For Whom the Bell Doth Not Toll: The New Pew and an Elul Challenge

“If they understood the effect the chiming of the church bells had on the Jewish soul, they would never stop them.” So observed a Torah sage of a different generation, when the grandeur and power of the Church further demoralized an impoverished and persecuted European Jewry. If the Pew Research Center is correct, today’s worry should be the growing silence of those bells. In this we find a challenge as Elul is upon us, and as we look towards the yemei ha-din.

Pew shocked the country a few years ago when it reported that the fastest-growing religious group in the country was the “nones” – the group that reported no affiliation at all. Not to worry, argued many in the religious community (including this author), once they recovered their stride. It may not be as bad as it looks. These are people who have not given up on G-d and religion. Many are just turned off to organized religion, overwhelmed by all the scandals. Even more are people who are so serious about their spirituality, that they are exploring several options, not simply committing to the faith of their parents. They have not given up on G-d and religion.

We were all wrong, it seems. Pew just released a follow-up study on the reasons for the growth of the “nones.” (Unlike the frum community, others actually get to test their theories through scientific gathering of evidence. But that’s a different gripe, and for a different essay.) We now know why Americans are leaving religion, and the truth is harsher than we believed.

Pew allowed the “nones” to speak out in their own words, and then grouped the responses into different categories. Yes – some were investigating different providers of spirituality. But they accounted for only about 18% of the group. Those who left because of a mistrust of organized religion were only negligibly more numerous (20%).

Where have all the believers gone? A whopping 49% are what could be called principled non-believers. Their thinking has changed, and their beliefs are no longer in a place that can sustain faith. They cite all sorts of interesting reasons, r”l: they’ve come to realize that religion is the opiate of the masses; understanding science obviates the need for religion; they find religious belief irrational or unfounded; they prefer to make their own decision, rather than rely on some external authority; as scientists, they cannot believe in miracles.

None of these arguments are particularly new. The novelty of the trend is simple. It used to be the case that one generation would, to a large extent, absorb the beliefs of their parents and community. That is no longer the case. Without powerful reasons to stay connected, involved, or even identify with belief in a G-d Who has expectations about human behavior, people are going to opt out. If you don’t give people strong, compelling arguments to believe, they aren’t going to.

It will take more than a minor miracle for these attitudes not to seep into our own community. A good part of the study of Jewish history can be described as watching the particulars of galus creep into the Jewish psyche. We’ve sometimes done a good job resisting, and sometimes not such a good job. But it is reasonable to forecast that skepticism and rejection and sheer indifference will flow – not trickle – into our neighborhoods, even those that think they are hermetically sealed off from external influences.

Are we in dire straits? Not at all. Only if we ignore changing conditions – if we refuse to be the chachomim ha-ro’im es ha-nolad. Only if we ignore the treasure-trove of material in our mesorah that explains to people the whys and wherefores of belief and practice – of Who G-d is, why we believe, what He wants from us. Only if we are foolish enough to believe that our children will stay observant simply because they are growing up with the faith of their parents.

It would be wonderful to feed children emunah peshutah pills, but we haven’t found a way to produce them yet. (Too many contaminants in the machinery.) Until they become commercially available, we need more educators who have sufficient grasp of the great works of the Rishonim that they can distill their essence and convey them in the vernacular to less sophisticated audiences. (Elementary school children don’t have to know about the Rambam’s Moreh, but I would submit that people who have not puzzled through it, the Kuzari, and R Sadyah Gaon are more likely to come up with philosophical pablum rather than anything of substance – even when speaking to children.) We need more rabbeim who have absorbed and personalized works that address modern and post-modern questions, like R Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. Kook. We need teachers who can convey the depth of the more intellectual chassidus, like Sfas Emes and R. Tzadok. We need to take our children out of classrooms that suppress questions, or offer dumb answers.

We need a laity that can regenerate their enthusiasm constantly by listening to modern-day masters like R. Aharon Lopiansky and R. Moshe Weinberger. We need parents who have become supercharged through them to be more manifest in their enthusiasm for HKBH. We need parents who show their children that they have loving conversations with Hashem often, maybe even more often than they text others. We need parents who refer to Him in their ordinary conversation as if their emunah was on steroids.

“Let the wicked one forsake his way and the iniquitous man his thoughts.”[1] The Slonimer Rebbe[2] observes that the navi doesn’t charge the wicked to forsake their deeds, but their ways. The way of sin, he says, is the context in which it happens – the attitudes, conscious and otherwise, that leave a personal vulnerable to spiritual failings. It might be similarly argued that today, not only sin but emunah has a context. This context needs to be strengthened to provide a friendly home for firm belief. That context is a background of examination, questioning and comparison. Some will resist. They will have spiritual blood on their hands.

Those who viscerally reject this approach are not reading this blog. Those who are might give pause as they begin the internal house-cleaning of Elul. Perhaps before we stand on Rosh Hashanah to coronate the King we get to know Him somewhat better – that we become a tad more clear as to why we accept Him and remain loyal to Him.

Not so long ago, Jews would pithily observe, “Vi es christelt zich, azoy yidelt zich.” The translation loses all of the flavor, but the meaning is something like “whatever is happening in the Christian world, is going to happen in the Jewish world.” We would not be amiss if we modernized that to “Vi es un-christelt zich, azoy yidelt zich” – whichever way Christianity is unraveling, Jews will follow suit. And follow suit we certainly will, unless we act less like the Fiddler on the Roof shouting one word slogans at questions, and more like the am chacham v’navon we are supposed to be.

[1] Yeshaya 55:7

[2] Nesivos Shalom, vol.1 pg 209

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63 Responses

  1. Confused says:

    We need more rabbeim who have absorbed and personalized works that address modern and post-modern questions, like R Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. Kook. We need teachers who can convey the depth of the more intellectual chassidus, like Sfas Emes and R. Tzadok. We need to take our children out of classrooms that suppress questions, or offer dumb answers.

    We need parents who have become supercharged through them to be more manifest in their enthusiasm for HKBH. We need parents who show their children that they have loving conversations with Hashem often, maybe even more often than they text others. We need parents who refer to Him in their ordinary conversation as if their emunah was on steroids.

    And therein lies the conundrum. If we have no leaders who can inspire, how can we have laity and parents who are inspired? How shall parents who themselves are disillusioned with their leaders infuse a sense of emunas chachamim in those same leaders? I see no easy way to crack this nut… Sigh…

    • tzippi says:

      This is the challenge of cynicism, which is getting harder and harder to avoid, even for those of us with rose-colored glasses. But we’ll keep trying and remember that it’s not a numbers game. It might seem that, like the lawyer joke goes, 98% of the leadership gives the other 2% a bad name. What we have to do is find those 2%. There was Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, who teared up when he saw new baby shoes, imaging the joy of the mother buying her child’s first shoes. The chasidish rav (I don’t remember who) who insisted his son be given an extra 3 matzos in the DP camps, only to send his son to the distributor late erev Pesach to give him those 3 matzos, correctly assuming he’d given away his own.

      And there are many living heroes. I’ll start and end with Rav Grossman shlit”a of Migdal HaEmek. Honestly, while the bad actors turn many people off, it’s these who keep me frum.

  2. YGL says:

    This was a fantastic article. Thanks. Ha’levai it should come true.

    As an educator at a day school, I will IYH, BN  try a little harder to access and convey some of these concepts from the masters you mentioned.

  3. mb says:

    I’m surprised you left R.Sacks out of the list of those that inspire.

    • Good point. Here’s why, even though as you know I am a huge fan of R. Sacks. I turn to the names I mentioned for new,deep, creative insights. I generally look to R Sacks not for those, but for distilling the content of tradition into scintillating phraseology that endears that content to the contemporary reader.

      • dr. bill says:

        i tend to agree on the volumes he continues to produce.  however, if we were to disregard the volumes, his original and insightful lectures/shiurim/writings are noteworthy, and easy to lose in the crowd.

      • Rabbi Adlerstein,

        I you review the taped (not published) shiurim, of Mori ve-Rabi Rav Soloveitchik זצ,ל you’ll find he anticipated a lot of the present crisis, forty and fifty years ago.

      • mb says:

        I’m biased, but R.Sacks really has produced a lot of new, deep and creative insights too.(He has a growing list of Cheredi fans. That’s just between us though)

  4. Heshy Bulman says:

    An excellent and timely posting, as we prepare for Rosh HaShana. It appears that in the tremendous strides K’lall Yisroel has taken in our collective erudition in Halacha and in our Limud HaTorah, we may have overlooked the dire necessity of conveying and elucidating our most basic beliefs to our children, in an unbelieving world. It’s not too late to regroup, but the need is pressing, without a doubt.

  5. Nachum says:

    You know who’s got emunah peshuta in spades? The average Israeli, including, perhaps especially, those not considered “religious.” Maybe being in Israel helps, but it would help to see what goes on there.

    • Ittai says:

      I was thinking the same, Nachum.  But the other side of that coin is the culture of Segulot.  The American form can be found in women’s Challah baking events in the US.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        One can argue that since Chalah is viewed as a mitzvah as a result of the steadfastness of the women as opposed to the men during the episode of the Meraglim, then mass chalah bakings are more than just another segulah.

  6. Yoni Doe says:

    “It will take more than a minor miracle for these attitudes not to seep into our own community.” Rabbi Adlerstein, I believe you are making another misjudgment. What’s happening is not about “attitudes”, it’s about information, real honest, factual information that is challenging the very foundation of Jewish belief. This is not about missionaries trying to change beliefs or “steal” away our children. Nor is about “culture”, TV, etc. seeping into our communities. While the internet is not to “blame” the Chareidi leadership are right to fear the internet as it provides easy access to information. Such information is a grave danger to the misinformation our religion can propagate. Ironically, those on the far left of orthodoxy, the ones you and the others on this blog continually excoriate, are the only ones truly dealing with these issues. It’s not that the “secular world” is seeping into to the Jewish world, it’s that Judaism is subject to the very same forces that are are affection all religions. As enlightened as you think your approach sounds, it will not make a dent in this Tsunami. Either, as you said, we’ll have to somehow create an Emunah Peshuta bubble, or there will have to be a massive paradigm shift in how “we” view faith, God, the Torah and Judaism as whole. It’s going to be quite a bumpy ride.

    • No, my friend, I fear you are the one who is misjudging. Since at least the time of the Gaonim, thinking Jews who were exposed to the philosophical undercurrents of their generation, faced huge challenges. Sometimes it was in the form of philosophical idea, sometimes it was data/evidence/facts. HKBH always ensured that there would be a struggle for some part of the population. The difference is that in every age until recently, we had Torah giants who were able to defuse the challenges, tame them, level the playing field so that it became a question of he says-she says rather than “proving” r”l that Torah was incorrect. Today we do not have such people as the Torah community in the last generation withdrew into almost perfect intellectual insularity. When the brouhaha over R Slifkin’s books raged, many of us observed that the bnei Torah in YU yawned. The issues were not new, the challenges were not overwhelming, the ways to deal with what various disciplines were churning out were well in place. At least in YU (and parts of the kiruv community at the time) there were people well versed in what was out there – and how to deal with it, if you wished to retain your emunah.

      Torah is emes. Nothing out there on the Web can or will change that. While we don’t have top-notch roshei yeshiva conversant in the disciplines that pose the problems, we most definitely do have many fine bnei torah who have done their due diligence in the hard and soft sciences, in many forms of biblical criticism and study, in archaeology, paleontology, etc. Not everyone knows about them, but those who are sincere enough in their search can easily find them.

      I’m not suggesting that we have people who can undermine these disciplines and show their falsity. That is not the case. They do much good work. But the devil is in the details of the conclusions that can be drawn – and alternate conclusions for those who accept the validity of Torah. Although it is not applicable in all cases (nor does it have to!), I like the response I received from the renowned (non-Jewish) Bible scholar Kenneth Kitchen, on the occasion about a decade ago of a famous heterodox rabbi informing his congregants that it is quite likely that the Exodus never occurred, basing himself largely on the Copenhagen minimalists. Wrote Prof. Kitchen: “The good old Tanach is not going to sink to the ocean’s depths of obscurity just on the say-so of a noisy group of willful and misleading ignoramuses.” The robust confidence in the Bible is what I like here – not the characterization of others as ignoramuses. Not in all cases is that true. But in all cases it is true that there are alternative voices, with position at least as cogent and defensible.

      It is not the information that is the problem, but our laziness to date to mount a vigorous defense.

      • lacosta says:

         >>in many forms of biblical criticism and study


        —who would you recommend in this area?

      • Ari Heitner says:

        Just read Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible? – sitting upside-down on my shelf). It speaks for itself. My chevrusa suggested we write an academic response to it called, Who Didn’t Write the Bible. You need discipline-specific background to talk intelligently about the faults of Neo-Darwinian Theory (which unfortunately many biologists lack), but a basic familiarity with the chumash is enough to see Friedman has no clothes. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be funny to watch him try to split a narrative like Noah into two authors … leaving neither part with enough pieces to be coherent.


      “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass G-d is waiting for you.” – Werner Heisenberg

  7. Y. Ben-David says:

    I must say I am pleasantly surprised by this piece, and particularly the reference to Rav Kook whom, as Dr. Marc Shapiro has shown, is almost completely ignored by the Haredi community, although Rav Kook himself was 100%  part and parcel of the Haredi community and was never identified with the Mizrachi movement and political Religious Zionism.  Many Orthodox leaders tend to downplay the importance of philosophical issues as being significant in influencing already religious Jews or in trying to do “kiruv”. Many times we hear “the best form of kiruv is a good chulent on Shabbat” which I find to be a rather patronizing attitude.

    I am sorry, but a good chulent is not an answer to the awesome questions like how Judaism confronts the Holocaust, the return of the Jewish people to a not-yet-fully-religiously observant Jewish state in Eretz Israel, the relationship between Torah and science, medical ethics and many other difficult challenges.

    The religious world also has failed to really address the question as to why the large majority of world Jewry abandoned Torah observance in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Too often we hear facile arguments which ultimately boil down to a bizarre scenario in which “all Jews were (supposedly) pious until then and then several generations of Jewish mothers gave birth to reshaim who somehow became maskilim and Zionists”. All of this ignores the situation most of European Jewry faced in which there was poverty, degredation, antisemitism, despair.  This means that in the renewed educational approach advocated in this piece, it is vital that there be an HONEST appraisal of Jewish history and not an ideological rewriting of it.

  8. Ysoscher Katz says:

    This is exactly what we have being trying to do now for 14 yrs. “Distilling the essence of the medieval philosophers” (for example: championing Rambam’s unique formulation in Sefer Hamitzvot-להאמין and not לידע-to inspire people who doubt the facts to nevertheless “believe”; “drawing on post-modernism” by arguing that Emunah is a-factual (which contra to those who misconstrue this idea, means that belief transcends fact, not that it isn’t fact.); and drawing on chassidic theology to create a post-rationalism yiddishkeit. (There’s no doubt that orthodoxy’s turn in the last 50 years to hyper-rationalism is a big factor in the tragic attrition rates we are currently experiencing.)For the sake of klall Yisroel, let’s join hands and work on this together. מינך  ומינאי תסתיים שמעתתא

    [YA – I suspect you realize full well why we can’t “join hands and work on this together.” Just a few weeks ago, we heard you on David Lichtenstein’s show speak about how fraught is the process of embracing out-of-the-box ideas without going too far – without crossing important boundaries. We heard you state that you stay up at night worrying about going too far. You are entirely correct. The stakes are high – in either direction. Those who want to work together to find the balance need to trust each other, need to share a common axiology about halacha and meta-halacha, need to believe that at the core, they are on the same page. Perhaps one day you will come back to such a position. But at the moment, there is an overwhelming corpus of evidence that does not allow any of that trust. It pains me to have to type these words – but partnership is out of the question.]

  9. I want to congratulate Rabbi Adlerstein for his timely, prescient, courageous and timely essay. The situation he outlines is, in my experience, even more advanced than he surmises. It is true that in the past our Gedolim engaged the challenge of general culture straightforwardly. However, the Christian and Muslim societies wherein they moved were composed of believers in God (as much as we might disagree, correctly, as to how one understands that). This is, as Rabbi Adlerstein correctly observes, no longer the case. Our communities (here, in Israel, as well) inhabit a world with no intellectual or moral boundaries. That world invades our world whether we like it or not. It does so through advertising, political discourse and through the internet (the campaign against which, let us admit, is futile).

    So what is to be done? Rabbi Adlerstein mentions two lines of response. First, we must admit that we must restore הקב”ה to the center of our lives. In all the Divre Torah and Hiddushe HaShas, and Piske Halakhah we simply don’t find time to concentrate on Him ית’. Schools should teach Bi’ur HaTefillah and Biur Ha-Piyyut. Our relationship with HKBH should be the top item on the agendas of conferences, and perhaps virulent debates about LED’s on Shabbat could make space thereto (See Rabbenu Bahya, Intro to Hovot HaLevavot and Nefesh HaHayyim IV, 4). I think it is tragic that in all of the Open Orthodoxy polemics we hear about Halakhah, Mesorah, Psak, Slippery Slopes and NOT ONE WORD ABOUT THE נותן התורה and what He might have had in mind and why we treat Psak with such Yirah.

    That, however, is not enough. We need to push back against atheism, blind deference to scientific fashion (Cf. T. Kuhn, Anatomy of Scientific Revolutions), and narcissistic ‘morality.’ Following the position of the Ramban in a letter he once sent to the Baale HaTosfos in Paris, we need to train  Rabbis and Educators, and to sponsor our most talented ones, to acquire the tools not only to offer reasonable defenses of Torah (and this is true of both the so-called Modern and so-called Haredi Worlds) but to take the battle over to the enemy. IOW, we need to learn how to defend Torah in terms that will command the respect (at least) of the POMO world, and then criticize and upend those elements of Post-modern society that are an anathema to Torah both on their own terms (Cf. Rambam,, Intro to Perek Helek, the three approaches to דרשות חז”ל). I am well aware that those opposed in principle to secular studies will rail against this suggestion. However, this is not a task that can be outsourced (as opposed to lawyers, accountants, doctors, police and so on). If we don’t fight for Torah, no one else will. And, while I am sure we will have serious differences about detailed positions, the broad outlines are shared by the entire Orthodox Community.

    We owe HaKadosh Barukh Hu the fullest effort in this regard.

    • Please let me know when you plan to spearhead such an effort, and I will sign on as a lieutenant! 🙂

    • dr. bill says:

      Dr. Woolf, very well put.  I do believe that it is accurate that it is only in modern times that branches of science, philosophy, biblical criticism, etc. are becoming threats to belief itself.  First, let me start with two anecdotes that give me hope.  Kurt Godel, the greatest logician of the 20th century, died believing he had proven His existence.  Crazy, perhaps, but a true believer nonetheless.   Arno Penzias, a Nobel laureate for discovering evidence of a big bang, denied any scientific connection between God and the Big Bang.  All the while his yarmulkah was emblazoned with Zeh haYom asah haShem nagillah v’nismecha Boh.  Neither a devout Christian or a conservative jew were swept away by the agnosticism, what is now an epidemic in the west.
      So far so good.  But we must also recognize that concepts intrinsic to our belief in God (creation and the flood being but two trivial historic examples) have been and must be reconceptualized.  Previous generations did not reject the knowledge of their times; they creatively maintained beliefs they expressed in the language (i.e. philosophy and science and general knowledge) of their times.  The only Gadol to do that in the 20th century was the Rav ztl.  Doing so requires bravery, stature and genius.  Many, if not all, such figures suffered for their effort.  The efforts now required have become yet more challenging.   I agree with you that understanding the siddur (I think Rabbi Sacks’ siddur is mandatory reading) is necessary but far from sufficient.
      I can deal with science and philosophy; but many areas are well beyond my pay grade.  There have been attempts even by great rabbinic figures that were attacked nonetheless, rav Mordechai Breuer ztl, being but one example.  Efforts by individuals of less gravitas have not just been rejected, but scorned.  I think we may be in for generations of challenge, with little to no hope yet on the horizon.  And making it personal, you are a member of Beit Hillel, an organization I did not see represented on the dais at the last agudah convention. 🙂

    • Steve Brizel says:

      What about an in depth study of Malchiyos, Zicronos and Shofaros-which are clearly a mission statement of Hashkafa and Emunah 101 ? We have far too many very well meaning Magidim and Darshanim who have lots of wonderful stories about Emunah, Bitachon, etc, but precious little in terms of actual study of the basic core elements of Malchiyos , Zicronos and Shofaros  as far as textual study on an age appropriate level.

    • YbhM says:

      Very well-put.  I strongly agree with just about every point.

      We need to push back against atheism, blind deference to scientific fashion (Cf. T. Kuhn, Anatomy of Scientific Revolutions), and narcissistic ‘morality.’

      Too many of us accept the conceptual underpinnings of our era.  We do not live in a physical mechanistic universe where G-d is there behind it all as the prime mover.  The soul is a real thing.  Hashgacha is a real thing.

      we need to learn how to defend Torah in terms that will command the respect (at least) of the POMO world, and then criticize and upend those elements of Post-modern society that are an anathema to Torah both on their own terms

      Not an easy thing to do and it’s hard to see it happening any time soon.  I would say that R. Shagar was successful in doing this.  But his impact has been limited and he is unknown outside of Israel.


  10. Upon further reflection, and after reading the comments, I think we are missing a major point. Philosophical issues (including Biblical Criticism) are only a part of the problem. The entire dissolution of traditional morality, based on arguments of human rights (led by the ‘rights’ movement of various identities–sexual and otherwise) is far more insidious. We need to familiarize ourselves with that challenge and how others are confronting it. E. g.

    • את חטאי אני מזכיר היום. Although I am somewhat associated with Tikvah (the publisher of Mosaic), I have not yet read the article and comments. But I’m not sure why I would want to look at the challenge from the dissolution of traditional moralities any differently than other challenges. Those I know who teach in MO high schools report that NONE of their students were opposed to gay marriage. Wouldn’t part of our response be to examine the whys and wherefores of a halachic system, including what HKBH expects by way of a sexual morality – and how that impacts on relationships and family stability? It always hurts me to realize that the people who do this best – coming from a place of trust in G-d’s design for humanity – are religious Catholics like Robert George and his chevra at Princeton. Shouldn’t/couldn’t we be doing the same – only with the advantage of seforim v’sofrim?

      • The truth is that we have much to learn from Catholics like George Weigel and Alvin Platinga as to how to carry on the fight against aggressive atheism and secularism.

      • Richard says:

        Plantinga isn’t Catholic.

      • DF says:

        We do? The Catholics have lost every fight (when they’ve even bothered to fight) and the percentage of lapsed Catholics far exceeds the number of OTD Jews. How many Catholic churches have been built in the past 10 years? How many Seminaries? Even their own Pope seems more of an accommodationist than his predecessors. Meanwhile, orthodoxy keeps growing and growing, another yeshivah or shul going up every week.

        Are we perfect? No, very far from it. And of course, you are certainly correct that there are many brilliant and well-articulated Catholics that we have much to learn from. On the whole though, when it comes to fighting atheism, the Catholics have more to learn from us than the reverse.

      • lacosta says:

        >>Those I know who teach in MO high schools report that NONE of their students were opposed to gay marriage.

        —–rya, any guess what that percentage would be in haredi yeshivot/bais yaakovs?


        [YA – All it can be is a guess. But the guess would be a very healthy majority]

      • tzippi says:

        “Those who think our connection to G-d is one of obligation only – I am commanded therefore I obey – tear the soul out of Judaism.”

        Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, zt”l, Making Sense of Suffering, p. 6

    • mycroft says:

      We as Orthodox Jews exist in peace in Chutz laaretz only because of religious liberty. Thus, since we reject a lot of what 90 per cent of what the US population believes one needs for salvation because of the non religious based ethos that what two consenting adults do is   Their  Own business despite believing that such beliefs are blasphemy or heresy.

      • Steve brizel says:

        The rub is when halacha is viewed as discriminatory as opposed to free exercise of religion watch for it in a courtroom of your choice and the mainstream media

  11. Steve brizel says:

    It might be worthwhile to also making RYBS hashkafic masterpieces available and as strongly considered reading as opposed to some of the very anti science writings that attempt to disprove evolution and blame all of modernity and science for what ails our community.









  12. David F says:

    “It would be wonderful to feed children emunah peshutah pills, but we haven’t found a way to produce them yet.

    (Too many contaminants in the machinery.) Until they become commercially available, we need more educators who have sufficient grasp of the great works of the Rishonim that they can distill their essence and convey them in the vernacular to less sophisticated audiences.”

    Right there is where you lost me. There are no pills for emunah peshutah and it aint got nuttin to do with the machinery or lack of educators. Emunah peshutah simply isn’t so simple. It doesn’t come in pill form, nor is it easily taught in a classroom or curriculum. It’s taught by parents who embody it by their daily behavior, actions, and responses to life and its challenges.

    I have had the benefit of many wonderful educators in my life and I’ve learned a lot from them. Very little of what they taught me, however, is what’s helping me navigate some of the biggest challenges in my life that I currently face. From business troubles to illnesses in the family and worse r”l,  what has kept me sane throughout and still able to love Hashem and appreciate everything that He has brought upon me, is not what I learned in class or in shmuessen in yeshivah although many spoke of emunah. What has guided me and continues to light my path is the exquisite example my parents ע”ה set for me throughout their lives which were full of challenges.

    I watched my father struggle with the loss of his business more than once – and yet, every day he went to shul, learned for hours, and continually worked on his emunah and didn’t complain even when things were at their lowest. I watched my mother struggle though a very difficult illness with nary a word of complaint. Instead she radiated good cheer and appreciation for all her blessings. She could only thank Hashem for the children He gave her, instead of focusing on the challenges they gave her as she attempted to raise them. They taught us not to question His ways, but to question our own faithfulness to Him. In short, emunah peshutah is not  ever going to be learned in a formal setting.

  13. Bracha says:

    I was unfortunately not at all surprised by Pew’s follow-up study and by the assertion that this has/will have a significant impact on the Orthodox community. As many other comments have pointed out, it is happening already in large numbers – especially among adolescents and young to middle-aged adults. (Some data from the OTD study speaks to this.) As a young(ish) adult, I have MANY friends and relatives of all ages who would likely fit in the category of “principled non-believers,” and who find “religious belief irrational or unfounded”. This is not about “connection” or “community,” it is about a truly rational belief system. Can Judaism be presented in a way that is not only “rational, but more rational than the alternatives (i.e. no religion, science, other religions)? If not, people will continue to leave in droves.

    I am no a history buff, but I know that none of this is really new. People have always opted out (albeit for different reasons) and since the enlightenment, it has only gotten worse. However, our generation, unlike others, does not have leaders who are addressing these issues directly. Even R’ Moshe Weinberger, who you named in your article, does not address intellectual issues in Judaism directly (such as belief in G-d, belief in Torah M’Sinai, etc.) R’ Lopiansky touches on these issues somewhat (see but not in an extensive way (as far as I know).

    Even parents who are “supercharged,” do not help in the task of making Judaism seem more credible as a belief system overall. There are many people that are very enthusiastic about Yiddishkeit and are “supercharged” but wouldn’t know what emes was if it hit them in the face (there are a few such speakers with surprisingly large followings on Torah Anytime).

    My feelings are that we need to do one of the following:

    1. Present a rational response/compelling argument for why Judaism is better/more rational than the alternatives.

    2. Admit that belief in G-d/Judaism is not a completely rational endeavor, but there are other compelling reasons to believe (personal experience, intuitive belief, etc.)

    3. Realize that there is nothing we can do to “convince” principled non-believers and just do our best to hold onto the “rope of emunah” ourselves until Moshiach comes.



    • Yoni Doe says:

      4. Create space within orthodoxy for those who wish to live an orthodox lifestyle.

    • joel rich says:

      Does anyone who has studied philosophy/logic  argue “that belief in G-d/Judaism is  a completely rational endeavor”?


      • mycroft says:

        I have seen old philosophy exams in Yeshiva where the question was discuss proofs for the existence of God and how they have been disproven.

    • Yossi says:


      While I am all for rationalism, what Rabbi Weinberger pointed out in a recent lecture was that all the rational proofs, explanations, and answers will only take you so far, and that in the end, you will not stand up to the uber-rationalists.

      I’m a full time kiruv professional and while I spend most of my time discussing the rational reasons and beliefs, something Rabbi Weinberger said recently resonated with me. Social science has recently shown that most of our rational arguments and beliefs come to explain after the fact why we do what we do, and that we rationalize so many things that we do that don’t necessarily make sense.

      I think viewing Judaism as something for your soul- something that isn’t coming to directly address science or philosophy but is more like art and love and music (or sports teams) something that we have a passion for and of course we can explain the rationale for but that we do it of love and passion and connection- that is the answer.

      In kiruv today, I find that while you have to have rational answers, it is when you provide the love, the connection, and he spirituality that people are looking for then they are much more accepting of the rational arguments, and truthfully don’t care all that much. When you don’t provide the heart and the passion, they will argue the rationa points forever.

      When we can show people how meaningful a life lived with Yiddishkeit can be (and that is not an easy thing to do) then I think we will need to focus less on the rational reasons. Today’s generation that claims to be more rational and scientific is more self centered and more isolated than so many other previous ones, and I don’t think all that much of society’s behavior today shows a deep commitment to rationalism. Show people what Judaism has for them, and teach them why what Judaism ASKS of them is meaningful, and I think we’ll accomplish a lot more.

  14. Gary Poretsky says:

    As the Chafetz Chaim put it: terrible illness was plaguing children. The toll was rising daily, as more children became very ill. One doctor was able to come up with a medicine that would cure the disease that was ravaging thousands of children. He was a good and kind man, producing the serum himself at his own expense. He then traveled from town to town administering the drug, literally saving thousands of children from the jaws of death. One day, his journey was tragically interrupted by a thief, who, after beating him, took his satchel, which contained the vials of life-saving serum. When the doctor arrived in the next city, he was besieged by hopeful parents who each wanted only one thing from him: the medicine that would save their sick children. Alas, with tears in his eyes, he informed them that he was unable to help them. His medicine had been stolen. Suddenly, a man carrying a very sick child pushed himself through the throngs of people surrounding the doctor. He cried bitterly to the doctor, “You must save my son. He is all that I have. Please do not allow him to die. Give me the medicine to save him!” As this was going on, the doctor took a penetrating look at the man, and realized that he was the thief who had beaten him earlier and stolen the medicine. The doctor, who was a compassionate man, told the thief, “I forgive you for what you did to me, but give me back my satchel. I must have it. All of my medicine vials were in there.” The thief was regretful and apologetic when he responded, “They were of no value to me, so I threw them away into the river.”
    The doctor looked at the thief with great sorrow as he told him, “You threw away the only opportunity to save your precious child. I cannot help you. You have only yourself to blame.”
    vehamavin yavin

  15. Rivky says:

    I really like this piece. The only thing I disagree with is that I’m not sure that “It would be wonderful to feed children emunah peshutah pills.” (I know you’re joking, but with a grain of truth, that simple faith is a beautiful thing.)

    People should believe because they’ve thought long and hard about God, and about religion, and because they’re convinced that it’s the most emesdik and spiritually fulfilling way to live their lives. They should be convinced, by themselves, that it’s the right decision. If they choose to be “religious” because they’re kinda not thinking enough, they’re just following the crowds, or their parents, then we have a religion of sheep. Is that a genuine thirst for God?

    But by exposing children (and adults!) to serious philosophical and theological thinkers, they get to make their own decisions, but decisions based on real knowledge. I love the way you presented this. Every Jewish (Orthodox, Community, etc) school should have this in their curriculum.

  16. Yisrael Asper says:

    In the good old days you had people like Rabbi Aryeh Carmel and Cyril Domb and others who condemned scientism as nonsense and unscientific, and therefore did not allow an argument to be that the scientific community says X and therefore it must be true or provisionally true until the scientific community would switch its position. Gravity is something we see even if scientists would never deal with the topic. What you have is a lot of people nowadays not really doing anything but replacing one community with another. It’s not just a matter of looking for good answerers. It’s also a matter of looking for people who can evaluate what’s a good answer.

  17. lacosta says:

    i guess we should not be  surprised.  if we start from the avos , between  1/2 and 10/12ths of their kids went  OTD .    in the Pharisee era , we assume that only a small fraction stayed along for the ride.  who knows how many were lost before pre-Haskala europe for 1000 yrs  , but essentially  90% of the post Napoleon  [1900-2016] cohort is lost . so maybe it’s not a surprise that even from that remaining tenth ,  that unfortunately only a fraction will remain intact. in mitzraim , was it  1/5 , 1/50 or 1/500  who lasted…

    ‘lo merubchem …’


  18. lacosta says:

    to see a much less sympathetic approach to the OTD  and  the recent published survey of their thoughts  [  ]

    see last week’s Mishpacha magazine wherein Columnist Kobre  takes a more hakheh-et-shinav type of  approach…

    • dr. bill says:

      there is a brilliant (and i do not know if it’s true, but I sure wish it is) explanation of hakheh spelt with a kuf not a khaf (odd, no?), by rav reuvain bengis ztl.  rav bengis was called a gantze gaon by the Netziv which caused the parents of a yet more famous volozhin graduate to question why their son was called (only) a halbe gaon.

  19. Steve Brizel says: Have to wonder whether cost whether the sole factor or whether there is some information on the estimated percentage of alumni from each school who are Shomrei Torah Umitzvos.

  20. Mark says:

    I don’t think we need Rabbeim who’ve gone through the medieval and modern philosophical classics. We need someone(s) to write a 150 pg. contemporary handbook. There can’t be more than 10-20 major questions that are bothering people, and the answers had better not take up more space than 5 to 10 pages a piece.

    • It would be a good start. But people will then have good questions about those 5-10 pages. Hashkafa is not so different from Shas or halacha. To deal effectively with the questions that arise, you the short handbook doesn’t suffice. We would still need talmidei chachamim who have made an avodah of genuine machshava.

      • Mark says:

        Absolutely, but not necessarily in every classroom. It would be enough for them to be armed with the basic Shu”t Nevuchei Yameinu (which should be authored by the stalwarts you have in mind).

      • Steve brizel says:

        How about R D David Berger?

    • mb says:


      It already exists. Letter in A Scroll by R.Lord Sacks. Translated into Hebrew too.

      Or for the short attention span generation there’s this masterpiece.

      Why I Am a Jew.

  21. Shmuel W says:

    R’ J.D Bleich is someone who can and has formulated Torah approaches to many of the philosophical questions. He also happens to be a tremendous Talmid chochom and speaks the king’s English. His writings that are collected and presented in  “The Philosophical Quest” are masterful.

  22. Mr. Cohen says:

    I suggest THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH THOUGHT by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.


    As a psychologist who works extensively with adolescents and young adults – actually with adolescents of all ages – both in and out of the frum world, I see myself as on the front line of the phenomenon under discussion. Therefore I would like to offer an observation.

    Over the last few years I have been referred a number of yeshiva bochurim who have been found to be engaging in decidedly un-frum internet behavior. Over the course of an evaluation I often pose the question as to how they jibe their behavior with their religious instruction and expectations of the family and/or religious sector they come from. In the past, exploring this subject would typically evoke some expressions of guilt and shame. More recently I often get a blank stare. There is no dissonance. The improper behavior and the religious experience are compartmentalized from each other, each one a choice made in response to some imperative in the moment, without any connection between them. “What I do” and Who I am” are isolated concepts; there appears to be  a complete lack of awareness of action and consequence and purpose to one’s life. They don’t know why they’re here, and therefore don’t truly appreciate what difference their choices make.

    I would suggest Emunah P’shutah is not the missing element in helping our young people deal with the intellectual challenges they may confront. After all, science and technology can only answer “How” questions; they cannot explain “Why”.

    If we don’t focus on purpose and place in the world as the root of our existence, all the answers to intellectual enigmas will be inconsequential.




  24. Natan Thaler says:

    The article and the comments are fascinating. However, I don’t see much discussion of how to improve the curriculum besides some discussion of emunah p’shutah pills. Unfortunately, not all people with the classroom skills and love of children that make good Rebbeim also have the training/IQ needed to go through Emunos V’deios or other such works. Fortunately, I don’t think they have to. Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission books are probably good enough, and the most vital info can be compressed into a few sentences: “We Jews have a direct historical tradition of Divine revelation and prophecy at Mount Sinai, where the entire nation directly experienced G-d’s oneness. Prophecy includes an unmistakable awareness of the recipient that what he is experiencing is real, in a way that the human mind cannot comprehend, because the human mind is fallible.” The sources are the rather short introduction of the Sefer Hachinuch and the Ramchal’s description of prophecy in Derech Hashem. Just put them together.

    In addition the teachers need to inculcate in students the expectation that all questions, no matter how big or small, have answers , even if it takes awhile to come up with them. Over time, as students have the questions and find the answers, they will have the confidence in the Mesorah to not worry about their questions, and just look forward to finding the answers someday.

    • I wish I could agree. But I can’t. Would you accept a halacha teacher for your kids who got everything he needed out of an English Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, or his gemara exclusively from an Artscroll translation? Of course not. There are no short cuts in learning – and machshava is an area of Torah as well that requires skills and depth. I love my dear talmid R Leib Kelemen, but many years have transpired since the writing of those books. I’ve told him that the science badly needs updating. Not to mention that the questions that kids have today are more sophisticated. This is not because they are smarter, but because they have access to more skepticism. In an actual classroom, your approach would be shot down – at least by some kids. You say that over time, kids will find answers. Maybe. Some will be fortunate to have those rabbeim. Others are still reporting that their questions are shot down, or they are getting answers so shallow that they do more harm than good. I can point to books in our seforim stores that are collections of shallowness.

  25. MK says:

    Here is what I think is a short and serious treatment of one of the major issues facing thinking Jews.  (Full disclosure, I am in kiruv.)

    While I am not a scientist, I believe that what I am presenting is scientifically sound and provides a framework for balancing a healthy respect for science with commitment to our mesorah, our tradition.

    Most readers of popular science publications, blogs etc, are given the impression that aside from a few “Creationist Crazies” who see the fine tuning of the universe as 
    pointing to a Creator, science does not take that seriously and can explain everything without the need of a G-d.

    That is not true.

    None other than Stephen Hawking in his book Grand Design, devotes an entire chapter to the “fine tuning of the universe” and gives multiple examples.  He actually says that
    it would seem virtually miraculous  for this to have happened by accident.  It seems, he says, to be a strong argument for the existence of a Creator.

    So rather than dismissing the argument, he actually validates the “kashya”, the challenge to our universe being an accident.

    His next step?

    If our universe was the only one, it would be compelling that there is a Creator.  However, he introduces the idea of a “multiverse”, that there may be billions, perhaps an infinite number of, universes.
    If that is the case, it would not be surprising that out of an infinite number of universes, one would, by accident, be able to support life as we know it.    

    Is there proof for the multiverse theory, or is it something “created” by atheists like Hawking in order to “answer” the argument of fine tuning?

    Hawking says there is support for it while other prominent physicists say that there is no evidence at all and that by definition we can never prove it because we can never observe anything outside of our universe.

    I have no opinion on the question and there is no way I can “decide” if there is an infinite number of universes.

    And in any case, life is too short to spend it on this question!

    So I say, our tradition tells us that there is a Creator.  The most eminent physicist of our generation says that evidence of the Creator is overwhelming unless there is an infinite number of universes.

    I will let him fight that out with his colleagues.

    Let’s sit down and learn from the Torah what we should do with our lives now that we are here!       

  26. rebcharles says:

    “כלנו חכמים כלנו נבונים בענין דע “מה שתשוב למורה נבוכי הזמן

    if we were the ones to be convinced, there would at least be a debate.

    but my sense is that there not even a modicum of curiousity in today’s youth.

    why? a large part is no doubt due to technology, its various exposures,  at a early and impressionable age, its immersion, its values and messages וכו’. We should acknowledge that we are  presently at the tail end of many decades of compounded technology, each iteration adding its own corrosive effect. Who could foretell what 2 or 3 generations hence would look like?

    what’s the עצה היעוצה?

    I dont have any good answer, The only thing I suggest is to make our own lives, our values, and our instititutions as attractive as possible. If we lived anywhere near our self-proclaimed בין אדם לחבירו  values, thats probably our best shot.

    One more peeve: I spoke to someone who attended MIT. The work was overwhelming, there was no social life, many sleepless nights, etc. But one thing they shared; the students worked as a team. It was students vs profs, or more accurately students vs their assignments. They worked collectively, no competition. I do not think we can say the same about our Yeshiva system or shidduch system.

    פשוט ס’פעלט אין  אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ יַעְזֹרוּ וּלְאָחִיו יֹאמַר חֲזָק





    • YbhM says:

      but my sense is that there not even a modicum of curiousity in today’s youth.

      Yes, there is the sense that in the current era we know and understand everything fully, whether the sphere is science, morality, or politics.

      why? a large part is no doubt due to technology, its various exposures,  at a early and impressionable age, its immersion, its values and messages

      If this is true, then it’s because there’s an attitude that the answer is to everything is available via Google or wikipedia.  I think it runs deeper than that though.



      • David Ohsie says:

        I don’t mean to be rude, but answers of the form “the youth of today [fill in blank here]” are both age old and unproductive.   What it shows is that when we are older, 1) we forget what it was like to be younger, and 2) think our own youthful period represents a platonic ideal.

        Insistently not understanding the people whom you are trying to reach and feeling superior to them is not a recipe for success.

        You might also consider that with Google, wikipedia and other sources of information, it really does become easier to dispel group myths of all sorts than it used to be, and that this might even be a net good for Jews, who have been the victims of the mythology of others for a long time.   Can we doubt that a simple direct exposure to the “Old Testament” gives open-minded Christians a different view of us?

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