First, over this past Shabbos I had the great pleasure of meeting my intellectual equal, if not my better, so I must mention how delighted I am by that.
Now, to address the topic of halakha vs. hashkafa.
I am coming to realize one of the main reasons that the Judaic studies classes I took at Templars (my first high school) were unsatisfying and often frustrating, why my arguments were never resolved, and why the teachers often struck me as being inept and incompetent.
I am coming to realize what I lacked simply because I now have it, I have now experienced it, most specifically in Rabbi Auman's class.
And that is exposure to the source. Exposure to halakha. Understanding the source of a law, how the different sages and Rabbeim derive laws, what it is that they are arguing about. I am talking, of course, about practical halakha. For halakha does not come from nowhere. It is written down, perhaps in the written Torah, perhaps in the Oral law, and from the way it is written, from the grammar used, the words specificed, the juxtaposition or similar verses throughout the Torah, laws are derived. Yet there is a logic to these laws. They are not the fanciful imaginings of a Rabbi who claims to be in touch with the Divine, they are a logical extrapolation, and as such, can be understood by the likes of you and me.
But this is what I was not taught at Templars. This is what none of us were taught. In part, I will argue it is because my school refused to teach Gemara. Had we learned Gemara, I daresay we would have had a much stronger knowledge base as to how the laws are derived, and how and why the opinions of various scholars and sages conflict. In part it is because my own teachers did not know Gemara, and what is worse, did not know the origins of the laws themselves. How could they teach what they themselves did not know?
In school we had two classes, Dinim (Laws) and Machshava (Thought.) In Dinim class, we often learned laws from an English book on the subject which simply laid them down (clearly, to be sure.) I did not know whence they came from, how we established them; I simply knew they existed. Since they were laws I had heard since elementary school (the Halachos of Brachos, for instance, or the laws of Shabbos), I was not very concerned about the sources. At this point, I believed them to be true, and was merely curious about intricacies.
Machshava, however, was an entirely different story. Our teacher would attempt to convey a certain attitude of Jewish philosphical thought to us, but it was based on nothing but her own opinions. Our Mechaneches often did this as well. We suffered through lectures that were really nothing more than rants, the teacher's opinion combined with the supposed opinions of Gedolim. It is no small wonder that I hated Gedolim. How could I not? I envisioned them as men with long white beards and black hats who were completely alienated from me. What could they know of me, and what could they know of teenagers? Who were they to attempt to control my life from the lofty spires of existence which they had attained? They were not human, they were saints, spurred by no human emotion, uplifted by no human thought. They were, to me, creatures so different from me that I could not accept their authority.
My teacher never actually showed me a source from the Gedolim to prove her point. I do not recall ever seeing photocopies that supported her opinion, sources that were listed or learned. The drill was not to teach, not to allow us sources, but rather the mantra of "Accept, don't think." We were to accept blindly, accept without thought, accept simply because we were told to accept and obey. And to me, it made no sense. What good were these words, these opinions she spouted? What good, even, were the opinions of these so-called Gedolim? They made no sense. There was no logic.
What my teacher and school system on a whole failed to realize (if I am charitable) is that one's hashkafa emantates from halakha. One can only accept a certain philosophical viewpoint and ideology once one understands whether this viewpoint is in keeping with halakha, with the law itself. One must understand the disagreements that arose, the divisions in thought, the reasons that the Yeshivish viewpoint, the Modern Orthodox viewpoint, and the Ultra-Orthodox viewpoint differs. Whether one permits or forbids socialization between boys and girls, whether one permits or forbids the learning of secular material- rests upon both halakha and history, and the way in which halakha was interpreted at various points in history. As Rabbi Auman likes to say, "Halakhic principles don't change, but economic or social realities may cause these principles to be applied differently in one generation than to the next."
None of this was taught or in any way given over at Templars. My teachers might engage in Reform-bashing or Conservative-bashing sessions, but it was always through grand generalizations about the movements as a whole. We all knew that Orthodox Judaism differed from these movements, but most of us were confused by the variant sects within Orthodoxy, how they had arisen, and what they meant for us as teenagers. We had no firm base to fall back on, no understanding of our own religion. What did our Judaism mean? Why did we do what we did? If laws did not seem to be written in the Torah, then where did they come from? Did the Rabbis just make them up? Some of us might have thought so.
You can understand our resentment toward Rabbis whom we felt controlled our lives simply to be cruel or mean. We had no concept of their reasoning, of why they might feel compelled to issue rulings that conflicted with what we wanted to do. We had no idea as to how their stances on contemporary issues resulted from their halakhic understanding and analysis. The only thing we were told was, "He said it, therefore it's so."
This approach is so off-putting, so stupid, so idiotic to the young mind, that it is no wonder that our only response could be to question, to ask so many questions that nobody could answer. Had the teachers known Gemara and engaged in analysis of the law, they would have been able to put many of our questions to rest- respectfully, kindly, competently. Instead, wars arose, flabbergasted, astounded, astonished expressions came to rest on their faces, as they gasped in horror at the thoughts we formulated.
One of the reasons I absolutely respect Rabbi Auman- and feel that I can learn from him- is that he does not ask me to take anything he says on faith. I do not need to "believe" in ideas; I can see them, they are there in front of me on the sheet of paper, in the sefer. There is logic to the rulings of various sages. I may not like their approach but I must respect their logic, their analytic insight. I may simultaneously discover why the logic of my personal Rav is also worthy, and also acceptable. The Satmar Rav does not simply say that he dislikes the idea of women learning Torah, but he quotes a Yerushalmi to support his view. R' Sorotzkin, in contrast, goes back to Avraham and the symbolic significance of his pitching Sarah's tent before his to add support to his point. R' Schachter will explain why he can or cannot accept brain death according to his understanding of the Gemara, and R' Tendler will argue on those grounds, explain why he differs from R' Schachter, and continue. These laws do not come out of nowhere.
So often they were misrepresented to me. I conceived a vague half-notion that the Rabbis were threatened by the idea of women learning Gemara, and therefore forbade it. I understood only fear, fear and control. I conceived of the sages as vicious men who simply wanted to control us all and make robots of us. I felt only the onset of emotion towards them, emotion towards the teachers who vaguely informed us of these cruel laws they made. I could not tolerate what I could only see as stupidity and ignorance, and my teachers could not answer me.
When the teachers themselves no nothing of sources, how can the students hope to learn? In a school where the Macshava class speaks only in vague grandiose terms about "missions" and "belief" and "leaps of faith," about "destinies" and "status," what was there of value to aid me in understanding my own religion, and understanding how others could or would disagree with it? Where was the logic, the analysis, the questioning, the answers, the sources and the disagreemens? Why, there was none of it...most probably because they did not know themselves.
Young male teachers, who might potentially have known Gemara and hence have had a better grasp on sources, were forbidden on a whole. The school was afraid of our attraction to these young men, and thought it better to prevent us from having them. So there we were, a school all of young women, taught by women who themselves did not know how to teach, argue or prove, but merely to indoctrinate. We did have one young Rabbi, married, and indeed we all were half in love with him (my love for him was more playful, however, and less driven by his physique- I loved seeing how far I could push him), and I admired him for his understanding- somewhat- what it was we wanted. As someone who had been more Modern and had only now become more right-wing, he understood what we were talking about; it was not a foreign language. As Dinim teacher, his tests were actually very practical- citing Sheva Brachos and OnlySimchas and commonalities nowadays in a very applicable manner. He was more willing to engage in discussion and answer questions than our female teachers- it was because he was more like us, and more open. I did not always like his viewpoint, and we had our stubborn disagreements, but I respected him for what he was attempting to do.
It is only now that I have come to Stern that I am beginning to develop a clearer perspective with regard to sages and Gedolim. I am beginning to understand, to comprehend, how very learned these men must be. They are learned in Gemara, in the Torah, in halachos and concepts that cause me to stand back in admiration. Of course, learned and scholarly are not the same as thoughtful and compassionate. Gedolim may apply halakhos based on their scholarly interpretations, but some of them, at least, will not take into account the feelings of those impacted by such a law, nor will they understand their complaints. So now, though I may differ from sages (where appropriate, and where there is room to differ) or may simply believe that what they say must be flawed, or an argument that cannot reasonably be applied today, I have much greater respect for who they are as people, and what they do with their lives. They have great knowledge at their command, and their rulings cannot be dismissed as stupid.
I am beginning to understand the interrelationship between halakha and hashkafa. I need sources; I crave sources when someone asks me to believe something. I want an argument, a proof, I want a reason, whatever it may be. Based on what I believe is permissable according to these sources and laws, I develop a hashkafa, an outlook on life, a Jewish weltanschaang. And perhaps, to some extent, it is the other way around- once I subscribe to a particular hashkafa, the analysis and rulings on various laws must proceed in a certain manner. The fact remains that there is a definite connection.
Were I to have seen it earlier...had I had sources in my machshava classes differentiating between the opinions of different sects, and how those opinions on different contemporary issues had come to be formed- my respect for Judaism on a whole, and the opinions of those more Orthodox than I am on a whole, would have been much greater. I would have understood rather than felt condemned and hated by all those supposedly more religious than I. I would have understood where they were coming from. And though I might have disagreed, I would have appreciated their logic.
This is what I lacked...this is what, I think, quite a few schools lack. The ability to demonstrate the logical derivation of laws, of outlooks, of ideas. It is much easier, of course, to simply assert, to make claims, to try to force belief. But this belief must be a short-term belief, as it is based on nothing but a desire to trust the person telling this to you. And should that trust ever be shaken...what do you have then? Why, you have nothing- a spiritually shaky person who has absolutely no idea what or why s/he believes.
It is for this reason, then, that I urge schools and parents to explain, to prove, to demonstrate the logic of various claims, ideologies and belief systems within Judaism. If something is flawed, there is a reason as to why it is flawed. Rather than falling back on mocking or deriding a certain sect, explain the logical reasons for why that sect is inconsistent, or illogical, or in some way cannot be reconciled with Judaism. If one were to apply this across the board, the result should yield more thoughtful, understanding, and therefore respectable (in the sense that others would respect them) teachers. It would also yield happier students- students whose questions were answered in a calm, comprehensive manner, or, if the questions could not be answered, were told that, too, rather than some false generalizaton aimed at quashing any feelings of doubt.
I have only been enriched through my exposure to different viewpoints (and the logic behind such viewpoints) and I argue that many others would benefit from this, too. Our youth as a whole could only benefit from such an approach. Understanding comes before acceptance.