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.