Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ethics in Jewish schooling?

Sitting at my Shabbat table recently was a young man studying in what is considered a very fine Israeli post-high school (Hesder) Yeshiva. He was proudly describing his exploits of the previous weekend, in which he was satisfying his quest to meet various Torah luminaries living in Bnei Brak. Armed with their addresses (culled from the title pages of their books) he set out on Friday afternoon. He knocked on the door of one and asked if he could come for a Shabbat meal. The Rabbi's wife responded that she was sorry, as she had only cooked enough for those she was expecting.

Not to be deterred, he appeared at their door Shabbat morning (as they were sitting down to eat) and again asked if he could join. (He had been told that this was "the move" to get in.) Not prepared to turn someone away who apparently had no meal, the Rabbi's wife allowed them to enter.

Although the young man insisted that he just wanted to be in the Rabbi's company and did not want to eat, the Rabbi's wife insisted that he should eat, and brought out what was apparently her portion of fish. The same was true of the rest of the meal.

When I asked the young man why he didn't just ask initially to be present at the meal and not eat, he replied: "The Rosh Yeshiva doesn't like to be bothered during his meal."

I think I missed something here. The Rosh Yeshiva wanted a private Shabbat meal. So in order to spend time with this Torah scholar, for whom the Yeshiva student presumably has great admiration, the student harasses him and his family, to the extent that his wife gave up her meal? Even more disturbing was that this was not an isolated incident. It is something the Yeshiva guys (in certain circles) share and plan. When I asked him how his father would react to the story, he responded that his father would be very happy that he was "hanging out with Gedolim" and would be delighted to send a check to the Rosh Yeshiva for the meal.

In the discussion about who determines the agendas for schools, parents or educators, I used to think that the two moderate the extremes of the other, and establish some sort of balance in the dynamic process. But when the parents and the Yeshiva are in collusion, so that a student - and his friends - could get the idea that such exploits/exploitations are considered "cool" and laudatory, I shudder at the implications. To whom can we turn to restore a sense of decency and ethics?


  1. These students must be living by the rule of Rav Kahana - "Torah hi v'lilmod ani tzarich" - which as we know he used to justify hiding under his rebbi's bed during, well, an inappropriate time. That story always bothered me from an ethical perspective, yet I always had the impression that the Gemara was sympathetic to Rav Kahana.

  2. I've always found the Rav Kahana story troubling, but in some ways, this one even more so. First, Rav Kahana was looking to learn from a Rebbe with whom he had a genuine relationship. This felt more like paparozzi following a celebrity, or trophy hunters looking to 'chalk up' one more gadol that they could boast about having been in close proximity to.

    Second, the rebbe in this case sid explicitly that he did not want to be bothered. One would think that the student who truly reveres his rebbe might actually respect his wishes!

    And most troubling, Dov, that the student laughed at the notion that there could have been anything improper about what he did.