey, only 22% of retirement-aged Jews raised Orthodox remain Orthodox today. By contrast, the retention rate for those now 30-49 is 57% — while fully 83% of young adults (under 30) remain in our community. Again, one would expect that understanding the dramatic improvement in Orthodox retention would be a high priority.

Instead, many Jewish pundits find themselves living in the past. Writing in The Forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis opines that “The picture is of a denominational rockfall sliding from more traditional streams through the Reform movement and out of the denominational structure altogether.” While this image may have been accurate for thousands of families, “Orthodox by default,” who immigrated from Europe prior to the War, today it is as dated as a rotary phone.

Pini Herman, a researcher at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, went still further, arguing that “it is in the self-interest of the Conservative and Reform movements to encourage the flowering of the Orthodox American Jewish community, for they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the adult choices of Orthodox-raised children.” They have missed the boat on our success, neatly explaining why they cannot chart their own.

For it is not true that the educational efforts of the Orthodox community, which Herman acknowledges as “heroic,” “legendary,” and “to the point of actual impoverishment,” have resulted in the production of yet more heterodox Jews. On the contrary, commitment to Torah education over multiple generations has made the retention of our youth the norm rather than the exception. Today’s Torah community is literally that — a community of Torah, in which parents, rebbeim and teachers all work together to transmit the mesorah.

Why is this so poorly understood by outside observers? Liberal Jews have been trained to believe that their traditional brethren — especially those labeled the “ultra-Orthodox” — comprise a society so alien that their experience is irrelevant. Besides news stories highlighting bizarre tales of (often exaggerated, if not invented) wrongdoing, there is a more basic depiction of traditional Jews as no more modern than the Amish, but more hostile. Further, our brethren regard the Talmud and other traditional texts as practically our exclusive province.

Yet learning is and remains the answer. There is no magic or gimmick, and no alternative that will ever be effective. Their lack of awareness remains their own loss — and it remains our obligation to do all we can to show them the way forward. To study Judaism, to connect yourself to generations past, and to make this the centerpiece of a child’s education, comprise the only effective route to ensuring a Jewish future.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.