Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Do They Leave?

Shulem Deen - before and after - (The Atlantic - 2012)
I have no idea what the statistics are… or whether they are even available. But since there are so many stories of Jews that were once observant becoming non observant, it made me wonder about which demographic is at greater risk for that? Is Hashakfa a factor? Or is leaving observance unrelated to that?

There are those who say that the largest Orthodox demographic to experience this type of loss is Modern Orthodoxy. I can see why that assumption is made. The logic is that the more one is involved with the general non Jewish culture the more likely one is to be influenced by its forbidden enticements. And a college education where one can take courses that are full of heresy can easily sway you away from belief.

So that when a young person from a Modern Orthodox family leaves home to go to college and lives on campus… it’s often all over but the shouting.  Especially in cases where the observance level in a particular home is minimal and not the focus of the family. So it wouldn’t surprise me that young people from this demographic contain the largest number of dropouts.

But based on what one reads in the media one would think that the biggest demographic to lose people from observance is not the Modern Orthodox, but Chasidim. There is story after story about people that were once Chasidim that have become entirely secular. And as if to underscore this perception, a new book (reviewed by Ezra Glinter in the Forward) has been published entitled Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of ex-Chasidic Jews, by Lynn Davidman. The book asks and answers the question of why and how people leave. Interestingly, the focus is more on the emotional rather than the intellectual. 

I have heard many times from formerly Orthodox Jews that they left for intellectual reasons. I’m sure that’s true in many cases. Especially now in the age of the internet where there are tons of websites arguing the skeptic or atheist cause. Once exposed to these formerly taboo questions they ‘see the light’ and declare their former beliefs to be erroneous. Their encounters with these arguments have convinced them. And once there, they do not come back.

Which leads me to a book entitled All Who Go Do Not Return - a memoir by Shulem Deen. His publisher graciously sent me a pre-release copy of his book for review. Shulem was a Skverver Chasid who slowly but surely left observance.  He gives us a fascinating insider glimpse at what it’s like to be a Skverer Chasid. In both positive and negative terms.

He too blames his dropping out of belief and observance on intellectual reasons. He does not believe in God and certainly not in the Torah. His odyssey away from observance is quite fascinating. He was actually a Rebbe in a elementary school in New Square where he once lived. He was married and has several children. He looked and dressed like a Skverer Chasid and lived by their rules – and married that way. Which means he met his wife only briefly before he got married. He had always resented the way in which he was led into marriage. Almost as though he had no choice in whom he would marry.

It is interesting to note that in Shulem’s case it was not a disaffection from Skvere Chasidus that made him leave the fold. He actually loved the lifestyle. He loved the Rebbe’s Tish and all the other trappings of Chasidus. He loved the closeness of the community and the joy of celebrating Judaism despite all the rules of this particular Chasidus. His exposure to heretical though came almost by accident. His beliefs were based on what is called Emunah Peshuta. Unquestioning simple belief. One does not ask questions. 

This is how many Orthodox Jews are raised. But his encounter with a former Skverer Chasid that was involved in Kiruv challenged that mode of belief. He told Shulem that rational Judaism was a far more secure way of maintaining one’s belief. 

Being very bright and a bit of a devil’s advocate he said that simple belief was superior and wanted to show this fellow that his rational system of belief was too full of holes and could easily be disproved. And it should be avoided. They would then have long discussions over a period of time about these things. Once Shulem started debating these issues it occurred to him that his arguments made sense and that the entire religion may be untrue. He went to the internet and devoured all the heretical sources.   

It did not take long for him to reach the conclusion that God and Judaism was all made up by man. It saddened him because he wanted to believe – as he did before. But it was too late. That cat was out of the bag. He maintained a facade belief and observance for quite awhile for purposes of Shalom Bayis. His observance was meticulous in the home. At least at first. But away from home he could eat a ham sandwich. After awhile he started violating Halacha even in his home.

His wife remained  a believer, but his influences in the home overcame his wife’s resistance to them and eventually she went along with his adoption of many of the Skvere’s taboos. Like bringing a radio, TV, movies, newspapers, and the internet into the home. They stayed together for the children. Shulem still looked like a Skever Chasid having a full beard and wearing typical clothing of Chasidim. But he was no longer a believer. Ultimately the couple divorced. And Shulem has become completely secular in attitude and appearance.

On the surface it all seems like his encounter with reason turned him into a non believer. That is the way he presents it. But there is more to the story, that may have played a significant part in his dropping out.

Shulem had unusual parents. They were secular Jews who had become hippies in the sixties. Somewhere along the way they became Balei Teshuva and found their way to Chasidic Judaism, embracing it in all its glory. But their past made them a bit different than the rest of the community of Boro Park where Shulem was raised as a child. For example they were in to health food big time. Lots of vegetables, Nothing like a hot dog or pizza or any processed food would ever be found in their home. 

His father was an intellectual that studied other religions and had many books on those subjects in his personal library at home. He was also involved in Kiruv. Outside of Lubavitch, Chasidim don’t do that. They are discouraged from it because it would mean exposure to the outside world – which they feel could ruin them religiously. His father would often speak to mixed crowds of secular men and women. To great acclaim by the participants.

But his father also had a mental disorder. He was anorexic and eventually died from that disorder. His mother had a difficult time with his father and threatened divorce at one point. Had his father not died, she might have gone through with it.

He was also sent away from his home to a Yeshiva in Williamsburg which was not his parents Chasidus and was kind of rebellious there. At a later point in his adolescence he was sent to a Skverer Yeshiva near Montreal that was very strict and used corporal punishment. His rebellious nature got him into trouble there and he was eventually expelled. He actually contemplated dropping out of Judaism at the time. 

But did not go through with it, desiring to establish himself as a worthy member of Skever Chasidus. He begged his way back into that Yeshiva and became a model student. From then on until the point he dropped out years later, he was an exemplary Skverer Chasid. He even once had a goal to become a Talmud Chacham of note and stayed in the Skverer Kollel for as long as he could.

So, it isn’t too hard to imagine that the stage for his departure for observance and belief was already set. Just waiting for the precipitating factor of intellectual inquiry to befall him.  He had in fact started rebelling incrementally against Skevre’s harsh rules even before his encounter with heresy by reading newspapers and listening to the news on the radio.

It is always sad when someone of such intelligence and commitment drops out of observance. Someone that loved his environment.  Someone that loved his family which is now broken.

There are many reasons why someone leaves the fold. Certainly an intellectual reason can be one of them. But based on Shulem Deen’s description of his own life, I doubt that this alone will do it. Because there are a lot of people that have the same encounters and remain believers in God and in the truth of Judaism. For those that don't, who knows if there wasn't some subliminal emotional component that even the individuals themselves didn't recognize?