The search for truth about existence is one of the most elusive things man can seek. And yet at some level we all seek it, if we are to be honest with ourselves. At least that is how I see the conundrum of existence. Truth encompasses many facets. One of the most important is the concept of ‘meaning’. The philosophical question, “Why are we here?” is one that has been pondered many times by many people. The answer to this question may not be explicable in concrete irrefutable terms. Which is why we are in constant search of it.
But for many of us the only way to make sense of existence is to give it meaning. The idea that everything is random with no meaning is a horrible fate for mankind. Life without meaning means that there is no purpose to life. We are born. We live. And then we die. End of story. There is no reason that we are here. It is a meaningless random act of nature that will ultimately come to an inglorious end when the sun blows up a few billion years from now. There is no world to come. There is just now. This is how atheists see the world. They can only accept the reality of the 5 physical senses. Anything beyond that is the figment of someone’s imagination. What cannot be experienced with at least one of those 5 senses cannot be proven and does not exist.
I for one reject that. I believe in a Creator. Which explains — how — we got here. Once you have a Creator, you must say that He had a purpose in creation. And that is what gives our lives meaning. For Jews meaning can be found in Torah. That is God’s purpose for the Jewish people. Just as we believe the seven Noahide laws are for the rest of humanity. Following those laws is what gives a humanity meaning…a purpose in life.
All this has bearing on the question of why someone secular would become religious, why a religious Jew might become secular, and why someone secular that had become religious might once again become secular.
There is an excellent article in a blog called PopChasid that discusses this very issue. I believe he comes very close to nailing it. His point is that Kiruv organizations that focus on the fun parts of Judaism in order to draw people in will ultimately fail if that is all they focus upon. His premise is that those who become religious and stay that way are seeking a higher truth that will give their lives meaning. When they find it, they are the ones that for the most part will stay religious.
In some cases (certainly in his own) people like this become disillusioned with the seemingly endless number of supposedly religious Jews that have been found guilty of crimes. Whether crimes of passion or crimes of finance. He does not buy into the argument “Don’t judge Judaism by its Jews”. If one buys into Judaism and the high values it represents, then people should be judged by that standard. If prominent religious Jews don’t live up to them, then the religion appears to be populated by hypocrites. The high purpose of life seems meaningless to these people. And that disillusions many Baalei Teshuva who sought Judaism because of the high ideals that give it meaning. Here is how he puts it:
Living in corrupt communities, in communities that are broken in many ways, that, in my opinion, are worse off than many secular communities, wears on the soul of a Jew. It is painful, and worse, it is a signal, in his mind, that what he believes in is false. And worst of all, it is a roadblock to transcendence.
That’s why they might leave. But when it comes to outreach, many Kiruv organizations are mistaken. They are deceptive in how they sell Judaism. I don’t mean that Kiruv professionals purposely deceive Jews they are reaching out to. But that they focus on fun instead of meaning. This kind of Kiruv will ultimately fail. Because once the fun wears off, and they see how difficult it is to practice, they will just chuck it and find other ways to have fun.
This does not mean that Kiruv organizations should abandon fun activities in order to attract Jews. But it does mean that there has to be honesty about what Judaism entails. And that the true motive for someone changing his way of life so completely is the realization that Judaism is about a way of life that gives it meaning. It is not about fun. Although there are many things in Judaism that are quite enjoyable, that is not its purpose. Serving God in all ways, not just in fun ways. Because that is what God requires of us. And it is what gives a Jewish life meaning.