Thursday, September 29, 2005

On Children's Aspirations

My oldest son (S1) is an animal nut. Ever since he was a pup, he's always loved animals. To him, a trip to the zoo is a great day. His favorite computer game is Microsoft's Zoo Tycoon. He reads animal books whenever possible. For a long time, he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. When he found out that most forms of farming are more about the agriculture than the animals, however, he switched his goal to becoming a zoologist.

Naturally, you'd expect a kid like this to want a pet. And naturally, as good parents who want to encourage him to chase his dreams, we were open to the idea of pets. (As a side note, I had two dogs in the house growing up, so I certainly was no stranger to the concept of animals in the house). However, for a long time we were renting and has leases that did not allow pets. In addition, certain relatives of ours are highly allergic to cats and dogs; and since we value thier company in our house, such large animals were ruled out, even when we got a place of our own.

Even before we had kids, my wife and I had hamsters in the house. By the time the kids came around, however, we had stopped having them (the ones we had died and we simply did not get any new ones). So, naturally, when S1 decided he wanted a pet, we went with the animal that we had experience with, that wouldn't cause allergy problems, and wouldn't get us evicted from our apartment - hamsters.

Hamsters, being small rodents, have a lifespan of only two to three years. My son, because of his love for animals, tends to become attached to them. He's already lost a few hamsters over the years (we usally have more than one at a time), but each time he loses one, it hurts. Sadly, we lost a long-time hamster (over three years) this week and it left my son upset and crying.

As it turns out, my wife (W) had to go to the boys yeshiva to speak to the Menahel about a matter concerning my son (unrelated to the hamster). While she was there, she also mentioned the fact that his hamster had died and that he may be "out of sorts" for a day or so.

Now, this Menahel is a very fine gentleman, one for whom I have respect. In all the years that our kids have been in the yeshiva, he has always shown to have our children's best interests at heart. While other officials in the yeshiva are seemingly ready to knock the kids down (figuratively) whenever possible, he always looks to build them up. Of course, he is very Chareidi and has one view of the world, as was again illustrated to us this day.

So, W told the Menahel about the hamster and S1's attachment to it. She explained to him that he *really* loves animals and that he has aspirations to be a zoologist one day.

He looked at her and said "We had hopes that he'd aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva."

Now, of course, aspiring to be a Rosh Yeshiva is certainly a good thing - for those who aspire for it. While one's life should be filled with Torah and Mitzvos regardless of the occupation that one goes into, there is certainly nothing wrong with aspiring to be something other than a Rosh Yeshiva. After all, we can't ALL be Rosh Yeshivas. There certainly isn't anything wrong with recognizing the fact that one wants to spend one's life in the pursuit of other goals. The Torah certainly recognizes it, of course - that why it gave us laws for farmers, buisnesspeople, hunters and the like. If everyone was meant to be a Rosh Yeshiva, we wouldn't need laws telling us to give Terumah and Ma'aser from agriculture - since there wouldn't be any Jewish farmers anyway. There wouldn't be any laws concerning false weights and measures - because there wouldn't be any Jewish grocers - they'd all be learning in Yeshiva. The fact that the Torah gives us laws regulating our daily lives in business shows that it is acceptable to persue those occupations.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a classmate when I was in high school. As a high schooler (and to this day) I've always had an affinity for computers. Sure enough, I ended up making my living working with them. Anyway, I had invited a classmate of mine to come to my house to play computer games. He came and we played, and it became a semi-regular thing for him to be at my house playing computer games with me during lunchtime or on Sunday afternoons. However, there was one time when I invited him over that he expressed some hesitency. When I asked him what the problem was, he told me that he was concerned because he was sure that his father wanted him to be a talmid chochom and not a computer programmer when he grew up.* Even at that time, I knew the two didn't have to be mutually exclusive, but nonetheless that seems to be the prevailing theory even to this day. I often wonder: if any of my high school classmates could see me today, would they think that I was a failure because I don't spend all day learning? And, if so, have they ever given any serious thought to what the world would be like if we all were Roshei Yeshiva and no one engaged in any other occupation?

The Wolf

* Of course, we all know that one does not become a computer programmer from playing computer games. But even then, I had a feeling that I would end up on the path I took.


and so it shall be... said...

What kind of educator is willing to actively discourage students from pursuing any goal other than ROSH YESHIVA???

Is the fact that this MENAHEL didn't become a Rosh Yeshiva indicative that he, too, is a failure? If not, then why set up kids to think it is?

It's no wonder there are so many kids on drugs. The yeshivas give them NOTHING to live for.

Anonymous said...

I hope this Menahel doesn't try to discourage your son away from his interests.


you sound like you got a little slifkin on your hands

BrooklynWolf said...


I'm fairly certain that he didn't mean "Rosh Yeshiva" to the exclusion of every other profession. I'm sure that if he aspired to be a Menahel, Rebbe, Rav, etc. that would have been perfectly acceptable to him as well.


I don't think that will happen. He simply loves animals too much.


That thought has crossed my mind before! He could certainly do worse.

The Wolf

and so it shall be... said...

"I'm sure that if he aspired to be a Menahel, Rebbe, Rav, etc. that would have been perfectly acceptable to him as well."

I hope you wrote this with a tinge of irony. The yeshiva oilum needs it get it through their thick skulls that their pathological obsession with toyrah toyrah toyrah is killing kids. Let them breath.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>He looked at her and said "We had hopes that he'd aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva."

This is exactly the kind of stale thinking that Eliezer Berkovitz deplored, particularly in his history of Halakhah, "Lo Bashamayim Hi". He points out that in a real society there simply must--must!--be doctors as well as sanitation workers as well as scholars as well as even artists and poets--and zoologists too. The Torah envisions us as having a real society. Sadly, to many in leadership positions like your son's principal don't get that.

Anonymous said...

I've written about this problem quite a bit. Being that I've been out of the system for almost a decade, I've sometimes wondered how widespread the problem still is. Sadly, your experience confirms it is still prevalent.

A relevant quote from one of my posts:

They're still pushing the view that the ideal Jew is the learner. The kollel guy. The rebbe. The rosh yeshiva. The mechaber sefer. Whatever. That a proper Jew is supposed to be learning 24/7. That nothing in life is worth doing except limud torah. That any person that tries to be anything else is throwing his life away. That any departure from being a learner has to be excused and justified and explained with a trillion and one rationalizations. You'll claim that such things aren't explicitly spelled out (they definitely are in some places), but even if not, the message comes through loud and clear and every good yeshiva kid knows that if he wants to do right in that world, to the learners he must go. Anything else is just a very distant second.

I sincerely hope that your son hears yours messages louder than he hears his rabbeim's.

Anonymous said...

Wrong URL in previous post. Here's the right one:

BrooklynWolf said...


I decided to address your points (and agree with them really) in another post.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


I've been taking just about every step possible to encourage his interest and allow him to persue his dreams. I'm certainly going to continue to do so.

The Wolf

M-n said...

You're all missing a very critical facet of his response: that he wants him to aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva. This is a change from the past, where the ideal was to become a rabbi, meaning a pulpit rabbi. This seemingly insignificant change reflects a deep shift in the center of gravity of Orthodoxy. From Haym Soloveitchik's landmark essay:

"If religion is now transmitted to the next generation by institutional education, small wonder that the influence of the educators has increased dramatically, especially the sway of the scholar, the one most deeply versed in the sacred texts. For the text is now the guarantor of instruction, as the written word is both the source and the touchstone of religious authenticity. This, in turn, has entailed a shift in political power in non-hasidic circles. Authority long associated in Eastern Europe with the city rabbi, who functioned as a quasi-religious mayor, has now passed, and dramatically so, to Talmudic sages, generally the heads of Talmudic academies—roshei yeshivah. Admittedly, the traditional European rabbinate, urban, compact and centralized, had no chance of surviving in America or Israel. It was ill suited to the United States with its sprawling suburbs and grass roots, federal structure of authority. It was no less redundant in Israel where the state now provides all the vital religious and social services previously supplied by the community (kahal), of which the rabbi was the head. However, the power lost by the rabbinate did not have to accrue necessarily to the roshei yeshivah. It is their standing as the masters of the book par excellence that has given them their newly found authority. In Eastern Europe of the last century, the rosh yeshivah was the equivalent of a head of an advanced institute, distinguished and respected, but without significant communal influence. He was appointed because of his mastery of the book, and to the book and school he was then confined. This mastery now bestows upon him the mantle of leadership.

And that mantle has become immeasurably enlarged, as the void created by the loss of a way of life (the orah hayyim), the shrinkage of a culture, manifests itself. Social and political issues of the first rank are now regularly determined by the decisions of Torah sages. Lest I be thought exaggerating, the formation of the 1990 coalition government in Israel hinged on the haredi parties. For months, Shamir and Peres openly courted various Talmudic scholars and vied publicly for their blessings. Indeed, the decision to enter the Likud coalition lay in the hands of a ninety-five-year-old sage, and, when he made public his views, his speech was nationally televised—understandably, as it was of national consequence.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>You're all missing a very critical facet of his response: that he wants him to aspire to be a Rosh Yeshiva.

I don't think anyone was missing that, I certainly wasn't. My theory is that nearly everything in the Orthodox world today can be explained in part by Rupture and Reconstruction, or at least from tht title of it.

But there is a separate issue here as well. It may be telling what the principal specifically said, but I bet he'd be alright if Wolf's son became, say, a dayyan instead of a RY. The point we're focusing on is that anything besides these are presumed to be goals that children shouldn't have.

But no one becomes a zoologist because his real goal didn't pan out.

M-n said...

"I don't think anyone was missing that, I certainly wasn't."

But you're special, so I raised the point. :-)

"My theory is that nearly everything in the Orthodox world today can be explained in part by Rupture and Reconstruction, or at least from tht title of it."

I'd say that the Reform and the Holocaust were the two inflection points, but R&R only covers the Holocaust. You can, of course, apply the title to the Reform too.

"The point we're focusing on is that anything besides these are presumed to be goals that children shouldn't have."

I know. I was trying to raise an additional, complementary, point.

Anonymous said...

To defend the menahel to a degree, I would suggest that he knows full well that not all of his students will (or perhaps should) become RYs. But he realizes that if he sets the highest goal for all of his students, a few of them will fully realize it, and the others will fall short to greater or lesser degrees. But if he fails to set the lofty goal, it's unlikely that any will achieve it, and the other students' achievements will be correspondingly less.

Of course, this assumes that being a RY is the loftiest goal, but I don't think that Brooklyn Wolf disagrees with that assumption. He just wants a wider range of goals to be acceptable.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>I don't think that Brooklyn Wolf disagrees with that assumption

Really? I'm under the impression that he does disagree with that assumption and that's partly why he's a little peeved.

BrooklynWolf said...

For the record:

Being a RY is a lofty goal. Whether or not it is the loftiest goal depends on each individual person. For a person with a temperment, interest and scholarship to accomplish it, then it may well be the loftiest. For a person lacking one or more of those prerequisites, it's not.

But there's no reason that one should make the blanket assumption that it's the loftiest goal for everyone.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

frankly, i dont see what is so laudable about being a ry.

these days it is an inherited position or gained via matrimony. this is not exactly praiseworthy.

they often end up 'manipulating' the truth to obtain funds, often govt funds.

they are not necessarily the biggest talmidei chachamim.

they in fact do not seem to be living up to their 'leadership obligations' of their constituency.

in my experience, the way to go is to be a fine, ehrlicher balebus. you support your family, you learn as much as you can, and let me tell you, if you can withstand the nisyonos out there today, you are better than any ry.