A Teen’s Lament

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rabbi-steven-pruzanskyBy Rabbi Steve Pruzansky

This essay, written by a teenage girl and now several years old, came to my attention recently. It is a window into a certain part of our world, but a darkly-tinted, grotesquely-distorted window. Here are relevant excerpts:

“The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we’re done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand – it really does baffle me – is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances-the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel-take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present – why come when you mean nothing to the service? …….

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion – or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage – women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves – and our girls……

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion – and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!”

I do hope in the ensuing years she has made peace with G-d’s Torah, but I assume there are others who have not (I pray not too many). We have to excuse the narcissism, the self-centeredness, of her generation; they were raised being told that they were all “special,” and they actually believe it. Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special. That mistaken proposition also ignores the truism that “specialness” is earned by some unique ability or contribution to society, not acquired merely by virtue of respiration and ambulation.

I hope as well that she learns the meaning of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – a recognition that we are just servants of the Master, and not in a position to dictate to the Master what we think His Torah should decree, or else. As Rachel Fraenkel, for whose son’s freedom, and his two friends, we pray daily, said this past week: “G-d is not our employee.” We don’t get to prescribe to G-d how He is to be worshipped. And it is the implicit threat – “if I don’t get my feminist way, I will take my toys and go elsewhere”- that is so off-putting. But, again, that can be attributed to youth and an overestimation of the self. Perhaps she will outgrow it – but not if she does not receive guidance from her mentors.

And here’s the most troubling aspect of her writings, for which she is not at all to blame. In all her years of “Modern Orthodox” education, hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society? Has she never been taught that Judaism has its own divinely-based system, and we do not judge the worth of that system or its precepts by measuring it against the prevailing mores of the rest of the world?

Is it too much to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will and were given to us to provide us with the means to actualize our human potential and live fulfilling lives as divine servants? Is that too much to ask for $20,000 per year?

That is the biggest failing in her education, and that of her like-minded friends. We have to ask ourselves what is happening in these communities that children are not taught that, or that Rabbis are not preaching that when necessary. And why not. What is the fear or hesitation?

Obviously, those in the camp of the discontented have an a priori conception of what Judaism should be – even what Modern Orthodoxy should be – that bears little relation to what it actually is. Here’s a news flash: there is a system that was entrusted to us in which we are mandated to both observe its laws as the faithful and preserve it as the guardians for future generations. A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation. It could not – and should not have survived – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christians, the Muslims and a host of others. (Indeed, the values of modern America are uncannily similar to those of ancient Rome in its decadence, to a great extent in its emptiness and its yearning for distractions from real life – World Cup? Who cares! – and even in the decay that has already set in.) What does any of that have to do with Judaism, and why would we want to import the failures of Western morals into our system, even if we could?

There is “unfairness” in the world with which we all must reckon in shul, in the workplace, and in life. For example, in baseball, a batter is out after three strikes, but takes first base after four balls. Unfair!! That gives the advantage to the pitcher and should be unacceptable to any thinking egalitarian. Why should the pitcher be advantaged? Alas, that is the system of baseball. We either accept the system or create a new game. Why is this so complicated?

It is further troubling that our young writer perceives Modern Orthodoxy as inherently capable of deviating from the Mesorah in order to accommodate her personal needs, or else it must be construed as hostage to the “stringent sects of religions” that clearly have no appeal to her. But a Modern Orthodoxy in which the veneer of ritual is superimposed on a degenerate lifestyle – as in the yarmulke-wearing off-color young comedian who recently appeared on American television, clearly clueless as to the boundaries of propriety in Jewish life – is less orthodox than it is modern, and in the worst sense of the term “modern.” Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.

Indeed, Torah Judaism, modern or otherwise, is “not reflective of modern society.” That is to be celebrated, not lamented, for that is the whole point. We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine. That is what is unique about Judaism and Jews. And so her explicit threat – if she and her friends are not accommodated, they will opt out – leaves me sad but also detached. I think of what Queen Esther was told by Mordechai at a critical moment in Jewish history and paraphrase it here: if indeed you want to establish your own religion or your own version of Judaism because you find the Torah unsatisfying at present, good luck with that. “Relief and salvation will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14). It has happened before; indeed, it has happened in every generation since Sinai. It is your choice whether or not you want it to happen to you.

Consider this not the “rabbinic indifference” that you castigate but the rabbinic truth to which you have apparently never been exposed. The answer to your complaints is intellectually straightforward even if it is emotionally unappealing to you. Orthodoxies that pander to the masses are not orthodoxies, even if they claim the name for themselves. Orthodoxies that have fluid belief systems are oxymorons with short shelf lives. The embrace of leftist political doctrine has already permeated the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy, and with predictable results. That decline has already started, as the Torah faithful have retrenched and defined what is inside and/or outside the Mesorah. That flash in the pan is already fading, despite the repeated hoopla in the media.

I would not worry at all whether there is a future for Torah; that is guaranteed.

I would only worry whether you and those like you will be part of that future.


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  1. For parents and those in chinuch, this is an excellent article so as to make sure they are imparting the right ideas to our children, to see what we have to deal with in society, and to see what heppens when there is failure.

    However I don’t think this is an article for the young people who share the thoughts of the teen writer. People such as this obviously are lacking in chinuch (as R Pruzansky points out) and should be treated like tinokos shenisbu. In our society, if we want to be mekarev these people, we need more love and understanding and less harshness and belittling. (We can love and understand people without accepting their lifestyle as legitimate, and we can know that our way is correct without belittling others.) They are wrong, but I don’t think an essay like R’ Pruzansky’s is the way to reach them.

  2. FYI to all the readers, it takes years of practice to learn to write like this, you don’t pick it up in vocational school. Well written Rabbi Pruzansky.

  3. Is not Rabbi Pruzansky the Rabbi of a Modern Orthodox Congregation? If so does this lament mean that Rabbi Pruzansky has failed at being a Moro DiAsroh of a modern orthodox congregation? Is Rabbi Pruzansky being indifferent to the issues of a modern orthodox constituency and has he failed to engage those issue in a meaningful manner that can still inspire his flock? Who is he complaining to?

  4. As a modern orthodox parent who became orthodox in my early 20s, I have witnessed the same with my own daughter. She had these type of questions, now lives in San Francisco and atteends the independent minyan. I often reflect on what happened. I became religious and joined a Young Israel, mostly because it embraced “modernity,” specifically high secular academic achievement. I felt that a yeshiva-driven community was flawed for keeping that as an afterthought.

    Now, due to my daughter’s affiliations, I see things differently. I instilled modern values in my daughter, with torah values. The modern values stuck. The Torah values are in question. I am still active in my Young Israel and still cherish modernity. However, we secularize judiasim too much, causing confusion at best. Unless we Young Israel communities address this issue, the phenomenon will continue.

    I left the secular world becaue I saw no value in a secular life. Yet I may have inadvertently given that to my daughter.

  5. “Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special.” Pretty sad disregard for the unique tzelem Elokim in each of us.

  6. I think she is right from where she is coming from. She was taught that she is empowered as a woman through her pursuit of a career. Mitzvos were peppered with Israel advocacy in Washington and pursuing social justice. Why should she have to go to shul where it is “different”. Is judaism different in the day-school and the shul? Isn’t there but one Gd?
    The women in my life were shown that their Neshamos were given a special mission WITHIN Judaism and they need no further vindication (they all have carrers, notwithstanding). Under this system the synagogue requires no apologies- it is rather consistent with the Gd outside of Shul. They maintain the quiet trustworthy voice that support the community with wisdom and counsel (my wife can pasken Hilchos Shabbos verbatim from Rav Neuberts sefer) support, stability, and Tznius.

  7. thank you for finally telling it like it is. i especially liked the suggestion to just ” daven in front of a mirror.” that perfectly illustrates the motive of many new movements of our day. trying to squeeze the Torah into all kinds of “isms” is merely to serve the interests of those who want to redefine yiddishkeit, and allow themselves to indulge in their folly. good job!

  8. most people I know who consider themselves modern orthodox are shomer Shabbos, kashruth, taharas hamishpacha. they care about their shuls, their children’s education and most of the aspects of jewish law which differentiate between the orthodox and everyone else. the women are not trying to be men: they understand that different people have different roles. no matter how learned a person is (and even if he has a beautiful voice to sing the birkas kohanim), if he wasn’t born a kohen he may not duchen. I wonder what school she went to

  9. Bravo, Rabbi Pruzansky! I have been having an ongoing argument with a relative over this very subject. Unfortunately, neither he nor his wife have seen my point. They have been influenced by the disgruntlist blogs, WOW and that stream of extremely diluted “Orthodoxy” now in vogue.
    Torah true Yiddishkeit does not marginalize women. However, those who think so tend to marginalize halacha in their personal lives, and pump up themselves and their fellow misguided bidievedniks by openly criticizing “the ultra-Orthodox extreme chumrah” lifestyle.

    I wish I could speak to you in person, Rabbi Pruzansky, so I can introduce you to this cousin who can surely use your eloquent mussar.
    Ironically, every time this cousin and his wife criticize the chareidi lifestyle they are also criticizing half their own relatives as we are practitioners, and proud ones at that, of the dreadful woman marginalizing, chumrah ridden lifestyle. Funny, but I have never felt marginalized at all. I’m happy with the role Hashem gave me and I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.

  10. Maybe it’s the extremely goyish word “Orthodox” (or “Reform”) that’s part of the problem. The G’dolim always had the capability of creating terms to express what must clearly be expressed. They thought “sh’mirah” said it all. But the modernists (hellenists, really) had to define and rejoice like the goyyim. T’filah b’Tzibur was a masculine institution (but t’filah was not gender limited, nor were t’shuvah and tzedaqah). Kahunah was masculine (but n’vuah not strictly, nor was shilton). Rav Feinstein could have straightened her out beautifully with a five-minute phone conversation. It’s a leadership failure, both by parents and “educators”. Torah IS derekh eretz, not “Torah + derekh eretz”. Stick an adjective in front of Yiddishkeit and you have a CULT, a splintering, an aberration; no matter what that adjective is.

  11. While the Rabbi is decisive in his belief of the centrality of Torah and it’s supremacy and immutability–When a bewildered Young Mind-sees a “Take or Leave It” stance–Leaving might JUST Be The Choice..

  12. Yasher Koach, Rabbi Pruzansky.
    I fear, though,as a teacher for the past 30+ years, that it is not only Modern Orthodox schools that have fallen short in the hashkafa-instilling department, but schools all over the spectrum. In our zeal to prove the shining success of the “dual curriculum” and produce well-educated, well-spoken children, we have neglected one area – imbuing our kids with emunah p’shuta. This has now manifested itself in letters like the one that Rabbi Pruzansky quoted, as well as a myriad other issues within or Orthodox world.
    Time to rewrite the text books, I think.

  13. I don’t know why modern orthodox women want to be the same as men. Why can’t they understand that just as we have physical differences, and emotional differences we also have separate roles in our religion. Did you ever hear of a man complaining why he didn’t get the women’s mitzvos?
    I am a woman and I suppose as far as religion goes, I don’t label myself modern orthodox. I am perfectly happy being a frum traditional woman, happily practicing Yiddishkeit the way women have been doing for thousands of years. That doesn’t mean I am not modern in all other aspects of my life. I see no reason to incorporate modernity into my religion as far as a woman’s place is, because I believe it goes against halacha and I have no desire to be a man or have a man’s role. I do not understand those so called modern orthodox women who think they are lacking something by not being able to participate in men’s Jewish duties.

  14. Rabbi Pruzansky, you wrote, “A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation.” But isn’t that exactly what modern orthodoxy did when it allowed women to no longer cover their hair, go mixed swimming, and sing in public?

    It’s no wonder that this generation of girls is confused about the rules of “modern orthodoxy.” The previous generation decided that the Halachot of Tziniyut and Negiah were no longer relevant to them (divinely inspired or not) so why should this generation not be able to choose which parts of the Torah they want to ignore and still remain modern orthodox?

    It is truly unfair of you, “to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will . . .” How can the Rabbis and teachers possibly explain, that their Rabbis decided that certain Mitzvot (such as Tziniyut and Negiah) were no longer mandatory (despite the “Mesorah” from the previous generations) but this generation cannot do the same with whatever Halochot inconvenience them (currently davening for the Amud and Kriyat Hatorah, by the next generation it will be Kashrut and Shemirat Shabbat).


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