Lately, the State of Israel is experiencing a new phenomenon. As is well known, the Ba’al Teshuva movement, which includes thousands of secular Jews who have turned to Judaism, has made a major impact on Israeli society. Many young people who were once involved in extreme secularity felt that they had to re-connect with their own heritage and found their way back to Torah and Tradition. This gave rise to a great amount of highly successful institutions such as Aish haTorah, Ohr Somayach, Machon Meir and Neve Yerushalaim.
Recent information coming from the Israeli media reports that a different movement is on its way. This time it is called the movement of Chozrim B’she’ela literally, “Those Who Turn Back to Questioning” which includes many religious youth who have decided to leave Judaism and its observances. Many of them have thrown off their kippot and exchanged their skirts for trousers or even “minis” and have taken on secular lifestyles.
Radio interviews were recently conducted in which journalists invited several of these young people and those who help them to integrate into the secular community. In these interviews, several disturbing facts came to the surface which require careful attention by the religious community, first of all its leaders and teachers.
It became clear that most of those who were interviewed did not qualify at all for such a commendable title as “Those Who Returned to Questioning”. When asked about their motivations, most gave very inadequate and simplistic responses. Nearly none was able to express him or herself in an intellectual way, challenging the Jewish Tradition. In fact, it seemed that no real and profound questions concerning the Jewish Tradition had ever really bothered them. Most responses were purely emotional and did not consist of more than statements like “I wanted to be free,” “I like to dance with boys,” or, even, “I do not really know.” (1) Most remarkable also was the absence of young people who had decided to join the Conservative or Reform movements after concluding that the Orthodox approach was wanting.
All opted for an extreme, secular lifestyle in which the pleasure motive reigned high.
Even more telling was the fact that the interviewers did not even bother to ask their interviewees if they had actually studied the Jewish Tradition at great length, or read, for example, the critiques of Spinoza or Kant or other theological and philosophical systems on Judaism. Questions such as “Were those critiques the ones which made you realize that you should abandon the Jewish Tradition?” were not even asked. It seemed that the interviewers were well aware of the poor intellectual quality of these young people’s reasoning.
That those who help these young people, such as psychologists and teachers, to integrate into the secular lifestyle never seem to ask these youngsters if they really abandoned the Jewish Tradition for the right reasons speaks volumes. Besides the fact that most of these young people never bothered to consult an open-minded religious teacher, thinker or rabbi, it is most disturbing that most psychologists or teachers guiding these young people do not bother to stimulate such a meeting or ask such teachers or rabbis to speak to them at cultural evenings or meetings. “Many a man accuses his fellowman of small mindedness, because he refuses to look into his own mirror.”
All in all, one has to conclude that the absence of intellectual reasoning and the lack of interest of these young people reflects badly on the Israeli and Jewish society at large. Instead of seeing people leaving the fold because they are bothered with serious questions concerning the Jewish tradition, we find a majority leaving for the wrong reasons: It is not for the lack of answers that they leave but for the absence of questions! (2)
This, however, should not make us believe that there are no good questions to be asked and that there are no young people who are sincere questioners who have left the fold. Not every case of defection can be seen as the result of intellectual apathy.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the famous author of “Chutzpa” and “The Vanishing American Jew,” in his latest book, “The Genesis of Justice” complains about his teachers in Yeshiva who often told him that he had “klotz kashes,” questions which, instead of being answered by the teachers, were considered to be stupid and not to be bothered with. Most of these questions, as he repeats them in his book, are, in fact, profound and need a sincere response. These are not the traditional talmudic questions, but those which related to Jewish belief and Weltanschauung. Quite clearly, the teachers did not know the answers themselves and therefore conferred them to the “klotz kashes” category.
This is a major tragedy which has led to the loss of many sincere probing Jewish minds throughout the Jewish world. There are no klotz kashes and even when there are, they should not be treated as such. A good teacher must know the art of taking any real klotz kashe and restating it in such a way that it becomes profound, so as not to embarrass his student. Above all, he must not make him or her feel that the teacher is trying “to get away with it.”
Teachers, schools and yeshivoth should allow plenty of time for questions by their students. No student should get a feeling that questions are not to be asked or are not welcome. The often repeated response by teachers: “God said so. You’d better believe it, case closed” is a death blow to many competent students, who otherwise would have continued their Jewish studies, finding many answers on their own. It is true that not all questions can be answered on the spot, and teachers definitely have the right to ask their students to have some patience so that they can supply the answer at a later time. But they should never give the student the feeling that they are trying to get out of it. It is better to say “I really do not know.” than to be silent and hope that the student will forget. He won’t.
Students should learn that not every question can always be sufficiently answered as some people may like to think. Sometimes, the best answer is to stay with the question. But students should be taught why such is the case and that such questions are equally, if not more, common in secular philosophies. It was Frank Moore Colby who once observed: “Clever people seem to feel the natural pleasure of bewilderment and are always answering questions when the chief relish of life is to go on asking them.” (Simple Simon, The Colby Essays, 1926, v.1) Or as the Yiddish equivalent goes: “Man starbt nicht von a kashe” (One does not die from a question.)
One is indeed reminded of John Fowles’ famous observation, “An answer is always a form of death.” (The Magus, 1965,75.)
The Orthodox world should be aware that the movement of Chozrim B’she’ela is not caused by the secular world but is rather the fault of the Orthodox educational system. Would Orthodox teachers be prepared to acknowledge and encourage questioning in their classrooms it would give rise to the right kind of Chozrim B’she’ela in which young people would start realizing the profundity of Judaism.