Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Accurate Does a Survey Need to Be?

Rabbi Dov Fischer
This is one of those situations where I both agree and disagree. Rabbi Dov Fischer has written a thoughtful analysis on Cross Currents of a recent survey that calls into question some of that surveys conclusions.

This is a survey that I recently addressed. It showed that many formerly Orthodox Jews that have gone OTD have done so for a variety of reasons. What seemed to stand out was the finding that about half of them did so for intellectual reasons.

Rabbi Fischer demonstrates how flawed many surveys are. Which will then yield false results upon which false conclusions will be made.  I agree that this can and probably does happen. His examples do in fact make this point well. But at the same time many surveys are accurate enough from which legitimate conclusions can be drawn. Whether this was the case here or not - is hard to know. But Rabbi Fischer seems to insist that this survey was flawed. And he explains why by illustration (edited for brevity):
A Modern Orthodox guy from a Modern Orthodox family goes to a wonderful liberal college… He still is frum as he begins his freshman year. One Saturday night he attends a party on campus. He meets a great female. She is gorgeous. She drinks alcohol freely. He never before has seen a woman who drinks alcohol so freely. Her teeth are perfect and pearly white.
He can tell, certainly by their fourth beer, that she is into him. He is overwhelmed and overcome. He never before has met anyone like her. She is everything he ever could have hoped to ask for — and never even dreamed of. So he gets involved with her, or with her friends, or with all of them, or -  opportunities for such socializing and even “hooking up” on campus are beyond endless — and he soon accepts that his deepening relationship with her and with others like her requires him to become non-religious.
Either that girl changes his life, or she and others like her combine to change his life. I saw this happen frequently when I was an undergrad at Columbia University between 1971-1975. I still remember the names of the guys from yeshiva high school — there were 13 of us who wore kippot as Columbia freshmen in September 1971 — and only two of us still were wearing kippot by our senior years.
Imagine if this fellow were interviewed. Having given up frumkeit, the fellow is asked by an interviewer: “Why did you stop wearing a yarmulka at Columbia? Why did you become non-Orthodox?” 
He has a choice. He can respond: “Because I met this gorgeous co-ed/gal/chick/lady/person of the female persuasion.” [The noun is generational-dependent.] OMG! She drinks alcohol so freely. She does weed. She can ski… And she is into me. She is everything I ever could have hoped to ask for. I think about her all day, and I think about her all night. I cannot get her out of my head. (And) there is no way she will observe Shabbat and limit herself to kosher restaurants and two sets of dishes and monthly mikveh when we marry — and she sure does not now.” 
He could offer that honest answer to his questioner.  
But he is not going to say that — not to the interviewer, and not to the mirror that he sees each morning. He knows that sounds so superficial. It is so self-demeaning. He is a brilliant Ivy League undergrad, and he is giving up everything in the world — his life, his tradition, his heritage, his eternal soul — for that? …For perfect white teeth and skis?”
So instead he teaches himself to find a deep, philosophical, intellectual basis: “Well, Orthodoxy does not accord equality to women. And it is insensitive towards Gays. And the readings in my Contemporary Civilization course and the values I am being spoon-fed by my humanities professors do not accord with what I was spoon-fed by my parents and rabbis before I came to college. So let us be clear: None of that reasoning he tells the interviewer is true to the reason he left. Rather, he left for a gorgeous girl.
OK. I can see this scenario easily happening. The pull from this kind of environment is very strong. In my view, however, it also demonstrates a flawed or weak commitment to Judaism. One that is quite shallow. As I have said many times - in my view many young Jews are raised in what I call MO-Lite homes, and were never raised with such a strong commitment to begin with.

Just to be clear, I m not speaking about those of us in Modern Orthodoxy that are sincere in our commitment. Both the right and the left. But my strong feelings (admittedly based entirely on anecdotal evidence) are that many MO Jews are more M than O and raise their children that way. They do want their children to remain observant, but they do not provide enough of a religious foundation in the home to assure that college influences will not take their natural course.

However Rabbi Fischer’s evidence is also anecdotal. That he saw it happen to his friends in Columbia back in the seventies does not mean there are not those who leave for actual intellectual reasons… as the survey indicated.

I have no way of knowing whether the survey was designed to factor in the kind of contingencies Rabbi Fischer described.  But I do know that in the age of instant information on any subject - anyone can go online and be disabused of all their religious beliefs very quickly. If unprepared they can be overwhelmed by arguments there much of which are very convincing. Especially if one already has difficulty with the religious dogma they have been taught - and there is no one religious to turn to. Unfortunately (as I have said many times) our educational system is woefully deficient in that department.  Our educators need to be educated.

The bottom line for me is not so much if the survey’s numbers are 100% accurate. I believe they probably are somewhat misleading along Rabbi Fischer’s comments. But I certainly would not discount the intellectual component. Even if it is less significant than the survey indicated. I truly believe it is significant enough to deal with in ways heretofore not done. We ought to not discourage questioners by calling their questions heretical (a typical response of many Mechanchim in the past). We ought to instead allow young people to ask those questions and enable our teachers to answer them. Because if they don’t do it, the internet will.