Is the “Derech” Too Narrow?

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Ari Wasserman interviews Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz, senior lecturer at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, about children going “off the derech”

From a halakhic or hashkafic perspective, is there a definition of an ideal, or a specific path, that a person should take in his or her religious life?

Since I am going to say some constructive criticism about the yeshiva system, I want to start off by saying that the revival of Torah learning and the Yeshiva world, certainly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, is one of the phenomenal achievements of Klal Yisrael. We have more people learning Torah intensively than we perhaps have had for hundreds and hundreds of years. But, we have to be honest, there are going to be problems. The yeshiva world does insist on a certain notion of conformity, a notion that you have to dress a certain way, you have to think a certain way. Certain questions cannot be discussed. Certain talents and abilities cannot be pursued because they are goyish or treif. There exists a single-minded focus only on Torah- which of course is paramount- but to the exclusion of every other type of interest. Although for a number of boys this approach works very well, for other boys, this does not. I know that the OTD (off the derech) phenomenon is a very complicated and multifaceted problem, and one cannot give one reason to it.

What do you think is one of the contributing factors for the OTD phenomenon?

I think that one of the reasons is that when a person is squelched or trapped or told that there is only one way they can go, one box they can be in, and the person is unable to live in that box, he is therefore given no option within the Torah community to flourish. As a result, G-d forbid, he will seek his nourishment elsewhere. So the dilemma parents and educators have is that, on the one hand, they can’t have the attitude that anything goes. Judaism, by definition, has standards and rules. On the other hand, how do I give the individual the freedom to breathe, the freedom to become who he is able to become, to give him the joy of Torah and Avodas Hashem? That’s a very big challenge and a risky one. There’s a teaching about the exodus from Egypt that describes a person who caught a bird and is holding on to it. If his grip is too loose, the bird will fly away. And if his grip is too tight, he will strangle the bird. And that’s a beautiful parable to the dilemma that we face with our kids and students in the yeshiva system: we want to keep them in, for them to be Shomer Mitzvot, and we want them to understand that Torah and Mitzvot are the most important things in life. But we don’t want to strangle them because when we do that, we are going to lose them, either by going off the derech, or, even if they remain observant, we have sapped out the enthusiasm. I call the latter the living dead, in which a person goes through the motions but doesn’t have enthusiasm. I think part of that is because the talents, abilities and interests that a person had were squelched and ignored.

What can we do as parents and educators to try to stem the tide of the OTD phenomenon?

Shlomo Hamelech, in a pasuk in Mishlei, says that a child must be trained according to his “derech.” The Vilna Gaon says that every person has his own special way, an approach that works and that is right for them. You don’t do a one-size-fits-all approach. I remember Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky Zatzal comparing the system of Jewish education to the beds of Sedom, which were one-size-fits-all. If your legs were too long, they would cut them off and if your legs were too short, they would stretch it out to the breaking point.

How would you describe the “derech” or the “box” when you were in yeshiva and how has that definition changed over time?

I think things have gotten worse. I think the “derech” has gotten narrower and more strangulating than it was when I was growing up. My upbringing may not be typical, as I grew up out of town and was sent to a yeshiva whose students came from a more diverse religious background. Halachakly, we can say that it was not an optimal environment. But one thing it emphasized was that we are individuals, we are different, and that we come from different backgrounds. And the main thing was to bring us to a better place of Torah and mitzvot. So you didn’t have to be exactly like everybody else. You didn’t have to dress in a specific way. I benefited from this growing up because it instilled in me a certain openness, a certain respect for different types of people, a certain tolerance for Ahavas Yisroel. In the more intensive learning centers, like NY and Lakewood, perhaps this wasn’t the experience but when I read stories about Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, I read about the types of kids that he took in, kids from non-religious families and kids from less religious families. At the time, the concept of a day school yeshiva was a new one and he wanted to attract as many students as possible. Even in NY there was a certain openness to different types of people. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s yeshiva, MTJ, was also open to all sorts of students. After day school, I went to Ner Yisroel, which was and still is a place of intensive learning but we had kids from all over the U.S. and from a variety of religious backgrounds. My rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Ruderman, was a real talmid of the Alter of Slobodka. And the Alter always emphasized individuality and respected people where they were in their spiritual journey. That was the modality of Ner Yisroel as well.

So what changed? 

There are two factors. One factor is that we became victims to our success. When I was growing up and certainly earlier than that, the number of frum people in America was very small so we didn’t have the opportunity to be choosy. We wanted as broad a tent as we could. But then, baruch Hashem, as a community grows and grows, we can be selective, we can be exclusionary, and we can create our separate schools for every little color on the spectrum. Therefore, if your hat is gray and not black, you don’t belong in our Yeshiva. The 2nd factor that caused this change is that as society itself gets more immoral and more hedonistic, there is, understandably, a circle the wagons mentality, in which we work together to thwart an external threat, because every action has a reaction. If society is getting worse and worse, the thinking goes that we have to get stronger and stronger. When society was relatively benign, we could live within that larger society.

This article is based on Shiur 394 (11/12/22)- “Being in the Box,'' from a podcast called Headlines, hosted by Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein. This episode was guest hosted by Ari Wasserman.