Every year I have the honor and pleasure to deliver a charge to the Northwest Yeshiva High School graduating class. I appreciate the opportunity to share this year’s message with the JTNews readership. The message deals with both the challenges our young people will face in maintaining their connection with Judaism and the Jewish community, and the ways in which our schools can best prepare our children overcome these challenges.
You join thousands of other young men and women who graduate this month from Jewish high schools and yeshivot. You and your peers are committed to Torah values and no doubt anticipate that these values will continue to play an important role in your lives and provide you with guidance. But unless the graduates of 2007 represent a statistical anomaly of remarkable proportions, a significant proportion of your peer group will abandon its Torah values and disassociate from Judaism and the Jewish community.
There is significant debate over the extent of this problem. However, a consensus has developed that the number of day school and yeshiva graduates that drop out or abandon their Judaism is considerable.
Of course, I am not suggesting that your strenuous efforts over the last four years were wasted. Your labors improve your chances of remaining true to your Torah and Jewish values. But they are not an inoculation. Your education will not immunize you to the pressures and influences to which many similar graduates have succumbed.
You have received an extensive Torah education. What resources have you acquired that can help you avoid becoming one of those who abandons their Judaism?
In order to begin to develop a strategy for confronting the challenges you will face, you must better understand the factors that will threaten your Torah values. I believe the two most important factors are self-evident: First, Torah values — any meaningful system of values — are restrictive.
Given a choice between a life sharply circumscribed by various expectations and restrictions or complete freedom, most people will at least be tempted to adopt the life of freedom.
You are leaving home. You now have an opportunity to define your own lifestyle. You will be confronted with the choice between steadfastness to Torah values and the allure of freedom. Some of your peers will feel compelled to, at minimum, experiment with formerly illicit pleasures and experiences.
Second, within the next two years virtually all of you will enter the purely secular world of college and university. You will encounter an environment that is often hostile to religion.
On campus, religion is often characterized as a primitive, outlandish interpretation of reality. It is attacked both openly by instructors, professors and peers, and more subtly by an environment that suggests that modern is best, and traditional values are suspect and must be questioned.
How have you been prepared to respond to these challenges? In general, day schools and yeshivot have three options: some schools seek to isolate their students from hostile influences. These schools concede they cannot prepare their students to confront an outside world antagonistic to Judaism. Consequently, they seek to limit their students’ exposure to any elements of the outside environment that may pose temptations or lead its students to question the teachings of Torah.
In a sense, these schools attempt to self-impose the restrictions formerly forcibly imposed by the ghetto. Schools that adopt this perspective limit exposure to secular studies and carefully craft the presentation of secular subjects so as to avoid any conflict with Torah values. Rather than prepare their students for an encounter with the larger secular world, these schools seek to prevent this interaction.
Graduates of such programs are not encouraged to attend college or even to enter the “gentile” workplace. These are viewed as environments antithetical to the students’ spiritual safety.
The second approach grants the school’s students will interact with the secular world. This realization compels these schools to prepare their students for this inevitable encounter by endowing their students with an intense religious fervor. This passionate commitment will provide their students with the fortitude to resist temptation.
But these schools must also safeguard their students against doubts. To accomplish this, they elevate Torah above all criticism by presenting it as a meta-rational or an essentially mystical system.
Students are taught that Torah need not respond to questions. Torah need not make sense in any conventional manner. Its wisdom is not our wisdom and it is above our trivial questions. This completes the inoculation. The student confronts the external world endowed with an intense religiosity and faith in a set of unassailable beliefs.
Ironically, these schools attempt to secure their students’ loyalty to Judaism through misrepresenting and distorting the Torah they hope to protect. Our sages universally regard Torah as a source of knowledge and wisdom. No mitzvah is more important than the study of Torah. And what is Torah study if its goal is not understanding?
To contend that Torah is entirely above human understanding is tantamount to presenting it as a system bereft of wisdom in any meaningful sense. This approach dismisses generations of sages who labored to provide us with insight and understanding of the Torah.
At Northwest Yeshiva High School we have adopted a third approach. We make two assumptions: first, we accept that you will face temptation and you will be confronted with questions you will not be able to answer.
We do not assume that we can desensitize you to temptation or that we can provide you with a simplistic response that will dismiss all doubts. Instead, we strive to provide you with experiences, tools and perspectives that will enable you to confront these issues and struggle through them. Second, we never misrepresent or distort the Torah.
Over the past four years we have striven to expose you to as much Torah as possible. We have seized every opportunity to impress upon you and demonstrate the profound wisdom of the Torah.
We have shared with you the beauty and richness of Judaism and Torah life. We know that even if we have been successful, you will not be immune to temptation. But we have aspired to provide you with the fortitude to overcome temptation.
We have toiled to develop your thinking and critical abilities. We have carefully nurtured your personal development, and maturation. We know that these skills and your personal growth will not provide you with answers to all of the questions with which you will be confronted. But we hope you have learned that every honest person knows there are questions he or she cannot answer.
These mysteries should not be a source of doubt — we should not quake in the face of the unknown. Instead, questions should inspire wonder. Mystery should excite our imagination and provoke us to study further and think and search more deeply. Knowledge always begins with a question!