When Yeshiva Is Too Perfect

My yeshiva was the best yeshiva.  And that was the problem.

In all my life, I’ve never been in an environment where my leaders, teachers, and mentors lived so fully their own ideology.  With love, care, and strength, they helped guide us baalei teshuva who were desperately trying to learn how to live as orthodox Jews.

And a big part of the way they were able to do this was by creating an oasis for us.  A home in Jerusalem that seemed buffered from any of the larger issues facing the Jewish people.  We were just there to learn how to be the kind of Jews we were hoping to become.  How to truly live out God’s will for us without baggage.

And it made sense.  More than any other kind of yeshiva, a baal teshuva yeshiva must be built to cater to people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs.  The challenge must be enormous.  To somehow bring them together, and then get them to grow in their own unique ways while still maintaining the core tenets of Judaism, as well as learning the laws and practices necessary to be able to raise an orthodox Jewish family.  And all that, for some, in only a year or two.

With such little time, such a diverse group of people, and such a lofty goal, it makes sense to cut the students off from the Jewish world and just give them a pure, unadulteratedly perfect Jewish experience.  One where they are both educated and inspired, and when they leave, burning with the fire of Torah.

And that’s what they did.  Incredibly well.  When students would leave, we’d organize our own farbrengens for them.  We’d talk about how we’d take the lessons we were given and bring them out with us.  We’d push each other to live out our lives the way our rabbis did.

To us, the rabbis were like celebrities.  When the founder of our yeshiva came into the Beit Midrash, we’d all look on in joy, happy to just be in his presence, and we’d smile at each other.

The point being that in each of us, the fire was burning independently.  It was the kind of fire that could only be kindled by being around the genuine, the real Torah.  And the people who lived it.

Then we’d move to our communities.

I can’t speak for everyone.  I won’t.  I’ll speak to my experience.  And I’ll speak to some who I know, and others from other yeshivas who have had the same experience.

On the one hand, having the power of belief, of seeing men who lived out Torah in such a pure way, and very rarely being let down by our experience, only feeling high from it, is the kind of thing that has sustained us.  There is a power to seeing such living examples of what Judaism can be when lived fully.  It is an empirical reminder in a world where we must repeatedly remind ourselves of the truth of the abstract, of the unseeable.

And having an oasis helped us remember that no matter what the problems in whatever community we entered, and no matter how many leaders and others who let us down, there was a difference between a culture and a religion.  A culture, and the individuals who live in it, can be flawed.  But Judaism, the tradition passed down from our forefathers who were given it as a birthright from God, that was pure.  Because God is pure.  We saw it in yeshiva.  We lived it.  And no one can take that away from us.

But in all that idealism, in the determination to believe in purity, there is a danger, one that no baalei teshuva yeshiva has truly addressed.

There is a Hasidic explanation for what our soul experiences when it enters the body.  The soul falls from a place of perfection, and enters a cage.  The cage is the body, and the physical world that body inhabits.  In the place of perfection, nothing could go wrong.  In the body, everything is wrong.

This is what it’s like to start your journey into orthodoxy at the ideal yeshiva and to then enter the world of the inherently unideal world of orthodox Jewish communities.

Yes, we were told it would be like this: the fall.  The fall from perfection to imperfection.  But we weren’t equipped for it.  What does it really mean to have to face the concerns of things like shidduch prospects (for ourselves and our children)?  What about facing things like overt racism that many of us who grew up liberal never really had to face?  What do we do when we see leaders not living out the model of Judaism?  What if we happen to change some of our beliefs as we grow, something that is very likely for a baal teshuva only beginning their journey?

All of these and so much more are the inevitable issues we face, and yet so few of us are taught how to handle them.  There is no curriculum for facing the culture of frumkeit.  There is no map for navigating the various imperfections and dangers we will face as we enter these new worlds.

And for us to be sent out into the Jewish world without that preparation is a bit like teaching someone everything about how to drive without actually taking them on the road, and then giving them a car.

There is no road prep for the baal teshuva.  There is no muscle memory built up to deal with when someone doesn’t follow the rules of the road.  Some of us are perhaps naturally more skilled at driving, but many of us will get into crashes.  And that will lead some to decide driving simply isn’t worth the dangers.

I’ve seen this in friends of mine.  Some who went to my yeshiva, others who went to different ones.  The way they get battered by circumstances beyond their control.  Divorce that may have been prevented if they had taken more time to decide before getting married, with better guidance beforehand.  Communities turning on them.  Leaving after feeling that there simply is no place for them.

These aren’t uncommon.  These are the direct result of not being prepared for the Jewish world.  And worse, the pain that comes with all these things is redoubled by the pain of expectations not meeting reality.  The higher the expectations, the worse the pain.

And while we were taught that we would be disappointed, it seems to me that most teachers are afraid to tell us in what ways we would be let down.  The specifics.  The realities.  Not just the vague preparation for disillusionment.

Rather, what yeshivas need is a curriculum where they are forced to face what it really means to live in a community.  They should be exposed to people who have left orthodox Judaism, and be challenged to truly understand their experience.  They should be introduced to members of communities who aren’t just exemplars of their world, but who are representative of that world.  They should have teachers who take them through what it’s like to integrate into a Jewish community, both the positive and the negative.

And this should be a field.  With as much thought put into it as the deepest Torah.

Because the lesson of metaphor of the soul entering the body is not that the body or the world are evil, God forbid.  Rather, that it is by entering the body that the soul can enter a higher place than it ever could have.  In Heaven, there’s nowhere to go.  In the world, in a place where wrongness exists, where flaws are inherent to the experience, our soul’s union with the body gives it the power to rise to a level beyond Heaven.  And it is only in a body that a soul can help other souls.

So too with our Jewish communities and yeshivas. In yeshiva, there is nowhere to go, no world to affect.  The experience is perfect because it isn’t tested.  Because we are in a cocoon.  We are in heaven.  And so we feel great, but we can’t change anything, can’t push the Jewish world higher.

When we are in a community, we may experience pain, but it is where the real work of being a Jew happens.  And so having an ideal experience in yeshiva can help propel us because it is as if we could remember being souls in Heaven.  But it does not teach us how to navigate this flawed world.

It is time for that to change.  Because when it does, the baalei teshuva won’t just do better, feel better, be stronger.  They’ll do more good for those around them.  They’ll improve their communities.  And the flaws and pain they experienced may be lesser for the next generation.

May it happen immediately.


Note: This post was inspired by a discussion in a secret Facebook group for religious and non-religious Jews to have dialogue.  I am incredibly thankful for this group’s existence, and for the dialogues forming there. Thank you to those who helped inspire this piece.