Monday, December 17, 2007

Kiruv, Orthodoxy, and denigration of the wider world

The Blog is not a polemic about which is better or worse, i.e. the ultra-orthodox, fundamentalist way of life vs. the life (kinds of lives) you find in the "outside" world. This blog, however, does point out the critical issues ignored, obscured and / or distorted by Orthodox Society in general and Kiruv workers in particular, one of which is the pervasiveness with which Orthodoxy denigrates, in an attempt to sell its wares, the world beyond Orthodoxy. Kiruv workers often emphasize secular society’s negatives and ignore, downplay or even falsely take credit for its positive aspects just as they overly accentuate Frum society’s positive elements (which exist in abundance to be sure) while ignoring, downplaying and denying its negatives. Some will even project the blame on the secular influences for its own failings (acting like goyim, the goyish influence, etc)

The basis for these gross distortions and oversimplifications are many. For some, it emanates from a rigid fundamentalist mindset that exists outside conscious awareness and that engenders black and white views on life that is best understood with subtly and nuance. Others are more deliberate when they present this false dichotomy between the two worlds, intentionally contrasting an idealized and sanguine picture of the frum world with a pejorative depiction of the “outside world.” Such deceptive salesmanship can be expected from used car salesmen, but not from those whom we are most inclined to trust, especially when the product sold requires momentous life changes and sacrifices.

One common example is the familiar refrain concerning the sorry state of the American family - - with its 50% divorce rate. This statistic, which is so often trumpeted as evidence of societies decay and in contrast to Orthodoxies triumphant values, is extremely misleading in its hiding of all the details about distribution. It obscures the revealing fact that those who marry later in life, in their thirties, often-graduate educated middle and upper middle class professionals, have a very low incidence of divorce, possibly no greater then the Orthodox world. The divorce rate also tells us nothing about the quality of Frum marriages where economic, personal and social forces inhibit divorce.

Also ubiquitous is the oft-touted false analogy comparing the Orthodox community to the outside world’s social ills like violent crime and drugs. Again, it should be obvious that one cannot compare the frum community to the general American population. This common selection error or biased sample can only be avoided by comparing Orthodox Jews to similar socio economic classes, i.e. educated middle class Americans. In any event, many of the wider world’s ills are indeed shared by Frum society. In fact, a recent study from the American Psychiatric Association suggests that cheredi women suffer considerable levels of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, Cheredi apologists, who are theologically threatened by the very notion that such ills exist in their societies, have attacked the study (methodology, etc) rather then engage in honest soul searching that could lead to the kind of corrective measures that protect its precious children.

At the yeshiva I attended, Machon Shlomo - - similar to Machon Yaakov - - I often heard such disparaging references about the "outside world," sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. These exaggerated and oversimplified depictions became less restrained as the 2-year program of indoctrination progressed. This crude emotional manipulation, often based on exaggeration and fear, is constructed to create powerful incentives to join Orthodoxy as much as it is constructed to create powerful disincentives to leaving. I believe that many BT’s (and Frum people) prolong their stay in Orthodoxy simply out of fear of re-entering this world, a world that many desperately wanted to escape before becoming frum, and a world that is often at best devalued in Orthodoxy and at worst demonized.

Contrary to what the worst propagandists insinuate, the world is NOT predominantly filled with immoral, unrestrained, and self-indulgent people. It's a mixed bag, just like Orthodox Judaism; one encounters good people and bad just as in the frum world,generous and selfish people(just like in the frum world),sensitive and insensitive people (ditto), geniuses and fools (ditto), violent and gentle (ditto)spiritual and unspiritual people (likewise) -- and, of course, all combinations of the above.

Yes, there are all manner of terrible things in this world: war, poverty, disease, madness, sexual abuse, racism, and all the rest. A thoughtful and sensitive person has to acknowledge that modern society, especially American culture, is pervaded by suffering, shallowness, nihilism, and a vacuous popular culture. However, in the midst of all this there is good as well. There are people whose hearts contain benevolence and compassion and who try to relieve others of their pain, who sincerely come to the aid of those who are misunderstood, disadvantaged, persecuted and mistreated.

There are also many who seek truth, meaning and beauty who devote themselves to spiritual practices of various sorts, who seek to become more aware, more sensitive and who try to apply the truths they discovered in their daily lives. And there are people, who, although not focused on spiritual goals, have a basic decency about them and who try, in the course of their lives, to be kind to their fellow humans.

So, if one decides to leave frum society, it does not, by any means, necessarily entail leading an immoral, unrestrained, and self-indulgent life (unless you really wish to be so, in which case you'll tire of that soon enough). Nor is the outside world always a cold cruel and meaningless place. Nor need one assume an attitude of uncritical acceptance of the world. It's quite possible to remain acutely aware of the limitations and imperfections of the world and maintain a healthy, albeit ambivalent relationship with it, while constructing a secure and meaningful space for yourself within it.

In summary:

  1. One is not guaranteed a happier or more secure life by becoming a BT, or remaining as BT, than the life one would have had by living in the non-frum world. What determines the spiritual and emotional quality of one’s life is what you "bring to the table" in terms of your personality, character, values, economic status, beliefs, education, interpersonal and family relations, and hundreds of other variables too subtle and too numerous to list.

  2. Being Frum is not a panacea for people, who for whatever reason are fearful or repelled by the adversities and pain and ugliness of the "outside" world. Frumkeit does not confer immunity from harm or fear and may have its own burdens and difficulties that are unique to it. The point is that there is no absolutely safe harbor from the adversities of life and there are "storms" in the frum world and the non-frum world. Life can be beautiful and fulfilling in both worlds and life can be hell in both worlds, and life can be everything in-between in both worlds.

  3. The Kiruv movement has a tendency to malign, vilify, and ( in milder form) mis-characterize the "outside" non-frum, and the BT or potental BT should be very sensitive and wary of any person who must deprecate one system in order to elevate their own system. Such a person should be questioned very closely as to what they mean and how they justify their mis-characterization of the non-frum world. If one does that I think that one will find that the strategy is simply setting up a "straw-man" to knock down in order to prop up their own belief system. Such a person is very selective in the examples and issues he or she chooses from the "outside" world and neglects the many adverse issues in the frum world. It is an argument with blinders on. Western culture is too broad and too diverse to pigeonhole it as either good or bad. Every culture has its good and bad aspects; to focus on one or the other aspect to the exclusion of others is disingenuous. One has to see the whole picture.