Thursday, January 14, 2010

True Devotion

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you probably know a bit about my past. But in case you're new here, I'll share with you something personal: When I was in high school, I was a pretty unhappy fellow. Why was I unhappy? Well, I'll get to that in a moment, but first, check out this video that a friend recently showed me. It was put out by one of the kiruv organization that exists to help "at risk kids." To be honest, I was actually surprised at how impressive the production quality of the video was. Not that I agree with its message, but these sort of frum productions are usually lacking a bit in their professionalism, and this one seemed to not suffer from the typical overuse of chassidish music, cheesy effects, and truly awful acting (the acting on this isn't what I'd call great, but it's nowhere nearly as bad as some of the other frum stuff out there).

However, once I saw the very first frame of the clip, I knew I wasn't going to like it. The entire piece was basically a dramatization of the stereotypical view that the frum world loves to tell about people who aren't frum: That the inevitable result of leaving frumkeit is a descent into a lonely life of depression, drugs, and alcohol. (I'm sure they would have also liked to show the drugs and sex, but I suppose that wasn't suitable for their intended audience.) And of course, it also showed that all it takes to turn around those who left is a friendly smile from a patient, "down to earth" rabbi (this particular one knew how to hit a baseball) who, with enough persistence (and love, of course), knows how to show them the beauty of Yiddishkeit. There were also other classic stereotypes throughout - the way that the characters connect in a video store (what else does a shaigetz have to do in his life but watch movies all day?), the directionless lifestyle of the characters, and other all-too-familiar characterizations. (I also found it funny how they showed the cluelessness of some of the frum characters, such as the father suggesting to his son that he put on a hat and jacket when lighting candles. Not sure if that was meant as an intentional joke or not.) It's because of the widespread prevalence of these stereotypes that I decided to start my "Better Know a Kofer" series. (See the sidebar for the full list of interviews.)

Of course, the truth is that, sadly, some people do end up on such a path. But one can't help but wonder if that would continue to be the case as much if the frum world didn't tell such people that that would be the inevitable result of such a decision. I've always felt that the frum world prefers to see a religious dropout burn and crash than succeed in his or her life, as it corroborates the messages the faithful have been told all along.

And that's what I find to be most troubling about these kinds of organizations: despite their professed concern for the troubled young man, it seems to me that when all is said and done, they care more about the persons adherence to halacha than they do about the person's emotional and physical well-being. I know they talk all the time about helping, but how willing are they to continue helping if the person has no interest whatsoever in being frum? Not very much, I'm afraid. I have a friend whose parents offered him an all-expense paid trip to Israel for a month. He was thrilled. Until he found out that it was contingent on him spending some time at Aish Hatorah when he was there. Needless to say, when he declined to accept the stipulation, the offer was off the table.

Let me be clear here, I don't blame anyone, or any group, for having strings attached to their beneficence. People are entitled to devote their resources to whatever causes they value, and the frum world is entitled to promote kiruv as much as they want. But to claim that your kindness stems purely out of a love for a fellow Jew is simply not true. Far too often, the generosity to that Jew is directly proportional to how receptive he or she is to the message of halachic observance.

From what I've heard, there are a large number of these kinds of organizations: Areivim, Eizer Bochurim, B'Derech, Priority-1, Project YES, Aishel, Tzofiah, Home Sweet Home, Eitzah, Rachel's Place, and more. And honestly, I think these groups do a lot of good work. Even if their assistance is driven by religious motivations, these groups are still deserving of much praise. It just bothers me that they aren't truly honest about their real motivations. It's disingenuous to act like you care nothing more than to just give a troubled soul a helping hand, when really your ulterior motive is primarily to give them a hand back onto the derech.

Which brings me back to my original point of my unhappy adolescence. So why was I so unhappy throughout my high school days? Well, there were probably a number of reasons for that, but one very significant one was that I was being raised in a world that valued torah learning above all else, and I knew very well that I was a thoroughly abysmal torah learner. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I shvitzed over that daf, no matter how hard I pleaded with god - "v'sein chelkeinu b'sorasecha!" - I never really understood what the hell was going on in that damn gemara shiur. I was a failure. I knew it, and everyone who spent 5 minutes talking the sugya with me knew it too. And I hated myself for this.

Now, I was fortunate that I had many caring, kind people around me then - my family, my rabbeim, etc. - and they all did their best to help me overcome this obstacle. They set up extra sedarim for me. They paid tutors to go over the shiur with me. They took out extra time from their schedule to learn with me. They even moved around the class chavrusas in the vain hope that someone would be able to help me understand what was going on. Like I'm sure the dedicated staff of these various kiruv institutions do for the people they are helping, my rabbeim went above and beyond the call of duty to help me overcome the source of my frustrations. They did everything they could.

Except the one thing that would have really helped me.

They didn't do the one thing that would have solved my problem forever. The one thing that would have eased my constant guilt, and erased the shame that I was living with every single day: They didn't tell me that it was ok that I wasn't a good learner. If they had only told me that, and made me understand that my value to god was not contingent on how well I could make a leining, all that inner torment would have dissipated in an instant.

But they chose not to. They had no choice, really. Because they believed it did matter. And despite their concern for my suffering, they couldn't compromise their principles.

Looking back, I don't doubt for a second that those rabbis genuinely cared about me. And of course, the same goes for my family. But because they cared about the religious ideal of torah learning more than they did about my emotional well being, I ended up suffering through a large chunk of my life.

So you can see why I don't trust frum people when I hear they are doing everything they can to help out a troubled yeshiva bochur. I'm sure they do indeed love their fellow Jews. And indeed, they will do everything they can to help the person. Everything they can... up to a point. Because while their love for their troubled brethren might truly be sincere, their devotion to halacha is even greater, and if forced to choose, they will proudly sacrifice the happiness and well being of their loved ones on the altar of their religion.

Photo credit: flickr user Onironauta...

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G*3 said...

Have you forgotten what it’s like to have a frum value system? It’s not a choice between halacha and a kid’s well-being. From the frum point of view, observing halacah is essential to well-being: physical, emotional, and most importantly, spiritual. Even for those who acknowledge going off the derech doesn’t lead directly to drugs etc., they truly believe that real happiness is achieved only by being frum. What’s more, keeping the mitzvos is what makes you a worthwhile person, what gets you zechusim in olam habo. Isn’t encouraging someone to do Hashem’s will in this world and gain an eternal reward in the next more important than temporary “well-being” in this limited world?

And if, nebach, there’s a kid they can’t help back onto the righteous path, well, there are lots of other kids who might be saved. Is it worthwhile to expend limited resources on a dead end?

I think that once you start seeing religion as one option among many it’s all too easy to forget how it was when frumkeit was the ONLY legitimate way of life.

The Hedyot said...

You're right, I know they basically see it that way. But often enough, they acknowledge someone is unhappy because of the lifestyle and they still feel it necessary for him to stay in it.

Larry Lennhoff said...

From the frum point of view you don't follow halacha because it makes you happy, you follow halacha because you are commanded to do so.

Where I see yeshivish society going wrong is in the overemphasis on learning as opposed to doing. There are people who won't get a lot out of learning Talmud. So let them learn Chosen Mishpat (for business ethics) or Navi instead, and let them (and everyone) learn the skills they will need for getting a job. Torah Kulo is not the only valid Jewish path, and that, rather than insisting on following some Jewish path, is what is driving lots of people OTD.

(Not to say there aren't other reasons for people to leave, but what I am saying is there are plenty of permissible paths that people aren't being allowed ot follow.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

"Far too often, the generosity to that Jew is directly proportional to how receptive he or she is to the message of halachic observance"

Far too often, the generosity (and love) to that Jew is directly proportional to how serious a challenge he or she poses to the message of halachic observance. Those that don't challenge the system often don't get funding for extended trips to Israel, tutoring, baseball with rebbeim, shmoozes with parents, getaways, and all other forms of love and attention a "troubled" youth receives. The love isn't there contingent on following halacha. It's there contingent on being enough trouble to require a more intricate approach than mainstreaming. Meaning, it's love for very much unloved behavior. Is that love? Even conditional love? Receiving love for what's perceived as bad about an individual isn't love, it's an abuse in one's need to be loved. And it's cruel. It's that, it's like other abuse which robs an individual of the ability to trust plainly afterwards.
Honest expulsion is less harmful.

G*3 said...

> But often enough, they acknowledge someone is unhappy because of the lifestyle and they still feel it necessary for him to stay in it.

Yes, of course. But in their minds, it’s like someone who’s unhappy because he has to live on Earth. Sure, it’s the conditions on the planet that are making him unhappy, but what are you going to do? It’s not like you can send him to live on the moon. Even if he could get to the moon, there’s no atmosphere (Torah) and he’d die.

frumheretic said...

The entire piece was basically a dramatization of the stereotypical view that the frum world loves to tell about people who aren't frum

Well, according to Hella Winston's book, Unchosen, it was a fairly accurate representation. But that's to be expected because these kids have zero marketable skills, little access to resources, and are unequipped to deal with life outside their community. So yeah, many do descend into a meaningless, lonely life. Ezer Bachurim and similar organizations thrive on such stories which confirm to the frum veldt that a non-religious lifestyle is without value.

I am sympathetic to the goals of these organizations. But I am also sympathetic to the goals of Footsteps.

ora said...

thank you for this post. I think it should be placed prominently in every teacher's room and principal's office of every yeshiva.

I have the problem that there is a feedback-circle between the parent's aims and ambitions and the school's aims and ambitions that make it impossible to breakt out.

some 60 years ago, the situation was completely differnt. And old man, goldsmith by trade, told me that his parents sent him abroad to yeshiva when he was around 16, and after one term (or one year), when he came home for vacation, they told him: you are not going back to yeshiva, you will start an apprenticeship as a Goldsmith.

He learned to be a goldsmith and stayed frum till now.

Because back then, parents had not money to waste for sons who did not want to learn.
In a sense, this was more healthy for everybody.

e said...

Whenever frum people hear about footsteps, they're always shocked to hear that footsteps doesn't pressure people to become fry.

Because their kiruv organizations offer help only in order to put people on the derech, they can't imagine that footsteps offers help without trying to pull people off the derech.

sandy said...

I don't see why this is so different from footsteps. they only help the people they are interested in also. don't see you complaining about footsteps.

e said...

Footsteps only help certain people, because only those people need that kind of help. It would be silly to hold a men's style event ( for chasidishe bekishe-wearing bochurim.

Footsteps helps anyone who can benefit from their help, regardless of your religious beliefs or goals. I know one footstepper who plans on remaining religous, he just wants to have some fun on the side.

The Hedyot said...

sandy -

The problem isn't that they only help the people they want to. It's that their claim of why they are helping is dishonest. If they unambiguously said, "we are helping you because we want to get you back on the derech", instead of cloaking their motives in claims of altruistic concern, I wouldn't have any problem with it.

Footsteps is very clear why they help people. No one has any doubts what they stand for or what their goal is - to help people who want to transition out of the frum world into general society.

LamedVovnik said...

"Looking back, I don't doubt for a second that those rabbis genuinely cared about me. And of course, the same goes for my family. But because they cared about the religious ideal of torah learning more than they did about my emotional well being, I ended up suffering through a large chunk of my life."
It's not that they cared more about Torah learning than your emotional well being, it's that according to the yeshivish world, the only way to achieve happiness and emotional well being is by learning to appreciate and love learning Torah. They mean well, but their just effed up in their thinking!

TikunOlam said...

I have found, a fter a while, if you leave OJ and successfully adapt somewhere else it is almost as if gradually the brainwashing fades and it is almost impossible to remember how that stuff once seemed to make sense. It invariably leads to a disconnect between your logic and trying to make sense of the logic of OJs. What once seems logical now seems not only irrational, but sometimes cruel and in humane.

TikunOlam said...

So I watched the video. Um. Wow. Yes, all ppl leave OJ bec they have emotional problems and their only option in life is to do nothing. Not any different than any other cult propoganda.

Anonymous said...

I worked as a social worker for a modern orthodox yeshiva. A of the staff just didn't get the idea that not all the boys were born learners and that this need not diminish their worth. Some times things would quickly devolve into emotioanlly abusive situations with the rabbis who were not as sensitive and supportive as the ones from your youth. It was simply amazing what there relgious figures would say to the boys, but it was even more amazing what they would say about them and their families behind closed doors. I never met such a bunch of hypocrites and phonies before, and it made me wonder if orthodox Judaism tends to attract and/or hold onto those with personality disorders. Nice post. But, believe it or not, was much better that that of others in your situation.

Anonymous said...

I just checked out the video. I agree that the production values were surprisingly good. Two points through. First,the guys featured in the video are demonstrating many of the behaviors commonly seen in teenagers with depression, but of course there was no attempt to consult with a mental health professional. Second,my experience was that there are those who genuinely do ask qood questions about the plausability of what the orthodox believe. For example, a god who is concerned with the minutia of kashrut but not so concerned about the abusive behavior of the rabbi or parent. This group if epecially hard for religious people to deal with because after you invest so much is something it's impossible to acknowledge that your beliefs are built on unstable groud.

Anonymous said...

Easily I agree but I contemplate the post should have more info then it has.