Monday, May 16, 2016

Passionless Judaism- On the differences between the Charedi and MO OTD experience

What more can be said about the OTD phenomenon? So much has been written about it from every perspective, from memoirs to sociological studies to essays examining why Orthodox jews leave the fold. Is there anything left to be said?

I have been thinking about the differences between the many charedim I know who left the fold, versus those from the Modern Orthodox world who left religious observance. Although there are many differences, there is one particular difference I keep seeing. Many, if not most of the charedim I know have a strong emotional feeling about the community they have left, and about religion in general. Quite a few, continue to struggle with, or against, the world they left. Some turn their feelings into organizational work, trying to help others who have left the fold, or those who are still observant. Organizations like Footsteps and Yaffed are just a few examples of this phenomena. Others write about their reasons for leaving, and the mixed emotional feelings they have about the way they grew up. It is not unusual to have OTD Shabbos meals, where zemiros are sung, and traditional foods are on the menu.

By contrast, in the Modern Orthodox world, those who leave seem to leave more quietly, almost as if they have left nothing behind. They rarely continue to be involved in any Jewish organizations, and show little, if any, signs of resentment. To be sure, there are some obvious reasons for these different reactions. While charedim have often been raised in communities where they were not offered the educational, social, and professional skills to make it in the secular world, Modern orthodox jews grow up in a milieu which makes transitioning far easier. Many have gone to the same colleges as their non-religious and non-Jewish peers, and have received an education that makes the switch that much easier. While there might be some degree of resentment about aspects of how they were brought up, for the most part, the people I know from the MO world have left easily, and without much of an emotional struggle. However, there is, I believe, something more behind the different reactions, something that to my mind speaks poorly about the MO educational experience.

I recently read a book that dealt with the philosophical development of some of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement. These leaders had either grown up in religious families, or were one, or at most two generations away from religious ancestors. As each of them struggled to figure out what it meant to be Jewish when one is no longer religious, they struggled mightily with the mixed emotions they felt for the religious world that they knew. They had feelings of pity, nostalgia, and anger. They channeled these emotions into the creativity which led them to be leaders in creating the Zionist movement in terms of political thought, culture, and religion. As I finished reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder again about the MO people I know who have left without experiencing these same feelings.

For good and for bad, the charedi educational system gets their version of Judaism into their students bones. There is a thick, almost viscous religious, cultural, and emotional sense of what it means to be a frum Jew. When you watch charedi kids daven in school, there is an energy that is generally lacking in MO schools. In charedi yeshivahs, Torah learning is seen as an ideal, and any boy who succeeds in it, is seen as a star. I’ve noticed that even those who are not successful learners, often internalize the message to the degree that, later in life, they financially support yeshivos and kollels. In the MO world, we are not succeeding in giving over this sense of connection. Too often, the davening is not inspiring, and the Torahlearning is seen as, at best, another academic discipline to master. For those who want out, the religiosity they have experienced is easily shed.

Rabbi Lamm once said, talking about Modern Orthodoxy, that our goal should not be “to be moderately passionate, but rather to be passionately moderate”. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we are not only failing at what he suggests our goal should be, but even at instilling a moderate amount of passion. It is beyond time that we figure out how to do better.


  1. With all due respect to R' Lamm, and while it is a cute saying, it truly seems to me that while being "moderately passionate" is a possibility, "passionately moderate" is an oxymoron. And - dort ligt der hund bagruben - therein the dog lies buried, as they say in Yiddish, with respect to MO people. The difference between Haredi Yiddishkeit and MO Yiddishkeit is in the CULTURE less than it is in the religion. There are zillions of cultural strings that bind the Haredi Jew, from language (if they are lucky enough to have been raised in Yiddish), to folklore, to traditional foods, to skills learned (how to bind your own lulav, baking challah, etc), to the passion involved in prayer. Most Haredim are at least a generation closer to Holocaust era immigrant grandparents than their MO counterparts. Lots of reasons, but it has to do with culture. MO people are Americans who happen to be Jewish. Haredim make an effort to be Jews who happen to live in America, and those things of America that are not part of Yiddishkeit are ignored or downplayed. (Not too many Hassidic Yankees fans, for example.)

    1. Although you paint with an overly broad brush, much of what you say is correct.

  2. Wow.

    Some points:
    1) A contributory factor (in my opinion, not determinative, just contributory) I didn't notice you mentioning is "dress". I grew up in the Yeshiva world in the 1960's, and we essentially wore what the public school kids were wearing: A blue, collared shirt with a snap-on tie, pressed conservatively-colored slacks, and black Stride Rites. PERHAPS our peyos were a bit longer, though not necessarily. Usually, we even watched the same TV shows, albeit more selectively and less often. We knew that if we took off our yarmulkas, and placed them either in our back pockets or the garbage pail, we already were blended in to the society at large.
    My personal decision in 6th Grade to grow my peyos longer (which drew sharp rebuke from my more MO aunt), and in 8th Grade to (often) leave my tzitzis out were not only a desire to identify more clearly as a Yid, but also a desire to put an extra step, a "warning track", between myself and a weak moment that would compromise my connectedness to Yiddishkeit.
    Now, with a Yeshivish "uniform" worn at a much younger age, and with the public school dress code having gone the way of the dodo, and with stronger rules in the frum community against TV, movies, etc., I think there's more of a "ripping sound" that accompanies a decision to disconnect either temporarily or permanently.

    2) To my distress, I have heard MO educators say things like, "The Jews believe that G-d literally gave them the Torah" or even presented "other viewpoints" in tandem with traditional belief.
    By contrast, a Yeshiva mechanech would say, "When Hashem came to give us the Torah, He...", and a Chassidishe rebbi would say, When the Heiliger Bashefer (Holy Creator), in His great love for us, came to give his Heiliger Kinder (Holy Children) the Toirah HaKedoisha, He..."
    Is it a wonder that it's more "real" to a member of the Yeshiva community, or more emotionally poignant to the Chassidishe child?

    1. Your second point is particularly powerful and poignant.

  3. 3) Too many of my MO friends seem to carry the implicit view that Judaic practice is something they need to get through in order to reach what they REALLY want in life. In my mind, that's symbolized by the 30-minute Shacharit that stands between them and a satisfying day at work.
    (While not rare enough among Chanichei haYeshivos, most graduates of the Yeshiva system I know see that same davening as a moment of "sanity" or even "centering" before stepping into the 9-5 world. Hence, most of them try to get a little Torah study in either before or right after davening for that extra boost of potential inspiration.)
    Why would an MO person choose the track with mitzvah hurdles placed every 100 yards, when they can run on the open clear track?

    4) Any person I know who thrives as a frum Jew has a "Derech haAvodah" (Path in G-d's Service), and usually has a Rebbi as well in that Derech. For a Chasid, it might be simply "tzu dinen die Bashefer/Aibeshter" (to Serve the Creator/Most High One), to bring Moshiach, to be a Shaliach of his Rebbe, to promulagate the Derech of the Baal Shem, etc. For a Yeshivish person, it might be to be an Eved Hashem (Servant of G-d), to bind his intellect with G-d's, to fix his character traits through mussar, etc. The ones that don't have this Statement of Purpose or of Highest Values are the "at-risk adults" that feel spiritually unsatisfied, or even dead.
    Most of the MOs I know have no such Unifying Principle stringing together the Jewish acts they do, even though they have many available (like Torah im Derech Eretz, elevating Chol to Kodesh, reconnecting Jews & Eretz Yisroel, etc.). The ones that do are "on fire" and impressive, but I don't see them as being as statistically significant in the MO community, or having the same inspirational effect on the general MO community.
    So, I'm not surprised that many will find a disjointed Judaism stultifying, won't form a deep emotional bond with it, and won't fight the Good Fight in moments of spiritual crisis.

    1. Actually, most chareidim don't either. You're comparing the language used in teaching, trying to represent the ideal, with the day-to-day life of MO's real. For that matter, in my shul, a sea of black hats, far more men only attend 15-20 min of minyan than the whole thing.

      O-lite isn't the problem of any one community. Nor is the Orthodpractic adult who really doesn't believe in anything or running in a rut.

      Bottom line is that NONE of O spends time daily on pursuing a derekh. We call ourselves "frum", and for good reason -- frumkeit refers to ritual observance. We follow halakhah with no daily attention to where all the walking (halikhah) is supposed to be taking us.

      For example: If you woke up a minute before sof zeman tefillah and are groggy, would you daven then, to daven on time, or would you wait until your head was clear enough to daven with kavanah? How do you clarify conflicting priorities without a derekh? If I place the pursuit of sheleimus ha'adam first, then I should be developing my sense of duty, order, alacrity, etc... and daven on time. If I place deveiqus first, then I should be waiting until I can pray in a way that connects to G-d.

      The fact that most people do not even realize they hold in their heads conflicting ideas about the goals of Torah and mitzvos shows how hollow the beliefs we ought to be passionate about really are.

    2. Micha, I'm not sure if we're observing different people, or looking for different things.
      Even when I go to a "minyan factory", there are guys learning while others daven. There's a 3-minute Halacha or a 5-minute vort between minyanim in most places. I see many fellows greet their friends with a vort they saw (even as others talk about the Mets game), or come a little early to listen in to the last 10 minutes of a Daf Yomi class. They have their favorite speakers, whether Raymond Beyda, Rav Avigdor Miller, Charlie Harary, Paysach Krohn, Jonathan Rietti, etc., they listen to for inspiration. They usually have a couple mitzvos they keep very meticulously. They have a poseik and/or Rabbi that they sometimes discuss issues with. So, even if they come in at Borchu & leave at the end of uVa leZion, they're not disconnected from the Tree, they're just in a spiritual lull.
      So, my limited exposure to Orthopraxic people may come from hanging out in the wrong places, or from intuiting more about their true spiritual lives than others do.

      Still, it seems to me that the incidence of MOs trading a vort, or listening to a Torah CD, or running to catch the last minyan is more infrequent.
      Some of that is the Nature of the Beast: Someone non-practicing Orthodox or pick-and-choose Orthodox is more likely to self-identify as MO than Chareidi, & more likely to hang out in MO circles. (Non-practicing Chareidi?)
      Still, I maintain that Rudderless Judaism seems more frequent not in a sea of black hats.

      (I also believe that every human being has conflicting ideas about everything in their lives, so we're in good company.)

    3. Yes, I think you're having confirmation bias.

      But I repeat what I said about my experiment -- most O Jews do not realize that they believe both that Hashem is in shamayim and that He is everywhere, or both that we perform mitzvos to refine ourselves and to get close to Him. Yes, you can argue that they're aspects og the same thing -- but only IF people think about the topic to realize there's a question. And in any case, as I noted, there are pragmatic differences that depend on which side of that complex picture you focus on.

      Orthodox Jews today don't think about meaning, purpose, values or passion nearly enough. The kids we call "OTD" don't go off the derekh, we never give them a well-defined derekh to go off of.

      Yes, in different communities the symptoms differ. But if you can only see yenem's problems and think everything is healthy where you live, we can't fix anything.

  4. You allude to one point that has not been made clearly enough.

    Broadly speaking, Charedi dropouts are unhappy and dysfunctional people, and many have suffered trauma, or broken and miserable family upbringing. Most need therapy, and many are candidates for jail. There are many dropouts in both Lakewood and Englewood (just for example). Very few of the Charedi dropouts are successful human beings - while Englewood has produced satiscied and wealthy financiers, doctors and lawyers.

    1. That is a massive generalization, which is untrue and unkind.

  5. I don't know about jail or therapy, but I have found MO OTD far more well adjusted than UO OTD. Maybe the less oppressive upbringing in the MO world does it, along with supplying them with the skills necessary to function. Many years ago the Villiage Voice had a cover story about Satmar bad boys. Among the more insular there is an attitude that once you are not 'like them' you are an oisvorf, a goy. So going overboard when going OTD is weirdly consistent with their world view.