About a month ago, a friend of mine shared a Humans of New York photo of a rabbi, clearly not Orthodox, whose message sparked a huge debate among my friends:
“I’m a rabbi. But I don’t try to provide any answers. I tell people what tradition says, and if they find meaning in it, and it works for them, then they are welcome to apply it. If not, we’ll look at other possibilities. I think that every generation has a responsibility to create its own understanding of religion. I believe God can grow as we do. I could be accused of diluting Judaism, but I think that if it has no relevance to people’s lives, Judaism will cease to exist.”
The purists (some of whom were not even Orthodox) among my friends ridiculed him has a Reform or Reconstructionist well-meaning idiot who was turning Judaism into something you pick out at a lunch counter. One of my friends called it “Shoot from the hip feel-good crap.” Another, who isn’t Orthodox, kept calling for the “truth” as opposed to whatever this rabbi was selling. I happen to be Orthodox, but the direction the conversation was taking bothered me considerably. Mostly because I wholeheartedly agreed with that rabbi’s message.
I grew up singing “Hashem is Here, Hashem is There” in kindergarten. I was Shabbos tatty a few times in nursery. I knew my chumash well in second grade, and got a few awards for my knowledge of Mishnah and Gemara in sixth grade. Lock stock and barrel I bought what my rebbeim sold me. I was a very good Jew. I went to shul three times a day when I turned thirteen. I went to Motzaei Shabbos learning programs. I was such a good Jew, that I used to believe wholeheartedly what my friends in that thread believed. I, too, at a time, couldn’t understand how a sane, rational Jew could possibly choose anything but the kind of Orthodoxy I was raised with, how a Jew could even contemplate marrying a Non-Jew, or how a Jew, or anyone for that matter, could be so blind to the obvious Creator of the universe who had made bats’ echolocation so precisely, and colored peacocks so beautifully, and engineered the human eye which is better than any camera man has ever made.
I believed all of that while losing my faith. I believed all of that even after I’d lost my faith and was forcing myself to keep Shabbos even though I no longer believed in the God it attests to. I finally did find my faith again. Well, maybe ‘again’ is the wrong word. Truth be told, I had never had faith to begin with. I had had a mantra to parrot, not faith. In finding God again, in recognizing God in my life and developing the relationship I now feel with God, I realized how lacking my faith had been when I was that person. At the time I had believed not in God but in the stories people had told me. My trust had been in my teachers, my grandparents, my family and the stories about God they had told me. Not God. In discovering God for myself and letting God into my life, I came to realize what I now believe to be the ultimate truth of true faith: God cannot be taught—God must be experienced.
This truth used to not matter much to anybody. Well, at least not to most religious people. Whether or not they fully understood God or their religion wasn’t really relevant to them or the lives of the people around them, or the religious communities in which they lived. In those communities, religion was the cornerstone, inviolable, absolute. You were raised religious, and you stayed religious, and if you didn’t, woe is you. Questioning wasn’t acceptable. Not only didn’t you get a choice in the matter, it was never even up for discussion. You were religious, and that was that. You served God ideally out of love, and if not you served God out of fear of lightning bolts striking you from Olympus, and if not, you served God out of fear of what your parents and the community would do to you if you didn’t. You didn’t have outlets to discuss your doubts, because doubt wouldn’t be tolerated. You’d be left absolutely alone and abandoned if you questioned or left your faith, so you stayed and pretended that you still believed while inwardly hating every second of your miserably conflicted existence, and feeling very, very alone.
The internet threw a very interesting wrench into the works, though. The nature of communities changed. There are communities for everything. Birdwatchers, soap box derby enthusiasts, Klingon grammarians, you name it, the internet has it. All it takes these days to leave your community, is a connection to the internet. That’s all you need to find fellow atheists, agnostics, antitheists, skeptics, people who are struggling with their faith, people trying to convince you to leave your faith, people trying to convince you to keep your faith, people telling you to ditch both and come get high with them. And thus the paradigm shifted. Whereas communities used to be rigid with rules set in stone under penalty of death, we now live in a time where the notion of community and belonging, even family, is a fascinating amalgam of people we interact with in person, and people we interact with online, some of whom we have never met and will likely never meet.
Even cooler are the real communities that have grown out of these online communities. Footsteps, an organization that provides educational, vocational, and social support to people who wish to or are considering leaving right-wing Orthodoxy, was started by one person handing out flyers on a college campus, but has grown into a very large and influential organization through their massive online presence. Approve of them or not, they’re the result of this new community paradigm. All of this means that the things that kept people in line in religious communities, the implied threats, the stick always hiding behind that carrot, are no longer relevant. The consequences of reaching out to other people who are also doubting God and religion no longer exist, or are no longer nearly as severe. It’s literally as easy as the click of a button to find people who are also on their way out of religion, and will gladly help you leave.
So what does a religious community do when leaving religion becomes that easy?
Well, The right wing of Judaism has responded to this change by just banning everything it believes is making people leave Orthodoxy. Cellphones were banned in schools because kids might God forbid text or call a girl, and start a relationship, which may become sexual, which will make the kid stop being Orthodox. Internet was banned because of the ideas and content available online which may lead someone to stop being Orthodox. In fact, so dangerous was the internet deemed by many schools, that having it could get your kid expelled. The same with television.
Next, the right-wing turned its focus to women as one of the causes of people leaving Orthodoxy. Women dress too provocatively, making men act on their desires, which leads them to other things, which leads them off the path, which leads them to abandon Orthodoxy. Women, therefore, had to adopt new modesty standards to insure that men wouldn’t be aroused by them and thereby be brought to sin. Skirts had to be between four and six inches below the knee while sitting. But they couldn’t be too long either, or a man might start to think about whether or not her legs were stockinged underneath the skirt, which might lead him to arousal, which might lead him to sin. Women were forbidden from driving because that freedom may cause them to become involved in relationships which may lead them away from Orthodoxy. Girls as young as three or four had to be blurred out of the newspapers because any image of any female might inflame a man’s desires beyond his ability to overcome them, which may led him to do things or look at things which may lead him to leave Orthodoxy. Of course, all of these rules were enforceable by the one thing the community had left: Your children would be expelled from school if it was found out that you broke any of these new rules.
Has any of that worked? Well, no, no it hasn’t, which anyone who knows the words ‘speakeasy,’ ‘moonshine,’ and ‘bootleg’ could have told you. Even the strictest sects—the ones which make men and women walk on opposite sides of the street—still have people leaving in droves. But even more common than people leaving is people staying, dressing the part, but connecting online, through WhatsApp and Facebook, and leading a double life with their new, chosen communities.
The time of Avodah Mi’yirah is over. The time of serving God because we fear either God’s or the community’s wrath is over. It just doesn’t work anymore. Kol kores and pashkevillim banning things and excoriating different practices no longer work. All they do is give bloggers like me fodder.
So how do you keep people Orthodox in a world where it’s so easy to choose otherwise?
Two years ago, when the Internet Asifah was happening, I asked my rav what he thought of it. He said he thought it was ridiculous because banning the internet isn’t the way you get people to stay off it. The way you get anyone to do anything is by explaining to them the reason, positively, why it is to their spiritual benefit to do it. Explain to them why they should stay off the internet. Give them some kind of personal connection to the commandment you believe they’ll be keeping by staying off the internet, and you won’t need to ban it, you won’t need to filter it. They’ll stay off because they want to stay off, not because someone put a gun to their child’s head. That’s how you create a love and appreciation for Orthodoxy in the modern world. Not by creating a fear in people if they don’t listen, but by fostering a love in them for the God they believe in, by giving them a real understanding of and connection with God’s law, and most importantly, by helping them build a personal relationship with God as they understand God, and as they experience God.
What’s the real truth? There is no derech. No one derech, anyway. There is no one way to understand and feel God. In order to truly believe in God we need to each, individually, experience God in our own lives.
That’s why I wholeheartedly approve that rabbi’s message. He may not be Orthodox, but I don’t believe that if he saw my Orthodoxy as sincere and my relationship with God as real, he would ever tell me to abandon it. This is the message we should be spreading. This is the way we should be raising our children. This is the way we should be building our communities. This is the way we truly serve God.