A Talk with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l on the Role of a Chareidi Newspaper and Other Important Issues Facing the Frum Community, Upon His Shloshim

Explaining And Defending Our Lifestyle Is More Effective Than Attacking Theirs

In 2009, the editors of the Hamevaser newspaper of Eretz Yisroel merited having a fascinating conversation with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman about a number of important topics related to the frum community. In the interview, Rav Shteinman was remarkably candid about the positive qualities of the community, as well as some of the challenges and dangers we face.

The Yated presents excerpts of the interview, which are as relevant today as they were eight years ago when they were first published.

A frum newspaper is often charged with responding to attacks or at times even incitement against the frum community and its way of life. How should newspaper editors respond to those who incite hatred against us and our way of life? Should we respond with sharp, polemical refutation – i.e., in battle-fighting mode – or focus on increasing light in the world by strengthening our own shemiras haTorah vehamitzvos as the ultimate, appropriate response?

As a general rule, the approach should be one of defending our lifestyle, not attacking them or their lifestyle. The reason for this is that at times, an approach of attacking the attacker has a far higher cost than potential benefit derived. One can make the original provoker into a victim when one sharply attacks them, and this just gives him more and more attention.

However, when it is clear that there is no choice but to respond strongly because it is the only way to defend yourself in a particular situation, one can attack in a Torah way and in a fashion that has been approved by Torah leadership. In that case, the attack itself is considered a defense.

Still, as a general rule, it is always better to defend one’s way of life rather than go on the attack. Of course, the defense should be done by clearly and eloquently explaining our point of view, not apologizing for it.

“In The Zechus of Torah Learning”

Very often, we see incitement in the various forms of media trying to besmirch our community by saying that we do nothing. All day, all we do is sit in yeshiva and kollelim and they give us money from the government. How should we respond to this claim?

These claims are rooted in lies and false clichés. Firstly, look at the schools and universities. They spend millions of dollars on them. They are beautifully built and you can’t even compare what the country invests in their schools to what the state invests in chareidi schools and education.

Moreover, the big lie spread by the secular community that the money that we do receive from the government is not really coming to us because we do nothing productive all day by sitting in kollel or yeshiva is not a new claim against us. It wasn’t connived in this generation. Throughout the generations, those who hated us have always said that shomrei mitzvos don’t do anything. This is a product of outright jealousy over our success.

What we should be answering in this case is the truth. That it is true as the light of day that our learning is preserving the world. It is only in the zechus of the learning in the yeshivos and the kollelim that the world continues to exist. Therefore, it is we and our learning in the yeshivos that are protecting the world. In truth, we should be getting everything for what we do. “Im lo brisi yomam volaylah chukas hashomayim veha’aretz lo samti – If my covenant with the day and the night would not be, had I not set up the laws of Heaven and earth” (Yirmiyahu 33-25).

[Rav Shteinman then asked that a Gemara Kesubos be brought to him. He opened the Gemara to daf 62 and pointed to Tosafos, who says that throughout the generations, there was a tremendous hatred that the am haaratzim had for talmidei chachomim because they felt inferior. They felt that the talmidei chachomim viewed themselves as superior to those more ignorant.]

Does A Chinuch Column Belong In A Newspaper?

What should a newspaper’s approach be to a chinuch column? On the one hand, it is very helpful to have advice given by expert mechanchim on areas of chinuch. On the other hand, however, the negative side to this is that the children read the column and become familiar with the issues raised. Those issues might not be relevant to that particular child, and his becoming educated in this area may be detrimental to him. In addition, the child might decide that his parents or teachers are doing the wrong thing.

Has it ever happened that a child confronted his parents that they were doing the wrong thing based on something that he saw in chinuch columns? I would think that such a thing is a rarity.

Certainly, one should, and perhaps a newspaper in particular is obligated to, write about chinuch, and yet it is very important to stress that those who are entrusted with the sacred task of writing about chinuch should be reliable people who are true mechanchim worthy of writing about chinuch. The benefit from such articles is clear. Parents and other mechanchim will read the advice and it will help them – obviously, this is provided that they are written by reliable mechanchim.

With regard to the chashash that you raised that children who read this may be adversely affected, if we worry about that, there is no end to the things that we have to worry about. I don’t think you have to worry about that. I think it is rare that such a thing would happen. Nevertheless, a paper should be very careful about what they choose to write about when it comes to chinuch. Even when they deem a topic worthy of tackling, it should be written in a refined manner, with yiras Shomayim, so that you can minimize any potential adverse effects.

When we write historical features, should we write about disputes that transpired between different gedolim? For example, should we write about the well-known machlokes between Rav Yonason Eibschitz and Rav Yaakov Emden?

Why would we want to get involved in a machlokes between such towering giants? Will that increase anyone’s yiras Shomayim? If what you are seeking to write is a historical article, there are plenty of other interesting historical things to write about.

Strengthening Ourselves In Times Of Difficulty

The world is a dangerous place. There are so many dangers facing us both from within and without. In what areas should we, as a community, strengthen ourselves?

The main thing in which we should strengthen ourselves is limud haTorah. Ein lanu shiur rak haTorah hazos – We have nothing left other than the Torah. Chazal tell us that Torah saves us from all dangers that we face. Still, the indifference of “melumadah” can and has penetrated. We always think that nothing will happen. In the end, things will work out. We have been scared before and Hashem has helped. People don’t understand that at times, there is a gezeirah min hashomayim. We have to keep on davening.

Hashem wants our tefillos. That is why He is trying to scare us. He wants us to daven to Him. The main thing is that we should keep on davening.

It is also important to note that not only during times of difficulty are we supposed to daven. We must always daven, and if we don’t, we risk causing ourselves difficulties, because Hashem wants our tefillos, and if we don’t daven, we are given tzaros in order to arouse us to daven.

Another pivotal thing to bear in mind is that we should not “reitz un,” or provoke, those who wish to destroy us. It is well-known that before the war, the Zionists wanted to make boycotts and sanctions on Hitler and the Nazis. At that time, the chareidim were very against taking such action and felt that they would certainly incite Hitler, angering him and thereby increasing the sakanah. Indeed, ultimately, it became clear that this was not good for them. Similarly, in our times, we must be very careful not to incite those who hate us already, so that they don’t end up hating us even more. May Hashem have rachmanus on us.

The truth is that as chareidim, we should be far more worried about those who are trying to change the status of bnei yeshiva and put them in the army than to worry about Iran and our enemy from the outside. The reason is that those who want to change the status of bnei yeshiva and obligate those who are learning Torah to go to the army are putting our very existence in danger. Not only our spiritual existence, but our physical existence as well. Torah is the real shield from the 70 nations, who want to swallow us up, and if they try to stop us from learning, they are simply putting our lives and their own lives in danger.

Only in the zechus of limud haTorah, and especially Torah learning amidst poverty and difficulty, do we have a zechus to survive and overcome the many enemies who want to destroy us.

Anyone who thinks about it understands that our entire existence is beyond the realm of the natural. We are tiny nation, a lamb surrounded by seventy wolves, and it is only in the zechus of Torah learning that our enemies do not succeed in harming us. That is why we have to worry far more about a change in the status quo regarding bnei yeshiva than we have to worry about the Iranian nuclear threat.

It is sad that davka at this time, when we need so much rachamei Shomayim, there are those who are trying to force bochurim to leav yeshivos and sacrifice a life of eternity for a bit of extra gashmiyus.

How can we inject in our children and talmidim a desire to learn Torah? This question is especially relevant today, when the enticements of the street are so accessible to young people and we constantly hear incidences of young people leaving the path of Torah.

Boruch Hashem, we live in a very fortunate generation. Yeshivos today are booming. The development of yeshivos like in our times is something that we have not witnessed in recent history. Before every zeman, we hear about new yeshivos that are opening both here in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz. Boruch Hashem, each yeshiva has its own approach and caters to its own specific demographic. Those yeshivos are successful in choosing capable, professional maggidei shiur who are yorei Shomayim and invest a tremendous amount of effort in imbuing their talmidim with Torah and yiras Shomayim.

We must understand that our generation has a tremendous zechus, something that previous generations did not have. In the past, there were groups, even among shomrei Torah umitzvos, who did not send their children to yeshivos. They sent many of their children to work to help the family with parnassah. Today, however, virtually everyone sends to yeshiva ketanos.

Similarly, in previous generations, many did not want their daughters to marry bnei Torah. In fact, many bnos Yisroel deemed bnei yeshiva to be “battlanim,” “shlemazels” who are unable to do anything productive. Today, every family of shomrei mitzvos wants nothing more than for their daughter to marry talmidei chachomim. If there are so many yeshivos for all kinds of bochurim, what does a bochur have to look for in the street? What could he possibly gain from Yiddishkeit in the pleasures of olam hazeh that are present today and gone tomorrow? In addition, a bochur who is half out of yeshiva and in the street feels like an outcast. Why would he want that?

How To Cultivate Love Of Torah And Yiras Shomayim

The rosh yeshiva’s words are true regarding the majority of bochurim, but there are individuals who do not fine a taam in learning and, as a result, fall out of the system and often from Yiddishkeit itself. They roam the streets, and virtually every action that they do is under the control of the yeitzer hara. How can we imbue a desire to learn and yiras Shomayim in our talmidim so that they won’t lose their taam for learning and go off the derech?

If you are talking about cheishek, a desire to learn, you are right. You cannot just give a child an “injection” of ahavas Torah or yiras Shomayim. It doesn’t work that way. What is the only eitzah to acquire yiras Shomayim?

Once, the Dubno Maggid asked the Vilna Gaon how it is possible to impart Torah and yiras Shomayim to others. The Gaon answered him with a moshol about a person who has a large cup surrounded by smaller cups. As long as the individual does not fill up the large cup, it is impossible for the small cups to be filled. Only when the large cup is filled to the top and spills over into the small cups will the small cups also be filled. As long as a person is not himself filled with love of Torah and yiras Shomayim, he cannot give those things over to others. When a rebbi or parent is filled with Torah and yiras Shomayim, it will automatically spill over to his children and talmidim.

We therefore must realize that there is no such thing as teaching Torah and yiras Shomayim on their own. A rebbi and father has to fill himself with both. Then, and only then, will his children and talmidim be impacted.

That is what the Gaon told the Dubno Maggid and that is the truth. If a rebbi just speaks about yiras Shomayim without embodying it, it will not help. That is why the first thing that one looks for when choosing a rebbi in cheder or a R”M in yeshiva is their ahavas Torah and yiras Shomayim. That is one way that perhaps we can prevent talmidim from going out into the streets.

Many times, in the past, I have suggested to mechanchim that before beginning their daily shiur, they should learn mussar with their talmidim. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Even ten or fifteen minutes are sufficient. The Chasam Sofer would learn mussar every day with his talmidim before starting his shiur. When a maggid shiur teaches mussar for a few minutes, it helps in two ways. Firstly, the maggid shiur elevates himself by teaching mussar, because the lessons become a part of him. Secondly, he elevates his talmidim.

The parnassah situation is very difficult for many families, especially those of avreichim. How are we supposed to view this nisayon?

A regular yungerman who does not live on an exaggerated standard of living should not have to incur debt to stay financially afloat. The problem starts when kollel yungeleit decide that they want to live an affluent lifestyle similar to the lifestyle of the wealthy. There are even those who go away on vacation in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz. Do they really need it? Do these luxuries and trips improve their health? All it does is burn their money on matters of emptiness and nothingness.

There are yungeleit who desire all sorts of luxuries, and purchasing them puts them in debt. Subsequently, they don’t know how to extricate themselves from that debt. They end up borrowing more and more, running from gemach to gemach. How, then, can they learn if their heads are filled with these matters all day? It is therefore incumbent on every yungerman who learns in kollel to know that he must live his life with a cheshbon, with restraint. He can’t allow himself to lead a life of luxury that may guide him to places he would never have desired to end up in.

What about if a person reaches a situation where, despite his effort, he is still living in poverty without enough money to pay for basics?

If a person unfortunately is in a situation where he is living a life of poverty, he should know that this is the way of the Torah and this is the way to grow. By eating bread and water, pas b’melach. The majority of gedolei Yisroel were destitute before they became known as gedolim.

Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, when he first became a rov in a tiny shtetel called Zabalin, told his secretary, Rav Yaakov Lipschutz, that during those years, he was so poor that his wife and children were starving, but he had nothing to give them and no way of getting food. He told Rav Lipschutz that he would take his Gemara, stand in front of the wall, and with every last bit of strength focus on the Gemara, trying to forget his hunger and his family’s hunger, because he had no way to alleviate it. He learned this way for twenty hours straight! He would forget about everything as he would become immersed in the sugya. That is how he grew to become Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor.

Of course, we are talking about previous generations and great gedolim. This conduct is not for people in our generation. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on us to know that the way to grow in Torah is through adversity. There is no question that there is no comparison between a person who learns Torah mitoch hadechak and one who learns Torah mitoch harchavah.