Jewish Teen Who Grew Up Orthodox Writes About Leaving the Fold on Tablet

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This is a great essay. It’s not great because I enjoy the story or because I am proud of its writer. It is a great essay because it is a window into the fragile state of orthodox Jewish teens.

I think this specific type of problem is more prevalent in modern orthodox day schools than in the more right wing yeshivas. The yeshivas have their own set of problems and issues they need to deal with. But in the modern orthodox schools, I think this kind of story is more common.

In short, this young man talks about his love affair with his tefillin. He recalls the surge of emotion and pride as he wore those tefillin for the first few years after his Bar Mitzvah. Then he began to question everything and finding no sufficient answers (apparently) he has decided to leave orthodox Judaism. He does it all with a great analogy to Toy Story.

I think the tefillin are a metaphor for the entirety of orthodox Jewish life. Accepting that assumption, I think we can also safely assume that this kid was a great student and proud orthodox Jew. His love for orthodox observance in his early teens gave way to indifference in his later teen years.

The writer makes the claim that his faith was shaken by the lack of satisfactory answers to legitimate questions. This is a real issue for teens and for adults. I believe it is the biggest challenge that the orthodox Jewish community is facing today. I don’t claim to have a solution to the problem. But I think the most basic first step to a solution is rooted in dialogue about these issues. If we don’t have that conversation we have no chance of keeping inquisitive teens in the fold.

My favorite part of the article is the end. Even the writer acknowledges that he has not left permanently. This is a stage of life that he is going through and no one can predict what the next stage will bring. I think that is a great attitude. It’s a great attitude for the young man but it is an important attitude for us that staunchly remain in the fold too.

We need to recognize that some people will go on their own path to discovery and while we can’t condone behavior that is incompatible with halacha, we can be patient. We can be supportive. We can still love our friends and family who may be going through this kind of internal upheaval. I think that is the most effective ingredient for providing a safe haven for these people to return should they choose to do so.

Finally, we need to keep a place in our communities open and available to those on the fence or on the other side of the fence. We cannot allow them to feel like pariahs or like they are unstable or unwell. We cannot let them feel like they are being judged or cast off. They need our support and friendship at least as much as our halachically observant friends and family. But I don’t mean that we should be nice to them out of pity or out of a hope that our friendship will bring them back. I mean that we should be friendly to them in the same way we would want to be treated by others. Treating them like they are pathetic or needy is not very helpful. Treating them just like we always treated them is the right thing to do.

I wish this young man much success and I hope he can find his way back.

Check out the article in Tablet and let me know what you think.

Link: Tablet

  • david a.

    Rabbi Fink,

    Here’s the fact. The overwhelming majority
    of biblical scholars say there is much evidence that the Torah was authored
    by fallible humans. That is a composite document put together over centuries.

    Is the evidence compelling? I don’t know, each
    person decides on his own. But what I do know is that forcing people to believe
    something that intellect and evidence tells them is NOT true, brings it all
    into question. And that will happen increasingly. The solution starts by addressing this problem satisfactorily.

    • Most teens are not bothered by this problem. But I agree that it needs to be addressed with real solutions not callous dismissal.

      • Shragi Getzel

        Are you aware of anywhere these questions are addressed satisfactorily?

        • No. But I am also not an expert on this at all. So my lack of knowledge is not very compelling.

          • MarkSoFla

            Really?! Weren’t you in kiruv for a while?

            • The question, as I understood it, was about which orthodox Jewish high schools are tackling these problems effectively. What’s Kiruv got to do with it?

              • MarkSoFla

                I thought the question in this thread of the discussion was “How can bibcrit be addressed with real solutions and not just be dismissed?” and the question to you was “Are you aware of anywhere these questions are addressed satisfactorily?”. I took “anywhere” to mean books, articles, organizations, programs, schools, etc.

                • I would recommend Chacham Faur for these issues.

          • ahg

            I think an example Avi might agree with is when Kiruv workers try to awe people with the Torah, when it enumerates 4 species of animals that only one of the two kosher signs and then make the claim that even in our day there have been none others found. The only problem is that it is a lie. It relies on the audience being ignorant of the llama, alpaca, and vicuna that all chew their cud but don’t have split hooves. The Kiruv worker would likely tell you they are all “Gamal” (camels) in the language of the Torah, but it’s ludicrous. Look them up on Wikipedia. They as different as Lions, Tigers, Leopards, Panthers, Cheetahs and even the Persian kitty – which may all be “cats” but no one, not even the Torah, would claim them to be the same species or min. (There are further reasons as to why this claim is false… but I deem these examples sufficient that a rational person will feel deceived when they delve into it.)

            I’m sure you have heard this claim, and others that are used by Kiruv workers and have even spread into the mainstream among MO yeshiva high school teachers, and it’s detrimental to the inquisitive mind who will look to validate the claim and not take it on face value.

            • Like I said above, I was addressing whether high schools were dealing with this. I agree that fake proofs are terrible. I wrote about them on this blog over two years ago.

              • ahg

                What I described is one of the ways high schools think they are dealing with it. Ways that in the long run may do more harm than good. At least at the local MO high school near me, one rabbi uses that among other typical kiruv style proofs in a class he gives. It seems like they think they’ll “arm” the students with the kiruv “proofs” beforehand so that when questions arise, at least they’ll remember that whatever the question, there are ample reasons to believe in the divine origin of the Torah. Not a bad idea, but only if you have good proofs to start with.

        • Avi Shevin

          My guess is that there is no answer. According to Rambam, the divinity of Torah is an article of faith. Either you believe it or you don’t. Only Kiruv workers try to “prove” such things.

        • david a.

          >>>> Are you aware of anywhere
          these questions are addressed satisfactorily?

          I’ve been looking for 40 years. The answer
          seems to me to be: “Nowhere” and the reason likely is, is that the more an
          intelligent person, not hampered by blind faith, looks, the more he tends to
          arrive at the conclusion that the evidence points away from TMS (Torah m’sinai).

          If traditional Judaism is to survive, some intelligent
          re-drawing of the 13 Ikkraim is absolutely necessary, but not as the Reform
          did, throwing out the baby with bathwater.

        • Meir Goldberg

          You may be interested in a blog called:

      • S.

        Why has no one ever addressed it with a real solution? Is this not a major part of the problem – perhaps *the* problem?

        • It hasn’t been addressed because our greatest Torah scholars avoid BibCrit like the plague. So our great minds do not even know what these questions are all about. I maintain that most people don’t leave for intellectual reasons. I think this kid was an exception. For now…

          • Shragi Getzel

            It’s probably true that almost nobody does almost anything for purely intellectual reasons.

            I don’t think it matters whether most people leave for intellectual reasons or not, and this kid isn’t necessarily an exception.

            People don’t become frum for intellectual reasons either but we’ve developed a whole body of intellectual arguments to convince them to become frum, we haven’t done that for the person who wants to become frei.

          • S.

            There are good answers but no Orthodox Jews who are capable of rebutting modern critical scholarship are aware of it?

            • Chacham Faur has done it.

              • S.


                • Check out The Naked Crowd.

  • Ksil

    Why is it important to “keep people in the fold” ,,, inquisitive teens or otherwise?

    Orthodox judaism is not for everyone

    • That’s a fair question. But I think it is reasonable for orthodox Jews to believe that absent specifically extenuating circumstances, orthodox Judaism should have a place for everyone.

      • G*3

        There’s a difference between, “orthodox Judaism should have a place for everyone,” and everyone
        should be an Orthodox Jew.

        • Right. But that’s all I meant in response to the question posed.

  • Functionally Frum

    This is not just a teen issue. I am a middle aged man with a family. I came to orthodoxy at around this boy’s age largely based on intellectual understanding and now greater understanding is leading me away. I have and have always had access and strong relationships with extremely learned and warm scholars. It’s not always about finding “answers” as many of today’s “questions” cannot be answered. (The trite “proofs” which used to have me enamored are laughable now in my eyes.)

    I know this seems scary to orthodox people, especially rabbis (open minded ones like yourself) but I believe that if Judaism is going to survive it’s going to have to adapt to man’s growing knowledge and understanding. We (yes I still consider myself “in the camp) may have to even adapt ideas from reform and conservative. I strongly suggest you read a new book called “Torah from Heaven” by Norman Solomon to get an idea of where we may have to go to survive as a people.

    And I am not alone, not by a long shot.

    • Unless you are new around here, you should know that I am very aware of the issues you raise. I hope to do a blog post on that book eventually. Poke around the blog you’ll see a lot of items that should interest you.

      • Functionally Frum

        I’ve been around, but for obvious reasons this comment needed to be anonymous.

        • Okay. I understand. So you know that I deal with these issues on a regular basis. This was just through the prism of a teen.

          • Functionally Frum

            Yes, I understand. But what is unique about this young man’s essay is that his approach is very mature and intellectual. That’s why it hit a chord with me.

  • An unbeliever

    When someone leaves due to intellectual issues with belief in torah min Hashamiyim or the existence of god, it is impossible to return without rational answers to those questions. As someone who has completely lost faith, but still lives in a religious community in Israel for family reasons, I keep discovering many like myself. Rabbi Fink, I don’t see any reason to believe that the reason there are no answers is because the “smart rabbis” haven’t studied the issues, it is simply because religion is based entirely on faith. Any rational individual will therefore be led to reject it.

    • A non-Jewish Theist

      Strong disagreement with the last two sentences. Faith and rationality can go hand-in-hand, particularly when what is given by faith and seen in the natural world clearly align with each other. The belief in G-d is also perfectly sensible.

  • Holy Hyrax

    >This is a real issue for teens and for adults. I believe it is the biggest challenge that the orthodox Jewish community is facing today.

    Yes, and with all the man hours wasted over in yeshivot over Talmud, good answers have yet to come up to ANY real question. (I mean, if you have a question about some legal minutia, then sure, you will get an a real answer).

    >But I think the most basic first step to a solution is rooted in dialogue about these issues.

    Ok. Then what? We have a dialogue. Teens are still looking for answers. Will rabbis then start having logical rebuttals to Higher Criticism? To science questions? To questions of morality vs. torah? Many of us here have been searching and searching and not one thing has been answered.

    • Cali Girl

      Wow. I took a break from the blogs for a while. You sound…..different.

      • Welcome back.

      • Holy Hyrax

        No I don’t. You just never followed me close enough 🙂

        • She’s right. You do.

          • Holy Hyrax

            I’m just tired of the endless questions. And the list only grows with nothing being answered.

            • Cali Girl

              I get it. That’s why I needed a breather. It never ends and it never will. Like you said, the more you search the more questions you end up with….

  • Prag

    “is love affair with his tefillin”
    I think the problem started right there, I was not at all thrilled with putting on teffilin, it took me like a year to get used to them and I’m still kind a happy on chol hamoed.

    If anyone goes overboard like being “in love” with putting tefillin on, he will probably indeed fall overboard.

  • B. Parnas

    No one makes decisions and does things for only intellectual reasons (R. Fink acknowledged this in one his replies.) The people who claim to do so are fooling themselves and anyone who agrees with them. Therefore, intellectual/analytical arguments/proofs to address people are limited in value – I am not saying valueless.

    The value of being an “orthodox” Jew is questionable. Who defines orthodoxy? When does a person stop being “orthodox”? When they do not keep a single halacha of Shabbos once? Twice? When they do not keep Shabbos at all, but do other Mitzvot? When they stop being honest in business and personal relations? When they stop wearing a suit or black trousers 24/7? When does a person begin being “orthodox”? When they do everything perfectly? It is not going to happen. Was Moshe “orthodox”? He actually changed 3 G-d given halachot, I think I learned (and Moshe spoke face-to-face with Gd. Who else has done that according to “orthodox” Judaism.) It makes no sense to argue these things – our lives are so complex and multifaceted.

    Perhaps, this young man is actually doing the right things. Making Gd smile. He is searching and seeks integrity. That is G-dly. Look at Gd’s creation: it is a failure, He admits it Himself all over the Tanach/Bible. I don’t think he has to stop wearing T’fillin to do that, but apparently he understands (intellectually, emotionally, interpersonally) that he does . . . for now. Do we want him to put on T’fillin, keep Shabbos, marry a nice Jewish girl, struggle to pay day-school tuition, and do it miserably or with part of himself cut off from life? Many “orthodox” rabbis say that this half-life is better than the one that this young man has chosen. I think that is mistaken, at least for this young man and many people.

    Maybe, Gd will eventually get “it” right in the World that He created. And, maybe this young man will get it “right” in his World. This young man is just emulating Gd, his Creator.

    The measurements and connotation of the measurements that we are using for directing people, young and old, are false and untenable. Or else, this “orthodox” life, whatever it really is, is not for everybody, Jew or not.

  • I think there is something much more systemic going on. People have been leaving orthodoxy-ish/traditional halachic Judaism for a very long time (even pre-haskalah this was happening in Germany). Except during the eras where religion was state (aka pre-enlightment) there were always Jewish communities with rich senses of self to go to if you weren’t going to be in this rabbinical oriented method of community. I mean, there were Yiddish Pop Songs about the sinking of the titanic, balls on yom kippur in 1886, ect.

    That has disappeared as Jewish people entered the establishment post ww2. My grandfather, despite being extremely wealthy in his 20s, went to yiddish theater. My father went to MIT instead (and my father is orthodox now). Entering and staying in the establishment is a full time job, and Jewish institutions mimic establishment institutions. There isn’t anything paritcuarly natively Jewish about them, barring some examples within orthodoxy. Of course people just dissipate, as Jewish atheist on tumblr mentions, Reform Judaism has elements of a social club (with ritualized socializing rather than socializing socializing). There is nothing to go to.

    • MarkSoFla

      It is possible that we are entering a period of “super haskala”. By that I mean that the lure of the secular world is very strong and growing stronger. Furthermore, the arguments provided by the secular world are strong and growing stronger. And finally, the ability to quickly disseminate and discuss those arguments is becoming easier and more pervasive.

      So … if we want Judaism to continue to thrive, we need to deal with it somehow. As R’ Fink said earlier.

      • Even with the fact that there is a “super-haskalah” going on, some of the things I am seeing is that there has been a growth of secular institutions than used be around but then collapsed in the 50s and 60s with integration and the growth of “synagogue as a center”. EG: Sukkah in the City, Kutscher Tribeca, Anna Shteynshleyger (she’s kind of orthodox, but her art isn’t), so so many books, A Serious Man in theaters.
        We’ve moved to a salad bowl society when it comes to background, but by the time we did that, we threw out a large chunk of cultural stuff in order to mainstream. Kind of frustrating.

  • Aaron

    I do not like how you talk about waiting for him to come back to practicing halacha and “be patient.” This thinking is one of the reasons turn off to Yiddishkeit in the first place. It is this arrogant position that everyone who follows halacha is on the right path and everyone else is on the wrong path. When orthodox Jews realize that people can be connected to Hashem in many ways and that there is no primary path above all others people will not be turned off by this elitist and arrogant thinking.

    • I said “I hope he finds his way back”. And I do hope he does. Life will be much easier for him if he can manage to balance orthodox Jewish life with his personal philosophy.

      Don’t throw away everything I wrote for one line that you misinterpreted.

      • tesyaa

        The only reason to attempt to maintain his OJ practice and his beliefs is for family reasons. The difficult, if not impossible struggle to do so is only necessary if his family doesn’t tolerate him as he is. Why should he have to be the one to struggle?

        Face it, it’s almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, and many people (not all, perhaps) don’t wish to do so.

        • MarkSoFla

          Why should he have to be the one to struggle?

          Because he is the one that’s changing from what the community and family around him does. That’s the case for BTs in the reverse direction as well.

          • tesyaa

            I definitely think his life will only be easier if he follows the path he’s on. His parents will come around, and he can live a life that’s true to himself.

            • My point was only that if “true to himself” can revert to orthodoxy – his life will be even easier.

      • tesyaa

        Life will be much easier for him if he can manage to balance orthodox Jewish life with his personal philosophy.

        In case you haven’t noticed, the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle isn’t a particularly “easy” one.

  • hash brown

    see kooloytoyra, top post

  • tesyaa

    It’s not really practical for OJs to be friendly and supportive to outright kofrim. Certainly people with young children would not want those people influencing their kids. That is why the orthoprax stay under the radar.

  • Louis

    Having read some of the posts questioning why there is not a response to Bible criticism and Torah Min Hashamayim, I feel compelled to respond. The reason I feel compelled derives from what I believe was Hashgacha Pratit/God’s involvement in our lives. After reading the posts I was troubled that an articulate response was needed but did not feel up to the task. The next day I was unable to make it to my regular Shul in Chashmonaim, Israel and went to the Chabbad Minyan. There in a Chabad Shul in Chashmonaim was a “Hertz” Chumash next to where I was standing. Between Bereishit and Shemot, Chief Rabbi Hertz addresses Bible critics, particularly the mistaken allegations of multiple authors. In fact besides the arguments, Jewish and non-Jewish theologians have addressed the critics arguments, however most of these discussions appear in earlier times when such criticism was “in vogue” and can even be “googled”. Also some criticisms that were alleged based upon scientific reasoning and proof have subsequently been repudiated by archaeological finds. For example, critics had explained how it was beyond doubt that there were two Isaiahs (?) written at two different times by different authors. Their “proofs” convinced many students, however subsequently among the Dead Sea Scrolls was found a single scroll predating the dates the critics insisted were the date of authorship. Same thing with arguments about camels being used for travel in the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, with subsequent findings of supporting archaeological finds. Again I felt compelled to respond though I did not think a convincing detailed response could be made in this forum. However, I would be glad to discuss further if there are specific items. On a basic level, though perhaps not scientific, I still personally feel a straightforward reading of the Biblical prophecies and the unfolding of Jewish history particularly in the past 100 years (and my own life’s experiences) warrant a healthy skepticism of the critics rejection of the BIble and a justified belief in the Divine nature of the Torah.