We are living in a time of increased sensitivity toward abuse and its victims. In recent years, we have been empowered to speak up about how emotional deprivation in childhood has affected our ability to function in the real world. In recent months, we have been empowered to speak up about how physical abuse has shattered our trust in others and the institution of personal relationships. Overall, these represent positive steps forward for our society. We are finding the courage to stare challenges in the eye and overcome them, to right what is wrong, to break past imagined barriers of social hierarchy and speak truth to power, hurt as it may.
Of course, as with every great light, there is potential for tremendous darkness. Many have used the liberty to plead “emotional abuse” in the courtroom of daily life to blame their parents for their own shortcomings. Many have destroyed the reputations of others with unfounded claims or those of lesser infractions, which, in a charged environment, become automatically lumped with the greatest evils. Still, the light emanating from these social developments has brought great illumination to the human condition and will continue to do so as the future becomes the past.
However, of all the misdemeanors prevalent in our Orthodox Jewish society, there is one which is simply not being addressed. It is being perpetrated and self-perpetrated against adults and children across the spectrum of Orthodoxy from the furthest left to the furthest right. For lack of better term, we will call it “spiritual abuse”.
Though all the various kinds of abuse involve the element of deprivation, emotional abuse is almost synonymous with it. A child who is emotionally abused is robbed of his right to unconditional love and care. Insults, belittling, and constant criticism create an atmosphere where the child feels deprived of this love and develops the notion that he is inherently worthless, shameful, and loathsome. As the years pass, this notion blossoms into a complete lack of self-confidence which manifests in various ways and creates a hole in the adult’s self-image which he oftentimes seeks to fill with destructive behaviors.
Spiritual abuse is most similar to emotional abuse in that it is defined by deprivation. When we deprive our soul or that of our child of the Torah it needs for vibrancy and spiritual health, it is a very real form of abuse.
The Torah was given to the Jewish nation as a gift from the Author of the world and all that fills it to guide His treasured nation, and through them, the entire world, to the most fulfilled existence in this world and the next. All inclusive, the Torah contains within it the advice, guidance, consolation, rebuke, perspective and support for every one of life’s myriad circumstances. Prayer is the medium in which we communicate with Hashem and allows us to express our faith and experience His presence on an emotional level; “Tefillah is the service of the heart” (Taanis 2a). Torah study is the medium through which Hashem communicates with us, encompassing every facet of the human experience, granting order and meaning to daily life and structure to our short foray on this earth. Kabbalah explores the underlying spiritual principles that bind every detail of the Torah to a great “all”, their source in Hashem and in His method of revelation to the world, filling every detail of Torah with utmost relevance. Hovering above, “touching but not touching”, is the great spirit of Jewishness which, while a sum of these parts, at once fills and transcends it.
Much like every category of the food pyramid is required for physical health, every area of Torah is required for spiritual health and vitality. In addition, much like the required amount of a given category of food varies in different environmental and climatic circumstances, the levels of each area necessary for spiritual vitality changes with the spiritual climate of each generation.
Fortunately for us, the tzaddikim have revealed to us the required diet for our generation if we are to survive and thrive in a world gone morally insane. Rabbi Chaim Vital, the primary student of the Arizal, writes that while Chazal have certainly taught that “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam”, “Torah study is equal to all other mitzvos” (Peah, 1:1) this was in reference to the role of Torah study in previous generations. In the last generational era before the coming of Moshiach, the primary focus in our avodas Hashem must be fixed upon tefillah, prayer.
Prayer, while referring to the act of supplication is, in a larger sense, synonymous with faith. Torah study does not necessarily indicate faith in the diving authorship of the Torah; many secular professors in academies the world over are involved in Torah study as a purely intellectual exercise. Prayer, on the other hand, is where we allow our soul to express her faith in the spiritual realm, to strengthen her bond with Hashem in a conscious manner. On the verse which states “And Moshe’s hands were faithful (emunah)”, Onkelos comments “Moshe’s hands were spread in prayer” (Shemos 17:12); prayer is the deepest expression of faith. Faith, in turn, is the deepest expression of our awareness of the spiritual reality that lies beyond the physical world, an awareness that can be attained only by learning about that reality; the details of the soul’s parts and their functions, the details of the way Hashem creates and sustains the world by means of its three forerunners in the spiritual realm, the details regarding the manner in which Hashem reveals Himself to the world and the vision He has for His treasured nation and their mission throughout history. Involving oneself with studies of this nature, also known as “penimiyus haTorah”, the inner element of Torah”, or “nishmasa d’Oraysa”, “the Soul of the Torah”, strengthens one’s faith in a way that nothing else can. Indeed, when discussing the mitzvah of Emunah (Mitzvah 25), the Sefer HaChinuch writes that the way to attain the highest degree of faith is by studying “chochmas Elokus”, Penimiyus HaTorah. “Know God and serve Him” (Divrei Hayamim 28:9) King David taught his son; one must know the Being he is serving before he can engage in serving Him properly.
A great Jewish thinker once wrote that Judaism is an answer to life’s greatest questions. Without an answer, the questions of life remain lifeless; like the soul to a body, Yiddishkeit, and the great answer it contains, imbues the question with worth and relevance. More importantly for our discussion, the opposite is true as well. An answer which comes to solve no question is just as irrelevant. “If it aint broke, don’t fix it”: who has need for a solution if there was never a problem?
One of the reasons that religion is so unpopular today is that as a society, we are no longer consciously bothered by the questions of life in the way we used to be. In the rare cases that we do indeed ask these questions, it is in so halfhearted a manner and with such a lack of genuine interest that we are satisfied with the slightest of solutions. We are easily persuaded by the pseudo answers offered by society, hobbies, causes, interests and pursuits which imbue our lives with any degree of meaning. Meditation, politics, fitness, sports, art, gardening, and so on, all wonderful things but those which cannot possibly represent the purpose of creation and life within it, are only enough of an answer regarding that purpose to satisfy one who is not that deeply bothered by the question.
When it comes to Judaism, there are two levels of questions, the level of “how”, and the level of “why”. The question of “how” is a less fundamental question as it presupposes the answer to “why”; once one is on board, he can now ask how he is to perform what is necessary. This level of question asks about the details of halachic observance, how to best live a lifestyle of Torah and mitzvos.
The question of “why” is a deeper question. When we ask “why”, we are inquiring about the deeper reasons behind the halachos, the spiritual concepts which underlie the foundations of our faith. Put in other words, whereas the question of “How” relates to the various parts of the “all” of Yiddishkeit, the question of “why” relates to the “all” itself.
The process of asking this level of question and exploring its answers is the way to attain vibrant faith and give life to our relationship with Hashem, the area of Jewish practice which needs the most focus today.
Regarding connecting with the “all” by asking and answering questions that begin with “why”, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote that before Moshiach comes, our souls will no longer be satisfied with mere bits and pieces of the truth and will instead demand to be shown how every independent piece of Torah is bound to the great “all” (Oros HaTeshuva 4:10). He saw the rejection by our youth of the Torah transmitted in the yeshivos of Europe as due not to rebellion but to desperation. In the eyes of “kids at risk” and the chevra at “Footsteps” he saw not sparks of audacity but the holy thirst for the great fire of Judaism their souls were being denied in our institutions. In their vulgar language, biting cynicism, and apathetic sentiments he heard them begging to be taught the “whys” of religious life; “Why am I in this world?” “What are the details of my connection to Hashem?”, “Why is the human body in the form that it is?” “Why is Shabbos on the seventh day?” and so on.
In our religious environment, we have perfected Judaism as the answer to “how” to a science. Tzeddaka organizations, gemachs, shuls, schools, Pesach programs, Daf Yomi shiurim on the train, kollelim, the highest level of kashrus, seforim in every area of Halacha and so on – the answer to the question of “how” is everywhere we turn. To live and thrive as a halachically committed Jew has never been more accessible. “How” is the question which we, as congregants, have grown comfortable with asking and which we, as spiritual leaders, have grown comfortable with answering.
However, the schism between the answer of Judaism and the question of “why” it comes to solve is growing in almost exact proportion to the availability of the answer of “how” and the distinctly systematic and societal element it has taken on. Because we generally encounter a Judaism of “how” in our schools and shuls, we become content, much like those who find the meaning of life in collecting coins, with this level of connection. Solving a more shallow question, Judaism becomes a more shallow answer. As a result, the deepest answer to the deepest questions of life loses relevance. When we are satisfied with Judaism presented as an answer to “how”, as opposed to that which comes to answer “why”, we are satisfied with less of a personal connection to our avodas Hashem and we feel less of an urgency when involving ourselves with it. When we aren’t consciously cognizant of how our personal service fits in with the greater picture and how our mitzvah observance is significant to the grand scheme of creation, the sense of excitement is naturally replaced with a feeling of obligation.
The lack of focus, in our homes, shuls, and schools, upon the deepest questions in life and the answers to those questions presented by the Torah; the lack of our own involvement with these questions and answers and the ensuing inability to transmit a vibrant and relevant Judaism to our children, is spiritual deprivation and a form of abuse much like the others. Just like emotional abuse has long-terms effects and can destroy one’s chance at life, so can this cycle of spiritual abuse wreak havoc on one’s chance at fulfilling his purpose in this world in the healthiest manner. In my opinion, it is one of the major contributors to our challenges as a community.
With Yiddishkeit becoming less of a spiritual odyssey and more of a society before our very eyes and our children growing more and more disenfranchised with what we are offering them, we desperately search for models of how to successfully rejuvenate. Blessedly enough, this very task was indeed successfully achieved just two centuries ago.
Looking past the establishment and set of societal norms that ironically and perhaps unfortunately developed around a distinctly anti-establishment movement, we realize that Chassidus, at its source, was the rediscovery of the deepest questions to which Judaism was an answer. Long before its impenetrable fort of community, dress code, language, and appearance effectively shut out any outsiders and began to project an image so poorly reflecting its core spirit, Chassidus was an idea, a system of thought, an approach to life that imbued every facet of the Jewish experience with absolute significance, absolute meaning, and a purely personal encounter with the divine. Its books are filled with questions regarding the purpose of man, the significance of his journey on the narrow bridge of life, the nature of God’s connections to the world, the origin of all existence, the meaning behind every halacha, the system through which every action we take affects all the worlds and the way all of history is leading to the ultimate redemption of the divine Presence, resulting in the redemption of the entire world. No stone is left unturned, no verse left unmined for spiritual depth and absolute relevance. Whereas Kabbalah brought earth up to heaven, Chassidus brought heaven down to earth, illuminating the darkest corners of man’s deepest questions with the light of the deepest answer.
Chassidus wasn’t born in a vacuum. Chassidus was a response to the increasing feeling that Yiddishkeit had lost relevance in the modern age. It was a reaction to the widespread dissatisfaction with Torah as a merely intellectual pursuit, with Yiddishkeit as an answer to “how” instead of an answer to “why”. Chassidus was brought into the world to combat the winds of secularism that were blowing throughout Europe, secularism that would culminate in the complete dismantling of any sense of moral accountability witnessed during the Holocaust. And the problems which Chassidus came to solve, the societal questions which Chassidus answered so successfully two hundred years ago, are growing by the moment, ever increasing the urgent relevance of its message.
I do not hold the opinion that “Chassidus”, with all of its connotations, is the single effective path to a vibrant Judaism.
What I do believe is that asking and answering the right questions is the only path to a vibrant Judaism.
Getting in touch with the relevance of Jewish practice by receiving the deepest answers the Torah has to give regarding every detail of the universe is the surest guarantee of rejuvenation and the ability to reclaim a passionate relationship with Hashem. I mention the Chassidim only because it was their early tzaddikim who most successfully distilled and implemented that path in their books. If Nefesh Hachaim were to be studied in depth in Yeshivos with as much passion as Mishna Berura and Gemara (all of it, not only the fourth gate which deals with Torah study as is popular in most yeshivos, another subtle form of deprivation), I believe it would also succeed in rekindling the relevance of our holy tradition.
The collective Jewish soul is yearning for a deeper answer. Somewhere deep down, we are yearning to get in touch with the questions our souls have been asking all our lives, to discuss them, analyze them, and bring them to life with the deepest answers offered by our tradition. When our shuls and schools do not guide us through this process, through this area of Torah which is just as much God’s Mind as the rest, we feel dissatisfied and lose connection. Never taught anything about Hashem or the way He relates to His world, communicating with Him becomes first a checklist and quickly a burden and our shuls become places of social gathering and chit-chat. Never taught the details of how the study of Torah affects the entire spiritual structure of heaven and earth, its study becomes an arena in which the privileged are granted the opportunity to flaunt their natural intelligence through mental acrobatics filled with the very arrogance and pride so detested by Hashem, and where the less privileged sit helplessly on the side, lost and discouraged.
Friends, the problems are the same in each of our respective communities and the solution is similarly universal. We are all involved, devoted, and committed to the same Torah. We all have the ability to devote ourselves to explore the “why” of Judaism in the wealth of material in both Hebrew and English devoted to this subject. Whether it be the works of the Ramchal or the Maharal, the Sefas Emes, the Nefesh Hachaim, the Nesivos Shalom or any other of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples, encountering the great light of “Penimiyus HaTorah” is very much within our grasp.
I would like to close with some excerpts from an article penned by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger Shlita of Aish Kodesh, a religious leader who completely transformed a Modern Orthodox community in Woodmere, New York and has sparked a worldwide movement founded upon the very sentiments expressed in this article.
“Our communities – spanning the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy – are swarming with Jews of all ages and backgrounds who feel little, if any, connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d). This is not a conclusion reached by way of scientific study or formal assessment, and it cannot be proved in a laboratory. It is, I believe, glaringly apparent to anyone who has taken a peek outside the bais medrash.
It is obvious to anyone who is not fooled by the billboard brand of frumkeit that is as shallow and empty as the so-called “Jewish” music blasting at our simchos. Forget about data. The “defectors” who simply couldn’t go on hiding and faking have shed the external uniforms of Yiddishkeit to become the object of our latest outreach efforts. These individuals comprise but a fraction of those who are simply unable, or who are afraid, to disengage, who listlessly drag their feet through the motions of avodas Hashem (service of G-d), while waiting desperately for the next “bain hazmanim” (intercession), “break in davening,” or any other distraction from the monotony of the charade…
“The kids “off the derech” or “on the fringe” are not running away from Yiddishkeit. They have never met it. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once told an atheist: “I also don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in!” Look into the eyes and hearts of the kids on the streets and in the clubs. You will see the hunger and thirst for the “divrei Hashem” – for the truth and nothing but the truth. Rav Kook wrote of the “chutzpah,” the insolence, that Chazal predicted would be rampant before the arrival of Moshiach. The time has come when many are simply refusing to settle for merely bits and pieces of the truth. If this demand is not satisfied, if our schools and homes ignore or misinterpret this hungry chutzpah as rejection, it will claim countless more victims…
In every generation, the outside world stands as a tempting alternative to Yiddishkeit. History and common sense prove repeatedly that wielding the axe can never provide more than a short-term, superficial respite from the onslaught of secularism. Hashem sent the Baal Shem Tov and R’ Yisroel Salanter to set Klal Yisroel on fire! Only a deep, introspective, passionate Yiddishkeit bursting with a tangible consciousness of Hashem’s presence can expose the emptiness of any alternative.” May Hashem bless us all with the honesty, humility, courage, wisdom, and confidence necessary to tune in to the needs of our generation and respond in the proper way. May He grant healing to those who have been abused and see to it that every member of Judaism, young and old alike, receives the nourishment his soul needs to remain flickering through the long night until the great morning breaks.
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About the author:
R’ Yaakov Klein is an author, musician, and lecturer devoted to sharing the inner light of Torah through his books, music, and lectures. In May 2020, R’ Yaakov founded the Lost Princess Initiative, an educational platform based on the primary messages of The Story of Our Lives. Through its many projects and programs, this broad initiative seeks to provide a guiding compass to a generation searching for the “Lost Princess” – a Jewish experience bursting with feeling, connection, depth, beauty, expansiveness, and burning relevance.