Frum to Frei — The “Can I prove it?” Problem

How do people decide what to believe religiously? Some people decide based on what “feels right” – either based on their experiences as a child, or after exposure later on. Some people decide based on rational considerations. For many, either approach is amplified when there is a heavy dose of peer pressure or brainwashing involved.

Take a young teenager who grew up somewhat Jewishly affiliated, but not very religious. He starts to get more into his religion. He takes on more and more. He is really passionate and dedicated. He has inspiring teachers. He’s on a high. Everyone is so proud of his progress.

But then what happens? It all seems great until a few years down the line he starts to shed the black hat and the suit, he starts showing up late to minyan or not at all, and in some cases, he goes completely “off” – eating out at non-kosher restaurants and breaking Shabbat.

Does this scenario sound familiar? We all know people who have tread this path. People who, usually at a young age, have become enamored with religion, and have then at some point made a 180 degree flip in the other direction. What is going on?

While there are countless scenarios that create a frum-to-frei effect, I want to explore one of them. In this scenario, the kid gets into religion primarily for emotional reasons. Something about religion feels good. It gives him a sense of value and purpose. On top of that, he’s around teachers or peers for whom religion is the the cool thing to do. And who isn’t influenced by that? So he dives in.

Then what happens? In some cases, the intellectual side of the kid’s brain begins to perk up. Inner questions that were not answered during the emotion-laden flipping out phase begin to bother him.

He starts to realize that at some level, his beliefs are shallow. He’s not really sure what he believes, or why he believes it. He looks around and starts to wonder if it’s all a hoax. He notices that devout Christians and Muslims seem to be just as committed to their beliefs as we are to ours. We can’t both be right, seemingly. So are we all just brainwashed to think the way that our parents and teachers think?

And if he’s in an academic environment at this point, he may feel a certain pressure to have empirical support for his attitudes. He starts thinking, “But can I prove that Judaism is true?”

At this moment, many people get lost. See, when the kid started off or became frum, he may not have had all the answers. He might not have been able to defend his Judaism against another faith, or against atheist or agnostic attitudes. But he was connected to it; deep or shallow, it meant something to him.

Suddenly though, many people with this background essentially turn on themselves. It is as if the question of what feels right or meaningful to you becomes unimportant – and the question of “Can I prove it?” pushes aside all other considerations. You completely externalize meaning. You – your experiences, memories, and emotions, are not relevant to what you should choose as the path to meaning in your life. Only external truth, which of course must be clearly discernible, is worth your attention. Never mind that such a truth has never been found…

See, I like to see our relationship with religion a bit like a love affair. Firstly – you don’t need to meet every man in the world to know when you’ve met a man you love. The same way, you don’t need to try on every religion to know that one offers a meaningful spiritual path for you. But more importantly, if someone asked you, “But how do you know that this man who you love is the true and ultimate lover? Can you prove that it makes sense for you to love him?” you would probably laugh in his face.

You might answer, “Uh…no. Was I supposed to be able to do that?”

Still, if you were considering marrying someone, most people would suggest that you check first that your relationship makes sense. Sometimes people feel very passionately about one another, but there isn’t a lot of reason to expect things to work out. So a certain amount of rational justification is necessary. But that rational justification comes later. It is there to check things out, so to speak.

When people get too caught up in the question of “Can I prove it?”, I think they often end up deeply alienated from themselves. They claim clear-headedness, but it takes a balanced perspective to have a clear mind. Part of mental balance is recognizing who you are as a person, and how you factor into your own life!

It is a mistake to think that we exist as empty receptacles to a world of truths or non-truths around us. We come into the world with an inner voice. When we ignore our inner voice and rely exclusively on outside knowledge, I believe our souls start to resent being cut out.

About the Author
Emunah Fialkoff is a writing trainer at Worktalk Communications. She is keenly interested in the intersection between religious life and mental health.
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