Reconsidering “Off the Derech”

A few years back, my son introduced me to the latest East Coast Yeshiva Almost-English-ism: off the derech. From what I can tell, it is used by some Orthodox rabbis to refer to youth people who grew up Orthodox and, at some point, moved away from Orthodox observance. Over the past few years, the phrase has crawled into common parlance in the Orthodox world. It has even become the topic of professional discourse among Orthodox rabbis and a small but limited number of Orthodox Jewish educators. An intelligent young writer, Faranak Margolese, even published results of interviews with “off the derech” young people and with rabbis who have built careers out of bringing them back to Orthodoxy in a book called (of course) Off the Derech.

The phrase is built on certain assumptions with which I disagree (albeit to varying degrees):
  1. Orthodox Jewish observance is the only acceptable form of Jewish observance, or at the least, is the only ideal form. This is a belief that I cannot accept. It also oversimplifies Jewish history, taking a leap of faith that says that the “Orthodoxy” practiced today used to be the only Judaism before the Enlightenment. Knowledge of fractionalized religious life in the Talmudic era, the burning of Maimonides’ books by the rabbis of France in his day, or the excommunication of the Hasidim by Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (aka, Vilna Gaon) all testify to diversity as well as to (unsuccessful) attempts to reign in religious pluralism.
  2. Jewish observance is, and should be, constant over the course of a person’s lifetime. The research study Connections and Journeys by Bethamie Horowitz ( documented that Jewish identity and behaviors are fluid throughout a person’s lifetime. And while her study dealt primarily with those outside of the Orthodox community, there is every reason to assume that her findings are true to some degree for Orthodox Jews as well. The Amish practice of rumspringa, in which a young adult is given the freedom to digress from strict religious behavior for a year before decided who s/he wants to be religiously is an interesting model. While not advocating for it in the Jewish world, we need community support for an understanding that young people — Amish or Jewish — need time in which to explore and experiment with identities that have been handed to them.
  3. There are commonalities between”at risk” behaviors and”off the derech” behaviors. Problems of drug use, sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse do not belong in the conversation about young people who have left Orthodoxy (particularly since there are plenty of observant Orthodox youth who engage in all of the above). At risk behaviors are not simple problems of halacha or theology; they are physically and psychologically dangerous behaviors.
  4. There are commonalities between those whose religious behaviors were impacted by physical and sexual abuse at the hands of rabbis or parents and others who have left orthodoxy for less traumatic reasons. There is plenty of malpractice among rabbis and plenty of family dysfunction out there. But the only commonality between those who’ve left Orthodox practice because of trauma and those who have left for more mundane reasons is that both groups are not in currently practicing Orthodox observance. The other dynamics are completely different from one another.
  5. So called “off the derech” young people are failure stories for the Orthodox Jewish community. We do a disservice by assuming that the community or families have failed and therefore created a young person who is a Jewish failure. Ms. Margolese’s interviews show most of these young people still believe in God, still value their Jewish identity, still engage in Jewish behaviors on some level. While these young people are not maximally engaged, they are still on the radar screen of the Jewish community. With the exception of the “at risk” or the “trauma” groups, off the derech young people have not burned their bridges behind themselves.

My suggestion: It is time to declare the expression “off the derech” to be off limits. It is insulting to young people and their families and is being used to describe so many different phenomenon that it is a useless characterization.

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