We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe, casually reminiscing on the frivolities of our lives, when my friend suddenly leaned over the table, and like a seedy peddler in a back alley, held his jacket slightly open, and said to me conspiratorially, "Hey, check it out."
My interest sufficiently piqued, I watched as he reached into his inside pocket and withdrew a highly polished pen of unique design. Holding it out in the palm of his hand, he looked at me expectantly, clearly wanting me to let him know how impressed I was.
"Ok," I said nonchalantly, refusing to play along, "So you got yourself a nice pen. What's the big deal? Why all the fuss?"
"No, no, " he said to me, nodding his head disapprovingly. "This isn't just any pen. It's a Mont Blanc. Retail price $700." His mangled attempt to pronounce it with the French accent made him appear pathetically condescending.
"Seriously?" I said, mildly impressed, despite myself. "How'd you get your hands on that?" There was no way my friend could afford anything that extravagant, let alone a mere pen.
"Hmmmm..." he replied mysteriously, pleased that I had taken the bait. "That isn't important. I've been using it for a week now. I love having this thing. It writes amazingly. Such an incredible piece of craftsmanship."
His pretentiousness was starting to grate on me. "Really?" I retorted sarcastically. "It writes so amazingly? That's why you enjoy carrying it around? For some reason, I suspect there might be some other motivation at work."
"What do you mean?" he answered defensively. "This really is one of the finest writing instruments ever produced. When writing with it, it smoothly flows along the paper. It sits perfectly balanced in your hand. It's elegantly sculpted. There's no doubt in my mind that this is a superior pen to the crap that everyone else uses!"
"Yeah, that may be true," I replied. "But it's still not why you enjoy using it. The real reason you like it is because it's a status symbol. It gives you cache. People look at you differently when they know you have a Mont Blanc. It may indeed be a far superior pen, but that's irrelevant to why you like using it."
Naturally, he vehemently disputed my allegations, insisting that it was the exceptional quality which earned the pen his unabashed adulation, but the begrudging tone in his voice told me I had indeed hit upon a sore point.
We kept going back and forth on this inane triviality until he insisted he had to take off, and left me alone to ruminate on our petty squabble. But even after he had been gone half an hour, the conversation was still repeating itself in my head. There was something oddly familiar about it to me, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on exactly why it felt that way. Finally, it came to me! I had had this conversation once before, a few weeks earlier! Only then I wasn't talking about luxury pens, but rather, about religion.
You see, every time there's something in the media about people leaving frumkeit (and lately there has been quite a bit about that topic - articles, books, movies, custody battles, documentaries, and more) people talk about the issue more and more. And inevitably I am approached by someone - a friend, a co-worker, a relative - and get asked the million dollar question: Why do people leave frumkeit?
There's many ways to approach this issue, but when the question is posed by a chareidi person, the conversation usually takes a very predictable turn. Chareidi people are ostensibly very bothered by this phenomenon, and when they ask it, they aren't just inquiring out of sheer curiosity, but rather because it's an immensely troubling issue to them. They ask because (so they say) they want to understand the issue better, and by better understanding it, they can work on figuring out a solution to what they see as a serious problem.
So in responding to their inquiry, I usually flip the question back around and ask my interlocutor to explain to me why people are frum. A variety of answers are usually presented in response, but the main one given is simply that... It's the truth! Frum people believe that god has revealed to them the proper way to live, he explains simply, and so observing those rules is the most correct and true lifestyle one can follow.
However, I always dispute that point. Yes, I fully acknowledge that they believe it's the truth. But I don't believe that this belief is the reason why they are frum. I maintain that most people are frum because it serves their own interests, and not because of some lofty devotion to truth. I don't dispute that they believe it. They can still believe it is true, and at the same time, they can be primarily motivated by something other than that truth. Just like my friend with the pen, he honestly believed that it was a truly superior pen (and was probably correct about that), but despite his claim to the contrary, that superiority was not really why he liked the pen so much. His real motivation in using that Mont Blanc was the fact that it brought some tangible benefit to his life (the newfound respect with which people viewed him). And it's the same thing with frumkeit, I say. Whether or not people believe it is true, that's not really why they're frum. They are frum primarily because it brings some tangible benefit to their life. The truth is mostly irrelevant.
Unsurprisingly, frum people staunchly resist attributing their motivations to such self-serving forces. They much prefer the notion that they are frum because they are fervent devotees of the truth and they therefore follow what they believe to be the truth of god's revealed word.
It doesn't bother me that they think this. I honestly don't have any interest in arguing with frum people about it, nor in trying to convince them that my perspective is correct. If my advice on how they can better solve their problem is too difficult for them to accept, I'm not going to force it on them. But despite their resistance, I oftentimes can't help bringing it up in discussion because I feel it satisfactorily resolves a question that is repeatedly raised by frum people in response to a very frequent occurrence, that of the pronouncement by someone (typically an ex-frum person) who, in response to some indiscretion, corruption or criminal activity by a visibly religious figure, will loudly exclaim, "You see?! That's why I am not religious! If that's how religious people behave, I don't want any part in it!"
Whenever they hear someone say this, chareidi people immediately reject it out of hand with what, at first glance, seems to be a very logical reply. "But that doesn't make any sense! Just because some people aren't behaving properly, doesn't disprove the truth of the religion! Their indiscretions do not invalidate God's truth! Why would you throw away something good and true just because of a few rotten apples?" It's a logical reply because they're absolutely right in making their point. Witnessing a religious person behave unethically doesn't have any bearing whatsoever on the truth of the religion. But nonetheless, it always frustrates me when I hear frum people responding this way, because they are entirely misunderstanding the subtext of what one is expressing when making that angry accusation!
When a person passionately declares that seeing a prominent religious figure act inappropriately makes him want to stop being frum, he's not saying that the religion per se has now been disproven. Rather, the primary incentive for him being religious has now been demonstrably refuted. Until that moment he believed that being religious improved the "quality" of a person, or that it genuinely enhanced one's morals somehow. But faced with this spiritual fraud, he now recognizes that religion, in fact, falls far short of achieving that goal. This, then, is what is being expressed in that moment of rejection. Not a statement about the truth of religion, but simply a newfound appreciation for what frumkeit can and can not do for a person's life. He understands now that the benefits he was hoping to accrue from frumkeit will not necessarily be granted to him. And if he isn't going to obtain those rewards, then why bother with it at all?
This is what I keep trying to make frum people understand, but they seem unwilling to accept it: Most people stop being frum for the same reason they choose to remain frum - because of how much they are or aren't benefiting from it. As long as they feel they are tangibly benefiting somehow, either because they genuinely enjoy torah and mitzvos, or because they trust that being frum somehow protects them from the evils of the outside world, or because they think it will guarantee them eternal reward, or because they think it ensures them a moral life, or because they think that they have a better chance at a happy life following those rules, or even simply because they enjoy the social aspects of frum life - for whatever reason it might be, as long as they feel they are prospering in some way from it, they will want to stay frum.
But as soon as the benefit is reduced sufficiently, either because the person doesn't get any significant enjoyment from it anymore, or because torah and mitzvos have become more of a burden, or because the promise of a world to come seems less certain, or because he sees that being frum doesn't guarantee a more moral life, or because he has come to realize that it doesn't shelter him from criminals, corruption, and the dangerous elements of 'the outside world', or for any of a variety of other reasons, then he will stop caring about being frum.
This mental calculus, which more often than not is an unconscious thought process, has very little to do with how much one believes in the truth of Judaism. It is almost entirely self-serving. No doubt on some level they genuinely believe in the truth of Judaism. But again, that belief plays only a very minor role in why they are frum.
Admittedly, if a person truly believes, with a firm conviction, that Judaism is true, he probably won't stop being religious even if he no longer benefits from it, but this is a moot point. The vast majority of frum people do not possess any such conviction. Their 'belief' in Judaism's truth, if it can even be called that, is a barely sustainable faith built upon a hodge-podge of gedolim stories, midrashim, gematrias, some degree of trust in their rabbinic leaders, a whole lot of superstitions, and a few poorly constructed arguments that they might have once heard from a kiruv rabbi. (Additionally, if a person really has a firm conviction that Judaism is true, then he presumably still believes in olam haba, so in effect, he still DOES believe that he is benefiting by being frum.)
"Why are so many people leaving yiddishkeit?", the frum world constantly asks. They can ask it as often as they want. They can hold conferences devoted to the topic, and every month print op-ed's in their publications about it. They can seek the advice of gedolim on the topic and hold tehillim gatherings for siyata d'shmaya in solving it. But all their efforts simply won't amount to much at all. Because until they put aside their inflated sense of spiritual devotion, and acknowledge the mundane truth of their society's self-interested motivations, they will never even begin to truly understand why so many people choose to leave that world behind.