Quick recap: My theory is that belief in God and Torah m’Sinai is not the primary factor in one’s choice to join, abandon, or remain in Orthodox Judaism. The primary factor is how one feels about Orthodox Judaism. There is an infinite number of reasons that one might develop positive or negative associations with Orthodox Judaism that include intellectual, emotional, experiential, and spiritual reasons. Therefore, I suggest that the way forward is to refocus our attention from the overemphasis on beliefs in God and Torah m’Sinai and shift our emphasis to cultivating positive Jewish experiences. We should be giving people the kinds of experiences that make them want to associate with Orthodox Judaism and these experiences should be cleverly crafted and implemented.
Admittedly, this was a bit of an awkward place to pause. The implementation of the theory was open to very broad interpretation and analogies presented in the case for the theory seem to have influenced the kind of suggestions people who agreed with the theory were making. So let me clarify two things that I was not saying before we get to brass tacks.
I was not saying that people who leave Orthodox Judaism leave because it’s easy or fun or based purely on emotion. In fact, I have said many times that it is actually really hard to leave and sometimes people stay simply because it’s too hard to leave. They are miserably stuck. Further, many people discover knowledge that contradicts their religious education and they accept this knowledge as truth. But that’s not usually enough to push a person out of Orthodox Judaism. What happens next is the key. When their newly discovered knowledge is met with scorn and derision by authority figures, or bad answers are given for good questions, or the person realizes that they have been lied to, or when the internal conflict between two accepted truths is too difficult to navigate, the feeling that ensues because of the new data is enough to push someone out of Orthodox Judaism. So when I say people leave because they don’t want to stay, I mean that there are many reasons why someone might not want to stay and very often that feeling is sparked by intellectual discovery. Of course there are people who act purely for intellectual reasons. They are the exceptions. I hope this clears things up a bit.
I was also not saying that Orthodox Judaism needs to be more fun. I was not saying that Orthodox Judaism is just a social club. I was not saying we need more cholent and every Jewish experience should be like NCSY. I was not saying we should simply do a better job marketing Judaism. I was not saying to avoid discussing belief in God and Torah m’Sinai. I was not saying experiences are the only thing that matters. I was saying that we need to emphasize the importance of a positive Orthodox Jewish experience and in this essay I will be explaining what that means to me. I don’t think this will make Orthodox Judaism work for everyone. But I think there are a significant number of Orthodox Jews who would benefit greatly from this approach and I think the risk in maintaining the status quo is great.
A basic paradigm shift needs to happen in Orthodox Judaism for any of this to make sense, but I think it’s an obvious truth that has been ignored for too long.
Even those who haven’t ignored it, don’t articulate it clearly. At present, we all tend to treat our version of Orthodox Judaism as an objectively good thing. The truth is that it’s not objective at all. We relate to Orthodox Judaism in a very subjective way. By definition, institutions like religion must be as objective as possible. But experiences are subjective and no institution works for everyone all the time. Generally, religions consider themselves objective. This is almost unavoidable. But that does not have to mean that the way we practice that religion should be objective. In fact, we already know this is true because there are so many different flavors of Orthodox Judaism. We might do well to have more flavors, but the presence of multiple paths to an accepted truth is enough to demonstrate this point.
Simply acknowledging this reality will make for more positive Jewish experiences. Not everyone enjoys the same flavor of Judaism. Personally, I don’t like cholent and Carlebach kumzitz Judaism. That might be fun for some people but it doesn’t work for me. Some Orthodox Jews think it’s great fun to run around in circles and call it dancing. That’s not for everyone. My point here is that because religious experiences are subjective, we need to acknowledge that not everything that we do will resonate with everyone. Even the “fun” stuff. We need to allow for new outlets and modes of religious expression. We can’t just label everything that wasn’t done in the shtetl as “goyish” and prohibit it. Acknowledging that experiences are subjective will force us to go back to the drawing board and craft experiences that work for Americans. “Kosher” Jewish music has barely evolved in the last 30 years. Not everyone likes that kind of music. Not everyone likes “banging on the table at the Shabbos meal” music. We should be making American sounding music that is inspirational and reflective of our values. Tastes are subjective and in areas of taste and preference we need to be open to new ideas to give more people positive Jewish experiences.
Similarly, there are social pressures to conform to a certain kind of Shabbat meal. Not everyone wants that food every week. Make the food you want to eat. The idea is that if you enjoy your Shabbat meal, you’re going to have a better religious experience. If you resent your Shabbat meal, it’s a bad religious experience. Do the things within the letter of the law that make the experience more enjoyable. This is why I am in favor (within reason) of kiddush clubs. To paraphrase the Talmud, make the shul experience more enjoyable with permissible activities.
Some men are uncomfortable wearing dress shoes, black dress slacks, white shirts, and a black fedora all the time. Some women want to dress modestly, but with more variation and colors in their wardrobe. If you are miserable wearing the Orthodox uniform, I suggest a new wardrobe. You actually are allowed to dress differently. It’s permissible. I promise. So don’t force yourself to conform and be miserable. Do things the way you like to do them and take pride in your own style.
Different Orthodox communities emphasize different ways of observing Judaism. In some communities, there is an emphasis on spirit and soul. Others emphasize Torah study and intellectualism. Yet others focus on chavivut hamitzvot. The mussar movement, chasidut, Carlebach Judaism, Maimonidean Judaism, Yekke style Judaism, and many more are all valid expressions of Orthodox Judaism. Some prefer to focus on emunah and bitachon, others are inspired by halacha, while others love prayer, yet others love mysticism. But rarely do people born into one group experience the style of the other groups. We have to allow for cross pollination and we can’t try to force others (or even ourselves) into a predetermined version of Orthodox Judaism. We have to find a place for individuals on a subjective basis.
For many people, the negative associations with Orthodox Judaism are based on the educational experience. Clearly, our schools need to be good environments. Our children spend 8-14 hours a day in school. If they are miserable for that much time every day why would they stay in Orthodox Judaism? Recognizing the religious experiences are subjective means that schools are not going to work for everyone. Schools have to be more flexible about allowing families to choose schools for individual children and not by family. Opportunities for religious expression need to be as varied as possible. Students should be given choices. Most of all, when a student isn’t happy or isn’t thriving, we can’t just invalidate that experience and assign blame to the student or the parents or the school. Not everything works for everyone. Struggling students can’t be told they are the problem. Their struggles need to be acknowledged. Every school should have the same goal. Students should be happy and love their schools. Everything else is commentary. When children and teens are happy in the place they spend so much time, they are having a positive Jewish experience. I know it’s possible to create an environment of happy students who love school because I’ve seen it first hand at Ateres Bais Yaakov, my father’s school in Monsey for girls K-12. I’ve heard from more than a few parents of Ateres students that their children are legitimately sad when there is no school. That tells me that school is a positive Jewish experience for their children. But it has to be crafted. It doesn’t happen without a philosophy and plan for execution.
These examples and suggestions are the sort of small social changes that I am suggesting. There are others, but I think you can get the basic idea from the examples I’ve enumerated. Taking into account the importance of experiences, we should focus our attention to this subjectively and provide as many good experiences as we possible can. But there is one very specific suggestion that I want to discuss. It is much more ambitious and much more fundamental to our religious experience.
Orthodox Judaism is a highly legalistic religion. Good acts are deemed to be virtuous based on how well one adheres to the law. Going beyond the letter of the law is good because it helps avoid violations of the law. It makes no difference if one feels the spirit of the law or ritual in Orthodox Judaism. If you get it, great. If not, too bad. Halacha rules. Non-Orthodox Judaism attempts, to varying degrees, downplays the importance of the law and emphasizes the spirit of the law. In this model, the emphasis is on how the religion makes one feel and the law is, at most, a suggestion book. There is little attempt to live by the law where it has no spiritual affect on the person.
My ambitious proposal is that Orthodox Judaism should consider the spirit of the law. But I don’t mean to implement the spirit of the law as it is written in our religious tomes going back 2000 years. The spirit of the law is the area of Orthodox Judaism that is most subjective. Taamei HaMitzvot is the most subjective genre with the most creative freedom within the religious teachings of Orthodox Judaism. For example, the Sefer Hachinuch (13th century) explains the lesson of Shemittah as it related to his milieu. He says that it is just like the Sabbath, as it reminds us not to listen to the heretics who say the world is infinite, rather the religious cycles of seven days and seven years, reinforce our fundamental belief that the world had a starting point with Creation. Six hundred years later, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) had a different approach. In his view, Shemittah served to remind mankind that social classes based on wealth are false. Everyone is equal during Shemittah. No one is rich and no one is poor. We are all the same. Shemittah is about equality. Clearly, these interpretations would not make sense in the reverse time or place. The heretics of 19th century Germany didn’t emphasize that the world was infinite and the 13 century was pretty much the opposite of the Socialism suggested by R’ Hirsch.
Our current approach to Taamei HaMitzvot, and many others, relies on the assumption that Orthodox Judaism is frozen. In many ways it must be frozen. But not in this area. If we want our Mitzvah observance to have meaning that is relevant to us today, we need to create a version of Taamei HaMitzvot that works for our time and place. Start from scratch. Some of the older ideas still work very well today. But we can still work on new interpretations that speak to us in our native social language.
Recently, there’s been a movement toward a “Digital Sabbath” where people refrain from engaging in digital communication for 24 hours. Some people tried to connect this effort to our Shabbat. Others found this offensive because our Shabbat can’t be about a break from digital devices if we’ve been doing it for 3500 years! But I think there is an honest way to incorporate this lesson into our Shabbat experience. We don’t do Shabbat because it’s our Digital Sabbath, but it is a nice side benefit and it might make Shabbat more meaningful for us. It should definitely be part of the experience. It’s a lesson that speaks to us today. We need more of that kind of thinking.
We also need to refine our messaging for an audience of 4th and 5th generation Americans. It’s Elul. To most of my peers, Elul was when we observed European rabbis or their proteges writhing in pain with fear etched on their face in anticipation of Judgment Day. I don’t think it resonated with anyone. But fortunately, growing up in my childhood home, the emphasis was on ani ldodi vdodi li – “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me” and dirshu Hashem b’himatzo – “seek out God when God’s presence is most profoundly felt.” Quite a different message. It’s different in two important ways. One is that the message I received emphasizes love over fear. But even more crucially, the message might connect with an American teenager. Writhing on the floor in pain because of a feeling that few teens actually experience falls flat. The message of love and presence resonated with me and I suspect it’s more likely to resonate with other American Orthodox Jews.
We built American Orthodox Judaism on the principles of the mythical shtetl. It worked well for some and was disastrous for others. But the shtetl is fading from our rearview mirror. Our connection to that time is tenuous and anachronistic. Now it’s time to start building our own Orthodox Judaism that resonates with modern Americans. It begins with Taamei HaMitzvos that speak to us today and messaging that works for our sensibilities.
This is what I mean by cultivating positive Jewish experiences. Our rituals and messages need to have meaning and that meaning can’t just be the stuff that worked in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, or the shtetl. It’s not surprising that those social environments produced specific ideas and emotions that don’t resonate today. We need to try and compose new poetic teachings and modern day flavor to our Mitzvot that make our observance more meaningful today.
This is the way forward. It is our duty to craft this new version of Orthodox Judaism. We can’t just rely on our past accomplishments and scholarship to carry us forever. It’s imperative that we cultivate positive Orthodox Jewish experiences and I think the methodology outlined in this essay provides the framework for the social and intellectual adjustments. Now we just need to do it.
Next essay will discuss dealing with bad experiences.
Cultivating Positive Orthodox Jewish Experiences http://t.co/RhkSMMRQLH
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) September 11, 2014