Title: Think Big: The Torah Path for the Teenage Male
By Rabbi Ilan Halberstadt
Mosaica Press, 206 pages
My sons are on the threshold of being teenagers. I raised teenage girls but am just getting my feet wet with teenage boys. I was eager to read this book and hear what an expert educator who has worked with hundreds of young men has to say.
The first thing that surprised me is that this is not a book for parents to help them with their teenagers. No, this book is for teenagers. This book is talking to a teenager who is wondering about the point of it all and why you are doing this and if you want to be doing this. What is “this”? Learning and keeping Torah.
As I read this book, I imagined my sons reading it. I imagined reading it with my sons. I imagined my friends giving it to their sons. I imagined teenage boys that I was acquainted with that I don’t know so well. What would they think about the point I just read? What would they think about this book as a whole?
I hesitate to express my opinion. Who am I? I’ve taught high school for 20 years, but I taught girls. I have very little experience with high school males other than my ninth-grader, and I’m not out there addressing these complicated issues, and I’m a novice. One of my sons asked me last week why he has to daven three times a day. Why is there an obligation to think about the ideas in tefillah so often, and why is it so boring? I stumbled; the answers I gave were not satisfactory – I could see it in his eyes. We want to defend our Torah to our children. The Torah is relevant, wise, beautiful, deep, useful. How can we show this to our children?
I jotted down the pages of things I disagreed with as I read, and folded down the pages of things I found compelling or moving. Rabbi Halberstadt says at the start that he doesn’t think that the big question of this generation is “Is the Torah true or not?” Therefore, he doesn’t address this point. I respect this approach; this does mean, though, that if you are a teen grappling with “Is this true?” you will find certain points in this book dissatisfying or incomplete. In fact, the majority of points I jotted down probably relate to statements in the book that I felt would be insufficiently persuasive and seem to expect a reader to take things on trust that are unearned. For example, “Sin clogs your spiritual arteries.” What are spiritual arteries? What does it mean to clog them? Why or how does sin do that? He tries to explain spirituality but many times I thought of teenagers I know who reject the entire concept of sin or spiritual harm.
The second thing I wasn’t sure about, and this is controversial, is how much space was given to the internet. I think this would have been a stronger book without addressing it. (Just as I think a hypothetical book geared to the Torah path for teenage females would be stronger without bringing up tznius dress.) I think the broad fundamentals and relevance of Torah can be discussed with greater breathing room and higher odds of being heard if it isn’t bogged down by these high-intensity, high-stress issues. (I strongly recommend Rabbi Scott Kahn and therapist Talli Rosenbaum’s episode on the podcast Intimate Judaism on July 24, 2018, on this topic.) However, since I thought my view may be lacking some perspective, I asked a charedi friend her opinion. She (whose older sons are further down the teenage path than mine) felt it was handled sensitively and well, and that the guidelines are clear and realistic. She did agree that this seems more community-specific and that this section may be less relatable to a more Modern Orthodox audience.
Onward to talking about some of the great parts of this book.
The author explains this time of life as a transition time between childhood and adulthood. He normalizes and sets a framework for what it means to be neither child nor fully-independent adult, to have tremendous intellectual growth and awareness and the increased capacity and freedom to act. Everything is sprinkled with beautiful Torah sources or examples that back up and expand his ideas. He talks about purpose, identity, character and choice. About humans as physical, mental, and spiritual beings. About chasing illusions versus reality.
Chapter 10 is an example of something I’d like to tell any teenager, and I’m proud that our Torah has such strong, clear guidance in this way: character development is an important part of being Jewish. And we do not expect anyone to be born perfect or to improve without putting in the time and effort. Your natural tendencies and dispositions are not fatalistic predictions of your future.
He talks about teshuvah. He talks about tefillah. He talks about Shabbos. Short, poignant, clear, and meaningful.
One part of the book that keeps sticking with me is the chapter “How to Learn Gemara and Enjoy it.” Gemara is the most emphasized subject in the teenage male curriculum. It’s the fundamental opus of our mesorah, and requires dedication, skill, and ability – which naturally means some young people will have trouble with it. I loved the entire chapter. I love that he said clarity is more important than impressive-looking complexity. That clarity equals enjoyment. That pleasure is essential in learning, but learning also takes effort. He gives a step-by-step approach to precisely what type of effort, how to do it, how long each step generally takes, and what happens during each step. It is clear and enlightening. Simple, but not easy. He urges us to invest.
Twenty years ago, a woman told me that her husband (from whom she is now divorced), who came from a frum family, was learning in Israel and struggling. He went to one of the Rebbeim and said, “I’m struggling.”
“Keep learning,” he was told. “Everything you struggle with will be helped if you keep learning.”
“Learning wasn’t enough,” this young lady told me. “He needed his questions answered. He needed someone to talk to.”
In that sense, this is what Rabbi Halberstadt does with this book. He speaks to the mind and the heart, and talks about energy, goals, values – things that preoccupy a young adult on the brink of autonomy. That’s what makes the chapter on Gemara learning so charming; learning Gemara is in the context of appreciating Torah in general and keeping a Torah way of life because the Torah is designed for our uniquely physical, mental, and spiritual nature.