Monday, January 21, 2008

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand your post.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think of Judaism as an operating system. Its a language that runs the world. And as we know one can run different operating systems on the same chip. You can stare at a black and white DOS screen, cut off from any network or you use the computer to browse the WWW.

There is a sense that the OS code named Yiddishkite is struggling under the weight of multiple disjointed patches. The registry became so corrupt that the only thing that can make the computer run again is a complete fresh reinstall.

But see we have outsorced all our computer skills to Indians. The code monkeys are only able to do predetermined task. They have been culturally discouraged from creativity, let alone inventing a new OS.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous bar_kochba132 said...

Ben, I greatly respect you, you express a lot of ideas I have, so I hope you won't mind if I point out that you yourself fell victim to some of the moral self-righteousness you rightly criticize. You used as an example of "bad Jews" things like Haredi dope-pushers or whatever. In fact, in recent history, there were Jews, some who even learned in yeshiva, that would have felt right at home in the Nazi SS if it weren't for their in-born racial problem. In Eastern Europe not a few Jews were active in the Soviet NKVD secret police and this includes some from religious backgrounds, particularly in the infamous Yevsektsia which spied on and betrayed Jews who tried to keep the religious tradition during the Stalin terror. The founder of the Yevsektsia had semicha from a famous Rav most of the viewers of this blog have heard of. There were Jews who ran concentration camps in the GULAG, there were Jewish torturers in the secret police and the such. I get no pleasure out of pointing this out but I think it is important for people to be aware of this because of the mistaken widespread view, particularly in the Religious Zionist camp in Israel that "there is no such thing as a bad Jew" and this attitude was used as an excuse to dismiss Israeli governmental malfeasance or outright brutality like police/SHABAK harassment of those who protested the destruction of Gush Katif and governmental/police initiated violence at Amona which had no small amount of outright sadism involved.
These unpleasant facts should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the TANACH or the history of the Jews during the Second Temple period, but we all have a tendency to block out these things and take pride in Bialik's famous illusory dream of having the "first Jewish prostitute arrested by the first Jewish policeman in the Jewish state", as if there weren't Jewish criminals in the pre-Zionist period.
It is important for us to take a realistic look at Jewish history if we are ever to try to really reform Jewish life in Israel or even in communities outside of Israel.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Skeptic said...

Sometimes the realization "that one doesn’t necessarily occupy some privileged spot in the grand scheme of things" can be oddly reinforcing. When you realize that lots of other religious or ethnic groups think they are "the chosen people" your universalist tendencies may convince you that this belief is not so divisive after all. Likewise the belief that out-groups are defiling, that the in-group is morally superior, etc.

1:27 AM  
Anonymous Moshe said...

While I generally respect what you wrote, in this case you leave no option but to disagree with you. You offer no proofs or examples, and I think that Jews are unique.

It is easy to come along and say, "We are not unique", and anyone who disagrees is looked on as an illiterate fool. We are unique - we were the first moral culture - and you are correct - we need to judge Judaism based on Judaism - not the actions of Jews. Granted, that is difficult, but it is the way a truly wise person acts. Look for the ideal system and stick with it. Sure, it's difficult to live a life that fully adheres to Torah - but that is why G-d instituted Teshuva - for us to be able to repent. The basis of repentance is realization that we have sinned and acted wrongly - and planning out how we can prevent ourselves from sinning in the future. The fact that people act wrongly is not a testament to the wrongness of the Torah - all the great figures in the Torah sinned - yet their greatness is not diminished.

I'm looking for the follow-up post bringing specifics that were left out of this post - allowing us to compare and contrast - to see if what you claim is true - that Judaism is simply one religion among many - without specific outstanding facts.

How does one define Judaism? Based on an intellectual, thinking viewpoint - that believes the central tenants of Judaism including belief in G-d, Torah and the rest of the 13 Ikkarim. Should you want to remove specific Ikkarim per Marc Shapiro - fine, as long as the main ones are there (belief in G-d, Torah, etc..)

10:54 AM  
Blogger Ben Bayit said...

Your last point is important. It is precisely the area that an evangelical atheist such as Richard Dawkins seeks to attack religion. His statement that there is no such thing as a Jewish child, or a Christian child or a Muslim child, but rather a child born to Jewish/Christian/Muslim parents is the attempt to undermine this socialization.

While I find that Dawkins undermines most of his own arguments and the fact that religions that do give their children a "choice" to opt out (e.g. Amish) find that most stay within the fold, one still needs to ask, frankly, whether we really are in a good place after generations of Orthodpraxy.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous zalman said...

So the real crisis sets in not when a kid realizes that there’s other stuff out there but when yiddishkeit is not what he knows and where his friends are. Or by your rules, a failure to develop those skills and social bonds that constitute a heavy investment in Jewish life. Abuse, learning disabilities, and lack of positive reinforcement on the part of parents and teachers would certainly seem to be significant factors in that failure. In short, I think you’ve brought the focus back to self-esteem – like issues.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous harrykann said...

Unfortunately, your concluding observation, "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" raises more problematic issues than it addresses.
Perhaps Judaism may be his "default" culture, but such an attitude will result in producing a less-than-mediocre person whose defining Jewish traits will be (i) sitting in the back row of the shul on shabbos morning (if he ever shows up to daven) in order to discuss business matters and other meaningless drivel during kriyas hatorah, and (ii) then going to kiddush (during haftorah?) to socialize with his friends.
Accordingly, somebody whose attitude towards Judaism consists merely of mechanical observance of mindless rituals (to the extent that he may accidentally get it right), coupled with self-centered participation at Jewish social events, is not much of an asset with respect to perpetuation of the Jewish mesorah and with respect to perpetuation of the Jewish intellect.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Yup, I definitely put this one out too soon. If BK thinks I was judging the Jews too generously and Moshe thinks I was judging them (us) too harshly, I probably didn't make myself clear. So to clarify, the post is not about whether Jews are unique but rather about whether they are perceived to be unique (and, more subtly, about whether the whole notion of uniqueness is in the eye of the beholder).

1:06 AM  
Anonymous nan said...

The reason that people think it's about self esteem and not faith is that an amazing number of the OTD kids (not adults) are believers. They seem more confused than anything else. Don't equate what goes on in the blogosphere among adults with what's going on with the kids.

I think most beholders think Judaism is unique.

1:36 AM  

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