1/25/2012

Notes on the Jewish Week Article about Rav Bina

The New York Jewish Week has a feature article this week about Rabbi Aharon Bina, the Rosh Yeshiva of Netiv Aryeh. It describes his "tough love" approach and how it inspires much love and much loathing, and very little in between. If you couldn't surmise who is behind the article, it was co-written by Gary Rosenblatt.

The article is very solid, but there are two elements that I think could have enhanced it immeasurably:
1) Rav Bina's approach is explicitly modeled on that of his father's, Rav Aryeh Bina. The elder Bina was a legendary educator and founder of the prestigious Netiv Meir yeshiva high school, whose alumni is a virtual Who's Who among prominent Religious Zionists (incidentally, the list skews left by Religious Zionist standards, and Junior has come to the defense of some of his father's students). Rav Aharon Bina, however, is not his father, and does not run an elite institution like his father did. In order to really understand who Rav Aharon Bina is and what he is trying to accomplish, one must start with his father, and with the relationship between father and son.
2) This issue gets back to the problem of the "charismatic educator" (let's define charisma as the condition in which the educator's personality overshadows the material being taught) that I've written about several times, most recently when the Motti Elon scandal first broke.Rav Bina fits Paul Shaviv's description of a "Pied Piper" rabbi (cited in that post on R. Elon). Let's see:
A charismatic teacher will deeply affect and influence some students, but will almost always leave a trail of emotional wreckage in is/her wake.
Check.
The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student leads to boundaries being crossed.
Check.
 
The teacher becomes party to knowledge about students and their families that reinforces the teacher’s view that they are the only teachers who ‘really’ are reaching the students. The teacher, however, is neither a trained counselor nor a social worker. That knowledge becomes power.
Check.
A really charismatic teacher can end up running a ‘school within a school’. 
Check (until he started his own school).
The teacher will often employ techniques (and texts) which take students to the extremes of emotion or logic, and will then triumphantly show them how they are holding they key to resolution (‘At this moment, you have agreed that life has no meaning -- but here is the answer’).
Check.
As soon as they are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school.
Check (once had a kid at my Shabbat table tell me he was no longer religious because of R. Bina. There are other such stories, and some appear in the NYJW article. I suspect many of these kids would drop observance anyway, but it's telling that Rav Bina becomes the object of their loathing).

Mild characteristics of cult leaders may be observed. 
Check.


I don't think Paul Shaviv is a prophet, and I don't think he was writing about any particular educator. He's been around the block a few times, and he has learned to identify global issues. The NYJW article misses something when it makes the issue about Rav Bina specifically, since the problem is present in virtually every school, even if he might be an extreme example of it.

16 comments:

BenRSchwartz said...

Though we usually agree, I find your charisma/cult implication disturbing. The same can/could/is said for all Chassidic, Litvish, Dati Leumi, Modern Orthodox groups if spun properly.

In Judaism we revere rabbinic figures. Sometimes for Torah; sometimes for pedagogy; sometimes for middos. The more effective, the more "cult"-like. Moreover, Judaism itself (like all relgion) is a cult according to most definitions. The problem with Shaviv is that he defines variations in normative human behavior as beyond the pale.

Greg G. said...

Are there any surveys/studies as to why people abandon Orthodoxy? More often than not, when I talk to someone who has left Orthodoxy, there is a rabbinic authority figure involved in the story. If someone isn't doing this research, some of these BY girls need to stop being occupational therapists and speech pathologists and apply themselves a bit more.

Elli Fischer said...

Ben, I offered a working definition of charisma. I do think it applies to many, but not most, and certainly not to the greatest.
There are rabbis who I have profound admiration and even veneration for. R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Amital, Rav Lichtenstein - to name a few. You never get the impression, with any of them, that it's about followings and personality.
I recommend that you read the recent biography of Rav Yehuda Amital. I hope it clarifies things for you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for referring to my piece, which has been reproduced and referenced many times by many Jewish and non-Jewish blogs and other sources. Sadly, it seems to speak to many people's experiences.

1. I also comment that:

"Other parents, however, will rave about how their son/daughter “adores” Mr./Ms/ or Rabbi X, and is learning “so much from them”."

-- see the 'Jewish Week' report (and the comments there and on 'Failed Messiah' for examples of this. In the Jewish community context, Rabbis (and others) will often deliberately overlook totally unacceptable behaviour "because he/she is influencing so many youngsters".

2. re BenRSchwartz (8:11) -- none of this refers to "normative" behaviour....

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"The problem with Shaviv is that he defines variations in normative human behavior as beyond the pale."

He defines a specific type of "Pied Piper." You say that in Judaism we revere rabbinic figures. This may be true, but not all rabbinic figures were or are Pied Pipers, not by a long shot. But if the shoe fits . . .

hubscubs said...

i also usually like what you have to say, but this part was off-mark:

-I suspect many of these kids would drop observance anyway, but it's telling that Rav Bina becomes the object of their loathing-

i don't think it's telling at all. the 'kid' you had at your table was just that, ... a kid. he had nothing else to blame it on, so he found himself a good excuse, a שעיר המשתלח. being treated in a way that is uncomfortable might be the source of their loathing, but leaving religion was their choice and they just look for their nearest pretext to pass the buck.

Elli Fischer said...

Shlomo - Rav Bina was not necessarily the nearest pretext, and there were all sorts of other things to blame it on. One student I remember had several siblings who went OTD. There are always other rabbis and, of course, parents. But for some reason, Rav Bina becomes a lightning rod for all these kids issues with frumkeit. Which is why I stand by what I wrote - it is telling that he becomes the object of loathing, even if I don't believe for a minute that he's really the reason that the kids went OTD.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

"I don't think Paul Shaviv is a prophet"

Phew.

:)

Chanie and Aytan said...

A few points --
1. "The NYJW article misses something when it makes the issue about Rav Bina specifically, since the problem is present in virtually every school, even if he might be an extreme example of it."

I think that there is a difference between a 'pied piper' type, and abuse. I may not like the cult of personality that surrounds certain other educators/rabbis etc. but there is a difference (maybe just a fine line?) between that and verbal and emotional abuse. abuse of power is different than having power.

2. What concerns me here is also the 'bystander' phenomenon, of kids who witness this and dont speak up. A 'bystander' who I know fairly well, who is now an educator, questions what this says about the values we teach our kids at home and in school. does it all end with kavod harav?
also - we all know the stories are true. so why are there so many denying it? did they not see it? do they overlook it? has kavod harav lead them to brush it off?

3. the obvious question is - do the ends, (where some are 'straightened out')justify the means?

cipher said...

i don't think it's telling at all. the 'kid' you had at your table was just that, ... a kid. he had nothing else to blame it on, so he found himself a good excuse, a שעיר המשתלח. being treated in a way that is uncomfortable might be the source of their loathing, but leaving religion was their choice and they just look for their nearest pretext to pass the buck.

Oh, please.

If I were frum, I'd leave just so I wouldn't have to spend my life listening to the incessant stream of rationalizations like this one.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Chanie and Aytan

"I think that there is a difference between a 'pied piper' type, and abuse."

If you read Shaviv's list, the pied piper does abuse. For example, is this not abuse? "As soon as they are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s story. Often such students, very hurt . . ."

If you have in mind other charismatic individuals who don't do these things, then they are not the pied piper type as described by Paul Shaviv.

machine gun fodder said...

He is the gilgul of the Kotker Rebbe.
to quote the kotzker "the middle of the road is for horses".

hubscubs said...

Oh, please.

If I were frum, I'd leave just so I wouldn't have to spend my life listening to the incessant stream of rationalizations like this one.

cipher, as someone who is not frum, i will assume that you are complacent with that choice of lifestyle. many of those observant, however, consider it a shame that people leave religion. so, there's no rationalization. it's sad that you and others no longer want to be observant. why you made that decision is up to each an every one of you. but if you made it due to being picked upon by one rabbi, then you've got a long way to come before you can look at the mirror and be intellectually honest with yourself.

by the way, apparently you have left and yet you still expose yourself to our incessent stream of ... (that's what we call irony).

cipher said...

by the way, apparently you have left and yet you still expose yourself to our incessent stream of ... (that's what we call irony).

A) I was never frum, although I am conversant with the belief system and the lifestyle.

B) You seem to be implying that I can't stay away (the "pintele yid" is calling to me, or some such thing). In fact, I only expose myself to it occasionally. Yesterday, I was directed here by one of Elli's posts on another blog - Failed Messiah, I think.

C) Your reply actually validated my statement. You're proving my point, not yours.

modern chassidish said...

What is emotional abuse? It is sad that Rav Bina is targeted here when there are known instances of Rabbis in insular frum communities who are clearly abusive, no if ands or buts about it. They get away with it. And here you have a Rav Bina who is loved and hated. I think we should be focusing first on the ones who are hated and hated. And they are out there.

Anonymous said...

I have just (Sunday evening) read all of the seven pages of comments on the 'Jewish Week' story. How depressing ... there is ample testimony from numerous individuals (and their spouses) which should make any conscientious person thoroughly alarmed. Yet others, with blind obstinacy, excuse his behaviour, with many blaming the victims. Classic behaviour, with - as one comment suggests - strong indications of sociopathic overtones, both in the reported behaviour but also in the reactions of his defenders. We do not seem to kive in a very healthy community.