I sometimes hear back through the cracks the complaints, sometimes justified, sometimes not, of the disillusioned baalei teshuva and, sometimes, former baalei teshuva. Sometimes, it seems, they were promised rose gardens. Some were not, but believe they were. Others just changed their minds, or followed their passions, or had a mental hiccup of some kind. It’s a complicated world. I can’t say I’m on a point of spiritual development that’s on a smooth curve from where I was 21 years ago, or that I’d be all that proud of what that graph would look like if I had to draw it … though sooner or later, it will indeed be drawn.
But there is one complaint about assimilation into the frum world that is so common that while I have yet to meet someone who used it as a rationale to stop doing God’s will as revealed in the Torah, well, it can’t be helping anyone.
It’s the Derech Eretz Problem.
On the one hand, derech eretz — the basic mode of behavior among people within a society — is laudable in the frum world. Let’s shave off the issue of corruption and crime; regrettably, we have our criminals, and they are all the more noticeable for their outer trappings of orthodoxy; but still we are not a particularly threatening group to each other or the rest of the world. Get past that and there are behaviors that are fairly common “out there” but relatively unheard of in the normative orthodox world and certainly in the yeshiva environment. Examples of bad social behavior rare in the frum world that spring to mind based on my own observation are disrespect of the elderly, physical confrontations, street crime and petty dishonesty, foul language, and, with limited exceptions, following the Boston Red Sox.
But when we gather around in little groups in our weaker moments, what we talk about is the Derech Eretz Problem.
It starts in Beis Medrash. As a child I learned from my bacon-eating, Sabbath-driving mother that when you take something to use, you return it to its place when you are finished. This evidently is not the rule in Judaism: In the holiest halls of orthodoxy, seforim and siddurim are left stacked up where last used (usually, it seems, at someone else’s regular seat) for someone else to put away or, regrettably, someone else to find if they’re needed. The people referred to here are lomdei torah — learners of Torah, the cream of the crop, the best and the brightest. They just were never taught to put away their things when they’re through. You can find the largest stacks of seforim, by the way, by the chairs that are pulled out from under tables that someone else bothers to straighten out the next morning. This is the rule in every single beis medrash and yeshivish shul I have been in: Someone else puts away your mess.
Why go any further? Can it possibly be that people whose spiritual vanguards act this way, and those people themselves, are not affected in the way they view their responsibilities to others?
There are no small gestures, no miniscule omissions on someone else’s cheshbon (account).
None of this comports, by the way, either with what I read in mussar (ethics) seforim or the biographies of mussar personalities. How inspiring these stories were and are to me! The attention paid to every detail of human relationships by a R’ Yisroel Salanter, the Alter of Slabodka! Even contemporary personalities such as R’ Moshe Feinstein and R’ Avraham Pam — their lives are filled with stories about how to live your life. Why this does not filter down to us, I don’t know. But it is simply a commonplace view in the right-wing yeshiva world that I live in, love, and defend that parking and street signs do not apply to orthodox Jews; rules and deadlines are for other people; queues are for those with less important things to do with their time; the grossest, most personal information is demanded from casual strangers; seating at dinners is by net worth; conversational partners are never introduced and — of course — looking a stranger on the street in the face and uttering those infamous fighting words — “Good Shabbos” — is provocation of the highest order.
Baalei teshuva never get past this, unless they have given up any hope of independent mind completely. I had a yeshiva roommate who told me, when I complained about people who parked in the middle of a strip mall parking lot in our neighborhood while they “ran into” the store, that I should shake my “goyishe” concept of “manners.” God forbid. But that was how he, a very sincere young man, dealt with the massive cognitive dissonance introduced by observing the way a large percentage of orthodox Jews treat the world and each other.
To me, it all comes down to the seforim.
We claim the bais medrash is our spiritual, almost physical home; seforim are our trophies, our sustenance; we caress them, die over them, we want our sons to write them.
But when we’re done with them for the day, we leave them behind just like the pile of used Kleenex next to the shtender. More than zoo rabbis, Zionism, fruit-shaped yarmulkes, all the hot buttons we love to argue over — this, and the foundation of ill manners — selfishness — that stands on it, must be at the heart of every baal teshuva who turns back around again, and the other formerly frum on the other side who seek, and find, not just examples of outliers whose scandalous behavior would shame any community to justify their actions, but a lack of garden variety derech eretz that is part and parcel of our existence.
Blame it on galus (the Diaspora), on distraction, on Eastern Europe, on yeridas hadoros (the decline of the generations) but it’s our problem now. All we who stay the course can do is pick up the tissues, collect the seforim, make sure our children see us do so and that they understand what is right and wrong despite what they see and whom they see it from … and, for ourselves, look upwards, not down, for inspiration and leadership, and recognize a snare of profound subtlety and power, nothing less than poison to the soul of the striving idealist.