A Teen’s Lament

This essay, written by a teenage girl and now several years old, came to my attention recently. It is a window into a certain part of our world, but a darkly-tinted, grotesquely-distorted window. Here are relevant excerpts:

   “The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we’re done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?   …….

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion — or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage — women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves — and our girls……

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion — and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!”

I do hope in the ensuing years she has made peace with G-d’s Torah, but I assume there are others who have not (I pray not too many). We have to excuse the narcissism, the self-centeredness, of her generation; they were raised being told that they were all “special,” and they actually believe it. Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special. That mistaken proposition also ignores the truism that “specialness” is earned by some unique ability or contribution to society, not acquired merely by virtue of respiration and ambulation.

I hope as well that she learns the meaning of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – a recognition that we are just servants of the Master, and not in a position to dictate to the Master what we think His Torah should decree, or else. As Rachel Fraenkel, for whose son’s freedom, and his two friends, we pray daily, said this past week: “G-d is not our employee.” We don’t get to prescribe to G-d how He is to be worshipped. And it is the implicit threat – “if I don’t get my feminist way, I will take my toys and go elsewhere”– that is so off-putting. But, again, that can be attributed to youth and an overestimation of the self. Perhaps she will outgrow it – but not if she does not receive guidance from her mentors.

And here’s the most troubling aspect of her writings, for which she is not at all to blame. In all her years of “Modern Orthodox” education, hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society? Has she never been taught that Judaism has its own divinely-based system, and we do not judge the worth of that system or its precepts by measuring it against the prevailing mores of the rest of the world?

Is it too much to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will and were given to us to provide us with the means to actualize our human potential and live fulfilling lives as divine servants? Is that too much to ask for $20,000 per year?

That is the biggest failing in her education, and that of her like-minded friends. We have to ask ourselves what is happening in these communities that children are not taught that, or that Rabbis are not preaching that when necessary. And why not. What is the fear or hesitation?

Obviously, those in the camp of the discontented have an a priori conception of what Judaism should be – even what Modern Orthodoxy should be – that bears little relation to what it actually is. Here’s a news flash: there is a system that was entrusted to us in which we are mandated to both observe its laws as the faithful and preserve it as the guardians for future generations. A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation. It could not – and should not have survived – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christians, the Muslims and a host of others. (Indeed, the values of modern America are uncannily similar to those of ancient Rome in its decadence, to a great extent in its emptiness and its yearning for distractions from real life – World Cup? Who cares! – and even in the decay that has already set in.) What does any of that have to do with Judaism, and why would we want to import the failures of Western morals into our system, even if we could?

There is “unfairness” in the world with which we all must reckon in shul, in the workplace, and in life. For example, in baseball, a batter is out after three strikes, but takes first base after four balls. Unfair!! That gives the advantage to the pitcher and should be unacceptable to any thinking egalitarian. Why should the pitcher be advantaged? Alas, that is the system of baseball. We either accept the system or create a new game. Why is this so complicated?

It is further troubling that our young writer perceives Modern Orthodoxy as inherently capable of deviating from the Mesorah in order to accommodate her personal needs, or else it must be construed as hostage to the “stringent sects of religions” that clearly have no appeal to her. But a Modern Orthodoxy in which the veneer of ritual is superimposed on a degenerate lifestyle – as in the yarmulke-wearing off-color young comedian who recently appeared on American television, clearly clueless as to the boundaries of propriety in Jewish life – is less orthodox than it is modern, and in the worst sense of the term “modern.” Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.

Indeed, Torah Judaism, modern or otherwise, is “not reflective of modern society.” That is to be celebrated, not lamented, for that is the whole point. We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine. That is what is unique about Judaism and Jews. And so her explicit threat – if she and her friends are not accommodated, they will opt out – leaves me sad but also detached. I think of what Queen Esther was told by Mordechai at a critical moment in Jewish history and paraphrase it here: if indeed you want to establish your own religion or your own version of Judaism because you find the Torah unsatisfying at present, good luck with that. “Relief and salvation will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14). It has happened before; indeed, it has happened in every generation since Sinai. It is your choice whether or not you want it to happen to you.

Consider this not the “rabbinic indifference” that you castigate but the rabbinic truth to which you have apparently never been exposed. The answer to your complaints is intellectually straightforward even if it is emotionally unappealing to you. Orthodoxies that pander to the masses are not orthodoxies, even if they claim the name for themselves. Orthodoxies that have fluid belief systems are oxymorons with short shelf lives. The embrace of leftist political doctrine has already permeated the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy, and with predictable results. That decline has already started, as the Torah faithful have retrenched and defined what is inside and/or outside the Mesorah. That flash in the pan is already fading, despite the repeated hoopla in the media.

I would not worry at all whether there is a future for Torah; that is guaranteed.

I would only worry whether you and those like you will be part of that future.

 

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17 responses to “A Teen’s Lament

  1. Dear Rabbi Pruzansky,

    You write that: ” A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation.” But doesn’t the Judaism we practice differ very much from that of Moshe Rabbeinu? Hasn’t it evolved – a lot – since Har Sinai? Doesn’t it seem sometimes that over the generations, the Rabbanim have taken steps to seemingly further limit a woman’s role in Judaism? And at the very least, shouldn’t men be more cognizant and sensitive to their plight? I know that when I thank G-d “shelo asani isha”, that I am thankful for having been commanded with more rituals as a way of serving G-d, and yes, egotistically speaking, the rituals bring more meaning into my life. She’asani kirtzono sounds more like Dayan Haemet. If you were hired as a lawyer to present strong arguments on behalf of the letter writer in your essay, don’t you think you could?

    Finally, isn’t it harder to throw a strike than a ball? Thus the 3 strikes vs. 4 balls does seem fair. But why aren’t there more women umpires in the game to make those calls? 🙂

    Kind regards and Shabbat Shalom.

    • “Doesn’t it seem sometimes that over the generations, the Rabbanim have taken steps to seemingly further limit a woman’s role in Judaism?”

      On the contrary, it seems they’ve been increasing women’s roles and improving women’s status.. The rabbis instituted the lighting of shabbos candles, customarily done by women. They banned a man from having more than one wife. They prohibited divorcing a woman without her consent. The option of having one’s daughter become a maid leading to marriage has been discontinued. They instituted formal education for women.

      • Dear Reb Yid,
        Yet they prohibited (or strongly frowned upon) mitzvos such as tzitzis and tefilin being performed by women? Or giving women aliyos? You can argue about milah, and STaM, perhaps…
        And don’t your points show that Judaism can and does evolve?

  2. We change the rules in baseball all the time. For example, instant replay now gives players recourse after incorrect calls by the umpires. More significantly, the Wild Card system allows the best teams a chance to play in the postseason, even if their division happened to have an exceedingly dominant team. Most pertinent to this discussion, black athletes are now permitted to participate, even though they were once systematically excluded.

    • Neither example you have is relevant to the practice of baseball. Additionally, no official baseball rule ever banned blacks from playing. It was an unwritten agreement of the owners.
      Try again.

      -RSP

  3. @Yakov I believe the Rabbi is referring to attitude and approach towards Yahadus, which doesn’t change even when our traditions have continued to evolve. The Rabbi is reading into the authors weltanschauung which is based solely in secular culture and that deviates from the one that should have been passed down to her.

  4. Rabbi Pruzansky, you wrote, “A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation.” But isn’t that exactly what modern orthodoxy did when it allowed women to no longer cover their hair, go mixed swimming, and sing in public?

    It’s no wonder that this generation of girls is confused about the rules of “modern orthodoxy.” The previous generation decided that the Halachot of Tziniyut and Negiah were no longer relevant to them (divinely inspired or not) so why should this generation not be able to choose which parts of the Torah they want to ignore and still remain modern orthodox?

    It is truly unfair of you, “to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will . . .” How can the Rabbis and teachers possibly explain, that their Rabbis decided that certain Mitzvot (such as Tziniyut and Negiah) were no longer mandatory (despite the “Mesorah” from the previous generations) but this generation cannot do the same with whatever Halochot inconvenience them (currently davening for the Amud and Kriyat Hatorah, by the next generation it will be Kashrut and Shemirat Shabbat).

    Shabbat Shalom.

    • Your facts are wrong. What Modern Orthodox halachic authority ever permitted a married woman to uncover her hair in public, etc.? Don’t confuse what people do with what Rabbanim say. It would be as accurate to state that Rabbanim in Lakewood permit real estate fraud because a well known Lakewood personality cheated Jews out of millions of dollars.
      Before you make such statements, you should back it up with sources.
      Additionally, errors of doctrine are always worse than errors of commission (within reason), and those who possess incorrect ideas will almost necessarily come to errors of commission.
      -RSP

  5. “hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society”

    Probably not. That’s why so many of them are OK with the whole homosexual agenda.

  6. “The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?” — One time I was the fifteenth man who came to daven. I didn’t get an aliyah that day. Therefore, I suppose, I meant nothing to the service.

  7. Rabbi,
    Do you have any basis for “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut”. My experience is the opposite- the modern Orthodox women who want to take on tefillin are the type who think about things like tzniyut- its those who don’t daven or don’t care it that are more likely to not care about tefillin.
    I think there are ways to allow women who want to put on tefillin. However, even those who can’t find a way should not insult the desire to grow in Torah, which is what these women are doing.

    • Yes, there is a basis. That is why I wrote it.
      The desire to grow in Torah must be exactly that – the desire to grow in Torah instead of concocting one’s own religion. Surely, there must be some men who would want to light Shabbat candles in place of their wives, or alternate, or ascend the duchan and bless the people even if they are not kohanim. It must be a spiritually rewarding experience. Alas, we are not commanded, and thus it is not construed as service of G-d.
      -RSP

  8. Rabbi,

    Perhaps a kinder, and more productive, response to girls like this one would be to explain why it may be important to show up even if they can’t lead, and to acknowledge that there is much we need to do to make shul a more attractive place for girls and women. It’s unwise to alienate the current and future mothers of our children; they shape, or will shape, the attitudes of our girls *and* boys toward tefillah b’tzibur in particular and Yahadut in general.

    And when you cite “the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy” as a “flash in the pan [that] is already fading,” it seems you are referring to partnership minyanim and/or Open Orthodoxy. If so, then may I quote you: “Before you make such statements, you should back it up with sources.” Please share your sources, because your conclusions fly in the face of my empirical observations.

  9. Rabbi, it’s official- I AM YOUR #1 FAN!! Your points are spot on, yet seem to fall on deaf ears (eyes?) as a result of the modern Amalekite culture that has pervaded and perverted Judaism.

  10. @Jeff – I cannot speak for the Rabbi, but I will comment in the absence of a response from him. I have no hard data that shows partnership minyanim or O.O. efforts fading. But what is obvious is that, in a fairly short time, these movements will reside well outside mainstream Orthodoxy, including ModO. Why? Because of exactly the issues the Rabbi speaks of. The main difference is not how people practice, but what they believe to be acceptable to Torah. We can learn much from Sephardim here. While I have known many Sephardim who are lax in their observance of Torah, they would never dare claim that their lifestyle reflects true Torah. They acknowledge that there is Torah, and non-Torah behavior, and, for whatever reason, they do not observe Torah fully. But that is a far cry from demanding that Torah be reformed to fit your own lifestyle choices and desires, to which there is, by definition, no limit. And so, partnership minyanim and O.O., and movements of that sort will flare up, exist for a while, and then fade, as there is simply no “there” there. Even ModO, which I call home, has to be on guard against crossing that line that says that “I don’t observe fully” into “the Torah must conform to my level of observance.” I think that the recent decline in the ModO world, and the explosive growth of the Yeshivish world is clear in its implication: Once the Torah is made to bend to one’s will, rather than its followers bending to the will of Torah, the countdown clock to complete assimilation has started.