Monday, February 10, 2014

If some is good, and more is better, even more is...- Are yeshivahs letting boys be boys?

You could , it was said, make two Einsteins of the Meitscheter Illuy, Rav Shlomo Polachek zt”l. He was known as a man of great brilliance, Torah knowledge and piety. Once, as he walked outside of Yeshiva University, where he was a rosh yeshiva towards the end of his life, he saw some children playing. “Nu, would it have been so bad?”, he said. Having entered Volozhin at the age of 12, and having shown great brilliance at a very young age, Rav Polachek missed out on being a child, something that he regretted, despite all he achieved.

My friend was giving his Rosh Yeshiva a ride to Brooklyn one Sunday afternoon. As they passed a yeshiva that was in session, the Rosh Yeshiva said to my friend “While your boys (referring to right-wing modern orthodoxy) are playing little league, my boys are learning Torah”. The rosh yeshiva said this to show the superiority of his approach, where even in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, yeshiva is in session for boys who might otherwise be doing so-called frivolous things, like playing baseball with their friends.

The yeshiva day is getting longer and not just for boys in high school and beis medrash. It is not rare for boys (thankfully for the girls, their lack of obligation in talmud Torah frees them from such long days) who are not yet in middle school, to stay in yeshiva until 5pm or later. With limudei kodesh going until well past noon, the long day is to provide more hours for learning, not to give more time to limudei chol. Boys who have a hard time sitting still, are asked to spend increasingly more time sitting at their desks, to learn challenging texts in languages in which they are not fluent. For the boy who combines intelligence, the ability to sit, and enjoys learning, the system pushed them to achieve their potential. For those who lack this rare combination, the day ranges from challenging to painful. Learn to sit quietly, and you are safe. If you can not, things become worse. I have met more than a few teenagers whose struggles with observance came, at least partially, from an inability to function within this highly demanding system. Even for those who can hack it, it comes with a cost that while not so obvious to outsiders, still cheats these boys out of being boys.

As these boys advance through their learning it seems that a Peter Principle of sorts is in play, where the boys are pushed to higher and higher levels of learning, where all but the best, learn that they do not have what it takes. Of course, as I've mentioned before, with the focus for boys on gemara alone, many who fail in this system might not be failures in Torah, which does, after all, include Tanach, machshava and halacha.

I have often heard parents complain about the long yeshiva day, with a sense that there is nothing they can do. Of course, this is far from the truth. If enough parents join together to protest, those who run and control the yeshivahs will have no choice but to listen. Perhaps Rav Yaakov Horowitz said it best when he spoke on this topic. “When you are asked if you are anti-Torah, respond that you are not. You are pro-family”. As parents, we owe it to our children to let them be children.