Bright Line

I think one of the fundamental challenges or complaints of baalei teshuva is that there is no bright line that defines what is “enough.” And there isn’t.

When we stumble, or as the case may be when we stride purposefully, through the Teshuva Portal, we are encouraged every step of the way to the effect that “any” increase in our interest, knowledge, commitment and observance is good. Not just good — great.

Then when we’re solidly inside we come to understand the difference between being a dilettante about this business and making a real, whole commitment to it. And those of us who are still reading this “got” that, too.

But little by little it dawns on us that there’s no “enough.” And herein lies the criticism of kiruv from the Modern Orthodox point of view. It may not be a very powerful criticism, but there is some resonance to it. Yes, it is a point of view about compromise, but — don’t most of us, all of us, ultimately compromise at some point? Do we have to be all in knots about the fact that we do?

On the other hand compromise is not much of a goal. And it has its own internal wicked logic: You never know when compromise is “enough,” either.

I have written often here about how fascinated I am by the lives of the great men of Judaism of the last century. The more I read — again, especially in the newer, denser biographies that have come out in the last five or so years — the more amazed I am at just how great a person can make himself.

I am inspired. And yes, I am also somewhat discouraged each time I put these books down. Yes, we’re all very special in our special way. But the distance between me and these special, special people is approximately infinity.

No, they can’t tell you at the Teshuva Portal that there’s really no end to how much the Torah eventually asks you to ask of yourself. If they did, a lot of us would never walk through, and we would be cheating ourselves of that challenge. It is a good challenge, a proper one, a wholesome one.

It is a hard one. No one told me how hard it would be. And how it would, contrary to everything I expected early on, actually get harder, not easier.

That’s a hard truth. I’m living it, because it is the truth. But, hard it is.

44 comments on “Bright Line

  1. “I do think a good relationship with a good rav can be very helpful. A lot of people have trouble making that happen for all sorts of reasons, unfortunately.”

    I guess I don’t relate to this problem. There are numerous rabbis with whom I have great relationships — not just the one to whom I address most of my shilahs — and I’ve never had trouble relating to rabbis, even those of a different hashkafah. The difficulty in relating to rabbis may be worth a post of its own. Thanks!

  2. Ron, I’ve been thinking about what to reply, and I think it boils down to plugging away.
    If the potential BT is going to take the plunge, then you’ve gotta be willing to plug, plug, and plug away.

    “Mastery” is a subjective term…

  3. Neil, I don’t know. I am not even suggesting that there is any deception going on or that becoming a baal teshuva under such circumstances is, God forbid, a mekach ta’os [purchase made in error and voidable]. It’s just a personal observation about my own experience and it may not be something we can address at the entry level. Or maybe it is. In a way it would be more intriguing for some people to know that commitment to Torah and mitzvos is, yes, a process but also one where there are levels of what we might call “mastery” that are increasingly intense challenges.

  4. Keep in mind that R’ Zusha ZT”L was a great Tzaddik in his own right, so for him to live up to his personal potential was no easy task.

    By the way, I read a version of his famous saying as told by the Klausenburger Rebbe ZT”L. R’ Zusha’s point of reference there was his own brother, the Noam Elimelech ZT”L (and not Moshe Rabbeinu, et al.).

  5. Ok, so to take this discussion to the “next level”, if we all agree that most people who are becoming BT’s are not shown or informed about the “big picture”, then what’s the next move?
    Do we individually each try to get involved with local kirvu orgs and discuss the issue in our respective communities?

    Based on the AJOP Covention website, they are planning on discussing “Follow Up & Integration”.

  6. Charlie, my essay is not about halacha. I used a topic — listening to music — that has halachic implications, as well as hashkofic ones, to make another point.

    I do think a good relationship with a good rav can be very helpful. A lot of people have trouble making that happen for all sorts of reasons, unfortunately.

    And ultimately as adults we have personal lives and make personal choices, and I am not referring to transgressions here, that are not going to be — or should not be — schlepped in front of the rav.

  7. Shira, thanks for your insightful comment, too. I have a problem with your formulation of the “right hashkofa” for a given person — and I say I have a problem in the full realization that we most of us, including myself, do “choose hashkafos.”

    I’m not even qualified to opine on what I even mean by that. If I may say so.

    (Should we give our children the privilege of choosing hashkafos? At what age?)

  8. Hi, Counselor. You axed:

    Ron, in a later comment you acknowledge that the issue transcends MO – so why mention it in your article? It really only detracts from the issue and causes others to go off the true topic.

    I addressed that here. Your point about the “hit and run” kiruv is one that I thought might come up in this discussion. I don’t think it’s the same complaint (one that I must admit I have expressed some skepticism about in the past here). In fact, more “longitudinal” kiruv might be worse, not better, on this score. I do like the rest of your comment, which almost should and could be a BBT post itself — as could many of the other ones in this thread.

    Sam, you write:

    I read stories of the Gedolim but always keep in mind that I am judged not by whether I’m on the level of the Chazon Ish or the G”RA or the B’ESHT, but whether I’m at the level I’m supposed to be at (the last based on the famous story told of R’ Zusha).

    Yes, a famous story, and all well and good. You probably do not, however, suffer from delusions of grandeur as some of us do! More seriously, I have never found that formulation too comforting. To the contrary, given my “secular” achievements, I find it damning. Which may very well be its purpose for me!

    None of which is to give the impression, and I wish now to correct it if I have, that I am viscerally tied up in knots over this or that my burning desire to have a burning desire, or whatever, is so profound. Really, it’s not like that. These are just thoughts that I thought, looking back on all that has transpired and having been exposed, as I have, to all the true grandeur of Jews who are in their way the most highly accomplished at their avodas Hashem.

  9. I agree with Ron that the challenge of growth should exist as a major focus throughout our lives, but I see it working differently at different stages in a BT’s life. Specifically, when is first becoming religious, doing “more” is naturally thought of as the way to do the right thing because previously one was doing nothing. So when one hears about a list of requirements and/or traditions relating to (to borrow Ron’s example) listening (or not) to music, and one is starting from the point that all music is okay at all times and is purely a matter of taste, one feels “I really should be doing that, I wasn’t doing it before.”

    As one becomes more experienced and more sophisticated religiously, how better to serve G-d becomes a much more complex and nuanced and personal (by which I mean unique to each individual) question. To take another simple example, if one has been davening regularly and meaningfully with a minyan for years, and he is thinking about the kiyum of tefila kavatikin and whether it is something he should try to fulfill on a daily basis, he has many things to think about. It becomes not “less vs. more, lazy vs. energetic in service of G-d, not frum vs. frum,” but rather a whole host of other things –will this change of schedule affect my wife and children and how, will it affect my schedule of learning, will getting up very early during parts of the year make me more tired so that I am less sensitive or more irritable to my family or a less effective employee for my employer, etc. Further, one has to ask what one’s motivations are and whether there will be any negative influence that adopting such a practice might result in (e.g. the possibility of ga’ava). The list is of course different for each individual.

    In short, what I’ve found since I first started to “become religious” is that all of life is avodat hashem and one’s responsibilities in various areas need to be weighed against one another, whereas when I started I thought there were “religious” areas of life vs. non-religious ones.

    It is partly for this reason that I am a big believer in aseh l’cha rav and k’neh l’cha chaver –one can bounce easy ideas off one’s chaverim and bring the hard ones to the rav –and the chaverim can also help one to see what seemed easy but is really hard.

  10. Shira

    “S. – Doesn’t that example apply specifically to Beit Hillel and Shammai? ”

    I doubt it. What logical reason would there be for it to only apply to them? At the time of the Tosefta there wasn’t really another example; there were the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

    “Does that idea translate so clearly through all of the halachic process that has developed since then? ”

    No, I said as much. However, even though the halachic process is eclectic, I can’t think of any example where all the leniences of one authority are adopted and his stringencies accepted or vice versa. But in theory a person can sit down with a Mishneh Torah and an Arbah Turim and construct a very rigorous or very lenient version of halachic Judaism. This, it seems to me, is what the Beraita is condemning.

    “If people are haunted by that idea, I wonder if they are really haunted by what they were told about that idea, without knowing the reality of that source and its ramifications in modern halachic life? ”

    Probably. I just think that people have a perception that the law is a yoke, and if somehow it’s relaxed, easy, casual, or normal, then something isn’t quite right – especially when they can very well see that other Orthodox Jews are doing it differently and, seemingly, in a more stringent way. The same thing probably goes for people who are feeling stifled and see other apparently fine Orthodox Jews just chillin’ and doing things in a more lenient way, with fine rabbinic support.

  11. Ron, in a later comment you acknowledge that the issue transcends MO – so why mention it in your article? It really only detracts from the issue and causes others to go off the true topic.

    The kiruv organizations do “hit and run” – “convert” the BT, w/o really giving an accurate picture of what is in store years later – AND THEN MOVE ON TO THE NEXT PERSON. I tried to have it out once with a prominent leader of a major kiruv organization on precisely this issue – the lack of longitudinal support for the BT in kiruv organizations, i.e., get the BT to accept the “program,” drastically change change his/her life, and then leave them without a clue as to what truly lies in store years later. The “warm and fuzzy” father figure kiruv leader gave me a highly flippant response.

    Compounding the problem are the unique exigencies of living the frum lifetyle – the added expense, the communally imposed expectation as to family size and the efforts to ensure that the next generation remains frum at a time that must surely be one of the most difficult to raise frum kids. Sometimes, psychological self-preservation may mandate “treading water” for a while, rather than focusing on “growth.”

    And then, you are enjoined by the Right to “love” the performance of mitzvos, because if you truly did, then they would not be a burden at all. Meanwhile, you’re just hoping you can get home on time for Shabbos from your law practice! And you KNOW that many of the more yeshivish ones can’t begin to really understand the added demands of the business world, although they think they do.

    We all would like to be R. Nosson Tzvi Finkels, Ron – an individual who grew up in a pedestrian American community and then rose to great heights as a Rosh Yeshiva. He dedicated his entire waking life to Torah, while we are preparing for trial, or the next appellate brief. But that is the situation Hashem put us in – and whatever bright line there is necessarily has to be subjective. So, here’s a thought I will leave you with – perhaps a music-loving Ron Coleman, who doesn’t listen to music on sefirah and the three weeks (and coming from an irreligious background) has attained a higher level than one who started out in life not listening to music during those periods – and never advanced from that? “Enough” is ultimately measured from where you started out, to where you have gone, given the matzav you were born into. And Ron, it is SUPPOSED to be hard – your own rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Zupnik, specifically emphasized this in a recent Mesillas Yesharim lecture. Who ever said it was supposed to be easy?

  12. It appears as though “levels” implies a single path or metric. Growth is not as simple as “step 1, step 2, step 3.” There are plenty of times when we grow in one area but not another; a Torah-true life has so many aspects that it takes a lifetime of work. So sometimes I focus on davening, other times on learning, other times on hashkafa, and sometimes on balance (I don’t do it all well all of the time…I simply try).

    The point is to grow, and learn, and develop. Now, if you are the type to daven fervently and then go out for a ham sandwich, that’s a problem! There are some baselines. However, this highlights the need to study and to learn the difference between halacha (law) and minhag (custom) and to understand what is required and what is optional. Find a good Rabbi who can mentor you! I was fortunate that many years ago I had some very understanding Rabbeim who, knowing my background and family situation, were able to guide me in a very constructive manner.

    I read stories of the Gedolim but always keep in mind that I am judged not by whether I’m on the level of the Chazon Ish or the G”RA or the B’ESHT, but whether I’m at the level I’m supposed to be at (the last based on the famous story told of R’ Zusha).

  13. S. – Doesn’t that example apply specifically to Beit Hillel and Shammai? Does that idea translate so clearly through all of the halachic process that has developed since then? If people are haunted by that idea, I wonder if they are really haunted by what they were told about that idea, without knowing the reality of that source and its ramifications in modern halachic life? I’m not sure at all, because while I’ve heard that source before, I’ve not studied it.

    Ron – Is it possible that this problem is just another facet of confusing ‘levels’ with ‘hashkafa’? A person becomes BT in a place that talks about ‘levels’ and the place’s hashkafa is fairly hareidi. So, for example, skirts without tights under are okay, but not considered an ideal level of tzniut. That person feels what you and others describe, that God expects them to be reaching and doing more, growing constantly, and certainly wearing tights would be a step of growth at some point. But that person is honestly uncomfortable with the whole thing. With the wearing of tights being uncomfortable, but also with the idea that not wearing them is ‘less than.’ In another hashkafa, the bare-leggedness isn’t a leniency, its the norm, and wearing tights wouldn’t be considered a ‘higher level’ and closer to God. If lower legs are ok, they are ok. In that community they might focus on looser clothing, or longer hemlines. I don’t know exactly. This is getting to be a silly example. But anyhow – my gut is saying that a person who belongs in the hareidi hashkafa won’t feel those feelings that the person who belongs in the modern hashkafa would feel. The uncertainty and unhappiness at the thought of always not living up to the ‘ideal’ way could be an indicator of having chosen the wrong hashkafa for oneself. I definitely didn’t enjoy feeling like I would be living a life of leniencies. I wanted to be living the ideal. I needed to switch ideals in order to do that – to have room to grow, still, but also feel approved of by God when holding by what seems like a more lenient approach.

  14. I don’t see what the issue is here. “Aseh l’cha rav” is a very important commandment. A good rav will know you and can tell where you should be stringent, where you should be lenient, and where you should concentrate in learning.

    Regarding music…

    “Also for the over a month in the spring — for a different reason that is largely incomprehensible without utter emunas chachomim [faith in the Sages] — no music.”

    My rav permits, as does the Shulchan Aruch (O. C. 493, which just lists minhagim to avoid weddings and haircuts.)

    “Oh, by the way, music with women’s voices in it? We never listen to that at all.”

    My rav permits all classical music, including opera. He relies on Rav Soloveitchik z’tz’l here. I always see other guys with kipot when I go to the Metropolitan Opera.

  15. Ron,
    Very interesting post (although the back and forth b/t you and Mark is just as interesting).

    FWIW, the key thing I got from this post and the comments is that growth is the ikar.

    If I was writing the brochure, it would be included.

    Also, I think it depends on when someone becomes frum. If it’s during high school (like myself), then the idea that there’s never “enough” learning isn’t so foreign, b/c you haven’t even started college yet. If you in college or post-college then I can see a person having different issues about feeling academically accomplished in their field, yet feeling like a fish out of water within the frum world.

  16. Rav Avigdor Miller, zatzal, used to use the analogy of a savage with a loincloth and a top hat. You first have to put on a full suit of clothing, a shirt and a tie, socks and shoes, pants and a jacket, and only then can you add the top hat. Or the cufflinks and tie bar.

  17. “are you not eclectic yourself in what you do?”

    Bob, of course. To a greater or lesser extent everyone who follows halacha takes an eclectic approach. However, it’s hard to forget the Beraita cited in Chullin 43a – b“The law is always according to Beit Hillel, [but] whoever wants can practice according to either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel. One who follows the lenient rulings of Beit Shammai and the lenient rulings of Beis Hillel is a rasha. One who follows the stringent rulings of Beit Shammai and the stringent rulings of Beit Hillel – of him the verse says, ‘The fool walks in darkness’ (Koheles 2:14). Rather, one must follow either Beit Shammai consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings, or Beit Hillel consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings.”

    As it happens, this is not the way halacha developed. For the most part, with few exceptions, people do not follow the rulings of only one rabbi (maybe, for example, some students of R. Moshe will not listen to music recreationally). But either way, it’s not surprising that the sentiment in this Beraita haunts people who really just want to do the right thing, and don’t want to think of themselves as shopping for leniences (and, hopefully, for stringencies).

  18. When you believe part of one theory but also part of another theory at odds with the first, here can be a logical contradiction.

    “Music appreciation’ in no way contradicts “no long curly peyos”, except maybe culturally. In this case, why does it have to be a package deal?

    S., are you not eclectic yourself in what you do?

  19. If I may be so bold as to suggest that the problem here is, why “hold like the Chassidim” when it comes to music, but not when it comes to growing peyos? I have a hunch that this is part of the problem which Ron is talking about, since he specifically mentions relying on R. Moshe’s leniencies but not stringencies.

  20. For music appreciators, maybe the neatest hashkafah solution is to hold as the chassidim do. We have whom to lean on.

  21. Certainly not a written brochure, but it seems you’re implying that you did not get the straight scoop when you wrote the following:

    “No, they can’t tell you at the Teshuva Portal that there’s really no end to how much the Torah eventually asks you to ask of yourself. If they did, a lot of us would never walk through, and we would be cheating ourselves of that challenge.”

    My examples of Rebbeim were not meant to highlight their individual greatness, but rather about an approach to Teshuva. Become a better Jew by learning Torah, doing mitzvos and pursuing lovingkindess in a step by step fashion, starting with where you’re currently holding.

  22. Ross, I’m not the Chazon Ish, but I do want to strive; hence this article. Part of the reason I wrote it, though, is for people earlier on to think about these issues and be prepared for them.

    Mark, I didn’t really get a manual or a brochure either — even at Aish HaTorah, believe it or not! But we’d all be better off, and better guided, if Rabbi Kirzner were here. (I don’t have a relationship with Rabbi Lerner.)

    S., nice points.

  23. There was a time – for most of Jewish history, actually – when the masses almost always didn’t know what “Rav X” held, and didn’t know what was in the responsa literature. I can’t imagine that too many of the Jews in Bohemia were able to say what the Noda Beyahuda, their own rabbis, held about this or that. They knew how to behave in most cases, and when they didn’t they could ask or look it up as the case may be.

    That was not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously we can’t go back in time and change the paradigm from what it is like today, nor am I so sure that the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” idea is true, but for argument’s sake: who says that knowing about stringent or lenient opinions and feeling uncertainty or angst about failing to adopt them is the desirable situation or the natural state of Judaism? There are vast patterns of behavior for which we already know just how to act.

    As for R. Moshe’s leniencies vs stringencies, his responsa, like all responsa, are manuals for how other rabbis and talmidei chachomim can teach and apply halacha. They are not law codes.

  24. Ron, I personally was very lucky that my primary influences when becoming observant where Rabbi Yaakov Lerner, Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt”l and Rabbi Herschel Welcher.

    Although they are (were) all involved with Baalei Teshuva, they did not do Kiruv, they did not present brochures, there was no weight from the greatest Jews of all time to exert, they taught Torah. There is Torah, there are mitzvos, there is lovingkindness, now let’s learn.

  25. Is this about “if I would’ve known it was soooo hard…”? Is it about “now that I see it’s soooo hard…”? What do these questions have to do with anything?

    Just appreciate “station 99” and all the stations from 1-98. If you do, then, and only then you’ll WANT to strive for “station 100”. I’m not even considering ‘station 150″, although I know it exists.

    But why being bothered that at station 1, I never knew there was a “Station 500: Learning 20 hours a day”?

    I HATE secular music, but in the fourth year of yeshiva, I was listening to Streisand at one of the holiest sites in Eretz Yisroel. Did I give myself a heart attack from hitting my chest so hard?

    But if I had known then…well, today I’d be listening to things worse than that.

  26. Mark, as far as I know, you’re right. But first of all, most of us have accepted R’ Moshe’s leniencies with little objection. That is a discussion for a different day, of course. My point is not quite what you think: I am saying not that I can never be “so frum.” I am saying, who would ever think, as a prospective baal teshuva, that you’d even have to address the question of whether you could be transgressing the Torah by listening to music?

    I sure didn’t.

    Maybe you’re right about what my point is. I also have another point: I don’t believe it is only a self-assessment problem. I don’t see how the Torah outlook as it has been made understood to me enunciates a standard by which we can even assess ourselves. And I am troubled by the fact that if we beginners were aware of the weight that this truth exerts on us when we are at our best, and are being thoughtful and earnest, they might never choose to engage in what is, ultimately, a rewarding and necessary struggle.

  27. Ron, as far as I know, most communities in America, have not accepted R’ Moshe’s stringency regarding the prohibition of all music. References to communities who accepted this stringency would be appreciated.

    We are supposed to understand the ideal in the abstract, but live our lives according to the real and that is focusing on the next step that we have to take.

    The “out” for any Jew is that Hashem gave each of us a different, environment and a different set of tools. Our goal is to take where G-d has placed us and what He has given us and to grow from there. In regards to environment, there may be times when it’s appropriate that a person should move to another community and seek a different set of standards.

    The difficult part is the self-assessment of what our next steps should be at any point of our life and to continue taking those steps. And perhaps that’s your point.

  28. My point is not about not resting on our laurels. That is old news around here, and it is the premise of my post, not the conclusion. I am saying that, no, there is no rest, but that fact was not in the brochure for this cruise — or if it was, only in the most vague and subjective sense of “a Jew must always grow,” not “our role models exemplified how you can have a life full of joy and meaning by what would look to you, Mr. Beginner, very much like grim asceticism.”

    I am also saying, parenthetically, that while I may still be growing and moving forward, yes, what do I do with the fact that I know I have no intention — no conceivable chance — of being like that?

    There is a story about the Chazon Ish who insisted that a dentist treating a painful toothache wash his hands negel vasser [ritually] before putting them in the Chazon Ish’s mouth. He apologized and explained that one who learns Torah lishmah [for its own sake] needs to be incredibly meticulous about what goes into his mouth in every sense.

    He continued, “I can’t say that I do learn Torah lishmah,” but — his face reddening with passion and intensity — “I know that this is what I desire above everything!”

    How can the rest of us live that — that desire; forget that humility — down?

  29. Ron if your point is:

    -that we always have to become better Jews as defined by Torah halacha and haskafa, and not rest on our laurels, then I agree.

    -that we have to grow step by step, but we have to keep taking those steps, then I agree.

    -that sometimes we need to regroup, before taking another step, I agree.

    If it is something else, can you please spell it out more clearly for me. -Thanks

  30. OK, well, R’ Moshe generally held that we should not listen to music at all since the Destruction. An exemplary citation to that psak can be found here, in a discussion of music during sefira (this is not my source for the statement, just one place on the Net you can see the citation):

    R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:166 and Yoreh De’ah 2:137), who is generally inclined to prohibit all music since the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash (!), as well as R. Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Da’at 6:34) prohibit listen[ing] to recorded music during the Three Weeks.

    You make the point about “popular music” being out of whack in the progression — this is a fair point; the line here is not a straight one.

    Your other points are about “high levels.” Well, yeah. But if you’re thinking and caring about “levels” — and you’re trying to impart values to your children — even if you’re not living up to these levels, as I am not, you are internalizing them and feeling conflict over not being at them.

    Aren’t we supposed to want to be at “high levels”? What precisely gives us an out to not be by a certain point?

    What do we tell ourselves while we’re busy not being? And how far is that dialogue from anything we ever would have dreamed having at the beginning of this process?

  31. To clarify, the Tzaddikim might fulfill all your criteria and people and different levels might fulfill some of it.

    But my point remains the same, our task and any Partner in Torah learner’s task is to grow to the next level from which their holding. That is why any person with Seichel would not have your dialog.

    Here are my specific comments on your steps because you asked for them:

    Then … Well, really… a baal nefesh [spiritually exacting person] doesn’t listen to music at all except maybe at a simcha. Yes, there are heteirim, but…
    >> I’d like to see the source for this one inside. And you will then have to define what baal nefesh means in this context.

    Then — Certainly never popular music, period!
    >> This is not in the right progression. Many don’t listen to popular music, but do listen to music.

    Next: Anyway, why would you want to waste time with music when you could be — should be — learning?
    >> This is a high level to always being involved in learning.

    Followed by, Why would you even want to not be learning?
    >> This is a high level to always being involved in learning.

    Ultimately: In fact… really a person shouldn’t take any pleasure at all from this world. Man is born to toil.
    >> This is a very high level.

  32. Yes, Bob, that’s a well known dilemma in hashkofa, one that we’ve at least touched upon many times. But that is not really a dilemma from the perspective of the yeshiva world, which has done all it can to move away from the really extreme mussar of Kelm and Navordok to the “moderate,” “gadlus ha-odom” [“how great a person can be] mussar of Slabodka. And even in a “Slabodka” yeshiva, much less in a so-called “non-Mussar” yeshiva (e.g., “Brisk”), the theme is self-abnegation, self-denial and p’rishus [separation from involvement with the material world].

    And let me make this clear: On considerable reflection I believe that this is a, if not the, fundamentally correct approach to life. Yes, I am a big sport, acknowledging the correctness of the Chovos HaLevavos and the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon…

    But that’s my point!

  33. I guess Ron is focused on that video like “This is Your Life” in Olam Habah. There really is a video, and if the grading is based only on our degree of fulfillment of our personal potential that’s a rather daunting prospect. Even adjustment of the grade due to mitigating factors might not leave us all looking too great. Do we have any grasp of our own true potential?

    One question is whether the potential of the Gedolim we know about is at all similar to our potential. How can we answer that? We each have an immortal soul after all.

    We may even be called to account for shunning the legitimate pleasures of this world that HaShem made for us. If these really exist to help us connect better with HaShem (including refreshing us for Torah study and practice) who are we to neglect them?

  34. What’s “not true,” Mark? Where in my “progression” on the example I chose — listening to music — do I pass from what everyone would agree is true to what is only true for tzaddikim?

  35. Ron, nobody with seichel would say your Partners in Torah dialog, because although it may be true for some people, like the truly most pious people in America, it’s not true for most of the other Jews in America. In the opinion of many great Rabbis, it is inappropriate to take on stringencies beyond community norms, unless a person is at that spiritual level.

    The ideal as stated in the biographies is great to understand and marvel at, but every Jew’s task is to grow to the next level from where (s)he is currently holding (see the Mesillas Yesharim for details).

    Thank G-d there are many different areas to grow and we each have the opportunity to reach our own greatness, as long as we focus on growth.

    One more point. I haven’t many observant Jews who I think are resting on their laurels. They might not be focused on the areas that I am, but they want to become better Jews in both the eyes of G-d and the eyes of man as dictated by the Torah.

  36. If you read or say that formulation all at once, it’s very Middos HaDin. The sledgehammer comes swinging down at the end, and gehennom practically opens up just enough to view its red glow. Quite dramatic.

    But over a ten or twenty year period, it turns into something praiseworthy. Along with the discovery that there’s really no sledgehammer.

  37. Ross, you’re right, of course, that should be and is meant to be the “point of gedolim books.” I read them for that reason. I am only saying, or admitting, that I have a complex reaction to the experience.

    I didn’t “attack” MO. Nothing I said bears on whether a person who identifies with or affiliates as MO is a better Jew than I am with my hat and suit or whether he grows more, learns more or anything. I am absolutely not going to get into that debate here and would regret if this thread turned into that discussion. It’s a discussion I am very interested in, it’s just besides the point of my post.

    I characterized the MO ideology in the framework of this essay as one that on the one hand offers a way out of the dilemma I describe, and which on the other hand has its own inherent limitation. I felt I had to allude to that limitation because otherwise my statement about the criticism of “kiruv” from the MO perspective would be left completely unaddressed, and I do believe there is what to address.

    MO or otherwise, I was really writing about something that transcends this distinction. I remember my first summer in an Aish program, and being told this: We are now in a period called the Nine Days, when we mourn the Bais HaMikdash. We don’t listen to music.” I said, ok, I’m with that; nice.

    Then a little later you find out, Well, really, we also don’t listen for three weeks before Tisha B’Av.

    Also for the over a month in the spring — for a different reason that is largely incomprehensible without utter emunas chachomim [faith in the Sages] — no music.

    And the progression continues: Oh, by the way, music with women’s voices in it? We never listen to that at all.

    Then … Well, really… a baal nefesh [spiritually exacting person] doesn’t listen to music at all except maybe at a simcha. Yes, there are heteirim, but…

    Then — Certainly never popular music, period!

    Next: Anyway, why would you want to waste time with music when you could be — should be — learning?

    Followed by, Why would you even want to not be learning?

    Ultimately: In fact… really a person shouldn’t take any pleasure at all from this world. Man is born to toil.

    Fact is, there are many points in this little exercise I have sketched out above at which the MO / RW divide are relevant. I am just saying at this moment, however, that from what we around here describe as the RW point of view, the progression as I describe is in fact fairly accurate.

    And it’s very nice to say we should keep moving, growing, blah blah blah. I’ve said a million times. But okay, there’s a point where you have the skills and even the understanding and … well, you don’t have, for one thing, what your dad did. But even today lots of people are “more frum” than their dads were, because they’re more knowledgeable and community standards for halachic compliance are more rigorous.

    What I have described here is the phenomenon I am writing about. And I want to reiterate that every statement set out in bold above is readily supportable by a mainstream halachic source, as well as the “official” storyline in each and every gedolim biography.

    But I am very interested in being shown either that I am mistaken, or that there is a another way to look at this! I mean it. And I also mean to ask this troubling question: If that last formulation were part of every introductory Partners in Torah study session… how successful would any kiruv be?

  38. Ive known some fine MO people who are not resting on their laurels whatsoever. Maybe we don’t know enough about the group to comment on its degree of complacency.

  39. Ron, I like the essay and I’m personally with you in the “gotta keep growing” camp.

    I disagree with your assessment of Modern Orthodoxy and perhaps you picked up too wide a brush when you painted that stroke.

    I know a lot of people who would self-identify as Modern Orthodox and I’ve witnessed tremendous growth among them over the years.

    Perhaps compromise is not the correct word. I’ve never heard it from any Modern Orthodox person I know in reference to their personal hashkafa.

    I think the speed and focus of growth are different for different people at different times in different communities. And sometimes that growth is not as visible as external symbols of observance.

  40. Modern industrial quality assurance (QA) literature stresses the need for continuous improvement.

    An example:
    http://asq.org/learn-about-quality/project-planning-tools/overview/pdca-cycle.html

    This goes for individuals, too. Regardless of what label we have or wish we had, we’re not supposed to be 100% content with our spiritual condition at any point. Of course, after all our effort, we shouldn’t castigate ourselves either for still being imperfect.

  41. But the point of the gedolim books shouldn’t be to see how far away you are. The main discovery is what the IDEALS are, and which direction the Torah wants us to go in. As long as our compass is pointed that way, it doesn’t matter how fast we go or if we ever make it there. What matters is that we are constantly moving in that direction, and that all of our thoughts keep us focused there.

    I get the impression that Modern Orthodoxy says, OK, we’ve arrived. That doesn’t mean that modern orthodox Jews don’t want to grow, but it doesn’t seem that it’s focused on such a long distance direction.

    Am I “how-dare-you” totally off, or am I being too nice?

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