Friday, November 11, 2011

Defining Success in Modern Orthodoxy: Thoughts on Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel

After I recently wrote about the upcoming thirtieth yahrtzeit of my father, a number of people commented on just how young he was when he died, leaving my mother to raise seven children between the ages of sixteen and two. Looking back, I continue to marvel at what she accomplished. Somehow, she raised each of us to follow in the values of Torah and Shemirat Hamitzvot. Each one of her children is an active, dedicated member of his or her Orthodox community, no small feat for a family that suffered such a devastating blow at such an early stage.
One interesting aspect of my family is the spectrum of Orthodoxy that we represent. From my brother in Florida and me (both of whom attended Yeshiva University) on the "modern" side of the spectrum, to my sisters who attended Stern College and married "yeshivish" (please excuse the generalizations) to another brother who first studied in yeshiva after high school but then went on to university and medical school, to my brother who learned for years in kollel and never attended college and sister whose husband studied in kollel in Lakewood for years. I'm not sure to what degree my mother guided each of our choices, but she honored them. My sister always wanted Beis Ya'akov Yerushalayim. My mother understood what that meant and supported her. When a brother transferred from Sha'alvim to Rav Zvi Kushelevsky's yeshiva, my mother stood behind him. In hindsight, she didn't seem to care where on the Orthodox spectrum we fell. But she did - and still does care deeply that we maintain our allegiance to Torah and mitzvot.
He was clearly proud of his upbringing.
Are his students?
It is in this context that I contemplate the recent passing of the late Mir Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel. By now it's well known that Rav Finkel grew up in Chicago and attended what would later become the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. That revelation brought me to wonder: When a modern Orthodox institution educates a child who then goes on to accept some most tenets of its ideology, but reject others, is that a success? Or, better yet, to what degree is that a success? If you find the question provocative, ask it the other way around: If a graduate of a right-wing yeshiva grew up to become a major Modern Orthodox leader and thinker (perhaps like this giant), would that institution proudly promote the accomplishments of its graduate? Or would it instead say (as was quoted in Ha'aretz) about Rav Finkel that while,
"He grew up on baseball, American kosher hotdogs, apple pie and everything else that represents the American Jewish scene. He transcended all - in order to develop into a personality that develops other personalities."
In other words, he had to overcome his upbringing in order to become the Rosh Yeshiva that he became. Yesterday, my wife and kids watched a video report on Israel National News about the funeral, which included commentary from a number of people including Rabbi Avrohom Goldstein, the Co-head of the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who said a number of times in his two minute narrative that Rav Finkel achieved greatness despite the fact that he, "Grew up from nothing and built himself into a giant." 
No, he didn't grow up from nothing. He grew up in a family that cherished Torah enough to send him to an Orthodox Jewish Torah school, an act we might now take for granted but certainly was not widely popular in the late fifties and early sixties when Rav Finkel attended high school. It was a major, significant expense that many families simply could not justify. But his parents paid that price, and reaped the benefits of merit and nachas in the accomplishments their son would achieve not despite his Torah education, but because of it.
I am sure that the Ida Crown Jewish Academy is, and should be proud that its graduate grew to become a major figure in the Orthodox world. As well it should be. Modern Orthodoxy need not be about creating replicas of ourselves. It must - and I think does correctly - realize that different students will find their unique relationship to Torah Judaism, and that Orthodoxy's message resonates in each of us differently. Were we to consider right-wing graduates as "failures" who we didn't properly educate (or more appropriately, "indoctrinate") to "our" values, I would consider the failure not in the child, but in the educational vision. Kids aren't stamps. They aren't clones. They must be given the leeway to find their own path in Torah, allowing them to thrive in the manner most appropriate to them.
My mother (and others as well), recognizing my passion for Religious Zionism, likes to needle me by asking, "What will you do if one of your children chooses Chareidi Judaism?" In essence she's asking, "How would you feel if your child rejected your way of life?" The question used to bother me more than it does now. I have grown to answer (truthfully, I think), "I would love and respect that child. If they want to be Chareidi, great! But," I always add, "I would make it quite clear: If you want be Chareidi, I will honor and respect your choice. But I'm not going to pay for it or support it." 
Rav Finkel didn't come from "nothing." He didn't "transcend" his American Torah education. That education encouraged him to strive to be the great Torah scholar he became. It gave him the foundation of values and skills which guided him for the rest of his life. It probably gave him the communication skills so critical to grow the Mir into the colossus it has become.
His life represents not a failure of Modern Orthodoxy, but yet another example of its great success.