Sunday, April 09, 2006

Off the Path

I've been meaning to blog about the book Off the Derech but have just not found the time to write my thoughts out fully. So let me do it partially. First, the book is daring in that it is written by an insider but still subjects our community to scrutiny and criticism. Second, the author took the time to interview many subjects who experienced the phenomenon she was investigating. Additionally, the author tries to be constructive and propose solutions. It is not just a long list of complaints.

On the other hand, I had trouble digesting the book because I did not know what it was. Is it an investigation of why kids go off the path of Orthodoxy? Is it a guide on how to stem the tide? Is it for parents, for communal leaders, for those who have left out community? I just did not understand the author's goal and that made it difficult for me to understand large sections of the book. As a parent, I was most focused on what I can do to prevent my children from leaving the fold. In that respect, I found the book disappointing. A clear message that I received was, "Don't bother." Unless you are a perfect parent in every aspect, you have a real risk. There was one story about a father who would send his daughter upstairs if, when he returned from synagogue on Shabbos, she had not yet prayed. That's so terrible? I'm sure I've done much worse. And then, even if you are the perfect parent, it doesn't matter unless your children have perfect teachers. Teachers, of course, have to be caring enough but not intrusive, challenging but not too difficult, rewarding but not punishing,... If I were a teacher, after reading this book I'd look for another job because it is impossible to be perfect.

I'm not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the author's research is simply not methodologically sound. Basically, she interviewed a lot of "experts," a lot of people who left the fold, and conducted an internet survey. The "experts" are, well, not necessarily the most objective observers. They have plenty of biases that should be obvious so I won't bother pointing out here. Except for one, which relates to an early chapter in which the author makes the claim that the problem of youth leaving the fold today is at an epic proportion, never before seen in our community. Balderdash. That is just hyperbole and historical revisionism. It's not the author's fault, because she was told that by "experts," but she is to blame for taking their comments uncritically. Additionally, there is a definition problem. Who, precisely, has gone "off the derech"? Is it someone Chassidic who becomes Modern Orthodox? What about someone Modern Orthodox who becomes Yeshivish? The author was certainly aware of this difficulty but I do not believe she resolved it satisfactorily.

There is just too much "fluffy" divrei Torah in the book to be taken as a serious study. This flows into the next issue.

The book reads as a manifesto for a certain stream of Judaism, what I call Left Wing Charedi. Now, the author might not have realized it. She could very well think that what she is advocating is "Torah True" Judaism with which everyone Orthodox agrees, or should agree. That is not true. There are ideological differences within the Orthodox community and this book touches on many of those issues, arguing that certain positions on these crucial issues are what cause kids to leave the fold. Aside from not winning any friends, it is somewhat of a pointless exercise to make that argument. Those who already agree will nod their heads and those who do not will say that she simply doesn't understand or that this is not sufficient reason to change their position. The statistics in this book may or may not be accurate. We have no way of knowing.

The problems identified in this book are not new. Quite the opposite. Most of the book reads like Shabbos table talk that I've heard for years. I found little insight in the book, although a lot of good stories and some quotes that were excellent (and others that made me cringe).

A friend once told me that when writing on a topic, you must be either first or right. This book is important in that it is the first on this subject. Let's hope that the next book gets it right.

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