How to Relate to Someone Who Is No Longer Religious

So yesterday, my blog got posted by Rabbi Pesach Sommer, and I got a lot of comments on my last post, specifically my defense of mysticsm, and I do want to respond to that eventually, but right now, I’m more concerned with a more important issue. 

Bram Glazer, a person I worked with at Camp Stone but barely knew otherwise, committed suicide a couple of days ago. The news has hit the  YU and Modern Orthodox communities pretty hard, as the death of a young man should. Part of what has shook me about the news is an article Bram wrote a couple of years ago, describing how he stopped wearing a kippah and the flack he encountered within YU for his decision. I lack the arrogance to make any kind of causal relationship between the article and his death, but it couldn’t have helped, and he raised some very valid concerns about the way our community deals with people who are no longer religious. Here is what I wrote on the memorial page on facebook:

I barely knew Bram. We worked together in Camp Stone, I knew who he was, and I believe he actually may have rejected a facebook friend request. So I don’t know how much right I have to speak right now.

But I find myself reading and rereading and rereading again the article he wrote, linked to here before, about not wearing a kippah in YU, and the flack he got for it. I’m not going to judge the validity of his argument, nor do I have the arrogance to ascribe a young man’s death to any one factor. But I can’t help but see someone who described himself as a “malcontent” who did not feel welcome within the YU community, who felt he had no place here, whose criticisms of our community were treated with harshness and coldness. All this despite the very real things a person like Bram, a person who, I’m reading, was genuine and kind and funny and who I honestly regret not knowing that well. I have no idea what relationship that feeling had with his state of mind, and again, I don’t have the arrogance to make any such claims. But it couldn’t have helped matters, and it couldn’t hurt to actively endeavor to make a community that deals with our “malcontents” in a more sympathetic and compassionate way, or at the very least to have a space within YU that is non-judgmental and inclusive. I sense that Bram was cognizant of the need for such a space, looking at his involvement in AEPi, and I hope that AEPi continues to be such a haven in our community. But this is something the Modern Orthodox community as a whole really needs to improve on. Just because someone isn’t wearing a kippah, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve basic human dignity and respect, besides for the obvious fact that treating them in such a manner isn’t going to help at all. We need to, instead of yelling at “malcontents” like Bram, take the time to sit down and talk and understand and be a damn decent human being. It should not be so hard.

All that being said, my sympathies and prayers go out to the family and friends of Bram. I have no other words, except to pray for a day where suffering and death will be finally defeated. 
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח, וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל-פָּנִים; וְחֶרְפַּת עַמּוֹ, יָסִיר מֵעַל כָּל-הָאָרֶץ–כִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֵּר

 

But I want to, on this occasion, discuss something I planned to discuss anyway. How do we relate to a Jew who has left religion? This is an important question to consider in our current environment, and one that I will have to deal with as someone who plans to enter the world of kiruv. And there are multiple things to consider. On one hand, you want to bring people back to Orthodoxy, back to fulfilling God’s will, back to the beauty of a Jewish life. On the other hand, this is an individual who has a right to make their own decisions with what they do with their life. You want this person to be religious, but you also want this person to be happy, and to make informed, good decisions, because you care, or should care, about this person as an individual. Some people forget about that last part and consider all means justified towards the end of making a person more religious, considering it a holy endeavor to lie and manipulate someone towards being religious. On the other hand, if you’re a kiruv person who’s not actually trying to get people more religious, you’re not actually a kiruv person. 
So, I guess, here’s my approach, bearing in mind I am just 23 and have little experience in life. First of all, never underestimate the good you do by just being a religious person who’s a decent human being. The established narrative is that religious people are crazy, pushy, intolerant, and ignorant, and if you accept that narrative, of course you’d reject religion. Being a decent person who is religious has the effect of throwing a wrench in that narrative, showing that it is possible to be a religious person who is none of those stereotypes, and that, maybe, you could be one too. On the other hand, being a pushy and intolerant individual has the opposite effect of strengthening those stereotypes and making the idea of being a religious person even less palatable. So, on a practical level, the most effective kiruv is to be respectful and tolerant and an overall decent human being. 
Of course, we haven’t actually answered our original question, of how to balance the desire to bring someone closer to religion with your need to respect them as a human being. We’ve just said that it the best way to accomplish the former is through the latter. Which seems to mean that the only concern is bringing someone to religion, and if it was possible to bring someone to religion by lying to them and ruining their lives otherwise, you should probably go ahead and do it. I am strongly opposed to such a conclusion. The desire to save souls should not override the concern for people’s physical well-being, and a concern for a person’s olam haba does not negate their right to olam hazeh. As The Rav puts it in Halakhic Man:

See what many religions have done to this world on account of their yearning to break through the bounds of concrete reality and escape to the sphere of eternity….There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. 

(This idea is actually a theme in his thought worth exploring, he goes at particular length about it in some of his recorded lectures)
So, for the millionth time, how do we balance the two?
Let us return for a second to our paradigm of the Jewish Religion as a relationship between lovers. Normally, the relationship works okay, there are sacrifices to be made, but we get through them, and the relationship itself is worth it. When someone leaves religious observance, I see them as a friend who left a relationship with another friend of mine. It would be wrong of me to judge either of the parties involved. I don’t know what kind of things happened that caused them to leave the relationship. I can’t judge them for doing so, nor can I tell them that they should go back to it right away, and I definitely shouldn’t lie to them or manipulate them into returning to their former lover, because I don’t know what went on, how hard it was for this person to keep it going, how hard they tried, and what finally made them give up on it. But I do know The Person (capitalized so that you can better keep track of this convoluted metaphor) they left. And I know that Person does love them, and does want them back, and does want to make things better. I know that Person still has a place in their heart for their lost lover, and that, were they to change their mind, that Person would have them back immediately. And I believe that this Person is capable of being good, better than they have been before. And thus, I still believe, in my heart of hearts, that relationship can be salvaged, and I will do what is possible to lead to that reconciliation. But they have to be ready, and they have to be willing, and they have to be able to put the past painful experiences behind them, and I should not necessarily expect that they can, or even should, and not all reconciliations are possible or even a good idea. 
To bring that back into the nimshal, what we as a community don’t often realize is that when someone leaves the community, they do so for good reasons, because they were bothered by things they couldn’t explain, actions they couldn’t condone, and people they couldn’t tolerate. They left because their relationship with God was broken, and that’s not their fault. But, as a religious person, I believe that God loves everyone, and has a place for all types of people within the Jewish community, more, that he must love everyone, and, himdamnit, there must be a place for them in our community. Indeed, this is what I often think has kept me religious; the conviction that, unlike any other institution, there must be a place for me here, by definition and theological impossibility. And I believe that, with a little work, we can succeed at finding such places. But I would never demand that a person just return to Judaism without any consideration of their personality, without any consideration of how much they have suffered and how much they stand to suffer if they resume a broken relationship without any prior thought. It should go without saying that O, would never try to manipulate someone into doing so. In sum, my approach is to, best I can, fight to find a person a place within Judaism where they can have a healthy relationship with God, and not force them back into a bad one. 

As I mentioned in the post, it seems that Bram tried to carve out a space within YU for people who otherwise did not fit into the religious community, and that is a great thing, and I don’t mean to denigrate in any way. But using that as an example of the kind of community that can exist within YU, I wonder if YU would be served well if it had in-house kiruv of the sort I’ve described above, dedicated not merely to addressing symptoms of problem, like people not wearing kippahs, but the roots of those issues, the inability to find a place within our community where they could conceive of a healthy relationship with God. I know a lot of people who would stand to benefit from such an initiative, freshman self absolutely included, and maybe even current self sometimes. Sometimes I feel we’re at a disadvantage to students who go to secular college in that regard, who have a campus rabbi whose job it is to make people feel welcome and a smaller community to be a part of and find oneself in. I mean, officially, we have a mashgiach ruchani and mashpia, but I think we all can admit to ourselves that those positions and people are not appealing to the kind of crowd we’re talking about helping here. Same with most religious events, which cater to a crowd who wants their social opportunities gender-separated and formal dress, as opposed to the “Drink Beer, Have Chulent, and Have a Kumzitz” which is the norm on most college campuses. Obviously there are limits to what is realistically possible in this regard, but perhaps, I naively hope, there is more wiggle room than we have now. 

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2 Comments

  1. Re: Your last paragraph, ostensibly that is the purpose of the mechina program. Though I think it suffers from the problem you mentioned above, that the ultimate goal is to have the student/person become religious without regard for their individual relationship with The Person(God). I’m sure some will disagree with me, but I do feel this way and I feel this way because of the changes I’ve seen the program consider and sometimes accept. For instance, in my last year at Yeshiva, the Mechina rabbis were working to affect a decision which would have the mechina program be a 2 year program. A program where all its students would graduate into one of the other programs in their 3rd (and typically last) year at Yeshiva, seems indicative of an attitudde which doesn’t allow for the acceptance of an individual who does not have that connection with God the other programs expect//want/accept.

    Reply

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