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Of Davenning, and OTD (Off the Derech)

Being frum today is an upper-middle-class pursuit.

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The following was submitted to me by a noted Mechanech (educator). It was generated by a post I had written a few weeks ago which in part dealt with the OTD phenomenon.

As we approach Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer, I thought it would be an appropriate time to feature this very introspective, perceptive, and critical post. For obvious reasons the identity of this Mechanech will remain anonymous. As always the thoughts expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect my own. His words follow.

Despite the fact that I have been observant for decades, surprisingly consistent, and resisting all pulls to the ‘right’ or to the ‘left’ (of which there have been many, especially when I was younger), I have great difficulty with davenning. Even the act of putting on tefillin is, occasionally, a source of inner tension.

Perhaps it was because I was never brought up to daven; perhaps it was because I was never ‘taught’ to daven. It is not because I haven’t been in surroundings where the davenning is intense, or inspiring – on the contrary – I have been in many such. But I find it very difficult to daven. And, yes I do understand the words (my Hebrew is advanced).

But every morning, (or, more accurately, most mornings) I struggle. In my more meditative moments, increasingly I find most meanings in those few pages before ‘brochos’, skipped by many. Those meditations and readings seem the most personal, the most meaningful and the most reflective. One day a month or so back I sat and concentrated on them, word for word, and said not a single word of the rest of shacharis.

Davenning with a minyan is a terrible experience nowadays, and I avoid it with a dozen excuses. In my personal life, for various reasons, there are three minyanim where I regularly daven – only one (with by far the least observant mispallelim) is remotely attractive.

Even on Shabbat, where I religiously attend three services, I find myself ‘tuning out’ and instead reading slowly and closely – hopefully unnoticed — pages from the siddur or chumash. The services are formulaic, the atmosphere of the shuls is stifling and pompous, and, like almost every other aspect of contemporary Orthodoxy, the emphases are all wrong and are generally directed towards enforcing conformity in any one of a hundred different dimensions of life. I am not writing this to seek solutions or advice. Just stating facts, none of which give me any comfort at all.

But all of this is definitely relevant to the ‘OTD discussion.’ Come back for a second to those generally ignored or gabbled first few pages of the siddur. There is one (re)discovered little prayer that I cannot get out of my mind, as it is in such stark contrast to the reality of contemporary Yiddishkeit. “Ve-haarev na toratechah b’finu uve’fi amcha bet Yisrael ….. – Make Your Torah pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people Israel..” says the siddur.

Can there be any serious argument that that is the complete opposite of the experience of most people today? Especially young people? We have no pleasantness – we have chumras, insistence on conformity, condemnations, exclusivity, intolerance, insistence on blind faith, virulent rejections of ‘the other’, violence, abuse, total lack of respect for individuals…..

So is it any wonder that young people leave us? What remotely sensitive youngster would find today’s triumphalist Orthodoxy attractive? Who would want to be part of this world where it is alleged that G-d cares whether you wear a white or blue shirt?

It pains me to look around at our community. Being frum today is an upper-middle-class pursuit. Ordinary, honest, hard-working bale batim who are not in the upper earnings percentiles cannot possibly afford to be observant.

The ‘shidduch crisis’ is nothing to do with age gaps, or marrying young or old. It is to do with the pathological perversion of values in orthodox society. If – according to recent comments in this blog – a family regards their child as “OTD” if he eats a chocolate bar that is not cholov yisroel – what nonsensical values are we cultivating?

Does anyone think that a single young female will want to grow up in a society where every day sees a new anti-female tznius stricture, where the feminine person is written out (or blotted out) of society? Or where the same young woman must fear that she is danger of becoming an agunah, with the weight of Orthodox rabbinic authority implacably on the husband’s side in such cases? Or where the women who want to daven at the Kotel (or anywhere else), wearing tallis and tefillin – both clearly defensible halakhic practices – are met with violence, and jeering, and catcalls? The readers of this blog could add a dozen more examples……

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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