Off the Derech
By Faranak Margolese
One of the many stories quoted by Faranak Margolese in her book Off the Derech is about a man named David who grew up in an Orthodox home, but eventually abandoned observance. When pressed to describe his education, he recounts a day in second grade when his teacher played an alleged tape recording of gehennom, or hell.
"Basically, they shut off the lights and there was music in the background and people were screaming things like 'oy vey, I am hanging from my tongue. If only I wouldn't have spoken loshon hara!'"
For Margolese, this story - and others like it - illustrates one of the primary reasons Orthodox Jews go "off the derech" (literally, off the path): religion is experienced as fearful and oppressive instead of meaningful and joyous.
Off the Derech cannot be easily classified in terms of traditional genres. Certainly, it has academic ambitions. It is a description of why observant Jews leave Judaism and a study of the reasons for these defections. Margolese conducted interviews and an on-line survey to collect data. But it's no surprise that Off the Derech is published by a Jewish publisher and not an academic one.
On the book's cover, under an upturned kippa, is a second subheading: "How to Respond to the Challenge." For Margolese, the phenomenon of Jews leaving observance is fundamentally problematic. She calls it an "epidemic" and opines that "there is no greater challenge facing the Jewish world today."
Ideological turns like this put Margolese's academic credentials - and conclusions - into question, as does the fact that she quotes rabbis and social workers for information better left to historians and sociologists. Yet no matter how unfortunate Margolese's academic standards are, Off the Derech is not only an insightful book, it is a courageous one.
One of Margolese's most productive and revolutionary ideas is one that is not even stated explicitly. Off the Derech is, primarily, an examination of the failures of the Orthodox community. In trying to locate the communal sources of apostasy, Margolese implicitly acknowledges that a wayward son's departure from tradition is not necessarily exclusively his fault. Rather, in many instances, the Orthodox community does not facilitate conditions that make Orthodoxy attractive. In a discourse that is generally limited to the theological, Margolese stresses the sociological and the psychological.
"When asked to identify one thing that caused them to move away from observance," writes Margolese, "44 percent pointed to observant people." A distant second was "Life Circumstances" at 27%. Only 2% said "God." While the truth or falsehood of theological claims play a role in people's religious decisions, Margolese suggests that those who leave Orthodoxy are much more likely to do so for emotional reasons. "When young people feel unhappy in life they are likely to feel unhappy in their observance."
This is a profoundly modern idea. It posits happiness as an ideal and it recognizes that ideology is often socially constructed. One's experiences are more likely to positively or negatively affect observance than one's beliefs.
In a similarly contemporary vein, Margolese stresses the need to emphasize meaning. The Orthodox community cannot take it for granted that their children know why they are Jewish.
"Today we tend to focus on the microelements of Torah, the mitzvot and how to practice them. But we almost entirely neglect to transmit the purpose, the vision and context for the mitzvot we teach. We focus on how and what to observe, but not why."
While Margolese believes that commandedness is and should be an important reason for being observant, she suggests that it is not enough. Jews should be educated about how an observant life is good for them as individuals, good for their communities and good for the world as a whole. The last point speaks to Margolese's critique of Orthodoxy's xenophobia. Sixty-five percent of those interviewed thought many or most people in their communities were racist. For Margolese, a meaningful Judaism must be one that accounts for the other 99.8% of the world.
Margolese also argues for diversity within the Orthodox community. Difference is not only acceptable, it should be valued. Though this is in tune with contemporary multiculturalism, Margolese makes a religious argument for it. "Think of the world God created, so different and varied... Our communities are best served by being a microcosm of God's own world, by respecting diverse personalities and addressing their various needs."
Yet Margolese's argument for the value of difference and a meaningful Judaism that doesn't solely rely on commandedness begs the question: Why is Orthodox observance the only derech?
Indeed, Margolese herself demonstrates the difficulty of reconciling Orthodoxy and diversity.
In charting the narrow definitions of observance, Margolese cites the case of author Chaim Potok, whose father disapproved of his artistic ambitions.
"Whatever the case," Margolese writes, "today, Mr. Potok is a Conservative rabbi."
In fact, Chaim Potok passed away a few years ago. Additionally, for the several decades prior, he was no "Mr." He held degrees that earned him the titles "Rabbi" and "Doctor."
Off the Derech is a strange, but ultimately important book, which is already finding readers and followers. Yet the book forces us to ask: Will the logic of Orthodoxy always yield narrow choices and difficulty with the "other?" In other words, if in a book which touts compassion and the value of difference Rabbi Potok is still Mr. Potok, how far have we really come? For those off the derech, very possibly not far enough.