Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Mishlei Gender Gap and Its Consequences

Shlomo Hamelech, the חכם מכל אדם (wisest of men), wrote a sefer commonly referred to as "Mishlei".

A kinnui classically used for ספר משלי is ספר החכמה (the book of wisdom).

The book of wisdom, authored by the wisest of men. Seems like quite a piece of work. Who would pass on such a great read?

Unfortunately, however, it does not get as much attention as it should, especially among some portions of the tzibbur of male lomdei Torah (of course, the men have many others things they need to learn, such as major areas of gemara, and halacha, which take up much time and energy). On the other hand, on the female side, it gets a lot of attention. The result is a major gender gap when it comes to knowledge of Mishlei among אחינו בני ישראל.

The situation has gotten so bad that some people think of Mishlei as ווייבישע תורה, something like Tzena Urena, a portion of Torah designated for women, like an ezras nashim of תורה שבכתב. Of course, why some of the greatest gedolim, such as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbeinu Yonah, wrote extensive peirushim on Mishlei, if it was just for talmidos of Beis Yaakov and seminaries, might be somewhat of a mystery then.

In addition to a general deficit in Torah knowledge, that a lack of any cheilek in Torah would mean, Mishlei is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for living life, of various hashkafos and eitzos. Now women have already had an advantage of over men in the area of בינה, due to their innate bina yeseira. But, that is balanced by an advantage in the area of חכמה on the male side, especially חכמת התורה. However, if women will be the only ones learning Mishlei, the sefer hachochmoh, that could create a serious imbalance in gender relations, which could negatively affect things like שלום בית and שידוכים, in addition to life in general.

Therefore I was happy to recently see a report of a grand siyum on sefer Mishlei in Lakewood. According to it, a Shul there was learning the sefer slowly, בעיון, בציבור, for fifteen (!) years, before reaching its conclusion. ברוך שזכינו.

If we could correct a skewed playing field so simply, by having more men learn משלי (and quicker than in fifteen years), wouldn't it be a great thing? Besides, Mishlei is such an enjoyable limud anyway, it is a win-win-win idea.

As the old expression goes, if only the עם חכם ונבון would have א ביסעלע שכל (a little seichel). With more people, especially men, learning and internalizing Mishlei, that could be attained in greater measure. May we merit a closing, and ultimately a disappearing, of the Mishlei gap soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Narrowness in scope of Torah study is one of the great tzaros of our time - Rav Avraham Pam זצ"ל

Such narrowness is a צרה not only because that Hebrew word comes from the root צר, meaning narrow (as in מקום צר, a narrow place).  It is a צרה because eagerly awaiting visit and exploration are a land mass of twenty four sacred books, כ"ד ספרים, of תורה שבכתב,  as well as a sea of talmud (ים התלמוד), positioned around six Mishnaic orders (ששה סדרי משנה), with thousands of pages for the Jewish man to traverse, along with many more treasures and adventures (such as deep sea Talmudic diving, inspecting sunken ships of the past, and prospecting for hidden valuables) beyond. And if some stay in a safe harbor of a selected few pages, rather than visiting the great expanses beyond, they will miss out on worlds, and not be able to ascend to the higher ranks of captains and commanders in the Torah realm.

Correcting a serious misconception

Some people mistakenly believe that the Litvishe tradition of Torah study does not esteem or demand broad based Torah knowledge (aka בקיאות). That notion, however, is emphatically not correct, and needs to be strongly refuted, which ב"ה it was recently, in a featured excerpt of a sefer in a widely distributed newspaper (the Flatbush Jewish Journal, a publication out of NY), citing the leading Litvak sages Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

The greatly revered and loved Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, was known as a mild mannered man, and a great baal middos (of exemplary character and conduct). He was not a person who was seeking to criticize others, particularly students of Torah, who were so beloved to him. But he did, nevertheless, feel compelled to speak out strongly (in his soft-spoken way) against the problem (among some) of narrowness in scope of Torah study, echoing the great Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

Both of those towering Litvishe Torah authorities, by the way, were old school Litvaks, the real McCoy, so to speak, not some synthetic modern hybrid versions. Rav Pam, despite his American citizenship, was a genuine Litvak, born in the Eastern European homeland of Litvishe Yidden, who studied Torah in Kovno, Lithuania, as well as being a close talmid of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, great-nephew of the Chofetz Chaim, and founder of ישיבת רבינו ישראל מאיר הכהן, after migrating to the USA. Rav Schach as well, despite his many decades in Eretz Yisroel, was at his root, also a Litvak from Jewish Lithuania.

  The relevant segment can be seen in the feature "A Vort from Rav Pam" (from the great sefer by that name) starting on P.4 of the FJJ issue of this past parshas Vayeilech, and continuing and concluding on p. 82 there.

May we merit Torah broadness in the path of our great gedolim.

P.S. The Sukkos edition of Yated Ne'eman of NY, has a precious interview with Maran Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit"a (by Avrohom Birnbaum), in which this topic is touched upon. It says there that in the early days of Lakewood, the (BMG) Rosh Yeshiva went away to Eretz Yisroel during the winter one year, and came back after after Purim, whereupon he gave a shiur on daf nun zayin (דף נז) of the מסכת. They had learned - and during first seder yet (so I asssumed - but perhaps lav davka) - from the beginning of the mesechta until daf 57. רב שמואל שליט"א is then asked, what happened, why yeshivos cover less ground now? The response given is twofold. One, that when Mirrer talmidim came from Shanghai, things slowed down, as they were used to learning slower than than the Kletzker Rosh Yeshiva, and two, that there were very few seforim (on gemara) in Lakewood in those days to distract them, so they were able to plow ahead and proceed veiter.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Litvishe spirituality - The role of the yeshiva mashgiach, as seen by Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l

The Yated Neeman newspaper from New York, in its current Rosh Hashanah issue, contains an important feature, based on an interview with famed משגיח and מחנך Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l approximately thirty years ago. In the piece, crafted masterfully by senior writer Avrohom Birnbaum, we get valuable insight into the role of the mashgiach (director of spiritual guidance), in Litvishe yeshivos, in the glory days of yore.

Nowadays, when the role of mashgiach is often diminished, if it exists at all (in some places it carries on, but in others it has totally disappeared, while in yet other places, Chasidim have been appointed to it, a move not in accordance with the mesorah of Litvishe yeshivos), it is quite worthwhile to gain new understanding and appreciation of the role of the mashgiach, at its highest level. Unfortunately, some people think of a mashgiach as a type of policeman checking with his watch if a student was late for seder or davening, for example, and accordingly dispensing fines, discipline, and so on. And perhaps in an institution for minors there is a place for that. But a classical mashgiach in the ישיבה גדולה sense, is really a source of vital, life-giving spiritual guidance, meaning, and counseling, via public and private activity, even up to the level of spiritual resuscitation, rather than being a petty enforcer of minor institutional rules and regulations.

Here are a few important points, in brief, from the feature.

1) Rav Wolbe strongly lamented the dearth of mashgichim today (thirty years ago, קל וחומר now). It greatly pained him. He wondered how the lack is excused. They claim that there is no Rav Yerucham (Levovitz), or Rav Chatzkel (Levenstein) (legendary mashgichim of yesteryear) today, he said. But there is no Rav Boruch Ber or Rav Shimon Shkop either now. Yet they still have Roshei Yeshiva. So why not mashgichim as well? יפתח בדורו כשמואל בדורו.

2) When asked why Roshei Yeshiva are being produced now, but not Mashgichim, he replied, simple - it is much easier to be a Rosh Yeshiva than a Mashgiach.

3) Rav Yerucham Levovitz on the respective roles of Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach - the Rosh Yeshiva straightens out the mind, but the mashgiach straightens out the heart.

4) When queried about his tremendous deference to his own mashgiach, he stated that Rav Yerucham brought him back to life, a kind of spirtual resuscitation, techiyas hameisim, and he did that to many others as well.

5) The purpose of a mashgiach is to elevate people, to create Torah personalities, to teach bochurim how to think independently, to form their world outlook. In that regard, Rav Wolbe cited the directive of Rav Yisroel Salanter זצ"ל to the Alter of Slabodka, that his task in a yeshiva should be להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים (to breathe life into the spirit of the lowly, and into the heart of the shattered).

6) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l, a Rosh Yeshiva, who acted as a mashgiach in terms of giving mussar type talks as well (showing the possibility of a Rosh Yeshiva having characteristics of a mashgiach too), was not self-made in that role. Rather, he was a talmid of Rav Yerucham.

For those interested in more, see p.52-56 in the Yated Neeman.

May we be zoche that the crown of elevated השגחה of the Litvishe tradition be maintained (where it still survives), as well as restored to its former glory (where it has perhaps been lost).