Why do people abandon religion?

Even religious Jews are less educated in religion's broader philosophical underpinnings.

 OUR GENERATION has seen a retreat from studying the ‘why’ of Judaism. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
OUR GENERATION has seen a retreat from studying the ‘why’ of Judaism.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Last week’s Torah portion, Emor, portrays the scathing blasphemy of an unnamed Jew whose pedigree was questioned. For the first time in history a Jew willingly abandoned religion.

The desertion of the blasphemer sheds light on why people walk out on religion. On the surface it may appear that people abandon religion due to deep philosophical questions; in reality, there are many other forces that drive the process. 

Meaningless religious practice

The Torah juxtaposes the blasphemy story with the details of the shulhan or ceremonial table in the Tabernacle. From this juxtaposition, the midrash infers that this blasphemer was perplexed by the ritual of the lehem hapanim – the ceremonial bread, which was refreshed weekly rather than daily. He was riled by the prospect of offering stale bread to God. Though the bread miraculously remained fresh all week, the sluggish schedule of refreshing the bread still seemed illogical to him.

For many people, when rituals appear meaningless or arbitrary, religion becomes nonsensical and irrelevant. Dissatisfaction with the meaning of religious practice often leads to questioning of the entirety of religion. Many feel humiliated when they repeat senseless activities, which, to them, carry no discernible meaning or symbolism. People are especially alienated when rituals appear to clash with basic human intuition or moral values. 

‘MOSES ON Mount Sinai’ (c. 1895-1900) by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘MOSES ON Mount Sinai’ (c. 1895-1900) by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Our generation has witnessed a phenomenal advance in the spread and intensity of religious practice but a dramatic retreat in the study of belief and faith. Even religious Jews who exhibit remarkable commitment to Torah study are less educated in the broader philosophical underpinnings of religion.

This retreat from studying the whys of Judaism invites a risk that it will be viewed as a spiritless and illogical system of pantomimes. Religious observance without coherent meaning often leads to existential discontent and often causes religious abandonment. 

Communal exclusion

The final trigger for the blasphemer is his being denied entry into the Jewish camp. Although he was born to a Jewish mother, his Jewish pedigree was incomplete due to his Egyptian father. Even though he was legally Jewish, he was denied admission into the desert encampment. Having been excluded from the community, he struggled with his religious identity. 

Communal belonging is a powerful element of Jewish experience, and exclusion from community undermines Jewish identity – especially for people already facing religious uncertainty. 

It is incredibly challenging to both uphold communal religious standards while also creating inclusive communities. Embracing “all,” regardless of their behavior, can erode standards and expectations, and can lead to religious free fall. However, too inflexible a policy of exclusion may alienate sincere Jews who desire both communal membership as well as a connection to God.

It is absolutely crucial that communal standards be implemented with sympathy and compassion, rather than with callousness and derision.

The Torah describes a hostile argument that occurred between this non-pedigreed Jew and an anonymous opponent to his communal inclusion. Much of the blasphemer’s alienation stemmed from the disdain he faced from the insiders. Had the dilemma been addressed calmly, and had creative solutions been attempted, perhaps the blasphemer would not have responded so vehemently. Often, it is language, and not just policy, that drives people away from communal belonging and, ultimately, from religion. 

Emotional anguish

Our rabbis identify the Egyptian father of the blasphemer as the Egyptian taskmaster who mercilessly attacked a Jew and was neutralized by Moses.

This Egyptian father of the blasphemer was far from innocent, having brutally tortured a defenseless slave. Yet, any personal loss causes pain and emotional anguish, which can’t be dismissed simply because the deceased was guilty. This blasphemer lost his own father, and, undoubtedly, the trauma he suffered erupted into open rebellion.

Often, emotional pain and long-term psychological stress vent themselves as religious doubt and religious questioning. We are emotional beings, and when we experience deep and prolonged grief or distress, we often wonder about a Creator who tests us with these emotionally challenging circumstances. Religious experience cannot be built upon brittle emotional identity. Without genuine emotional self-esteem, religious identity will ultimately suffer. 

Mixed messages

Living with an Egyptian father, this blasphemer apparently received mixed messages at home. The cultural divide between his father and mother proved unbridgeable. Children look to parents for clarity and for identity, and if they sense confusion or conflict about religion, it is often difficult for them to feel religiously anchored.

Ideally, parents must showcase idealism, passion and self-sacrifice for religion. Parents are primary transmitters of our tradition, but if this transmission contains too much static, it won’t be intelligible. If parents do not convey shared conviction and commitment to religion, children will often discard the entire lifestyle. Unable to decipher confused messages, children will often ignore the “noise” and look elsewhere for meaning. 

Though the blasphemer episode can provide general profiles about religious struggle, this complicated situation should not be oversimplified. We are complex individuals driven by a range of motivations and emotions, and simplistic profiles of human decision-making – and certainly something as dense as religious choice – are disrespectful to human individuality.

Likewise, the obscurity of decision-making makes it impossible to determine direct cause and effect. Sometimes the decision to leave religion arouses deep-seated guilt among family and community members: “What could we have done differently?” Given the lack of direct cause and effect, we should be exceedingly careful about assigning blame. 

The above profiles may help us better understand and proactively curb the painful phenomenon of religious desertion. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.


The Kol Nidre ball

In 1888 the first Kol Nidre ball was held in London. As its name suggests, it was a sacrilegious attempt by progressive Jews to desecrate the solemnity of Yom Kippur by scheduling an all-night party.

Some anarchist Jews were opposed to a bash scheduled specifically on Yom Kippur. They claimed that the day should be treated “just like any ordinary day,” and any Yom Kippur event would still acknowledge the importance of the day. 

Even a rebellious event as appalling as a Kol Nidre ball was still a tribute to Yom Kippur and recognition of religion. 

The anarchists were correct! Even when people are angry with God, and even when they blaspheme, they are still connected with God – through their fury. Sometimes, as life unfolds, and with a good measure of patience and forbearance, anger may subside and alienation may fade, and the relationship can be reconciled.