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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Beyond 'Off the Derech' -- Why is Someone Committed?

            There is a growing concern, within the Orthodox world, about the increasing number of young individuals choosing to leave Orthodoxy. This phenomenon, often referred to as going 'Off the Derech', is indeed something that should foster concern and generate an on-going discussion such as the one that has resulted. What I find somewhat disconcerting with the present inquiry, though, is how the subject is generally being approached. There seems to be an underlying, powerful assumption that staying ‘on the Derech’, maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle, is simply normative. The issue is thus framed in terms of reasons for these divergences from what should generally be expected. The explanations, thus, often reflect an attitude of deviation, some problematic abnormality that led to an aberrant result. Are these, however, the correct assumptions by which to frame the issue?
            Thinking that individuals brought up Orthodox will generally continue to remain Orthodox throughout their lives is somewhat understandable. Metaphorically applying a principle of physics -- items stay as they are unless there is something that causes them to change – it could seem expected that someone with an Orthodox life-style would maintain it unless there is something that causes a change. Yet, I could also see limitations in such a theory. Early in my reading of Faranak Margolese’s book Off the Derech a question began to bother me. What if the issue being discussed was a familial love of camping and what to do if one of the kids started to not want to go camping? On the surface, this question would seem almost trivial in the context of the seriousness and fullness of the 'Off the Derech' issue. Obviously, commitment to Torah involves a multitude of considerations and touches upon the most significant of metaphysical issues. Yet -- and, in a certain way, this is somewhat noted in the book -- it also extensively involves the psychology of the human being and specifically the nature of the individual. As such, should we not actually start any investigation with the interests of a person just as we would ask, in a situation where one no longer wished to be involved in a traditional family activity, whether this individual simply did not really like this activity? The metaphorical comparison to the principal from physics actually breaks down because human beings are not just passive objects who are acted upon but they all have distinct, internally dynamic natures. Human beings have variant motivations and responses to life just as different people like or dislike camping.
            Phrased somewhat differently, the contention may be that individuals raised Orthodox will want to remain Orthodox unless something happens to affect this desire. The assumption would be that Orthodox nurturing is generally successful unless there is an external conflict or resistance that disrupts this nurturing. That, however, is still a most powerful assumption, for the Orthodox life-style is not a simple one and there is great divergence in humanity. Given the multi-dimensional and challenging nature of the Orthodox life-style, would it not be correct to assume that conflict between the strictures of Orthodoxy and the dynamic nature of humanity is a strong possibility? The fact is that Off the Derech somewhat deals with this concern in maintaining that parents, for example, should attempt to make their children’s observance of Torah, somewhat tailored to them, positive and enjoyable. It also does speak to some extent on different forms of Orthodoxy. The inherent parameters of Torah observance, though, are also still a given and the true nature and full extent of this issue is not really addressed. A concept similar to the idea that a person may simply not like camping is also not considered. There is a strong assumption that every individual – all things being equal -- really would want to follow Orthodoxy.
            To fully and honestly investigate why people are leaving Orthodoxy, I would thus contend that our first undertaking should really be to consider why people are Orthodox. To postulate a generic desire in any individual to observe an Orthodox life-style is too simplistic. There actually may be many factors involved in such a decision yielding a more complex model that one might first consider. We clearly have to look at the direct drives and motivations, on the behavioural and personal level, to remain Orthodox – and consider, in this regard, the place of the varying forms of Orthodoxy in such consideration. The issue, however, also goes beyond one’s personal response to life-style behavior. A further factor, for example, may be familial connection. Again applying the camping model, if this behavior is an integral part of the family experience, it may be that a person could be interested in going camping because of a desire for family connection even if the camping experience itself is viewed negatively. As the Orthodox life-style is even more all-inclusive in terms of family relationships, it could be even a greater possibility that the desire for family connection would also be a significant factor in why a person remains Orthodox. There actually may be numerous factors -- reasons, desires, motivations – in conflict and in support – in the decision to maintain or adopt an Orthodox life-style. It is then only with an understanding of the possible complexity of the decision to be Orthodox – whether conscious or not -- that one could truly investigate the decision not to be.
We may also wonder: if the motivation of family connection, for example, plays a significant role in the reason a person remains Orthodox, what could be its effect on the manner of the Orthodox life-style that then emerges? This question actually exists, in some manner, throughout the discussion concerning ‘off the derech’, specifically in regard to what exactly the term refers. What is the minimum behavioural requirement that defines someone as a member of the ‘Orthodox group’, in general and in this context? What then defines one as off the derech? What then may be lost in such a discussion of the border of Orthodoxy is that we may also inherently thereby be addressing variant motivational factors in observing Orthodoxy. There is an inherent connection between this discussion and the investigation of Orthodoxy itself. How one defines ‘off the derech’ and the nature of Orthodoxy may indicate what that individual’s perspective would be on variant reasons for observance. Similarly, one’s perspective on the variant reasons for observance could have a great effect on how one defines ‘off the derech’ and the nature of Orthodoxy.
Then there is the theological/philosophical dimension of the issue which clearly is of extreme importance in such an investigation. It would seem limiting and unrealistic to only consider observance or non-observance in regard to psychological factors. In regard to non-observance, it would seem almost bewildering to find someone who fully accepts Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith who also does not integrate at least some aspects of an Orthodox life-style into his/her life. At the very least, there would seem likely to have been some type of inner contemplation to explain and justify the inner dissonance.  Similarly, even in one whose main motivation for observing Shabbat, for example, may be family commitment, as this commitment to observance touches the private space of the individual, the behavior has to be seen as more than just behavior. Such behavior is more than just the inherent action but would seem to touch upon a greater meaning in the action. There is more in what is happening than a person may even be aware.
 This then opens the further question of the nature of such a decision to be Orthodox and the interplay between the psychological, behavioural and theological motivations – separately and in their interwoven nature. As an example of this interwoven nature, we would have to recognize that one who likes the Orthodox life-style would be motivated to find theological reasons to support it while one who dislikes it would necessarily find reasons for the opposite. Similarly, we may find one with theological/philosophical issues in regard to the basic tenets of Orthodoxy also beginning to question behavioural decisions, not because the person is inherently bothered by this behavior but because of a desire not to be hypocritical. Interestingly, in a similar vein, we may also find one desiring commitment, comfortable in the theological confines of Orthodoxy, attempting to find halachic justification for certain behavior that is generally eschewed within Orthodoxy in order to avoid a contention of dissonance between the behavior and belief. One who wishes to identify as Orthodox will go to great measures to try and ensure that a certain behavior to which this person is committed is defined as permitted. Such an attempt is also not necessarily improper or wrong. What we can begin to see is that the ‘off the Derech’ question actually touches upon much more than this one issue narrowly defined. For many reasons, it demands investigation within broader parameters.  
Included in this investigation, as another example, would have to be the question: Do people generally see orthopraxis individuals, who do not believe in the general fundamentals of faith of Orthodoxy but may be fully observant, as ‘off the derech’ (in colloquial terms)? Should they? Inherent in that question is the very issue of how we define Orthodoxy and Orthodox – is it primarily by action or theology? What is our goal as we attempt to build the Orthodox group – incorporation of individuals who will adopt similar behavior or incorporation of individuals with shared theological principles? This has further implications in regard to the various sub-divisions within Orthodoxy. The observation has been made by some that individuals who leave more extreme right-wing forms of Orthodoxy, generally do not even consider modern Orthodoxy as an option. In their minds, it would seem, there is little difference between non-observance and modern Orthodox observance – after all they are both so vastly different from the behavior they were observing. What does this, though, say about Orthodox pedagogy and Orthodox identity?
The Off the Derech topic is thus actually one that is multi-faceted and opens many further areas in need of investigation. The real question is not only why people leave Orthodoxy but also why people are Orthodox. It is from that question that we may find out not only more about ourselves but clearer understandings of why people leave. With this article as a start, it is Nishma’s objective to further investigate this issue.


  1. FWIW, the recent Pew study of Orthodox Jews shows the percentage of people departing is declining. And not just in comparison to the mid-20th century, and the loss of most of the unobservant Orthodox. But even in comparison to the 30-49 yr old cadre -- 18-29 yr old stay at a rate of 83%, the group just above them (all of whom were teens in the late '70s onward) are at 57%.

    I think the numbers are up because the declining percentage is of a greater number of children. So that now, 17% will mean the majority of chareidi homes have at least one child who left Orthodoxy. Which creates an air of panic.

  2. People commit when the matter in question satisfies a need.

    In this case, someone would commit to Orthodox Judaism if it resolved their search for meaning.

    And I know you don't want to ask the usual, negative question, but I can't think of a way to phrase my point in the reverse, so... Why does OJ fail to satisfy people's need for meaning?

    1- Through no fault of its own. Failure of a representative of the religion, a parent, a rabbi, a Jewish studies teacher, the social context...

    2- Being told -- not literally, but absorbed culturally, on a gut level -- that a particular version of O is the sole correct one, and that version doesn't fit the person's needs. The Mod-O youth who finds the synthesis to be more of a compromise. The chareidi youth who finds the expected roles too narrow and not fiting their skills and temperament. Etc...

    And so rejection of one interpretation of O becomes total abandonment.

    3- There is a post-modern zeitgeist today in which the 13 Ani Ma'amin's aren't as "real" as science. The whole topic of non-empirical truth is played down. In order to foster tolerance and acceptance of other people, things about which humanity disagrees that cannot be readily proven to each other are deemed subjective. Faith systems (including atheism) are no longer considered true or false, but "true for him".

    And so meaning is sought in providing others with their physical wants, rather than positing the existence of anything else.

    But I think #3 explains current trends, it's less a primary cause like no.s 1 or 2.

    1. I think people go off the derech in the charedi communities and places where the authorities are inflexible (and corrupt from what I hear). I don't believe science is getting in the way of religion, because most intelligent people can reconcile the two and scientists have spiritual needs.

  3. I think that R. Micha is really expressing the true dynamic nature of Torah as it interacts with the multidimensional nature of the population. OJ is not monolithic or intended to be monolithic. In variant presentations which are really an outgrowth of its true essence -- as much as they are in many ways vastly different in behaviour -- we see how OJ can provide what the individual desires in a unique individual sense. The one question I would have on R. Micha's point is whether I would limit this expression or search to what we may term 'meaning'. The drive to connect may be communal and/or nationalistic. Are those drives tied to meaning? That may be a question of semantics but going beyond R. Micha's point, the spectrum of motivation that connects the individual to Orthodoxy may go beyond 'meaning'.


    1. Actually, I meant "Search for Meaning" in Victor Frankel's sense, which is why I used his buzz-phrase. In Frankel's case, it was surviving the camps so that he could see his wife again. Anything that you could find yourself to be living for -- it needn't be religious or nationalistic. Although, in the case of Orthodox Judaism it would be both.

      FWIW, I would not use "Torah" and "Orthodox Judaism" interchangeably. The latter is a sociologically phenomenon that does a far less than perfect job of approximating the former. The Englightenment traumatically broke Jewish culture in Ashkenazic lands. To maintain ourselves, we shifted from a cultural fealty to an ideological one. Some of the new ideologies -- starting with German Reform -- fit the new world by abandoning orthodoxy. Others, such as chassidism, the Lithuanian yeshiva and mussar movements, the German neo-Orthodoxies and the Chasam Sofer's counter-reaction, responded with Isms that maintain orthodoxy. O is thus a fuzzy set of movements, that share a common preservation of an attribute called "orthodoxy", and not a movement in and of itself.

      But, these Isms too have decayed in the disruptions of the 1st and 2nd World Wars, and today Orthodoxy is more about praxis and halakhah; they have become about Torah's means with insufficient investments in Torah's ends.

      Our kids don't so much "go off the derekh" as much as reject all that talk about halakhah -- which can be literally rendered "the art of walking" -- without a sufficient picture of a derekh, the path they're supposed to travel.

    2. It goes back to the question I raised in my article: what does 'off the derech' mean in the first place? The corollary of this is very much the question of whether the concern is a sociological one -- movement from shared sociological behaviour and the parameter that initiates that concern -- or an actual concern that there is movement from the ideology which would further raise the question of whether the ideology is being transmitted properly.

  4. Rabbi Hecht has a lot of useful insight on this topic but copy editing is a necessity (especially now this is on a blog). The word count can be cut by at least 25% without losing an ounce of meaning.

    I think he touches well on the fact that family keeps people on the derech, but there's a darker side to that if you look at the work being done by Footsteps.org. If you leave or deviate from the lifestyle, you're family will cut you off and some communities don't train you with any skills to make it in the outside world.

  5. With regard to the last couple of paragraphs, isn't there some difference between torah law and the standards of some communities. I know a women who left an ultra-orthodox neighborhood because they forbid her to drive on Shabbat (something that's not banned). TVs aren't banned either and people frown on those. I heard they even frown on outdoor exercise.

    I would imagine that going off the derech doesn't necessarily mean living a halachic life but no longer accepting the authority of life in one of those communities that throws on additional standards on top of the ones in the torah.

    Personally, I decided that riding a bike was no big deal when I lived in a moderately orthodox (modern orthodox with some non Shabbas observant families thrown in) because the rules said you can't fix the bike. I don't mind leaving the bike on the side of the road on the miniscule chance that it breaks.