Friday, March 14, 2014

The Soul Truth

Songs are often more than music, but also the embodiment of ideas and ideals. We can all think of such works. Some inspire us, while others simply tell the story of a certain time or people. The most powerful songs do both. In this light, let’s look at a verse from a popular Jewish song from a generation ago and at the educational idea it contains. Feel free to sing along.

“But dear malach’l no, I don't want to go,
there is so much pain and evil, upon the earth below.
Let me stay here up in heaven, where it’s safe and I'll be pure,
please don't make me go away, can't you see I'm so afraid.”

The basic message of these lyrics, taken from the Journeys song “Neshomele,” is an important one. Life is full of experiences that desensitize us to spiritual pursuits and that make living a purposeful life challenging. On the other hand, life presents a tremendous opportunity to accomplish, grow, and live purposely. Being aware of this tension is essential, and our job is to be sensitive to both aspects of spirituality.

However, with apologies to Abie Rotenberg, I think the lyrics of this song (when taken literally), contain a potentially risky depiction of the Jewish soul. To be clear, my goal here is not to criticize a beloved song or songwriter. As I mentioned earlier, the message of the song is paramount (and also based on statements from Chazal). However, for many of us, the imagery used by the song is identifiable as part of our education and by extension, part of our consciousness (whether we know this song or not). The place of the “Neshomele Parable” in chinuch is what I’d like to discuss.     

Educators and public speakers commonly present the Jewish soul as a gift that comes with instructions: Keep pure, wash with teshuva and mikva water, and return to God when finished. We are expected to keep our souls as pure as possible by avoiding exposure to anything that isn’t holy. Any experience involving “impure” elements damages our souls, and therefore represents an attack on our responsibility to God.

I believe that this representation creates unrealistic expectations and ignores other aspects of human personality. If one is so concerned with the purity of my soul, what happens when it gets dirty? What if it gets filthy? The amount of guilt and despair that a person might experience is scary. How can you live with yourself if constantly carrying around your failure to protect your soul? One cannot unsee what has been seen nor unexperience what has already been experienced. Makes it easy to give up trying.

Additionally, when viewing the soul through such a lens, actions and experiences become binary; either something is good for your soul or it isn’t. Thinking this way is not healthy. Sometimes you need a movie to wind down or to hang out with “old friends” because you miss them. Yes, these experiences might make you feel spiritually desensitized, but they also might make you happy. General mental health should be an important value to everyone, a value that is challenged if you view every moment as carrying the weight of the world.

Yes, we are all fortunate to have souls; they steer us to want to be good God-fearing people. Some experiences will dull this desire, and some will enhance it. However, protecting our sense of the divine cannot be the overwhelming concern when making decisions. Ultimately, our actions define us, and our actions are products of factors of which the “cleanliness of our souls” is but one. Let’s give a break to ourselves, to our family members, and to those who look to us for guidance. We all may actually turn out to be holier for it.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County


Anonymous said...

Once again, Rabbi Daar brings us another excellent point in the chinuch of our children. The children of 2014 often feel removed from Yahadut the moment they do something that is not in line with the Torah.
Rabbi Daars solution, if I understand him correctly, is to be less binary in our vision. Happiness, even at the expense of something that is spiritually desensitizing is a meaningful trade off.
Though I agree with Rabbi Daars understanding of the situation, I do not agree with his solution. Let me begin by saying that I only have the utmost respect for Rabbi Daar and the Torah he teaches but on this point I find myself on the opposite side of the fence.
The solution is not to pander to our youth that spiritually desensitizing activities are of value as long as they bring you happiness. This positions mitzvot (and spirituality in general) as necessary but not in line with the ultimate goal of happiness. My experience tells me that the children themselves find something false in this approach. They will acknowledge that it is less cumbersome but at the same time they cannot understand how an infinite God does not care about every aspect of our lives. Something is either good or evil. If is it "pareve" it is only because it is meant to be elevated and used in the service of Hashem thus revealing its essential inner goodness.

Anonymous said...

While it is true that soldiers on a mission will take a much needed break in order to rejuvenate and fulfill their purpose, they will never do something that will inhibit their opportunity for success. If a movie is spiritually desensitizing then it simply out of the parameters of our mission.
Of course talmidim and talmidot need to be taught that breaks are necessary. They ought to be taught the Yerushalmi that says that one of the questions we will be asked in our ultimate Day of Judgement is "did you enjoy my world?" Hashem wants nothing more then to bestow the ultimate happiness upon his creations. The greatest happiness will come when our mission in life is fulfilled. Yes that requires sacrificing those activities that are spiritually desensitizing (the modern day version of korbanot) but the trade off is worth it! Desensitizing ourselves to sexuality and morality in general will not produce the happiness that our youth crave. If your mitzvot are cumbersome it is because something is off. The machine needs to be re-calibrated. A bag of diamonds may weigh a tremendous amount but is never feels heavy. A failure to recognize the value of mitzvot and the role they play in our ultimate mission often causes a weariness in those that carry the burden. We must educate our children in such a way that the mitzvot are inspiring and that breaks, while meaningful, should not be spiritually desensitizing.
Is there a source in our Torah for a position that allows for spiritually desensitizing activities because they breed happiness? I cannot think of any. The Torah understand when a person is incapable of choosing good as in the case of a eishet yifat toar but as a lichatchilla aproach? Perhaps you can enlighten us in this area.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Daar, you yourself make the point lets give ourselves a break. On this point we certainly agree. Lets teach our children that when you make a mistake you can regret it without living with guilt. The human condition is one where we sin. It is why the korban Todah was brought twice a day! We literally need atonement every day and every night because there is no doubt that we will fail in our mission. But is precisely our ability to recognize our failures and grow from them that makes our condition palatable. God will not hold us accountable for that which we were not capable of handling but he will certainly hold us accountable for a position of mediocrity.
An approach that does not make compromises on the essential goal of our Yahadut but recognizes the limitations of our own humanity is one that ultimately inspires our children to integrate this mission into their own lives.
Again, I want to stress how much respect and admiration I have for you. You are an educator who clearly cares about his chanichim and I only wish you continued success. Should anyone think that there is any animus in this post they are sadly mistaken. I value Rabbi Daars opinion and it is for this reason that I am posting my response.
Please continue to post your chinuch insights, they are always a valuable read.
(I will remain anonymous not because I am embarrassed of standing behind my opinion in any way but because I do not feel that open dialogue will continue should anyone know my identity. It is an unfortunate reality that a machloket lishem shomayim often deteriorates to lo lishem shomayim in quite a hurry. Perhaps by remaining anonymous it will allow those who criticize me to feel more comfortable stating their opinions without turning this into a personal attack - one which I have done my best to stay away from in this posting.)

Yair Daar said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I will start with clarifying a few things about my opinion and then see where it goes.

1. Practically, I would like to remove an aspect of chinuch that I simply believe to be untrue and (to a certain degree) damaging. I am not proposing that mechanchim start extolling the values of watching HBO, but instead stopping to promote an idea that is dangerous when taken literally.

2. This is not a problem/solution situation to me. I don't think there is a particular way to "solve" the issue of people becoming religiously disenfranchised, nor am I sure that this qualifies as a "crisis." I do think that the ideas I am promoting can be helpful for many people, but how/when to expose people to certain ideas is admittedly tricky.

3. I do not believe that keeping Torah and Mitzvot is an automatic key to happiness for everyone. This may not be a popular opinion for a Jewish educator to have, but it is what I believe nonetheless. We are all affected by different things in different ways, and must be cognizant of our own psychological needs while nurturing our Spiritual growth. The truth is, my concern here isn't happiness as much as it is mental well-being. The latter is necessary for the former.

4. I believe in an expanded version of Rambam's "encountering the divine through nature" approach. I think that coming in contact with the "good things in life" can give a person a sense of appreciation for the life he or she has been given and for the experiences that life provides. This is my version of elevating "parve" experiences - enjoy the experiences for themselves, but always with a realization that your happiness is but a tool in living a life guided by a divine mission.

5. I would not condone "spiritually desensitizing" activities that are halachically problematic or definitively against Jewish values. There is a large gray area of things that have a somewhat equal balance of pros and cons. But if your orientation is always "do what's best for the purity of my neshama," the pros will never win, and you may miss out on an experience that will make you happier to be alive.

6. Of course I think teaching the beauty of yahadut is l'chatchila. But it has to be done with a grain of pragmatism and respect for personal tendencies. I think it is problematic for Jewish educators to play the "everything is awesome" card. It creates unrealistic role-modeling and a sense of disconnect between teacher and student. I don't thin it is not our job to help students "recalibrate." I think we have to represent a realistic approach more than anything, and leave the inspiration for specific moments, and allow growth to happen over the course of our students' lives.

I appreciate your use of anonymity. If you ever want to contact me directly, feel free to email me (

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Daar,
Thank you for clarifying your position. I see now that when you wrote "Yes, these experiences might make you feel spiritually desensitized, but they also might make you happy" you did not mean to extoll the virtues of watching HBO but rather are trying help students understand that mental well being is an important aspect of Yahadut.
Would you be kind enough to clarify what you mean when you write "I don't thin it is not our job to help students "recalibrate."
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Daar,
You write "Additionally, when viewing the soul through such a lens, actions and experiences become binary; either something is good for your soul or it isn’t. Thinking this way is not healthy."
This is a very serious position when it comes to a worldview of Yahadut and frankly one that is contrary to some of the great Jewish philosophers, namely the Ramchal and the Tanya to name just two. I believe it is important to have a source that you can point to in a more direct fashion then simply an expanded version of the Rambam.
There is a lot of truth in seeing the world as nogah vs. klippah (in the words of the Tanya). The Ramchal in Derech Hashem is also clear that this world is a series of tests designed for us to choose. Mental well being certainly has a primary place in Yahadut. Without an appropriate vision of self with what would a person serve Hashem? It is difficult for me to understand how you can posit that this approach is "unhealthy."
Again, I would posit that teaching these values does not mean that you have to trade in happiness. Yes, there is sacrifice but when we understand the mission of what we are striving for it allows us to make this sacrifice. Hanging out with old friends is not a contradiciton in any way to ones mission but if it is then the choice is clear. I have found that while some "old friends" may hold you back, most are just happy for your continued growth.
Further, teaching teshuva as part of the system allows someone to understand that while we often make choices that are beneath our Godly dignity we can always recover. This is actually a much more healthy approach. The parameters are clear and failure is built into the system. Why would a person give up when they understand that this a process that includes our humanity?
Looking forward to your response!

Yair Daar said...

This is obviously a larger conversation, but in short, I do not think the #1 job of Jewish educators is to inspire students to greater observance. Putting a child on the "path" of Torah and Mitzvot is the responsibility of parents with the help of the school which educates what that path is, or more accurately the number of paths that are available.

A lot of the "recalibration" (if you are the same 'anonymous' as in all the other comments, I am using your terminology) takes place over time with maturity and life experience. A Jewish educator can plant seeds by helping students feel competent in Torah study, and by teaching Jewish perspectives on life, but cannot expect to inspire students who are probably not ready for it.

Also, if Jewish educators focus first on their students’ appreciation of Torah and Mitzvot as the best and most fulfilling way to live, there are multiple pitfalls: 1) It can create a competition of values between home and school, which often has negative consequences. 2) It can create a power struggle between students and teachers. 3) There isn’t even close to a one-size-fits-all approach to this. To inspire some students you are going to have to ignore the needs of many others. 4) School is a manufactured environment. Inspiring students in the school environment often does not generalize well to real life.

All of these challenges (and there are others) can be addressed, but at the expense of actual education (by that I mean studying Jewish sources, gaining learning skills, etc...). And to me, education should be the #1 goal of Jewish schools with the “putting kids on the derech” job left to the parents. If a m’chanech(et) doesn’t like the job his/her students’ parents are doing, then maybe they need to find a new school to work at. And even there is an objective problem, it won’t get fixed in school; home/community/friends are almost always stronger. Focusing on aligning student priorities is an uphill battle and probably un-winnable on a large scale. Instead, students won’t be educated properly AND they won’t end up inspired. Tafasta meruba lo tafasta

I will try and respond to your other points soon.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Daar,
I think we differ very much in a definitional sense here in terms of inspiration vs education.
To me inspiration means finding meaning and value in the mitzvah as opposed to just learning the data. If this creates a conflict with the home why are the parents sending to said institution. Further, education of this sort ought to createa healthy dialogue between teacher and student not a power struggle. I imagine if this is occurring it I'd because the material is being presented in a fashion that isn't appropriate for the student.
I am not sure why this would ever come at the expense of real learning since real inspiration and education are synonymous.
You are correct if your vision of inspiration is a kumzitz but I hope we can both agree that that form of excitement never lasts.
Lastly, I'm having trouble understanding your position of leaving kids being on the derech to the parents. We are en loco parentis in this regard. Education is the bedrock of the future of klal yisrael. Are we to leave observance out of the picture?!?

Anonymous said...

I would add one more point.
It seems that your vision is one of teaching material because the problem cannot be fixed in school. I love teaching in my school precisely because we don't have this approach. We are here to continue the tradition of building a relationship with Hashem by making him more apparent in this world. The blatt Gemara I'd wireless without that vision first being planted.

Yair Daar said...

Before I respond, just an apology/cop-out: Being that this isn't the topic that my article was on, my response will probably be lacking some nuance and detail. I will eventually write a post about education vs. inspiration, and I prefer to leave the more complete thoughts for the articles. I hope my comments here suffice for now.

just a few clarifying points:

1) You are correct that we seem to disagree on the definition of education. However, I do not define education as "learning data." I believe it involves giving students the knowledge and skills required to find meaning in our religious texts, and to teach numerous "authentic" Jewish approaches to help find their place in Yahadut.

2) Teaching the meaning behind Jewish practice is important, and of course needs to be part of Jewish education. But I'd much rather prefer to teach students HOW to do this, and let them find meaning over the course of their lifetimes.

3) The same goes for "building a relationship with Hashem by making him more apparent in this world." Important, yes. But takes a lifetime. Again, I'd prefer to make this a PART of Jewish education so that students can cultivate this sense over the course of their lives.

A question for you: Do you think that this goal (as described by your words) is the way to define the ultimate goal of Judaism? I think the are other ways and methods, and that one of the dangers of focusing on "inspiration" is that it can cause the (many) students who aren't inspired in the same way to be overlooked.

4) "Power Struggle" was a poor choice of words. I was trying to illustrate that "re-calibrating" (your word) means to change the way students think/feel. This, by definition, presents a "clash" of sorts. This is not necessarily contentious - and like you said, when done properly is not - but a clash nonetheless. I don't believe our job is to change students (no matter how positive the approach), and that if we do place this kiruv-of-sorts near the top, we will compromise the #1 goal of education.

5) I completely reject the notion that we are in place of parents. We are shilchim as far as Talmud Torah is concerned, but not to take responsibility for their observance. Torah Judaism survived for centuries with an uneducated populace because of the practices passed down from parent to child.

6) I think it is tremendously empowering to give a Jew access to his or her religious texts and thought. We don't see the affects of this right away, but it can be super-powerful later in life.

7) Assuming that education (as I understand it) is the #1 goal, that goal is clearly compromised in many ways (can't discuss them here) if we focus on inspiration first. My opinion is that we educate and empower as best we can (all while making room to focus on the more "inspirational" parts of education), and that this is the best way to prepare students for a meaningful Jewish life later on.

(No energy left to proofread - sorry if something is unclear)

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Daar,
Perhaps this shall be my final posting. I admire your passion and energy and appreciate the time you devote to spreading Torah. Though we disagree on some issues I leave this conversation (of sorts) with the same respect that I had when I initially began the conversation. It is much to my chagrin that other readers did not join in as I feel that further dialogue only helps our cause.
I am looking forward to your post on education vs. inspiration. In my mind many of the points that you make throughout this blog come down to that fundamental question. Perhaps after that posting we will have more to discuss.
At this point I will answer the question that you asked of me. Judaism is, as you mentioned, a lifetime achievement award. It is something that as we mature over time we become at once more adept at handling the challenges that lie therein and paradoxically we find ourselves with new challnges requiring as of yet undeveloped skill sets. Having a clearly defined mission is one of the most important ingredients in any mission. How can we be successful if we do not have absolute clarity in the goal.
Thus far I have only addressed the need for a goal but I have not defined the goal itself. I do believe, again as you said, that defining the goal can be challenging from a students perspective. What if the way I define the mission lacks appeal to the student I am addressing. Yet, ours in a generation that requires a defined mission. Our grandparents served Hashem with much more simplicity. They had challenges of their own to be sure but faith was not their burden to bear. They either had it or they did not. We are much more complex in this regard and thus our educational opportunity is much more challenging. When defining the mission of Judaism we must understand that while the individual may have many ways of playing his or her particular role the general mission must be the same for everyone. Creating a larger mission does not obviate the need for our own unique contribution to said goal. As educators we must stress that a failure to find your own role is to fail in one of the most fundamental aspects of the mission. Rav Avraham Kook taught that until we were born it was not yet our time to play our part in this play of life but now that we are born it is clearly the only time to say our lines and act our part. Failure to do so is tantamount to a person suffering from stage fright. Repeating someone else's lines does not contribute anything to the scene.
So, what is the goal? Dveikut biHashem, creating a relationship with the Almighty. We do that by existing within the corders and boundaries that He created for our relationship to exist. These are not my own thoughts. They are based on all of the great Jewish thinkers throughout the generations. They all had their own unique way of expressing this concept (see above) but in my opinion this is what it boils down to. Creating transparency in this world of his existence is based on Medrash, Ramban, Ramchal, Maharal and Tanya to name but a few.
There is ample room for expressing this concept in different fashions but at the end of the day this is what it boils down to (again, in my opinion). If a student were to tell me they did not agree with this mission I would ask them for their understanding of the mission. I would ask them what their source for their understanding of the mission is. While I can recognize the humanity of the students emotion, this is not an emotional issue. It is one that needs to be grounded in the Mesorah if it is to have truth.

Anonymous said...

And that Rabbi Daar is where I feel you have not answered my question. I admire your approach to the mental well being of the students but in this instance you have done so at the expense of a time honored tradition. You deny that the teacher serves as the agent of the parent in the face of open Gemaras that indicate that this is so. You have ignored the pasuk of chanoch linaar al pi darko gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimena in defining education without an attitude that includes a focus on observance (though admittedly you hope that skills will have such an effect). While I respect your opinion enormously, my only critique would be that I have not found your articles to be grounded in Chazal. This is a must for any Jew and certainly any educator. Every year that I have taught I have learned new skills and often life lessons about engaging the students. Every year I feel as if I wish I had this knowledge last year. My students from 10 years ago would have been much richer had they had a Rebbe/Principal who was endowed the knowledge that I currently have. How will I feel 20 years from now? One thing that I can take solace in, my weltanschaung has been expanded in the time that I have been in klei kodesh but it is has not fundamentally changed. The lessons my Rabbeim taught me are the lessons I pass on to my students (though they are tailored to a very different generation). How will you feel in twenty years from now if you see that some of your approaches are indeed antithetical to an authentic Torah teaching? An expanded vision of the Rambam is not a source. Your insights are superb but I would be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
With admiration for the awesome work that you and all your colleagues do every day.

Yair Daar said...

My original post was not a comment on what the ultimate way of serving G-d is for a Jew, but rather on what I think is a bad (and also false) approach to take to get anyone to whatever their goal is. I do not think there is one way to serve G-d and one way for a person to be a "successful" observant Jew. That is a large part of why I don't believe in inspiration towards d'veykut as the goal of education.

In the same vein, I am a little confused with and surprised at your limited (I don't mean this pejoratively, just descriptively) definition of the mission of Judaism. Yes, there are many thinkers who have expressed d'veykut as the ultimate purpose, but there are others who are more maaseh-based, others rationally based, and others who focus on impacting the world around us.

Shlomo Hamelech said that fearing G-d and fulfilling his commandments is "all of man." Rambam does not list any path to G-d as being the only one in his 13 tenets of faith. And even if you will claim that d'veykut is the ultimate goal but there are many paths, well that's exactly my point.

I can't imagine that if you asked any of your rebbeim, they would tell you that d'veykut is the only way to serve G-d. (I am also curious where you got the idea that nowadays we need the same mission for everyone.) There are many paths for person to take, and it is up to each person to figure that out for themselves (with the help of those knowledgeable and experienced, of course).

You yourself mention both mitzvah observance and d'veykut. These are not the same goal. So I am not really sure what you mean by this " defined mission." Additionally, teaching actual d'veykut would require radically different methods altogether, and classroom-style learning is not one of them.

What occupies my mind is how to best prepare students for life as a Jew, particularly in terms of what makes sense for my role as a teacher (not a parent) and for a school environment. These goals have already been explained in my earlier comments.

Yair Daar said...

In terms of the point of my original post, I do not feel that it is necessary to have a list of sources on hand to support my personal haskafot. I have spent time learning sefarim that are essential components of our Mesorah and I have learned from Rebbeim who are faithful to our traditions. I personally find this expanded version of Rambam compelling.

In truth, what I expressed is really just (what I consider) a foundational idea of Torah u' Maddah, Torah im Derech Eretz, and serious Modern Orthodoxy as a whole. Again, I may not have specific sources on hand to quote, but I am just bad with that type of memory. I trust myself to properly integrate what I have learned and been taught. Nothing I have said is against any particular tenet of belief or practice in Judaism. The category of acceptable hashkafa is a lot more varied than its halachik counterpart.

I thank you for taking the time to read, comment, and respond thoughtfully and respectfully.

I'd be happy to discuss further, or you can call it a day. Your choice (obviously). Hatzlacha!

The Fades said...

this was awesome