OTD on the Down Low

Observant Judaism is hard. There is no question about it. It is not easy to ‘follow all the rules’. Especially those rules that are rabbinic. I have more than once thought about one Halacha or another and wondered, ‘What is the point?’ Why did Chazal (the sages of the Talmud) make life so difficult for us?

Just to cite one example (and there are many): I often tell my wife and daughters that if I had it in my power, the one thing I would abolish is the requirement of married women to cover their hair. But the sages interpreted a Pasuk (verse) in the Torah indicating that a married woman must cover her hair – calling the uncovered hair of only a married woman, Erva (nakedness).

The logic of that escapes me. But despite my inability to understand it, I am not free to ignore it, much as I would love to do that for my wife and daughters. (Please understand that this is my own view and has nothing to do with the way my wife and daughters see things. They are all perfectly happy to cover their hair. It’s me. I am the one with the problem.)

While I understood the reasons given for some of these difficult Halachos, I often feel that those reasons no longer apply. And yet I follow them. But I have to be honest, I follow them with a great deal of difficulty. I follow them because I am a believer in the Torah and the sages interpretation of it.

I understand their interpretations of biblical law and why additional rabbinic enactments were made even if those reasons no longer apply. I also understand the way the generational hierarchy in Judaism works. We cannot retract the laws issued by the sages. Their rules are the final word on all matters. Later generations are left with Poskim applying those rules to their own time and circumstances. But understanding that does not make it any less mentally difficult to observe them. Which is why I am such a big fan of Kulos  (lenient interpreations of Halacha) . I believe that there are more than a few people that find observant Judaism difficult to observe and we ought to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Why make Judaism more difficult than necessary?

I mention all of this to sympathize with a young married woman with similar thoughts on a variety of Halachos and just like me – maintains her religious observances. But unlike me she secretly does not believe in much of it anymore. (Although she does still believe in God.) She has written a revealing essay about her current state of mind on these issues.

Because of her upbringing, love of family, friends and community, she remains completely observant. But she doesn’t really believe in what she’s doing.

I wasn’t surprised by the comments to that essay. They were all sympathetic to her. Most saying that they feel the same way she does. They are still observant without believing in what they do. No one would ever suspect what is going on in their minds.

This is not the first time I’ve read about Orthodox Jews going OTD – Off The Derech (path) on the down low (to use her phrase). There were 2 individuals in particular that I recall. One was a modern Orthodox rabbi of a Shul who loved his job and wanted to keep it despite his becoming a skeptic (or downright atheist – I don’t recall which). His congregants had no clue. He was outwardly observant and performed his rabbinic duties meticulously. His congregants loved him and did not suspect a thing. (Obviously he never revealed his true identity.)

The other individual was a Charedi religious authority – a Posek (in Bnei Brak if I remember correctly). He too stopped believing. But he kept on deciding Jewish law – Paskening Shailos for his community for quite a while and was highly respected. He eventually went public and was removed from his position as a Posek by his peers. Asked how he could dare rule on matters of Jewish law while being a non believer, he answered that he had been trained in doing so and issued rulings the same way he would have had he been a believer.

I wonder how many people there are like this. How many Jews remain observant while secretly not believing at all in what they do… doing so only to retain the status quo with family and community?How many of them that were raised completely observant in functional loving families have become disillusioned to the point where they no longer believe? And yet maintain the facade by continuing their meticulous observance as before? Is this woman the tip of the iceberg? Is she a symptom of a far greater problem than anyone is aware of?

I suppose that people who are honest with themselves might have some of the same issues this woman did. Or the issues I have. How many have taken the same route I have? And how many took the route this woman did? And why was one path chosen over the other in each case?

I realize that there are a lot of devout Jews that do not think about these kinds of issues at all. They do not question. They just do. And believe and observe with a full heart without a second thought. Often seeking the highest level of Mitzvah observance well beyond the minimum. They are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem, having great trepidation about following the word of God. They never question anything and serve God with complete devotion and joy.

But at the same time I have to believe that there are a lot of people that do question… and many of them do not take the path I took. They take the path of this writer and stop believing while remaining observant. I don’t think we will ever really know how many observant Jews there are like this. No one who stops believing and yet wants to maintain their lifestyles will want reveal their lack of belief to anyone.

That probably translates into a lot more people like that than anyone might suspect. People that might be very close to you. To put it the way this writer did:

I’m your neighbor, your friend’s sister, your daughter-in-law, your daughter, your mother, your wife. Maybe I’m you. I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of us out there.

On the other hand, if one has really stopped believing, I don’t see how it is possible to hide that forever. Children will pick it up. If not sooner, then later. Won’t they?

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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