Covid-19 has raised a wide range of concerns and anxieties: health (of course), education, jobs, relationships, and much beyond. But from reading internal Charedi reporting in recent days and weeks, it seems that the existential wellbeing of our yeshiva students is foremost among concerns. In the words of one Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, “[Corona has done] what seventy years of Zionist efforts have failed to accomplish. […] We fear that many young men who are not in yeshiva are in the street; there is real danger if they cannot return to yeshiva.” Another educator expressed concern that “unsupervised, yeshiva students are likely to fall into spiritual crisis.” These are but samples of similar sentiments, expressed by a range of educators and community leaders, all reflecting a common theme: Outside their familiar yeshiva structure, our young men are on the brink of spiritual crisis. Many are even past the brink.
Before going any further, I wish to fully acknowledge that these are indeed extremely challenging times, during which some yeshiva students have been deleteriously impacted. I understand the source of concern and share the desire to provide supports for those who have fallen. Yet at the same time, I struggle to accept the sweeping assumption implicit in these statements. Reading the many columns published on the subject gives the impression that yeshiva students are weak creatures in need of constant supervision; that lacking rigid structure their spiritual lives will simply crumble.
As noted, the pandemic-induced crisis has profound implications for society at large: for younger schoolchildren, freelancers, business owners, employees, the elderly, and others—each group in its own way and every individual pursuant to his or her individual circumstances. But the ominous intonations regarding our yeshiva students suggests that their crisis is somehow more dangerous, given its spiritual (and potentially irreversible) character. Are our young men truly so fragile, their dependence on the yeshiva structure so absolute, that a few months at home will destroy their spiritual lives? And if so, or if we think this to be the case, what does it say about our society?
I wish to argue that the assumptions above do not give our yeshiva students enough credit, reflecting a lack of trust that can be harmful in and of itself. They are not small children who need constant parental supervision, infants whose minds wander from the task at hand when a teacher turns away. Under discussion here are young men, in many cases adults entering the third decade of their lives.
I wish to argue that the assumptions above do not give our yeshiva students enough credit, reflecting a lack of trust that can be harmful in and of itself. They are not small children who need constant parental supervision, infants whose minds wander from the task at hand when a teacher turns away. Under discussion here are young men, in many cases adults entering the third decade of their lives. Their peers in general society are making serious decisions about their futures; in Israel, most members of their age-cohort are soldiers and officers in the military, or post-army men making decisions about the future course of their lives. While attending to legitimate concerns where appropriate, should we not also be focusing on the opportunity inherent to yeshiva boys being outside their familiar oasis? Is there no benefit in stressing the character development and personal responsibility that could (and should) flourish at this time?
Having navigated these questions in my own family over the past few months, I would like to add my voice to the public discourse surrounding yeshiva students and their spiritual wellbeing during these extraordinary times. As noted, this is not to suggest that other voices should not be heard as well. Surely, we must attend to and support those young men who are truly in crisis. At the same time, I believe it is important—and, I hope, ultimately for everyone’s benefit—to consider other narratives too.
A Pandemic’s Opportunities
Two of my eight children—my older sons—belong to the group we are discussing. As students in what we in Israel refer to as Yeshiva Gedola (“Bais Medrash” in the US), they were “exiled” home for three and a half months of pandemic lockdown. Only recently did they rejoin their yeshiva, in the “capsule” (or “pod”) format initiated by some institutions. A unique time in many ways, having my older sons at home during this period was a special opportunity for them and for our entire family.
First, my sons had an opportunity to truly get to know and develop relationships with their younger siblings. Beginning with their high school years, the time my sons spend at home with the family is very limited. While such are the natural and expected characteristics of a large family in our community, it remains unfortunate when siblings do not have a chance to bond over long periods of time together. Suspension of normal activities allowed for a unique opportunity to strengthen our family unit.
In addition, living with the family more permanently prompted my sons to deal with everyday family situations that require patience, delayed gratification, and respect for others—even their younger siblings. True, such situations do occur in yeshiva as well, but the “real-life” education of a full, functioning home cannot be replaced. Accepting the constant presence and authority of one’s parents, and balancing home resources under conditions of competing needs, is very different than getting along with one’s peers in a dormitory or dining hall. Indeed, this period served as an important exercise in maturity, demanding recognition of others and their needs on the one hand and accepting responsibility on the other hand.
Finally, the prolonged absence from yeshiva was an opportunity for my yeshiva boys to expand their intellectual and Torah horizons. This was true in the simple sense of studying, reading, and engaging in subjects beyond those what they would normally engage in. But the time also provided a range of expanded, informal, opportunities. For example, this could take form in an unexpected chavrusa, remote or in person, with a talmid chacham who is typically inaccessible, or an opportunity to pursue areas of Torah study that extend beyond the standard yeshiva fare. My sons thus found time to expand their learning in productive and interesting ways.
My discomfort with the dire warnings quoted above is commensurate with an appreciation for the opportunities I just described. Focus on the perils attendant to losing the yeshiva structure denies each individual student’s agency and ability to assume responsibility for himself. Indeed, if he cannot be expected to care for himself for even a moment, it is only natural that we should fear that prolonged absence from his protective environment will result in spiritual disintegration.
My discomfort with the dire warnings quoted above is commensurate with an appreciation for the opportunities I just described. Focus on the perils attendant to losing the yeshiva structure denies each individual student’s agency and ability to assume responsibility for himself. Indeed, if he cannot be expected to care for himself for even a moment, it is only natural that we should fear that prolonged absence from his protective environment will result in spiritual disintegration. I do not claim that no such concern exists, but risks are inherent to every opportunity. We must decide whether we opt to magnify the risk or seize the opportunity and pursue its potential. In my view, the pandemic offered our yeshiva students an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and to flourish outside their normal environment. Participating in the daily ups and downs of the family dynamic, taking ownership of their own physical and spiritual wellbeing, and exploring new areas of interest were all positive and valuable experiences for my sons, and likely for many other young men as well.
Of these specific benefits, I would like to focus on the theme that is common to them all: personal responsibility.
Responsibility and the Yeshiva World
As an institution in the pre-war European sense, the yeshiva was fundamentally predicated on student responsibility. Just physically reaching a yeshiva often entailed resolute determination with far-reaching implications, including the difficult choice to leave one’s family for a long period of time, investing years in Torah study and committing to an uncertain future as a Rabbi. Survival in yeshiva was not easy, and required, on an ongoing basis, a series of choices: what yeshiva to join, how to travel there, with whom to live, what to study and with whom, and so on. Biographical sketches of the committed yeshiva student in Europe at this time are full of depictions exemplifying the degree to which these young men, often as young as fifteen or sixteen years old (sometimes even younger), assumed tremendous responsibility for their own wellbeing and destiny.
Most students follow a well-established track: in Israel, this entails cheider, yeshiva ketana, and yeshiva gedola, otherwise known in the US as elementary school, high school, and beis medrash. Regardless of nomenclature, the process is the same—the youngster progresses more or less organically from one stage to the next.
By contrast, attending and learning in yeshiva today barely flexes the “responsibility muscle.” Most students follow a well-established track: in Israel, this entails cheider, yeshiva ketana, and yeshiva gedola, otherwise known in the US as elementary school, high school, and beis medrash. Regardless of nomenclature, the process is the same—the youngster progresses more or less organically from one stage to the next. Even the choice of yeshiva is typically narrowed down in advance to a small number of largely interchangeable options. Living and thriving in yeshiva likewise does not make significant demands of the student. His needs, material and spiritual, are provided for by the yeshiva. Everything from the dormitory and its upkeep to meals, and including exactly what to learn and at which pace, are all arranged for by the yeshiva. Nor is the yeshiva student burdened with concerns about his future. He is expected to be immersed in the here and now and learn diligently. His horizon barely extends as far as marriage, which, at least in Israel, is generally how one “graduates” from yeshiva gedola.
I do not mean to suggest that there are no opportunities for the young men to assume responsibility while in yeshiva. In any yeshiva, and certainly in those with lighter standards of supervision, a student can find significant areas in which to take personal responsibility. Whether this entails full adherence to the yeshiva schedule, arranging a special learning group or shiur, or seeking out a direct relationship with a mentor, such opportunities certainly present themselves. And yet, yeshivas never demand and rarely even encourage such efforts. Designed to eliminate distractions and smooth out any obstacles he might encounter, the yeshiva environment is meant to foster conditions such that the student is propelled to his seat in the beis medrash each morning with minimal conflict or tension.
For all its benefits, such an existence does little to train the young man’s personal responsibility muscles, and, at least on the margins, entrenches a potentially destructive sense of entitlement. Not only is there an inherent problem in our young men failing to internalize personal responsibility as a basic Torah value, but they also remain unprepared for an adult life that demands sacrifice and responsibility across a broad range of areas. Anecdotally and instinctively, I would argue that training in personal responsibility would go a long way to ease the kind of strife and complications that we so commonly hear about in the lives of newlywed Charedi couples.
During these months, they have had an opportunity to think and learn about themselves. Absent the daily routine of yeshiva, the thoughtful young man likely discovered aspects of his personality—strengths, weaknesses, and interests—that he was unaware of.
I am not here to critique our generation’s yeshiva education model. There are good reasons for its existence and format, and I am not qualified to question them or its continued function. But given the current model, the pandemic has afforded us a golden opportunity to introduce responsibility into our sons’ daily lives. Indeed, they are suddenly called upon to make a series of independent choices: where to learn, what to learn, how to do so safely, and how to spend the rest of their time. During these months, they have had an opportunity to think and learn about themselves. Absent the daily routine of yeshiva, the thoughtful young man likely discovered aspects of his personality—strengths, weaknesses, and interests—that he was unaware of. Our public health crisis afforded yeshiva students opportunities for self-discovery and decision-making that undoubtedly will do wonders for the quality of taking personal responsibility.
Not Everything Is a Tragedy
One might reasonably challenge my views with the argument that concern for our yeshiva student’s spiritual growth should supersede the importance of personal responsibility. After all, is it indeed appropriate that personal responsibility should be cultivated at the expense of spiritual downfall? Though our approach to this question ought to be nuanced, by broad response is that yes: responsibility is predicated entirely on the possibility of failure. Doing nothing is always the safest route; any growth entails some risk. Extreme hesitancy to assume any level of risk will forever block the pathway to responsibility and meaningful growth.
Failure is a feature of our world, not a bug. It is what defines this world as opposed to World to Come, a future existence of constant and unchanging good. Error and the consequent destruction are part and parcel of the human condition, much as we may wish for it to be otherwise. Is failure that bad?
Failure is a feature of our world, not a bug. It is what defines this world as opposed to World to Come, a future existence of constant and unchanging good. Error its unfortunate consequences are part and parcel of the human condition, much as we may wish for it to be otherwise. Is failure that bad? Are the ups and downs of a yeshiva student’s struggles really so threatening? Perhaps this might be the case in an alternate reality, one that does not include humans as we know them. In our world, however, conflict, struggle, and failure form an inseparable part of the journey. Graphs charting growth in any aspect of life, from economic growth to a person’s recovery after illness, will always include downs as part of the general upward trend. We cannot expect a yeshiva boy’s focus and diligence to be any more constant and stable than the vicissitudes of an economy or the weather.
Describing these very phenomena, the Torah teaches, “And God saw everything he had done and behold it was very good” (Bereishis 1:31). Everything, including struggle and failure, belongs in the unit described as “very good.” R’ Yitchak Hutner famously replied to a student’s struggles with spiritual failure:
There is a saying in English, “Lose the battle and win the war.” You surely have stumbled and will stumble again, and you will be vanquished in many battles. However, I promise you that after you have lost those battles, you will emerge from the war with a victor’s wreath on your head and the spoils tightly within your grasp.
The wisest of all men said, “The tzaddik will fall seven times and will arise” (Mishlei 24:16). Fools think that this should be read as “despite”, meaning that although a tzaddik falls seven times, he will still rise. Yet, the wise know well that it is rather because a tzaddik falls seven times that he arises. “And God saw everything he had done and behold it was very good”—“‘Good’ refers to one’s striving for good; ‘Very good’ refers to his lower impulses.
Had you written to me of your mitzvos and good deeds, I would have said that it was a good letter. Now that you tell me of your falls and stumbles, I say that I have received a very good letter. (Pachad Yitzchak, Letters, 128).
Failure is a necessary component of growth and development. How can one know oneself without stumbling? How will a person learn to forgive himself and make amends if he never practices doing so? Tension and struggle are partners in our own growth. Under normal conditions, we rely, perhaps too much, on our institutions’ ability to soften the road to growth and shield our young men from failure. The pandemic has offered our sons an opportunity—admittedly not one we would have chosen voluntarily—to seize the reins of their own development. For all the tension and conflict entailed therein, the emergence of a deep sense of agency will prove invaluable to their future growth.
“All Because of the Chinese”
In a recent column published in the Hebrew Mishpacha Magazine, publicist Aryeh Erlich (who also edits the magazine) succinctly captured the very sentiments I am troubled by. He writes:
Thousands of yeshiva students wandering the streets [… The] prolonged stay indoors, the constant squabbling with family members, have caused many circuits to short. […] A young man naturally resists taking part in maintaining the home. […] In short, it is a time ripe for trouble.
Such descriptions shock me; their inevitability horrifies me. Must spending time with one’s family lead to incessant squabble? Are yeshiva students unable to help at home? If an eighteen or twenty-year-old man cannot get along with his family, then is the solution is run back to yeshiva? And if there is no yeshiva, is the only remaining outcome that he finds trouble in the street? What happened to his responsibility, to his basic decency? How can we possibly expect such a person to survive the day after his wedding?
As if this were not enough, Erlich continues:
Imagine yourself, forty years from now, sitting with your grown children and telling them about the covid-19 pandemic. Will you describe a time during which you fought to maintain your spiritual growth and triumphed? Or will you sadly relate that this period was your spiritual descent, that ever since you have not been the same yeshiva student, that your present spiritual malaise is all because of the cursed Chinese who spread the novel coronavirus?
Insults such as these go beyond simply targeting yeshiva students; they attack the entirety of Charedi society. Is there really such a thing as “maintaining one’s spiritual status?” Can spirituality be quantified? And let us turn for a moment to the yeshiva student who did stumble during these challenging times. Is his fate sealed, doomed to never grow again?
“All because of the Chinese.” Do we really imagine that in a moment of crisis, a yeshiva boy will leave everything behind—the depth and richness of Torah, a life of personal and spiritual growth—“all because of the Chinese?” Does the young man bear no responsibility for his internal life, for his spiritual experience and satisfaction?
“All because of the Chinese.” Do we really imagine that in a moment of crisis, a yeshiva boy will leave everything behind—the depth and richness of Torah, a life of personal and spiritual growth—“all because of the Chinese?” Does the young man bear no responsibility for his internal life, for his spiritual experience and satisfaction? Is there no expectation that he learns to integrate the many aspects of his psyche, to mediate between urges and boundaries, and to chart a course through it all? Without such integration, there can be no meaningful growth whatsoever.
The constant search for an external solution, one that stops short of making demands of our young men, has led to the suggestion that to forestall their spiritual descent these same yeshiva students should immediately be married off. But just as the root problem is not the pandemic, neither is its solution a hasty wedding. An acute denial or expectation of personal responsibility is the real crisis. Elevating our young men’s sense of agency its solution.
Our sons should indeed not be “the same yeshiva students” after the pandemic as they were before it began. They should—at least a large percentage of them—grasp this unusual opportunity to encounter themselves in a more mature way, and take the responsibility demanded by such maturity. We, as parents and educators, have an opportunity to show our confidence in them and their ability to engage in serious introspection and meaningful growth, in a process of development not curtailed by failure. On the contrary, failures along the way can become stepping-stones to greater heights. When our yeshiva student returns to yeshiva at the end of this period, he will hopefully be fortified, more mature and confident in his abilities than when he left. Our attitudes—his own and ours—will determine his outcome. Will we choose to focus on the dangers of less structure or on its opportunities? Both possibilities are indeed present, and the choice between them is set to become its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
[L]et us not make the mistake of painting all yeshiva students with a broad brush as helpless creatures in need of constant supervision. We do them no favors by adopting such an attitude and denying them the agency to take ownership of their own growth
To return to my opening comments, I am aware that many yeshiva boys have struggled tremendously during this time. Some require support and external intervention; and not all who require them, find them. It is a trying time. But let us not make the mistake of painting all yeshiva students with a broad brush as helpless creatures in need of constant supervision. We do them no favors by adopting such an attitude and denying them the agency to take ownership of their own growth. And for those who have fallen, let us reflect on how they strengthen themselves so as not to fall again. A “yeshiva boy” can be far more than just “a boy learning in yeshiva,” but becoming one requires a process of self-growth that he himself must initiate and lead. We should ensure that our own good intentions do not deny him the opportunity. Or as one of my sons subtly quipped, “I want to learn Kiddushin in Chevron, rather than be a Chevron student learning Kiddushin.”
 Mishpacha Magazine (Hebrew) 2.7.2020.