Guest Post by Rabbi Motty Finkel
Rabbi Mordechai (Motty) Finkel has guest posted here before. He is involved in an area where few people dare to go: those of our people who have fallen through the cracks for one reason or another and have gone seriously Off the Derech (OTD). His experiences in the field are unique. How many of us go out and look for OTD dropouts in back alleys among the dark shadows of the night? Rabbi Motty Finkel does. He knows them. He befriends them. And they respect him.
Rabbi Finkel is someone we should listen to. He is down there in the trenches. He knows where-of he speaks. He speaks the truth. His advice – it seems to me - is rock solid. I am convinced that it is shared by the majority of professionals in the field as well.
The following article was spurred by my own post about an article on the subject last Friday. What follows are his words:
The Marrano article was a brilliantly written piece. It gave an accurate portrayal of what is going on inside the mind and actions of a Jewish skeptic. To paraphrase Rabbi Dovid Landesman, “They didn’t go off the derech, they were never taught the derech to begin with”. to begin with”. These adults growth in their belief in Hashem is stunted from an early age.
Dallas, Texas on a typical Sunday during fall and winter is a ghost town. No one is on the roads or in stores. The reason is both Cowboys football, and Pat Robertson lectures. The evangelical community is quite large and the fire and brimstone is entertaining, but fails to inspire them to change anything about themselves. The reason being, that they have been told so many times that every sin they’ve committed has doomed them to eternal damnation, that they shrug their shoulders and think, “Hey, if I’m going there anyways, might as well enjoy life to its fullest!” By breeding hopelessness, people believe that there is truly no point to try.
Many frum skeptics grew up listening to Mussar shmuessen in yeshivos that primarily focused on the fear of Hashem and his punishments. How many times have I heard from teenagers and adults, “If (fill in the blank) is the greatest aveirah and I am going to Gehennom anyways, why not do other things too?” By and large, the root cause of questions and resentment of Jewish skeptics comes from a skewed view of who Hashem is and what He represents. Instead of receiving proper guidance of Jewish hashkafah, it is almost as though they sat through an evangelical lecture. The damage done to their souls can truly last a lifetime.
My heart goes out to all the unfortunate victims of abuse. For a religious child to experience abuse at the hands of a clergy member or parent it is particularly devastating. It is not only that a horrific crime was inflicted on their body; it was also inflicted on their soul. When the person who is supposed to represent Hashem’s teachings abuses the child, in their mind it is as if Hashem himself has rejected them. The trauma, pain, and suffering are indescribable. It goes without saying that the greater the level of abuse, the greater the damage.
How do we as Jewish community leaders, parents, and constituents go about fixing the increasing population of Jewish skeptics?
Ad campaign: The way to sell Judaism and the relationship with Hashem is by focusing on Ahavas Hashem and the close relationship he shares with us. Too much of the educational focus when I was growing up was about what Hashem is going to you if you sin. This makes the entire relationship with Hashem a punitive one. The average person tries to keep away from punitive relationships. It is imperative that parents and teachers, teach children from an early age that Hashem LOVES them unconditionally. Obviously, the greater the effort the greater the reward, and the the stronger the relationship you develop. The stronger the relationship, the more protekzia (insider connection – or clout)) you have going for you.
Understand the questions: The gemarah in Makos had a story of a rebbe teaching a class where one student asked a question. The rebbe’s response was, “From the wrinkles of your eye, I can tell that you are an orphan”. This teaches that a person must see the deeper meanings of a question. There is a famous Yiddish expression I use when discussing the importance of empathy to the plight of the at-risk child. “Is Nit Gut Nor Tzu Herren, Medarf Derheren”, it’s not enough to Hear, you must Understand. People in pain say words, but it’s up to others to understand the meanings and feelings behind those words. As much as it hurts to see or hear the person’s actions or words, understand it is not against you. Try and make their life more bearable. Assuming there was a relationship prior to the onset of the at-risk behaviors, that relationship will be strengthened when the aggrieved person sees that the listener is on his/her side.
Honest answers about Judaism: To quote Sy Syms, “An educated consumer is our best customer”. The only way for a parent/teacher to be capable of answering a hashkafah question (especially in an angry tone) without losing their equilibrium, is through education. For example, I had the great fortune of both learning and informally presenting the Aish Hatorah Discovery program. This program had a profound impact on my life. The program won’t answer all questions, but will plant reasonable seeds of belief that Hashem and Torah are in fact true. Chadorim, Day Schools and Yeshivahs are urged to make a ‘Crash Course’ in this aspect of Judaism mandatory for all students, parents, and rebbeim.
Priorities, priorities, priorities: I remember clearly a debate between a Rosh Yeshiva and a kiruv director of an out of town kollel, whether it’s more important to be Mechazeik Hama’aminim or be Mekarev Rechokim. Each side had their perspectives and points of view. At the time, I agreed that Kiruv Rechokim was the priority. After all, the Iron Curtain just fell at the time and it was a time for action. However, now with a broader view of the Jewish community needs, I agree with the Rosh Yeshiva. His rationale was, “If the frum world is not observant themselves, how can they inspire and be mekarev others?” It is time for strengthening the alienated frum Jewish child, before going on to bring an unafiliated Jew into the fold.
If you search, you’ll find: If one is truly a skeptic, please do the requisite research. The answers are truly not that far away. There are brilliant Jewish professionals who have done the research on almost every question you might have. Their writings, lectures, and research are widely accepted by knowledgeable Kiruv professionals, even though these lecturers won’t be invited to speak at a right-wing yeshiva.
The current situation in the Orthodox Jewish community calls for an end to demoralizing names and insinuations against fellow Jews. Asking a challenging question doesn’t make a person a kofer, an apikores, or subjected to cherem. Such talk reinforces the feelings of hopelessness and bitter feelings towards Judaism.
In my own personal life, I can say unequivocally that as a teen when I asked questions to the one rebbi I felt comfortable asking to, had he ignored, mocked, or belittled me, I would have gone OTD. He wisely gave of his time every Shabbos afternoon to shmooze in hashkafah issues for two hours. The Orthodox community needs more rabbis who are wise enough to hear and talk patiently with people who have questions. People ask questions out of pain, confusion, or for intellectual pursuits. A rabbi should never say, "You aren't asking a question, you want an answer to justify going off the derech"
May the New Year, 5771, bring an end to hatred, bans, name-calling, and evangelical speeches. It should usher in a new era of understanding of Hashem and the Torah, and an understanding of what other people go through.
Shana Tovah! Kessivah Vechassima Tovah!