Monday, September 8, 2014

A Better Paradigm for the Orthodox Community- A response to Eliyahu Fink

Before we can explain why people leave Orthodoxy, as Eliyahu Fink has attempted to do on his blog, I think we need to start off with a different series of questions.

  • Why should we care if people leave Orthodoxy?
  • What is the goal of Orthodoxy?

Although logic might dictate that the two questions be dealt with in the opposite order, due to Eliyahu’s post, I will go in the opposite order.

If Orthodoxy is merely a club or social group of some kind, those of us who are members will want people to stay for a number of possible reasons. Defections will make our social pool smaller, and possibly cause some dissonance as we wonder why people are abandoning what we find enjoyable and meaningful. If that is the main reason for concern, I am not sure why a rational person would care if people left Orthodoxy. Although we might have an emotional preference for people to like what we like and do what we do, most of us recognize that personal taste is subjective. I have yet to see a campaign to get people to like the same sports team or flavor of ice cream.

If we examine what the goal of Orthodoxy is, the first question can be answered differently. While Eliyahu comes to these questions from the world of kiruv professional (formerly) and the rabbinate, I will answer these questions as a Jewish educator.

Ultimately, Orthodoxy is about a connection with God, holiness, truth and meaning. Although different subsections of our community will approach this goal differently, the overall goal is fairly clear. If we are convinced that God speaks to us through Torah and that we are commanded to do certain things, our concern becomes religious, rather than social. Thus, while we will acknowledge that people might come to observe for all sorts of non-religious or theological reasons, the goal is ultimately theological and not social. As such, I would suggest that the kiruv/advertising approach, where everyone is beautiful, wealthy and young, is the wrong approach. Instead, we should take an educational approach. Will this lead to fewer people becoming observant? Quite possibly, but that’s not a bad thing. In sales, one can take the approach of caveat emptor, but I would hope that we are not trying to make a sale. If our goal is to get people to honestly connect with God, we need to stop doing kiruv and start educating.

Education, as opposed to kiruv, seeks to provide knowledge and understanding. There are no hooks, no promises, and thus, fewer defections. When defections occur, it is not because we have not made religion fun enough, but rather because a different belief system has won out.

There has been a recent fascinating phenomena in the charedi community. Many, have chosen , on a social and communal level, to stay within the community, despite mentally having checked out. In some extreme cases, the disconnect between the social appearance and private behavior is quitejarring. If the goal of the community is to be able to continue to have a large team, this phenomena need not concern us. If the goal of the community is to connect to God through Torah and the mitzvos, this phenomena is quite disconcerting.

It is time for the Orthodox community to focus more on the second of my two questions. To the degree that we do so, we will recognize that the goal is not to keep people living a certain lifestyle, but to instead truthfully engage with God through his Torah. We should, of course, put our best foot forward, but never lose sight of the true goal.


  1. Well, let's go back a step: Do you think it's coincidental that in 1993, kiruv was succeeding, kids weren't going OTD in any scary numbers, we didn't have 15% of marriageable girls in a panic, ... AND Rav SZ Aurbach, R JB Soloveitchik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (although the latter two were already ill for years by then)... in short, the prior generation of leaders was fading, but still around.

    The problem is simple: Orthodoxy ended in the early 90s, and we've been running on momentum ever since. Eventually, the bicycle slows down too much to maintain its balance. Which is what we're watching now.

  2. But the goal shouldn't be to restore Orthodoxy. Even before the gas tank started running on empty, a gap was growing between the Torah and the dominant faith of the majority of the Orthodox community. We switched from the pursuit of ehrlachkeit to chasing frumkeit, a narcissistic need to feel holy by checking all the boxes in the Shulchan Arukh.

    We need to restore a community founded on following the Torah and avodas Hashem. Whether that means redirecting Orthodoxy or replacing it has yet to be seen.

  3. Micha Berger's second comment totally wowed me. So true! Very well said!