Why Do People Leave Orthodox Judaism? Why Do People Stay?

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fork_slideThis article originally appeared on finkorswim.com.

The most common question I was asked after The Summit last spring was if I learned anything particularly insightful into the Orthodox Jewish experience to explain why some people stay in Orthodox Judaism and why others leave. People really want to know the answer to this question. I think they think that if they know why people leave, future defections can be prevented or at least minimized. Or maybe it’s just morbid curiosity. I’m not sure.

I promised everyone who asked me that I would write something up eventually. I think this is it.

Most religious people I’ve talked to are pretty sure that their religious convictions are correct. Their religion is the truth. They believe in God and whatever version of God’s word they think it true. They think that the reason they follow God’s word is because they know it to be true. After all, who wouldn’t act upon the truth? But this is mostly an illusion.

People do not do what they do because they think it’s true or right. People do what they do because it’s what they want to do.

Any number of factors affect what people want to do. Intellectual beliefs might be one of the factors, but it grabs a very small piece of the pie chart that completes the picture of this determination. The biggest reason people want to do certain things is because it feels good. It can be the childish kind of feeling good that comes in an instant and disappears even more quickly. It can be a more mature kind of feeling good that requires delaying gratification and yields a longer, more wholesome period of joy and pleasure. It can even be the kind of good feeling that comes from intellectually believing that what one is doing will eventually bring them joy or pleasure. But the real reason people do things is not because they are able to translate their knowledge of the truth into action. That’s not something people do. At best, knowledge can translate into feelings which might translate into action.

Think about it. Every cigarette smoker knows that smoking is harmful to one’s health. But that knowledge somehow doesn’t translate into feelings or action. Smoking feels better to a smoker than not smoking so the smoker keeps on smoking. You don’t need to convince the smoker that smoking is harmful. The smoker knows. But there is a disconnect between knowledge and action. It’s not an easy gap to bridge. In fact, it’s rare that the gap between intellect and behavior is bridged. But it can be done temporarily.

Same thing with seat belts. It makes no sense to drive without a seat belt. The car is objectively safer to drive while wearing a seat belt. That is the truth. Yet, every day there are people driving without seat belts. Truth does not automatically create behavior that correlates with truth.

Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. For about a year, I worked out every day. I lifted, I stretched, I ran, I ellipticalled, I enjoyed it a little. But I was doing it because I believed it was best for my wellness. That was enough to give me the feeling that pushed me to continue working out. Intellectual awareness was enough to convince me of the payoff. Knowledge translated into action.

An article in the New Yorker discussing the science of how we make up our minds, mentioned a study that is right on point. Researchers proved that no amount of educational information could change the mind of an anti-vaccination parent. There was no difference between parents who received data and persuasive materials demonstrating the importance and absolute safety of vaccines. People don’t change their minds based on data. They do what they want to do. What they want to do is usually based on the things that make them feel good. Not on facts and figures.

However, data and information can temporarily induce someone to try something. That’s why I started working out at the gym. I knew it was good for me so I was willing to give it a shot. But I stopped after a little more than a year. Despite the fact that I was seeing results, I just stopped going.

Why did I stop going to the gym? Because I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it enough to make it worth the effort. The intellectual justification was only able to keep me going for a little while. Eventually I ran out of intellectual motivation and because the activity was not giving me great joy or making me feel particularly good, and it was taking my time and energy, I dropped it. We can’t rely on the intellectual knowledge that something is true or good or beneficial to induce a desired behavior.

Judaism is like anything else in the world. The same rules apply. Intellectual knowledge and belief could be very important to God or the Orthodox Jewish community or to each individual Jew. But that does not necessarily mean that beliefs actually dictate what we will do with our lives.

I know more than a few atheists who are happily practicing Orthodox Judaism. The do not believe in God or Torah m’Sinai, yet they are devoutly Orthoprax. They keep Torah and Mitzvot (except the few inchoate Mitzvot) just like anyone else in their communities. I also know true believers who can’t even be in the presence of Orthodox Judaism. These people really believe in God. In fact, some of these people fear God more than most Orthodox Jews. But they just can’t do Orthodox Judaism. They sin despite their faith in God.

The thing that determines whether an adult will practice Orthodox Judaism is not what they believe. It is what they feel.

We like to think we are intellectual beings who make choices based on morality, logic, and rationality. But we really don’t. It’s much more banal than that. We do what we like. People who associate their Orthodox Judaism with good feelings, want more of those good feelings. They want to live a life that gives them those good feelings. They will practice Orthodox Judaism no matter what they believe. People who had negative experiences as Orthodox Jews and associate their Orthodox Judaism with pain or trauma never want those feelings again. They want to avoid those feelings. These people will not practice Orthodox Judaism no matter what they believe.

The rule, and every rule has exceptions, is that if you enjoy something, you will do it over and over again. People who enjoy Orthodox Judaism will do it over and over again. People who do not enjoy Orthodox Judaism have a few options. They might simply leave. But not everyone leaves. Some have no idea that there is a way to leave. So they don’t leave and are miserable. Others might expend a lot of energy reminding themselves that they intellectually believe the benefits of staying, whether spiritual or practical, outweigh the benefits of leaving. That might work for a while but if it doesn’t become enjoyable, they probably won’t be able to sustain their observance.

I have talked to a lot of people about their Jewish experience. There might be a few outliers, but almost everyone I’ve talked to fits into these neat boxes. People who leave had a negative experience that define their Judaism. People who stay loved their religious experience. The ones who leave want to avoid future pain and trauma. The ones who stay want to have more good experiences.

I think that’s what I learned at The Summit and the months that followed. It’s an important follow-up point to the discussion about treatment of heresy and heretics in the Orthodox Jewish community. It has been argued that heresy is dangerous because the absence to the proper orthodox beliefs will inevitably cause harmful behavior. Or that heresy is dangerous because if one lacks orthodox beliefs, there’s no reason to be an Orthodox Jew. I think this is demonstrably false. Generally, people do not choose their path in life based on beliefs. Generally, beliefs do not simply induce behavior that correlates with those beliefs. People do what they want to do, no matter their beliefs.

So what do we do now? Is this information simply a way to scratch an itch? To understand people for the sake of understanding them? Or is this the path to an enlightened approach that could make a big difference to the next generation of Orthodox Jews?

I think there is something we can do. Something we must do. The next post will offer a possible solution based upon these findings that works with the social science and is also deeply rooted in the Rabbinic tradition of Orthodox Judaism.

To be continued…

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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.