Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Sayings of Baruch

I wrote this a few months ago and submitted it to a magazine, and it was recently rejected. So here it is. Please do not insult the subject of this review in the comments. Thank you.

The Sayings of Baruch: A Contemporary Experiment in Moral Education

A Review of Rabbi Baruch Simon's Imrei Baruch (Hebrew; Privately published, New York, 2004) [To order, call the Beigeleisen store: 718-436-1165]

The educational obligations of a Jewish parent or teacher towards a child go far beyond merely teaching "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" and even past instruction in the study of Torah. In addition to the above, or perhaps prior to it, a young Jew must be taught two things -- how to be a mentsch and how to be a Yid. The latter includes training a student to be an observant Jew, dedicated to the fulfillment of his religious obligations in letter and in spirit. This is no small task, and is something with which parents and teachers often struggle. The former, however, is so fundamental that it is all too often overlooked. It involves enabling a student to grow into an emotionally mature and ethical person, something that is frequently taken as guaranteed in the Orthodox Jewish community but, as studies and anecdotal evidence demonstrate, incorrectly so. Other than modeling this behavior so that children and students can observe and, hopefully, emulate it, what can parents and teachers do to instill mentschlichkeit, basic interpersonal ethics, in their charges?

Contemporary educational experts have arrived at a number of different experimental techniques for doing so, but these experts were long preceded by others who were very concerned with just this question and who experimented with techniques. They were the nineteenth century Mussarites, starting with Rabbi Israel Salanter and continuing with his disciples and followers. Rabbi Israel, an exemplar of the scholarly talmudic tradition, believed in the necessity of experimentation to find the ideal methods to train people – both children and adults – in the art of devotion to religious and interpersonal ideals. The methods of Rabbi Israel and his disciples were legendary and infamous, sometimes yielding phenomenal success and other times abysmal failure. Most importantly, though, they revealed a profound concern for moral education and an openness to any educational technique that will yield results. Unfortunately, the Holocaust all but ended the experimentation of the Mussar Movement and its legendary institutions of higher learning. In the aftermath of this decimation, the moral education of children fell second to the more basic needs of individual and communal survival. However, many now recognize that this neglect has gone on for too long and valiant efforts must be made to reinstate moral education to its important position.

One of the dilemmas of ethical instruction is the paradox that the very same growing independence of early adulthood that provides a need for ethical guidance also creates tension between young men and women and their would-be instructors. The dilemmas of the late teen years are not related only to ethical matters, but they are frequently potentially life-altering as they define who this person will be for the rest of his life. My own such dilemma, which might initially seem unrelated to this topic but is actually quite relevant, occurred in my senior year of high school, a decade and a half ago. My parents wished me to go to the prestigious Columbia University and I desired to attend the less distinguished but still highly respected Yeshiva University. This was not merely a debate about which school I would attend but what path I would take in life – how far to the "religious right" I would move – and we all recognized this. My dispute with my parents was respectful but intractable. Neither I, the stubborn teenager, nor they, the worried parents, would budge. And then, with an unexpected suddenness, a conclusion was reached with the help of an unanticipated and unwitting ally.

I went with my family to Boston for a weekend to attend the bar mitzvah of a cousin at the Young Israel of Brookline. That same Shabbat, a young rabbi from Yeshiva University was the scholar in residence, a man whose name I recognized as being the same as a counselor in the Torah-study camp some friends of mine had attended. After the bar mitzvah festivities, I easily convinced my obliging father to accompany me to an afternoon lecture given by this young scholar on the intricate laws of the building of mikvas. The speech was dazzling, articulate, well over both of our heads but still impactful. After the lecture, I told my father that despite the vibrant Jewish life at Columbia, I would never become anything like this young scholar unless I attend Yeshiva. And that was the end of the discussion. This young rabbi, who later became a friend and a mentor, who unwittingly enabled me to spend the most formative years of my life in Yeshiva University, is named Baruch Simon.

Rabbi Simon is a walking encyclopedia of obscure rabbinic texts. When I entered Yeshiva, Rabbi Simon was still known simply as "Baruch" and was, in the study hall (the "beis medrash"), the local address for difficult talmudic questions. Inevitably, he had already seen every question in one book or another and had the answer offered by that book's author ready at his fingertips. He was not only the answerer of tough questions, he was also the gentle-mannered encourager of budding scholars, always ready with a smile and a kind, heartening word at every hour of the day and night. To his friends –- and later students, Rabbi Simon was the perfect model of a humble confidence, the mark of a healthy spirit, and a profound concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of others.

After a number of years teaching in Yeshiva College's affiliated yeshiva study program, Rabbi Simon has finally published some of his Torah insights in a book, conveniently coming to print just weeks before his much anticipated wedding. To my great surprise, this volume is not representative at all of the "Baruch" that I knew. Imrei Baruch on Genesis is not a collection of sharp talmudic insights into textual problems, the kind of book that would have been expected in this day from an established rabbinic figure. It is a bold venture into uncharted territory, a quest for psychological insight from a vast eclectic base of Hasidic, Mussar, Zionist and every other type of rabbinic writing.

Early Hasidic masters were known for their keen psychological insights, often drawn from stories and parables but frequently extracted from Scripture with dubious, neo-Midrashic methodologies that yielded clever adages. Rabbi Simon is, surprisingly, a master of this literature and heavily utilizes such insights into the human condition that remain relevant today. With the unfortunate absence of an index of sources I can only estimate that the most frequently quoted text is Kedushat Levi of the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. This is most unexpected in the writings of an instructor in a traditional Lithuanian-style yeshiva. But neither Yeshiva University nor Rabbi Simon are typical.

One of the innovations of the traditional Mussar proponents, such as the brilliant prodigies Rabbi Israel Salanter and Rabbi Isaac Blaser, was the appropriation of talmudic methodologies and applying them to theological concepts. The lecture style of seemingly unsolvable talmudic questions and brilliant flashes of insight were applied to afterlife, reward and punishment, repentance and other related topics. In this way, they allowed the sharp minds of yeshiva students to excitedly meditate on their obligations in this world and, presumably, act accordingly. This was modified by later Mussarists and eventually evolved into a style of streaming midrashic interpretations, one leading into another and all emphasizing an abstract character trait such as modesty or humility.

Rabbi Simon weaves together these two methodologies into an entirely new tapestry. He imports the very sensitive and penetrating Hasidic insights – and many culled from non-Hasidic material – into a traditional yeshiva lecture so that he ends up reflecting on the pitfalls that lie ahead of students in a question and answer format full of exciting challenges and ingenious solutions. What was Noah's great flaw that led him astray? Seamlessly navigating from one text to another, Rabbi Simon explains that Noah lacked self-confidence in his own achievements. Why was Abraham so successful in spreading his message of monotheism? As demonstrated from multiple rabbinic texts, Abraham maintained a high level of personal consistency with his religio-ethical teachings that exuded sincerity. The relevance of such insights to young students is obvious, but established adults also need to be reminded of such fundamental messages.

That traditional talmudic methodologies are being used to transmit such important psychological and behavioral messages not only adds to their religious impact but also transforms the study of Torah into a process of personal and ethical maturation. In this way, Rabbi Simon addresses the need of ethical instruction by taking tried and true talmudic styles of teaching and using them to offer psychological and ethical insights into the daily dilemmas of his avid listeners. If coming from someone with clear emotional or ethical flaws, these essays would seem contrived, a false piety. However, combined with the honest model of their author, the lectures pierce straight through to the listening heart.

However, eclectic works such as this, regardless of the value of their message, are rarely worth reading. They too frequently clumsily unite concepts that are theologically incompatible, resulting in a hodgepodge that solves the author's immediate problems but inadvertently, and often ignorantly, create much larger problems. The importation of Hasidic concepts into foreign systems of thought is particularly fraught with peril. Many have tried this route and failed. Those who have succeeded, such as Rabbi Abraham Kook and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, have very consciously attended to these thorny problems.

Rabbi Simon, however, cleverly sidesteps this entire issue by ignoring metaphysics, much like the philosophy departments of most universities today. Major theological issues are not at the forefront of Imrei Baruch and, indeed, with one exception (Providence) are entirely absent. Instead, Rabbi Simon stays fairly consistently on his main topic – the developmental issues of a Torah-dedicated Jew. By doing this, he avoids the conflicting theologies of his sources and utilizes only the ideas that relate to the universal phenomena of the human condition.

As the introduction states, the generally short essays were taken from Rabbi Simon's lectures to his students at Yeshiva. A quick perusal of the very detailed table of contents (that almost makes up for the inexplicable lack of a subject index) reveals that these essays are not random rabbinic ramblings but very relevant insights for students and adults of today's generation. One is not surprised by the repeated emphasis on the importance of studying Torah, something with which students struggling with the double curriculum of Yeshiva must grapple, as must adults working full-time jobs but still desiring to grow in Torah scholarship. Nor is one surprised at the importance given to the land of Israel in Rabbi Simon's thought. However, other topics that receive treatment are less expected, such as the obligation to recognize and appreciate what others have done for you; the importance of consistency in behavior; the need to act pleasantly to others; managing spiritually with wealth and plenitude; and, particularly emphasized, the value in accomplishments that are achieved through great difficulty and patience.

I remember one time in yeshiva, a particularly proud moment for me, when I had solved a question posed by the formidable R. Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, the "Shages Aryeh." When the enormity of my accomplishment had dawned on me, and I failed to find a flaw in my proposed solution, I took it to the one person who could verify the achievement – "Baruch." The mind that evaluates the most complex talmudic arguments has devoted his first book not to the important area of talmudic research but to the more critical area of personal development. That, in itself, is a statement of the author's priorities in life and in his unstated goal of educating his students in derech eretz, something even more primary than Torah. By modeling a healthy and ethical life and creatively lecturing on the methods of growth into such a person, Rabbi Simon is creating a lasting impact on his students. Readers of this book who have never met the author will be moved by it, and those who know him will be transformed.

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