We Must Stop Treating Jewish Observance as an All-or-nothing, Zero-sum Game

Narrow, judgmental perspectives continue to drive Jewish youth away from practicing. It’s time to realize that Orthodox Judaism can be simultaneously religious and inclusive.

Photo: Justin Dawson

As originally published on Haaretz.com

I have always disliked the term “Off the Derech,” referring to someone observant halakhically (following Jewish law) who decides to abandon the tradition. The strong implication is that there is a singular route to abandon, one correct path (which is traditionally Orthodox), defined by normative behavior such as keeping Shabbat and eating only kosher food. However, this narrow, judgmental perspective is symptomatic of what continues to drive more of our youth away from Jewish practice.

In Faranak Margolese’s 2005 book “Off The Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism” she provides a harsh realization as to the scope of the problem. According to her cited sources, percentages ranging from 5–25% of children raised in observant homes no longer were keeping some or all normative halakha.

The trends Margolese noted have only accelerated over the past decade. A friend recently told me that of the 35 students in his son’s graduating yeshiva high school class in Israel from 10 years ago, 32 are no longer Shomer Shabbat (keeping the Shabbat, often used as the litmus test for observance). The three who still do are the exceptions, each with a “reason” why they haven’t opted out.

In general, the two main reasons why people leave Orthodoxy, as cited by Margolese in her research, are hypocrisy and judgmentalism by parents, teachers and members of their community. Over 50% of her survey participants reported having teachers who were poor mentors, could not relate to them or answer their questions. Over 60% were turned off by smugness and hypocrisy within their communities, by people who berated other communities and who were racist. Over 70% cited these attitudes as contributing to why they were no longer observant.

Pam Ehrenkranz, CEO of UJA/JCC Federation of Greenwich, shared my dislike for the label “Off the Derech” in a recent blog post and proposes an alternative term: “On Another Derech.” Responding to the cynicism which contributes to drive our youth away from observant Judaism, she astutely pivots from this negative toxic attitude towards a positive perspective.” The laws that dictate how one must interact with another person, such as philanthropy, helping the sick, and acting honestly in business, are an equal part of the ‘derech,’” she writes. “Leaving Orthodoxy does not mean that one has rejected their relationship to Judaism or the Jewish people.”

Similar in theme to Ehrenkranz, Dennis Prager, in two recent articles,“If you don’t eat bacon, you keep kosher” and “Is kosher all or nothing?”, wrote in a deliberately provocative manner about the need for inclusion and for encouraging Jewish practice before concluding with larger, positive points.

“Why would Jewish life want to exclude as many Jews as possible from being considered or considering themselves religious instead of wanting as many Jews as possible to be considered or to consider themselves religious?… It is not good for Judaism that we view ritual law as all or nothing…’all or nothing’ is intellectually and Jewishly counterproductive — it almost always leads to people doing nothing rather than doing all.”

To be clear, I am not making the case for a morally relative Judaism, but for one that through a wide path of Torah and mitzvoth leaves room for doubt, personal choice, and growth. According to our tradition, there are 70 panim (faces) to the Torah. A face belongs to a human being, which changes over the course of a lifelong journey.

Orthodox Judaism can be simultaneously religious and inclusive. Chabad’s worldwide success and impact stems from a core belief; unconditional love of every Jew. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that each mitzvah is a world unto itself with the potential to tip the scales of redemption. It’s why you will find Chabad shlichim (emissaries) all over the world asking Jews to put on tefillin (phylacteries) and to light Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Again, it’s the focus on the positive over negative, light over darkness.

Jewish observance, when framed as an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game, labeling people as Off the Derech, drives Jews from Judaism. Our children see through the judgmentalism and hypocrisy of a Judaism still looking at and relating to the world though a narrow lens, a defensive Judaism defined by conformity of belief and practice.

Jewish practice is usually defined as observance. Maybe, we’d be better served to use and understand practice in its alternative, more hopeful meaning as preparation or training. After all, we are all works in progress.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.