Friday, February 02, 2007

When Values Collide: Why Many Leave Orthodox Judaism

Yesterday, I asked, Is Orthodox Judaism is for All Jews? Today, I'm going to elaborate.

Orthodox Judaism, like any belief system or community, has a certain set of values. There are many people who, either by temperament or ability, are unable to comfortably fit into a community based on those values. I believe that the gap between Orthodoxy's values and peoples' ability to conform to those values is the primary cause of people leaving Orthodox Judaism or having difficulty within it. I also believe that some of these values can be broadened to accept more people without transgressing Orthodox Judaism's fundamental tenets while others cannot be changed without ceasing to be Orthodox Judaism.

In other words, Orthodox Judaism can make some changes to increase retention without losing its essence, but there will always be those who simply can't fit into a community that's based on Orthodox values.

White Collar Careers

In both left-wing and right-wing Modern Orthodoxy, there is an implicit (sometimes explicit) emphasis on careers (for men) which are prestigious and lucrative. Usually, this means medicine, law, or (white-collar) business. Unfortunately, many children lack the ability to succeed in those fields and would be better suited for blue collar work. (In Yeshivish/Hasidic (Y/H) Orthodoxy, it's all about Torah study. Again, people with less ability will suffer. The Jblogosphere has discussed this issue at length.) Such people often feel as if they don't fit into the community, and they may feel badly about themselves as well. Some who feel badly leave and some simply "act out." This is obviously a value inessential to Orthodox Judaism, and they should work on changing it.

Intellectual Pursuits

Y/H Orthodoxy too often values no intellectual pursuits other than Torah study. (They will brag about a Rebbe's secular education and knowledge, but will not support ordinary people's secular pursuits.) Modern Orthodoxy is much more tolerant of pursuits like literature and (secular) history, but is necessarily constrained from supporting some areas of intellectual pursuit like Textual Criticism or anyone following their path away from Orthodox beliefs. The Y/H communities can and should broaden their acceptable intellectual pursuits, but Modern Orthodoxy is already as broad as it can be while remaining Orthodox.

Other Pursuits

Most Orthodox communities place very little value on pursuits many feel called to and may indeed be exceptional at, such as art, sports, craftsmanship of all kinds, being a chef, etc. There's no reason they can't learn to value these pursuits.


Orthodox Judaism of all stripes places high value on "traditional" family. People who don't fit this mold, like gay people or those who have no wish for spouses and/or children, do not fit in. Modern Orthodoxy is struggling to accommodate gay people, but is necessarily constrained by tradition and the Torah's wording. In Y/H communities, a woman who does not want to have a whole bunch of kids will probably not fit in. There is some room for adjustment here. Finally, people who want to date and even have friends of the opposite gender may not fit in, and certainly some people are not cut out for the whole shidduch process.


Some of this of course overlaps with family issues. Other areas of conflict include the lack of acceptance of some communities of women who pursue serious intellectual pursuits and careers or even Torah. This is entirely changeable.


Orthodox Judaism tends to look disparagingly on many activities done for relaxation and enjoyment which are not traditionally Orthodox. While they encourage Shabbat zemiros, the enjoyment of kugel, and in some communities alcohol, they will often sneer at movies, television, videogames, reading novels, swimming for pleasure, hiking, running, biking, etc. Sometimes even humor. People want to enjoy their lives, and Orthodoxy can improve here as well.


Goof Proofer said...

You're generalizing, there are plenty of people with a middle group, particularly when it comes to your Pleasure paragraph.

jewish philosopher said...

I think the biggest cause of dropping out: God. Many people don't like this idea of a higher power watching them and telling them what to do.

Mis-nagid said...

JA, You've made a mishmash of a wide variety of groups, values and positions. There are a few kernels of good points buried in the post, but what they're buried under is junk.

Jewish Atheist said...


Oh well. I think my writing's been pretty bad this week in general.

asher said...

Face's just too hard being orthodox in a country that praises secularism above everything else. It was bad enough we didn't have a santa claus but when you can't eat shrimp, oysters and lobster (just the thought makes me sick) you know you are not part of the "in" group. What about all the folks going out on a Friday night to that new club, or trying that new restaurant, just don't fit in.

To say orthodox jews have no secular persuits is to ignore reality. I'm always amazed at how many runners in the New York Marathon have yamulkas on. How many yamulkas I see at operas, concerts, rock shows, lectures on all topics, ball games, broadway shows and movies of all types.

American Orthodoxy is a new form the 19th century could never envision.
Where else but in america could you get an all kosher supermarket, a kosher gym (check it out) seperate dance classes, and glatt kosher caterers.

What you left out is that many people stay orthodox due to homage to their parents, guilt, or community pressure.

One anecdote:
I came home one day on Friday a little late and my Orthodox neighbor asked if there any non-jewish people in the neighborhood. I told her no, but asked what she wanted done. She sheepishly said "I won't tell you cause I know you would do it" (Probably to turn a light off or something) She knew I wasn't very religious but refused to cause me to do what she thought was a sin.

It's an interesting topic anyway

Anonymous said...

i love your blog. u seem to be a very deep thinking man with lots of passion for what u belive in. i benefit lots from ur thoughts on various topics u discuss here.

Resh Lakish said...


that was overly harsh. There are some good musings here, notwithstanding the fact that it isn't comprehensive.

Good writing, JA

Btw, I disagree strenuously with your Glenn Greenwald/conservatism post, but I think it's too late to comment there, no?

tikkunger said...


I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and I think you brought up some very interesting points.

I strongly agree with your comments regarding negative labels being placed on kids/people who just don't as you put it “ cut it”. Unfortunately that's a problem that far supersedes just the parameters of Orthodox Jewish life.

For me reading your post a question has come up and I'd like to throw it your way. If Orthodox Judaism isn't for everyone and that is more or less all right does that legitimize their participation in postmodern expressions of Judaism? And if this is the case how do you feel about converts and their offspring in terms of participation in the Jewish community.

I see this is something that ties to your basic thesis in that lets say some guy raised in a Orthodox family leaves and joins a more liberal stream like reform. Let's say he meets, falls in love and marries a female reform convert and has children with her.

Where does that leave the children and their offspring in terms of participation in the Jewish world? Does it make a difference?

the reason I ask is simply that I'm curious to know whether or not you're acceptance of pluralistic diversity takes into consideration these types of factors.

Thanks again for the interesting post.

Jewish Atheist said...

Resh Lakish:

Btw, I disagree strenuously with your Glenn Greenwald/conservatism post, but I think it's too late to comment there, no?

I don't always respond to comments on old posts, but I always read them. (I get emailed every comment.)

Jewish Atheist said...


Where does that leave the children and their offspring in terms of participation in the Jewish world? Does it make a difference?

I think the whole "who is a jew" debate is heartbreaking. The Orthodox position is ridiculous and hurtful.

jewish philosopher said...

It's interesting how people get heated up about "who is a Jew" but not "who is [anything else]". For example, I am a convert to Orthodox Judaism. About 25% of my ancestry is Swedish. Am I a Swede? What is a Swede? Does anyone care??

Anyway, my three kids are all blonde and blue eyed!

Jack's Shack said...

There certainly are a lot of nuggets here. The question is what to focus on.

dbs said...

I think that these were two great posts.

One of the striking things is that your orthodox readers don't grasp an essential part of what you're saying - that orthodoxy has many positive things and is a great fit for many people. I wonder whether you can disagragate the good from the bad - sometimes they seem to be the mirror image of each other.

To say it a different way, if orthodoxy was more flexible on these non-halachic lifestyle issues, they may retain some people who leave because of them. But, that very flexibility may endanger those who would otherwise be retained.

Anyway, it is what it is - an all or nothing proposition.

BTW, yes, there are exceptions to this rule, and the post does paint with a broad brush. But this is the way it is for at least 95% of the orthodox community. And, for those people, becoming more 'modern' isn't much more acceptable than becoming frey.

Ezzie said...

I think you started okay, but... after that, I'm with Mis-Nagid.

White-Collar: True, but I think that's true of almost everybody and not specific to Orthodox Jewry. Heck, irreligious Jews usually have the same focus, as evidenced by the [large] firm I work in.

Intellectual Pursuits: Disagree to a point. Torah study is valued more (which makes sense if that is their focus), but other intellectual pursuits are also cheered [usually].

Other pursuits: Completely disagree. I don't know where you got that one from. Do you expect to see a bunch of frum kids in the NFL? Israeli charedi kids get more exercise than just about any group [no TV helps]. One of the paintings in my apartment was drawn by my charedi cousin when she was 12. And while they're not usually playing classical stuff, Orthodox kids are very into music, whether they're charedi or MO. A lot of guys (let alone the girls who almost always learn) learn to cook in yeshiva or elsewhere.

Family: Again, not limited to Orthodox Jewry. Communities tend to form with people who are similar, and that often translates into those who aren't similar getting squeezed out. As for the shidduch stuff... also, a big topic, and a situation that is getting better overall [slowly].

Feminism: Agreed, though I don't think it's as bad in most places as people think. I also don't think that most women in the community really care all that much, considering that I seem to have a more negative reaction to a lot of things while the women don't even seem to notice/care.

Pleasure: You've got to be kidding me.

Anonymous said...


I think Mis-Nagid is being a bit harsh. Okay, so maybe this isn't your greatest post ever, but "junk" it's not. I'll save the "junk" for when you start quoting Greenwald uncritically. When you stick to religion, you usually have something worthwhile to say.

Ichabod Chrain
(formerly Another Anon)

Anonymous said...

How about the taboo of the Orthodox convert that leaves Orthodox Judaism? Remember Dr. Laura Schlessinger the radio personality? She did an Orthodox conversion and after 10 years or so publicly announced she was hanging up her shabbat candles, so to speak. Rabbinic Judaism is deeply segmented. Rabbis don't recognize one another's conversions. So, I am accepted in some shuls and not in others. The Orthodox convert is kind of like a ger toshav (resident alien). Acceptance is not total. If Chabad does your conversion, you are a heretic according to some. If it is a Modern Orthodox conversion, Haredim don't like it. There are different stringencies on conversions. A shul affiliated with Agudat Yisrael requires a 5 year conversion process. They may not recognize a colleague's conversion done with a less-harsh stringency. I could go on and on. You can only stand being a second-class citizen for so long. I am about ready to walk. May Hashem forgive me!

Anonymous said...

I am a convert of 6 years and am struggling very much with orthodox Judaism. I wonder if you might know someone who left (a convert for BT) who I could talk to. Or an organisation. Bottom line if I do leave I do not want the rest of my life to be based on 'Orthodox Judaism is correct and the correct religion BUT I just couldn't handle it or fit in, so essentially I am lost for good...

Thanks for any help

Anonymous said...

i meant a convert OR BT