Social History from Boca Raton Sermons

Let’s look at some sermons for what they say about the community. I did this once before about the Upper West Side and we had some interesting results. Now, let us look at Boca Raton. These sermons were given by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg as an Elul – Rosh Hashanah musar, he collected them in a pamphlet. Let’s see what a historian would note about the community. Before I start, I take it as given that none of this is restricted to Boca Raton. I also take it as a given that this is not about the rabbi or his community, nor is it concerned with prescription. It is just a snapshot at the sins (and solutions) of the age. It is looking for the next links in the trajectory of the sins discussed by orthodox rabbis. In the 1950’s it was working on the Sabbath, and in the 1970’s it was using a razor to shave. What are the current sins?

The first issue is the dress of the teenage girls.

I am not God forbid suggesting anything about the young girls or women of our community. But it seems like we have lost our modesty compass and we have developed a blind spot for how we appear and the message we are sending. When I am talking to 8th grade girls on a Shabbos and I have to look up to see them because of the height of their stiletto heels, we have a blind spot. When a young man of marriageable age inquires from me for dating purposes about what turns out to be a 15 year old girl because based on her appearance he thinks she is 19 or 20, we have a blind spot.

A second issue is that the inhabitants of this place have a longing to eat in any restaurant, desire to go to the beach on Shabbos, and to be fully immersed in the hedonism around them. The Rabbi acknowledges that some do take off their kippot, but he leaves it as an implicit statement that without kippot some of his congregants engage in the desired activities. (We have no quantified data.)He does put his finger the fact that some of the congregants have a sense of diminished return for following the community. For those who identified as Orthodox because they liked the warmth of the lifestyle and Shabbat was seen attractive, many now feel that the warmth has faded and that they have other interests.

If our children see that in truth we would prefer to be exclusively toshavim, fully immersed in the country clubs, the pop culture, the secular lifestyle that surrounds us, if they sense that we long to eat in any restaurant we want, go to the beach club on Saturdays and be unencumbered in our lifestyle, we have little chance of making Judaism exciting for them. If they see that our yarmulkas literally and figuratively spend as much time in our pockets as they do on our heads, should we be surprised if Judaism doesn’t speak to them in meaningful ways?

A third issue is the problem of drugs among the teens. If the Rabbi mentions it, then it has clearly be there a while already.

His solution is for parents to impose drug tests. He does not offer a solution that reaches the kids themselves. Know that sadly it could have come from any one of many people whose children could go to any one of the many Jewish schools in South Florida… if you are the parent of a teenager who is friends with and exposed to a crowd that may have access to drugs or alcohol, you need to randomly test. Don’t test because you don’t trust your child. Test because you don’t trust his or her friend. Test because your neighbor can’t trust their kid, but doesn’t have the courage or fortitude to test unless you do as well. You can get excellent tests at AmericanScreeningCorp.com and be sure to get the test to see if you child took the pill to make sure nothing can be detected in a test.

A fourth issue is the internet. His solution is to filter and emulate the Evangelicals.

Would you ever go to sleep at night and let your child hang out in their room with an inappropriate adult, a Christian missionary, a drug dealer, a rabid dog or anything else that could threaten them? Of course not! And yet, make no mistake about it. If you call it a night, and leave your child with unfiltered, unlimited access to the Internet, they are surrounded by dangers that lurk and that loom.

I will tell you something I consider tragic. We are the so-called Modern Orthodox community. We are the ones who supposedly synthesize progress, technological advancement and change with Torah values and morals. And yet, if you want a filter for your Internet, you will more than likely be purchasing it from a Christian group. If you want to check about a particular movie before letting your children watch it, you will likely go on http://www.kidsinmind.com or another website that provides that kind of analysis and summary. They are all Christian websites.

A fifth issue- his congregants as cheap and rude.

Jews shouldn’t be known for being cheap; we should be known for being generous. We shouldn’t have a reputation for being rude; we should have a name for being respectful.

A sixth issue is that everyone is super busy and now wired with smart phones, txt messages, tweets. He wants his congregants to slow down because it provides serenity and Torah helps focus thoughts. On this one, the horse has already left the stable, busy dual career doctors who car pool their kids to activities everyday will not and cannot slowdown just from a homily. And they have already become observant, so you cant promise if they keep Shabbat they will be refreshed, focused, and have a slower life.

All of Torah is there so that we are transformed into misbonenim, from zombies mindlessly living life, into thoughtful, mindful, people living in the present. The answer is simple, slow down. The only way to achieve mindfulness and to find the serenity it provides, is by hitting the brakes a little bit. Slowing down is an art, and unfortunately it is ever increasingly becoming a lost one.

The answer is simple, slow down. The only way to achieve mindfulness and to find the serenity it provides, is by hitting the brakes a little bit. Slowing down is an art, and unfortunately it is ever increasingly becoming a lost one.

The message of these sermons for our era is to recoil from the over engagement in popular culture. But the rhetoric is one of sectarianism, recognize how Jews are unique and distinct from popular culture. The title of the series is “The Courage to Make Havdallah and Lead a Life of Distinction”
Here we have a focus on Judaism as somehow culturally saving one from the pop culture. We need to be exceptional and distinct from the general culture to reject the pop culture. The author does not see that his dichotomy is showing his non-exceptional assimilation into Evangelical ways of thinking. When they were both alive, Rav Hutner’s exceptionalism was seen as diametrically opposed to Rav Soloveitchik. The former emphasized the use of the word hinukh to distinguish it from general studies, while the latter having no such concerns as shown in his school. (AB- In my days teaching in Maimonides in Boston, the students could not have any rock culture in school, because they needed to focus on writing papers for general studies. Sports were not placed above general studies.) Also after several decades of day school students emphasis on pop culture, pop culture faith, and cruise ship Orthodoxy, the pop culture is now seen as a foreign influence. The students are only doing what you showed them.

For the next four weeks I would like to speak to you about how in my opinion, we are placing too much emphasis on our status of toshavim, full participants in society and we have neglected and overlooked our status as geirim, as different and distinct.

As western democratically minded people, we are naturally uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish chosen-ness or exceptionalism. After all, isn’t it racist, bigoted, discriminatory and doesn’t it engender a sense of superiority and conceit, attributes that are supposed to be anathemas to the Jewish people?

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that in this introduction, Avraham captured the tension that ever Jew is destined to live with forever. On the one hand, we are toshavim, residents and inhabitants of the great countries in which we have lived. We function as active citizens participating in the fullness of the society around us. And yet, at the same time we must remain geirim, strangers, different, apart, distinct and dissimilar.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, once stood before a Torah U’Mesorah convention, a gathering of Jewish educators from across the country. He suggested to them that he could summarize their entire duty…The single most important value we can and must teach our children is that they are and can be exceptional.
Even though we are toshavim, participants in society, not every magazine, website, book, newspaper or TV show belongs in a Jewish home. We must be geireim, strangers, to many aspects and elements of pop culture and of secular society.

What is this preacher’s view of how people change? The real religion and cosmology of our age is 12-step of AA, the discipline of the gym, and Oprah’s power of changing one’s narrative. As in most forms of prosperity gospel, we have no limits to what od has promised us if we apply ourselves. Rav Soloveitchik’s inner existential resolution and moment of decision showing the courage of all existential decisions becomes the pop-psych belief in change and that one is not stuck in a rut a life. (A quick google search seems to indicate that Rav Abraham Twerski and Rav Soloveitchik got crossed online).

One of them, a man sitting in this room right now, described that before any of us knew him, almost 30 years ago he weighed over 300 pounds and was a complete alcoholic. The only thing holding him back from change was his own self imposed limitation of “it’s not me.” He went on to tell us about how he lost 200 pounds and conquered his alcohol addiction. When asked, how did you do it? How did you go from an obese alcoholic to thin sober person his answer was incredible. There are no limits to who we can become if we simply subscribe to hirhur teshuva and believe in our capacity to change.

Rabbi Soloveitchik offered a simple answer that contains a phenomenal insight into what today is all about and how we can break out of the “it’s not me” trap… The preliminary stage is called hirhur teshuva, the awakening of teshuva… Explained the Rav, before we can change, we must believe that we have the capacity to change. Before we can create a new me, we must let go of the natural tendency to feel, it’s not me.

My question is whether you think Rabbi Goldberg is differing with the pop culture rabbis or part of the same cloth, locating their issue in the realm of popular culture.

For other glimpses into the contemporary state of Orthodoxy, see the chat with Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn and Rabbi Daniel Cohen.

7 responses to “Social History from Boca Raton Sermons

  1. Alan: I was struck by your comment about Maimonides School. I know I am showing my age,but my question is: If our kids in High School have a rigorous religious and secular studies program, when they have time for all this pop culture?

    • That was the goal, to not have time in the first place. This is unlike many of the recent day schools. In addition, they would not honor someone for pop-culture contributions who had a low grade point average. Finally, they banned all logos, insignia, or references. It was preemptive. It was never phrased as Jewish particularization vs outside culture. It was seen as low-brow and not leading to education. The “corrosive forces” were identified with Jewish parental attitudes not our lack of particularization.

  2. I thought he had the beginnings of an interesting drush when he equates hisbonenus to mindfulness, which then segues easily into taking life slowly. Now mindfulness is a term that has been introduced in more recent self help literature, and differs from the Oprah-The Secret gospel that if you wish it strongly enough you’ll make it big. Its predecessors are Gurdjieff, Feldenkrais, tai chi exercises, breathing –yoga techniques, and more recent ideas about stress reduction, flow, (e.g. Kabat-Zinn, Csíkszentmihályi.) But being a rabbi and quoting Der Alter from Kelm, he can’t quite make the transition. He says “Be present and give thought to every morsel of food that enters your body. Be aware of every word you speak, every decision you make, every penny you spend, and every moment that passes.” He ends up offering a sort of goulash of hisbonenus as zehirus, super ego scrutiny of every detail in one’s life, and the more modern idea of watchfulness with minimal self reproach.

    His ideas about slowing down are also somewhat ambiguous. The most straightforward reading of taking life slowly is a Mediterranean life style, slow cooking, long leisurely lunches in the piazza, good wine, people watching, a little siesta, late dinners and an active night life. In Boca where there is human limit how many times one can stroll around Mizener Park, the solution for taking life at a slower pace naturally involve the country club, the beach, boating, movies. Listening to the rabbi we have the comic situation of slow but not country club slow, slow but not mixing with the general culture. If he was clever he would have found ways to improve the level of frumkeit taking into account his congregation is in Boca and not Flatbush. Ideally the model should be the Latin American communities, where in addition to a yeshiva and a shul there is luxurious Jewish Center, where adults, teens and children can enjoy an active social life in a Jewish setting. But given that the rabbi has internalized charedi values, all he can do is dish all purpose charedi musar on tzniyus, and scare his congregation with the horror of nubile teenagers and the mortal dangers of drugs and sex.

  3. Unfortunately, the observations by the rabbi seem rampant throughout the modern orthodox world. Are the rabbis too afraid to say anything or are they just burying their heads in the sand?

  4. I hope that the focus of Rabbi Goldberg’s lectures pointed more to what are the internal problems/challenges of how Modern Orthodoxy is transmitted and not on how decadence of the outside world. Externalising the problem does not work. If we can transmit Judaism in a meaningful way then the issues of the outside world will be less significant

  5. a) The reason empires and corporations fall is because the system they have built is so massive that they are unable to see themselves from outside it and are therefore unable to correct the issues that grow within the organisation.

    The purpose of mussar (referenced here is hisbonenus) and of the yamim noraim (particularly kol nidrei and the succah) is to release ourselves of our script / life-story and to examine our progress from outside of it. This is incredibly difficult. However it is the reason that Judaism has survived – naar yisrael ve’ohavo – because we maintain the attitude of a youth who always explores possibilities – we have flourished.

    b) There is a tendency to address over-indulgence critically, which isn’t always the answer. ‘You are losing yourself’ is as powerful a message as ‘Curb your desires’.

  6. The trouble with the Maimonides School model is the implied elitism of it. Even parents who 100% buy into the pre-eminent importance of the life of the mind sometimes have offspring who clearly are not going to do well at a school like this; let alone that you couldn’t find 10 Orthodox Jewish families prioritizing intellectual achievement in Boca if your life depended on it.

    So the Rabbi is not wrong to notice that immersion in pop culture is the real ocean in which his congregation swims, but he has no idea what to recommend as a solution for this problem other than ‘havdalah’ from the environment. This appeal comes across to most as a call to believe in communal superiority. Perhaps following Conservative and Reform Jewish models emphasizing greater engagement in the community at large (broader than just the Beach Club and Golf Club, I hope) might be a route out of some of the contradictions the Rabbi finds his congregation in?

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