On the subject of problems, one of our biggest problems as a community is our refusal to acknowledge the existence of certain problems. In his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto states that what he has written is not intended to teach anyone anything new or novel, rather his goal is to remind people of what they already know to be true, to engrain it in their consciousness, and to impress upon us the importance of its message. In fact, upon reading the Mesillas Yesharim, one gets the impression that he is, in fact, learning nothing new or anything he couldn’t extrapolate on his own. It is common knowledge. And so is the existence of myriad problems which go unacknowledged and unaddressed in our community.
Don’t take my word for it; the next time you’re sitting around shmuzing with a couple of your friends, bring up a few uncomfortable topics. Child molestation, mental illness, eating disorders, child abuse, drug abuse, orthopraxy…take note of the response. These are all topics upon which we are all in agreement: they must be addressed or our kids’ futures are in jeopardy.
But then walk into a mainstream yeshiva and take a look around. Do you see anyone suffering with those issues? Do you see drug users, sexual, and physical abuse victims, bochurim with mental illnesses or who live with parents who suffer from mental illnesses? Do you see any bochurim who bear every outward resemblance to the standard yeshiva bochur archetype, but who are actually kofrim? Of course not.
Something’s wrong though—something doesn’t add up. When I walk into Our Place, or Ohr Yitzchok, I see hundreds of kids who suffer with all of those problems daily. All of a sudden, when it’s all too late, they show up on our doorsteps, lives in a shambles, arrested, addicted to something or other, on the wrong end of a bad deal; where were they five years ago? How did we miss them?
We as the Jewish people are the am hanivchar. We stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah. We spent 40 years in the desert, we built the Beis Hamikdash. We said naaseh v’nishmah and accepted the perfection that is the Torah. We accepted it and took it upon ourselves as a contract of sorts to devote our lives to its teachings, and, through those teachings, self-perfection. Because that is the purpose that religion serves: a path to self-perfection.
But over the centuries—the millennia—we’ve lost some perspective on what it does for us. Accepting the Torah does not make us perfect. Accepting the Torah does not mean that we are, by dint of our commitment alone, granted the holiness and perfection contained within its words. Unfortunately, there are many, if not a majority, in our community who assume that we have already attained personal and societal perfection. It’s a nice ideal, but they’re getting ahead of themselves and its hurting countless people.
Their image of perfection precludes any perceived imperfection. So mental illness couldn’t possibly exist because mental illness is an imperfection (a sentiment which is itself extremely offensive), and imperfection doesn’t exist in our community. My son couldn’t possibly have been molested by his rebbi because child molestation is a grievous sin and therefore cannot possibly exist. Rape can’t exist because rape is a sin; the girl must have done something to provoke it. Mr Schwartz couldn’t possibly be beating his wife and kids, because that’s just wrong; they must be making it up—blowing it all out of proportion.
And its not just the frum world, although we definitely have more of it and to varying degrees. This applies more to chassidim, less to litvishe, and even less to modern orthodox. It’s a common psychological coping mechanism; when confronted with evil, people prefer either to ignore its existence, despite the fact that it is clearly present, or they rationalize its existence by blaming themselves or the victims of said evil for having acted in a manner that brought it upon them. The classic example being a father blaming a daughter’s rape on the skirt she was wearing. Rather than acknowledge the fact that rape exists, and not only exists, but forced itself upon his precious daughter, the father tells himself that while ordinarily rape doesn’t exists, end that even if it does, it could and would never exist for his family, this case is different because she was dressed provocatively.
That mindset is nothing short of cognitive dissonance. Evil exists. Imperfection exists. Sin exists. That’s why the Torah gives us ways of dealing with it, of punishing criminals, and penance from sin—because it all exists. The proper way to deal with it is not to close our eyes in hope that it will all just go away, or tell ourselves that it is entirely our fault. Barasi Yetzer Hara, Barasi Torah Tavlin means that yes, there are challenges, there is sin, there is evil and imperfection, but we, thanks to our God, have a way to fight and overcome it. It’s a shame that the very tool which is supposed to help us overcome adversity, is being used to make adversity stronger.