Thursday, November 24, 2016

Agudah's Disappointing Discussion of Adult Dissidents

I saw this video the other day when someone linked to it on facebook. It's from the recent Agudah Convention, and is titled, " Diving Off The Derech - The Emerging Adult At Risk Phenomenon" It features self-proclaimed experts on the "new" phenomenon of adults in their twenties and thirties going off the derech (OTD). To put it mildly, it was disappointing. There were no insights, only oblique acknowledgment of problems within the frum community, and no recognition that anyone might legitimacy and sincerely disagree with them about the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Instead there was repetition of all the tired old canards routinely leveled at those who go OTD.

The first speaker introduced the subject. As part of the introduction he told the audience about a man who was no longer frum who had told him that Yiddishkeit didn't mean anything to him anymore, that he was "dead inside." The way he told the story gave me the impression that he was paraphrasing, that he had interpreted this man's lack of feelings towards Judaism as a general spiritual malaise. The implication here is that if one doesn't find Yiddishkeit meaningful, it is because they are dead inside. It got worse from there.

The next speaker told a story about a young man who, when he got married, had as one of his conditions that the girl had to agree to learning for a year in Israel. They ended up staying there for four years, and then he spent two more years in kollel in the U.S. Some years after he had left kollel, he started to drop observances. He slowly stopped going to shul, keeping Shabbos, and putting on teffillin. His wife went to his Rosh Yeshiva, who told her to ride it out, it was just a phase. (Isn't it odd that she went to the Rosh Yeshiva instead of talking to her husband? Maybe she did, and the speaker didn't think it was relevant?) Then one Yom Kippur she got the kids ready for shul and came downstairs to find him eating breakfast. Motzei yom tov she took the kids and left.

The speaker emphasized that the young man was a good husband and father, and told the story to make a point about how kids in the frum world are raised in a bubble that doesn't prepare them to interact with the wider world. This is a valid point, and I'm glad to see it being acknowledged. But then the speaker had the audacity to characterize this story as the guy "walking out on his family." She left him, but apparently failure to conform to frum norms is tantamount to going out for cigarettes and never coming home. It was at this point, about twenty minutes in and just past the introduction, that my blood started to boil.

Then he made his point about growing up in cloistered communities more specific, and ruined it. He claimed that people are insufficiently connected to their Yiddishkeit, that they're just going through the motions, and when they come into contact with the wider world, they, " see everything in the world, and don't understand why they can't be part of it." As though people leave primarily because of the pull of the outside world, a version of the ever-popular "people go OTD because they can't control their taivos" canard.

It's interesting to note that in her book Off the Derech, Faranak Margolese makes the point that, "Most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain… so they did what was natural: run in the other direction.[1]" Her research shows that the speaker has it completely wrong.

The final speaker was R' Shaya Cohen, the director of Priority1, an organization whose goal is to keep kids from going OTD. He showed recognition of some of the issues that cause people to leave Orthodoxy, such as the suppression in schools of questions without pat comfortable answers, the dissatisfaction with, "the torah says so" as an explanation for why frum people do what they do, and the enforced conformity and uniformity is yeshivos and bais yakovs.

While he pointed out some of the problems that cause people to go OTD, it's interesting that his criticisms of the frum community were all spun as inevitable minor issues or even as the result of the community's successes.  He points to the growth of the frum community as the root cause of the problem, as though the community can't keep up with its own success. This is despite frum people being only about ten percent[2] of all Jews, a percentage that has been steady for decades[3]. He says that the issues that bother people who go OTD should be acknowledged, which is good, but then he says that this is not because there is actually anything wrong with the system, "the system is good, everything is great," or anything wrong with the community or the Torah. It is because the OTD person has been influenced by outside factors or has misinterpreted things. The system didn't work for the OTD person because he "had some unique questions, …some unique problems, … psychological problems, … emotional problems, … family problems." There may be issues in the community and school system that need be addressed, but these are issues only because there is some problem with the person who went OTD. If they were normal people, they wouldn't have had these problems. And so the audience and the community are shielded from any real criticism.

He characterizes the adults he sees who are OTD as in pain, and asks, "What can we do, not just for the poor suffering families, but for the poor suffering individuals themselves, that are hurting so much inside? I can tell you from experience that these people deep down want nothing more than a yiddishkeit than can work for them." He claims that the people he sees complain about an emptiness, a void that isn't filled. That as much as they blame their parents and teachers and the frum world, inside they blame themselves, "I must have been unworthy to have gone this way."

I moved fully away from belief in Orthodox Judaism as an adult, and I didn't experience any of what he describes. I didn't suffer, I don't feel empty inside, and I don't think that I stopped believing in the supernatural because I'm unworthy to have emunah. What nonsense. I wonder, though, if all of this might be true of the people sees. These might be people who are going through a painful process of losing their faith, and are looking for a rabbi to guide them, or people whose families have pressured them into seeing a rabbi in order to "save" them from going OTD. If they feel awful about themselves, though, it is because everyone in their lives has been telling them how awful they are for going OTD, not because of some missing metaphysical fulfillment or pain in their non-existent neshama.

Although R' Cohen knows the reasons that people go OTD, he doesn't seem to really understand them, and dismisses them all as "excuses," as something the OTD person tells himself to rationalize his behavior and his drifting away from frumkeit. In other words, there are no kashas, only teirutzim. He says that these excuses need to dealt with, because they prevent people from dealing with other issues, but the  intellectual issues OTD people raise are just excuses. He doesn't seem to recognize that people can think these things sincerely, and have the issues affect their behavior. He assumes it must be the other way around, that they are doing things not in keeping with their upbringing, and then looking for excuses to make themselves comfortable with their behavior. I had to stop watching for a bit at this point. I can only take so much of someone insulting me in one sitting.

R' Cohen says, dismissively, that "the biggest excuse used to be tzadik v'ra lo." As though the Problem of Evil is some inconsequential excuse, and not something that philosophers and theologians have struggled with for thousands of years. As though the logical paradox presented by a tri-omni god is not a good reason to conclude that He doesn't exist. Then again, there's a reason that the name Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who first posed the Problem of Evil, became the word for Jewish heretics.

He then says that, "today there's a better excuse, and an excuse it is. When they hear about the behavior of the so-called righteous, they get turned off. It's a bad excuse. It's a disgusting excuse!" It's a disgusting excuse?! Why disgusting? Should we excuse the behavior of people who are claimed to be righteous, who are community leaders? Should we not take it as evidence of something rotten in the religion when those held up as religious exemplars behave despicably?

He finishes his litany of "excuses" with, "they're not really sure about what happened at Har Sinia," as though this is some silly issue. As if only someone looking for an excuse would question the veracity of matan torah, and as if doubting that matan torah happened is not a good reason to stop being frum.

Then he reveals the "real" reasons that people go OTD. "They aren't understanding, what's in it for me? We can't rely on long-term, we need to show them what's in it for them in the here and now." In other words, OTD people aren't really questioning whether there's any truth to Orthodoxy, they're children who don't understand delayed gratification and are leaving frumkeit because they aren't getting anything from frumkeit right now. To be fair, I think he's right that whether religious practice does something positive for a person has a larger influence on whether he will maintain that practice than do promises of Heaven,  but the way he makes that point is insulting.

He goes on, "they need someone who can explain to them how Yiddishkeit can bring them happiness, they need happiness, because they sure don't got it, especially when they're deserting their family and their children." Because we all know that OTD people are miserable, irresponsible burnouts who are in pain and dead inside, right? What's worse, often it's the frum spouse that leaves, takes the kids, and fights against the OTD parent having custody or even contact, with the full support of their community behind them. This is the OTD person deserting their family and children?  Not unless you characterize not toeing the frum  line as desertion. And again, here we find the characterization of those who go OTD as unhappy without Yiddishkeit. There are plenty of OTD people who are happy.

In addition to being something frum people tell themselves to assure themselves that frumkeit is the only way to live, I wonder if this might be an artifact of the people he sees. He's likely to see people who are newly OTD, who are going through the turmoil of leaving the only world they've known, of their families' initial reaction to their deconversion, and of losing friends, family, and even their kids. Of course people going through that are not happy. He's unlikely to see people who have been OTD for years and built happy successful lives.

The end of R' Cohen's talk in the worst part. He explains that many people who go OTD feel that they were loved by their parents and friends contingently, only so long as they kept doing what frum society required of them. Not because they were people, who are intrinsically worthy of love and respect. They were loved for what they did, not for who they were. He claims that, "in fact, many share a deep dark secret that going off started as a test to see if your acceptance is of me, or of the way I conduct my life." He says that it's important to validate the OTD person, to show them that you care about them as people and are open to their concerns. That's wonderful, right? He's right when he says that the frum person doesn't have to agree with the person who went OTD, but he should show him love and respect as a person and accept that the OTD person has real concerns.

And then it all goes south. R' Cohen says that once you've done this, once you've shown the OTD person love and acceptance and validated his concerns, "you become the most important person in the world. You have them in the palm of your hand, you can guide them, direct them." That's not at all manipulative and cult-like, is it? He correctly talks about how people feel they are loved for what they do, rather than who they are, and how this is corrosive to their religiosity. Then he gleefully explains how to exploit this by acting as though you care about them, regardless of what they do, while all the time only cultivating the relationship so that you can manipulate them into doing what you think they should. What he's advocating is duplicitous and hypocritical. It's downright Machiavellian.

It's odd that he shows no concern that one of the people he's counseling might see this video, bringing the whole manipulative scheme crashing down, and leaving that person feeling betrayed. Even if he wasn't concerned for the person's feelings, wouldn't he be worried about losing a yiddishe neshama? Perhaps he wasn't aware he was being filmed or that Agudah would put the video online. If so, though, what was the person who put the video online thinking?

So much of this video is them assuring themselves that there isn't any valid reason for someone to leave Orthodoxy. It's one thing when you're talking about teenagers, who can be impulsive, rebellious, immature, and unsophisticated, but when adults leave, it raises the possibility that there are real problems. So it must be that these people are in pain, are dead inside, that they leave because they weren't given the proper appreciation of Yiddishkeit as children and are seduced away from it by the outside world.

There is recognition on the part of R' Cohen of the things that people who go OTD complain about/ say motivate them to leave, but he dismisses all of them, social, emotional, and philosophical, as excuses. He correctly identifies the resentment many feel when their parents and teachers show them that they care more about what they do, about whether they perform required rituals and behave as frum society dictates is proper, than they do about the person as an individual worthy of love and respect. But then he advises those who are counseling people at risk of going OTD to engage in manipulative behavior where they pretend to care more about the person as an individual than they do about conformity to expected behaviors, all with the goal of manipulating the OTDer into conforming with frum society's norms.

I think a major cause of this reprehensible rhetoric is Agudah's inability to admit even the possibility that they might be wrong about Judaism, forcing them to protect the inviolable purity of the community and refusing to acknowledge that people can have sincere and valid issues with the community and with Orthodox Judaism. As is often the case, dogmatism prevents meaningful communication.

Some might wonder why I care enough to watch an hour-long video and write a long post picking it apart. After all, I'm not the target audience for either this video or for the tactics it discusses. Neither I nor my community look to Agudah for guidance. Let them do their thing, let them think what they want, and let it be. It's not like I'm going to change the minds of anyone who was at that convention.

I care because the attitudes disseminated by Agudah do influence wider frum society, and for better or worse, I live in that society. I care because my family, including most of my extended family, does look to Agudah for guidance. I care because my brother went to ZA and considers R' Cohen his Rosh Yeshiva, and I know I can't discuss this video with him without us both getting upset. I care because of the pervasive insulting characterization of those who leave  frumkeit by those who have influence over the lives of people who might be questioning the truths they were raised with. I care because I'm not a Christian, and when someone smacks me in the face with an insulting diatribe, I'm not going to turn the other cheek.

[1] Margolese, F.(2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company (page 37)
[2] Pew Research Center, (2013, October 1). A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Retrieved from
[3] " Eleven percent of American Jews defined themselves as Orthodox in the 1970 study… That figure has remained relatively consistent." Elazar, D.J. How Strong is Orthodox Judaism -- Really? The Demographics of Jewish Religious Identification. Jerusalem Center for Public Affaris. Retrieved from