September 21, 2006
New book tries to keep Orthodox, well, Orthodox
"Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism; How to Respond to the Challenge," by Faranak Margolese (Devora, 2005).
Several years ago, I received an online questionnaire asking things like: "If you had to attribute your not being observant to one thing, what would it be?" and "Did you ever feel rejected because you were not observant enough?" Now my answers, as well as those of 465 other Orthodox rebels, are the subject of the book, "Off the Derech."
Written by Faranak Margolese, a Los Angeles native and graduate of Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School who now lives in Jerusalem, the book seeks to explain why some Jews who grow up in observant homes and attend Orthodox schools drop halachic observance later in life. By understanding this phenomenon, she believes Orthodox communities and individuals could more effectively remedy it.
But this book is not aimed at people who went off the derech, which in Hebrew means "path." Instead, it's intended for those seeking to ensure Orthodox continuity. Throughout the book, Margolese does not treat those who went "off the derech" with disdain or disapproval; rather, she turns her critical focus to certain behaviors and attitudes of Orthodox people, which can turn younger generations off to Torah Judaism.
Nonetheless, her book has earned her praise from leading Orthodox rabbis for outlining an integral path of honest introspection for Orthodox communities, making the book a fitting read for the High Holidays.
Margolese conceived of the idea for the book when she began to notice that many of her friends who grew up in religious homes were no longer observant. Margolese describes a period in which she herself experienced her share of doubts, which resulted in lapses in her observance of Shabbat and kashrut.
Eventually, she resolved the emotional and intellectual conflicts she had with Torah Judaism and has fully committed herself to the Orthodox way of life. Her own experience contributes to the sensitivity with which she tackles the subject.
In an extremely lucid and logical style, Margolese makes a praiseworthy attempt not to oversimplify the reasons why people of different Orthodox shades abandon observance, which she defines loosely as the halachic observance of Shabbat and kashrut. Often, a complex series of factors and experiences trigger defection.
One main reason, she argues, is negative emotional associations young Orthodox Jews develop toward Judaism as a result of hurtful encounters with Orthodox people. These include parents who make children feel rejected for failing in religious observance, teachers who call students "wicked" or "dirty" for dabbling with secular ideas or behaviors, or any Orthodox Jews, particularly rabbis and educators, who are overly judgmental or nitpicky regarding the minutiae of Jewish laws at the expense of kindness and understanding.
Margolese separates emotional and intellectual issues and explains that emotional dissatisfaction is more an influential motivator than intellectual issues with Judaism. In fact, a majority of her respondents affirmed that they still believe in the Divine origins of the Torah. Nevertheless, she found rabbis and teachers often turn their students off to Torah Judaism and rabbinic authority by downplaying their sincere quest to understand God, Torah and reasons for observing mitzvot, (commandments).
Margolese offers several remedies, which put the burden of change on potential role models. Prescriptions include: parents not dogmatically enforcing religious observance at the expense of their child's emotional well-being and sense of security; parents and educators grounding their emphasis on maintaining observance with the humanitarian purpose, inspiring vision and rational context underlying mitzvot, and practitioners not shying away from questions posed by intellectually curious Orthodox Jews.
By turning culpability to observant people, educators and communities, Margolese successfully removes blame from the ideal Orthodox system she portrays. If only the practitioners were the models of the best of Orthodoxy fulfilled -- open, spiritual, psychologically perceptive and halachic -- then fewer people might leave the fold.
In keeping with her loyalty to Orthodoxy, Margolese does not devote separate discussion to a popular reason why some people leave Orthodox Judaism: Orthodox Judaism, no matter how it is taught or presented, entails too many restrictions, many of which could be unfulfilling and stifling, both in thought and day-to-day practice.
It is only natural that Margolese defend the belief system and lifestyle she is ultimately advocating, but her remedies will probably not apply to those who have questioned the basic tenets of Orthodoxy and found them wanting.