Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Empahsizing the Positive

There seem to be a few reasons why Torah observance folks leave the fold. Some go because they can't handle the demands of a religious lifestyle. Others ask questions of paramount importance such as the true age of universe or proof of God's existence and receive unsatisfactory answers. For many, Judaism is a religion of "thou shalt not's" with little positive to reecommend it. For the rest, it is the influence of secular culture and its false prophets who insist there is no God, chalilah, through weak but seductive logic. In all cases, it is a tragedy when someone abandons the faith of our fathers.
This article from Yediot Acharonot notes that one of the major factors is the rebelling against the "thou shalt not" culture that has taken over much of obsevant Judaism today:
Religious society contemplates the question of "why" - why do they become secular? The automatic answer is education. The education isn’t good enough, not strict enough. Most people believe that strictness will save their children from looking for answers elsewhere.
I think there's another way of looking at this. It is a well-established fact that from an early age, we need positive reinforcement, warmth and love. We need to be told we're doing great. At a young age this goes without saying. The parents, and at kindergarten and school everyone makes an effort to encourage us and give us a feeling of success and self-worth.
For those of us born to an observant family, another wonderful aspect is added. As young children Judaism induces warmth, and observing many mitzvoth gives a great feeling.
The religious child feels at home with Judaism. Religion is imbued with songs, dances and family rituals. Observing the mitzvoth provides another aspect of life through which our kids win compliment and prizes. It's rare to find a four-year-old who doesn't like being religious. And still we cannot argue with statistics that say 20% of these kids grow up to become former-religious.

When one looks at this process it's easy to see that the change in the approach to religion goes hand in hand with the youth's rebellion. When the children grow up, the educational tendency is to add more and more prohibitions and restrictions. The amount of positive feedback drops, while bans and limitations abound.
For some, this style works and they grow stronger and thrive in their worship of God.
But what about those who don't fit in? Those for whom spirit is as important as content, if not more so? Yes, there are religious pacifists who want to be religious without having to join God's army and serve 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They love God dearly, but interpret this love differently. They wander the system in search of someone to tell them that that's okay: different, but beautiful.
In most cases they will find out that the system isn't tolerant. There's only one truth, and their truth isn't it. Attempting to fall in line with the system creates distance between actions and what's in their heart. And the hearts don't always follow the actions. In some cases the distance becomes social alienation and ends up in complete abandonment.

This is an important point. While I don't personally agree with the politico-religious philosophy of the article's author, I can agree that there is more than one "truth" within the Torah community. One of the most terrible things a school rebbe can do is respond to an important quiestion by saying "shut up and learn some more Gemara". How productive is it to respond to a person's yearning for some form on individualism by imposing more strictures to render them a yet another bland clone?
There is also a mischevious aspect to leaving the fold. While a child who does so often does it to leave the "thou shalt not" aspect behind, the "thou shalt" remains a part-time piece of their life. They may not avoid melacha on Yom Tov but they will come home and enjoy a meal in the sukkah. They may eat chometz on Pesach but they'll attend the seder, even if only briefly and enjoy the food and win.
However, I see this as an opportunity, not a hypocrisy. While the lapsed Jew may only wish to interact with those portions of Judaism that bring personal benefit while avoiding any form of commitment, it is precisely these mitzvos that maintain some form of a connection that can be built upon. As the article notes, four year old kids love Judaism because it's all about the "thou shalt" things. As they age, they are expected to add "thou shalt not" because it's part of the process of maturing. Taking the opportunity to intelligently answer a lapsed Jew's questions in a non-threatening way could go a lot further towards returning them to the proper path than threats of excommunication and "don't you know you're humiliating the family!"
Finally, and I think this is the most important point, the Jewish educational system does a lousy job explaining Judaism to our children. A great yeshiva is defined by how many blatts of Gemara the children memorize per year or how many masmidim you can find in their beis medrash at 3 am. Yet take one of these scholars, present him with proof that the universe is 15 billion years ago and ask him to reconcile this with the literal reading of the first chapter of Bereshis and you won't get a good answer. You'll either get dismissmal or create a new kofer. What kind of system is this? It's not like the answers aren't out there. It's not like excellent literature reconciling science and Torah doesn't exist. It's not like the false prophets of atheism haven't been refuted. But no one in a position of guidance over our children learns these books. Instead, the answer is "learn more gemara" and "take on more chumros". The fact that these answers don't work hasn't dissuaded people from repeatedly using them. Which is a pity.
Children in our schools shouldn't just be taught the content of the Torah but also why it is true. They should know the anwers to the difficult questions before others ask them and provide them with lies to justify their atheistic lifestyle. This would require a sea change in educational thinking within the Jewish community but if keeping people from entering an olam shel sheker is the reward, it is well worth the effort.


David said...

First, I tend to doubt that many people leave Orthodoxy because it's just too demanding. If someone honestly believed that it was true and reallly what God wanted, it wouldn't seem so demanding. If you don't find meaning in it, there's much less incentive to put up with all the "Thou shalt not" stuff.
Second, teaching children why the Torah is "true" is going to flop. The bottom line is that the Torah is, in many instances, not easily reconciled with history, science or reality in general.
Finally, your constant insistence that all of this is so obviously true is a bit silly. The fact remains that all the arguments are out there, and are readily available; most people-- including most Jews-- are unconvinced.
Maybe it's time for Orthodoxy to wake up and smell the coffee-- the Torah is not going to be proved true, because the stories in it are, in fact, false. There was no flood. If there was an Abraham, he never met a Philistine. Staffs don't turn into snakes. Three million people never wandered through the Sinai. Donkeys don't talk. Etc., etc.

chaimsmom said...

Garnel -

Excellent article. It's not often that I agree with you, but this time I think you are absolutely right.

E-Man said...


If there really is a G-D and he can do anything doesn't that mean that anything that is written in the Torah could have happened and our archeology is wrong?

Garnel Ironheart said...

David, first of all absence of proof is not proof of absence. The archeological record is far from complete. It's one thing to say "We haven't found David HaMelech's chequebook stubs" for example. Secular scholars then wrongly jump to the conclusion: Aha! He never had a chequebook. The example with Avraham Avinu is also a good one. For example, years ago it was accepted that camels were introduced to Israel much later than Avraham's time. Therefore Eliezer couldn't have used camels to go pick up Rivkah Imeinu in Aram. Then suddenly new archeological evidence revealed that camels were in use at that time. Oops.
The Philistines that Avraham met were not the Philistines of David's time either. The Torah itself discusses how the original Philistines were displaced by a sea-based invasion and replaced. So no, Avraham never met a later Philistine but a representative of an earlier nation in the area.
The second is that miracles, according to many authorities, happen outside the natural course of things. That's what makes them seem miraculous to us. So almost every example you mentioned as having never happened as all miracles. Of course you can't prove Bilaam's ass (the donkey kind) spoke. You have to trust the Torah when it says it did.
If you don't want to believe what the Torah says, fine. But it's chutzpah to tell me I can't.

David said...


You are correct; if God is omnipotent, He could obviously do anything. For example, He could make monkeys fly out of your butt. Would it be logical to assume that He is about to do so? No. If you told me that He had, would I believe you? No. Same deal with the stuff in the Torah; I'm not claiming that it's a metaphysical impossibility beyond the reach of an omnipotent deity-- merely that it appears so unlikely and so contrary to the evidence that there is no good reason to believe it.


True, the absence of evidence is not irrefutable evidence of absence. But absence of evidence is also a pretty thin basis on which to maintain an assertion that something is present; and using the Torah as evidence to prove the Torah seems a bit circular.

Moreover, there is ample evidence that the Torah is inaccurate. There is, for example, evidence that the Philistines were not in Israel in Abraham's time-- to resolve the contradiction by claiming "these were different Philistines" is to attempt an argument that you yourself would laugh off in any other context. There is ample evidence that the Jews as a people had origins that are inconsistent with the Torah's descriptions. Likewise, there is sufficient evidence on which to conclude that the story of Noah (and hence, the genealogy of Noah) is, at best, wildly inaccurate. There is evidence that the Torah itself is composed of various texts. So, in the end, you're not really relying on a possibility in the absence of evidence to the contrary-- you're relying on no evidence in the face of actual evidence.

And I'd never tell you you "can't" trust the Torah. You can trust a colony of beavers if you like. I'm just telling you that your constant insistence that others should trust it, too, is, at best, unpersuasive.

Not Brisk said...


Brings to mind what R' Moshe said regarding people who kept Shabbos under duress, but their children didn't. He said it was because they complained that it is hard to be a Jew, rather than emphasizing the positive.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Not Brisk
I've heard that elsewhere too. Some people think that being frum means having to be unhappy. The whole "I would love to eat treif but what can I do? The will of my Father in Heaven is upon me." Those guys have the kids who grow up and toss the whole thing away. Why voluntarily be unhappy?

David, we're going in circles. For you a lack of evidence is at thin basis for believing in something. For me, faith fills in the gaps easily.

And as for the Philistines, the Torah itself says that the original Philistines were destroyed and the mephorshim note that it was due to Avraham having made a treaty with them that would have precluded Bnei Yisrael from conquering their land. hence an invading nation came and wiped them out and became the new Philistines.

David said...

"David, we're going in circles. For you a lack of evidence is at thin basis for believing in something. For me, faith fills in the gaps easily."

Garnel, you're missing the point. You frequently take people to task for being inadequately Jewish, or having insufficient belief. You get snippy at non-Orthodox denominations, and question their legitimacy. If you think it's so important for Jews to be ideologically pure, you need to articulate something a bit more persuasive than a magical faith that (for you, anyhow) "fills in the gaps."

Moreover, your claim that I'm trying to tell you what you can or can't believe is ridiculous. You're the one with a litmus test for which branches of Judaism may be legitimate and what one must (or must not) believe. While I will cheerfully point out that many of your beliefs are unsubstantiated and/or silly, far be it from me to tell you what you can or can't believe. I leave that sort of thing to the frummies.

Anonymous said...

>Some people think that being frum means having to be unhappy. The whole "I would love to eat treif but what can I do? The will of my Father in Heaven is upon me." Those guys have the kids who grow up and toss the whole thing away. Why voluntarily be unhappy?<

Isn't that what Rashi tells us to do?