Why People Leave Torah Observance

Here are some different thoughts in the comments from this recent thread


1) It is easier to be secular than to be frum.

2) The values of outside society tend to contradict a lot of things found in Torah. Many Jews I know who became less religious/irreligious had problems with the prohibition on intermarriage, the distinctions between Jew and non-Jew in halacha, the different roles for men and women, the prohibition on gay relationships, etc. It can be hard raising kids as American Jews or Israeli Jews (for example) when Americans and Israelis tend to see Jewish law as backwards, restrictive, and even homophobic and racist.

3) General society tends not to be religious, and tends even to have negative views of religion and certainly negative views of a religion that requires adherents to eat, dress, and pray in a certain way. It can be hard to be religious when there’s a tendency around you to see religion as “the opiate of the masses” or some similar insulting thing.


I don’t think anything is more devastating to an idealistic, sensitive person — and sorry, but absolutely everyone who reads this blog, and certainly everyone who contributes to it, is in this category, whether they want to admit it or not! — than encountering people and institutions (which are just collections of people) who fail to live up to the ideals of Judaism insofar as how they treat others.

I believe each and every departure from “the derech” has this at its heart.

Everyone makes his own decisions in life. Everyone is responsible for his own soul, even if other Jews are “guarantors.” There’s plenty of rationalization in the air around all of us. And as has been said here many times and in many forms, it does not follow logically that Judaism (much less Hashem) should be judged by individual Jews and their actions.

But I believe at the heart of every social damnation, every purported halachic breaking point, every demand for the application of non-spiritual paradigms (e.g., science) to spiritual questions by those who say they can’t or won’t do it any more, is a series of inexcusable, unforgivable and callous actions or omissions by one or more orthodox Jews.

It could be in the old country. It could be in a yeshiva or seminary. It could be in the workplace, or a bus stop, or even online. But reading between the lines of the many, many Jews whose hearts now spill out their pixelated pain, it seems that the personal, spiritual roshem (mark, impression) of a Jew’s actions in this world can be at once the single most inspiring, or the single most devastating, phenomenon any other Jew can encounter.

And I really don’t know, in terms of the negative part of that equation, what we can do about that, except pile as much onto the positive part as we possibly can, and have faith in Hashem and ask for His guidance for all His people.


IMO, the kids at risk phenomenon will not abate unless we work on the three main factors outlined by Farak Margolese-dysfunctional families, schools that avoid or discourage inquiry into hashkafic questions and communities across the hashkafic spectrum that unfortunately embrace social conformity as opposed to genuine growth in Avodas HaShem.

28 comments on “Why People Leave Torah Observance

  1. To Arth #27: You made a statement that, “as a social reality, the orthodox lifestyle is intolerable.”

    Plenty of us BT’s, Geirim and FFB’s would beg to differ.

    In my mind, it is the “other” lifestyle of the outside world that is intolerable. A woman starting from age 15 is expected to “put out” sexually for any man who takes her out on a date, just like a prostitute except she doesn’t get paid. And not even a real date: she gets drunk at a bar, and hooks up with a guy in the bathroom, that’s a so-called “date.” If a woman resists the idea that she should hand her body around, as someone described it, like a canape at a cocktail party, she is dumped for “easier” women and told she’ll never get married. And if she’s past forty and still yearns for children, well the only way is to go to a sperm bank and purchase the baby makers, consigning herself and the child to life without father.

  2. The reason people go “off-the-derekh” is because as a social reality, the orthodox lifestyle, is intolerable. This has little to do with issues of faith or religion even though in many cases people think that it does. There are plenty of non-believing Jews in the Orthodox community.

  3. “when people said women are only allowed to sing for other women”

    I know of at least three female singers who have been given permission by Orthodox rabbis to perform in public in front of men. Shabat observance is a MUCH bigger problem for Jewish performing artists. Cantor Dudu Fisher was a big star in “Les Miserables” but he has never been offered another Broadway lead.

  4. To Never Was #19: You said, “I don’t want to marry.”

    I don’t blame you for feeling that way, particularly if the only guys you’ve ever met have been despicable slimeballs with diseases and addictions and other bad points besides. But marriage can have good points, too, particularly if you meet the right person who encourages you rather than (metaphorically) strangles you.

    Raising Jewish children is a tremendous opportunity for a talented intelligent Jewish adult to pour greatness into willing vessels. One day hopefully you will be 80 years old, Gd willing. On that awesome day, don’t you want to have loving grandchildren calling you with birthday greetings?

    Think of the gorgeous actress Elizabeth Taylor who just died. On the day of her death, who was there at the last moments? Her publicists? Her adoring fans? Her ex-husbands? No, it was her loving children who stayed faithfully by Mom’s bedside.

  5. To Never Was #21: There is an extremely talented female convert Rachel Factor who has been putting on one-woman shows throughout the Orthodox Jewish community for women and girls only. She said in a recent article that ironically she is experiencing more professional success now as an actress than she would have had she not become an Orthodox Jew. Literally thousands of Jewish women have bought tickets to her performances, which usually sell out across the country. Whereas, as just one of too many ordinary aspiring actresses hoping for fame, she probably would have ended up on the “D-List” of forgettable supporting actors on failed pilots and summer stock repertory.

    Batya Travis in my own Far Rockaway community has been leading Jewish women and girls in productions known as Harmony for years. The annual Machon Bais Yaakov school play gets seen by over six thousand women, and other adult female play production groups for Tzedakah produce Broadway-quality shows for women and girls only. There’s a women’s group in Israel that has done a number of top-quality musicals based on Biblical themes in order to raise money for the families of Gush Katif.

    Regarding Shabbat, Herman Wouk has always been a Sabbath observer, and was very much involved in the Broadway production of his play The Caine Mutiny, which ran on Friday nights and Saturday matinees. As Wouk described it, he simply put on his hat and walked out, perhaps easier to do as the author than as an actor, but still hard to accomplish.

    Observance of Shabbos is a physical and emotional lifeline for many busy professionals in the 21st century. For 26 hours you rest. Your cell phone, Blackberry, I-Pad, I-Phone, PDA and all other devices are turned off. Good warm food and plenty of sleep to recharge the body as well as the soul. Shabbos is a gift, not a burden to contemporary Orthodox Jews.

  6. Never Was: Just a note on this thread, there is a growing population of female performing artists, and many of them are very talented. The tzedaka org. Zir Chemed has put out a number of very well done plays on DVD. Also Robin Garbose has just released a new video; her previous work(s?) was excellent. In my own community I know of several women are passionate about the performing arts. And there are more and more videos being released in the frum community for women, by women, especially around chol hamoed times. So don’t discount a Torah lifestyle just because you have acting talent!!!

  7. NW, I’m not saying I know what’s better for you our that you should live in a way that makes you miserable.

    Spirituality is ultimately about connecting to the Creator and Torah gives us the means to make the connections. It’s a lifelong process and every person has a different set of strengths, weaknesses and talents and a different path of observance.

    Most important, Torah is not an all or nothing proposition and it is sometimes a failing of communities to position people into all or nothing choices.

    Any mitzvah you perform, like eating Matzah on Pesach is a powerful spiritual act in and of itself, that strengthens your connection to G-d.

    As for the particulars of enabling women and girls with talent in the performing arts or athletics to express those talents, I will defer to others who are knowledgeable about these situations.

    You should be blessed with much success in your quest for spiritual growth.

  8. The mode of spirituality I am describing is not only FOR me; it IS me. You’re essentially saying you know what’s better for me than I do, and you’re telling me I have to live in a way that doesn’t suit me and would make me miserable. And you haven’t responded to any of my points about the hell women and girls with talent in the performing arts–or athletics–are put through in the Orthodox community. If I hadn’t had adults other than my parents care enough to take me to auditions, rehearsals, and shows where I performed, I couldn’t have survived. I likely would have ended up in a psych ward. You need to deal with the fact that your mode of spirituality is not for everybody, and that includes every Jew.

  9. NW, the mode of spirituality you are describing is for non-Jews and it is in fact their mode of serving G-d.

    Jews have a different mode of serving and clinging to G-d and that includes all aspects of our life. This includes overcoming our physical, emotional and intellectual (PEI) tendencies at times. We gain tremendously in the spiritual realm when we overcome these tendencies.

    Many Jews have not followed the long path to learn and sensitize themselves to the higher (and eternal) levels of spiritual pleasure and therefore they are not willing to overcome there PEI tendencies.

    From the Torah point of view, we would not call those who give up the higher and eternal spiritual pleasures for the more temporal PEI pleasure lucky.

  10. I believe in a Creator, and I value all life, human, animal, and planet. I believe in the Golden Rule and in putting life first before things like money and profits. But I don’t do rules and restrictions, never did. A person can be spiritual and still dress however they want, drive a car on Saturdays, etc. I feel more spirituality from being out in nature, doing things like hiking, than from being at services. I don’t want to marry. And I’m a working actress, which according to the Orthodox rules I couldn’t do because of restrictions on costumes, performing on Friday nights, even singing. Can you imagine the horror I felt when people said women are only allowed to sing for other women. I’m sorry, but my singing isn’t sexual. God gave me a gift of a beautiful voice, and I’m going to use it. Women and girls interested in the performing arts who are born to Orthodox families literally go through hell being denied these opportunities. Thankfully, that didn’t happen to me. I was able to just do them as a kid with the help of adult friends. Most aren’t that lucky.

  11. NeverWas, there’s a big difference between Torah and Orthodoxy.

    Torah is meant for every Jew, but orthodoxy as it is practiced in our various communities is not a fit for everybody.

    Everybody is capable of arriving at the truth that there is a Creator, who created our world for a purpose, even though it can not be proven in the scientific sense of the word. Our job is to discover that Truth and live our lives according to its implications.

    Note, we’re not going to open this up to a skeptic debate as regarding proofs of G-d and Torah as that’s not the purpose of this site.

  12. JewishAtheist makes a very valid point. Orthodoxy isn’t for everyone. Furthermore, I personally object to the “FFB” terminology. Being born to Orthodox parents doesn’t make a person Orthodox. For some of us, it just doesn’t fit. It never took with me, and I don’t consider myself to ever have been “frum.” That said, I pride myself on being very tolerant of others who choose to be Orthodox. It’s just not fair to saddle a kid with a label, any label. Let the kid be who he or she is. I knew it wasn’t for me from at least age 6. That was in 1971. Thankfully, my extended family is of diverse levels of observance, and my immediate family has come to accept me as I am. The lesson: no one can force someone, including a kid, to be what he or she is not.

  13. Rachel: Is it possible to channel the desire to lead prayer to some position in chinuch, in a girl’s school maybe?

  14. As one who has adopted some non-Orthodox practices, I don’t think any of the above reasons apply for me. Everyone with whom I’ve interacted in the different Orthodox communities I’ve been a part of has been nice. I enjoy the challenge of being observant in a non-observant world (such as having to not eat real food when in a restaurant with my non-Jewish/non-observant friends, or staying over on campus when I’m there for Shabbat). I’m also in an environment that generally views religious observance in a positive way (Divinity School is awesome. Teachers are more than happy to accommodate me missing classes for Jewish holidays or rescheduling exams that fall on Shabbat).

    For me it really was prayer, and not being able to participate, and there not being enough opportunities for women’s prayer things, etc. Had I been in a place where there had been a Shira Chadasha style minyan or even a minyan that had a lot of singing for Shabbat services and was always led well, or a place that had weekly women’s kabbalat Shabbats and Torah readings, I might have stayed more completely in Orthodoxy. But the prayer where I was felt stifling, and I felt as though there was potential for there to be something beautiful, but alas it remained unfulfilled, and I was stuck in my disappointment, unable to do anything, being female.

    As it is, I’m trying to bridge a gap between two worlds-since I try to keep as much of the Torah as I can in my situation, and I keep things like kashrut and Shabbat and tzniut, but I’ve adopted some non-Orthodox practices, like praying in a mixed minyan (but I don’t sit next to men). A Judaism like mine doesn’t exist in a movement.

    So obviously I am not representative of most and some people might even debate whether or not I’m really “off the derech.” I just wish that the Orthodoxy I had access to allowed for more plurality in terms of women’s participation in prayer. (And sure, women could give divrei Torah and be co-chairs or run any of the activities in our Hillel, but for me that was no substitution for prayer, especially since I’m good at leading services and would like to use that skill of mine to contribute to the community.) I tried to find fulfillment in Orthodoxy, but the prayer issues was a big sticking point for me.

  15. JA did leave a reply, but we have decided not to post it as some skeptics and atheists, not necessarily JA, try to lead people away from G-d and Torah and this is certainly not the forum for that.

  16. I think a relevant contribution from Atheist would be an indication of whether Atheist left Torah observance for a reason indicated by Ora, Ron, or Steve, or for a different reason.

    (For instance, if Atheist’s intellect indicates that the truth lies outside the orthodox understanding of Torah, is that in part due to the reactions Atheist received to hashkafic questions during religious schooling?)

    Another relevant contribution from Atheist might be whether Atheist thinks there is a feasible way to gather information on who leaves Torah observance (and why) — a topic that was mentioned on another post.

  17. There is something very important that we can take from Atheist’s point. We need to realize that all people have free will. There are midrashiam that indicate that as the times of Mashiach come close, there will be many that, lo aleynu, will slip away. So humility should lead us to understand that it is not necessarily within our ability to stop the disaster of people choosing to leave. And when we have grandious ideas that only if we would have a more open philosophy, or more sheltered k’hilos, or more affordable schooling, etc etc, than everything would be fine… such ideas are akin to avodah zara. What we need is to cry from the bottom of our hearts, “Hashem! Please help us because only You can help us!” Sometimes on can suffer from “Kochi v’otzem yadi” even in pursuits that would seem to be spiritual in nature. And that leads to a lot of problems. Not only does it make people feel like “mitzvah projects” but it can actaully lead to a decaying of hashkafos. For example, trying to make the Torah Hakedosha more appealing. We don’t have to be fanatical, but we should say it straight, we should show an example of how a Jew lives with idealism, and we should daven our haerts out. The rest is in His hands.

  18. Let’s face it, the biggest word in Atheist’s comment #2 was “maybe”. Which means, he’s not really as sure of his belief as he’d like us to believe. Or should I say, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt?

  19. Jewish Atheist-One of the tenets that a practicing and observant Jew believes in that is that Torah observance,regardless of the hashkafic label, is the proper way of life for all Jews.

  20. I was wondering…Was this topic’s intent to pursue why BT’s go off the derech, why FFB’s go off the derech, or both? I’m sure there’s overlap for both categories, but some issues must be pertinent to each.

  21. Ron said
    “Others who share your world view have learned, to one degree or another, to participate in this forum, even in a provocative fashion, without becoming the most unpleasant matter in the punchbowl and insulting everyone else at the party.”

    Uh-oh, the atheist has has manifested (gasp!) a lack of niceness? It’s evidently not bad enough for us that he professes to be an atheist.

  22. Wrong blog, atheist. We’ve already been where you are, some us more than once, and found it wanting.

    So no, humility is not the issue. We just think you’re fundamentally wrong – and as an atheist, what you really have is nothing, WADR, to say to us on the topic.

  23. As you know, Atheist, the participants in this forum share a religious belief that the Torah is for all Jews. That is the premise of the discussion.

    I thought the discussion was about “Why People Leave Torah Observance.” As such, I thought maybe my contribution would be relevant as someone who, you know, left Torah observance.

    My comment was not intended as a troll or an attack but a plea that the Orthodox recognize that they don’t have a monopoly on the truth; that it’s possible they have it all wrong. Maybe those of us who leave do so because it’s the right thing to do! I’m not saying that’s 100% definitely the case, but it’s something that a humble person would at least consider.

    I bet it’s never occurred to any of the Orthodox people thinking about this issue that what I bring up is even a possibility. That is the lack of humility I was referring to.

  24. The “humility criticism” is more than a little ironic. As you know, Atheist, the participants in this forum share a religious belief that the Torah is for all Jews. That is the premise of the discussion. How we as Jews and individuals find our place in Hashem’s Torah and the world is what this discussion about.

    Others who share your world view have learned, to one degree or another, to participate in this forum, even in a provocative fashion, without becoming the most unpleasant matter in the punchbowl and insulting everyone else at the party. Trolling, in contrast, is the antithesis of humility. Specifically, marching into a discussion where the participants all share a religious belief about the broad applicability of Torah and mitzvos to all Jews, and telling them that they’re all wrong about that belief and that they are not sufficiently humble, is not humility.

    It’s not very nice, either, though I am sure your big, bad (but of course anonymous) blog is the epitome of supposedly ethical challenges to the orthodox Judaism you have, despite your oxymoronic pen name, abandoned.

  25. Maybe it’s just not for everyone? Why does it have to be a problem? Maybe you aren’t right about Orthodox Judaism being the one true religion? How about a little humility?

  26. Ron’s comment is 100% spot on for me. Nothing has negatively influenced me more than experiencing bad behavior by other Orthodox Jews. I try to keep this in mind as a warning for my own behavior .

    The fact that many contemporary values seem to me to be superior to Torah values is much less of a stumbling block for me personally. I view an important part of the Jewish mission as making the chol (secular) kadosh (holy). So if I see a good value in the world, I look for ways to infuse it with a uniquely Jewish perspective and add it to the roster of torah behaviors. Alternatively, in some cases I simply trust that the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish people is more to be trusted than the decisions of my solitary mind.

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