Monday, October 31, 2005

Book Review - Off The Derech

I just finished reading the new book, Off The Derech – Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism. Written by Faranak Margolese and published by Devorah Publishing. I had a lot of thoughts and comments on it that I wanted to share, but I neglected to take proper notes as I was reading it, so I don’t have it all organized properly and prepared to present coherently. For now, I’ll just say that I agree with almost all the main points of the author, but at the same time I was very disappointed in how she presented her positions. In my opinion, she was nowhere nearly as persuasive as she should have been. While I almost always found myself agreeing with her points, it bothered me that almost all her arguments were only supported by either anecdotal evidence, cute chassidish-like vertlach, random “chazal’s”, or quotes from rabbis, mechanchim and frum therapists. Even her survey, which while interesting and revealing, she admits is unscientific.

Edit: I don't mean to say that her positions really don't have any substantial support. I believe they do. She says that she has interviewed hundreds of people who have "gone off", and been researching the subject for five years, so that is definitely more than anecdotal. What I meant is that when she writes about the issues and presents her position on any particular factor, she usually doesn't bring any sort of verifiable statistics or recorded reports to back up what she's saying. I trust that she has the data and support for her views, but for the most part it's absent from her presentation. I understand that a complex sociological study like this might be difficult to break down into clear-cut factoids and measurable results, but overall, as I was reading through it, all the quotes, cute divrei torah, and brief recollections actually made me feel like I was reading some advice column from a d'var torah sheet or a chareidi periodical. It didn't feel very academic, scientific or professional.

For those who don’t know, the book is an examination of the trend of people who leave the Orthodox world and pursue a life uncommitted to halacha. (Going “off the derech” is a euphemism for those who have stepped off the path of religious life.) She takes a close look at the issue, exploring it from many angles, detailing countless motivators for the behavior, and clearly outlining the distinct roles various factors (family, education, community, role models, emotions, intellectual difficulties, etc.) have in influencing a person to consider leaving the religious lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, she advocates an approach of being more tolerant, open, flexible, accepting, respectful, and more positive towards the whole religious experience. She demonstrates the danger of being too restrictive and demanding. She tries to show the importance of allowing a sincere religious motivation to develop rather than forcing Judaism on its adherents. There’s a lot of good stuff in the book, and it’s refreshing to hear someone point out some of the problems that are prevalent in Orthodox societies nowadays. For every issue she examines, she brings numerous stories and quotes to support her views.

However, despite the fact that I’m in almost total agreement with her overall approach, ultimately I was unimpressed with her presentation. In my opinion, although critical of them, she doesn’t convincingly show how truly damaging and destructive so many of the views and attitudes that are common and accepted in today’s religious society really are. Additionally, too often it seems that she’s holding back. At times, the criticism is tempered by sympathetic rationalizations meant to excuse the very problems she disapproves of. On other occasions, she follows up her position with an almost apologetic defense of the more restrictive approach. While I understand her ambivalence to criticize a behavior that may be common among many respected torah figures and religious communities, if she really does feel it’s wrong she should just say it like it is and not soften her criticisms with contrite apologetics.

Overall, I’d say the book is important in how it highlights many damaging attitudes, behaviors, and trends in frum society. But I feel that most people in today’s age probably know about these issues already. So either you agree that the problems are serious, and you don’t need a book like this to tell you what you already know. Or you've heard her arguments in the past, but you also know the counterarguments to them and you've decided to settle on the more restrictive approach to being religious which she is against. Most people who appreciate the book probably already agree with most of her arguments, so for them the book is just a case of preaching to the converted. And for the crowd who disagrees with her, well, they’ll probably just nod along, admitting that what she points out are indeed serious problems, but that they aren’t really relevant to their own situation, and anyway there are also potential risks in her approach and they have rabbonim and chazal’s to back up their approach just like she does. In other words, it won't have any affect on these people whatsoever! After all, isn’t that the reaction people have been having until now? The book is chock full of quotes from well known educators, rabbis and mental health professionals who have been saying these things for ages (much of her material is excerpts from pieces published in chareidi periodicals and books). And no one’s taken their message seriously up until now. So why expect anything different from this latest effort? Although I sincerely hope I’m wrong, I highly doubt too many people are going to dramatically change their approach to chinuch after reading this book.

Some of the positives:
  • She unabashedly and courageously places the blame for the problem squarely at the foot of the Jewish community, refusing to buy into the oft-heard excuses and accusations that are trotted out about people who go off the derech.
  • She does a masterful job of outlining the different issues that may affect a person towards leaving religiosity, how they interact, and how they build upon one another.
  • She draws upon a varied and eclectic range of religious personalities for supporting her positions. There are quotes from Rabbi Berel Wein, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, Dennis Prager, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Rabbi Natan L. Cordozo, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Rav A. Y. Kook, The Chazon Ish, various roshei yeshiva and Bais Yakov principals, directors of programs for at-risk kids (for example the founders of Priority One, Project Rejewvenation, Project Chazon, Ohel, Project YES, etc.), and various well known frum therapists.
  • Many of the problems she focuses on are things that I have been saying on this blog for months, e.g. emotional factors play a more primary role in a person’s attitude towards frumkeit than intellectual ones, that truth is not enough to motivate someone to be frum, the importance of relevance, how damaging negative religious experiences can be to a person’s growth, the affect it has on the person when the trust in the system is broken, etc. Apparently, I'm onto something.
Some of the negatives:
  • It reads like a frummie book. I guess that isn’t really such a bad thing, as it is after all marketed to the frum crowd, but I found it very annoying.
  • It’s nice that she’s got so many rabbis backing her up, but the fact that she doesn’t usually have anything more substantial (How about some documented studies or hard data?) really isn’t a good thing. While I agree with most of what she’s saying, I also know that for every rabbi who supports her approach of being more accepting, tolerant, etc. I can find two others who say we have to tighten the reigns to protect other kids. For every shtickel torah about being more understanding and accepting I can bring you just as many to show you how important it is to be demanding and restrictive. It’s all nice what she’s saying, but it’s just not a very solid or persuasive argument for one who knows both sides of the debate.
  • Many of the stories that she brings to support her positions – while very illustrative of problems in society - are quite ambiguous and do not necessarily support the specific point she’s trying to make. For example: A rosh yeshiva told a prospective student, “Real bochurim don’t read newspapers.” In my opinion, this could demonstrate any of a bunch of problematic attitudes (all of which she touches on at various points in the book): the trend towards a very narrow definition of orthodoxy, dismissiveness and rejection of those not ascribing to your view, pressure to conform, etc. She uses the story to illustrate negative attitudes towards the outside world. I suppose it could be seen that way, but it does seem to be a bit of a stretch. (Once again, my nitpicking is not to undermine her point. I agree the attitude is potentially harmful, but the story doesn’t support it very strongly, and therefore using it as a support only weakens her argument.)
  • She contradicts herself at times. I even found that some of the people she quotes aren't consistent, neither with each other, or even with some of their other quotes she uses in other places. (Which kind of proves my point about the ease of being able to find a rabbi who maintains an opposing view.) She even contradicted something she told me in person (I met her over sukkot) with what she explicitly wrote in the book.
Some of her common themes:
  • People aren’t leaving because of the pull of the outside world. They’re leaving because they want to get away from the frum one.
  • The wiles of the yetzer hara doesn’t make a person go off the derech. They may make a person stumble, but to completely leave, at root there must be much more serious problem which is undoubtedly a result of bigger things than the occasional (or even frequent) sin.
  • While it’s true that religious life can be difficult and challenging, and kids have to absorb that lesson, that kind of lesson has to be the exception, not the rule.
  • To truly last in the way it's supposed to be, a person's Judaism must be positive, meaningful, and motivated by a sincere desire to live that life.
Essentially, when it comes to this issue, we all know the debate. One side says to be more understanding, accepting, flexible, less restrictive, give people more autonomy, allow people to develop their own feelings about religious experiences, etc. and by doing that people will have a more positive experience with Yiddishkeit. The other side says that we need to batten down the hatches, do whatever we can to keep out the influences, make kids realize that Yiddishkeit is important and must be followed no matter how you feel, etc., and that will stave off the defections.

The debate is an old one. And everyone has chosen a side by now. We don’t need a book to simply tell us the benefits of any one perspective. We need a book that can clearly and forcibly show us all how absolutely vital this approach is. And how fundamentally flawed and dangerous the other approach is. Unfortunately, as worthwhile as I feel it is, I don’t think this book is that.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Four of Seven

The Wolf tagged me with the silly Seven Meme, so I guess I'll play along. Hope it's ok that I got creative and made up a few of my own categories.

7 Things I Can Do:
  1. At least 3 times a day show how this occurrence or that experience is just like in some episode of Seinfeld or Friends.
  2. Make a mean potato kugel.
  3. Perform an impressive juggling-like routine involving 2 sets of nun-chucks and four blazing swinging balls of fire. (It's way cooler than juggling torches.)
  4. Pretend I know exactly what you're talking about when really I have no clue whatsoever.
  5. Take beautiful pictures.
  6. Understand women. Sometimes.
  7. Write half-decently.
7 Things I Can't Do, But Wish I Could:
  1. Understand the stock market, economics, or politics.
  2. Stay focused on my goals.
  3. Make music.
  4. Take notes well.
  5. Convince frum people that following halacha isn't the most important thing in the world.
  6. Live my life with a bit of self-discipline.
  7. Know what to say to people to make them feel better.
7 Things I Have In My Life Now That I Am So Incredibly Grateful For:
  1. The ability to see the sun rise over Jerusalem every morning.
  2. The ability to work in my pajamas.
  3. That my boss and I are good friends.
  4. That I am able to be paid for doing work that I enjoy immensely.
  5. That I still have a full head of hair.
  6. That all my material needs are pretty much met.
  7. That I am me.
7 People From History I Wish I Could Get To Know:
  1. Rabbi Akiva
  2. Benjamin Franklin
  3. The Ba'al Shem Tov
  4. Leonardo da Vinci
  5. Rabbi Aryeh Levine
  6. FDR
  7. Andy Kaufman
Bloggers I'm passing this on to:
PS - Here's the traceroute for the meme (thanks to Steg for tracking the first generations):

Karl » Jen » Z » Mirty » Rav Fleischmann » Steg » Orthomom » Krum » Brooklyn Wolf » Me

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


I'm not the same person I was a few years ago. Overall I'm grateful for that, but occasionally, it's a real shame. Because sometimes I hear or read something which I just wish I could have discovered back in the days when I was a trusting, innocent, da'as torah believing yeshiva bochur. Alas, those sweet and unspoiled times are no more. Yet it's just too interesting of an opportunity to pass up. So I'm going to attempt a bit of a time warp. I'm going to try to recapture that bygone era, to return to that pristine state of immaculate faith and imagine what would have gone through my head if the old Me had just read what I did. Here goes:


I just read this letter from R' Nosson Slifkin to R' Moshe Meiselman. I just don't know what to say! I'm angry, and in shock, and very, very upset! (The letter is a response to various objections and comments R' Meiselman made regarding R' Slifkin and the ideas expounded in his books.)

I have to admit that I'm not very knowledgeable in the overall issues or even the specific points that are mentioned in the letter, and so make no claim about the veracity of the overall dispute regarding Science vs. Torah (although I think you might be able to figure which side of the debate I'd side with). But putting all that aside, if R' Slifkin is being honest in his presentation of R' Meiselman's comments, (he does provide specific quotes from recorded sources, which would be pretty easy to verify, and which therefore cause me to believe that he's being truthful), R' Meiselman's assault on R' Slifkin is entirely inexcusable. Seeing how R' Meiselman unfairly disparaged him, distorted his words, lied outright, misrepresented his intentions, and was just overall deplorable in his treatment of R' Slifkin made me sick to my stomach. I felt betrayed and deceived. It was exactly the type of reaction which my inner apikores loves to shove right up into my face as he loudly proclaims, "You see! This is what roshei yeshiva are like!"

But I ask myself why this really matters. After all, to a frum Jew, someone who believes in the importance of halacha, it's irrelevant if even the most prominent gadol hador (which no one claims R' Meisleman is, but he is a well respected rosh yeshiva) was caught red-handed in a great juicy fib. Halacha is meant to be adhered to regardless of how other people behave. Yet for some reason the whole thing grates on me terribly. After pondering the matter for a few brief moments, I think I know why it's troubling me so much.

To so many of us whose knowledge of the deep philosophical and ideological truths of Judaism are quite deficient, the fact of the matter is that our commitment to Judaism is to a large part based on trust. Halacha isn't easy to keep, but we keep it because we know it's the right thing. But how do we know that? Most of us haven't really studied or investigated that claim with any real depth. Yet even while we are aware of our lack of solid intellectual grounding, we still trust that that the belief is true. But why? I think if we were to examine why most of us believe that many of our cherished ideas are true, we'll discover that it's simply because our rabbeim have told us that it is so. They've taught us, and explained to us, and instilled it within us, that this is the right path. And we trust these people. We trust them for all sorts of things, but we also most definitely trust them that they understand torah well, that they are fair minded, honest, and considerate. And that they know best. So even though we ourselves can't know for certain it's the right thing, we rest easy knowing that these great people, who are so much wiser and more knowledgeable than us, must surely have investigated the issues properly, deliberated carefully, and thoroughly considered all the factors before coming to the conclusion that our path is indeed the right one.

But when I see something like the above, when I see a person that is considered a talmid chacham, one who is supposedly fair-minded and reasonable, and who posseses much knowledgeable of torah, one who is looked up to and admired as a bearer of truth, displaying such an utterly reprehensible demonstration of prejudice and untrustworthiness, it shakes me to my very core. And it makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, the trust I put in my rabbis about the torah being right and proper might actually be mistaken too.