From this weeks email version of Yated:
Why do People Stay Orthodox?
by Avrohom Birnbaum
“Why do people become Orthodox?” was the question posed.
This was one answer:
“Community. Orthodoxy creates a powerful caretaking community. Little wonder that so many step into an Orthodox synagogue and feel instinctively, here is the emotional core of religion at its best. The shul visitor to Shabbos lunch quotient, which I propose as a measure of a community’s fidelity to itself, is immeasurably higher in Orthodox communities…”
Here is a second answer:
“Coherence. This is not only a feature of Orthodoxy, it is the defining intellectual position. All of the tradition is essentially seamless…There is no degree of apparent discontinuity that would persuade the Orthodox community that Moses…Maimonides…were practicing essentially different faiths…”
And a third answer:
“Connection…Mitzvah is, at bottom, ratzon haBoreh. …nothing can be greater than its fulfillment. G-d wishes it. A mitzvah can make a difference in the fabric of the universe… How pale, by comparison, is the dutiful liberal explanation that the mitzvoth will make you a more sensitive person, a more caring person, someone closer to the history and destiny of your people. Of what power is such therapeutic encouragement beside G-d’s expressed will?”
The reader may think that these answers were presented by one of the capable kiruv rechokim organizations that have done such wonderful work in bringing Acheinu Bnei Yisroel back to Avinu Shebashomayim. Believe it or not, these answers given to the question of “Why do people become Orthodox?” were written by a Conservative rabbi!
Before discussing the clergyman’s wise, insightful comments, the following disclaimer is in order. A little more than ten years ago, I penned my first op-ed article devoted to drawing the lines between Orthodoxy and Conservative and Reform Judaism. The piece lamented the fact that well-intentioned individuals were conducting kiruv rechokim efforts in Conservative and Reform temples, something that granted de facto legitimacy to those places of worship, thereby violating the ruling of the great roshei yeshiva of the previous generation that prohibited such conduct.
Ten years later, I am citing fascinating quotes from a Conservative rabbi named Rabbi David Wolpe on why Jews become frum. No, I have not changed my opinion on the prohibition of collaboration with Conservative clergy, nor would it make a difference if I did. The ruling of the roshei yeshiva is incontrovertible.
Nevertheless, these quotes, far from placing legitimacy on Conservative Judaism and their clergy, do just the opposite. They show how even from within the very leadership of the movement, their own clergy admit to the bankruptcy of their denomination. The only question that he leaves open is why he himself does not become Orthodox!
I was sent the above quotes by a friend who gleaned them from “Hirhurim,” a popular website that primarily offers the Modern Orthodox point of view.
Indeed, Wolpe’s wise ideas bear contemplation. He rightly zeroes in on two very important foundations of Torah Judaism.
I have not, however, cited these quotes to show the bankruptcy of Conservative Judaism. That has been proven repeatedly over the past few decades and is akin to beating a dead horse. Rather, I think that a far more contemporary lesson can be gleaned from the above mentioned remarks.
If the above answers are to the question of why people become Orthodox, I think we can extrapolate and ask, “Why do people stay Orthodox?”
It is no secret that our Torah observant communities - right, left and center - are experiencing the tragic loss of a small, but not insignificant, minority of our youth who are falling through the cracks and abandoning Torah observance. This abandonment is most often the result of physical and emotional issues, not because of any underlying ideological concerns that they have with Torah Judaism. If we desire to stem that tide, surely there are common themes between why someone would want to become frum and why someone would want to stay frum.
THE CONCEPT OF “COMMUNITY” OR “CHEVRA”
Community. Chazal refer to it as dibuk chaveirim. Dibuk chaveirim - belonging to a close-knit group of individuals and feeling that one is an integral part of a group - is an important component that cannot be understated. There are so many mitzvos that we primarily perform as a group, including davening with a minyan, eating seudos Shabbos, and many others. As Torah observant Jews, we sometimes take the idea of community for granted. We do not properly appreciate the tremendous boon represented by being part of a community, a shul, shteibel, a yeshiva or a kehillah. Lonely people who don’t belong to any particular group can attest to the fact that the loneliness, the feeling of not having others who care and who worry about their whereabouts if they don’t show up, is one of the most difficult things to bear. Belonging to a group is a foundation of Yiddishkeit that cannot be understated.
Undoubtedly, an important component in keeping youth anchored in a Torah lifestyle is giving them the true feeling that they belong to something, that they are an integral part of something bigger than themselves - a close-knit, warm community that truly cares about them. A community and a home that does things together, davens together, eats together, sings together and cares for one another together.
I have the sneaking suspicion that if one speaks to an average child who is at risk, one of the underlying feelings that will surface is the fact that he does not feel that he belongs; he does not feel that his community, family, school, rebbi, etc. really cares for him. He may be dead wrong, but in this case his perception matters even more than the facts. Therefore, projecting the ideal of dibuk chaverim, chevrah, and belonging to a close-knit community, school or yeshiva, and taking pains to connect with each child and teen on a personal level, are surely some of the most important factors in ensuring that “people stay Orthodox.”
THE CONCEPT OF “COHERENCE AND CONNECTION”
The second and third points mentioned by Wolpe are also very significant. He calls it “coherence and connection.” I would like to rename both points in our vernacular as “a solid hashkafa foundation.” Understanding why we perform mitzvos and serve Hashem. Understanding that we perform the same mitzvos as those performed by Moshe Rabbeinu and Rabi Akiva. Understanding that the mitzvos performed by little me and little you make a difference in this world and the Upper Worlds.
Understanding that mitzvos build celestial worlds and aveiros can destroy celestial worlds, and comprehending why that is so, are so integral to ensuring that a young child or teenager performs mitzvos not lifelessly and by rote, but with a penimius, with a fiery depth that is truly meaningful.
Recently, I had a discussion with a prominent yeshiva principal about the tremendous spiritual hurdles facing our youth, hurdles that we did not dream of encountering when we were younger. The menahel pointed out that, in his opinion, it is imperative to place a far greater emphasis on teaching the foundations of emunah and hashkafa in the upper elementary school grades if we want to have a chance of succeeding to inoculate our youth with a vaccine that will help them overcome the carnal pull that characterizes life in technology-saturated 21st Century.
If we want to equip our youth with the requisite tools to fight against the nisyonos, the spiritual tests and hurdles that face them daily, they must be firmly grounded in a solid hashkafa of what mitzvah observance is all about, what emunah is, and what it is that Hashem wants from us, our observance of mitzvos and our refraining from aveiros.
Just doing mitzvos by rote, because that is what everyone does, simply won’t do. We must take the time to address questions, even those that aren’t voiced. By doing so we can perhaps ensure that a niggling question or a kernel of doubt should not serve as the excuse and facade of legitimacy to follow the momentary, fleeting physical pleasures in exchange for true happiness, both in this world and the next.
Yes, just as these two critically important issues - of community, of belonging to something, combined with a renewed emphasis on the foundations of emunah and hashkafa at a young age - are indicative of why people become Orthodox, perhaps they are also two of the most integral components in ensuring that those who are Orthodox stay Orthodox. We can’t afford to ignore them.