Thursday, May 24, 2007


A lesson from the yeshiva bochur's playbook:

1) Torah is right and true, and that fact is patently obvious to everyone who bothers to think about it.
2) So, then, how could it be that people don't follow the torah?
3) Because they simply don't care enough about doing what's right.
4) Obviously, no one wants to think of themselves as someone who doesn't care about right and wrong, so in order to let themselves sleep at night, they rationalize and say that really they believe that the torah is not at all true.
5) But of course, we all know that the torah is totally true. From here we see the amazing power of the mind to rationalize and make us change our beliefs when the heart wants to do something that it shouldn't (a.k.a. following the yetzer hara).

This is a basic fact of the world that most any yeshiva guy would be able to tell you. "It's pashut," they would tell you. Simple. And just one of the many unflattering ways in which non-religious people are portrayed in the chareidi world - unprincipled, impulsive hedonists who do whatever they want and then come up with a justification after the fact to rationalize their behavior.

Putting aside the fundamentally flawed premise that the argument rests on, I would actually agree with part of that assertion. I tend to agree that people find ingenious ways to rationalize their behavior all the time. Cognitive dissonance is probably far more prevalent in our lives than we care to acknowledge. We don't ever want to admit that something we are doing may be wrong. But despite that concession, I don't think it's fair or accurate to look at the world the way the chareidi world does.

And specifically in this regard, I think there's another approach which might actually better explain why people stop believing certain things about Judaism when they stop following halacha: It's simply that for many people, the main reason they were believing those ideas in the first place was not out of a conviction of their truth, but rather because they needed to believe in them in order to justify how they lived their lives! And now that they aren't living that lifestyle anymore, they consequently have no need to believe the ideas anymore either!

Think about it: What could possibly justify putting ourselves through the burdens and nuisances of frum life? For most people, the only thing that could really make it worth staying committed to such a demanding responsibility would be if they believe that it really matters in some larger sense. But if they stopped having that massive yoke weighing down on them, they wouldn't have to believe that all of that stuff mattered!

Imagine a person who is trapped in an unhappy relationship, with no chance of ever escaping it. Because they're stuck in it, their mind comes up with all sorts of reasons why this relationship is actually a good thing - how it provides so many benefits, why no one else can see how wonderful it is, how it's the fulfillment of all their deepest wishes, etc. They need those explanations, because without them, the reality of their life is simply too distressing to acknowledge. But if somehow, through some unexpected yet fortuitous turn of events, they managed to escape their prison, do you think they'd retain those views? Would they actually look back on that relationship with any fondness?

This perspective is actually the exact opposite of the frum explanation. They see the situation as people starting with a core belief, and from that conviction their torah observant lifestyle arises - The actions derive from the belief. The way I'm seeing it now is people being straddled with a challenging and difficult lifestyle and needing some rationalization for why they have such a demanding life -The belief is born from the actions. So, according to the frum world, when people's beliefs change in response to the lifestyle changing, it's a result of dishonest rationalizing. The way I see it, when the beliefs change to match the actions, it's actually a more honest expression of who they truly are than when they imposed those beliefs on themselves. In fact, now that I think about it, it was back when they were believing all those ideas, that they were rationalizing more than ever!

Ironic, no? Chareidim look at the rest of the world and see endless rationalizing, yet it may well be that for so many chareidim, it's their ability to rationalize that lets them get by without having to face the inconsistencies and inanities of their lives!

You know, I think they may have been a bit mistaken about something they taught us back in yeshiva: It wasn't Torah that sustained klal yisrael through the ages. It was our ability to rationalize the absurdities of our existence.


Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the general thrust of this post. To be fair, though, I wouldnt use the term "rationalization" to describe the ORIGINS of the Torah lifestyle (as currently observed)- though cetainly rationalization plays a large role in SUSTAINING the lifestyle (individually and culturally), as you have described. It seems to me that our ancestors, like all other societies (and individuals!) simply did the best they could to make meaning of their experiences (many of which were tragic and "absurd")- and their meaning-making efforts, like those of their contemporaries, involved fantastical stories (perhaps based partially on actual events- who knows!) rituals, and symbols, etc- all of which, unfortunately have since taken on a life of their own... Of course, it didnt help matters any that many of our "beloved" leaders-of-old believed that the "masses" couldnt be told the TRUTH of why they were instructed to do/believe certain things (otherwise, if "the masses" actually realized that the stories were only "lessons" or metaphors, and the rituals were largely symbolic, then they'd STOP DOING THEM, heaven forbid!) and instead the leaders decided to pass off the legends as LITERAL TRUTH (dumbing them down to their level, as they remain till this day, e.g. The Midrash Says series) while at the same time scaring the people into submission (we all can imagine how, as the same methods were probably used on most of us!)... and in the meantime, our beloved leaders throughout the centuries have continued adding and developing rituals to guard the other rituals to guard the original rituals to the point where the ancient intent has become TOTALLY obscured- but by that point, no one could muster the guts to admit that the cultural the practices have evolved beyond recognition, so instead they dug their heels in and INTESIFIED the culture of fear and submission while also ADDING ON even more detail to the rituals, and tbe snowball effect goes on and on and on.... AND by this point in time, rationalization has long sense become a means to survival. So- here's my question: At what point in time did "perpetuation" become more important as a Jewish cultural value than the integrity (e.g., content/form, intent, etc) of that which we where trying to preserve in the first place?

Anonymous said...

(Continued from above) and more importantly, WHY?

Baal Habos said...

Very true, but I'd like to clarify one point about the rationalization. I think most Frum people, at least in my circle, are so indoctrinated they do not even need the rationalization. CD only comes into play once you begin questioning the faith. There is no need to rationalize when you really are sure you have the truth.

The Hedyot said...

BH -
I agree with you overall. When someone fully believes, there's not much need for rationalizations. However, even when someone believes in the overall truth of the system, there are many smaller issues that almost everyone questions to some degree. "Is it really necessary to follow this halacha?" "Do I really have to go by what Rabbi Y says?" "Does God really care if I don't do Z?" It's on these issues, which while seemingly minor, are quite numerous in the everyday life of a believer, which call upon him to rationalize.

KarkaOlam said...

It really seems that your feelings/thoughts stem from terrible experiences with this entire Chareidi world from which you come (especially after what I read in today's newspaper – that some Charedim decided that it was a terrible thing that non-religious people decided to learn Torah on Shavuot in a non-orthodox way, and challenged them to a competition with students from a Yeshiva Ketana to prove that Charedi children know more Torah than they do…) and therefore I can understand that you think that those who stick with it must rationalize to themselves why they are willing to follow such annoying rules. Apparently they are forced to do and believe in ridiculous things. I must however stress, what I strongly believe, and that is that Judaism with its structure, hard as it may sometimes be, brings a lot of happiness to my life and to those of many people that I know.. I personally have also met a few people in my life who "rationalized' themselves out of religion and then missed it/G-d so much that even though they truly believed that it was all/mostly fabricated they decided to take it up again and are now observant and raise their children to follow Halacha. And yes some aspects of Judaism are difficult and, sometimes things don't make sense to me and I try to do them anyway (but I don't kill myself if I don't because I believe that G-d would do the same) and I don't need to rationalize each time I follow these rules, much like women don't have to rationalize each time they wear high heels (because someone once decided it is sexy – does this make sense????) or why we don’t wear pajamas to work (who decided this rule???). I (and many others, I believe) do these things because it makes me happy to be part of a group, part of the oldest nation still alive today and a very special one at that, part of a huge fascinating framework. I do these things also because it satisfies me to be able to somehow take part in a divine plan and it allows me to show my love to G-d who, I believe, has given us so much.

So now I've also read the other comments and here are a few of my thoughts. First to Anonymous I, I'm not sure what you would accept as the initial guidelines that we should follow – what came before all the Chumras? Because even if you wanted to accept that the only source is the Torah, you would still have to accept those, not so simple, rules upon yourself, no? and if you are willing to accept Oral Torah, you must know that there are ways to track down Halachot and sift out the Chumras and the fantastical stories from the core Halachot and ideas. And Anonymous II – I'm frum and was not at all indoctrinated but taught, and in the most open minded way. And now the Muezzin is telling me that it's time to sleep – Layla tov and Shavua tov!

The Hedyot said...

Karka Olam - Thanks for your thoughts. It was only a theory, and one which I would only propose would apply to some people. For those who truly find that religion brings them genuine happiness and fulfillment, there is no need to rationalize, just like someone in a truly fulfilling relationship doesn't need to rationalize about that. Alas, I was definitely not one of those people, and I think that most people who grew up in the society I did, felt similarly.

bryce said...

"And just one of the many unflattering ways in which non-religious people are portrayed in the chareidi world - unprincipled, impulsive hedonists who do whatever they want and then come up with a justification after the fact to rationalize their behavior."

I didn't know Aldous Huxley was chareidi:

"I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. & For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political."

Aldous Huxley: Ends and Means, pp. 270 ff.

mnuez said...

At least as regards myself I can tell you that what you describe is the exact reason why I lit a match on Shabbat after having been entirely religiously observant for some three decades.

I considered the exact possibility that you wrote about: That I only considered the possibility of there being some truth to Judaism because I was keeping it anyway and could, in all honesty, not conceive off not keeping it. At the time I consider the likelihood of there being some truth to the basic ideas of Judaism as somewhere around 57%. I resolved therefore to risk incurring the worst of all possible punishments by violating capital laws and seeing then (after a period of some time) whether my intellectually held views might change as regard the possibility of there being some Divine/Jewish connection. I expected that they would not.

Interestingly, my views inded didn't change at all for some year or so but at this point (around 2.5 years after lighting that match on Shabbos after many Hachanois and a Hineni Muchan) I would say that it appears to me that the likelihood of there being something metaphysical about Jews is down to around 37%. As to whether this change is due to my having had to rationalize the possibility of the truth of Judaism some three years ago owing to the fact that I was stuck in the jail cell of keeping it all "anyway" or whether this change is due to the comfort of my freer lifestyle at the current is a fine question. Naturally I'm inclined to side with the former explanation - the one that you wrote about above - but who can say.

(Note to "Bryce": Your revelation as to the true and nefarious intentions of Our Great Leader is indeed shocking. We've been caught with our pants down and we have no response. Boy are you smart!)

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

Think about it: What could possibly justify putting ourselves through the burdens and nuisances of frum life?

In theory, a "truly committed" frum person might tell you that he doesn't see his obligations as nuisances (the way Stan Marsh's dad tells Stan "We don't have to go to church on Sunday. We get to."

In reality, most frum people I've met see observance as nuisances to be circumvented, thus, wigs, timers, eruvs, etc. I recall a conversation with a leader in MO who said "between you and me, Shabbos is a drag".

Thanks for a thoughful post, as always.

bryce said...

Ben Sorer wrote:
"In reality, most frum people I've met see observance as nuisances to be circumvented, thus, wigs, timers, eruvs, etc."

I'm so sad that you've been hanging around downers. Personally, most frum people I've met see observance more like a sport. Instead of 'nuisances', they would probably see the mitzvot as 'obstacles' -- in the sense that an athlete excitedly runs an obstacle course.

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

In reality, most frum people I've met see observance as nuisances

I meant "many" (or "some"), not "most".

bryce said...

Thought you'd appreciate this quote:

Though many of our rationalizations may be true, they are not real truths to us as long as we are employing them as rationalizations.
- From A Candle by Day by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein