My theory is that most people who leave Orthodox Judaism, leave because they don’t like Orthodox Judaism. They have negative associations with religion and would feel better outside Orthodox Judaism. There are infinite reasons why someone would develop those negative associations, but generally, if someone likes Orthodox Judaism they will stay and if they don’t like it they will leave. Thus, I propose that beliefs are not the determining factor in observance.
I think that if we believe that this is even somewhat true, we have a viable solution at our fingertips.
In the 1990’s, a phenomenon of at-risk teens shook the core of the Orthodox Jewish community. Teens were leaving Orthodox Judaism and we had no idea what to do about it. Articles were written, conferences were convened, many yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs reevaluated their programs, and we made addressing this issue a priority.
At the precise moment that this was happening in the Orthodox communities, the exact opposite phenomenon was occurring outside the Orthodox community. Teens and young adults from non-Orthodox backgrounds were becoming observant in a great wave of young Baalei Teshuva. It seemed obvious that it would be worthwhile to examine the kiruv programs that brought people from the non-Orthodox world into our community.
Many people concluded that the Orthodox community should adopt an “emunah and bitachon” hashkafa curriculum to inculcate our youth with the fundamentals of faith. This included Discovery-like seminars that teach purported proofs for Judaism and Torah m’Sinai. Yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs hosted these programs in their schools. The schools that did not bring these seminars to their institutions, still were more aware that belief should be taught. I think it worked pretty well overall. The at-risk epidemic slowed and we are no longer in crisis mode.
Although fewer youth are defecting, a new crisis has emerged. Adults are either leaving or are unhappy or unfulfilled practicing Orthodox Judaism. That’s where we left off in the previous essay.
I think we adopted the wrong part of the kiruv model. It was a good idea, we just applied it incorrectly. Just as Orthodox Jews do not leave based on their beliefs, people don’t join Orthodox Judaism because of their beliefs. They do need to be able to reconcile their beliefs with Orthodox Judaism, but the thing that hooks them is not our unimpeachable system of beliefs. People join Orthodox Judaism because they like it more than their status quo. They like Shabbat. They like the family structure. They like the discipline. They like the kindness. They like the traditions. People become Orthodox because they like being Orthodox.
It’s not just the baal teshuva movement that demonstrates the superiority of experiences over beliefs. The fastest growing religion in America is Mormonism. The religion with the least attractive beliefs is also Mormonism. There are some extremely odd beliefs and quite a few very offensive beliefs in the Mormon faith. No one seems to care. People are joining by the truckload. The reason they are converting to become Mormons is not because of their beautiful beliefs. It’s quite simply because the Mormon experience is positive. People are middle class, they have designated family nights, there is a structure, people are kind, the community is nice, and they have a great looking package. That’s why people convert. This is despite the beliefs, not because of the beliefs.
So what we should have borrowed from the kiruv programs, and the Mormons, is the emphasis on positive Jewish experiences. People with positive Jewish experiences will want to be Orthodox. Kiruv organizations craft incredible Jewish experiences. Trips, Shabbatons, Shabbat meals, learning with charismatic teachers, and tons of personal attention and love are the ingredients for kiruv. They also are the clues we need to craft a solution for our struggles.
Advertising a product is not simply an opportunity to tell the public about your product. Most advertisements want to create a positive association between the consumer and the product. That’s why you’ll see good looking people in ads. The good looking people are there to make your brain excited about the advertisement. Your brain connects the excitement about the ad to the product. Now you think nice things about the product. A product might be perfect and still use this kind of advertising. It’s not an indictment of the product in any way to advertise in this manner. It’s just smart.
Kiruv is advertising. Time and effort is expended on crafting positive experiences so that the product feels good. That’s not to say the experiences are not genuine. They are genuine, but they are specifically designed to be positive experiences The intellectual parts of the kiruv program appeal to the intellect but the real magic is that they also appeal to the senses. It feels good to have the attention of a great teacher. It feels good to talk about important things. It feels good to have your questions validated. So even the studying part of the kiruv program is a positive experience.
This is what Orthodox Judaism must adopt. Everyone needs to have their light bulb turned on. It’s different things for different people. But at some point, Judaism needs to turn on the light bulb in our hearts and minds. Positive Jewish experiences are the thing that flicks the switch. We must figure out how to craft positive Jewish experiences for ourselves, for our children, for our communities, and for our institutions. At the same time, we need to eliminate the negative experiences as best we can.
It sounds so simple. It also seems impossible. It’s neither. The challenge is to create positive experiences without making it a sideshow. We have to make our actual Jewish experiences into positive experiences. That doesn’t mean we just give out candy whenever people are not enjoying themselves to distract them. I think the way to do this is by shifting our communal focus from knowledge and beliefs to rituals and experiences. Our creative educational energy should be concentrated on experiences. The Torah is a book of experiences. It tells the story of our experiences that brought us to the Promised Land and it instructs us in a cadre of religious experiences. Make those experiences meaningful. Don’t just rely on tradition or inertia to make those experiences meaningful. It doesn’t happen on its own for everyone. But it can happen for anyone under the right conditions.
Our children spend their entire days in school. We take pride in the academic rigor of our schools. Even the schools that don’t study secular studies or only provide a rudimentary secular education take pride in their more rigorous religious instruction. Everyone cares about academics. After all, we assume that schools are educational institutions. So we put a lot of effort into providing our children with the best education possible. My father is fond of saying that schools are primary social institutions. He’s right. You can have the best instruction in the world. If the students are miserable all day and all night because they dislike school, we are are not providing them with positive Jewish associations and experiences. All they are getting is negative experiences. People who have negative experiences can’t be expected to want the thing associated with that negative experiences. They are not going to want to pass on that negativity to their children.
We should be placing at least as much emphasis on the school social experience as we place on the educational experience. It’s more important than book knowledge and harder to make up for after the fact. Students need to feel safe, loved, appreciated, and respected. They need to have friends and they need to enjoy their time in their primary religious institution.
It’s time to craft better school experiences for our children. Institutions are by definition clumsy. They don’t conform to the needs of every student. But we can try. We can make our schools as subjective as possible. We don’t need to churn out scholars as much as we need to cultivate pride, happiness, and joy in the religious experience.
Adults experience so much of their religious lives in synagogue. Some shuls take pride on inclusivity and fraternity in their communities. But many shuls do not care for such non-religious concerns. Shuls are also social institutions. People need to have good experiences at shul. Rabbis and lay people should be crafting shul environments that give people a reason to come back and a reason to bring their children. We can’t just rely on commitment to halacha. That doesn’t necessarily make for a good experience, especially if no one cares to create a positive experience.
Much of the remaining part of our religious lives takes place in our homes. Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, lighting Chanukah candles, the Seder, Purim, and all the rest of our life cycle rituals are not merely opportunities to observe Halacha. These are also Jewish experiences and we should be crafting positive Jewish experiences every chance we get.
This is the way Torah living is supposed to be. “Its paths are pathways of pleasantness.” It is supposed to be enjoyable. Every ritual, tradition, and Mitzvah can have meaning and value to us. We should be working on sharpening the tools that find new and relevant meaning in our ancient religious practices. Interpretations of our Mitzvot have evolved. The Sefer HaChinuch has a different approach than Rav Hirsch. They lived (probably) around 700 years apart. We can find our own taamei hamitzvot that speak to us. In fact, I think we should be doing that very thing. Religion should bring us joy. It can bring us joy if we do it right.
Many synagogues decorate their prayer halls with flowers in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. The idea behind this custom is that Mount Sinai was adorned with flowers when the Torah was given to the Jewish people so we want to reenact that moment during our celebration of the revelation at Sinai. But flowers weren’t the only thing on Mount Sinai during the revelation. There was fire and thunderous noises as well. But we don’t light bonfires and we don’t make raucous noises to reenact that moment. Torah is meant to be beautiful, like flowers. It’s not meant to be scary or threatening, like fire or thunderous noises. That doesn’t mean it’s going to seem beautiful and pleasant to everyone. But we should work hard to make it feel that way.
The Talmud in Sukkah states that when Rabbi Jonathan the son of Uziel would study Torah his learning was so intense that if a bird would fly above him, the bird would burst into flames. Tosafot provide one message of this teaching. When one learns Torah with the joy that is like the joy we experienced when the Torah was given, the fire of Sinai burns. In other words, Torah was given with simcha – joy, and that is the way it should be lived. When it is lived that way, amazing things happen.
This is how we ensure the future of Orthodox Judaism. Theology is part of Judaism. But it’s not the thing that makes or breaks Judaism. The most important thing is the experience. If we cultivate positive Jewish experiences and actively remove negative experiences, we are making the choice to stay in Orthodox Judaism much easier. Just because we believe that we are obligated to observe Jewish law, does not mean that we should not want to observe Jewish law.
The next essay in this series will discuss some practical examples and suggestions for crafting positive Jewish experiences on an individual, familial, and institutional basis.
UPDATE: Read Cultivating Positive Jewish Experiences.
A Solution: Keeping the Orthodox, Orthodox http://t.co/Jx0ABmgIAr
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) September 8, 2014