A Mechitza for My Car

A Mechitza for My Car

By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

In my high school yearbook’s “Last Will and Testament”, my class bequeathed to me a mechitza for my car. It reflected my classmates’ perception that 1) I was one of the most intensely-observant students in our class, and 2) The close relationships I had with a number of girls in our co-ed school (and perhaps the contradiction between numbers 1 & 2).

I understand where the yearbook editors were were coming from. I spent the previous summer learning full time at Morasha Kollel. My classmates ran to Springsteen concerts, I ran to Mordechai Ben David. I spent each Shabbos at an inspiring NCSY Shabbaton and drove every Motzei Shabbos to learn with one of my Kollel counselors. I questioned why our 12th grade rebbe let a student interrupt shiur with impromptu birthday parties.

When I think about how I viewed the world as a teenager, Billy Joel’s song, “Shades of Grey” comes to mind. In its first verse he says;

Some things were perfectly clear, seen with the vision of youth
No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed the corner on truth…
Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Black and white is how it should be
But shades of grey are the colors I see

If a man is not a Democrat by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a Republican by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” This quote has been adjusted to reflect the issues of the times since it first appeared in mid-nineteenth century France. At certain stages in life, we naturally have particular worldviews. As we age, life experience gives us different perspectives.

Adults know that few things are black and white. We understand why health care, end of life decisions, abortion, immigration reform, and separation of church and state are such highly debated issues. When politicians, friends or rabbis talk in stark black and white terms about these or many other topics, it doesn’t ring true to a balanced adult.

A passionately religiously motivated Modern Orthodox teenager often perceives the Charedi world as “emes” because of the black and white image it projects, and our world as “sheker” because of all of its shades of grey and compromises. We need to encourage this religious passion, but we also need to explain that there are other Torah-related factors to consider. 

The reason that some students “flip out” in post high school yeshivot in Israel is because, once removed from the competing concerns of their milieu, these teenagers feel that they have found true religion. At that stage in their lives, there is no need to balance Torah study and secular studies (or the need to make a living). The compromises one needs to make for shalom bayit when 5,000 miles away from family are few and far between.

Many (if not most) teenagers need to go through a period of questioning what their parents and teachers have taught them. As the Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva, a person who is too far to one side of a continuum should veer towards to opposite extreme, so that he/she can eventually end up at the derech hamemutza. 

With age, we learn that every chumra is itself a kula in another area. We learn that the Yeshivish and Chassidish worlds also have challenges in raising their children. We learn that life is full of dilemnas with imperfect solutions.

What a young passionate Modern Orthodox teenage doesn’t understand is that, if the Charedi world once upon a time was able to shelter its youth, it is almost impossible to do so anymore, as there is no religious “cone of silence” in the age of the internet.

The truth is that long before smartphones, the most famous rebels (maskilim) were former talmidim of Europe’s greatest yeshivot. The same was certainly true of America’s “black hat” yeshivot. During my years in Florida, I met clearly non-observant octogenarians in the store who, when they saw my kippah, told me that they had learned in a well-respected yeshiva in their youth.

I agree with my friend Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s response to this young man’s blog post that we all have to do a cheshbon hanefesh about what subliminal messages we send about our values to our children and grandchildren. We live in a country and age in which there are few barriers for observant Jews participation in the general society. Therefore, we must “fact-check” ourselves from time to time to make sure that our values are in consonance with Torah, and not just ideas we picked up from the pervasive general culture.

If our children perceive us to be less than sincere, they will search out the truth in other venues. However, teenagers by nature think they have a corner on the truth and view adults as “hypocritical”, so it’s a challenge that we all face.

When I read Eitan Gross’ well written and thoroughly sincere blog post, I was reminded of a teenager I once knew. I’d love to check back with Eitan in 25 years.


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