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The most common question I was asked after The Summit last spring was if I learned anything particularly insightful into the Orthodox Jewish experience to explain why some people stay in Orthodox Judaism and why others leave. People really want to know the answer to this question. I think they think that if they know why people leave, future defections can be prevented or at least minimized. Or maybe it’s just morbid curiosity. I’m not sure.

I promised everyone who asked me that I would write something up eventually. I think this is it.

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Most religious people I’ve talked to are pretty sure that their religious convictions are correct. Their religion is the truth. They believe in God and whatever version of God’s word they think it true. They think that the reason they follow God’s word is because they know it to be true. After all, who wouldn’t act upon the truth? But this is mostly an illusion.

People do not do what they do because they think it’s true or right. People do what they do because it’s what they want to do.

Any number of factors affect what people want to do. Intellectual beliefs might be one of the factors, but it grabs a very small piece of the pie chart that completes the picture of this determination. The biggest reason people want to do certain things is because it feels good. It can be the childish kind of feeling good that comes in an instant and disappears even more quickly. It can be a more mature kind of feeling good that requires delaying gratification and yields a longer, more wholesome period of joy and pleasure. It can even be the kind of good feeling that comes from intellectually believing that what one is doing will eventually bring them joy or pleasure. But the real reason people do things is not because they are able to translate their knowledge of the truth into action. That’s not something people do. At best, knowledge can translate into feelings which might translate into action.

Think about it. Every cigarette smoker knows that smoking is harmful to one’s health. But that knowledge somehow doesn’t translate into feelings or action. Smoking feels better to a smoker than not smoking so the smoker keeps on smoking. You don’t need to convince the smoker that smoking is harmful. The smoker knows. But there is a disconnect between knowledge and action. It’s not an easy gap to bridge. In fact, it’s rare that the gap between intellect and behavior is bridged. But it can be done temporarily.

Same thing with seat belts. It makes no sense to drive without a seat belt. The car is objectively safer to drive while wearing a seat belt. That is the truth. Yet, every day there are people driving without seat belts. Truth does not automatically create behavior that correlates with truth.

Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. For about a year, I worked out every day. I lifted, I stretched, I ran, I ellipticalled, I enjoyed it a little. But I was doing it because I believed it was best for my wellness. That was enough to give me the feeling that pushed me to continue working out. Intellectual awareness was enough to convince me of the payoff. Knowledge translated into action.

An article in the New Yorker discussing the science of how we make up our minds, mentioned a study that is right on point. Researchers proved that no amount of educational information could change the mind of an anti-vaccination parent. There was no difference between parents who received data and persuasive materials demonstrating the importance and absolute safety of vaccines. People don’t change their minds based on data. They do what they want to do. What they want to do is usually based on the things that make them feel good. Not on facts and figures.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Take a pause from patting yourself on the back for a moment. Your brief interactions with a few people don’t establish facts only your subjective experience. Take me for example. I left Orthodox Judaism because it is intellectually untenable. There is so much there that is simply factually untrue and cannot be explained away with any sort of apologetics no matter how strained or clever they may be. Just because a brilliant medieval scholar said something based on the knowledge of the Middle Ages doesn’t make it true. and I don’t believe in “ruach hakodesh”. I actually enjoyed the Orthodox lifestyle and miss some of it today. I have held onto many practices but without the belief in their source be divine some of them became very empty and meaningless and were abandoned. Many people are motivated by searching for knowledge, truth and meaning. Some find it in studying the Torah from a true modern rationalist perspective. Some cannot maintain being Orthodox because an open minded investigation finds that Orthodox Judaism is predicated on suppressing that intellectual need for knowledge and closing one’s mind to any threatening idea.

  2. Take a pause from patting yourself on the back for a moment. Your brief interactions with a few people don't establish facts only your subjective experience. Take me for example. I left Orthodox Judaism because it is intellectually untenable. There is so much there that is simply factually untrue and cannot be explained away with any sort of apologetics no matter how strained or clever they may be. Just because a brilliant medieval scholar said something based on the knowledge of the Middle Ages doesn't make it true. and I don't believe in "ruach hakodesh". I actually enjoyed the Orthodox lifestyle and miss some of it today. I have held onto many practices but without the belief in their source be divine some of them became very empty and meaningless and were abandoned. Many people are motivated by searching for knowledge, truth and meaning. Some find it in studying the Torah from a true modern rationalist perspective. Some cannot maintain being Orthodox because an open minded investigation finds that Orthodox Judaism is predicated on suppressing that intellectual need for knowledge and closing one's mind to any threatening idea.

  3. I read the article, and while the first page (which was basically the same argument of Rav Dessler that human beings are inately biased and generally convince themselves that things are true not because they are true, but because it is more convenient for those things to be true) made sense to me, I thought the remainder of the article didn’t follow. If anything, people decide that they like frumkeit or not on a gut level that is frequently not at all based on personal experience (which is what Rabbi Fink seems to be suggesting), and then justify it with “beliefs.” And while this behavior is common, it hardly describes every Orthodox person, nor every person in general.

  4. I read the article, and while the first page (which was basically the same argument of Rav Dessler that human beings are inately biased and generally convince themselves that things are true not because they are true, but because it is more convenient for those things to be true) made sense to me, I thought the remainder of the article didn't follow. If anything, people decide that they like frumkeit or not on a gut level that is frequently not at all based on personal experience (which is what Rabbi Fink seems to be suggesting), and then justify it with "beliefs." And while this behavior is common, it hardly describes every Orthodox person, nor every person in general.

  5. This is only the second time I have felt compelled to responded to something I read online, but I am somewhat appalled by this article. Written as a warning, it would make sense. Written as “that’s the way it is,” it undermines the validity of the observant spiritual path in a profoundly misleading manner.

    There pillars of misdirection in this piece:
    * Judaism is like anything else in the world. The same rules apply.
    * People do what they do because it’s what they want to do.
    * That beliefs actually [don’t] dictate what we will do with our lives.

    While Judaism can, chas v’shalom, be treated as no different than exercising or wearing a seatbelt, it is absolutely different. One’s attempts to navigate the Creator’s world in the ways He intended are infinitely removed from doing going to the gym. Yes, observant Jews are the “spiritual athletes” of the world, but while physical athletes chase physical goals, Jews strive for nothing less than fulfilling the very reasons for the world’s creation. And in doing so, my personal wants and needs are somewhat irrelevant.

    Yes, it is much better to enjoy what one does. And I do enjoy a lot of it, and it is so important that I instill that in my children. When I am at my best, our way of life is not a set of limitations and shoulds, but goals to strive for, ideals to move toward, even if sometimes slowly, or slipping backward while trying to claw my way back up.

    Realistically there are parts that are extremely challenging to do consistently. Bursts of inspiration provide some fuel, but can only be maintained so far. If it were up to what I *wanted* to do at a personal level – what felt good and rewarding – much less would get done. The Zohar compares prayer to war, and I understand intimately what it means by that, as it can be a daily struggle.

    But I am not doing it because I want to, or because it feels good, or even because I was born into an observant family (I was not). Judaism is a spiritual path that works, that improves the world, that fulfills Gods reason for creating us and the world.

    As a side benefit, it’s also a beautiful way of life, a way that works and brings much needed meaning and identity. But – as generations of Jews before me – I do what I do because of the truth in it, the mission that we collectively have as Jews and that each one of us are needed to fulfill. The mission Hashem gave us and communicated through Moshe Rabbeinu and through others that followed him.

  6. People leave Orthodox Judaism because:
    1) They are turned off by the Pro Arab Anti Zionism of the Satmar and Neturei Kartei.
    2)- They are turned off by Haredi cowards who refuse to serve in the Army curse the Israeli government but have no problem taking welfare checks from the same govt
    3) They are turned off by so called “Yeshivas” who think that the only way to keep their kids “Frum” is to keep them ignorant and uneducated and unable to make a living
    4) They are turned off by the recently invented concept that all boys are cut out to be full time Talmud students and never learn a trade or profession
    5) They see the fake Chumrahs that are invented every week while the same people protect child abusers and welfare and Medicare cheats

  7. Daniel,
    While I respect your opinion, there are several important points that need to be understood alongside this:
    (1) The “pro arab anto zionism” is the smallest fraction of a fraction, universally decried, even within Satmar
    (2a) The people who study Torah full time are protecting Israel as well – without Torah scholarship in our land, Jews would be cast out again
    (2b) There is hareidi participation and even a hareidi unit that serves with valour (unless they disbanded it – there was talk)
    (5) The possible missteps of a few here are smeared across the many – as Jews we should know better than to do this

  8. People leave Orthodox Judaism because:
    1) They are turned off by the Pro Arab Anti Zionism of the Satmar and Neturei Kartei.
    2)- They are turned off by Haredi cowards who refuse to serve in the Army curse the Israeli government but have no problem taking welfare checks from the same govt
    3) They are turned off by so called "Yeshivas" who think that the only way to keep their kids "Frum" is to keep them ignorant and uneducated and unable to make a living
    4) They are turned off by the recently invented concept that all boys are cut out to be full time Talmud students and never learn a trade or profession
    5) They see the fake Chumrahs that are invented every week while the same people protect child abusers and welfare and Medicare cheats

  9. Daniel,
    While I respect your opinion, there are several important points that need to be understood alongside this:
    (1) The "pro arab anto zionism" is the smallest fraction of a fraction, universally decried, even within Satmar
    (2a) The people who study Torah full time are protecting Israel as well – without Torah scholarship in our land, Jews would be cast out again
    (2b) There is hareidi participation and even a hareidi unit that serves with valour (unless they disbanded it – there was talk)
    (5) The possible missteps of a few here are smeared across the many – as Jews we should know better than to do this

  10. While I respect Yossi’s opinion here is question that I don’t believe he has an answer for.WHY DID 400,000 Ultra Orthodox in Israel and 50,000 in the USA turn out for massive Chillul Hashem disgusting rally against the Israeli Army draft YET NOT 1 Ultra Orthodox Jew or leader came to a rally in defense of Israel during the Gaza war (while 35,000 Arabs and Anti Semites protested against israel in front of the White House and 100,000 more in London and Paris?) What are the priorities of the so called “leaders” of Ultra Orthodox Jewry?They are asleep at the switch.

  11. While I respect Yossi's opinion here is question that I don't believe he has an answer for.WHY DID 400,000 Ultra Orthodox in Israel and 50,000 in the USA turn out for massive Chillul Hashem disgusting rally against the Israeli Army draft YET NOT 1 Ultra Orthodox Jew or leader came to a rally in defense of Israel during the Gaza war (while 35,000 Arabs and Anti Semites protested against israel in front of the White House and 100,000 more in London and Paris?) What are the priorities of the so called "leaders" of Ultra Orthodox Jewry?They are asleep at the switch.

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