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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.