Saturday, December 31, 2005

Understanding Us - A New Model

Due to reading Off The Derech (OTD), and partly because of my general state of affairs, the issue of why a person leaves frumkeit has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I'm not very happy with the standard way people are thinking about the issue. The general approach which people take is that being religious is the status quo (in the current context), and something changes that. Something affects or influences the person to leave the religious path. In the frum world, the typical view of what that "something" is, is usually some sort of negative influence, e.g. the "outside world", a non-religious acquaintance, some sort of temptations, heretical ideas, weakness of character, etc. In her book, Faranak Margolese essentially agrees with this approach, but differs in what she considers the factors that move a person out of that world. She disagrees with the notion of it being outside factors that pull on a person, and instead points to factors within the frum world that push a person out, e.g. pressure to conform, rejection, stifling intellectual conditions, dysfunctional homes, conditional parental love, etc.

However, I think this approach is lacking in sufficiently understanding and analyzing the phenomena. I came to this conclusion as a result of my own experiences: Oftentimes, when I gave a person a reason for why I myself was becoming less and less religious, I was presented with a rebuttal of some kind. For every reason that I put forth, the person would be able to retort with some counter-example demonstrating how that explanation on it's own didn't justify my decision. Putting aside the fact that I know I have no obligation to explain myself to anyone, and that I'm entitled to make my own decisions regardless of if people are satisfied with my answers, it still bothered me that I couldn't properly make my case well enough. Was I really making a proper decision? I don't like feeling that I'm living my life irrationally or impulsively. The challenges got me thinking about the issue a lot more, and eventually, I realized that I had been looking at the matter all wrong. My detractors were actually right. From the traditional perspective of why a person leaves frumkeit (i.e. that something is causing them to leave the status quo) , all my reasons for abandoning Orthodoxy actually were insufficient. But after reexamining the issue and taking a closer look at my motivations, I discovered that (IMHO) that perspective is flawed. I understood this when I took a step back from where I am now, and instead of asking myself, "Why am I leaving?", I asked myself, "Why was I ever there?" And when I properly addressed that question, I realized that the reason I was leaving frumkeit was not because of issues that were driving me to leave, but rather, the reason I was leaving was because all the reasons that had compelled me to be (or to stay) frum in the first place no longer seemed as persuasive and convincing as they had before.

True, I had lots of reasons why I wanted to chuck it all. The intrusive halachic demands. The restrictive and stifling conformity. The overemphasis on torah learning. The obsessive concern about halachic minutia. The lack of any serious opportunities for those not wanting to be learners. The warped priorities and perspectives (see this post and my archives for a more comprehensive and detailed list). But when I took a closer look at my life, I had to admit to myself, none of this was really new. I always had to contend with these issues. (If anything, in my current lifestyle and society, I encounter hardly any of these negative aspects on a regular basis.) So if these issues weren't new, then what was the new ingredient in my life that was giving me that push to get out?

Like I said, I had all those hassles back when I was a fully participating, card-carrying member of the yeshiva world, but somehow back then I managed to tolerate it all. Not only did I tolerate it, but in many ways I even thrived on all the things that now are nuisances to me. This accepting attitude obviously stemmed from how I felt about it all, what I believed then, and how I viewed life, religion, halacha, myself, the world, etc. Looking back on it all from my current vantage point, I can clearly see that even though I might have had to put up with the same hassles that I do now (actually much more of them), the fact that I had certain countervailing positive motivations (and some not positive, but nonetheless forceful and compelling) allowed me to take all those negative aspects in stride, and they therefore did not affect me in the way they are now. (Additionally, my abysmal ignorance and lack of critical thinking skills created a foundation upon which to lay many of the ideas which I took for granted in that world. Sadly, I no longer have the luxury of naiveté.)

After understanding this about myself and my past, I came up with a new response for when people ask me about my religious transition. Now my reply is something along the lines of, "Why am I not religious? Because all the motivations and reasons I once had to keep me there no longer apply."

Essentially, what I'm getting at is that there is some sort of equilibrium that we all maintain within ourselves. We all have a multitude of factors that affect our feelings and our beliefs. In my case, back when I was younger and a bit more naïve, I believed in it all, in the rightness and importance and truths of the frum world, and that knowledge translated into a conviction that was able to withstand all the negativity that I had to endure. But I'm no longer convinced of all that the frum world is trying to sell me, and therefore my negative sentiments are not so easily addressed.

This is the critical difference in how I look at people "going off", as opposed to the way it's usually understood. In my model, there is no status quo that is affected by some new element (or bunch of elements) that suddenly enter into a persons life and affect them to change. There is however, always a constellation of factors that add up to one or another outcome in the person's mind (and heart), and as the constellation changes, so does the result. Even before any new, unexpected element comes into the persons life that may shift their attitude towards religion, there are already factors present that have contributed to the persons feelings and beliefs. New factors might well affect the outcome, but they need to be understood in the context of all that already exists there. Any new element is not just a negative value being applied to the sum total of the person's belief, but rather one more variable in the complex formula that already exists in the person's psyche.

Although this might seem to be only a subtle variation from how the matter is usually understood, it's an important distinction, because with this perspective, an observer that is trying to understand what caused an individual to leave Orthodoxy (or a person trying to understand themselves) can know not to look only at new factors that might have entered their lives in the recent past, but to also examine long held perspectives and beliefs and assess how they may have changed, which would consequently have affected the person's overall sentiments towards the matter.

I think this is also why I was so frustrated with Mrs. Margolese's OTD book. She lists many, many valid and legitimate factors that cause a person to go OTD, and brings examples to prove it, but like I wrote in my review, any knowledgeable person can probably come up with just as many examples to show how some specific issue isn't really a cause, and the approach she advocates (regarding that specific issue) shouldn't be advocated.

But if we apply my model to the issue, we see that all those issues she mentions - while no doubt contributing factors to any person's ultimate decision - are only part of the story, and need to be viewed in light of how they interact with all the other factors and beliefs that are already present within the individual. (To be fair, she does always maintain that it's never one thing that causes a person to go OTD, and that there's almost always a variety of contributing factors. She also does give credence to the idea of how feelings have developed even before the issue manifests itself, but I don't believe she is adopting the holistic approach that I'm advocating here.)

Once I had this new perspective of my situation, I started seeing how things were affecting me so much more clearly. When I honestly examined the true nature of my belief in frumkeit, and began to appreciate the myriad concepts, beliefs, fears, assumptions, trusts, and perspectives that my belief system rested upon, I became acutely aware every time I encountered something which threatened that framework. And every time the challenge was not met successfully, I felt another strut in the foundation of my belief system being violently kicked out. And with every strut that cracked, the staggering weight of all the negativity and doubt bore down even harder on my few remaining supports.

In fact, I think the analogy of supporting struts is apt for so many reasons. When I think about it, I visualize my years in yeshiva as a time when my rabbeim and society were putting up hundreds and hundreds of them, creating a powerful substructure to support my Judaism. Some of those supports were large, central, foundational pillars (like trusting in Gedolim and that everything in the torah is absolutely and literally true), and others were akin to a smaller reinforcement (like the notion that every aspect of chareidi society is rooted in the torah). Over the years, despite the increasing burden placed on them (my negative experiences), they withstood it all, and stood firm throughout. But at some point in my life, I started seeing things a bit differently, reading, being exposed to other approaches, thinking a bit more critically, and on occasion, a support would break. At first, it wasn't a problem. The structure still had more than enough reinforcement to keep it steady. And that rare breach was dealt with easily enough: I discussed the troubling issue with my rabbeim, they showed me the error of my ways, and the strut was back in place. But soon enough, the cracks were appearing more frequently, and not always were they able to be patched sufficiently. I was learning that things I had been taught were inaccurate. That fundamental beliefs were not universally agreed upon. That history was not as it had been presented to me. That all was not goodness and bliss in our community. That leaders were not as smart or as proper or as full of integrity as I thought. That keeping mitzvos isn't a panacea. That not everything that I was told was so terrible really was. That many frum concepts and behaviors were actually rooted in non-Jewish sources. That things didn't always add up the way they were supposed to (but thank God, the gematrias always did).

The structure was collapsing all over.

It has not collapsed entirely. It still stands to some degree. It isn't much recognizable from what it once was, most definitely not like it's original architects envisioned it, but I believe there are some sections still mostly intact. At this time, remnants of the original edifice can be clearly seen and identified, but I really don't know how much longer even those fragments will remain.

We'll see.