Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Friendly Frum Message To An OTDer.

The following is a line-by-line response to a message that was sent to someone who is OTD. The recipient asked for responses, and gave me permission to post it. The message is in italics, followed by my responses.

Dear [redacted],

As I said I would, I'm forwarding some links from xxxx. I hope that it's helpful. There may be other writing forums, as well. This is the one I've been involved with.

I also thank you for speaking with me so candidly. I'm glad that you felt comfortable enough to do so, and I encourage you to feel free to be in touch at your discretion.

I've been thinking a lot about our (unexpected) conversation. You have many questions, and I'm unclear about whether you really want any answers / solutions to your questions or not. Perhaps you just prefer to be left to the life you (seem to) have chosen for yourself.

So right at the start, we have the old, "You're questions are really answers." As though the only reason anyone would question the obvious truth of Yiddishkeit is because they're looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah and wallow in their taivos. And we have a delegitimatizing of the recipient's choices, with "seem to" in parentheses. As though they didn't really choose it, but were dragged there by forces (taivos - it's always taivos) beyond their control.

As you can imagine, it's disconcerting to watch someone you care about making choices that you'd feel are harmful. Let's say you noticed that someone dear to you had inherited a significant number of stocks, now s/he has to invest some effort to maintain this inheritance -paying brokers, flying to locations to do due diligence to assess the value of the stock, filing yearly income tax etc.; and now holds stocks that have not yet yielded (obvious) dividends. You are aware that the companies in which she holds stocks are developing their product, starting to make sales, but it hasn't yet translated into profits. How would you advise this friend? S/he is ready to throw the stocks out, after all, there's been no income commensurate to the hassle of keeping the stocks. Wouldn't you tell that friend to hold on, s/he's stands to earn a fortune. S/he's losing patience, s/he doesn't see the value in these old artifacts. But you know, once she gets rid of the stocks, if they bring in anywhere near what they potentially could, she'd kick herself big time at letting the opportunity slip through her fingers.

Here's an analogy trying to show that rejecting something because it doesn't have an immediate reward is foolish and shortsighted. The stocks are Yiddishkeit, the due diligence is the mitzvos, and the OTD person is the heir. I suppose the eventual payoff of the stocks is olam haboh.  The problem with this analogy, like all analogies from the known to the unknowable, is that we know stocks exist, and we have a general idea of how the market works. We know that stocks often do pay out, and that companies often take time to become established,  If somone really had information showing that the companies would be turning large profits in the future, he could share that information with the heir and convince them to hold on to the stocks. None of those things are true of Yiddishkeit. We can't know whether olam haboh exists, we don't know if keeping mitzvos ever pays off or, if they do, what kind of payoff we can expect or in what timeframe, and there is no information that can be provided that can reasonably prove that keeping mitzvos is a sound investment. The analogy fails on every point.

Also, the analogy reminds me of this:

[Redacted], you are smart, inquisitive and exploring – and you're also limited. (Aren't we all?) You're too young and inexperienced to come to hard and fast conclusions of difficult existential and spiritual matters. For everything you now know, there are exponential amounts that you don't yet know.

Sure, we're all limited. But recognizing that our limitations prevent us from coming to sure conclusions isn't an excuse to make stuff up. Why should suspending judgment, as the message writer suggests, equal being frum? It's at least as reasonable to suspend judgment and not be frum, pending further exploration of the issues. Frumkeit is not the default, "I don't know" is the default.

Why are you willing to believe so strongly in science? Do you explore and verify every study and experiment? Do you question the scientists who fill journals with their studies to clarify that they are not distorting the facts or skewing the results?

Of course not. Who does, or could? But it's reasonable to trust science, because, in principle, any of us could do the work. It's not mysterious or unknowable. And because science works! The message sender trusts science in every aspect of their daily lives, from when they check the weather in the morning, to the car they use to get to work, the bridges they drive over, the GPS they use to guide them, the medications they take, on and on and on. They literally trust science with their lives. It's only when scientific findings call tenets of their religion into question that they become skeptical, and ask questions like, "Do you verify it yourself? How do you know the scientists aren't lying?"

Are you accounting for the countless times they make an about-face saying the opposite today of what they said yesterday?

No. Just, really, no. Unless we're talking about modern rejection of ancient models of the world, an "about-face" is very rare. What does happen is that models are refined as more discoveries are made and more information becomes available. Putting down a new floor in a house, or even moving a wall, is not the same as turning the whole building around or knocking it down and building a new one.

Why do you relate to science with blind faith, since that's exactly what you're doing when you are quick to agree to everything they posit without being capable or trained to investigate their conclusions and verify their accuracy.

"Faith" is belief despite a lack of evidence. It's belief that ignores the probabilities. Believing in an unseen, unknowable God requires faith. Trusting experts and a system of learning about the world that has a proven track record is not faith. They're usually right, so they're probably right about "this" (whatever "this" happens to be), too.

And if you're willing to have blind-faith in the conclusions of mortal, often self-serving men and women – why should one spurn the individuals who exhibit faith in an Omnipotent G-d, and believe in upholding His statutes?

Like I just said, it's not blind faith to trust a proven system. But leaving that aside, this is again an analogy from the known to the unknowable. We know that scientists exist and that their findings usually reflect reality. We don't know that God exists, nor do we know that the beliefs of those who have faith in Him  reflect reality.

If you are suggesting that logic rules, then I fail to understand the logic in choosing science over the Creator who fashioned all the laws of nature which scientists claim to observe in the first place.

I get the impression that the message writer is using "logic" to mean, "makes sense." Logic is not just that which makes sense, logic is rules for reasoning that must be true, in the same way that one plus one must equal two. Be that as it may:

1.  if God is real, and He created the world and gave us the Torah, then if the Torah doesn't match reality, God lied to us. If the truth is in nature, then God lied to us when He said something different in the Torah. And if the truth is in the Torah, then God lied to us when He made nature in such a way that it fools us into believing untruths. Why would we trust such a Being?

2. We live in this world, it is the only reality we have access to, and what we can know about it affects our lives. Science has proven it's success at informing us about the world and improving our lives, while religion has not. Therefore it is reasonable to trust science over the word of God.

3. "Claim" to observe? Again, the unwarranted, selective skepticism of science only when it contradicts what they believe to be the message of the Creator.

Interestingly, there were a number of rishonim who held the opposite of the message writer. They held that we take the Torah as literally true unless it is contradicted by what we see in the world, in which case the Torah must be interpreted figuratively. The message writer seems to hold that we always take the Torah as literally true, and when it is contradicted by what we see in the world - well, who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?

And, is this an intellectual or emotional argument?

Does it matter? Arguments stand or fall on their merits, the motivations of the person presenting the argument notwithstanding. And anyway, what's wrong with emotions? People are not frum for purely intellectual reasons. Far from it. The frum world discourages philosophical inquiry, and hashkafa is superficial, made up of bad arguments and inspirational fluff, not serious theology. If people can be frum for emotional reasons, why is it illegitimate for someone to stop being frum for emotional reasons?

And lets not forget how insulting this question is. It's asking, "You think you're being rational, but aren't you really stupidly being swept along by your emotions?" You weak-willed, broken, taiva-ridden fool, you.

[Redacted], your choices are not inconsequential- they really matter. They matter obviously to yourself, and also to your future spouse, children, bs"D, to your community, and to your nation.

Exactly, choices matter. Like choosing to remain frum. That choice severely limits the range of marriage partners, the education of children, and the potential communities one can belong to. Choosing to be frum is as legitimate a choice as any other, but it's not the default.

Is it important to you that your future generations remain Jewish?

What if it's not? What if it is, but there are other considerations that are also important, and a reasonable balance has to be found? What if it's of great importance, but of no importance whether they're frum?

You're going to have to make choices, not just now, but continually as your life unfolds. May you find the inner strength, wisdom, resources and messengers to help you reach conclusions which will bring you genuine and eternal satisfaction and serenity.

It's a nice sentiment, but eternal? Is this a veiled threat? "You had better stay frum, because only being frum guarantees your descendants will be Jewish (except that it doesn't, or there could be no OTD people who marry non-Jews), and if they aren't, you're going to look down from Heaven and be bothered by the dire consequences of your choices." There's nothing like guilt trips and threats about the unknowable afterlife to keep a person frum.

Your friend,



  1. Lol
    It's almost like a parody of kiruv efforts. It's just sad the parody is so common.

  2. I think that the stock analogy is actually quite apt.
    The child has inherited a portfolio of a few stocks from her parent. She does due dillligence and cant find any reason to believe that her parent was particularly knowledgeable at stock picking or had any particular inside information in any of these stocks (despite the fact that the parent clearly stated that they had a foolproof method, but provided no evidence of such). So she takes the decision to sell the portfolio and but the “scientific” option (a tracker fund or something) with the proceeds.
    A kind uncle is trying to convince her not to do that. He says “don’t you know your father was such a great stockpicker”, but when she adks for evidence of such instead of showing her a track record he just says “it’s so sad about all the profits you will miss out on if you sell”. What should she do? Trust the kind uncle or sell up for market price?

    Make your own decision.

    1. I still think it's a bad analogy, but you're absolutely right - even if it was a good analogy, the reasonable thing to do it sell the stocks.

  3. Love this. I kind of want to send you all the emails I got from various people over the past few years (especially one I got just before tisha b'av this past summer) so you can do the same annotation with them. This kind of annotation is invaluable, and I do hope you do more of them. It's really valuable to have this kind of response out here on the internet, accessible to everyone who might be getting this kind of email / lecture - because it is effective emotional manipulation and can in fact make someone feel very guilty. It's great that they can come to your blog and hear a reasoned, reasonable rebuttal - that they can see that in fact the emotional manipulation is just that, and not worthy of any more time or energy spent on it.

    1. One striking similarity between this and the email I got from a "friend": the constant use of the recipient's name at the beginning of some paragraphs. When I had to read "Esther Shaindel" at the beginning of almost every paragraph, it added to the nauseated feeling of reading the whole thing. So condescending, so patronizing.

    2. @ES One of the most powerful weapons to perpetuate a cult is guilt and emotional manipulation. Judaism has had many years to perfect this technique. Do not fall for it.

  4. your great! Love your blog! You give us all a voice

  5. Ye Old Pascal Wager ! Similar tactics and arguments as in this post were around over 40 years ago, and probably earlier. Orthodox Judaism is essentially the same as fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and certain other cults.