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“I’m in Kollel, but My Life is a Sham”

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An encounter last week with a fine Yerushalmi yungerman has impelled me to write about a topic that’s been troubling me for a long time. I hope I won’t regret having  brought up the issue — yet I think it imperative that we give it our attention.

This yungerman happened to meet me at a wedding, and in an offhanded manner he asked me, “Don’t you think somebody ought to be doing kiruv among the chareidim, too? Why do you only focus on the nonreligious?”

I gathered that he knew something about the kiruv work I had done in the past as part of the first corps of lecturers in the Arachim movement, and more recently, when I have had the privilege of doing a some speaking before nonreligious students in the framework of the very fruitful Nefesh Yehudi organization. At first I thought he was joking, but I quickly realized how serious he was. “Let’s arrange to meet,” I said, “and we’ll see what you have to say.”

We met in a certain shul. And this is what he reported: “What can I tell you? I’m a kollel man, I learn well; I even enjoy my learning, and I stick to a regular schedule. But I’ll be honest with you — I don’t believe in G-d. Everything I do is just a sham.”

I didn’t fall off my chair. And the reason I didn’t is because this wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a confession from someone who frequents the beis medrash. I’ve heard similar words from young people from normative chareidi families of the finest caliber, families with no special problems at all. Several months ago, in the Mishpacha piece “Hanging on by a Fringe” by Shimmy Blum, the topic was studied  from another angle, that of youth finding no relevance in keeping the mitzvos. Here was a young avreich who wanted to connect with belief in HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and was clueless about how to go about it.

“Have you spoken with your father about this?” I asked him.

“I was scared to, but after putting it off for a long time, I did.”

“And what did he tell you?”

“He said, ‘Learn Torah, and it will come of its own accord.’

“And did it come?”

“No, it didn’t.”

“Obviously not. And did you speak with anyone else, maybe a teacher you were close to when you were in yeshivah — an uncle, maybe — anybody at all?”

“No. I didn’t dare. You know what happens. You get stigmatized right away. They label you an apikorus, and they don’t try to understand your problem.”

I said, “Well, if you’re going to talk with me, the first thing I want you to know is that Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ztz”l, said there are no apikorsishe questions. There are apikorsishe answers. So what have you done about your problem?”

“Nothing, I’m sorry to say. I’ve just been living with it.”

My dear readers, this young man has been living in anguish over a matter of fundamental importance, and he feels he has no one to turn to. No one he can even come to with questions. He went on to regale me with the news that several of his friends from the kollel suffer from similar doubts gnawing away at their hearts. It makes one wonder how many youngsters in our yeshivah world are troubled by this same burning anguish, but are afraid to express their doubts because they dread the stigma that comes of asking such questions.

Their fear is by no means unfounded. I know of a number of cases where that was the reaction of teachers in yeshivos and seminaries to boys and girls who took the risk of speaking up about their lack of emunah.

As I write these lines, I remember something a great talmid chacham told me some years ago. A group of teachers came to consult with this talmid chacham, who is also a prominent figure in chinuch. One of the issues they raised was what to do about students who voice doubts about emunah.

“How do you answer them?” the gadol inquired.

“We silence them, and tell them that such questions are not to be asked.”

“Why don’t you just answer their questions?”

“Are there any answers to those questions?”

I apologize for telling this story here; I certainly didn’t want to upset any of you, but we must look at the crisis state our chinuch world is in. How has such a situation developed? This young avreich, and others like him, are learning Torah as their “profession,” are already raising families, yet they have never attained clarity about the foundation of emunah on which the whole edifice of Torah and mitzvos rests. And they don’t know to whom to turn with their anxiety, whom they can ask. Yes, they had heard plenty of mussar, plenty of hashkafah and daas Torah, all of which is based on the preliminary assumption of belief in G-d, Creator of the universe. But if that foundation isn’t there, what is the value of all the rest? Yet for some reason our chinuch system assumes, as an axiom, that emunah is ingrained in these youngsters’ hearts by virtue of their being born into chareidi families — and it’s not necessarily so.

This situation is not only upsetting, it’s also unnecessary — because the answers that could reassure these young people and dispel their doubts aren’t abstruse or esoteric. They are not in the heavens, nor over the sea, nor in a faraway land, but right under our noses, and there are many among us who could easily help these skeptics back onto the straight path. It isn’t as if we were dealing with rebels. These are young people who desire life. They crave the truth, but the dread of being stigmatized muzzles them, and they cannot voice their anguish.

And the burning question: Is this the way it has to be? Doesn’t someone who has a question deserve a straightforward answer? As the great mashgiach Rav Wolbe, ztz”l, said, “There are no apikorsishe questions. There are apikorsishe answers.” But if someone receives no answer to his non-apikorsishe question, he is liable, over the years, to give himself an apikorsishe answer, G-d forbid. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

And what about the yungerman who approached me, you wonder? We arranged to meet for a series of private talks. Perhaps Hashem will help, and heal him.

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