Thursday, March 31, 2005

My Father, My Teacher

How did I get where I am today?

I didn't grow up religious. The story of how I ended up religious is an important one as far as understanding who I am, but I won't go into it in this post. What I'd like to discuss here is how I arrived at my hashkafa within my religious observance, my worldview, my Weltanschauung.

I got involved in Orthodoxy by way of Bnei Akiva. Now for me Bnei Akiva was a social thing at first, so I guess had my social outlet been NCSY, or Chabad or whatever, then my hashkafa would have reflected that. But for many of you, Bnei Akiva's hashkafa is not terribly specific. Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy. But that's a wide range of views, and most Bnei Akiva members aren't pinned down too much within that.

Now you can certainly see extremism in Bnei Akiva today, particularly politically, but also religiously - chardal and all that. But the Bnei Akiva education that I received in the States in high school and later in yeshiva in Israel was a moderate, old style Bnei Akiva. I'll get more to that later, but what's important here, is that I didn't become a typical baal teshuva - no going off the depend or acting "too weird", although I'm sure there was some of that. I even remember my rabbis noticing that I wasn't a typical baal teshuva, and within a short amount of time, I doubt anyone could tell me apart from someone raised religious. Had I become a baal teshuva in NCSY - I'm not sure my newly found religious fervor would have found its place in moderation, such as it was.

In any case, I was lucky that my process began when it did. The summer after 11th grade, I went to the Bnei Akiva program TVI - where I first became highly exposed to issues in Tora V'Avoda - as part of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism - that I highly doubt have been taught so well since. We learned issues about a mixed society, studying secular subjects, the value of labor, etc. But even more importantly, we had great teachers like Zvi Weiss and Mitch Heifetz, who really believed what they were teaching.

And again I got lucky that Bnei Akiva started a new year program in Israel my year - Midrash U'Maaseh. And that the yeshiva that hosted that program was Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim. And that the Rosh Yeshiva at the time was Rav David Bigman, and the rest of the staff was also exceptional. And that the guys who I studied with were serious and also believed in what we were learning. All this, together with other factors - made me very lucky.

During my time in the yeshiva - two years, plus some of the time while I was in the army - I started to develop what I guess would become my particular hashkafa. And I continued this throughout the following years. A lot of it was based on the teachings of Rav Bigman, others from studying the works of Rav Soloveitchik, Shmuel Chaim Landau (Shachal), Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Rabbi David Hartman, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz and others. I won't go into it in detail now - although I assume that I will touch upon it in the future in this blog. But the basic idea is that Torah Judaism is unique amongst religions because it doesn't promise paradise, but rather paradox, as Rav Soloveitchik wrote. The very challenge to make this world better, as part of an active covenant with God, is the primary "reward" of the Torah. Who could ask for anything more?

I've written about or given shiurim that relate to this issue in many fields - the concept of blessing God, what is "olam ha'ba", the significance of sleep, and many more. I could always see my influences as well as what I thought was some degree of chiddush of my own.

But recently, I've come to a fascinating revelation. My father is a "teacher of teachers." He has developed a very significant, effective approach toward discipline, classroom management and motivation. It involves teaching children responsibility, treating them with dignity, making them part of the decision making process and emphasizing intrinsic motivation instead of external rewards and punishment. I've heard his talks for years, read his books, and of course experienced his raising me.

But I never really thought about just how similar his educational approach and my religious hashkafa are. I don't know which came first - did my upbringing lead me to follow this path in Judaism? Or did my Jewish return lead me to identify more with my father's approach than I otherwise would have?

I'm not sure. But this is something I'll be certain to return to in the future.