Thursday, July 07, 2016

Why OTD - Rabbi Fischer Responds

by Rabbi Dov Fischer - Guest Contributor

Rabbi Dov Fischer
A few days ago Cross Currents featured an article by Rabbi Dov Fischer that was critical of survey about the reasons for the OTD phenomenon. I discussed his views here. That was followed by a response from survey author, Mark Trencher who defended it against Rabbi Fischer’s criticism. Rabbi Dov Fischer has submitted his response to that. It follows in its entirety.

I find the discussion here absolutely fascinating. Anyone interested in reading my actual thoughts is welcome to view the original piece on Cross-Currents along with my several responses to many who commented there. Here I am fascinated by the need for some to construct straw-person arguments and then to clobber down those straw-person arguments piñata-style.

As I note in many responsive iterations on the Cross-Currents site, the survey fails by presenting self-reporting as though it were scientifically validated or otherwise validated factual data. For example, to offer an unrelated subject, when you meet an Israeli family who have moved their household to America and you ask them why they abandoned for America, they may explain they abandoned because of Israel's religious climate, political tensions, cultural factors, and the like. And maybe those actually are the real reasons. Maybe.

Then you see that the family has arrived with a 17-year-old son and a 16-year-old son, and you begin to realize that the family may have come to America for a less high-falutin' reason. Not surprisingly, though, the family has internalized that the reason they came to America is the nobler and sophisticated reason they have learned to self-report.

When you ask someone why she or he has left the practice of law, she or he may respond that the law firm was disreputable, the legal system was dishonorable, that the clients were despicable, that she or he wanted instead to devote a life to contemplation or to charitable deeds. And that may indeed be the reason the person left. Absolutely maybe.

Or it may be that the person left because she or he could not bear the 2,200-billable-hours requirement or proved to be a poor writer or could not argue cogently in court or was facing state bar discipline or simply had been told by the firm that she or he never would make partner and would be well advised to leave.

People self-report reasons for why they do things. Sometimes those reasons are accurate and sometimes self-serving. That seems pretty self-evident. In my experience as a rav of 35 years, overlapped during 15 of those years as a litigation attorney at some major law firms, I have offered many wonderful people my share of pastoral care and legal protection. In the course of my work, not to mention depositions, I have learned that when people state their reasons for doing or saying or believing things, sometimes they self-report accurately, and sometimes not. This just seems pretty self-evident.

Mark Trencher
In terms of why some people may have abandoned Torah observance, there can be many reasons. Perhaps contempt for those in the Orthodox world who are hypocritical; I certainly have met my share of such people, and I sadly am certain that some have driven good souls away from frumkeit.

Or perhaps driven out of Orthodoxy by vicious abusers -- sex abusers, mental abusers; again, very tragically, I have met my share of those, too, as well as their victims. Indeed, I know first-hand and have counseled several victims of abuse in the Orthodox community, and I very unfortunately know those among them who have left frumkeit because of the abuse.  

Or perhaps because of an exposure to certain ideas that led to a re-thinking of belief. I have met such people, too.

Nevertheless, it is my experience of 35 years that, beneath the initially proffered reasons for abandoning, many individuals' cases ultimately prove to be those where people abandoned simply because of intense social pressures and the Groupthink impact of being in certain high-intensity social settings that demand conformity to the values of the New Age, the Spirit of our Times. The zeitgesit.

As an example -- but only as an example, because this particular finite example does not include those outside the campus world -- the environment of the American secular campus sees an extraordinary tendency towards social-pressure-induced Groupthink as a variation on Political Correctness (the latter a separate and distinct, but socially similar phenomenon. Where behavior-speech-belief are dictated by accepted norms).

Thus, during the Democrat primaries, the Millennial generation on campuses has been solidly locked in for Bernie Sanders, while the Quadragenarian Democrats have been rather locked in for Hillary. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on the social isolation and loneliness of Hillary supporters at today's Columbia University amid a sea of Sanders backers. Yet those who attended the same Columbia only fifteen years earlier lock in for Hillary. How explain the generational dissonance?

If one asks a Millennial, "Why do you support Bernie?" the response will be along the lines of "Bernie will work for equality. He will break the banks. He will battle Wall Street. He will fight for social justice. He will end the monopoly of the One Percent." Yet, it is striking that Democrat-aligned Quadragenarians who also care passionately about those same values tend to line up instead for Hillary. (Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are.) Thus, one wonders: How is it that people self-report the reasons that they are acting, yet fall into lockstep with their surroundings?

Sociology teaches that Groupthink is a powerful tool. Yet, people never self-report that "I support Bernie Sanders because I want to be liked by my peers and be invited to parties. I support Bernie because all my social-sciences professors do. I support Bernie because everyone else in my dorm does. I support Bernie because my Significant Other and his/her peers do." Rather, they offer more noble explanations like those listed above -- which also are reasons that Democrats of a different decade prefer Hillary.

A second factor that profoundly influences behavior, speech, beliefs and values is the impact of the Significant Other. The Significant Other may be a boyfriend, a lady friend, a spouse — and their peers. In so many cases, when a Significant Other believes deeply in something, the other half of the partner-couple will follow. Not always. But quite often. Then, when you ask that other person, whether presently or years later, "What made you change?" that person often will self-report noble reasons: "I came to this conclusion. I resented this factor. I re-thought this equation or axiom." However, when a disinterested third party explores deeply enough, one concludes that, in fact, the change in course for many people stems not from such noble-sounding self-reported reasons but from the impact of the Significant Other.

The impact of the Significant Other evidences not only in terms of those who abandon Torah but even the other way -- when people come to Torah or even to Judaism from a non-Jewish starting point. Often, one meets a non-observant Jewish person (most often male) who has civilly married a non-Jewish person (most often female) and whose non-Jewish spouse now wants to convert to Judaism according to halakha. As part of her halakhic conversion, her male spouse necessarily must accompany her on the journey and join her in observing Torah law.

A year or two -- or five or ten -- later, when one speaks to that formerly non-observant Jewish man who now dons tefillin every morning, attends minyan, keeps Shabbat, and never eats in non-kosher restaurant "Why the change?" it is rare that the man says "Because my wife made me do it. You see, she decided that she wanted to be Orthodox-converted, and the rav said that I would have to do it also -- "or else" -- and she made me do it because, if I said no, she said the relationship would end." Rather, he says: "I reevaluated my life.  I contemplated the vacuous society around me.  I came to the conclusion that . . ."

So it goes both ways. Sometimes a Significant Other brings someone closer to Torah and sometimes a Significant Other plays a role in a person's journey away from Torah.

Therefore, a survey that actually gets to the actual, real, supportable, validated facts as to why individuals actually have abandoned would be powerful and would be fabulous for people in our community -- and especially for rabbonim like me, who do lots of campus and non-campus kiruv, who work with people in their twenties and thirties, with others in mid-life, and even with those more senior who are exploring religion in their lives. It would be fantastic to get validated hard data as to why people who have abandoned in fact have abandoned.

However, a study that relies on respondents' self-reporting does not offer that value. Where it gives binary options based solely on "push-pull" factors, without exploring wider ranges of factors that run the fuller gamut including personal emotional, social, external-pressure, and related "non-intellectual" reasons -- and where those data all stem purely from self-reporting -- then a reader of the survey would be well situated to recognize that the data are anecdotally interesting but not factually validated.

That's all. That's the whole big "radical" notion being proffered here. I am absolutely fascinated by the defensive reactions, the personalized vituperation, and the projections by others onto me -- projecting what others think are my motives, my thoughts, my goals in writing. So much of what has been written in the comments about me and about who I probably am and what my motives probably are just underscores the underlying observation with which I began: 

That this is a very touchy and emotional subject, and thus a survey that relies solely on self-reporting offers a good insight into what self-reporting people will tell an interviewer as to why she or he abandoned. Some of those responses will be spot-on accurate. And many other responses will be self-serving and not accurate, even though the responding person may sincerely have come to believe, a year or two or five or ten years after having abandoned, that that is the reason she or he abandoned a year or two or five or ten years earlier.

We await a survey that gets to the nub, beyond the self-reporting, because that survey will have great value.