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I hear him… but at its basic level I have to disagree with him somewhat. Rabbi Eliyahu Fink has written a thoughtful essay about why people leave – or stay in Orthodox Judaism. His primary reason is not because of one’s beliefs, but because of one’s comfort level. Meaning that if one enjoys ‘doing’ Orthodox then he will be Orthodox. If they don’t enjoy it, they won’t. Beliefs have little if anything to do with it. Here is how he states it:

I know more than a few atheists who are happily practicing Orthodox Judaism. The do not believe in God or Torah m’Sinai, yet they are devoutly Orthoprax. They keep Torah and Mitzvot (except the few inchoate Mitzvot) just like anyone else in their communities. I also know true believers who can’t even be in the presence of Orthodox Judaism. These people really believe in God. In fact, some of these people fear God more than most Orthodox Jews. But they just can’t do Orthodox Judaism. They sin despite their faith in God. The thing that determines whether an adult will practice Orthodox Judaism is not what they believe. It is what they feel.

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Rabbi Fink says that believing in something is not enough to motivate people to act on it. At least not in the long term. He uses himself to demonstrate this point:

I started working out at the gym. I knew it was good for me so I was willing to give it a shot. But I stopped after a little more than a year. Despite the fact that I was seeing results, I just stopped going. Why did I stop going to the gym? Because I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it enough to make it worth the effort. The intellectual justification was only able to keep me going for a little while.

His bottom line can be summed up in the following statement. If an activity does not bring you any joy, you will not be doing it very long – if at all. If it does, you will keep doing it. That, says Rabbi Fink, is why people stay in Orthodox Judaism. If on the other hand Orthodoxy brings them no joy, they leave. This is why for example young people who have been abused by rabbis or other religious figures tend to leave. It is because they now associate Orthodoxy with pain… those abusive rabbis being their reference point for Orthodoxy.

While I believe that there is a lot of truth to what Rabbi Fink says, I do not believe that this is the sum and substance of why people stay or leave Orthodoxy. Yes, there is truth to the fact that for those who are Orthodox there is a sense of joy in that lifestyle. But without the underpinnings of belief, that joy will fall far short of being fully observant. Which is the hallmark of Orthodoxy.

If one is an atheist for example, but loves the Orthodox lifestyle and community in which he lives, there is still absolutely no reason to fast on any of the fasts, even on Yom Kippur. One can easily go home during the break and sneak a drink of water without anyone being the wiser. There are probably hundreds of ways to violate Shabbos without anyone being the wiser. There are some Orthoprax that are meticulous about their observance, but I doubt that they are anything but a very small and exceptional minority. More about them later.

There are many Mitzvos that I do not particularly enjoy, as in the aforementioned fasting. And yet I do it. Not because I enjoy it. But I don’t because I believe that this is what God requires of me. If enjoyment is my only motivation, why bother being fasting? I don’t think there are too many Orthodox Jews that enjoy fasting on any fast day. Even on Yom Kippur. But we all do.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. We Jews need to have both the joy or internal desire to want to stick with our Torah lifestyle, and have faith and Yiras Hashem, so we still keep going even with difficult mitzvos. That's why it's important for parents and teachers to give children both the feeling of joy and obligation. It's also important to help them understand 'why' and have good intellectual discussions that help strengthen emunah, so if they come across something, they have a good foundation to support their own belief

  2. I have to be honest. I stopped reading this article when being Jewish was compared to going to the gym. And I’m not entirely sure what being “orthodox” means because it is just a label, and labels are always highly conditional. For example, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of “reconstructionist” Judaism (yes, I know he had a lot of help from his son-in-law), though he didn’t believe in all that Sinai stuff still claimed to keep kosher, Shabbos, and all that other stuff. Maybe that made him an “orthoprax.” You tell me what your question means, without my having to go to the gym, and I will consider answering it. Or you could just look at my profile picture, and decide what you think my answer might be.

  3. I think most Jews do experience a sense of joy or pleasure from fasting on Yom Kippur – maybe I am wrong – it isn't joy in the sense of fun, but it is a sense of satisfaction that many people have from fasting (also, it produces an altered sense of conscious). Some people associate fasting with learning how people feel who are hungry due to extreme poverty. Others find it to be an accomplishment, like climbing a mountain. Although I personally cannot fathom Judaism without God, I know many have experiences of satisfaction from Judaism even without belief in God. A dear friend of mine, who proclaims himself to be an Atheist, wrote that he chose to refrain from eating Chometz on Pesach for the sake of his family. Even if it is not fun for him to refrain, and he has to religious reason to do so, I believe he also had some satisfaction from this exercise of observance. I feel quite sorry for you if you don't experience some form of pleasure or joy from fasting on Yom Kippur…

    That being said, I believe that faith in God is central to being a Jew, if for no other reason than that when the Sages list the sins for which one loses their share in Olam Haba, they are all issues of heresy, not practice. However, I don't know who is a heretic. In the end, most people do recognize something Higher. Reb Nachman Breslover zya once told an atheist "the god you don't believe in, I don't believe in either…"

  4. I posted this comment to R' Fink's article, but thought it may contribute to the discussion here as well. Looking back it was a little more strongly worded at the beginning, but I think it has some important points
    -Yossi
    ——————
    This is only the second time I have felt compelled to responded to something I read online, but I am somewhat appalled by this [R' Fink's] 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 are three 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 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.

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