While our government unnervingly tries to figure out how to deal with the spate of domestic attacks by terrorists brewing outside the Jewish community, there is a crisis brewing within Israel’s Orthodox community which, if not identified and addressed, will become increasingly threatening to its vitality. Recently a number of Israeli papers ran an advertisement regarding a new neighbourhood available for “Datlashim” (an acronym which stands for “people who were once religious but are no longer observant”) which read, “Datlashim –you are already on your way to hell; why not meanwhile come enjoy the Garden of Eden?”. While the ad promotes a real estate project for Datlashim, it should serve as a rude awakening for the religious community as well. Many people from Orthodox families of various backgrounds, Religious Zionist and Haredi Ultra-Orthodox alike, are leaving the fold, rejecting observance and the faith they have been brought up on; after all the fact that a neighbourhood for Datlashim is under construction means that they represent a significant number of people. Certainly from the Orthodox community’s perspective, a community which presumably nurtures and values a commitment to the Torah’s commandments, this is indicative of a failure which should evoke some serious consideration. Truth be told people rejected their tradition in past generations as well, some from very prominent religious families (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s youngest son Yom tov Lipman became non-observant, Moshe Schneerson the youngest son of the first Rebbe of Chabad Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi converted to Christianity, to name a few) but many cases of these drifters were swept under the rug; not so today. Today’s open society and social media makes it virtually impossible to hide such things, as evident in the case of Esti Weinstein of blessed memory, and even more importantly dilutes the shamefulness that a person who became non-observant from previous generations may have once sensed. Datlashim of this generation are not as reluctant to reject their family’s faith, which logically dictates that the Orthodox community needs to respond with greater urgency.
The advertisement itself is telling for a number of reasons. Firstly it indicates brazenness by insinuating that Datlashim should “stick it to the man”. Of course “the man” is none other than the God they may no longer believe in but it is also the same God who their observant families would have liked them to believe in and revere. In addition, while a Datlash might not believe that he is “on his way to hell” for the simple reason that he may no longer believe in hell, or heaven for that matter, the inference is that one should live for today rather than think about tomorrow. This is an adage which is all too familiar to a generation which endorses instant gratification and craves self-satisfaction, and very difficult variables under which to promote religion and observance which are anything but instantaneously pleasing. The orthodox community must identify these indications not just for the sake of reconciliation but for its own perpetuation. If in the expeditious world we live in our children and students demand quicker responses and comprehensive explanations to what we consider fundamental questions, then we should accommodate them because if we don’t, considering the information highway they have at their fingertips, they will find answers themselves which may be objectionable to us or, even worse, inadequate to them.
Therefore although there are many factors when considering why young people stray from the traditional path paved in front of them (family dynamics, traumatic experiences, double standards within the community, even luck cannot be discounted) a recent study by the Nishma Research Institute found that the majority of people who leave orthodoxy do so because of things that they read or learn which they find contradictory to what they have been taught. One major innuendo when considering this finding; in Israel the problem begins with the fact that many of the essentials which should be addressed in the religious school system, are not taught, discussed or developed. Principles of faith and sources regarding belief which we would consider tantamount to believing in God and to subscribing to a religious home are not examined. In Hebrew we refer to these topics as machshevet yisrael or Jewish thought, and while machshevet yisrael is part of the matriculation exams system in religious high schools, the material is conveyed for the sole purpose of passing an exam as opposed to internalizing and at least engaging in a spiritual quest of conviction. It is only years later when and if students attend pre or post army religious institutions that they begin to analyse and deliberate on many of these fundamental questions and sources but by then it is too late for many who are dissatisfied and uninterested. In fact, considering the sophistication of our children today many of the topics of machshevet yisrael should already be introduced in primary school. Merely telling our children to put on tzizit (fringes on a four cornered garment) and open the siddur (Jewish prayer book) may not be sufficient without discussing with them how to relate to an all-powerful authority called God and why even when He is out of sight He should not be out of mind. There are basic composites of knowledge that we require all children, sophisticated and less sophisticated alike, to learn and know by a certain age such as two plus two equals four in math, or “i before e except after c” in English; why should Jewish thought be treated any differently?
I recall sitting next to a non-observant Jewish entertainer in Australia who said to me that Judaism is undoubtedly the most authentic religion. When I asked him why, he said because it is the only religion which promotes questioning God’s existence in order to strengthen one’s commitment to Him; we would be hard pressed to say that this remains an outstanding characteristic in the Israeli Orthodox world of today. It is important to note that there are Datlashim who believe in God but reject His Torah and while their challenges may sound different they are part of the same problem. They do not understand why gentiles who want to be Jews have to go through the gruelling process of conversion, or why homosexual relationships are an abomination if this was the way God created these particular people. From an Orthodox perspective the questions of these Datlashim are even more upsetting because it appears that they firmly believe in God, but many of the prevalent issues of today which continue to fester within the confines of the Orthodox community and Jewish law as it applies to modern society are left alone and continue to remain taboo and unclear.
Part of the reason why schools do not explore more inquiry is not only because the curriculum doesn’t call for it but also because many teachers and educators are afraid of it; they are simply not prepared to tackle the issues and engage the students. When was the last time you heard a religious educator or a rabbi pose questions such as; does God really exist, or what are some of the ways that we can prove He does, or for that matter what gives humans the right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them? I propose that the study of machshevet yisrael become a staple of rabbinic training and religious studies certificates and degrees; after all there are more Jews walking around today wondering whether God exists than those wondering whether or not a chicken is kosher. We must legitimize their quandary through knowledgeable debate and discourse.
Some might voice concerns that this proposal only addresses the academically inclined individual, but what of the less intellectually curious person? Perhaps they are just tired and would be uninterested in sound intellectual argumentation; perhaps they are simply looking for an unrestrictive lifestyle. This may be true but it is all a matter of strategy and approach; even a non-academic child is equipped with the basics of math and reading. Orthodox and religious education needs to figure out a way by which searching and discussing God is as fundamental (age and level appropriate) as reading and writing, this way not only less students will choose alternative lifestyles but even those who do so may still want to affiliate with certain levels of observance and may still embrace certain doctrines of faith. I was recently conversing with a religious friend of mine whose child is no longer observant and he posed the following poignant question. Were our children for some reason or another brought up in a different faith other than ours, would they naturally find their way back to what we believe and preach are the truths of Jewish Orthodoxy? If we are unsure whether the answer is yes, then there is a deficiency and we have some serious planning to do.
While the advertisement for the Datlashim project may be unnerving, the real estate project itself is strangely encouraging because it demonstrates that they value unity and that they have not given up on camaraderie …nor should we.