Saturday, September 17, 2005

No Shayla : A Deconstruction

No Shayla (Question): A Deconstruction by David Kelsey—An Un-Orthodox Jew Exclusive!

[Author’s note – An Overview, just like the heligah (holy, but here meant sardonically) Artscroll: It is my hope that his article will reach secular Jews who may have concerns about a friend or family member involved with Ultra-Orthodoxy. I therefore am translating many of the Hebrew or Yiddish words into English the first time I use them, as to allow this essay to be readable by them. I use these Hebrew and Yiddish words to illustrate I know what I am talking about to those Orthodox Jews who might care, however few they are.

Secular Jews should know, they are considered contemptible by many Orthodox Jews, and this translates into unfortunate and destructive policies. As we know from the tragedy of the Orthodox Union’s resistance to deal with abuse in the Boruch Lanner case, some of the Orthodox are sometimes more receptive to secular Jewish pressure than simply doing the right thing.

It is my hope to reveal the problems of the Baal Tshuvah movement to those who might not know where the real problems lie, but get caught up in philosophical issues because they lack the education to tackle the more pragmatic ones. Just as the problem with Boruch Lanner was not that he wanted children to keep shabbos, so too the problem with these young adult institutions is not that they want their students to keep shabbos. The following is one such problem that people should be aware of.-DK]

My argument with many of the defenders of the Baal Tshuvah (newly ultra-Orthodox) institutions has been over the contention that they should have “thought for themselves,” and my insistence that they are explicitly taught not to.

A heartfelt young man named “Yitz” who frequently comments about the articles on this blog referred me to an essay by Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis in the Jewish Observer as a counter to my specific complaints of advocacy of socio-economic destruction by baal tshuvah institutions and their leaders. I found it, and have decided to address this essay, as the Jewish Observer is to a large degree the voice of the mainstream B’nai Torah outlook and attitudes.

And for another reason.

It has been almost fifteen years since I drove Rabbi Kokis home from Ohr Somayach, Monsey that strangely intimate night. I liked Rabbi Kokis a lot. I still do. He is uniquely empathetic to his students, a quality sorely lacking by many in similar positions. He seeks to understand the unique individual circumstances in each case, when too many others believe that one size (hat) fits all.

And still there are problems, as we shall soon see.

But first, back to the drive home.

As I turned on the car, the music blared, most likely from a modern-rock station, which I quickly shut off. I apologized, but Rabbi Kokis made it clear I didn’t owe him or anyone else an apology for obviously having listened to the radio during my last trip.

He lived only a few minutes down the street. That can be a long time, though, when in the middle of a conversation.

Like I said, it has been almost fifteen years, and I forget what we were talking about, or what I was asking him about, but what is clear from what transpired is that my perspective wasn’t one most students at the yeshiva in an advanced shiur should have.

We arrived in front of his home, and he motioned to get out, but then paused.

Rabbi Kokis then compared me to a protagonist in a James Joyce novel, Ulysses, and suggested I was about "to break out” from a similar feeling of religious oppression.

A strange line had been crossed. For students and Rabbeim in Ohr Somayach, secular references were traditionally only invoked in order to illustrate the insanity of the secular world, and the comparative superiority of the yeshiva world, or to bolster the yeshiva world’s position from a non-Orthodox Jew or gentile who concurred with its position, even if inadvertently, and sometimes, inaccurately. And even then, it was usually restricted to news stories or anecdotes. Certainly literary (a.k.a. “shtoos”) references were not sympathetically employed.

But R. Kokis knew what was happening. Perhaps he had seen it before. Perhaps he had seen many times before.

For the maskil (secularist)within me, who had been disoriented by the call to an uncompromising ultra-Orthodox lifestyle dedicated to learning Torah and Mitzvot-- and had been placated to some extent by assiduously avoiding the most severe lavoosh (garb worn such as a black hat), chumrahs (stringencies), and reading a few secular books, and occasionally practicing classical violin--was reasserting himself.

And he was no longer disoriented, but was gaining greater strength, and would not be mollified with a couple of community college courses.

And Rabbi Kokis-- and certainly no other faculty member at Dark Light-- had any answers for me except more of the same. And more of the same was provoking an increasingly resistant and unfavorable reaction.

But at least that night, he let me know that he understood.

And that meant and still means something.

It is, therefore--while still a vehement disagreement-- not meant disrespectfully or personally. At least, not to him. For Rabbi Kokis is not the worst of the B’nai Torah kiruv (recruitment of secular Jews)leaders. He is one of the best.

I am excerpting those aspects of his essay I wish to cover. For those who wish to read his essay in its entirety, go here.

Rabbi Kokis writes,
This is one of the most crucial, yet painful, stages in a baal teshuva’s development: the realization that in the world of Torah he cannot follow his own hunches in deciding what is right and what is wrong. The average baal/baalas teshuva grew up in a culture where there were no, or precious few, moral absolutes. Very often, society places pleasure and gratification as the only criteria for choices in life. Even when a sense of moral correctness is sought, the main standard of judgment is the dictates of his own conscience: are you being true to your own sense of justice and decency? Suddenly, having made a commitment to a life of Torah, things are no longer so simple. He may very likely find that compared to the past, he is having a much harder time making decisions, because he no longer can think only in terms of what he thinks is appropriate, but rather what is really right, through the eyes of the Torah.

In fact, most baal/baalas tshuvahs did not grow up in anarchy, nor were they taught nihilism, but rather, were taught a different, if admittedly less rigid, moral code. This is a tremendous exaggeration about what life is like in the secular Jewish world.

And whom is the baal tshuvah supposed to consult, now that he is understandably “having a much harder time?” If you guessed his local, Dark Light Rabbi, you guessed correctly. In case you aren’t sure that’s what’s being advocated, read the next paragraph.
Even questions which would seem to call for a purely subjective evaluation are not left up to the inclinations and preferences of the individual. Defining beauty, for instance, becomes a complex proposition when a lulav or esrog is concerned; the Torah’s requirement of “hadar – beautiful –” is not left up to one’s aesthetic instincts. On occasion, the opposite is true: the esrog which you may consider “pretty” may be barely kosher by the halacha’s standards, while the real “m’hudar” could be less than dazzling in everyday terms. The more one becomes conditioned to the world of halacha, it would seem, the less valid individual preferences become.

In other words, the baal tshuva is taught that his thinking is generally the opposite of the true Torah Jew, and can’t be trusted. On anything. He needs to ASK. On everything.
A talmid of the yeshiva had been studying in a prestigious European university, and had a few months to go before earning a Master’s degree, which would virtually guarantee him a teaching position of his choice. Having become enthusiastically involved in learning, however, he saw no point in completing his studies, since at this point he felt no desire to ever re-enter the academic world. The rebbeim of his yeshiva expressed misgivings at this course of action, and suggested that he invest the few months of study to finish his degree, and then continue learning, so that his options will be open in case the need will arise at some future date to seek a teaching position. (It is important to note that his field of study was not problematic from a halacha standpoint.)

The talmid said that he appreciated his rebbeim’s concern, but it was clear to him that he had no desire to be a college professor, so he had no reason to stop learning. His Rosh Yeshiva then suggested that they discuss the issue with Rabbi Shach, l”xz, and the bachur quickly agreed, confident that he would find total sympathy for his position, since Rabbi Shach’s stand on the primacy of learning over all else is well known. Much to the surprise of the talmid, however, the advice of Rabbi Shach was to finish his degree, and then devote himself totally to growth in Torah.

What is noteworthy is that this advice was based on a consideration of the unique issues that face baalei teshuva, and would not be applied across the board to the conventional yeshiva talmid.

This shows the resistance and contempt for secular studies and a profession like nothing else. Look how carefully Rabbi Kokis is to couch the anecdote in terms acceptable to the frum (literally religious, but usually suggesting ultra-Orthodox) community. The student need only “invest a few months” to finish a graduate degree which would “virtually guarantee him a teaching position of his choice.”

And still, it was (and is) a big shayla. Why did he think it was a bad idea? Because he had been taught it was a bad idea. And he wasn’t taught that in graduate school; he was taught that at Dark Light, or some comparable pit of miserybaal tshuvah yeshiva.

And the qualifiers are incredible. This particular field of study was “not problematic” from a halacha standpoint. Well, which ones are and which ones aren’t, might I ask? Can’t say! Consult your Dark Light professional, please. ALWAYS ASK A SHAYLA.

Let it be clear – students at these institutions are not just taught how to be observant Jews. They are taught to repent. Hence the name “tshuvah,” and to regret things that maybe they shouldn’t be ashamed of.

That in fact, they should be proud of, and should continue to pursue.

The yeshivah world rightly criticizes the chassidim for asking their Rebbes for medical advise. They should be going for a brucha, not what medicine to take or not take. And the Rebbes are considered at fault by the B’nai Torah when they don’t defer to the chassid’s doctor.

But they act the same when it comes to vocation and secular education.

Ask your yeshivishe Rabbi how to learn the Gemorrah on the esrog. Ask him a shayla on the esrog itself.

But do not go to him on vocational questions or questions regarding secular educational pursuits.

There is no shame in pursuing advanced degrees. There is no shame in thinking for yourself professionally, even though THEY WILL TELL YOU NOT TO. Don’t listen to these rabbis who tell you to ask. For when you decide you have had enough, and yank the reigns of your own life back into your own hands, they will tell you not to be angry, that you should have known better than to listen to them in the first place.

If they’re nice, they’ll reference a great gentile writer’s novel.

Most aren’t that nice.

If there are any ba’al tshuvahs out there reading this post, or friends or family of theirs, consider this: Your ancestors, who fled Eastern Europe and Russia seeking opportunity, were religious. At least some of them.

But they did not heed the admonishments of the rabbinical leaders of their time who said it was forbidden to leave Russia and Eastern Europe.

If they had listened to the Russian Rebbes, your parents would have grown up under a militantly atheist communist regime, and your own Judaism would have been nothing compared to what it is now. Your grandparents may not have even survived the purges or the gulag. If they would have stayed in Eastern Europe, they would most likely have been killed.

Your ancestors did the right thing on this issue to disregard the Rabbis and do what they felt was good for them in terms of livelihood, which was the single most important draw of the so-called “treife medina.” The Rabbis should have been here building an infrastructure, like the yeshivas which became YU did, and as did the Babylon Rabbis prior to the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

Do not listen to those who discourage vocational and educational training. Go where you need to go, do what you think would help you, even if it is considered a makom (place) of spiritual sakuna (danger) by your “as much mesiras nefesh as possible” rabbi.

For those who survived the Holocaust and Russian because of the great advice of their rabbis, let them retain their minhag (inherited tradition) if they want to.

But it is not your minhag to ask on such issues. It was never your minhag.

If you don’t do as I implore you, the price will be paid not only in socio-economic loss, not only in self-esteem, the price will be paid in part by shabbos.

Shabbos becomes emblematic of everything wrong about not pursuing your dreams because of fear of “sakuna”. It begins to feel like the world is moving, and you are not. You will hate being a guest; you will have trouble falling asleep. You will not look forward to shabbos, but will dread it.

You will hate not doing. Because you are not where you should be, and shabbos reminds you why that is.

Your frumkeit will suffer. The only question is how much.

Some FFB’s will laugh at this, and say I am being ridiculous.

But ask any weathered and grizzly baal tshuvah. He will not laugh at what I am saying.

At least on these issues, do not ask a shayla. If you think it’s a shayla, the answer is yes.

It isn’t one for you to ask a Rabbi. As in the end, it is only you who can answer it.

Let us at least agree on the following:

Baal Tshuvah institutions encourage their students to ask shaylas on everything, including vocational and educational pursuits.

The Rabbis who field such questions are no more competent to play vocational counselor than Chassidic Rebbes are to play doctor.

Neither should be allowed veto power on these students’ lives in either regard.

It is no "shayla."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is rediculous. you cant trust a baal tshuva to go to college. He will drop all his yiddishkeit in a semester. At least in yeshiva, he will stey frum.

Saturday, September 17, 2005 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous harvey said...

You should go to college, you illiterate shmuck.

Saturday, September 17, 2005 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous SAMMY said...

You can't trust a FFB to tell a BT what to do; most of them are more lost than the BT's.

Saturday, September 17, 2005 11:40:00 PM  
Anonymous sechel said...

anonymous represents the fears of the frum world.That is why they are so insular.rear-fear-fear.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:56:00 AM  
Anonymous The Hedyot said...

> You can't trust a FFB to tell a BT what to do...

You can't trust a FFB to tell anyone what to do. They're just as warped in their thinking when they're talking to FFB's as when they're speaking to BT's.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 1:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sunday, September 18, 2005 1:30:00 AM  
Blogger David Kelsey said...


You live up to your pen name, my friend. But that is, sadly, a really controversial outook in some circles.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 1:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Yitz said...

Hey Kelsey,
I heard they based the 40-year old Virgin on your life. Is that true?

Sunday, September 18, 2005 2:20:00 AM  
Blogger David Kelsey said...


And after I credited you properly in my essay?

Sunday, September 18, 2005 2:23:00 AM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

Yitz, the typical FFBitz,
stabs people in the back,
cause he is full of shitz.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

Yitz, the typical FFBitz,
stabs people in the back,
cause he is full of shitz.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

Yitz, the typical FFBitz,
stabs people in the back,
cause he is full of shitz.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Dirk Diggler said...

Edgar Alan Foe Ho Ho Ho:
It's people like you that cause racism and hatred. Yitz's comment was uncalled for but funny nonetheless. There is no "typical" FFBer, in fact we come in many types and varieties just like all other people. I take offense at you generalizations and stereotyping, and I doubt your motives.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

Dick Dickler,
Most of you guys are brainwashed,
your brains are definitely squashed,
no clue wrong from right,
hate different type of Jews with ALL your might.


Sunday, September 18, 2005 1:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Dirk Diggler said...

looks like ur the hater edgar, oh and ur a loser too

Sunday, September 18, 2005 11:32:00 PM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

I am the loser you say,
that's what you do to keep us at bay,
we work for a living,
and are having misgivings,
to what you claim the Torah does say.


Monday, September 19, 2005 12:01:00 AM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

There once was a man, alan foe
Who wished that he made more dough
He was a just a jerk, that hated his work
And blamed the whole world for his woe.

Monday, September 19, 2005 12:53:00 AM  
Anonymous edgar alan foe said...

There was a moron named Shlomo,
All he knew was hot air to blow,
he hemmed and hawed a great deal,
all the bloggers know he is a big shlemiel,
he claims to be so smart,
to me his is one big fart...

Monday, September 19, 2005 1:28:00 AM  
Anonymous joe g said...

Edgar et al. What are you guys doing? Turning a good post and the comments therein into a pissing match? And not even a decent or creative one? Losers.

Kelsey, since this thread is lost I'll reserve comments for your Blog . . .

Monday, September 19, 2005 10:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

farshtoonkener's poetry was much better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the "tragedy" is the culture of the Orthodox community that makes a gay rabbi feel that he needs to abandon community (city? country??) in order to be himself.

I'm Orthodox and gay myself - and know dozens of people in NYC who are in the same situation, some of them in high positions. Whether we come out or not, the fact is, gay people are already entrenched within the Orthodox community, sometimes in leadership positions. Get used to it. And then let's move on to tackle the other kinds of issues brought up on your very good blog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005 1:39:00 PM  
Anonymous AC said...

I am a BT who did not allow anyone to guide me. Every rabbi who told me to go here or there was ignored because I had a vision and a strong knowledge of who I was, am and wanted to be.
When I was advised by rabbis to shave my beard I did not listen, when I was advised to leave the USA and my job and to go to yeshiva in Israel I did not listen, when I was told by people who I can/cannot marry, I did not listen.
I am a servant of Hashem and not a servant of man.
I never met a man who truly was "holding" with an accessable personality in which I would ENTRUST MY LIFE by taking their advice.
If I did I might have done such, but this is a non-question right now.

I think it is very important for a person to recognize who they are and who they want to be at all times, only then can they decide who to take advice from and who not to take advice from.

Baruch Hashem who gave me the self-knowledge and self-confidence to save my life.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 4:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Rochel said...

UO - you are one funny cat!

I cracked up when you compared the supposed righteous Rabbi's to Alta Cackers!

We were all taught to respect our elders, so it's refreshing when someone like you tells it as it is!

Keep it up UO!

Saturday, September 24, 2005 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are on the money, uoj.

when the internet enters every frum household, you, our gadol will be.

you should start your own yeshiva...

and change the yeshiva world.

Thursday, September 29, 2005 10:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and then, your children will inherit the family business...

and we'll write about you on our blog.

The baal teshuvah yeshivas have one agenda and that is to turn every jew yeshivesh.

futile. misguided at best.

but tell me this (and please don't be hurt anyone if i brazenly make this assertion) how come so many bt's who come through for the ffb's really do have mental problems?

Friday, September 30, 2005 12:35:00 PM  

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