David introduces the next series of the 18Forty Podcast: why people join and leave religion and what we can learn from their decisions.
Hello and welcome to the 1840 podcast, and I’m really excited to introduce our next topic for the new month. We drop topics monthly and we offer all sorts of podcasts, text-based compendiums, where you can kind of read a little bit more about the topic and of course an introductory video. And this month we’re going to be talking about a somewhat controversial topic, which is called going off the derech. Leaving, literally, off the derech, “derech” meaning the path, which is people who’ve been brought up in religious homes, people who have been raised in observant homes, that have chosen to take their lives in a different course. And I think that this is a really important topic. It’s a strange topic in many ways to include here for a host of reasons. Usually we don’t really talk much about this. It’s not really a topic that’s discussed in depth. It’s a topic we’re used to seeing in, whether it’s Netflix shows like Unorthodox or One of Us, people who have left the Hasidic community, sometimes you’ll see a documentary here and there.
But I actually think it’s important to talk about in religious terminology, number one. And I also think that it’s a somewhat modern problem. I think it’s a modern, I don’t even like the word problem. I think it’s a modern phenomenon of the way that this is affecting our community and whichever community you’re in, and that for many centuries people have left Judaism, people converted to other religions, people left Judaism altogether. That’s not all too modern. But I think the way in which these two communities continue to interact and the way and the process in which many people leave has become increasingly modern. And that is the boundaries of the community are no longer as strict as they once were. It’s not like when you stop going to a certain shul, synagogue, whatever you call it, and you never hear from the person again. Because of the internet, social media, there’s so much more porousness in our community in the way that we interact with one another that even people who kind of leave religious communities, they’re still interacting and they’re still connecting in many ways with people inside of that community. And I think that’s created a really interesting dynamic where people who are inside and kind of insulated in many ways have this communal lens or heuristic in which they process the decision making of their friends and family members. And all of a sudden somebody leaves. It can feel really, really scary.
And I’ve seen this kind of been dealt with in a few different ways. The most common way that people kind of talk about this is through the lens of Hollywood almost. You know, you have these documentaries or these memoirs or shows and I’m not all looping them in together. Some of them I love, which we’ll talk about, but some of them kind of sensationalize it and make people who have left the religious community, they address them in a way that I think makes them even more distant and less instructive. And when you make them more distant, that obviously has important educational reasons why you would do that. Maybe you don’t want your young kids, or you’ve made a decision it’s too difficult for you. But I want to examine that very instinct to ensure that, oh my gosh, we should never speak about so-and-so again. And I really think that there are two main lenses that we’ve approached this community.
The first way is, I wrote an article that I share with absolutely nobody, I never published, but I did write it when I was still in college. And I remember it was when Matisyahu, the rap star who I loved and admired, I still do love him so much and his music is so beautiful. And he was like the poster child for this like religious singer that everybody was so excited about. He shaved his beard, and the community went bananas, like absolutely bananas. And I remember, I sat down and wrote an essay to myself, maybe I sent that to five friends – I think this was before most social media networks were all that popular – and I spoke about two things. Firstly, I spoke about a concept called spiritual schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is when you get joy from other people’s misery. And I think to an element, there’s a spiritual schadenfreude. There’s a sense of confidence, I think false confidence or unhealthy confidence, that we derive when people – I told you so, I knew it would be a problem, this is why we shouldn’t do that, this is why you shouldn’t get involved with this, this is why you shouldn’t read that. There’s a spiritual schadenfreude that we get when somebody leaves that I think is something that we need to examine but can be extraordinarily unhealthy.
And there’s another lens, and that other lens I think is also really important, and that is that insecurity when you see somebody who you know, who was committed, who was excited, and then they leave. There’s this nagging feeling of like, do they know something that I don’t know? Maybe what they, the decision that they made, maybe I should be making the same decision. Maybe I should be leaving as well. And our interactions, and this is again the modern lens of the entire issue, is that through the way that social media and the internet has us interacting, I think that insecurity of feeling, does this person know something that I don’t know, is something that might wisp or chip at somebody’s confidence in their own religious decision making. And I think both of these are important things to consider and both of them are going to be addressed in fantastic ways with our guests this month.
We have three extraordinary personalities who we’ve invited – each with very different stories – to talk about this phenomenon. And just to be clear, the concept and the phrase “going off the derech” is something that I absolutely hate and that I write about, in the text over here, it’s in the introductory video. I absolutely hate it. It makes religiosity and non religiosity this very clear binary when I think nothing could be farther from the truth. And the three guests here are all talking about it in different ways. Our first guest, who I’m so excited about, is someone named Shulem Deen, who wrote a phenomenal book called “All who Go Do Not Return”. It is a memoir of his time and eventual exit from the Hasidic community. Shulem Deen is a friend, he’s somebody who I’ve learned a great deal from, and what I love about his book, which is a memoir of leaving a Hasidic community, is that I found a religious language, a deep, intimate, emotional language, to describe both his time within the community and his eventual exit. And I think couching it in those terms was actually really moving. It’s a phenomenal read and our conversation really touches upon a great deal. It was one of the early, and I think the finest memoir, of this entire genre. Some I hate some, I love, this one I absolutely love.
We also have an amazing conversation with somebody named Kelsey Osgood, who is just absolutely fascinating. She’s probably the most fascinating writer you have most likely never heard of. She wrote the review for Shulem Deen’s book in the New Yorker, published in New Yorker magazine. And her story is absolutely phenomenal, you should listen to it. What makes her so interesting is she’s written a great deal about the, what’s known as the OTD – off the derech – community. She writes a great deal about people leaving and entering religion, and her story, her personal story is absolutely fascinating, because she herself, as she discusses in our interview, is a convert to Orthodox Judaism, which is this turn of, oh that’s interesting. And I have a great conversation with her about what draws her to these stories, and why her review of Shulem’s book was really a piece of religious writing that couches the entire story, and her story, in such a remarkable way.
And finally, my old friend who’s done such amazing work, he goes by a pseudonym Philo Judaeus, I think he goes by his real name now but I’ll keep that for the introduction. We’ll keep it at Philo Judaeus, that’s a pseudonym that he used to use online. And he created an online forum on Facebook called Frum/OTD dialogue, which is a space where people within the frum Orthodox community can converse and dialogue with people who left. And he really is such a thoughtful thinker about the role and significance of decision making. He’s a very philosophical, analytical thinker. It’s really, really remarkable. And the way that he talks about the decisions that he made in his life and what he talks to other people who come to him in the group, I think is both very thoughtful, sensitive, and worth listening to. And these three conversations, hopefully together, you’ll walk away not only with an appreciation for why people leave religion, but also I hope an appreciation for why so many stay and what it offers and how it can help your life.