I am forced to write this due to a shocking experience I went through recently. In the midst of my speaking tour of yeshivot and seminaries/midrashot in Israel, I spoke at one school where the format was more of a panel discussion. The rabbi leading the session started off saying that although normally they bash, make fun of, embarrass and yell at people going to secular colleges, for this one time they would try and be open to hear some of the challenges and opportunities presented by college. So I spoke first – a condensed, 15-minute version of my speech- telling some inspirational stories and imparting the message that as secular college students, you have the opportunity and charge of changing someone’s life with the smallest actions, with only the obligation to care and be aware. I made sure to say that one can do this without sacrificing anything of yourself, that this wasn’t mutually exclusive to one’s personal religious growth. Fine, nothing too controversial, pretty good right?
Wrong. Immediately after I finished, one rabbi (whose ‘secular college credentials’ entailed once going to summer classes; the rest of the time he never left yeshiva) jumped in to say: “Whoa whoa whoa. Don’t listen to this guy at all – kiruv is not at all what you should be doing.” He went on to tell the participants that while maybe this guy might have something beautiful in Judaism to share, but you guys have nothing. He, as well as the other ‘panelists’, went on and on saying how you shouldn’t think about this and all you should do is make sure you’re learning Torah, keeping a kesher with Rabbis, not hanging out with the wrong people, not reverting to what you were before Israel, etc. They would sometimes go back to my point, saying how maybe you can leave your bubble for one second to do kiruv but then you gotta jump right back in. Chas v’shalom you should actually talk to a girl or someone non-frum (better a non-Jew than someone non-religious), it might hurt your shidduch chances. And the picture that was painted was pretty much a world of kefira, naked women, drugs and alcohol (reminds me of Gil Perl and Yaakov Weinstein’s “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses” – email email@example.com if you want a copy) – with the only safe haven being in yeshiva, whether back in Israel or a nearby sanctuary.
There were some alumni there who also spoke – they had just finished their freshmen year at certain secular college right near my house. One of them proudly exclaimed that he didn’t know about all the kefira/controversies at his college, because he never talked to anyone who wasn’t frum, he just locked himself up in his room. His friend and fellow student praised him, saying “this guy is my hero – the only reason he’s still frum is because he never stayed in once for shabbos”. They said it with pride, similar to the rabbis on the panel who, in describing their expertise in secular college, beamed how they “didn’t even know their secular college had a campus”! One of the alumni then gave a dvar torah: there are two famous models of heroes in the beginning of Bereishit – Noach and Avraham. People often compare the two, and this student quoted one opinion that Noach was a failed hero for not saving the world, while Avraham was the archetypal hero for striving to heal and redeem his world. This student thought that was stupid and gave his peshat, the obvious one. “We see that Noach was better because his story comes first – the Torah wants to teach us how that’s the best way, to lock yourself up in the teiva and forget about everyone else.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Does this guy not daven every day when we call upon “Elokey Avraham… Magen Avraham”? We learn the very essence of prayer from Avraham, when he looked out over the destruction of Sodom, the (evil, non-Jewish) city he valiantly sought to save! There’s a reason we’re called not beni Noach, but Ivrim – after Avraham, who went to the other side (eiver) but brought people with him. We learn that “gadol hachnasat orchim mikabalat penei shechinh” – “greater is the mitzvah of welcoming guests than that of receiving the face of the Almighty”! (Shabbat 127a) And I bet the gemara wasn’t talking about inviting the same 5 friends from yeshiva to your shabbos meal. Who dress, think, learn, and talk just like you. Gosh, Avraham avinu was sitting and talking to God Himself when he saw three non-Jewish, random strangers walk by. You know what he told God? “Sorry Almighty, it’s great talking to you but I gotta go say hello to some strangers, offer them some food, and sit with them.” There’s our paradigm for heroism! That’s why he was chosen to be the father of the Jewish people, and not Noach. Last we see Noach, he’s getting drunk and having problems with his kids — not that he was a bad guy but something obviously didn’t work out. His story was probably first because it was a less mature, introductory lesson into human leadership, setting the stage and providing a foil for Avraham’s. Noach failed, and thus the world descended into another 10 generations of chaos, until someone who cared about someone other than himself came along – Avraham. The gemara in Avodah Zara (9b) quotes and maps out the years of Jewish history: 2,000 of chaotic nothingness, 2,000 of Torah and 2,000 of Moshiach. While at first the gemara wants to assume that the beginning of the era of Torah occurred at Matan Torah, it actually calculates the date to be Avraham’s time in Charan. I bet Avraham wasn’t shtaiging gemara all day, locked in his room when the era of Torah began; you know what he was probably doing? Inviting people into his house for a bite, a rest, a meaningful conversation, a loving and caring relationship. As Hillel said, “that is Torah, the rest is just commentary” (Shabbat 31a).
p.s. To be fair, a) alumni aren’t always representative of their yeshiva’s views and b) as I was leaving, the rabbi who ran the session thanked me for speaking, as it “gave a positive beginning” to an otherwise criticism-filled morning.