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OTD: Leaving Religion

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OTD: Leaving Religion

Introduction to OTD: Of Entrances and Exits

I grew up in a religious home. All my friends were religious. All my teachers were religious. But even as a child, I was always aware of people who were not observant. Most of my extended family, in fact, were not religiously observant. My father grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, called North Adams, and was really the outlier among his peers when he decided to become more observant as a young teenager. I grew up loving and admiring my extended relatives. When differences in observance, which can be difficult for a child to understand, became apparent, my mother would explain that they were not afforded a Jewish education. Indeed, for many, one’s early experiences in Jewish education play an oversized role in later-in-life religious observance. As I matured, I began to understand that religious affiliation, like all aspects of our identity, evolve, devolve, change, and transform as we grow up. Instead of looking at religious affiliation like a binary yes or no question, I began to see religious identity as shades of color along a spectrum of a lifelong relationship which, like any relationship, has good times and bad.

The first time I saw a formal consideration of the phenomenon of people leaving religious life, I was fourteen years old. The Jewish Observer, the magazine of Agudath Yisroel, dedicated an entire issue to the subject alarmingly titled, “Children on the Fringe and Beyond.” In many ways the issue was typical of much of the media coverage of the issue that would follow in later years: sensational, concerning, and somewhat hysterical. The introduction to the special issue included the following contrast to previous generations’ struggle with children leaving religion:

In contrast to other times and places when poverty was rampant, the threat of pogroms and persecution hung heavy in the air, or exciting “new” ideologies pulled at Jewish youth, American Jewry today lives in serenity and contentment, enjoys great prosperity and is not confronted by ideological challenge. In much of Europe and Israel, defections from Torah were accompanied by an attempt at philosophical rationalization. Today’s slide downward generally does not include even the flimsiest ideological veneer. (Introduction, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman).

At the time, this characterization resonated with me in most ways. People who were leaving their traditional education announced it with grungy clothes, Marilyn Manson posters, and cigarettes. It was the nineties. To be sure, The Jewish Observer was careful not to assign blame:

It is not our task to assign blame, point fingers, or self-assuredly maintain that there are conclusive answers. Every child is different and no two situations are alike. But there are risk factors, and there are areas that bear improvement.

There are several important articles in the issue. When I first read it as a fourteen-year-old, I was drawn to one. I still think it is the most important article in the issue. Written by Rabbi Yizchok Mitnick, founder of the popular Brooklyn teen center “Our Place,” he describes the reality for many teens who feel deflected from Jewish life. If you can ignore the nineties slang throughout the article (e.g. “whassup,” “chillin,”), it is quite uplifting. In the article he tells a story about a group of teens throwing a party while their parents are out of town. Local Jewish educators stop by to make sure they have food for Shabbos. It’s an important model for the continued connection the Jewish community needs even with those who may no longer be inside. It reminds me of a story Professor Shaul Stampfer once told me. Professor Stampfer wrote about the history of European Yeshivot. A few years ago I got together with him and asked him what was the most inspiring story he heard while researching the history of Yeshiva. I loved his answer. He said there was a student mutiny at Telz yeshiva. The students took over the yeshiva and locked out all of the administrators. The head of the yeshiva, realizing that the rebellious students inside did not have enough food to sustain them, would throw challah rolls to them through an open window. Even outside, he still cared.

 The Jewish Observer issue doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, nor does it pretend to. Religious engagement has no hard and fast rules, he explains, “[it] is not a board game.”

Overall, the issue was a communal breakthrough moment. It saw an issue that previously had been ignored, and shed light on a persistent but always changing phenomenon. Six years after the Jewish Observer issue, Faranak Margolese published a book Off the Derech, that also explored the phenomenon. She begins by citing the Jewish Observer issue. 

The discussions that follow consider the phenomenon of some people leaving their religious upbringing and, hopefully, in the course of understanding the story of why they left, we may better appreciate why most stay.

Listen to “OTD: Leaving Religion Intro” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from the intro in our Weekend Reader.

Shulem Deen: Faith, without Faith

black and white photo of Shulem Teen

Shulem Deen’s book, All Who Go Do Not Return, retells the moving story of his Hasidic upbringing and why he chose to leave the Hasidic community. In many ways, both his upbringing and his exit are couched in religious language. Even in his subsequent writing since leaving, Shulem remains connected to the Jewish people even if he himself is unsure at times what is connecting him. As he explains:

Memory, however, cannot be erased. A major transition, furthermore, demands not a severing from the past but a greater reckoning with it.

“A rupture creates a fragmented self,” the psychologist and author Dr. Eva Fogelman told me. “There’s the period before, the rupture itself, and the period after.”

Fogelman has written extensively on the effects of collective and individual memory, and, in particular, has worked closely with Holocaust survivors and their descendants. “A person needs to have an integrated self in order to function fully in the present,” she told me. Attempting to repudiate your past, individual or national, is therefore a denial of identity, a refutation of your potentially integrated self, an act of violence to your own consciousness.

The ending of Shulem’s book may be the most moving part. He describes his participation in a renewal Friday night service. The words of the service are familiar, but he is far from the Hasidic environment of his past. He writes:

The congregation quieted down for the Amidah, the silent prayer into which each worshiper disappears into his or her private meditations. It had been years since I had recited it, and I found myself tripping over some of the words, surprised at my loss of fluency, however minor.

Atah kidashta. You have sanctified the seventh day for Your Name…the end goal of Creation…blessed it of all days, and consecrated it of all times, as it is written in Your Torah, Vayechuli…

I imagined a primordial world in which God, Adam, Eve had only one another for company, and the two solitary humans looked at the sun and the rivers and the trees and the sky, and declared, as the Talmud tells us they did: Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonoi, how wondrous are Your works, O Lord.

And for the loss of my faith, for being unable to fully embrace the mythic beauty of those words, for my detachment from all things that I once held dear, I let the stream of tears fall over the open pages of my prayer book.

This closing passage reminds me of something Shulem once said when he was teaching a group of high school students about writing. One student asked him why his book wasn’t angrier. Given everything that he had gone through personally, why he didn’t express more outrage in his writing. He answered, citing an important writing aphorism, “you have to write from your scars not your wounds.” When you write with outrage and contempt, he explained, you’re not leaving any room for your readers. Instead, Shulem’s book allows the reader to step into the world of religious struggle and disappointment and find the relevance in their own lives. You don’t need to leave the community of your upbringing to understand what it means to cry over a loss of faith. In many ways, the story itself is the story of faith—and the struggle and pain it often entails.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed the struggle with faith and religious life as a feature—not a bug—of religious experience. In his oft-cited footnote in Halakhic Man, he writes:

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. Yes, it is true that during the third Sabbath meal at dusk, as the day of rest declines and man’s soul yearns for its Creator and is afraid to depart from that realm of holiness whose name is Sabbath, into the dark and frightening secular workday week, we sing the psalm “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Ps. 23), etc. etc., and we believe with our entire hearts in the words of the psalmist. However, this psalm only describes the ultimate destination of homo religiosus, not the path leading to that destination. For the path that eventually will lead to the “green pastures” and to the “still waters” is not the royal road, but a narrow, twisting footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope, as the terrible abyss yawns at the traveler’s feet…Out of the straits of inner oppositions and incongruities, spiritual doubts and uncertainties, our of the depths of a psyche rent with antinomies and contradictions, out of the bottomless pit of a soul that struggles with its own torments have I called, I have called unto Thee, O Lord.

Language of doubt isn’t just for those who leave—it can help articulate the experience of those who choose to stay. And, perhaps even more so, the dichotomy of ‘leaving’ and ‘staying’ as neat definitional categories is challenged as well once our religious vocabulary begins to expand. It’s part of the reason why I don’t even like the term ‘Off the Derech,’ as if it is some clear and obvious path that you are either on or off. For most, different periods in life and perhaps different moods in the day bring different relationships and senses of certainty. Our ability to more clearly express the inner world of religious doubt and struggle helps anyone moving within religious life, no matter the direction.
Listen to “Shulem Deen: Faith, without Faith” on Spreaker.
Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from Shulem’s interview in our Weekend Reader.

Philo Judaeus: Is There A Room for Dialogue?

Black and white photo of Philo Judaeus

When I was studying in Yeshiva, there was a curious fellow named Aryeh who was always researching the most bizarre questions. When everyone else was studying Talmud [Gemara], you could sometimes find him calculating the dates of the different kingdoms in Tanach to see if they added up historically. I always enjoyed speaking with him because he seemed really committed to finding out if Judaism was real or not. As I mentioned, as a kid, the narrative of people leaving religious life was usually couched in terms of a hedonistic rebellion. They just want to smoke and hang out, I was told, or maybe, told myself. Aryeh is a different model. He has a rigid fealty for truth—sometimes, in my opinion, too rigid. He approached questions with the focus and analytic rigor of a philosopher. I’ve openly wondered to him whether the philosophical heuristics and scientific questions he employs would produce viable answers in other disciplines like marrying your wife or how to raise your children. I’ve always admired his analytic abilities, but I sometimes wonder if they are applied too broadly. Of course, I’m not advocating for anyone to, so to speak, turn their brain off. But I wonder if some questions—particularly those broad questions about how to live your life and build relationships—require a different strategy. 

Since our time in yeshiva, Aryeh’s life has taken quite a different turn. He left, in most respects, the Orthodox community. This wasn’t an easy decision for him—he was already married with children. He details much of his story in a moving open letter. After leaving, however, Aryeh began a moving effort—he started a Facebook group called Frum/OTD Dialogue, which now has nearly three thousand members. I continue to admire Aryeh a great deal. As a fellow admin of the group, I see firsthand how Aryeh is extraordinarily sensitive and ensures that religious life is not denigrated in the group. In fact, there is an openness and humbleness with which he looks at religious observance. No, he’s no longer traditionally religious, but after spending years looking for concrete truth, there are few people who understand the merits (and challenges) of religious life like him. 

He’s often approached by members of the group looking to leave. His first reaction is usually to provide reasons to stay. He’s sent many people who have approached him to speak with me. I, of course, don’t have answers, but see religious struggle and questioning not as a sign of religious morbidity, but as remaining vitality looking to be nourished. And, to be clear, the questions and ideas he grapples with are not simple. They are rarely discussed in our schools and shuls. And perhaps rightfully so. The reward inherent in introducing the most difficult theological questions en masse is not so easily justified by their concomitant risk. But if there is anyone worth speaking to before evaluating the relative merits of a religious life, Aryeh is one of them. His life went in a different direction, but I have found few people as dedicated to truth, honesty, and humility as him. He wrote an entire primer dedicated to the existence of God. Normally, you’d expect an outreach organization to develop something like that, but Aryeh is committed to carefully weighing all options. And, speaking of options, he wrote a separate compendium on Pascal’s wager. Even though he chose another direction, he continues to articulate the value and importance of connecting with grace and understanding with those who left. He remains a crucial voice on religious decision-making—a topic others rarely treat with his philosophical depth. With Aryeh, of course, it’s easy. He’s a friend who has taught me and so many others so much. And I hope, despite his philosophical jargon, you’ll learn something, too.

Listen to “Philo Judaeus: Is There a Room for Dialogue?” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from Philo’s interview in our Weekend Reader.

Kelsey Osgood: A Conversion Narrative of Sorts

black and white photo of Kelsey Osgood

I don’t like the term “Off the Derech.” I think I’ve made that clear. One of the primary points of view that convinced me of the limitations of this term was the deeply moving review by Kelsey Osgood of Shulem Deen’s book in the New Yorker. Kelsey has an amazing story—one that is either the opposite, or perhaps the same, as those who leave their traditional community. She is a convert to Judaism. As she so eloquently describes, religion found her more than she found religion. Growing up, she was not religious and certainly not Jewish. But, as she describes, she always had an ear for religion. She struggled with finding an overarching meaning and narrative to her life, a hole that eventually contributed to her developing an eating disorder. Kelsey is not shy about discussing her eating disorder. She wrote a book about it entitled, How to Disappear Completely. While in the hospital for one of her treatments for anorexia, she met a Hasidic woman for the first time. Her name was Beila. She powerfully describes the impact of that first introduction to the mysterious Hasidic world:

In the end, it comes down to the sin of envy. I envied Beila for her ability to lose herself in both her religions, for being capable of such blind devotion. Even when it came to my own illness, I felt like a Wicked Daughter — always doubting my path, entertaining the possibility of another way to salvation…It’s been eight years since I’ve seen Beila, and almost as many since my last hospitalization. My belief in anorexia as my own path to truth has all but disintegrated, leaving me almost — but not as desperately — untethered in the universe once again. My interest in Hasidim, however, who from the outside seem comfortably myopic in their mysterious world, has swelled inside me so greatly that some days I worry it has become its own consuming obsession. It feels like a deep, conflicted yearning, an unrequited love. 

Interestingly, her book on anorexia offers a critique on a genre that could also be applied to much of the emergent genre of those who left their traditionally Jewish upbringing—what’s become known as the OTD memoir. She criticizes memoirs on anorexia for their potential to glamorize and sensationalize the struggle itself. “The person writing about his or her own struggle,” she writes, “fuels the fire by producing a long, hubristic poem, an elegy, an ode to a presence gone and missed.” Indeed, many have shared concerns about OTD memoirs on similar grounds. As more memoirs have been published, some have rightfully noted how the emergent genre can potentially sensationalize a deeply personal difficulty, as well as demonize the culture they are leaving. Shulem shares this concern as well, as he discussed in a Tablet article exploring the genre:

When writing for outsiders, Deen said he is cautious not to play to biases and preconceptions, mindful of the cultural voyeurism that is often at play on the part of the readers. “People are usually very interested in what goes on inside insular communities because of their fascination with what seems mysterious and different,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, although I don’t always like it. To some degree, there’s a dehumanizing element involved for the writer, and I find it a little discomfiting at times to be lumped into that realm of otherness.”

Examples like this inspired Mordechai Lightstone, a Chabad Hasid active on social media, developed a great guide to see if the depictions of Hasidic Jews are being sensationalized. He calls it Hasidploitation.

Despite Kelsey’s concerns with anorexia memoirs, she has written frequently and movingly about the stories of those who left religion. It is not lost on her that her story—from an atheist to Orthodox convert—is the invert of her own. But, as she acknowledges, it is that very reason that draws her to these stories from the fringes of religious experience. As she writes in her New Yorker review of Shulem’s book:

Deen is my opposite in many ways, and yet I found in his memoir a story not entirely unlike my own—a conversion narrative of sorts, with secular humanism as the destination rather than Judaism. Though my course is the reverse, I too had to leave aspects of my former life, to escape the nihilism in which I felt I might drown. An atheist from childhood through my early twenties, I noticed that my motivation to find joy in life—to live at all, really—was waning year by year. Perhaps I could have found an antidote other than Judaism, but no other faith accounted so thoroughly for the questions I had, or balanced so well the priorities of an earthly as well as a spiritual life. Though the decision to convert came slowly and deliberately, it also felt, at times, like the simple and irrational process of falling in love.

Kelsey’s own story frames the narrative as those who leave differently. Listening to a convert reflect and interpret the stories of those who chose a secular conversion should give one pause. Yes, some stories can sensationalize. Yes, couched in these stories are real pain that has visited many families. And, yes, for those trying to raise religious children these can sometimes feel like campfire horror stories. But through Kelsey’s eyes, I also read something different. These are stories of people fiercely grappling with the most intimate definitions of their identity. These are stories about the obscurity of stable meaning in this world. And these are stories, ultimately, about religious experience. 

Kelsey has a gift for sharing religious narratives. Given the trajectory of her life, she has an uncanny ability to convey how strange and natural religious identity can be. She has a beautiful essay about her Passover seder before she converted. She has an ear for religious experience and a knack for religious storytelling. She wrote about the Hasidic rock scene for the New Yorker, visiting Jerusalem before and after conversion, and all-women’s spaces. She doesn’t just write about Jewish experiences, she has an incredible article on the Amish as well. Her writing can be read as a love letter to religious change and experience. No matter the religious trajectory, her stories highlight the beauty of religious commitment.

I am reminded of an article a dear friend of mine wrote. I went to yeshiva with Joe Winkler. He was an outstanding Talmud student. After studying in Israel, he went to Yeshiva University. Slowly, at first,  and then quickly,  his faith eroded. He was always drawn to the great works of literature and in this piece he discusses how the works of David Foster Wallace drew him back to Talmud study. He ends the piece with a reflection on the past he left behind—though it still remains with him. I think about this idea a lot and will end with his words here:

Many images, aphorisms, and parables from the Talmud stay with me, but few like the elegant idea of “Luchot V’Shivrei Luchot Munachin B’Aron” (“The Tablets and the shards of the Tablets both rest in the Ark”). The Bible describes that Moses broke the first set of Tablets he received from God upon seeing the sin of the Golden Calf. After punishment and repentance, God gave a second set, which the Israelites carried around in the Ark of the Tabernacle. The Talmud here adds a layer, assuming that the broken pieces of the first tablets lay in the same component as the second set of complete tablets. Apparently, the Talmud relays, shattered remnants of the past still matter, persist in their importance, and deserve preservation and remembrance, just like something whole. I will likely never regain the wholeness of my Talmudic living, but knowing that I can carry around the shards of past provides comfort.

Listen to “Kelsey Osgood: A Conversion Narrative of Sorts” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from Kelsey’s interview in our Weekend Reader.

Closing Thoughts

As we challenge the stereotype of those who leave religion, we can begin to understand on a deeper level why some choose to leave, why some choose to stay, and how a third option of existing in the moment with doubts and uncertainty is also okay.
Listen to “OTD: Leaving Religion Conclusion” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC, CONSIDER READING:

Off The Derech: How To Respond To The Challenge

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2005
Faranak Margolese

This was one of the first books written about the phenomenon of people leaving the Jewish community. It’s a bit dated and spends too much time on the emotional component and not enough on the intellectual issue that causes many to leave. It is still an important read, if anything as a presentation of many communal perceptions and some of the important enduring sensitivities.

+ Buy on Amazon

This was one of the first books written about the phenomenon of people leaving the Jewish community. It’s a bit dated and spends too much time on the emotional component and not enough on the intellectual issue that causes many to leave. It is still an important read, if anything as a presentation of many communal perceptions and some of the important enduring sensitivities.

+ Buy on Amazon

Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age

Princeton Press, 2020
Ayala Fader

This is a window into a world previously under examined–Hasidic Jews wearing double lives.  The internet has created a more porous society in a world that once had stronger boundaries. It is a modern story of sorts, how the internet and online engagement has reshaped what affiliation looks like for many. It’s an important read that reimagines how faith and commitment have been challenged and reshaped in the modern world.

+ Buy on Princeton Press

This is a window into a world previously under examined–Hasidic Jews wearing double lives.  The internet has created a more porous society in a world that once had stronger boundaries. It is a modern story of sorts, how the internet and online engagement has reshaped what affiliation looks like for many. It’s an important read that reimagines how faith and commitment have been challenged and reshaped in the modern world.

+ Buy on Princeton Press

Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What To Think: Letter To A Philosophical Dropout From Orthodoxy

Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions, 2004
Shalom Carmy

Hardly anyone has heard of this essay, even fewer have read it. And it’s a shame. Rabbi Carmy is one of the most profound writers of our generation, though he can sometimes be a bit difficult to understand. In this brief compendium written for the now defunct organization ATID, he writes to a philosophical dropout from orthodoxy. Too many other texts focus on those who leave because they weren’t loved or appreciated. Here, Rabbi Carmy masterfully addresses those dissatisfied with the philosophical tenets of Jewish life. It is presented as a real letter to a student and I have no reason not to think it is. It is a rationalistic explanation of the limits of rationalism. And, as he concludes, “the most surprising discovery you make may be yourself.”

+ Buy on Amazon

Hardly anyone has heard of this essay, even fewer have read it. And it’s a shame. Rabbi Carmy is one of the most profound writers of our generation, though he can sometimes be a bit difficult to understand. In this brief compendium written for the now defunct organization ATID, he writes to a philosophical dropout from orthodoxy. Too many other texts focus on those who leave because they weren’t loved or appreciated. Here, Rabbi Carmy masterfully addresses those dissatisfied with the philosophical tenets of Jewish life. It is presented as a real letter to a student and I have no reason not to think it is. It is a rationalistic explanation of the limits of rationalism. And, as he concludes, “the most surprising discovery you make may be yourself.”

+ Buy on Amazon

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