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.


Mis-nagid said...

Very insightful. If you take the hitorical perspetive, you see how this all goes back to that central problem of Judaism in modernity: it's now voluntary. Nearly everything you wrote about exists to deal with that single sundry fact.

Anonymous said...

Then the question becomes, at what age did the dissatisfaction begin, and what were the causes? Based on your previous piece, a lot of your qualms took place based on lousy high school rabbeim, but if the seeds had been sown earlier, when and what?

Great job as always.

The Hedyot said...

> what age did the dissatisfaction begin, and what were the causes?

I'd say most of the stronger resentment definitely grew throughout the high school years, as religion became more and more integral to my life. However, in my younger years, I didn't care for it either, but back then, I wasn't societally compelled to "get into it" like I was in high school, so even though even back then I was expected to do things I didn't care for, it wasn't as burdensome.

As far as I can tell, I never cared for religious stuff, even as a very young kid. Davening, yeshiva, chumash, shabbos, yom tov - I was never really into it. Yeah, I went to all the pirchei things and chol hamoed trips and frum summer camps, and learning contests, and all those things that are supposed to make being frum enjoyable, but even as I enjoyed those things, to my mind, they all were just brief (and kind of pathetic) intermissions of what was a very long, boring, and tedious lifestyle that I would have greatly preferred to do without.

To clarify, there never was much of an interest in religious stuff, and like every kid, I always resented having to do stuff I wasn't into. But during high school, when religion became a much more serious part of my life, the resentment grew much more, albeit much more subconsciously.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

I can share your disillusionment with the yeshiva system, having "come up" in it myself. I think the difference between staying frum and not staying frum really boils down to whether the observance holds meaning for the observer. I think that the current "yeshivish" (meaning "black hat") yeshiva system does a really poor job of instilling real meaning for the religion in its students (at least those that can think critically a bit). The curriculum heavily emphasizes Gemara-- which is way too absract for the students, especially at the age at which they start learning it-- and puts little attention to Chumash and almost no weight on Nach.. so you have no historical context; the characters don't come alive. So it should coma as no surprise that after a while, for some students, they wonder just what in the hell it all means, anyway, and what the hell is wrong with going to see a movie, anyway, and if they're going to be seen as "bad" for doing that, they might as well let it all go.

From what I can understand, the attrition rate from frumkeit among girls isn't nearly as great as it is for boys. I would venture to guess that this is because they have more Navi studies and less Talmud; the religion consequently means something greater to them.. they have a context in which to put it all. Their lives are less strictly regulated in terms of davening, learning, and even though modesty is heavily emphasized, they are allowed some individual expression of style; unlike boys, who in the Yeshivish system have to basically dress in the "penguin" uniform. So I would posit that the atrition rate for boys squarely outpaces that of girls. And who knows if in fact that is the real reason for the "shidduch crisis"?

Good post.

Anonymous said...

I would love for you to review your thoughts in general on Rabbi Horowitz's writings. I know you've dealt with them in the past, but overall, I'd lvoe to hear what you think he's doing right and what he needs to do better.

Jacob Da Jew said...

Excellent post!

I never thought about frumkeit that way before.

The Hedyot said...

> I would love for you to review your thoughts in general on Rabbi Horowitz's writings....I'd love to hear what you think he's doing right and what he needs to do better.

Actually, I think R’ Horowitz is one of the better figures out there who are addressing this issue. However, despite that being the case, I don’t really admire the work he’s done too much. IMHO, he refuses to directly confront the real problems that need addressing in a concrete way. I don’t really blame him for this, as addressing the issues means saying things that go against some fundamental tenets of frum society, and I suspect that he still believes those tenets to some degree, plus openly expressing that dissent can seriously jeopardize his position in the community.

But at least he's serious about putting a band-aid on the issue, which is better than most people.

Anonymous said...

Great article Daas. I left Orthodoxy at age 55. Why ? I call it critical thinking. I stopped believing all the fairy tales and nonesense in a religion made up by the rabbis. What does Judaism have to do with torah ? Very little. Rabbis made up the halochas from little specks in the torah. Wish I could convince my frummer then frum wife, who still believes these fairy tales. Avi

Anonymous said...

My entire family is frum, I mean really frum. Way out frum. They believe because they were brought up believing. Having an original thought of their own is probably difficult for them, unless the rebbe said it. They were sucked into it and now practice it, for lack of knowing what else to do. Ragweed

alex said...

Doesn't Rashi, somewhere in Chumash, give a 7-stage process of how someone goes 'off the derech'? I'd be curious if his sequence matches anyone's experience here.

onlyajew said...

Good post and some great responses.

I address this somewhat on my blog, but more so the fact that now-a-days the arbitrariness of Judaism does us no good.

I too was deep in the yeshiva system,albeit years ago, and I had a very hard time after high school. I learned though, not to blame the message on the messenger. There are a ship load of worthless know nothings teaching in yeshivas who could never understand what it is exactly that you were going through. These rabbeim never wanted to play ball or talk with girls or listen to secular music-one of the reasons they became rabbeim, so they had no idea what they were up against and could not phathom how you couldn't see the same beauty in yiddishnkeit that they did etc...

What they could not understand was that the myopic box they stuck Torah in, had no room for someone like me and you when just the opposite is true-Torah and a Torah lifestyle has plenty of room in it for all who seriously want it, but they don't want you to know anything about that....

You have piqued my interest...I think I have found my next posting on my blog...thanks...

Shlomo Doe said...

To me, the descriptions coming from this blog as to why kids go off -coming from those who have - is a crystal clear insight into why indeed kids go off the Derech.

When I read statements like:
"I always resented having to do stuff I wasn't into" or
"if they lock the ghetto doors tight enough they can prevent people from leaving" or
Their whole focus is on restricting access, and tightening the reins" speaks volumes of the damage that is being done by parents and mechanchim who mishandle the unmotivated child or teen. May Hashem have mercy on us!

Anonymous said...

Tragedy and loss made me lose my faith and that led to me questioning everything. Suddenly stuff I had always believed seemed ridiculous. Once you don't believe in God, once you don't believe that the Torah is infallible, then it makes it hard to conform to restrictions, especially the petty ones, like not tearing toilet paper on shabbat. There is nothing that anyone can do to stop my yiddishkeit from unravelling. It is what it is.