Wednesday, May 24, 2006

'Off the Derech' by Faranak Margolese reviewed by me

I started writing this review months ago but for some reason didn't finish it. Well, here 'tis:

Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese has been getting some attention, and for good reason. The book is more than four hundred pages long and seeks to explain Orthodox attrition and what is to be done about it. Her central thesis is that people raised Orthodox leave Orthodoxy (go "off the derech") because of factors in their life which cause them to associate Orthodoxy (that is to say, in her view, Torah, halakhah, Judaism) with pain, whether the pain is caused by stifling conformity or rejection or other reasons.

In addition to doing a good amount of research, meticulously documented in the bibliography, she conducted personal interviews with Orthodox educators, mental health professionals and most importantly, many "off the derech" people from a wide range of backgrounds. In addition, in researching for the book she conducted a web survey which returned more than 450 valid results from those defined as "off the derech" (but non-scientific, by her own admission). Essentially defining "observant" as "keeps kashruth and shabbath in an Orthodox manner," she defined "off the derech" as abandoning one or both those things. While acknowledging the imprecision of such criteria, it is useful. She also added a person touch by including her own story, being raised in a traditional (but not particularly observant) Sephardi family, her experiences both highly positive and highly negative in yeshivoth and seminaries.

All in all, her findings essentially reiterated the recurring theme of the book: it is mistakes parents and teachers and Orthodox society makes which pushes some of our young away. Her solution then, meticulously detailed, would involve reversing the negatives which children can be exposed to, by increasing tolerance, understanding, creating an association of warmth and love with observance, overlooking minor infractions so as not to miss the big picture etc. Very little is left unexplored in this book, whether the presence of racism or fanaticism, hypocrisy and anti-intellectualism (although regretably the issue of sexuality barely comes up).

It seems to me that she is onto somethig. It is clear from beginning to end that the author is a kind, warm, friendly person. She advocates honesty, joy and removing stress and pressure in the environment in which we raise and teach our children. Truly, if all the Orthodox world were like her, things would be swell.

To begin with, her approach is rather tolerant of diverse points of view. Her book quotes from the Chazon Ish to Sussanah Heschel to Dennis Prager to Rav Shach. Obviously she believes the Rambam's dictum of accepting the truth from whoever says it--שמע האמת ממי שאמרה (from his intro. to Shemoneh Peraqim). This is a healthy Orthodoxy, in my view. Unfortunately much of the real Orthodoxy is highly fragmented. In 'Off the Derech' Rav Shach is quoted, and so is R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It is hard to imagine that Rav Shach would be pleased. In addition, one part of the book quotes a man who went "off the derech" who remembered that he was told by rabbeim in yeshivoth he applied to that "real bachurim don't read newspapers." This is an example of the intolerance that drives some people away. Yet Rav Shach is quoted here saying much the same thing. At the very least, this sort of ethic came from somewhere. There is nothing wrong with quoting Rav Shach at his warmest and most tolerant, as she does, but it is hard to forget that there is a larger context for such quotes. Later she quotes R. Eliyahu Dessler. In 1951 Rav Dessler wrote the following (translated by R. Aryeh Carmell in Vol. III pp. 355-60 of Michtav Me-eliyahu):
"...the philosophy of Yeshiva education is directed towards one objective alone, to nurture Gedolei Torah and Yirei Shamayim in tandem. For this reason university was prohibited to their students, because [the Gedolim] could not see how to nurture Gedolei Torah unless they directed all education towards Torah exclusively. However, do not think that they did not know in advance that through this approach, G-d forbid, many (students) will be ruined, since they will be unable to survive such an extreme position, and [therefore] separate from the path of Torah. However, this is the price that must be paid for [producing] Gedolei Torah."
This would seem to me to be the very practice which this book seems to counter. Again, why not quote Rav Dessler where he is warm and tolerant? I understand that. Surely we have much to learn from R. Dessler, and she is right for quoting him! But the trouble is that some of the attitudes she identifies as destructive came from somewhere.

That said, her modus seems to be to ignore that which divides us, and to ignore that which is unpleasant in what rabbinic leaders have offered. If we could all do that and focus more on what unites us, and most importantly, live up to our own hype then perhaps the 'off the derech' phenomenon could be reversed. After all, it is precisely the good things that are real and the hype for things that ought to be which leads people towards Orthodoxy.

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