Monday, June 04, 2007

A New Perspective

Far too often than I care for, I'm posed the question of "What made you become non-religious?"

Similarly, I noticed on Rabbi Horowitz's website, he has added a poll, asking basically the same question, "What is (are) the primary cause(s) of children abandoning Yiddishkeit?"

Like Hillel being asked to teach the entire Torah in a brief lesson, I believe that it's impossible to properly address that question with any simplistic answers (at least in my case). Every time I think about the matter, I uncover new dimensions of the issue that seem to shed further light on my choices, and at times, the new insights even contradict perspectives that I had previously, confounding me further.

The other day, as I was sitting in my bed, pondering this never ending quandary, it occurred to me that the discussion might be enhanced somewhat if the question was sharpened just a bit. I realized that in my case, to ask the question of what caused me to become irreligious was too vague, as there were actually two distinct categories of what led me along my path, which can be reflected in the following formulation:

1) What made me want to become non-religious?
2) What made me actually become non-religious?

The distinction highlights that there are two aspects to the process: the experiences, ideas, and emotions that make a person want to leave, and the things that actually allow the person to act on those feelings, which usually are the circumstances in the persons life changing to some degree.

I realized that when people discuss this topic they often mix up the different aspects quite a bit, and one can usually tell from which aspect they may focus on how they fundamentally view the issue.

When you hear people talking about how important it is to keep young people away from those things that might cause them to "go off the derech", what do we usually hear? Internet, college, people from different religious backgrounds, secular media, etc. But if we take a closer look, all those things don't make a person actually want to leave - they just open a door to a world that is off limits to a person. Isn't it strange that they're so afraid of opening a door? Well, it's not really so surprising, because they know very well that so many people, if given a chance to get out, would jump at the soonest opportunity. These things don't make a person want to leave, they just help them make the choice to leave. The seeds of discontent which have brought the person to this point had been lain much earlier, when they were experiencing all the unpleasantness that can be part of a religious upbringing.

So most of the frum world's (and seemingly the Gedolim's too, based on their public pronouncements) strategy against defectors is basically premised on the fact that they know that people don't want to be frum. But they figure if they lock the ghetto doors tight enough they can prevent people from leaving. Or at least keep them in until they're old enough to somehow find some rationale of their own for staying; either due to arriving at some sort of appreciation of their own for being frum, or because they are trapped due to familial and/or social obligations, or some other factor which compels them to adhere to that lifestyle even when no external pressures are present.

Yet so few leaders (if any!) ever address the real issue of why people want to get out. They just talk more and more about how crucial it is to keep people under a tighter and shorter leash, always keeping an eye out on everything that a young person might do, just in case there is some telltale sign of their potential straying. Their whole focus is on restricting access, and tightening the reins, instead of honestly examining what is so fundamentally wrong with their lifestyle that so many people want to get out of it.

I had this confirmed recently in a talk I had with a close relative. We were discussing his choices for where he was going to send his son to high school. It was quite clear to him that his son is not the serious learning type, and is more interested in basketball, music, computers, and other non-torah pursuits. To his credit, he is ok with his son being like that, but he is concerned that if he isn't in a strict torah focused environment, the kid will be at risk of ending up much less seriously religious. I told him that he should let his son go to a school that is less frummie and more accommodating of his child's natural makeup. He says that if he goes to such a school, he runs the risk of ending up less religious, and then who knows what might happen? I knew right then he was thinking of me when he said that, being that when I was a teen, I was just like his son - not interested in being serious about my torah studies, distracted by my own interests, etc. and I ended up going to a less strict yeshiva, and see where I ended up?!

What he (and so many others) just don't get is that my going to the less strict yeshiva, where I had friends from Modern Orthodox families, and where they took secular studies seriously, and where I first listened to non-Jewish music, and flirted with some local girls, and where I was allowed to thrive in a field outside of limudei kodesh, isn't what made me not frum, and it's not even what put me on the path to being not frum. All that environment did for me is to make me feel that I no longer had to hide my long suffering dissatisfactions as much. It allowed me to admit that I wanted things which were forbidden to me. And even to experience them a bit. It allowed me to connect with people who had lives like I wanted to have.

Basically, it allowed me to get in touch with all the things that my yeshiva conditioning had made me repress.

Instead of trying so hard to make me stifle something that was a genuine feeling, maybe if they had actually allowed me to express it openly, and give me an environment where that part of me was able to flourish, there would have been a chance that much of the resentment that was building up inside of me would have dissipated. I don't know, maybe. And although I doubt I ever would have really gotten into frumkeit, maybe I would have been ok with it enough that I wouldn't have felt that I had to get as far away from it as possible. Who knows?

What I do know is that no matter how hard they may have tried to prevent me from being able to leave frumkeit, deep down inside of me, nothing they ever did made me stop wanting to get out.