Monday, November 04, 2013

Rejecting Ultra Orthodoxy Does Not Require Going OTD

Leah Vincent - Photo credit: Zeek
There is a fascinating and enlightening article by Leah Vincint that can only be described as a baring of the soul. Which is kind of ironic since Ms. Vincent is no longer observant and may not believe in the concept of a soul.

Her article is an attempt to explain the mindset of a former ultra Orthodox Jew who went OTD (‘Off the Derech’ – meaning no longer observant). This is the world where Ms. Vincent comes from. As did Deb Tambor - another former ultra Orthodox Jew who went OTD and later committed suicide after a bitter but losing custody battle for her children.

Ms. Vincent references the organization Footsteps which claims that as many as 80% of their clients who became OTD have either committed, attempted, or at least contemplated suicide. She includes herself among those and even though she is very accomplished and has a happy family life, her thoughts often go to that dark place.

The reason for this kind of mindset is because of something ingrained in them from childhood and reinforced throughout her education. That anyone who goes OTD will lead a miserable life because of the yearning of their inner soul to return to observance. So that even if they make a successful transition from being Ultra Orthodox to being secular there remains within them the ‘prophecy’ of their indoctrinated youth which tells them their lives will be miserable. That is reinforced by the rejection of them by their former community and even their own families. Here is how she puts it: 
We leave, and even when we reject Sabbath, ignore rabbis and forget prayers, this prophesy of inevitable devastation continues to haunt many of us. Rituals can be left behind in the old world, but as many of us move away from faith, we can see with our own eyes that this prophesy is often true. Empirically. The leavers of ultra-Orthodoxy are, in fact, frequently broken. Of course it is not the cheeseburgers and the Spinoza and the sex that break us. It is the religious community harpooning our tender bodies as we struggle out of the shell of our protective upbringing, leaving us pierced and deformed as we attempt to navigate forward. What a powerfully clairvoyant prophecy this is, painstakingly fulfilled by the very people who predict it. 
What troubles me about all this is that many of the desires of those who leave Ultra Orthodoxy can be fulfilled without going OTD. It is available in Modern Orthodoxy. A world that is rarely if ever chosen by those who feel stifled by their ultra Orthodox lifestyles.

The Ultra Orthodox world that Ms. Tambor came from is the world of Skvere Chasidm . But it isn’t only Skvere. There are many other Chasidic groups (e.g. Satmar) that have exactly the same attitude. And increasingly this is becoming  true in some of the non Chasidic Yeshiva world as is the case with Ms. Vincent.

Ultra Orthodox groups like these reject modernity in all its aspects. The only concession they make to the outside ‘modern’ culture is to the extent that it impacts their survival. In order to survive financially they have to somehow do business with the outside world. They otherwise do everything in their power to separate themselves from it.

In the case of Skvere or Satmar for example - they learn English as a second language, they dress radically different than modern society does. The men have long beards and Peyos. They forbid college. And the secular education in their elementary schools and high schools is at best very minimal. Their loyalties are to their Chasidic Rebbe who they see as their conduit to God. The Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva world seems to be going in a similar direction

This lifestyle seems to work for the vast majority of them. I am not going to get into the downside of this lifestyle. That is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that there is a downside which I have discussed in the past.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it doesn’t have to be this way. A lot of the things Ms. Vincent (and no doubt many other former ultras that have gone OTD) are very available to them in other Hashkafos. Much of the secular lifestyle that they have embraced can be had within the parameters of observant Judaism.

Most of the things Ms. Vincent has accomplished in the secular world could have been accomplished in the Modern Orthodox world. Graduate degrees from Harvard (which she has earned) are not Assur. Many religious Jews who have been observant all of their lives have graduate degrees from Harvard. Living a modern life is not a sin. One can be modern and Orthodox. 

Of course one cannot be completely secular in the sense of violating Shabbos and Kashrus. But I am convinced that many if not all former Ultras who have gone OTD may not have if they had chosen  to transition form being Ultras to being Modern Orthodox. But rarely is this the case. That’s because Modern Orthodoxy is closed to them. The culture in which they were raised is nearly as rejecting of Modern Orthodoxy as it is of secular non observant lifestyle.

But it is even more than that. Having been raised in a culture that rejects modernity to the extent they do and having been raised to be as different as possible from societal norms, they would not feel comfortable in a Modern Orthodox environment. They would feel completely out of their element. They feel much more comfortable in the world of OTD former Ultras.

The same, I suspect would true in reverse. The MO community would feel uncomfortable with them in it – seeing them as misfits. Not because of any real prejudice. But because of the stark lifestyle differences they live.

I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us to reach out to this group and show them that they can have it all… an observant lifestyle with many of the benefits of secular culture. This is after all the philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy. We embrace that part of secular culture which is not prohibited by the Torah. And in many cases, that enhances our observance.

This will not necessarily appeal to all former Ultra OTDs. There are some for example whose issues go beyond leaving their former stifling lifestyle and have issues of faith. For them Modern Orthodoxy may not be as helpful.

But I truly believe that if we can show the vast majority of them that they will not burn in hell if they become Modern Orthodox and enjoy much of what the secular world has to offer, the incidences of suicide will decrease as will the guilt they feel. It would be a win/win for everybody. How we do that is a good question. But that does not absolve us from trying.