Why American Jews Reject Torah – Some Pain, Not Much Gain

Having been heavily involved with Kiruv and BTs for many years, it has always bothered me why we have such a low success rate of attracting people to Torah. I’m not talking about becoming fully observant, but rather about showing interest in Torah learning and practices.

My experience interacting with BTs and non-observant chavrusas, friends and relatives drives my thinking. I have also discussed this for countless hours with others involved in kiruv. I would like to share some of my thoughts on this matter.

I think the main reason Torah is rejected is because most non-observant Jews come to the conclusion that increasing their Jewish knowledge or practice will not significantly increase their pleasure or happiness and is therefore not worth their effort. They come to this conclusion largely from their observation of Torah observant Jews.

Let’s dig deeper using the four human dimensions: the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the physical dimension, Torah requires us to limit our physical pleasures in the areas of food, sensuality and sun and fun activities. Most non observant people enjoy their restaurants and vacations, and even with the tremendous increase in kosher restaurants and resorts, it doesn’t compare. In regards to financial stability, the higher costs of Torah living, specifically tuitions, gives an advantage to the non observant.

From an emotional vantage point most non observant people seem to control their anger, envy and desire for honor on a level with the typical observant Jew. Although Torah provides the prescription for great relationships and emotional maturity, the typical secular person also has decent relations with their spouses, children, friends and relatives. Regarding happiness, the growth of the positive psychology movement with its focus on happiness has provided more paths for non observant Jews.

In the mental domain, non observant Jews find meaning in their jobs, communal activities and political discourse. Although Torah learning and mitzvah observance provides additional avenues of meaningful activities, this is not always observable.

The spiritual domain is one in which Torah provides a tremendous advantage. However, belief and connection to Hashem is difficult to measure. In addition our davening and observance of mitzvos performance often lack observable degrees of spirituality and purposeful living.

In summary, I think the secular lifestyle provides an advantage in the physical sphere and can approach the typical Torah life in the emotional well being and happiness areas. Regard meaning and the mental dimension, Torah has the potential to provide advantages. In the spiritual and purposeful living arenas, Torah is clearly superior.

So why do most observant Jews think a life of Torah is better, while most non-observant American Jews are not convinced? I think the reason is that most people are more focused on the lower realms of physical pleasure and happiness than they are on the higher ones of meaning and purpose. Torah observant people experience all the realms so they typically live a more fulfilling life, while the non observant experience more physical pleasure and decent degrees of happiness.

Perhaps if we were even more focused on living a Torah life of purpose and meaning, it would lead to more demonstrable contentment and happiness. If the non-observant could observe the clear advantage of Torah in three of the four human dimensions, they would to want to find out more.

19 comments on “Why American Jews Reject Torah – Some Pain, Not Much Gain

  1. I want to second Yehoshua Ben Baruch’s post. Besides the rising tide of not only secularist but outright atheism (or subtle agnosticism masked by what they think is atheism), many “Jewish Americans” prefer to do some feel-good “traditions” but may have no believe at all in Hashem or any halachic sense like we do that the mitzvos are obligatory.

    I was reading an article recently in a major national newspaper that was discussing this; Jewish Americans, like Mark Zuckerburg, like to do the occasional tradition or ritual (I think the story discussed him benchting licht and saying Kiddush with his heirloom Kiddush cup to his non-Jewish daughter) but that that’s all it is. A kinda pick-and-choose “oh, that’s nice. my ancestors did it. Maybe I’ll do it” feeling.

    Personally, I’ve seen this during Chanukah time, where secular frei Jews (particularly intermarried and “interfaith”) light the Chanukah candles and “religiously” celebrate the holiday, not realizing that everything they’re doing (the intermarriage, hyper-assimilation) is the exact opposite of the meaning of our people’s triumph “in those days”!

  2. What is often missing from the non-religious community is a real sense of community.

    I have a relative who was raised in a religious home, but at one point in his life he and his wife decided that parts of Judaism were less meaningful for them, they moved out of the MO neighborhood where they were living and bought a home in a different area with a large Jewish population, but cheaper housing.
    They moved their kids to public school and took at membership in a local conservative congregation (there was no Orthodox shul in that immediate area).

    After about a year they realized that they missed a sense of community – invitations for Shabbat meals, a circle of friends within walking distance, people they could share Smachot with, or people who would be there for them if they need help, people who would bring over meals if there was a need.

    They had friends through work, their children’s schools, and neighbors, but none of them formed the sense of community they were used to growing up in religious neighborhoods.

    A couple of years later they moved back to their old neighborhood and moved their kids back to Jewish schools so they could be part of a community, and if the price of joining that community was keeping Shabbat and paying school fees, it was worth the cost (at least for them)

  3. Another reason holding many non-observant Jews back from a Torah lifestyle is that the simply don’t believe in G-d. It is one thing to attend a Reform or Conservative synagogue once a week or to light some candles on Friday night in the interests of continuing the traditions of your ancestors, but, in the absence of believing in an all-powerful deity who commanded you to, much harder to go beyond that.

  4. I agree completely that Orthodox Judaism has been bashed. Many non religious Jews have no Torah knowledge. If they did, they would not be so quick to criticize Torah Judaism.

    On an unrelated note, I want to shout out a mazal tov to Steve Brizel on Adina’s engagement. Steve–I used to work with Linda a long time ago, and I remember when Adina was an adorable little girl. I wish all of you much happiness! (My maiden name was “Koch.”)

  5. Mark Frankel wrote,
    “What if you saw a person living an observable amazing life. He told you he had learned to observe the Torah in a better fashion. He said he quadrupled his well being and life satisfaction in two years, with objective data to support those claims, and it continues to go up. He also claimed that these rewards are available to the average person with the correct knowledge and practices, all described in the Torah and its accepted commentators. Do you think others besides the strongly dissatisfied would be interest in at least finding out about it?”

    Maybe and maybe not. What does it take to overcome inertia? We observe amazing Gedolim and read about what makes them tick (sometimes this is described accurately). It’s easy to look up to them as unique but not to emulate them, since we can decide they’re really not like us. That kind of thinking could apply equally to other amazing people we see.

  6. e,

    I agree that most people live the way they grew up.

    However, most current day Jewish leaders and teacher, believe that the path to religiosity consists of small manageable continual growth steps and not leaps.

    When spiritual growth is done in a wise and manageable way it leads to a life of increased pleasure, happiness, meaning and purpose. Who doesn’t want that?

  7. Most people live the way they grew up. To jump from secularism to a strict religiosity requires a quantum leap. Some people take that leap, for a variety of reasons, but most will not.

  8. Bob,

    What if you saw a person living an observable amazing life. He told you he had learned to observe the Torah in a better fashion. He said he quadrupled his well being and life satisfaction in two years, with objective data to support those claims, and it continues to go up. He also claimed that these rewards are available to the average person with the correct knowledge and practices, all described in the Torah and its accepted commentators.

    Do you think others besides the strongly dissatisfied would be interest in at least finding out about it?

  9. Cosmic X, the highest level is to keep it because it is the truth and the word of G-d. But the Torah itself is filled with promises of reward and benefit if we keep it. The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that it’s often ok to keep it for our benefit, but we should continually grow and try to keep it more for G-d’s sake.

  10. Many people feel fulfilled by, or are resigned to, their lives as they now are. Some combination of strong dissatisfaction with the status quo and strong hope for the future is needed to spur a quest for improvement. Even then, the seeker has to work hard to distinguish true solutions from false ones.

  11. Is the Torah something we keep for our own benefit, whether it is in the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual realms, or do we keep it because it is the truth, the word of God, and as such obligates us?

  12. A much simpler point:

    Frumkeit requires a huge investment of two things most people cannot spare: Time and Money. If you are upfront about these requirements while doing kiruv, Good Luck! Sure you could come for a Shabbos or two but the secular Jew who sees his religious counterpart at work having to wheel and deal to get time off, leave early, etc and needs to use the time for yom tovim that others use for relaxing vacations might not want any part of it.
    And I have heard many good Baale Teshuvahs say “If I knew how much money this would be I don’t know if……..
    By the way, in the small town situation where many Jews are almost completely disconnected (and they generally have more time and a less crushing need for money) there is more of a sence of wonderment and less pre-conceived notions about Judaism and more open-mindness.

  13. QUESTION: Why do American Jews reject Torah?


    So-called “Jewish Newspapers” like The Jewish Week (and some say The Forward) relentlessly portray Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism in the most negative way possible, and as often as possible.

    This has been happening for decades, and these publications have hundreds of thousands of readers.

    Their effect on highly knowledgeable Jews is small, but their effect on Jews who know nothing (or close to nothing) about Torah and Jewish History and Orthodox Jews is devastating.

    For many thousands of American Jews, these relentlessly Orthodox-bashing publications are their ONLY source of news and information about Torah and Jewish History and Orthodox Jews. Needless to say, the effect of these Orthodox-bashing publications on know-nothing Jews is absolutely devastating; not only do those Jews have no chance of becoming observant, but it is very likely that they will abandon the very few Jewish observances they still practice.

    Other than the Orthodox newspapers and magazines, can you find even ONE Jewish newspaper or magazine that portrays Orthodox Jews and/or Orthodox Judaism in a positive way, or even in a neutral way?
    This helps to explain why American Jews reject Torah.

    Last but not least, I will NEVER comprehend why Jews who claim to be Orthodox or “Frum” or “very religious” continue to read Orthodox-bashing publications like:
    The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The New York Times.

    I sincerely believe that G_d will punish all Jews who purchase those publications, even if those Jews are [or were] allegedly Orthodox. Purchasing Orthodox-bashing publications and/or Israel-bashing publications is an act of betrayal against The G_d of Israel and the Torah of Israel and the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. The traitors will certainly be punished by G_d!

  14. I think that the issue is two fold:
    1) Once a person is married, a parent and has a job-changing a lifestyle is a major challenge that many people aren’t willing to undertake-especially if they gather the impression that there is only way to be a “succesful” BT;
    2) The R and C movements were at one time a fertile source for BTs-the decline of both R and C means that anyone interested in kiruv must look at different venues, and locales as places where unaffiliated Jews spend their spare time.

  15. I’m not certain that non-Orthodox Jews aren’t “showing interest in Torah learning.” I believe that in recent years, there has been an increase in Jewish scholarship outside the Orthodox world. I think of the thousands of people who have studied at places like Yeshivat Hadar, the Havurah Institute, and Limud. I think of the new Torah commentaries produced by the Conservative and Reform movements. I think of my “secular” cousin who started attending a weekly Torah study group at his Reform congregation when his oldest son was studying for his Bar Mitzvah.

    Are non-Orthodox Jews less interested in Jewish learning than in the past, or have they simply found more opportunities for Jewish learning outside the Orthodox world?

  16. Sharona, thanks for sharing Rabbi Cohen’s insights. Although the search for happiness brought me to Torah, I now look at things through a pleasure, happiness, meaning, purpose perspective.

    It’s interesting to note that the positive psychology movement led my Dr. Martin Seligman has moved beyond their initial focus of happiness and life satisfaction towards well-being and flourishing.

  17. Tuvia, some good observations, especially the positive attributes of the Sephardi community. My morning minyan has a number of Sefardim and they are warm and welcoming to all types of Jews. I think that’s what the Torah intends, while at the same time motivating us for continual improvement in all four dimensions.

    Although I agree that most people don’t want to stick out, I do think on a self evaluation scale from under performing to mediocre to greatness, most people would prefer to be towards the greatness end. Only Torah can get us to greatness.

  18. Rabbi Zmir Cohen mentions in his video “The hidden aspect of the world”, about physical vs. spiritual happiness, among other topics. He brings a good point that people are always looking for something to make them happy, whether it’s a license, new car, or job, or spouse, or new home, and so on. The soul wants to connect to it’s Source and yearns for Divine pleasure. We translate it as physical and seek physical things, but we always want more, because our soul is still yearning to have what it needs. Torah and prayer and Mitzvos gives us that when done with meaning and joy

  19. off the top of my head:

    the community seems unusual. the high poverty, the idea of strict beliefs lived daily. people don’t want to be unusual, they want to be typical or average. men are pretty happy with 5’10” — not so much with 5’4″ or 6’6″. It’s nice to not stick out.

    the community seems not moderate. people want to walk a moderate line in life. they are generally not triatheletes, they don’t want to be couch potatoes. neither choice feels particularly healthy. they want moderation as a good, general policy. Torah all the time (and fake it if you don’t feel it) feels artificial, possibly unhealthy. people will of course enjoy a shabbos — and then maybe drive home or what have you. but every week for life? less enjoyable (prob less meaningful to them too.)

    most controversially, the community seems not actually very Jewish. Secular Jews have a cultural memory of a Jewish life that doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps exemplified by Fiddler on the Roof. A more moderate, traditional place with all kinds of Jews. Even if the outward, visible signs are very much there in the haredi world today, the ideology is not the multi-colored continuum of ideologies that typified the shtetl of old. It doesn’t strike Jews as very Jewish anymore.

    There are other reasons that have to do with the way people construct their lives today – the kinds of people they wish to rub elbows with, the kinds of views towards others they wish their kids to inculcate, the kinds of hopes for things like stellar secular educations they wish to commit to.

    The Jewish orthodox world today is a very religious place. Most people of every religion are reluctant to become full on religious. (How many middle class Muslims go from secular to fundamentalist in NYC? How many nominal Christian seculars who live in NYC are “born again”?)

    If it more resembled a Sephardi traditional kind of world (but was Ashkenazi) it might feel more wholesome, moderate, doable. (Of course, that may not feel so orthodox or quite so Torah centered.)

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