I was all set to write an article on what I consider an important political matter, but something else came up that, to me, eclipses any political discussion.
Over Shabbos, I became aware that Rabbi Berel Wein, renowned author and lecturer, was to speak at the Yeshiva of Central Queens on the topic of teaching culture and values to our students in day schools today. The event was sponsored by Torah Umesorah and was geared for men and women in the chinuch profession.
Although I had other commitments, I decided that this topic was important enough to make the effort to attend. The lecture was interesting indeed, but the ensuing question-and-answer period was in many ways an eye-opener for me.
During the course of his presentation, Rabbi Wein mentioned that when he was in the fourth grade or so in Chicago, his rebbe would always refer to Rashi as Rashi HaKadosh, “the holy Rashi” – never as just plain Rashi. “Let’s see what Rashi HaKadosh has to say about this pasuk in Chumash.”
This piqued his interest. Why did his rebbe always refer to Rashi as “Rashi HaKadosh”? Finally, the young Berel Wein decided to ask his father why it was that his rebbe always spoke of Rashi HaKadosh. His father went on to explain that without Rashi and his commentary on Tanach (the entire Bible) and on the Gemara, we would be lost. Torah would never have been understood by the masses, so of course he is a kadosh, a holy person. That little lesson of appreciation for Rashi left Rabbi Wein with an impression that lasted him a lifetime.
Rabbi Wein went on to say that this rebbe also had another very special practice. Every morning before starting class, he would begin by reciting out loud a sentence taken from the Korbanos section of davening: “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu u’mah na’im goraleinu u’mah yafah y’rushaseinu–We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage!” This, too, left Rabbi Wein with an indelible impression of the value of loving our religion and our Torah.
In the question-and-answer period that followed, I commented that I found these two statements most intriguing, with valuable lessons for chinuch. These approaches from his rebbe clearly demonstrate the need to inject some emotion into the way we teach our kids in day school. I know I’ve been writing about this, time and time again. But the need is becoming more and more critical. Rabbi Wein, of course, fully agreed.
Look how this reference to Rashi as “HaKadosh” had a lasting impact for the great Rabbi Wein. It painted a picture for him of this great and saintly man. Who knows if this didn’t affect his whole development as a lover and purveyor of Torah for all these decades? The recital of “Ashreinu” before the start of class every day surely gave a flavor to the learning that got right into those Jewish kishkes of the kids.
Following my remarks came a comment from a rebbe in the audience, which to me was stunning. A young man raised his hand and identified himself as a rebbe in a prestigious day school. He referred to Rabbi Wein’s recollection of his rebbe saying “Ashreinu” and sadly said that if he emphasizes those words in his class, the students would verbally attack him with the support of their parents. After all, how dare we Jews proclaim ourselves as “special” or even more fortunate than others! We are no different from the rest of the world. We are not more or less fortunate than any other ethnic group.
Rabbi Wein responded by saying that he must remain resolute and teach the kids that we are indeed different. “If the Jews don’t know it, the rest of the world knows it, and they constantly remind us of it.”
After the lecture, I went over to this young man and asked him where he teaches. He mentioned the name of the day school to me and I was frankly stunned. This is one of the oldest and most respected day schools in the New York area. I asked him if the students come from an Orthodox background, and he told me that about 80 percent do, and for the most part they are of the same attitude.
This is even more frightening than I realized. Is this where we are up to within the Orthodox community? We can’t even think of ourselves as the Am HaNivchar, the Chosen People?? How are we supposed to make Kiddush? Do we not say, “Ki vanu vacharta v’osanu kidashta mi’kol ha’amim–For us did You choose and us did You sanctify from all the nations”? How do we recite the Birkas HaTorah (“Asher bachar banu mi’kol ha’amim” – that He chose us from all the nations), such as when one receives an aliyah to the Torah?
In my article a couple of weeks ago, titled “The Loser’s Holiday,” I made reference to an article published by The New York Times (“The Hypocrisy of Hannukah”) in which the author described the Chashmona’im as a bunch of violent zealots defeating assimilated Jews in a most vicious manner, making the holiday of Chanukah really not worth celebrating today. In the article, I warned, “Mark my words: This will creep right into Open Orthodox circles as well.”
I was wrong. It already has made its way into Open Orthodoxy. In an article posted on the Times of Israel (December 8, 2018), Benyamin Zahav, a disciple of Open Orthodoxy, writes, “The real lesson of Chanukah is that the Maccabee way is not the way. Violence begets violence, and fanaticism begets more of it.” And he carries on from there.
The firewall between Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Open Orthodoxy was breached a few years ago and becomes more evident each passing day. I am now afraid that the firewall between Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy is slowly being breached, as well. Trust me: If the trend continues, we will have less and less commitment to Torah values in the Orthodox community, and more commitment to the social agenda of the day. I wouldn’t be surprised if already a significant amount of our kids idealize Bernie Sanders more than they do the IDF. It’s sad.
I beg, I implore, the leadership in the Orthodox community to address this growing crisis. I insist that the educators in our community begin to totally rethink how to reach our children. Get into their emotions, not their brains. Bring back Rashi HaKadosh!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.