The many recent discussions on why young people leave frumkeit are mainly interesting for what isn’t said. Defections are blamed on abuse, learning disabilities, and lack of positive reinforcement on the part of parents and teachers. In short, the problem is not that the system doesn’t cultivate belief but rather that it doesn’t cultivate self-esteem.
The soft-peddling of the centrality of belief to the process suggests a whiff of kefirah, as if the content or nature of belief is so malleable or secondary that it never poses an insurmountable challenge. In fact, this is also a very frum view. In another of those Volozhin stories, a talmid tells one of the roshei yeshiva that he is has lost his emunah and has decided to leave yiddishkeit. To which the RY responds, “Did you lose your emunah before or after you decided to leave yiddishkeit?”
I personally find the response revoltingly self-righteous in typically misanthropic Litvak fashion (the one thing Novardokers and Briskers have in common is contempt for human beings), but the underlying idea that actions determine belief, and not the other way around, seems pretty solid.
The real crisis sets in not when some particular religious myth suddenly sounds implausible but rather when one sees enough of the world to realize that one doesn’t necessarily occupy some privileged spot in the grand scheme of things. Lo and behold, other people have cultures that come with pretty much the same shelves and cubbies as ours, just stocked with different merchandise. Is there anything really privileged about my stuff other than the fact that it’s mine?
If this thought is too threatening, we can try to put it out of our minds and simply refuse to acknowledge any parallels between our own culture and that of others. But if that fails, we are not without defenses. We need only find objective grounds for maintaining belief in the uniqueness of our own culture. For Jews, this should not prove especially difficult. One could easily convince oneself that the mere fact of our survival, our intellectual achievements and our moral superiority are testament to some secret ingredient in the chulent.
Of course, every now and then some Nadvorner drug smuggler or some Spinker money launderer may force us to reconsider the bit about moral superiority. (You didn’t think the Hungarians would get off the hook that easily, did you?) Or an encounter with, say, an articulate Slovenian nationalist might suggest the possibility that our sense of uniqueness is itself not so unique. And, of course, there is always the question of exactly who the “we” is. Is it enough to identify with some amorphous Jewish People that includes mostly acculturated or assimilated ignoramuses or should we be finding specialness at some higher resolution, say, Bobov on 48th Street? Which spot along this spectrum offer a sustainable heritable identity?
These are difficult questions that usually go unanswered because at some point we are sufficiently invested in a particular identity that even if we acknowledge that our uniqueness is not unique, it is sufficient. And once we make that commitment, we seek to pass it on to our progeny. We do this primarily by encouraging them to develop those skills and social bonds that constitute a heavy investment in Jewish life. In plain English, if yiddishkeit is what a kid knows and where his friends are, it will be his default culture even once he realizes that there’s other stuff out there.