Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Thoughts On The OTD Phenomenon

Recently there has been renewed discussion about the phenomenon of people going OTD - Off The Derech. 

Some claim that sometimes it is for emotional reasons such as a difficult family situation, a negative experience with a Rebbi etc. etc. etc. while in other instances it is for purely intellectual reasons. People go to college or read on the internet and are exposed to new ideas which present questions which ultimately lead them to decide that Torah not true [ח"ו] and they opt for a secular lifestyle.

Others hotly contest this assertion and claim that the questions only come AFTER one is attracted by members of the opposite gender, after one seeks a life devoid of the countless rules that govern the life of a religious Jew and other factors that ultimately cause a person to "intellectually" decide that it is not true. But the underlying factors are the pretty girls and partying and the questions are just an excuse. 

This issue is hotly contested and is virtually impossible to prove either way because we are almost never aware of our OWN motivations for acting in certain ways so how an we judge others??

I would like to say this: People are unbelievably complex. I don't believe most or any of our decisions are PURELY intellectual. There are countless emotional and psychological factors that cause us to act in certain ways or to make decisions. 

A close look at all of our lives will reveal many internal contradictions. I have countless examples of this. Here is a simple one: We all believe that junk food is junky and harmful yet almost all of us eat it. Why would we harm ourselves in the long term for a few moments of pleasure? Another: We all believe that speaking and hearing lashon hara is a terrible sin yet we all do it. I live in a neighborhood where there are many smokers. Why would people of limited funds spend money they could otherwise use to feed hungry people on a cancer stick which they themselves believe will cause them much suffering and ultimately kill them?? This is called in Yiddish "Cognitive Dissonance".

So to say that people go OTD for "purely" intellectual reasons is a specious claim. NOTHING is purely intellectual. We are FILLED with emotional inadequacies, feelings, memories, attitudes, genetic predispositions, complexes etc. etc. which make all of our choices an amalgamation of countless factors. 

Let us examine "questions" that cause people to veer:

A person has a question - How did a Loving G-d allow the Holocaust to happen? His Rabbi answers A] It was a punishment. B] G-d's ways are hidden. C] It was part of the process of redemption. Or other explanations given. Do we have a PROOF that any of these explanations are incorrect? No. At best one can say "I don't know". Why does the "I don't know" cause him to stop keeping Shabbos?? I ALSO don't know the explanation for the Holocaust, yet I am VERY careful about keeping Shabbos. Moshe Rabbeinu had questions yet he continued keeping mitzvos. So the decision to throw off the yoke of heaven can't be purely intellectual. We have had many great geniuses who continued keeping mitzvos even after the holocaust. Rav Soloveitchik was much brighter and more knowledgable than anybody I have ever met who went off the derech and yet no question caused him to reject Torah. 

Another question people have: Science says that the world is billions of years old and the Torah says that it is 5776 years old so it must be that Torah isn't true. Ahhhhhhhh. See you at the bar on Friday night. Well, we have answers: Who says that science is right? The theory of evolution is just that - a theory. Maybe the world LOOKS that old but really isn't?! If we are over developed monkeys then how come there are so many monkeys who didn't make th ecut and are still monkeys. There are MANY holes in the theory of evolution as many scientists admit. Or maybe the Torah really believes that the world is billions of years old and it is only man as we know him today that was created 5776 years ago. Some people believe that evolution dovetails nicely with Torah. There are many other explanations and a great deal of literature on the topic. Avraham Korman wrote an award winning book on the topic called אבולוציה ויהדות where he uses his tremendous understanding of science to resolve all contradictions. Did every off the derech kid [who claims "questions" were the cause] read the book before making his decision? At best one can say "I don't know". 

"I don't know" is very Jewish. It means that now one has to work hard in order to know. There can't be a point in ANYONE'S life where he says "I have all the answers. I know it ALL". We know almost NOTHING. All we can do is embark on the lifelong journey of gathering knowledge, information, experiences, which will enable us to come to a better understaing of the great mystery of the universe and what is beyond. But why stop keeping kosher in the meantime? Did G-d come down and reveal Himself and say "Don't keep kosher"?!

Questions are great if they promote further study but death if they cause one to reach errant conclusions. 

In my experience, I have yet to hear of a person or meet one who LOVED being religious but became irreligious. He loved learning, davening, Shabbos. He LOVED the boundries of negiya. He woke up in the morning and said "This is GREAT! I can't touch or even look at girls. I am HOLY. Ahhhh - it is time to put on tefillin. Then spend three hours going through tshuvos of Rebbi Akiva Eiger. Followed by a chesed trip to the hospital, followed by SEVEN STRAIGHT HOURS of Gemara, Rashi, Tosfos.What a LIFE!!" But, then he heard of Darwin and sadly, with great anguish, he compelled himself to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. It just doesn't happen that way. I personally love being religious so much that if I were 100 percent sure that it wasn't true I wouldn't know what to do with myself. Eat unkosher? Kosher food tastes just fine and is plentiful. Violate Shabbos? Shabbos is the most enjoyable day of the week. Gilui Arayos? And be an animal?? Why would I want to be an animal?? OTD people cause tremendous anguish to their families. They sometimes claim high level of humanistic morality [as opposed to those "crooked religious people"] but get into a serious moral conundrum when they break the hearts of the people who brought them into the world and raised them. Is there some atheistic god who commanded them to rebel against their parents? So what compels them to do it? Can it be a bit narcissistic or self serving at times? Is there some higher truth that compels them to stop keeping the laws that separate between the sexes [which is usually one of the first laws to fall by the wayside - interestingly enough...]?   

Almost every kid who goes off had problems in school, at home or otherwise. Or the seductions of the outside world were too overpowering for him or her to withstand. 

The message: We have to make keeping Torah so sweet and pleasurable that nothing would ever cause a person to reject the pleasure. Remember this, parents out there. Your job is to make Judaism a constant party, as the pasuk says וטוב לב משתה תמיד. Learning must be FUN [and hard work]. Shabbos, Yom Tov, davening, everything has to be done in a positive way with limitless love, with prizes, excitement and everything that would make a person want to do it even if Hashem hadn't commanded. If everyone experienced Judaism that way there would be a lot fewer kids off the derech. 

There will ALWAYS be exceptions. I know kids who were BORN off the derech. Everything was tried and nothing helped. But the rule is that if keeping Torah was sweet and pleasurable, if people had a תאוה for Talmud Torah [as many people I know do], if davening was experienced in a postive way and people looked forward to mincha - it would be a geula for Am Yisrael and Hashem would have much nachas from His children.

To conclude: I am NOT judging anybody. I will leave that to Hashem. I am just casting doubt on the "intellectual argument". There has not been ONE proof furnished to the effect that G-d doesn't exist. There are also HUNDEREDS AND HUNDREDS OF TRILLION questions on that theory where ever you go. Every cell poses a question. How did something so complex come into being? That someone created it is a much more plausible answer than "it was an accident". Since there is nothing intellectually compelling that would cause one to reject Hashem and Torah, our job is to make a Torah lifestyle as attractive as possible.