Let me fall
Let me climb
There's a moment when fear
And dreams must collide
Let Me Fall by Josh Groban
There is a moment in time when each person faces a choice. We come to the end of the road, as it were, and face different paths. It is then that we ask ourselves- why are we religious? Why am I a Jewess? Why do I believe?
If we are simply Jewish because of our blood, and we know no other reason, or if we are faced by ideas that seem extremely contradictory and receive no clear answers, if our questions are not acknowledged or are answered inadequately, if, in effect, we find ourselves in spiritual difficulty- and who has not?- the choice is not so simple.
There are those, based on many premises- whether intellectual, moral, emotional or religious- who choose to abdicate or to forgo the responsibility, others who desire to follow their dreams and moral beliefs- ideas that are not substantiated by Judaic law. There are some who present scientific arguments, others with intellectual arguments, some who base their decision on the way in which they were treated while within the Jewish community- oftentimes with scorn or derision, even intolerance, close-mindedness or anger. There are some who simply do not believe in organized religion, no matter the kind.
These are the ones who make a choice- reasoned, impetuous, irrational or logical- to step off the path.
This step is different for everyone. Some may whistle, cheerfully placing one foot in front of another as they dance off the path. Others may step forward tremulously, hesitantly embarking on a path that is totally different from all they ever knew. There are still others who march as a soldier unto battle, people who are strong and believe in the strength of their choice. And of course, there are the many within these various spectrums.
Many times, the ones who choose to step off the path have valid concerns. They have been exiled by the Jewish community in certain ways, perhaps, or maybe religion was never presented to them in a meaningful context. There may be others who were forced into religion too soon and against their will and therefore resent it. There are still others with carefully constructed arguments that delve into the Biblical texts themselves, or describe the many ways in which scientific theory appears to differ tremendously (and possibly even negate) ideas mentioned in the Torah. All of these are questions and concerns.
There are others who are disturbed by the moral implications of the Torah. Why is homosexuality impermissable? Why would we voluntarily involve ourselves in genocidal warfare against Amalek, especially since we have experienced the Holocaust? Why are men who seem cruel, who sold their own brother to traders, the forerunners of the 12 tribes? Why were we told to wipe out the seven nations of Ca'naan? Why is a woman's testimony not valid in court?
These, too, are valid qustions and concerns. Indeed, the great majority of issues brought up in the Skeptic's Annotated Bible are not simply issues that trouble them, skeptics and apostates alone, but rather issues that ought to trouble us all. There are many ethical and moral dilemmas that we are presented with. Differences in gender roles. Questions about love and mercy. The reiteration that our God is vengeful, jealous. So many questions, in so many different forms.
As I have stated, there are many reasons that one might choose to step off the Judaic path. I do not wish to state the obvious- namely, that if we were open to questions, accepted them as valid, and at least attempted to answer them, there might be fewer youth (I say youth in particular) who would find it necessary to step off the path. But I hardly believe that this is the solution. Indeed, I do not know that there is such a thing as a "solution."
Because a person's choice can hardly be viewed as a problem; it is a choice, one that man made for himself in keeping with his beliefs and values. The question that I believe is more important, then, is not necessarily the reasons for stepping off the path, but rather, the response on our part. The reaction. The stigma. In short, what the words "off the derech" convey.
Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, made a statement that I regard as being true:
- Actually it is a very difficult thing to even define a Jew. The closest that I can come to describing it is to ask you to visualize a snail. A snail that you see at the ocean consists of the body that is snuggled inside of the house which it always carries around with it. But let's picture what would happen if we lifted the shell off of the snail. Would we not still describe the unprotected body as a snail? In just the same way, a Jew who sheds his faith along the way, or who even picks up a different one, is still a Jew.
I find this statement to have great depth.
A Jew is a Jew without his faith, even as a snail is a snail without his shell. He still exists among us, amidst us, despite his views and ideas. He is not to be shunned, to be hated, to be exiled. He is not to be despised.
Some common reactions to finding out that one has stepped off the path are:
- Stony silence. Regarding the person as totally forfallen.
Anger. Confusion. Even hatred.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"Your grandparents died for this faith! How do you, an American with a perfect life, have the right to deny it?"
"You are not going to live in this house if you do this..."
An inability to admit the person has made a life choice/ decision. Instead, thinking that the person will "come round" if you ignore what they say/ choose not to see it.
Sending the person to a Rabbi/ therapist/ counseler.
I think these reactions are understandable, but not helpful. I do not want to judge the people who say/ do this. I am not in their position, and what I propose is what I mentally find to be correct, and not necessarily what I would do (although I hope I would) if I were in the same position.
I asked my parents what they would do if I would one day decide to leave my religion. I did not do this because I am actually considering leaving, but rather for guidance with regard to their response. My parents believe that the person who makes this choice must be treated with love. We may differ- intellectually, theologically even- but should keep the channels of communication open. Instead of accusations or anger, my father (very simply) said he would ask me "Why?"
This "Why" would not be condemnatory, an angry thrust, a pointed barb. It would be a true question. What is it that persuades you Judaism is wrong/ incorrect? It is possible that I too, Chana, your father, share the same questions as you, and am also looking for the answers...
My mother believes in unconditional love, and would want to be an involved part of my family anyway- attending celebrations and various joyous occasions. She could not write any of us off- we are her children. There is a bond that connects us, through all of our searching, no matter where it may take us.
A person has merit even if he has chosen another path. He is not suddenly stupid or foolish or simply wrong. The main preoccupation of Orthodox Jewry is trying to get those who went "off-the-derech" to come back on. There's so many organizations that wish to accomplish this. While I think their intentions are good, I believe that the focus may be wrong.
Before we tell others to come back, to join us, as it were, oughtn't we to listen to their reasons?
If the only reason you speak with someone is to refute him, and not to learn from him, how can you possibly answer reasonably?
If someone has made a life decision- particularly if the person is learned, and has thought about intellectual and logical parameters- one can hardly begin to debate him if one does not understand his premise. And even those who leave based on emotion- the fact that they feel stifled, or are angry with their parents/ school system- have something to say within the anger. You must listen before you can argue. You must desire to hear what they have to say.
There is also an assumption that the person is instantly wrong when we say that he has "gone off the derech." In truth, this is wholly situational. An adolescent who has decided to engage in something harmful to his body (drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc) and rebel may also step off the path as part of his rebellion. But this is also viewing a situation very simply. There may be more to the "rebel" kid just as there may be more to the intellectual premise. It would be best not to make assumptions. We state that there is a "correct path" and that others have strayed from it and our mission is instantaneously to bring them back to it. This is like putting blinders on one's eyes. To them, we are not on the path...
People who gain a child/ adolescent's confidence in order to cajole him into reaccepting religion disturb me. This is treating a child shabbily indeed. Even people who propose extremely simplistic arguments undermine our intelligence. For example, my Rabbi at Templars (one of the good ones, if you can believe it) once stated during a Machshava class the idea of Pascal's Wager (though not in those words):
Rabbi: So if you keep the Torah and the mitzvos, then you go up to Shamayim and if there is a God, you receive Olam Haba! And if there isn't a God, well, then, you've still lived a good and moral life. So you might have missed out on some things, on pleasure mostly, the pleasures of [gives a list], having fun, but in the long term, what's better? I'd gamble on Hashem!
Chana: But your whole life would have been a lie!
Rabbi: But you would be dead, so you wouldn't realize that.
Chana: You can't just say that we're only "missing out" on pleasure if we keep the Torah! There are so many other things that are worth thinking about/ debating...
Class: (Jumps on Chana= attack Chana time.) The Rabbi's right...it is too pleasure, it's TV and movies and pritzus and untznius clothes...what do you mean?....I'd rather have Olam Haba...and either way, you'll still have been a good person...
Even if the class accepted this argument, I still think it insults an adolescent's intelligence to state this. I believe that if we were grounded in the basics of our theology/philosophy/religion, and understood it from an intellectual premise rather than from an emotional "feel-good" premise (the common argument- I love Shabbos! I get together with friends; it's wonderful! Yeah- but, as I read somewhere, maybe even on one of the blogs- Shabbos was also extremely hard for my grandparents to observe, due to the fact that they would lose their job if they did so- is the "feel-good" philsophy going to hold up under that situation? No...)
Someone who steps off the path may have some very valid points. This person deserves thinking, questioning discussion, not an idea that we have all the answers and , in an effort to save his soul, must be "mikareiv" him.
Look at Elisha ben Avuyah, in Chagiga 15A.
R' Meir continued to learn from R'Elisha, because Elisha did not suddenly lack in knowledge of Torah. He was brilliant, an extremely erudite scholar! Yet he chose to leave Judaism, and later on, was under the impression that he could not return. He tore a root/ radish from the ground on the Sabbath for a prostitute; she was shocked by his actions and decided he was Acher- another. Even so, R' Meir listened to him and learned from him.
There is a wonderful story mentioned there- Elisha, riding his horse on Sabbath and R' Meir, walking alongside him, spoke of Torah until they reached the techum, where Elisha stated that R' Meir could walk no farther. R'Meir implored him to return; Elisha stated that he could not (he believed he had been forbidden to do so.) Others had the option, but not he.
When I was in Israel over the past summer, I visited a certain site (I cannot remember exactly where it was, I think perhaps within the Talmudic Village) where a certain introductory video played. This story, of Elisha ben Avuya and R' Meir, was enacted on screen; the two of them speaking together about Judaic law even as Elisha rode on his horse. Then, the screen switched to a modern-day scene. A man with a black hat, long earlocks and black gaberdine, walked next to a totally secular Jew driving a car on Shabbos. The two of them were deep in intellectual discussion, engrossed in a fascinating argument.
This struck me immensely. Why is it that we never see this happen? I have never seen a religious Jew and one who has walked "off the derech" discussing Torah together, let alone as one broke the law through driving a car on the Sabbath! I have heard of people who throw rocks at those who drive cars on the Sabbath, totally antithetical to what the very Gemara seems to say.
If one has the ability to discern between good and evil, to take the wheat and discard the chaff, to sift the good from the bad, then one has much to learn from one who goes "off the derech." In the limited sense, one can learn the person's reasons. In the larger sense, if the person is a scholar, it may be that you can even learn Torah from him...
One of the most fundamental laws of Judaism is that we must love one another.
I do not think it is love to persuade people back onto the path through false means. It is something they must choose to accept, knowingly and understanding what they do. One cannot lie and emphasize the "feel-good" ideas, the peace of a Sabbath meal or the psychological benefit therein. At times it is hard, very hard indeed to keep the laws, and what do we do then?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as part of his lecture on the Role of the Rabbi, stated (and this may be found in Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book 'The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik', page 54 onwards):
- Judaism must be explained and expounded on a proper level. I have read many pamphlets that have been published in the United States with the purpose of bringing people closer to Judaism. There is much foolishness and narrishkeit in some of these publications. For instance, a recent booklet on the Sabbath stressed the importance of a white tablecloth. A woman recently told me that the Sabbath is wonderful, and that it enhances her spiritual joy when she places a snow-white tablecloth on her table. Such pamphlets also speak about a sparkling candelabra. Is this true Judaism? You cannot imbue real and basic Judaism by utilizing cheap sentimentalism and stressing empty ceremonies. Whoever attempts such an approach underestimates the intelligence of the American Jew. If you reduce Judaism to religious sentiments and ceremonies, then there is no role for rabbis to discharge. Religious sentiments and ceremonies are not solely posessed by Orthodox Jewry. All the branches of Judaism have ceremonies and rituals.
This is not the only reason why we must negate such a superficial approach. Today in the United States, American Jewish laymen are achieving intellectual and metaphysical maturity. They wish to discover their roots in depth. We will soon reach a point in time where the majority of our congregants will have academic degrees. Through the mediums of white tablecloths and polished candelabras, you will not bring these people back to Judaism. It is forbidden to publish pamphlets of this nature, which emphasize the emotional and ceremonial approaches.
There is another reason why ceremony will not influence the American Jew. In the Unitesd States today, the greatest master of ceremony is Hollywood. If a Jew wants ceremony, all he has to do is turn on the television set. If our approach stresses the ceremonial side of Judaism rather than its moral, ethical, and religious teachings, then our viewpoint will soon become bankrupt.
The only proper course is that of Ezekiel's program for the priests: "And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" [Ezekiel 44:23] The rabbi must teach his congregants. He must deepen their appreciation of Judaism and not water it down. If we neutralize and compromise our teachings, then we are no different than the other branches of Judaism.
People are smart- they are academic, intellectual. They need to hear true answers, intellectual answers, textual answers, not ideas about emotions and ceremonies. If someone steps off the path, you will not persuade him back through feel-good Judaism. You must listen, think of what they are saying, hear their words and arguments, and then, if itis possible....respond...
The most chilling words in the entire 'Fiddler on the Roof' are from the following scene:
- Chava: Papa.
Papa, I've been looking everywhere for you.
At least listen to me!
I beg you to accept us.
How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in?
On the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter?
On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith,
If I try and bend that far,
On the other hand...
No. There is no other hand.
Tevye: (angry) No, Chava! No!
Chava: But, Papa! -
Tevye: No! No!
According to justice, to true justice, there is no other hand...but Tevye's denying his daughter is one of the most emotional scenes- the scene that makes people cry. Not because they find Tevye intolerant and ignorant, but because they understand his dilemma, the terrible choice with which he is faced. Accept them? He cannot.
One of the most terrifying things for a parent to think about, for any relative or friend to think about- is not the fact that what the person is doing is "bad or wicked" so much as what his punishment may be. If one truly believes in God- in the God of the Torah- we see that He metes out measure for measure, justice with mercy, but He is a Judge above all else. If we believe in this God, we are terrified for the member of our family, friend or community who does not, or worse yet, mocks Him. What will happen to this person? What will God say to him? We do not want anyone we love to be hurt or punished by God in the next world. We want the best for them- we want them to enjoy the beauty and richness of Olam Ha'ba, the World to Come. We want only good for them. We want their lives to be filled with joy, with happiness...
If I believe in God, and I believe in justice, then it follows that I believe that each person is judged based on whether he is what he could have been. I do not want those I love to have to undergo a judgement or even a purificaton of souls that may be harsh. I want those I love to be protected...
Those who chose this path or step will avow that this is totally their own choice and that they do not need you to worry about them. And this is true...Yet while I will not force anyone to rejoin Orthodox Judaism, while I do not think it is right to impugn on someone else's views, and I certainly do not think "feel-good" arguments will prevail, I do love so very many people within my community and even within the blogosphere. I only want good for them. And since I believe, it is not so much that I want to "save thier soul" from being damned so much as I do not want them to be placed in a position where they might be judged unfavorably.
There are some who care only for appearances and for the shame of having their child go "off the derech." There are some who feel this is a deliberate slight or the American mentality at its worst. But at the core, what I truly believe motivates people (albeit, at times, in incorrect ways) is that we love so fiercely and so passionately, and we do not want our children/ relatives/ family members/ friends to suffer. We do not want them to be hurt in any way. In some ways, we are scared for them.
I admit that I feel this way. I don't want to force ideas upon people. I don't want to infringe on others' lifestyles. I understand many of the reasons behind the step off the path.
But loving you, I want your life to be pleasant, beautiful. I want you never to know anything bad.
This is why, I believe, people are concerned about those who go "off the Derech." This love is misdirected, for there are those who often smother people in it, choke them on it, try to force them to change. That is wrong. People take responsibility for their actions. They make their own choices.
But to love Jews- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Atheist...all Jews...is also to fear for them.
If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't care about your life choices/ decisions.
But I do.
Know, then, as you suffer the multitudes attempting to persuade you or change you, that it comes (or so I think) from a misguided depth of feeling for you that is so strong that it cannot be mentally broken.
This is our people, Israel...at least our people as we could be. People who care about one another. People who love one another. People who feel directly affected by the choices of others...
A loving people.