Grateful to be a Yid, Part Five: Dropouts

This essay, the fifth in the miniseries “Grateful to be a Yid,” explores some confused notions we tend to bat around, regarding the integrity of members of our klal. Meant as a starting point for further discussion, rather than as a solution to any of these shared troubles, this piece looks at a few of the reasons why folks abscond from Yiddishkeit and makes very modest suggestions about attracting those people back.
There was a time when I believed that all traditional Judaism, let alone Orthodoxy, specifically, was the stuff of Eastern Europe, of history, of mysticism, i.e. of a standard that no longer existed. Fortunately, I learned not only that adherence to age-old laws and customs perseveres, but also that such a lifestyle is attractive. My family became frum.
Sometime later, I had to face down another, related, myth; that no Jews ever elect to depart from this privileged path. I had become so ecstatic, in most senses of that word, about my “discovery” of time-honored Judaism and in my partaking of its beauty that I failed to realize that there are devout Jews who do not accept the relevance of religion to their lives. Even as plenty of useful arguments for the centrality of Torah to human existence can be found in oral, in print, and in other sources, a significant number of observant Jews have gotten turned off from the shomer Torah u''mitzvos route. Not only are there such persons, but there are, as well, support groups for them!
Initially, so busied was I with gulping down the Torah knowledge that had been absent in my days and nights, and with feeling, as a Baali Teshuva, a little different from other observant Jews, that I failed to recognize that despite the fact that individuals can be descended from generations of religious leaders, they can, simultaneously, be capable of having their neshemot permeated by exclusion, by that sensation of being kept out from the doings of the people with whom they associate or wish to.
Worse, I failed to recognize that all of us who practice “the old ways” are, to some degree, culpable, for this loss known by our brothers and sisters. I believe that all of us, to some extent, are guilty of having made other Jews feel rejected.
Sure, savvy practitioners can discern among Torah commandments and rabbinical prohibitions, between laws and customs, and between customs and culturally accepted advice. Nonetheless, many of us have taken it upon ourselves to prescribe behaviors, especially to prescribe stringencies.
Too often, we dictate actions that we ourselves, fail to understand, both in terms of the evolution of those prescriptions and in terms of those prescriptions’ relevance to others’ lives. Then, we have the audacity to unfavorable judge others who fail to meet our articulated thresholds. It’s no surprise that such “[r]ejection turns even ordinary Orthodox Jews into OTDs [Jews off the Derech] [and has] that effect on Ops [Orthoprax, Jews practicing observance, while being at intellectual odds with the traditional lifestyle] (Natan Slifkin, Rationalist Judaism, May 12, 2011).” No one likes to be kicked or kicked out.
Instead of weighing the value of other Jews according to concepts we, ourselves, might poorly grasp, we would be better advised to use our personal resources for deeds of loving kindness. In other words, when reaching toward another Jew, be helpful, but keep your mouth shut.
Consider cars as an analogy. Like Torah, but a massive amount more superficially, cars can move us from Point A to Point B. One need not be a professional driver, that is, either a chauffeur or a racer, to use the street smartly. It’s possible for someone to be expert at parallel parking, to maintain a record free of speeding tickets, to avoid possible head-on accidents, and more, if one has learned the driving laws and has made his or her road practice reflect those limits.
Yet, even with the dangers inherent in sharing the highway with less skilled or less mindful drivers, the good driver ought not to preach. Whereas it’s great to suggest to others that they adjust their tire inflation according to changes in weather, it’s more than useless to admonish them if they suffer from flat tires because they did not act accordingly. Likewise, at the same time as we might remind others to maintain their fluid levels, it’s problematic when we sneer at them because they are experiencing breakdowns from not doing so. Offering such persons roadside help, or, in the least, calling to a tow truck, on their behalf, continues to be a much better response.
So, too, goes the desirable way of interacting with each other in terms of observance. As Faranak Margolese, in, Off the Derech: How to Respond to Challenge, contends, imposing constraints on fellow Jews: is ineffective, sabotages fundamental emotional needs, and sabotages healthy religious development (Margolese, 68-75). It is better for us to encourage others to embrace a joyous expressions of life than to force them into holding to our halachot or chumrot (Margolese, 317). In Margolese’s parlance, attitude is everything.
I’m not advocating that in the process of embracing other people, where they stand, that we rationalization away any of our own religious practices. I also do not recommend driving in the wrong lane, toward opposing traffic just because someone else is doing so. Rather, I am urging that we check our communication’s content, especially when we interact with other members of the klal.
I believe we ought to check our communication’s intentionality, too. Why ought we to appoint ourselves responsible for giving mussar? Words which can prevent irrevocable harm in some circumstances can permanently, or at least seriously, damage a life in other cases. Our interactions need to be selfless, need not to be aimed toward building our own social standing (see the article “To Save a Life”). We achieve no greatness by “proving” ourselves better than our fellows. I believe the opposite is true.
Do we seek our friends’ table cloth color because our boss growled at us at work? Do we compare how many years we and our colleagues have kept to a daf yomi program because our teenagers have called us idiot parents? So we lambast our neighbors for using wax instead of oil or oil instead of wax in their menorah because our spouse said we mumbled a blessing? There is a time to rebuke our fellows. Most often, though, it is not that time.
I’m still in shock that folk would leave the lifestyle, which, to me, is precious. I’m also still in shock about the way in which and the about the reasons why some observant Jews separate themselves from others.
I don’t like how many Israeli drivers drive. It’s not for me, however, to devote my energies, most often, to calling them on their behavior. Rather, I can focus on being careful when I pilot and in providing useful information about roads when asked. Rarely is it my lot to reproach another driver.
As a people, let’s cease with the moral laziness that manifests in the appalling rhetoric we apply to other members of our tribe. We are a people bequeathed a land of milk and honey. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are capable of producing immense sweetness. Greater inclusivity, i.e. less pushing away of our brothers and sisters, should be our goal. Torah Judaism remains the truth. Let our role in abating other Jews’ dropping off the Derech, become the myth.