How To Not Keep Jews Orthodox

Any love that is dependent on something–when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases.

I’ve been spending the last few days thinking about Rabbi Eli Fink’s recent essays.

I’ve been thinking about them because, recently, I’ve been thinking over my life over the last six years, and how it has changed so drastically because of the choice to live like the people that give themselves the label “orthodox”.

I’ve been thinking about how, very recently, I was on the edge, the tipping point, feeling ready to jump off, and shrug off much of what I had believed over those six years.

How To Transform A Life

Why did I become religious… it’s a question I get asked a lot, especially when I’m around secular Jews.  They want to know what would motivate a guy to run off to Israel, grow a beard, get married, have kids, move to an orthodox community.

My usual answer is simply that, “I believe.”  But that’s so simplistic isn’t it?  A bit empty even.  It doesn’t say why I believe.  Why I turned my life inside out.

Often, the answers I hear other orthodox people say in our (the baalei teshuva’s) stead is that we enjoy it.  Shabbat is awesome, kiruv programs are fun, the rabbis who teach us are great.

And there is some truth to that.  Shabbat is awesome, especially when you don’t have to make the food, you’re always the guest, and you’re around people who are inspired.  Kiruv programs are fun.  The rabbis who teach in them are great.

But that’s not enough.  Not enough to turn a person inside out.  Not enough to make a person transform his life, upset his parents, lose friends, get married earlier than he ever planned to, grow a beard, spend at least an hour a day mumbling words from a book, etc etc…

No, it’s not enough, no matter what the orthodox people that can’t understand us claim.  Sure, Shabbat is great, but so are college parties, and at those you can watch TV and drive.  Kiruv programs are enjoyable, but so are a million other secular programs available to people, including things that resemble the Kiruv experience almost completely: study abroad, for example.  Inspiring rabbis are great too, but there were plenty of other people that inspired me before I started this journey.  Christian people, Buddhist people, atheists.

Enjoyment is simply not enough to make a person become a baal teshuva.  We are not idiots.  Unfortunately the people that run most kiruv programs treat us like we are.

What Drives Us?

In one part of his articles, Fink claimed that “kiruv is advertising”.  I would argue that bad kiruv is advertising.  The kind of kiruv that treat people like numbers that just need to go through the turnstile, just need to punch a ticket and enter the world of orthodoxy.  The kind of kiruv that baal teshuvas resent years later, or the ones who didn’t buy into it resent for the rest of their lives.

No, I think that, often, Jews become orthodox despite kiruv.  I think that there’s something else they find within these programs, within their Shabbat meals, within the souls of the rabbis who teach them.

This is essentially a discussion about what drives people.  What moves them to take action, to change their lives or to keep their lives the same despite challenges?

I do not think we can equate Judaism to cigarettes.  I think if we reduce all our desires and motivation to a simple attempt to achieve enjoyment, we are missing a huge part of what it means to be people, to be humans, to be Jews.

No, I think there are two primary motivators that have caused people like myself and others to choose to become baal teshuva.

1. The desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves

Desire for enjoyment is shallow, fleeting.  The desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves is deep within us all.  It is what has driven so much of human history, and definitely religious history.

I think one of the things very much missing from the secular lifestyle is this feeling.  It is why people become activists, why they join the Peace Corps, why they join the army, why they become political, why they get involved in the arts, why they work in startups where they earn less than they would elsewhere, why they volunteer…

So much of the above activities involve some measure of sacrifice, some measure of lack of enjoyment.  Giving up material or physical rewards for this other, deeper reward: the reward of transcendence.

We want so badly to be part of something larger than who we are.  We will die for such a thing.  We will kill for such a thing.  We will transform ourselves, transform our lives, move across the world, upset everyone around us… just for a taste of not being a lone individual, but a part of a collective aimed towards something higher.

This is why even the worst kiruv programs, the ones who treat us like the biggest idiots, can be successful: they nurture a sense of being part of something big, something beyond big, something both eternal and also communal.  Secular people are starving for this, and even a hint of it is enough to send them into a frenzy of gratitude and life-changing actions.

2. The desire for meaning

Despite what the whole world seems to be claiming, many of us are existentially anxious.  Inside, somewhere deep, is a worry.  A worry that none of this makes sense.  That life is empty.  That we’ll live and die, and it will all be for naught.

It is a scary thought that life has no meaning.  But also absurd, in a way.  How could all this be pointless?  And what’s the deal with existence even being a thing?

So, part of us, whether we realize it or not, is demanding that we find some meaning, some truth, some reality in this world.  Something we can hold onto, that’s stable, like a table in a dark room.

Something that most of us call G-d.

This is why so many atheists latch themselves onto science as the be-all and end-all of Truth.  For people who do not believe in objective truth, they are still starving for some sort of solidness, something that makes sense, something that they can point to and say, “THIS MAKES SENSE!”

And so are all the rest of us.

This is the other thing we’re willing to die for: our version of Truth.  If we think we have the key to what is really going on, we will do anything we can to make sure it is alive in us and alive in others.

Which explains the other half of the baal teshuva experience: many of us were consciously aware of our own search for truth when we came into the fold.  Many had explored Eastern religions, Western philosophy, science… just about anything except for Judaism.

Which brings me to the third element, the one that most of us seem to ignore:

3. The Jewish soul

What is it about Judaism that attracts us?  What is it that drives us toward it?  After all, there are plenty of other religions and viewpoints that offer both the opportunity to access transcendence and Truth.  Why should we turn to this world, all of a sudden, one that requires more sacrifice, less “enjoyment”, than others?

It’s the Jewish soul.  It’s what drives us.  It’s the only thing that can explain this, this choosing Judaism above all.  There is something in the learning, the Shabbat meals, the praying, even the kiruv programs that treat us like we’re idiots, that awakens something dormant inside of us.

I think that ignoring this last point is a part of why so much kiruv is so empty: it thinks it has to trick people.  It thinks it has to “advertise” Judaism.  When all it has to do is offer it up on a platter and watch as we gobble it up like men in a dessert without water, without sustenance.

Kiruv Is A Lie

In my mind, it is this exact focus on enjoyment over the other three elements that hurts kiruv in the long-run.  When you create the illusion that Judaism is “fun” or “easy”, you are lying.  Judaism has fun moments (and I totally agree with Eli that we should work to increase those moments), but it is not what Judaism is about.  Judaism is about transcendence, it’s about truth, and it’s about nourishing our Jewish soul as well as the souls of others around us.

When Jews join up with the movement, thinking they are driven by a desire for enjoyment, and then run up against some friction, they feel betrayed.  They may stay orthodox for different reasons, but their Judaism shrivels up inside of them, becomes something empty.  Because they don’t realize that their real driver, their real motivator, is the above desires.

If you make Judaism about enjoyment, the moment that enjoyment disappears, you no longer want to be Jewish.

Why We (Want To) Leave

I think this is also why many orthodox Jews leave Judaism.  I’m not in a position to speak for everyone, but I will talk about my own experience and why I felt moved to leave, why I felt it wasn’t right for me, and why I was strongly considering turning my life upside down yet again.

Most baalei teshuva will agree that one of the most challenging experiences of their growth is moving into a community.  Suddenly, you are not surrounded by rabbis on fire, open-minded BTs, living in a place you don’t need to pay for anything.  Suddenly, you’re surrounded by all kinds of Jews: inspired, uninspired, cynical, angry, sickening, low-lifes, liars, cheats…

My last three years in a religious community have been very hard for me as a Jew.  I’ve written as much many times.

But why is it so hard?  It seems logical that in any group of people, there are good people, and there are bad.  Why should this experience be so challenging?

It’s because the “lack of enjoyment” we’re getting from our new experiences is a signal, in our minds, of something deeper: that the Truth we thought we had accessed was a lie.  That being a part of something bigger isn’t as worth it.  Why would I want to be part of something larger than me that is empty, that is a lie, that is bad?

I regularly hear the argument from orthodox Jews that we should be okay with the corruption in our world because “there are bad people in every community” and we’re “not being fair” to our fellow Jews by judging them by higher standards.

I think this is a crock.  First of all, these people will then go and turn around and claim that everything  that is wrong with the secular world is wrong because of their beliefs.

Such hypocrisy is almost… unbearable… to handle for someone who spent years of his life sacrificing things so that he can be part of what he considered a True Transcendent Movement.

No, the truth is that the religious world should be better.  It should be higher.  And the people that leave Judaism because they confront these issues are acting logically: they want the Truth, they want Transcendence, they want their souls to be fed, just like everyone in the world.  And Judaism, Jews, their communities, do not serve that function anymore.

In other words, it has nothing to do with enjoyment.  It has to do with a feeling of betrayal, a feeling of broken trust, as Shulem Deen wrote so beautifully in Zeek.  A feeling that the Truth accessed was an illusion and that the Movement joined is corrupt and empty.

The Solution

And within all this ugliness, within all these difficulties and challenges and hardships, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The way to “keep people orthodox” is to not focus on keeping people orthodox.  It is exactly this quantitative focus that hurts the entire Jewish community, from the kiruv world to the adults dissatisfied with “orthodoxy”.

We are souls and not numbers.  Perhaps that’s why G-d doesn’t want us to count ourselves.  We are not meant to be measured, we are meant to be nurtured.

And so rather than focusing on “turning” Jews frum or “keeping” Jews frum, we should focus on opening up the access points to Judaism’s Truth, and improving the qualitative state of our communities, the places where transcendence either lives or dies.

Living in corrupt communities, in communities that are broken in many ways, that, in my opinion, are worse off than many secular communities, wears on the soul of a Jew.  It is painful, and worse, it is a signal, in his mind, that what he believes in is false.  And worst of all, it is a roadblock to transcendence.

Enough with the numbers.  Enough with the word “orthodox”, like we can somehow know the internal state of a Jew because of a label he gives himself.  We are not a political party, that succeeds simply because it is the majority.  We are a people who succeed by nurturing the innermost core of ourselves and each other.

No, what we need is the understanding that Meaning is infinite, and that it has become stale for so many because we have limited it so much.  What we need is for communities to truly embrace Ahavas Yisrael and not to give it lip service and then on their own communal websites, bash those they actually look down on.

What we need is for Judaism to no longer be about enjoyment, labels, words, numbers, quantity.  What we need is for Judaism to be alive, crackling, burning.

The more we measure, the less it will happen.  The more we delve into nurturing the three principles of Transcendence, Meaning, and Soul, the more we will truly be immeasurable.  And there will be no longer a worry about losing Jews, because we will have stopped thinking in those terms, and will instead be focused on the health of each one’s soul.

  • Eric Kaplan

    What in your opinion is a “Jewish” soul? What makes a soul Jewish or not? Can you tell by externals if somebody has one? i.e. could you be a Congolese who had never heard of Abraham and Moses and have one?

    • HS

      A Jew has a Jewish soul, i.e. a person born from a Jewish mother or who has undergone a conversion according to Jewish law.
      There is the concept of a “spark” of a Jewish soul, which can be found in certain non-Jewish people, this thing inside them that pulls them to Judaism, a potential that reaches fulfillment when the person becomes a Jew and converts.

      • Eric Kaplan

        if a bad person can have a Jewish soul and a good person can lack a Jewish soul, then what is the religious significance of having such a thing? Does it have any meaning?

        • Rebecca K.

          I’m going to wade in tentatively here, with a non-Chassidic approach to what a soul is. There are probably other people here who know a lot more about this than me. Correct me if you think I’m mistaken in what I write.

          According to the rabbis, the souls of all Jews from all time were all at Sinai, receiving the Torah. So when they hear the Torah in real time, so to speak, their soul recognizes it as something familiar. This is an advantage in Torah learning, but also may contribute to the way Jews sometimes will gravitate towards Torah even when they have no previous experience with it.

          Also, the soul of a Jew needs to be fed with the connection to G-d achieved by commandments not required of the souls of other nations. When fed correctly, a soul channels holiness in the world, but if a person does sin after sin, they pollute it. Because there are more mitzvos for a Jew than for a non-Jew, there are more places to connect to G-d, and more places to cut ourselves off; more opportunities to merit reward (mostly seen in the World to Come) and more to opportunities to earn the opposite.

          The souls of all Jews are connected. So when one Jew does something good, it drags every Jew up around them. But the opposite is true, too.

          Also, because G-d wants us to have free will, He created the inclination to do good, and the inclination to do evil in balance. It has to be a real choice. So when a Jew is presented an opportunity, for example, to do something like wear a prohibited mixture of linen and wool, they have to have a desire both to do the mitzvah and to do the opposite…but because this is not a mitzvah for a non-Jew, a non-Jew doesn’t have an inclination either way on the subject.

          Anyone else got ideas about this?

          • Eric Kaplan

            so you believe that people who are ethnically Jewish can connect more closely to Gd?

          • Rebecca K.

            Sometimes, if you strike out the word ethnically. (Jewish meaning born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Halachah. Example: f someone has 8 great-grandparents and the only one who is Jewish is their maternal mother’s, they will probably not identify ethnically is Jewish, but according to Halacha, they would be. Jewish have all colors and speak all languages and belong to all cultures.)

            And sometimes, a Jew can sever their tie to G-d more fully than anyone not Jewish. Horribly. Drastically.

            It goes both ways. It’s like that old nursery rhyme about the little girl who when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was awful.

          • Rebecca K.

            If you strike out the word ethnically, (Jewish meaning born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Halachah. Example: if someone has 8 great-grandparents and the only one who is Jewish is their maternal mother’s mother, they will probably not identify ethnically as Jewish, but according to Halacha, they would be. Jews have all colors and speak all languages and belong to all cultures.) the answer is, “Sometimes.”

            And sometimes, a Jew can sever their tie to G-d more fully than anyone not Jewish. Horribly. Drastically.

            It goes both ways. It’s like that old nursery rhyme about the little girl who when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was awful.

            But while the rest of what I said is based on mostly Gemara, this is my personal opinion just on what I see around me: most human beings are smack in the middle, Jewish and not. The average person isn’t so high or so low we’ll see much of a difference.

            And again, I’m sure, other people have other opinions.

          • Eric Kaplan

            So you believe that in Spain today there are a lot of people who are Jewish because they have a great-great- (etc.) – great grandmother who was Jewish, and these people are capable of both greater good and greater evil than Spanish people who lack that genealogical connection to the Jewish community?

          • Rebecca K.

            Yes.
            But I’m okay if you think I’m nuts. 😉

          • Eric Kaplan

            I don’t think your nuts at all; but I think you may be underestimating some people’s spiritual capacities.

          • Eric Kaplan

            I don’t think you are nuts, but I do think you will run the risk of missing the spiritual wealth in your non-Jewish brothers and sisters with this belief.

          • Rebecca K.

            If I thought I could learn nothing from someone who wasn’t Jewish, that would be the risk. But as I said, I think that probably 99.9% of us living today are on the same level as people who aren’t Jewish, including me, so I’m not going to be so arrogant as to turn away from the teachings of people who are clearly wise and righteous just because they aren’t Jewish.

          • Eric Kaplan

            But you think the spiritual creme de la creme are all Jewish

          • Rebecca K.

            I can’t remember the citation at all — I think it’s in the Gemara somewhere — but there’s a statement that for wisdom, you may seek out the knowledge of the other nations, but for Torah, you look to Jews. So it depends by what you mean by spiritual. If you mean spiritual in the sense of guidance in how to conduct yourself in an elevated fashion, implement your beliefs when doing and creating, and so on — there’s a lot to be learned from Mother Teresa or the Dahlai Lama or Pope John Paul II or Dr. King, Jane Austen. Frankly, I’ve learned powerful spiritual messages by observing and talking to my housekeeper.

            But if you are talking about details of halacha, fine moral distinctions in controversial issues, and the like, then I pretty much always fall back on asking our family’s rabbi a question or seeking out an answer in a Jewish source. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be an observant Jew.

          • Eric Kaplan

            That’s interesting, thanks.

          • Kayza Kleinman

            Practically speaking, highly unlikely. So much so, that as far as I know, without ironclad proof, no Beit Din will accept the Jewishness of someone of Spanish decent because he claims matrilineal descent from a jew.

          • Eric Kaplan

            how is it unlikely? If you accept that some Jewish women did not leave in 1492 and they had children then there would be more Jews in Spain in the early 1500s. Then if those Jews had children there would be even more Jews in Spain in the mid 1500s. Then if those Jews had children there would be even more Jews in Spain in the late 1500s. Since at no point was there another process of weeding out halachic Jews by the 21st century there would be quite a few Jews in Spain and in Latin America. The Beit Din might be able to argue that the status of a particular person is in doubt, but there is no way they could deny that there are many, many Jews in Spain and Latin America, if you define Jew as someone matrilineally descended from a Jew.

          • Kayza Kleinman

            What are you saying? Either the descent is matrilineal in an unbroken chain or it isn’t. Processes for “weeding people out” aren’t relevant. To assume that there are a lot of Jews in Spain on would need to assume that a lot of women stayed and the the vast majority of their direct female descendants also had daughters.

          • Eric Kaplan

            I am saying that if 10% of the women stayed in 1492 there would be a sizable population of halachic Jews now. They would not know they were Jews and they would not be able to prove they were Jews but they would be Jews according to halacha, and would therefore have Jewish souls according to your definition.

          • kaffekup

            And that’s exactly why there is a passage in High Holiday davening that always gets me, that essentially says that a great shofar will blow, and the Jews that are lost in Egypt and Syria (and by extension, all countries) will return to Jerusalem and the Temple to bow down at G-d’s holy mountain. Obviously, these are the Jews who don’t even know they’re Jews until then.

          • Eric Kaplan

            ps what does “practically speaking” mean?

        • HS

          It’s best explained with the parent/child analogy. A child has a special connection to their parent that can never be broken, regardless if they are a “good” child or not.

          The Chabad Chassidic perspective (it should be noted that this is firmly rooted in Torah and Jewish ideology) is that the Jewish soul is unique to Jews, and that it is a literal piece of G-d. This is a very complex idea and I’m certainly not an expert – there’s lots of information online if you’re interested.

          My understanding is that the soul is both a sign of our unbreakable connection to our G-d (our “parent” – in the sense that we have G-d’s “DNA” inside us) and something that has the potential to affect our actions and draw us to a holier, more G-dly lifestyle, in line with G-d’s desire for the world.

          • Eric Kaplan

            What does a “literal piece of G-d” mean?

          • HS

            Again, it’s a very complicated concept, and while I do like talking about it, I’m by no means an expert or even close 😉
            I can direct you to more information if you’re interested.
            Chabad.org has information on basically anything you might want to know about in Judaism, including the soul. It’s fascinating.

          • Eric Kaplan

            I’ve studied some Chabad theology– e.g. the Tanya by the Alter Rebbe — but at the end of the day I find it unconvincing. I guess my big question with it relates to the fact that G-d is absolutely simple. So how can one group of people be a part of him and another group of people not be a part of him? I can see how certain human actions might be revelatory of Gds oneness and others might conceal it. So tzedaka reveals Gds oneness, or the Shechinah, and theft for example conceals it. But to say that a certain group of people by virtue of their birth are a part of Gd, and others are not a part of Gd, seems chash v’shalom to introduce the idea of divisions into Gd and his ineffable Unity.

          • HS

            It’s a good point – you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it. I’m sure you’re serious about exploring the questions and issues you raise, which is why I would advise you to continue learning and questioning – and find someone learned who you trust who can help you find answers.

            In terms of Chabad chassidus – there are many ma’amarim from the 7 Rebbes that address the issue of G-d’s oneness, among other topics. They’re incredibly comprehensive and detailed.

            One thing I’ve learned is not to assume that any question is unanswerable, or that I’m the first person to ask it. We should always keep exploring.

          • Eric Kaplan

            Thanks for your response. I agree very much that we should not assume any question is unanswerable; if we do then we know for sure we will never answer it!

          • HS

            Definitely 🙂

    • Copied from my response to you on Facebook:

      As for “what is” a Jewish soul: I don’t know, I’m not an expert in these things, although I could definitely quote you a bunch of Chabad stuff on this that I totally agree with but don’t understand deeply enough. My motivation when writing this was more from my own personal experience, and seeing how deeply Judaism speaks to Jews in a way that seems wholly irrational.

    • I am wary of commenting here, as I am certainly no scholar, but I feel obliged to point out that not all Orthodox Jews believe that Jews have souls that make them different to non-Jews. I am speaking primarily of the non-mystical approach that is today found most obviously in Modern Orthodoxy (although some MO Jews are mystics).

      According to this approach there are no differences whatsoever between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. Any differences in how Jews and non-Jews behave or relate to G-d, as former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, are in the software, not the hardware i.e. in Jewish religion and culture, not in essential differences in souls. A ‘Jewish soul’ is understood at best as a metaphorical term, like a ‘Jewish heart’, reflecting an aspiration as to how Jews should behave, not what they inherently are.

      • This is an old argument that dates back to Maimonides and R’ Judah HaLevi.

        • Eric Kaplan

          what were the positions of Maimonides and R. Judah HaLevi on this? What were the arguments?

      • Eric Kaplan

        thanks for answering. That seems very good, although I would not necessarily say that the mystical tradition needs to be racist either. In the mystical tradition that I’ve read the soul is made of many many sub-souls, each of which could be the re-incarnation of a Jew or a non Jew. Put in non-mythological language I would interpret that as meaning that almost everybody on the globe now has some psychological strivings aimed at repairing the world (Jewish ones) and some that have other aims (non-Jewish ones).

  • Jessie Katz

    Awesome piece Elad. I couldn’t agree more with your points; they truly resonated with me and my experiences (some of which were similar to yours).

    I think the most unfortunate part of your article is in your second to last paragraph – these incredible kiruv/sort-of-kirvuv focused programs only exist because of funding. Let’s all remember this. Chabad, Aish, you name it.

    And, this funding only exists because kiruv professionals are required to submit quantifiable information to the funding sources (individuals, private foundations, etc.). Now, the big question remains: How would kiruv exist without revenue … without numerical data to support it?

    As a fundraising professional, I see this as one of the greatest challenges of non-profit work across the spectrum. Hopefully members of our communities will step forward and begin to request more qualitative data to support and sustain their funding for the long run. Then, we will be able to focus on the unique nature of each of us as we traverse the challenging road through our heritage, culture, and religious observance – without being persuaded to attend pizza nights that we really could care less about.

    • sammy47

      Jessie, I think we have to assess what should be the goals of kiruv and then what should lead to funding. Pirkei Avos tells us to “ohev es habrios, umkarvan the Torah” (love the creatures, and bring them close to Torah) It seems the goal should be to interest and excite people about learning about Torah and Judaism. Nobody can make someone else keep Shabbos or Kosher, nor should that be their goal. Love them and teach them the mishne says. Funding should depend on the numbers of people attracted to learn and grow. One other point: I agree that people should not be taught that Judaism is all about fun and games. I agree that it’s dangerous because as the “Pop Chassid” pointed out, it’s simply not true. However, many Jewish people grew up going to shul on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and came to the conclusion that Judaism is a mixture of 1 part boredom and 1 part pain. That’s also simply not true. Kiruv organizations need to counter these notions by teaching the beauty and pleasurable aspects of Judaism.

  • Rivki Silver

    I agree with a lot of this, and what’s sticking out to me right now is the danger of presenting Judaism as fun and entertaining. When I’m exhausted from parenting three small children, making Shabbos (again) and watching as my husband leaves for mincha at the most hectic time of the evening, I’m not thinking that life is either fun or entertaining. And there are times when I need to scratch away dissatisfaction to find the meaning, but the meaning is there. I just have to exert effort to connect to it sometimes. And I think that’s something we don’t acknowledge, that finding meaning takes effort, that it’s not all basking in Divine light or intellectual stimulation. It’s a relationship, and relationships take effort, and wax and wane.

    On accepting imperfect Jews in frum society – I don’t know why that should be a problem. It pains me greatly when I see someone frum do something really bad, but it’s not like I’m a paragon of inspired Judaism and good choices all the time, either, you know? We can’t change the behavior of others, so why let it be anything other than a chance to improve ourselves? And I don’t I agree with the blanket statement that broken frum society is worse than secular communities. I think it depends on each individual community. I’ve lived in four different frum communities, and have had overwhelmingly positive experiences in all of them.

    Anyways, thank you, as always, for writing about stuff like this, for going out on a limb and saying things that prompt reflection and discussion. Kol hakavod.

    • “On accepting imperfect Jews in frum society – I don’t know why that should be a problem. It pains me greatly when I see someone frum do something really bad, but it’s not like I’m a paragon of inspired Judaism and good choices all the time, either, you know? We can’t change the behavior of others, so why let it be anything other than a chance to improve ourselves?”

      I’m not only talking about normal ups and downs of people. I’m talking about deeper, communal issues. Of course, every community is different in this respect, so it wasn’t my aim to define every Jewish community. But I do think there are big problems, especially in bigger communities like NYC.

      That said, I still hold by the idea that we should be BETTER than the rest of the world, and if we aren’t, there is something wrong.

      • Rivki Silver

        I completely, completely agree with that last sentence. We absolutely should be.

        I’ve never lived in either NYC or Israel (arguably the largest communities), so I’ve never been privy to the kinds of problems a large community can foster. I think I’m also guilty of having a Pollyanna-ish attitude sometimes, and not looking at the parts of frum society that make me uncomfortable. But I have a responsibility to look there, too. Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

      • Daniel Gordon

        “That said, I still hold by the idea that we should be BETTER than the rest of the world, and if we aren’t, there is something wrong”

        Absolutely. But why would be the response be, “I don’t want to be religious anymore”. That means something is wrong not only with your community, but with you as well.

    • Sruly Koval

      Rivki, kol hakavod – your comments are articulate and spot-on. As usual, I might add!

    • Sarah

      So much love to you dear sister. Want to know that I hear you and I see you and acknowledge all that you do in your home. What a wonderful Mommy you are – don’t ever believe otherwise :). Keep shining, daughter of Hashem :).

  • Adam

    I am on the way to a Reform conversion, and I feel that I have a Jewish soul, that I derive meaning from this belief system, and so forth. What about it specifically makes Orthodoxy different, for you?

    • 2TheLorax

      There is no uniquely Jewish soul in reform Judaism afaik.

  • There is a lot to digest here, and in Rabbi Fink’s post, but these are some initial thoughts:

    1) I don’t think your views and those of Rabbi Fink are mutually exclusive, but represent different facets of the same reality. In particular, I think there is a link between joy and meaning. They aren’t synonymous, but meaning should lead to joy, or at least make suffering bearable.

    2) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes an interesting point in one of his books (Future Tense). Of the chaggim in the Torah, which are the most difficult to observe? Most people would say Pesach and Yom Kippur. Which of the chaggim are most observed (on some level) even by non-religious Jews? Pesach and Yom Kippur. Which is the easiest chag? Shavuot. Which is the least observed chag? Shavuot.

    It seems that working hard for something makes us value it more. Nor is hard work antithetical to joy. On the contrary, there is a joy that comes from difficult achievement. So I would be wary of making things too ‘easy’ in the believe that this would make them more joyous; the opposite may happen.

    3) I always struggle to tell my own story as it doesn’t fit any neat categories, but here goes. I was brought up traditional rather than either completely secular or completely frum. We identified as Orthodox and kept some mitzvot, but not others. I went to Jewish schools (the religious schooling situation is very different in the UK to the US) and gradually felt a dissonance between what I was taught and believed on the one hand and what I practised on the other. There was a strong desire to end this feeling of hypocrisy, which contributed to my becoming religious. I suspect this allies with your idea of meaning and soul. But finding a formal theology or hashkafa came a lot later. I do often wonder why I resolved my internal contradictions by jumping towards full Torah observance, not towards becoming completely secular, given only one or two of my friends were Orthodox. I have never worked that one out.

    However, I do struggle at times because I was never formally ‘kiruved’ and have had difficulty (because of my mental health issues) ever fully integrating into a community, even though I still daven at the same shul I was brought up in. I get feelings of anger at hypocrisy and laziness. I do often feel isolated and lonely, lacking frum friends and a clear mentor figure, which I perhaps would have had if I was kiruved (or not, given my mental health). I also feel looked down upon by frum people because I never went to yeshiva, which is probably just my paranoia, but still cripples my social interactions. This corresponds, in a negative sense, to your transcendence idea – I don’t have it, but feel I need it. I have never seriously considered leaving – my belief is too strong, or alternatively, Judaism gives me too much meaning for me to leave – but sometimes I feel a different person would have left long ago.

    Incidentally, it’s interesting that my parents and sister, who also became frum, have dealt with this social aspect a lot better than I have, which suggests my personal psychology is at play on some level.

    • Rebecca K.

      My background is very similar, only my family was Conservative. And this thing you said is exactly what happened to me: “and gradually felt a dissonance between what I was taught and believed on the one hand and what I practised on the other.” And I also became observant not through any kiruv organization, although my husband and I became “Aish-niks” later on at the local L.A. branch. This is the opposite of what Rabbi Fink says, though. I made changes that were initially not fun and not easy because I believed I could no longer life a life that did not coincide with the beliefs that rational evaluation had led me to.

  • Jonathan Dress

    “We are not meant to be measured, we are meant to be nurtured.” – Great Piece Elad!

  • Rebecca K.

    I know you said on your FB page that you were nervous about posting it, but this might be the most important post you’ve written this year. In my humble opinion. I don’t entire agree with the solution at the end, but it doesn’t matter — it’s a part of the conversation towards a solution, and I think it’s a conversation Jews need to have.

    When I read Rabbi Fink’s article, the first page of which is a distillation of Rav Dessler and completely runs counter to the second two pages of the article (and in fact bolsters your argument), I had exactly the same reaction you did.

    The kind of “let’s make Judaism fun,” prescription produces either people who are practicing Judaism merely out of self-interest, or a flimsy kind of emuna that will not stand the test (the test being that the “fun” and “entertainment value” of life is withdrawn and life suddenly gets real and very, very hard).

    Rabbi Leff from Moshav Matisyahu in Israel spoke at one of my kids’ schools a couple years ago, and his message was: yes, make Jewish holidays pleasurable and tell nice hashgacha pratis stories around your Shabbos table. It’s good for kids. BUT, this does not build deep emuna. You must make it clear to your children that some hashgacha pratis stories are ugly. The G-d who heals people is the same One who lets others die or be scarred for life. (Insert the Ephryme song “It’s All G-d.”)

    Yes, there are some people who are religious or leave the observant life because it’s how their heart is already inclined and they just accept beliefs that validate the conclusion that has already been establish in their hearts. Sometimes these inclinations have to do with horrible or delightful experiences at a young age, but sometimes they have to do with personality, and sometimes they have to do with people’s natural tendencies — to keep things the same if that’s perceived to be safe, to change if things don’t feel safe, to be lazy, to follow taava/desire for physical pleasure.

    As an aside, I think childhood is particularly important because it helps set the desires that will appear in a person’s heart. A person with a healthy childhood (not necessarily an observant one, a psychologically healthy one) will have an advantage because of this. Parents and educators bear an enormous burden in providing this gift to every child.

    But the real, lasting kind of emuna is based on something much, much deeper than Shabbos dinner is tasty, dancing on Simchas Torah is fun, and so on.

    Judaism has to provide meaning and tools to cope with life’s ups and downs in order to endure. It has to embrace truth, a lasting truth. And I’m not talking a truth that belongs to any particular group. I’m talking a truth that channels light and peace into the world.

    Other people are looking for this too. This includes, as you post, people who seek meaning and people who want to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves.

    Those people — as you mention — do exactly the opposite of what Rabbi Fink suggests: when they reach a crisis of conscience (what I want is the opposite of what I believe I should do), they pick the uncomfortable choice. They choose to connect to G-d, even when He is not obviously present. They aren’t tied to the fun factor. Their emuna isn’t flimsy.

    I don’t think kiruv is bad. I think most of it is based on the wrong premise. What we need to do is offer all Jews — really all people who aren’t actively seeking to hurt us (the Amelek factor) — unconditional love, with no strings attached. If they ask us questions, show them why we believe what we believe, but invite them to draw their own conclusions. Model emunah, deep emuna. Build healthy, giving relationships with people, true giving, because that helps others have strong relationships with G-d. But even if they walk away after being our guests for five years and still they don’t put on tefillin, eat kosher, whatever…we should still love them and accept that their bechira isn’t our bechira. And we shouldn’t put deadlines on them (“Not Shomer Shabbos yet?”) or expect everyone to meet the same category of observance (as if everyone not only should become religious, but their flavor of religiosity or they are failures).

    • A person with a healthy childhood (not necessarily an observant one, a psychologically healthy one) will have an advantage because of this.

      This is very true. The psychological problems I’ve had fitting socially into Orthodoxy that I mentioned in my comment below are deeply rooted in negative childhood experiences.

    • I love this comment so much. Thank you for putting so much time into it. It should be its own blog post!

      I especially love your last paragraph. My suggestions at the end were the hardest for me to articulate, so I appreciate your very practical suggestions with which I wholly agree.

      I especially loved this part: “But even if they walk away after being our guests for five years and still they don’t put on tefillin, eat kosher, whatever…we should still love them and accept that their bechira isn’t our bechira. And we shouldn’t put deadlines on them (“Not Shomer Shabbos yet?”) or expect everyone to meet the same category of observance….”

      Thanks so much for being a part of this community, I always love your thoughts, but these were especially awesome.

      • Rebecca K.

        Thanks! I had read that article from the Rabbi Fink series and it and your subsequent response really struck a chord. This is something I’ve been thinking of A LOT lately. While it’s important for an observant person to strive for higher and higher spiritual goals, expecting people outside of ourselves to have the same goals is unreasonable. We don’t start in the same place, and each of us has a different tikkun and a different tafkid.

        Despite the shortcomings of the kiruv movement, I think one of the upsides is creating opportunities for people who want to grow to support each other. When you find the right community — in the real world or online — it creates a space for that growth.

        Sometimes judgmental attitudes can get in the way, which is what I think a lot of people have been complaining about, but you’ve really created a community here on your blog where people can support each other and not feel judged — and I think that’s why people respond to the blog so positively. (And one reason why so many people are now digging Hevria, too.)

  • jennyrogers

    Really touching article. I would add that this the soul idea is very much part of Chabad Chassidus.

    In Tanya, the Rebbe speaks about the soul’s attachment to G-D as something that can be palpably felt by a Jew. I would add, that this is supposed to be the approach of Chassidim and shluchim. It why we put on Tefillin in a one-off encounter with someone. ‘Orthodox’ is not the end goal, every Mitzvah is the end goal.

    Also, your critique of the frum community and society is valid. But I would suggest to focus on the behaviour of the truly religious. By that I don’t mean people born into it and practice out of rote, rather, those that discovered it and those who keep rediscovering it. I am religious from birth, but I struggle to fit into the second category.

  • Yonah Heidings

    Shee…it, my brotha, yo speakin my language now.

  • Myra Estelle

    It’s not about Judaism. It’s about God. It’s not about creating a community. It’s about creating a loving relationship with life, and sharing with others the feeling of joy that comes from that experience. That’s why we’re told to serve God with joy. Judaism is a spiritual process, which can only really be experienced through meditation and the Inner Torah.

    As to why people leave Judaism, it’s because the inner joy is missing. That’s why I left it; learning to meditate gave me the realization that we can experience God from within, and that’s when I came back.

    When Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (1886-1955) saw this in his lifetime, he wrote in his
    Introduction to the Zohar: “If, at least, the people who are the spiritual leaders of our generation would occupy themselves with the innermost aspect of Torah, the Kabbala, they would draw to themselves a complete light from the Ein Sof, Blessed be He. As a consequence, the whole generation would be able to follow after them.”

    We need to talk about the inner joy.

  • Hey Elad, thanks for participating in this discussion. I admit that it’s my own fault for leaving everyone hanging, but I think your post doesn’t really address my substantive points.

    I’ve published the follow up here: http://finkorswim.com/2014/09/10/cultivating-positive-orthodox-jewish-experiences/

    I think you’ll find yourself agreeing that it’s not really connected to the discussion here.

  • Nur Vi Dich Alein

    Dear Elad,

    Your article was immediately re-posted as material as such for my audience of “souls on a journey” are hard to come by.

    The one thing I felt was lacking was this concept of Eibershter. If Chassidus 101 (all the Baal Shem Tov stories) is all about how much Hashem loves every one of us unconditionally, then Chabad 101 (Tanya, Samach Vov, Ayin Beis) is why we should therefore do everything in our power to serve Him; not because of any reason other than because we are overpowered by love and awe of Him.

    It’s the relationship paradigm; the one my mentors such as Manis Friedman can’t seem to emphasize enough. If we do a favor for our spouse, we shouldn’t do it out of love, enjoyment, or even reason, but… because they are us and we are ONE. How could we not? The fact that so many of us didn’t understand this prior to Chassidus is the exact same reason why relationships today have become so flaccid and meaningless (based on enjoyment).

    Chassidus Chabad and our Rabbeim were literally obsessed with Eibershter. And they showed us how all the other Avos, Nevi’im, Tana’im were as well. And we also would be if we only knew what we’re missing. That’s what we find so hard to share… in English. Ahavas Hashem through Ahavas Yisroel: A relationship with Eibershter through a Mitzvah.

    Would love to see this message infused in future articles which I look forward to greatly!
    – a fellow Chosid and Shliach

  • 2TheLorax

    To my eyes, saying you are religious because of ‘something bigger’ ‘desire for meaning’ and the ‘soul’ is just a long-winded way of saying ‘I believe’.
    There is still very little rational content there. Have you considered that people leave orthodoxy because it is (to them at least) irrational?

    • Eric Kaplan

      are any ethical positions rational? For example: is it rational to care about animal suffering, or not to care about it?

      • 2TheLorax

        There is a difference.
        With animals, you start with the (admittedly ‘irrational’) premise that you care about them and want to minimise suffering.
        With religion, you (at times must) first put yourself aside, and do what someone else, or a book, or a rabbi, has told you to do (even if it goes against what you would believe, e.g. marriage equality).
        Therefore, the onus for rationality is greater for religion.

        • Eric Kaplan

          I think the distinction you are making may be about authoritarianism rather than irrationality. It makes sense, but not all religions are authoritarian. Reformed Judaism and Unitarianism both encourage a lot of autonomous thinking and are both in favor of marriage equality.

          • 2TheLorax

            Yes and no.
            The type of religion being advocated by the author (orthodox judaism) makes demands that would otherwise never be advocated.
            Listening to an authority against your instincts is not itself a bad thing if there is reason to (e.g. listening to a doctor). It is not the same when there is no reason to, and it conflicts with other values.

          • Eric Kaplan

            I think an authority is someone who if they assert P that gives you a defeasible reason to believe P. In other words if a doctor says I should eat more broccoli that gives me a reason to believe it, but the other facts could outweigh it. For example I could learn he is a bad doctor, that my constitution needs broccoli, or that new medical research shows that broccoli has dangers. Instincts provide some reasons that go into the scale but not very strong ones. I think your case of marriage equality is not really one of instinct vs. equality but of moral reasoning vs. authority. That moral reasoning itself may have some sources in tradition. Personally I think you can deduce marriage equality from the command “love your neighbor as yourself”

  • Eliyahu Neiman

    “Blessing (bracha) is not found in that which is [already] weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is hidden from the eye” – Talmud Baba Metzia 42a

  • “When you create the illusion that Judaism is “fun” or “easy”, you are lying.”

    “Rather than focusing on “turning” Jews frum or “keeping” Jews frum, we should focus on opening up the access points to Judaism’s Truth”

    These lines really stood out to me. The most satisfying truths – the ones that leas to wisdom – come from hard won experience. Judaism takes work. The reward is sweet, but the work must be done…

  • curious___george

    Strong words!

    Rabbi Dessler writes that baalei teshuva are giving an artificial boost for a period of time to give them a taste of what it will be like down the road. At some point that boost is removed and then comes the hard work. Like the fetus who is taught the whole Torah and then forgets it, only to spend a lifetime recovering it.

    Sounds like you hit the moment where the boost was removed. I’m sure it came together with disappointment in the community and lack of inspiration all around you.

    It seems that B”H your honesty won’t let you rest until you recover that inspiration. The reality is, the inspiration is there for the taking. Many people around choose to be lazy and not grab it. That is very disappointing for the starry-eyed baal teshuva who assumed everyone was a seeker.

    Please hang on and continue to fight the fight. You will help all of us find that inspiration!

    • anonymous

      A “boost”? Nice euphemism for sugarcoating and brainwashing. I agree with the author – we (Jews) should be different, but we are not. Any Jewish group works just like any other. As long as a member professes loyalty to the leadership and ideology, he can get away with any kind of mortal sin and bad behavior. And the more Orthodox and “transcendent” such group appears to the outside observer, the more pronounced this effect is going to be. Joining such groups is what we call “tshuva” these days. One can be any kind of jerk, but as long as he’s loyal, he’s made tshuva. “Transcendence” cannot be achieved through joining a group because group dynamics automatically select immoral and corrupt minority to set the tone while most obligingly conform. And then there are always a few miserable dissidents who cower in the corners and vent their frustrations in anonymous blog comments (yours truly). The author has certainly made a bold move, but there will be consequences. I sincerely wish him good luck after this post to be able to get his children accepted to a school or find a shidduch for them when they are older.

      • curious___george

        Wow! That was a pretty negative comment.

        FYI, Rav Dessler wrote that long before the baal teshuva movement existed.

        • anonymous

          There is no baal tshuva “movement”. There is a bunch of people, usually the victims of brutal parenting, that are unhappy with their lot and looking to fill the gaps. They are not running “to” Judaism, they are really running from whatever problems they have. By the time they realize that the problem has been inside them all along it’s too late. But they are just poor lost souls. The real villains are the kiruv entrepreneurs who prey on them. They are making quite comfortable living off the “effort”. Meanwhile, the victims are under the illusion that they will be accepted in their community of choice, only to find that their neighbors aren’t even going to say hello to them and will treat them with suspicion because they can’t possibly imagine how anyone in their right mind would sacrifice their freedom to the life in the miserable ghetto. They consider them to be fake upstarts, to be shunned and despised. They teach their children to shout “goy, goy” at them in the streets of Boro Park. They are only accepted to the worst schools and they always pay full tuition, no breaks. Their children have no marriage prospects other than with the bottom scrapes from the community – nut cases or drug addicts – marriages that usually end with terrible painful divorces and traumatized children that grow up to be damaged and miserable human beings. They need to feel the gaps in their lives. They meet the Jews for Jesus kiruv entrepreneur and the cycle continues….

          • curious___george

            Dude, I can see this will not be a constructive conversation. Sorry you feel that way. I’ve experienced some of what you’re saying but you seem to think that all your FFB neighbors are bad people and are all miserable. You’re just plain wrong. I am sorry you have such a dark view of the world. There are many kinds of people and life isn’t so nasty!

          • anonymous

            You are missing my point. I don’t have a dark view of the world – only of the kiruv effort. First, I didn’t say that all FFBs are bad people, but what I said about BTs should make it clear that many of them are especially vulnerable. Just a little bit of nastiness from a few, and indifference from the rest is enough to cause a lot of suffering. Remember the problems that caused them to seek a different life are never addressed. I see the results – a broken family, an abused wife, miserable children. Like the author said, as Jews we ought to be better, but the kiruv keeps stamping out BTs without a care in the world, on assumption that Judaism is an unconditional good which can’t possibly cause any harm. I am telling you after watching this scene for over 30 years, that many of the BTs would be better off where they were, instead of having been unceremoniously dumped into the life they had really no idea about. While the kiruv guys report their successes to the sponsors, some other people have to deal with the suicidal parents and kids, corrupt bais din, indifferent family courts, expensive lawyers. Another example – family issues cause the kid to misbehave in school. The school makes a condition that they will keep him only if he goes to the therapist of their choice. $200 per hour! If this is not a predatory attitude towards a BT, I don’t know what is. I don’t say you shouldn’t enjoy life, but don’t refuse to notice the misery of some of your neighbors!

          • Tuvia

            i can’t possibly vouch for any of this — but I know that the BT kiruv world is rife with deceptions and indoctrination, and the cult techniques of offering love bombing, understanding and acceptance. it works you over. it’s appeal is real, but its reasoning is bad.

            i personally think the morality of orthodox judaism is good, but not very good. it is confusing, but what i think is that people are willing to put aside their moral qualms in order to get what it seems to be offering – love, purpose, order, big goals, and clarity.

            for that, people will say, basically, to hell with those who are smoked by this religion: gays, the goy, women (whose role and value is limited.) they basically say to hell with everything they were raised to value: the dignity of all, equal rights, equal say, individuality, democracy.

            i get the appeal. i feel it too. but i know (unless I’m willing to cherry pick what judaism has to offer) that you have to consider how much of your choice is really just self-serving.

            all movements have this issue. it is inescapable. to their credit, many Jews are aware of how self-serving Judaism can be — and at least grapple with it. orthodoxy is closer to saying: to hell with the virtues we all value, be jewish — and so what if gay dads can’t raise their kids in our neighborhood. Good riddance.

            for that reason, i question its validity on an intellectual level, but truly respect other values it has.

          • raphael

            Cherry pick? You are talking about ideals totally unconnected to Judiasim .Dont forget were a religion.

          • raphael

            Lots of words, but off base. All issues mentioned are are about people and their foibles ,common enough stuff, but Judiasim is about soul and if any person has a difficult life but maintains loyalty to Hashem, he/she will merit everlasting reward in olam habah. This we owe to every mekarev. BT have choice, within their reality, to have the best and healthiest life they want. Its not the mekarev or community that will take or give them that

  • Gil Student

    I’m a BT and I fully agree with your message. The frum community is often disheartening. But there are many beautiful people and beautiful moments.

    As to kiruv, you hit on R. Jonathan Sacks’ message in his kiruv book, A Letter in the Scroll.

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  • Alexander Landsman

    The problem is simply one of expectations. “Kiruv” is a sales effort, and like all such efforts, it is based on emphasizing the most appealing aspects of what is being sold. Gradually, the recruit understands that his expected meaning of tshuva as a process of spiritual refinement is really the requirement of simple conformity to the M.O. of the group. One example is the litmus test question in every school interview: “Do you have TV at home”. The interviewer is not interested whether there is a TV at home. He hopes that you know the right answer. If you are a loyal and obedient member of the community, you know that the answer must be “no”. If you dare to say “yes”, you are obviously a dangerous rebel. 20 years ago every chassidische home had a TV hidden in the bedroom (these days it’s Internet). Goodness, they used to sell cabinets manufactured specifically for this purpose, with lockable doors and cutouts in the back for wires, in stores in Boro Park and Williamsburgh right next to the “frum size? 48” beds!. Eventually it becomes obvious to the starry-eyed not-so-new recruit that his expectations of refinement make him a ridiculous black sheep who’s naivete and holier-than-thou attitude is resented by the natives. Oh, the shock of unfulfilled expectations! But the sale is made and there are no returns, for who will compensate for the wasted years and the lives of children wrecked by horrible schools and ugly divorces? Caveat emptor!…

    • Gil Student

      I send my kids to moderate Charedi schools in Brooklyn, so far a total of 4 schools, and have never been asked about TV

      • anonymous

        I hope you are just sharing your experience not intending to negate mine and many other persons’ who I discussed this issue with.

        • Gil Student

          Yes, my only point is that experiences vary. This community is much less monolithic than it appears.

          • Rebecca K.

            I agree that the Hareidi community is not monolithic. Many people are genuine, truly striving for growth, sympathetic, and humble and kind — all the things this commenter saw the opposite of. I’m sorry for those who have negative experiences.

    • raphael

      Kiruv is to Hashem not to other people.

  • Alexander Landsman

    The problem is simply one of expectations. “Kiruv” is a sales effort, and like all such efforts, it is based on emphasizing the most appealing aspects of what is being sold. Gradually, the recruit understands that his expected meaning of tshuva as a process of spiritual refinement is really the requirement of simple conformity to the M.O. of the group. One example is the litmus test question in every school interview: “Do you have TV at home”. The interviewer is not interested whether there is a TV at home. He hopes that you know the right answer. If you are a loyal and obedient member of the community, you know that the answer must be “no”. If you dare to say “yes”, you are obviously a dangerous rebel. 20 years ago every chassidische home had a TV hidden in the bedroom (these days it’s Internet). Goodness, they used to sell cabinets manufactured specifically for this purpose, with lockable doors and cutouts in the back for wires, in stores in Boro Park and Williamsburgh right next to the “frum size? 48” beds!. Eventually it becomes obvious to the starry-eyed not-so-new recruit that his expectations of refinement make him a ridiculous black sheep whose naivete and perceived holier-than-thou attitude is resented by the natives. Oh, the shock of unfulfilled expectations! But the sale is made and there are no returns, for who will compensate for the wasted years and the lives of children wrecked by horrible schools and ugly divorces? Caveat emptor!…

  • Kiki

    I am not a Baal Tshuva but an orthodox Jew and understand your totally.

    I have been disappointed for years in the orthodox system (focusing on the wrong
    stuff) and in so called (many) orthodox people. So if I had this feeling (and
    still have sometimes) it’s totally understandable that you have this feeling.

    But it comes a moment where I took my frustration aside and started to look what’s really happening.

    Many so called orthodox people are victims of the system; they are dressed the
    orthodox way, go to orthodox school etc only because they were educated like this
    and unfortunately not because they feel a connection with Hashem or because
    they think it’s the truth like we do, with the result that they don’t behave
    the way like an orthodox Jew should.

    So I stopped looking on other people and started to focus on myself, it’s not
    because they are bad that I have to bad and lose the amazing feeling I have
    with Hashem and when I make Mitzvoth.

    As bad as it sounds (I wish it could be different) we can’t change the
    system/world but can change our self.

    Anyway thanks for sharing your opinion, it’s good to understand and listen to people
    like you.

  • Eric Kaplan

    What is wrong with the following argument?
    1)the human soul is a part of Gd
    2)Gd is entirely simple and unified
    3)If two things are part of something simple then they are not different, otherwise the thing they were part of would be diverse, not simple
    4)therefore there are not different kinds of souls

  • Tall Muse

    Thank you for so perfectly capturing why I converted to Judaism… mentally changing out “Orthodox” to “Reform”. There are a lot of differences within Judaism, but you captured something essential and transcendent that goes beyond those differences.

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  • Shmuel Elbinger

    It ain’t easy, son. Keep the faith brother, right on right on!

  • Leeba Weisberg

    I realize that this post is from a while ago, but I read it now and it really resonated with me. I was raised by Orthodox parents in an Orthodox community and I am no longer religious in any way. My significant other is not Jewish. There were a lot of factors that played into my decision, but one was living in a heavily Jewish area where thinking people who are truly inspired by Judaism, who truly find meaning it it, seem to be in the minority and people practicing Judaism by rote seem to be in the majority. The focus, at least when I was growing up, seemed to be on external things like one’s clothing rather than on being a good person. There was a lot of one-upping – “I’m more stringent than you are and follow more chumras”. The pressure not to ask questions and just conform made me sick. I felt strangled. I couldn’t live like that. Ultimately through a lot of research and reflection which included spending time in more open minded communities, I realized that ultimately I just didn’t believe. It wasn’t about living in a community that is more or less strict. My advice to the community would be to stop the incessant “chumrah of the week” nonsense, the excessive focus on external modesty (are bare toes in sandals really the end of the universe) beyond halachic requirements and to make sure one’s own members are inspired before trying to inspire others.

  • Yakub Jalal

    The Talmud states that blessing does not rest on things that are counted and measured.

  • Detti S

    this article is so amazing!!! finally!! I’m a big believer of honesty even if it hurts. But I meet and see so many cover up or “lets sell it dressed it in a nice way” And its so true. Our lives as BTs are so much harder and not so much fun. Which is fine with me because I’m not lazy but then don’t say that it’s fun. Another thing I like to add is that I’m so annoyed when I hear educators teach that the frum marriage is so private. I don’t feel it that way. Nothing is private in an orthodox community. Someone always knows when a wife is going to the mikveh or when is the time she is not tahor…and I think it should be noone’s business except hers and her husband’s….but again we are taught how private the marriage is…

    The funny thing is just a few Shabbos ago YY Jacobson asked me why I became frum. I told him I always looked for the truth and I think some sort of belongings. but I feel we will be always a little bit outsiders..our brains think in a different way. I don’t think we are loosers, I believe we are thinkers and not the “robot” mentality people, that’s why we turn our lives 180 degrees.

  • Bev Kap

    i haven’t read Rabbi Finks article, but this just really resonates. Thank you.

  • max stesel

    Feeling good and being happy is not the same thing. Leading observant Jewish life will not always feel good, but it should make a Jew happy. Happiness is rooted, as the author correctly pointed out in living a meaningful life. Living a meaningful life starts with the realization that the world was not created the second before our birth nor did we choose to be born in the first place. We were brought into the world by G-d. We were born in certain families, members of Jewish nation. We have a job, responsibility to our ancestors, to G-d, to the rest of humanity. Observing Torah is living up to our responsibilities. That should be only primary motivation. If it is, it will bring happiness as we will look into proverbial mirror and be satisfied with what we see.

  • Dan F

    You have definitely made some excellent points. As a Kiruv professional for almost 20 years one of the most difficult issues is for folks to transition into “mainstream” frum communities. I once had to sit a fellow down before he moved to NYC about all of the craziness he would encounter. Sure enough, he saw all of it.

    However, I would ask, how is this fixed? As a community leader I often struggle with this. How do we remove the garbage from our communities? Sure, you can sermonize, etc… but the folks you are trying to reach arent listening. If I know of a domestic abuser, a crook, and a few mentally ill nasty folks in my community – do I just banish them? How should the leaders handle that? Sure, try to get them help, but in most cases they arent amenable. So the only next step would be some sort of banishment system – not realistic. And as the community grows, these folks have other shuls and establishments that they can frequent and no one is going to ‘kick them out’.

    Perhaps, over time, we can develop a very strong idea within our communities that if someone has rotten midos or is a crook that he is actually not frum. Regardless of how he dresses. People say this type of thing all the time, but never believe it because in so many parts of the frum world today its the ‘Chitzonoyus’ that counts. I have ALOT to say about this, but I’ve said enough for a comments forum.

  • bennypowers

    Yes. Now let’s convince the communities and schoolmasters.

  • Upon reading this article, I found myself nodding at each point. I have also seen too many Baalei Tshuva go off the derech and it’s painful. You’re right: by making Orthodox Judaism only about the nice stuff, you are a) creating a superficiality that falls away once things get hard, and b) not much different than the early Reform and Conservative movements, which sought to do away with much of Torah/Law that seemed outdated and not fun to do.

    I wish to add to that in that from what I hear, Kiruv “professionals” do everything in their power to get a non-religious Jew “in.” Once that person is “in” there is no followup and the person is left to fend for oneself.

    On the other hand, I understand where Kiruv organizations are coming from. There’s the concept of “Mitoch SheLo Lishmah Bah Lishmah” – something that isn’t done “for it’s sake” (e.g. “just because”) will eventually come to be done “for it’s own sake.” By feeding non-religious Jews the “frum candy” the hope is that many will come to eventually embrace the rest of Yiddishkeit in due time.

    As an aside, I remember in grade school there was always that one Rabbi that bribed the class with a dollar, toy or piece of candy to do what he wanted. In the later grades that disappeared as the desired actions eventually came be expected of us, since we were challenged to bigger things. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here to get potential Baalei Tshuva, religious kindergarteners in a sense, to eventually embrace the whole package.

    Just my 2c.

  • Aaron Dikel

    This article hit a nerve.
    At a certain point I almost broke down and wanted to throw the whole frum thing away. I was already married with a few children. It was after I understood that I, and others, had been taken advantage of by a certain religious communal something-or-other which I don’t want to go into. It was devastating.
    The two things that saved me were
    1) The realization that I still had an unbroken chain of tradition from Moshe M’Sinai through the very good rabbis who had originally nurtured my way into Yidishkeit.
    2) I would miss G-d too much.
    Truth be told I also hesitated to do anything rash because I didn’t want to shake up my family, but that hesitation was only a temporary help.
    Thanks for your brutal honesty and elucidation, it brings out the truth in people.

  • GordLindsay

    Love your questioning everything. That’s what Jews are supposed to do (Ma Nishtana?). Didn’t hear much about your legacy, yerusha and inheritance, though. It’s called The Torah (brilliant flash, a million suns rise!). It’s not about “learning,” it’s an inexhaustible treasury which is your lifetime companion, love, faith, and light. Since you are obviously not an idiot, I offer my blog post for your edification. It’s called “Rivka the Grifter and Wild West Hero.” I think you can Google it. If you’re intrigued, and can’t turn it up, please contact me, and I’ll send you the link.

    All the best.

    Keep questioning.

    Gord Lindsay

  • David Dulin

    So I read your article, and I found your outlook interesting about the Kriuv system interesting. I have heard similar challenges before to it, so I can say you are really not alone in this sentiment. That being said, I very much disagree with the ideas presented as a whole. I also went though the “Kiruv system” and experienced many of the things you talked about, seeing happy families around a shabbat table, having a few too many l’chaims on simchat torah at chabad, the moving experiences of the “high holidays” at a “beginners service”, lag b’omer bbqs with Isrealis, spending a month in baal teshuvah yeshivot both in New York and in Israel. Yes, on the surface, it is designed to present the best side of Torah observance, as well as to educate on what that Torah observance means. This is all well and good, and many people are amazed and gobble it up. They go out and buy new clothing, they give up their friends and family, they really get sucked in. This is, however, the point at which I start to disagree. I had many fair warnings all throughout my journey that taking this on is serious, and I should not rush it. Sure, there are always families suggesting shidduchim, but rabbis told me to wait, I was not ready. There were people telling me to go spend a year in Israel and forget about college, but the rabbis I found at least, recommended I finish my education and just learn at night locally…and everyone I learned with locally told me to just stay in Chicago, not go to Israel (though this is something that can vary greatly). There were times where my parents and I had discussions about my life choices, but I am currently in their house writing this post because we worked it out. I do want to say, this was NOT easy for my father, who told me straight out that “I guess it is better to be religious then to do drugs” and would constantly argue with me about being religious. He even flat out told me that if I showed up in a black hat, he would change the locks and say kaddish for me. This is a relationship that needed a lot of TLC, time and care, and I feel we were able to work though that. Also, my old friends for a time, were not so happy with my decision, and for years one of my best friends kinda avoided me, but we hang out just like we used to, going to movies (I’m a little more selective of what I am willing to see) or just him coming over for dinner. I feel like a lot of your frustration may be because you did not get the same advice that I did, or that people pushed you too hard and too fast. That is a very legitimate criticism of the kriuv system, and one that many of the large organizations are careful about. You can’t expect someone to take on a million things in just 1-2 years, and really be happy about it 7-8 years later. From where I sit, and though my experiences, I think the kriuv systems I saw (I participated in more then one) each have their own kinks, but they are good systems. They have helped tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people, find happy sustainable lives that they really may not have had otherwise. In the secular world, there is less of a likelihood of finding happiness and meaning as you have expressed, and my proof for that is the explosion of growth of religion. I agree with you that people need meaning and a place to belong, but each of us has to find that for ourselves. As my needs changed, the people I hung out with changed, the shuls I went to changed, everything changed, but life changes. If you are not happy where you are, look around and try new places. In NYC, you have many more options then I did, and thankfully I was able to find something in Chicago. My wife had a friend who was not so lucky, and their community was small and eventually the husband just left and the wife is sorta stuck. Heck, over 50% of marriages fail nowadays, a lot of people are not happy with where they are, or their life circumstances. Life changes all the time for people, no matter what their background is, and they really have to reflect, as you are doing now as to what that means for them and how they are going to continue on

    • David Dulin

      sorry for so many runon sentences, I just don’t have the motivation to edit them lol

  • Cell Tooth

    You guys are nuts!! There is nothing special about being a religious jew. I grew up hasidic and i highly disagree with the system its full of hypocrisy and psychological manipulation/emotional blackmail and manipulation.The way i see it is like this….the “jew” was thought that they are the chosen one. the “christian”was thought they know the true word. The “muslim”was thought that prophet mohammed knew whats best for humanity. just like a parent telling their child they are the best kid in the world…does that actually mean they are?? The answer is NO. Its just a form of support to build their confidence/ self esteem. My point being no body is special due to their race or religion. It all comes down to individuals. Everybody wants feel special..so cut the BS and just be a decent human being.the concept of god was created by humans. You guys can try to justify it in all kinda twisted ways but its far from the truth or reality. I have met people from all walks of life and my conclusion is there is good and bad in every race/ culture. The moment a person things they are superior than others they have sub consciously pre judged. How can you pre judge?? if you don’t know who or what they are like before making a effort on getting to see their point of view or who they are as a individual.

  • Zerach Moshe Fedder

    My chevruta told me the following story:

    When he was at Ohr Sameach back in the 1970’s at the very beginning of the BT thing, He had a roommate that had been to India and tried at least 6 different religions before checking in at Happy Light. After about a month, my chevruta saw him with his backpack leaving. So he asked him: “Why are you leaving?” His reply was:

    “I left all the other religions because the were false. I’m leaving Judaism because it is true.”

    IMHO that why people leave and that’s why they stay. Same, same …

  • I don’t have your Kiruv focus and experience, so my perspective is a bit different.
    I am a ger tzeddik. As a child of the Sixties in the classic sense, I studied and practiced various religious doctrines and philosophies (including my own heritage, Episcopalian Christianity) from the time I was a teenager.
    I and my then secular Bronx Jewish wife met while part of a philosophical spiritual group in San Francisco.
    As the years went by and children came, we both began dabbling in our own religious backgrounds until I, due to basic theological disagreements, gave up Christianity and continued on with Conservative Judaism.
    Yes, at one point we were mekarved by a lovely Chabad family who were our neighbors but, we did not become Torah observant until many years later in a different city when our eldest, then 12 years old, said: “I don’t want to drive on Shabbos anymore.”

    I understand and emphathize with your discomfort over the realities of our Orthodox Jewish friends and rabbis. I am not as giddy over being a Jew as I was 25 years ago.
    However, I also take delight in studying history and, in my humble opinion, this dilemma of striving to be better in a sometimes frustatingly annoying, for all the reasons you mention, Orthodox Jewish world, is a problem that goes back to Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu.
    (In these times of counting the Omer) as Rabbi Akiva might have once said: “Can’t we all just get along?”
    Unfortunately, about half of the gerim I have known who are personal friends (we have our own Club), have gone off the derech for many of the reasons you mention.

    Having “been there and done (all of) that,” I can offer some small measure of support that being a Torah observant Jew in this Mad, Mad World of ours is indeed worth it.
    First and foremost, through my rather extensive studies and the perspective that has brought, G-d is indeed G-d and He has shaped our History and our Souls… well, forever. The Torah works. Being Jewish is a joy. Life is Beautiful All the Time.
    And, after 25 plus years, I can affirm that my observant Jewish children and grandchildren have brought me incredible joy (no, our lives have not escaped a great deal of tsuris) that sustains my happiness – my “Kiruv joy” – far more than I perceive that my non Jewish family has had…
    That is worth so, so much.
    I think both of my wife’s and my ancestors are shepping a whole bunch of nachas – and that also makes me happy.
    Be well and good luck.

  • Alana Bandos

    I work in Kiruv- not Orthodox kiruv, but kiruv nonetheless. Everyday, I have to find the balance between providing enjoyment and meaning, surface fun and depth of experience. So many of the Jews I work with think Judaism is just fasting on Yom Kippur or too many rules. I need to provide fun experiences for them to get them interested at all. But I also know that fun is not nearly enough. They have questions about their faith that I have to answer. They genuinely care about learning, but the learning has to be creative and enjoyable. And the shabbat dinners I lead have to be more than just a free meal. I relate to everything you wrote, and I think it applies to the whole Jewish world and not Orthodoxy alone.