Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Israel and the Nations
To dedicate this lesson

Echoes From The Past


Rabbi Berel Wein

In spite of all of the claims to the contrary by their biological and spiritual
descendants Eastern European style Jewish life has passed from the scene. All of the dominant social, religious and political movements that dominated pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish life are no longer active or perhaps even relevant in our current society. The yeshiva system of education that was prevalent in nineteenth and twentieth century Lithuania was basically a school system built only for the elite, concentrating on memory retention and creative commentary upon existing texts. It was a system that was never intended to include the "average" student and therefore the numbers attending these yeshivot were relatively speaking small, certainly in comparison to the tens of thousands of students attending yeshivot today in Israel and the Diaspora. Though the yeshivot themselves attempt to perpetuate the legacy that they exist only for the elite the truth of the matter is that this is no longer true. In our world a yeshiva education has become mandatory even for the "average" student. In fact, without a yeshiva education being present in one’s life it is unlikely that the young man will grow up to be a truly observant Jew. Where the Lithuanian yeshivot once produced almost all of the great rabbinic leaders of Israel, today those institutions frown upon producing rabbis and many of them do not even have a rabbinic ordination program within its walls and curriculum. The yeshiva world along its entire broad spectrum has changed radically from what it was a century ago.

The nascent Bais Yaakov women’s school system begun in the 1920’s by Sarah Schneier in Cracow, Poland was originally intended to produce teachers for the Jewish world. It was also intended to help stem the tide of radical assimilation and anti-religious ideologies that swept the Jewish youth of that time. Today’s women’s seminaries, though still paying lip service to the goal of producing teachers, concentrate upon preparing their students to marry Torah scholars and become the primary breadwinner of the family. They are to be the superwoman of our time - wife, mother, breadwinner, housekeeper, good neighbor and moral force of the family all at one and the same time. Since there is currently a large surplus of women teachers in the religious society everywhere in the Jewish world and the pay scale for such employment is usually quite poor, the seminaries are forced to facilitate programs that will allow most of their students to enter all sorts of fields of endeavor commensurate with the employment opportunities presented in the general world. These women are therefore thrust from a most sheltered environment of many years of gender separated education in the main into the very rough and tumble of today’s work place. And women who wish to pursue an academic or professional career face the challenge of academic life and the society of its educational institutions. The challenges are great and varied and most of them were completely unimaginable in Cracow in the 1920’s.

The great ideological movements and goals of the past centuries have all been consigned to the ash heap of history in our time. Marxism in all of its permutations has proven to be a very false god. The Left still pays lip service to its ideals and axioms but it really only wants more benefits and wealth and political power for itself. Most of the rhetoric about fairness in society really means "give me more of the pie." The kibbutz movement has in the main become privatized and capitalistic and no one really looks to North Korea or Cuba for advice and for being a role model for a fair and just society. The Zionist movement in its various forms has also apparently shot its bolt and no longer commands the loyalty of the Jewish street, even of many Jews living in the Jewish state that it so heroically created and fashioned. Jews have become blasé about Israel and there are generations that no longer remember the Exile or the War of Independence. The great movements that shook and motivated the Jewish world a century ago have all passed from the scene. It is only their echoes that remain with us. History teaches us that all past solutions and tactics fade in the face of different circumstances and changing societal pressures. Though our future always contains an element of uncertainty with it we can be certain that Jewish society will have to develop answers to new problems and that especially the process of nation building here in Israel will require ongoing innovative thinking and clever execution in order to succeed. But succeed we will!
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