My Two Cents on the Great Debate About OTD

I would have resisted the temptation to comment, were it not for an irresistible opportunity to tie it all in to the parsha.

We’ve seen a huge debate over the last week or so between our own Rabbi Dov Fischer and Mark Trencher of Nishma Research regarding the validity of the findings of a survey about why people leave observance. The debate garnered hundreds of responses, here and at Haemtza, Harry Maryles’ fine blog. (In a welcome departure from Cross-Currents practice, it was impossible for commenters to place the blame for anything they did not like on haredim – both protagonists identify with Modern Orthodoxy – Barack Obama, or Islamists.)

Never has it been easier for me to weigh in on who was correct. It is more than obvious. No question at all. Rabbi Fischer is absolutely correct.

There is no gainsaying his central point – probably the only one he was really interested in, despite the best attempts of critics to impute all sorts of base motives to him. R. Fischer argued in his original essay that people often do not understand their own motives, especially regarding major decisions. Our subconscious needs often dictate what our conscious minds report to ourselves and others. We are far more subjective than we would like to believe. The analysis of the data was wrong in allowing a binary choice between push- and pull-factors. Proper analysis would have to allow for a third factor: subconscious need. When we invest resources in trying to keep our retention rate high, we would be well-advised to look beyond self-reported motives, and examine those subconscious needs as well. If we fail to do so, we will be applying band-aids to the wrong wounds.

It is impossible for a traditional Torah Jew to disagree with that analysis. Scores of maamarei Chazal point in this direction. The thrust of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s mussar movement was predicated on a Socratic “know thyself,” particularly in regard to subconscious strong forces that skewed decisions. Rav Elchonon Wasserman’s famous essay in Kovetz Maamarim went so far as to see all defection from belief as capitulation to the need for autonomy and freedom from authority. (NB – Most people I respect have a hard time squaring that position with our experience with people. Even so, it is arguably correct in some cases.)

And then there is this week’s parshah, which seems to be the home room for those who have intellectual hesitations about traditional beliefs. Korach certainly did. So did the 250 avodah-aspirants, and the rabble led by Doson and Aviram. Many beautiful reconstructions of the arguments have come down to us. Within the approaches of Shalah, the Malbim, R. Eliyahu Kitov, Rav Soloveitchik and others, we find arguments for egalitarianism (the people, “all of them are holy!”), for mistrusting halachic conclusions that seem to make no sense (does a garment of techeles really require an additional techeles string?), for challenging nepotism in communal hierarchies (was this appointment really supposed to go to Elitzafon ben Uziel?).

Orchestrating it all was the puppet-master of the would-be heretics: Korach. We could speculate which of these arguments drove him off the derech. Whatever argument we would come up with, however, would be incorrect. Chazal ignore all of them. What motivated him, they tell us, was jealousy. He was jealous that he had been passed over for the next available position of prominence. What he told himself, and what was really happening in his subconscious decision making, did not overlap.

Rabbi Fischer, clearly, is correct. Our needs and desires drive our decisions.

But wait. There is also no question that Mark Trencher is utterly and absolutely correct! He later explained that all he wanted was that people should read the report, and listen thereby to the voices of those who have left observance.

He cannot possibly be wrong! The first step in understanding why observance hasn’t worked for everyone, is to listen carefully to those who have voted with their feet. We can look for patterns, explanations, deeper meanings later. But the very first step has to be to listen to those who made the fateful decision, and see what we can learn from them. If we see that many people report that a particular group of questions about G-d, about halacha, about theodicy, about mesorah were not answered to their satisfaction, would we not want to at least take a much harder look at the way these are taught? Would we not lose patience a bit quicker with those rabbeim who suppress questions, or deliver answers that are shallow and unbelievable?

(My own feelings are a matter of record. There is no question in my mind that there are people who decide to leave practice for purely intellectual reasons, after spending years struggling with issues. They are outnumbered by those whose reasons follow – rather than precede – the decision to drop out. But they are a sizeable minority, and cannot be ignored.)

Yes, it does sound like an ancient Jewish joke about a rabbi, two litigants, and an incredulous shamash: “You’re right; you’re right; you’re right too.” But to stanch the flow of nefashos out of the community, we need to listen to both R. Fischer and Mark Trencher.

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21 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, Rabbi Fischer threw a popurii of errors often used to discredit surveys in general and personal observations, some based on insights of past generations of gedolim, at a survey.  Newsflash: a survey is not a study. Newsflash: Neither is one man’s observations.

    Whether the survey has absolute validity or not, it identified a problem you noted in the past – we need better answers to the growing reality of challenges to our mesorah.  Instead we get yet more claims from RY that turn opinions, disputed over the generations, into yet more ikrei he’emunah.  We disagree from where responses will come.  You look to established gedolim; I look to innovative thinkers regardless of position.  I see academic study of our literature as a source of solutions; you see it as the source of challenge.  Many of my friends feel like Galileo and tend to keep our discussions private.  I attack those who I feel too smug to ever be part of the solution.

  2. shaul shapira says:

    (In a welcome departure from Cross-Currents practice, it was impossible for commenters to place the blame for anything they did not like on haredim – both protagonists identify with Modern Orthodoxy – Barack Obama, or Islamists.)

    LOL and thanx for writing that!  Those kinds of comments are the reason I’ve generally stopped reading the comments section on this blog. If I’m able to predict what a comment will be,  I’m not going to have any interest in reading it in the first place.


    • joel rich says:

      R’ Shaul -would you have had the same reaction if a commenter used the same language about a cross-currents post (e.g.In a welcome departure from Cross-Currents practice, it was impossible for the poster to place the blame for anything they did not like on OO)



      • shaul shapira says:

        R Joel- I assume you’re referring to R Gordimer’s seemingly endless postings about OO. (If you aren’t, please clarify.) My basic position is that he’s doing a valuable service, mostly by quoting OO leaders themselves. I think it’s immensely important that people be made aware of what they are peddling, mainly so that they can make an informed decision about whether they really want to go off the theological deep end with them. (If they do, that’s their choice; but let it at least be an informed one.) I view the ridiculous lawsuit that they threatened to bring, as evidence that he is having an effect. That said, I don’t usually bother to read his postings since I’ve already made my mind up about where I stand on the general issue. And then there’s some of discussions that inevitably follow his postings. Commentator 1: “Thank you for once again clarifying that O orthodoxy is anything but” Commentator 2: “it’s too bad you’re too blinded by your fanaticism to see the beauty of OO. “Commentator 3: Keep focusing on OO and you’ll be left wondering why kids are going off the derech. Commentator 4: (trying to add ‘nuance’ to the discussion) : “While Rabbi Gordimer makes some valuable points, it’s important to realize that OO comprises a whole range of positions, some of which actually believe Mattan Torah happened.

        Rinse, wash, repeat.

        I also want to stress that I wasn’t complaining in my original comment. I was simply reporting on my behavior. I find it comical that people come to a free blog, read a free posting, and then complain that it’s not stimulating enough for them. I find it even more comical when such commenters, upset that the poster has ‘wasted their time’, then proceed to waste even more time leaving a comment complaining that their time has been wasted. P.S. Good to talk to you again. It’s been a while since the free wheeling days over at Hirhurim.


  3. micha says:

    As long as we are clear that whatever analysis we give for conscious vs unconscious (what R’ Yisrael called “der dunkel”) motives equally applies to why people join O (“BT”s) as for why people leave (“go OTD”).

    If I may quote myself, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying conclusions the heart already reached.”

  4. Tuvia says:

    Rav Adlerstein seems like a real rav to me.
    Kiruv proofs without permitting the other side to present their ideas and findings —  it really cheapens Judaism, in my opinion.  It really does become a moment for inspiring group think and numbing the minds of secular or questioning Jews.  I don’t feel its a Jewish or G-d-approved strategy.
    I think Rav Adlerstein has the ability to see the questions from both sides; I [don’t appreciate] the attack-dog mode, taking cheap shots that only further erode thinking people’s connection to the Jewish people, and likely, G-d as well.

  5. Raymond says:

    I somehow completely missed this whole debate, although it sounds like it all comes down to whether religious Jews stop being religious for conscious, clear, rational reasons, or rather for more unconscious, emotionally-laden reasons.  It seems to me that there does not have to be just one reason for people leaving Jewish observance.  Rather, it is likely to be a combination of reasons, both logical and irrational.

  6. David Ohsie says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I have to compliment the format of the article.  You set me up perfectly for the denouement!

    I’d add a few things:

    1) There were questions unrelated to the “why” question than can provide valuable information (like what help people feel that they need).

    2) If you think that 3 categories is better than two and would provide insight, you can always request the data and go back and re-code and reanalyze the results.   IIUC, the most (or one of the most) costly part of this is good data-collection; it should be leveraged for more than one purpose if the raw data can yield further insights.

    3) There were a significant number of respondents who hadn’t left Orthodoxy, although they left the belief system and some practice.  Their “why’s” are likely somewhat more resistant to Rabbi Fischer’s concerns.

    • The “why question” (why they left, I assume) did not have categories at all. It was totally open-ended and we gave them as much space as they needed to tell us their stories. Quite a few wrote well over 100 words, some many more.

      We plan to post the comments at our website, together with all of the reports …

      Are you interested in reading the comments?

      • David Ohsie says:

        Mark, thank you for that.  I am certainly am interested.  I read through selected comments in the full report and found them interesting.

        My comment about 2 vs. 3 categories was precisely that with access to the raw data can make their own categories.  The plan to post the comments is fantastic.  A willingness to make the data public is the best way to advance our understanding of anything under the sun.

        Finally, fixing your link :):


  7. Shades of Gray says:

    “Most people I respect have a hard time squaring that position with our experience with people. Even so, it is arguably correct in some cases”

    R. Adlerstein quoted this in  “Rabbi Yosef Grunblatt, z”l ” (11/24/13).

    In the comments to that post, I transliterated part of an  essay by R. Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg titled  Shoresh HaEmunah–B’teva HaNefesh HaYisraelis, (Derech Emunah U’bitachon, pg. 63, parshas Beshalach) which similarly  raises a question on an aspect of the Kovetz Maamorim.

  8. YbhM says:

    <i> we need better answers to the growing reality of challenges to our mesorah.</i>

    The current zeitgeist is probably constitutes a more anti-intellectual environment than anything that anyone living today can recall.   Millenials (who probably do not read this website) have little interest or patience in listening to or analyzing anything that goes against their shallow preconceptions.  Personally, all that I can do is try to educate my kids in a countercultural manner and try to keep them away from mass media while trying to expose them to inspiring and sincere Torah scholars and scholarship as well as science and quality literature.

    I suppose that some may say “OK today’s youth takes radical egalitarianism, homonormativity etc. as a given and refuses to consider anything else, so let’s rewrite or at least reportray halacha and mesora so that is offends them less”.  But I would hardly call this “needing better answers to the growing reality of challenges to our mesora”.


    • dr. bill says:

      When I wrote “we need better answers to the growing reality of challenges to our mesorah.”

      I was not thinking egalitarianism or the LGBT community.   Attitudes toward the former are evolving in the circles that matter (to me) and I believe the latter is best addressed individually as we learn more on how to perhaps, one day in the (distant) future, address the issue more broadly.

      my attention is with intellectual challenges that fortunately, as you write, are not front and center for much of this and the last generation.  unfortunately, that does not obviate the problem.  quite the contrary, many of the leading scholars of our canonical texts are practicing Jews, whose views cannot be just called anti-semitism and dismissed.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        I think that living with the answer of Teiku may be the best and most intellectually answer because at some point in one’s life, one must humbly admit that it is an act of chutzpah for any of us to think that we can acquire “answers” that will solve “intellectual challenges” which will not present their own challenges to Ikarei Emunah.

      • dr. bill says:

        can you cite any place in classical rabbinic literature where teiku was given as the accepted answer to a hashkafic quandary?  Even the shoah and the crusades and the spanish inquisition and the churban and bar kochvah etc. were addressed without resort to “teiku.”

        my preference is to interpret fundamental principles using our God given ability to reason.

        the problem i have is asserting that without belief in the ikkarim in their most literal sense, there is no reason to keep mitzvot.  that to me is what sells our tradition short.

        I do not have answers, but resorting to teiku feels like a reason/excuse not to try.

        [YA The idea that without belief in the ikarim, the performance of mitzvos was of no value was championed by R Chaim Brisker. It can be found, to some extent, also in R. Hutner’s Pachad Yitzchok. Both saw a proper hashkafic approach to mitzvos as a sine qua non of observance.]

      • Steve brizel says:

        RYBS as quoted in the machzor mesoras harav for RH stated that there are many instances in a Jews life when the best and only answer to hashkafic quandaries is Teiku


      • mycroft says:

        Query when did God give a soul- only to Homo Sapiens or did he give it to Neanderthal Man. People of European descent have a couple per cent of Neanderthal DNA in them- thus mating between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals existed . This is one of many questions that if a HS kid asked his Rebbe I suspect would not get a polite answer or humility that we don’t have answers for all hash kafik  queries.

        [YA- Unless, of course, the rebbe was knowledgeable enough to know of the work of R Aryeh Kaplan, z”l, or R. Gedaliah Nadel’s (hand-picked by the Chazon Ish to serve as the posek of Bnei Brak) בתורתו של ר’ גדלי pg. 99-100]

      • Steve brizel says:

        One possible answer might be is that Maaseh Breishis describes the creation of the elements that constitute HaShems world and mans inability to adhere to one simple negative precept as opposed to a book that either supports or refutes in whole or in part archaeological findings

      • mycroft says:

        Rabbi Adlerstein:

        Dangerous-but I googled and found a translation of page 99 of R Nadels book-it appears to discuss our species-which until comparatively recently I assumed for Torah was homo sapiens. Only when learning that Europeans have a few per cent of Neanderthal DNA in them does the question arise IMO.  It appears R Nadel was niftar before we knew about human DNA and Neanderthal DNA. I agree that the general approach of R Nadel accepting concept of evolution makes the problem less-but as can be seen in my comments in CC I have never seen the conflict between a bore olam and evolution-there are plenty who don’t see a conflict.

        This is not a challenge -if you have a copy of the page in the original would appreciate either posting in response or sending copy to my personal e mail. An innocuous sheila

  9. lacosta says:

    I was going to point out ( and this in line with rabbi fischer’s theses of subconscious). The gemara that finds the root cause of heresy as gilui arayos. Ie theological questions as the hetter to do what your heart desires, but editor franfurter in ami beat me to it this week….

  10. DF says:

    Agreed that the amount of people who leave for intellectual reasons is a minority, though a sizeable one (as you wrote) and getting bigger. But what about those who leave for non-intellectual reasons? Is it not somehow a little…immature, to attribute it to mere taivah? I know chazal spoke of a binary world of  מומר לתיאבון ומומר להכעיס , I just don’t  know if those terms resonate anymore. To go off for taivah implies that the person knows  he is leaving the true path, but cannot overcome his desires. Whereas in today’s reality, even the people leaving for taivah ( not intellectual reasons) don’t really think that. They just don’t care or think that much about God or religion, period. It’s indifference that motivates them, not weakness.  Likewise, those leaving for intellectual reasons don’t do it as a form a rebellion, as though they were shaking their fist heavenwards in the classical pose. They have simply reached the conclusion that there’s no reason to stick around.  (It could be this is all what chazal meant in the first place, but if so, the words להכעיס ולתיאבון don’t really capture the true root causes.)

    It’s important to grasp this, because someone who tries to do kiruv [and I’ve done my fair share] on the premise that people just cant control themselves will usually not be successful. Whereas if he realizes that indifference is the chief cause, and that indifference can be overcome (usually through education) then  there’s a chance of success.

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