Speaking to Someone Who Doesn’t Believe
BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK
There’s so much talk about teenagers going “off the Derech”. These talks assume the teenagers who’re “going off” are still “on”. Little talk is dedicated to teenagers and, in many cases, young adults, who haven’t been religious for many years. They started being irreligious only at home, but then they began behaving irreligious also in public. They’re now very comfortable with their lack of any religious activities or interests.
(To a lesser degree, this article also applies to young adults who present themselves as Frum (religious), but have decided to ignore certain Halachos (laws). They may have kept Shabbos for years except for the fact that they listened to music. They may have been very careful about learning Torah every day but were unconcerned with Negiah (inappropriate touching). There are many contradictory activities with which people become comfortable, even championing those leniencies to friends and strangers.)
In this article, I’d like to discuss what I would say to frum from birth (FFB) individuals who’re comfortable living in totally irreligious environments. Suggesting to them that they change will be quickly rejected. They’ll also respond to suggestions that they’re not happy with, “you don’t know how I really feel, but I’m telling you that I’m happy.” In many cases these aren’t immature teenagers, but mature young adults. They have jobs, pay their bills in a timely fashion, and lead lives that appear to be successful. What can one say to these individuals? Who can argue against their claims of happiness and contentment?
I would focus on promoting self-reflection within them; asking them to get in touch with, not their superficial thoughts, but their deeply buried thoughts. I also would not focus on their Yiddishkeit, but on their lives in general.
I would focus on promoting self-reflection within them; asking them to get in touch with, not their superficial thoughts, but their deeply buried thoughts. I also would not focus on their Yiddishkeit, but on their lives in general. The following points will apply to most, but certainly, not all, young adults who have left their Frum upbringing.
1: A common pattern found among nonreligious individuals who were FFB’s, is that their lives lack a strong foundation. In addition to religion, which is often their war cry, they find themselves grappling with substance abuse, intense anger at individuals or institutions, depression, kleptomania or other socially unacceptable vices. Frequently there’s something about them that is unsettling to others.
Pointing out to them that they have multiple issues doesn’t “prove” that they’re “mixed up” and, therefore, wrong for having no religious beliefs. Parents and Rabbeim try to use their other issues as “proof” that they’re the “problem” and not their Yiddishkeit. The young adults counter that Yiddishkeit caused all of their social and mental health issues. The debate can, and does, go on endlessly. The only undeniable conclusion is that, at this moment, they’re a “work in progress”.
When I say a “work in progress”, I mean that they should at least reserve judgment on their true religious beliefs until everything else in their lives falls into place. They should first focus on improving themselves as individuals, and not place any focus, at this time, on their religion. They have serious character issues. They’re comfortable in taking other people’s money, show a lack of respect for others, are up at night and sleep by day, and/or aren’t people of strong character. Their lifestyles are frowned upon by the conservative, secular, world, as well as by their parents and community. Since there are serious character issues, they should reserve their judgment of religion. They should reflect on the fact that they haven’t been able to replace their old lifestyles by other acceptable ones. Having exchanged their lifestyles to do “what I feel like doing” or “what makes me feel good” isn’t good enough to reject a life full of values.
2. Many people lead a life of self-indulgence, one that allows them to feel good. Such a life is common and, in the short term, may even be necessary for the individual’s present stage in life. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s an acceptable lifestyle. Individuals can do things that they feel they need to do, but can still appreciate that they’re not right. Eventually, they’ll think that, “at some time I’ll need to do what’s right and it may not be what I’m doing now”.
This difference is significant. Non-Frum behaviors are sad but they aren’t irreversible. Hashem forgives people faster, with sincere Teshuva, than people forgive themselves or others. However, insisting that, “I’m right” condemns people to never reconsider what they truly believe. I, therefore, ask young adults who’re acting on what they consider to be their personal rights, to do the following: First solve your personal issues and then we can sit down and decide what you actually believe or don’t believe.
3. It’s very rare for me to find individuals who’re truly comfortable with their decision to leave the Frum world. How do I know this? As non-religious people age, particularly those who were Frum before world war two, they often begin putting on Tefillin and performing Mitzvahs. It’s certainly uncommon for people who’ve aged to lose interest in religion. Why?
I believe that the reason is that deep inside, they feel guilt. Something haunts them. They think of their years before the war, learning Gemora, their parents Shabbos table, their relationship with their grandparents, and past incidents that had meaning to them. These “warm” incidents become flashbacks, penetrating their minds when they least expect them. During the middle part of their lives they’ve had many distractions that diverted their attention from what haunted them. As they age and their lives simplify, it becomes more difficult for them to deny what’s in their heart.
In the last decade many teenagers have left the frum community. As they reach their mid-twenties, their lives become simpler. They’re not going from school to school, they’re not running away for 2 days at a time, and they’re not “making up” stories to go to places that their parents won’t like.
However, those parts of their lives are still part of them. Although, in some cases, there never seems to be any guilt … the vast majority will admit to a discomfort that accompanies their decision to be irreligious.
They have an apartment, they have a job, and their lives are comparatively calmer. They’ve more control of their lives and begin to feel good about themselves. It’s at this time that their guilt begins to haunt them. As teenagers they denied their guilt and the memories of their relationships with friends. However, those parts of their lives are still part of them. Although, in some cases, there never seems to be any guilt (although we need to wait until they’re much older to be sure), the vast majority will admit to a discomfort that accompanies their decision to be irreligious.
4. It’s always difficult to try and convince people to change an issue that’s dependent on what their true thoughts are. They’re able to deny that they care about the subject being discussed, even if they really care about it. Months later, as I attempt to discuss a different topic with them, they’ll respond that, “you may have been correct about our last discussion, but I certainly disagree with you on this one.”
When people “close” themselves to themselves and to others, there’s typically a 3 months lag in their admitting that they’ve been doing it. People will admit to wrongs from their past as long as it deals with the parts of their lives that either can’t be changed, or will take so much work that no one expects that it’ll change. If they admitted to the issue at hand, it would force them to change, and therefore it becomes the new focus of their denial. As young adults mature they need to acknowledge this, be willing to accelerate the awareness process, and to confront the difficult issues that affect their lives.
They’re aware of what they’re doing; not allowing others to have access to their true thoughts. However, they should at least allow themselves access to those same thoughts. I’ve learned to immediately be honest with myself about anything that I’ll eventually confront. Why push them off until later, when I will have suffered the consequences of not admitting to myself what my responsibilities really were, if I’m eventually going to end up dealing with them anyway?
5. As they mature they begin to appreciate that it’s not a perfect world and neither are the people that live in it. Those people that have mistreated them have shown glaring contradictions between their own personal, and public, behavior and have all contributed to their rejection of the Frum community. When they were young they expected everyone to be close to perfect. They also generalized, grouping many people together, when only one or two of them may have mistreated them. In addition, they ignored their own inconsistencies and faults.
Years later, they certainly understand that the world and everyone in it are not perfect. What they must do is to revisit all those incidents of mistreatment, and see how they can be understood with their new, more practical, view of the world.
As a part of this discussion I remind them, that most of them would like to discount their mistakes by claiming to be victims. They blame the older student who bullied them for years, their parents, their older siblings, and, in some cases, also those individuals who used more extreme measures against them. Although it may be true that these people were against them, I tell them that these people were also once victims, and this led them to act as they did. Being victims only explains why they did what they did in the past, it doesn’t excuse them from continuing the pattern and/or fixing the problems. It may explain the past, but it doesn’t license them to continue it into the future.
The difficult part of asking young adults to reevaluate these past incidents is that many of them have strong emotional components. A parent who rejects a child is doing more damage than just an imperfect act from an imperfect parent. It’s a parent!! It’s a respected community leader!! It’s a best friend!! When trying to revisit the incidents of their past, their emotions will override their intellect. (I’ve written about this previously, and it’s available upon request.)
6. Another aspect of looking at life with a more mature outlook is that many young adults find out that life is hard. Working at two jobs in order to pay for car insurance so as not to have to take public transportation is difficult. The decision to remove themselves from any family or community support may have been more difficult than they originally thought. They should ask themselves one more time if what they’re receiving is worth more than what they’ve given up.
Particular thought should be given to the fact that they’re not babies anymore and won’t be treated as such. Even for those young adults whose parents’ will never accept them, there are usually other relatives, past teachers, or friends, who’ll open their homes and hearts to them.
People can become distracted from thinking about their previous decisions. One of those distractions is their new, exciting, life, full of fun and entertainment, which tries to create diversions for them from their guilt. Some of the additional factors that cause them to deny their guilt include:
a. Anger, which blinds them from a willingness to think about their past. The anger may have come from a parent, a teacher, or the community. They feel the anger and it prevents them from moving ahead in life. They need to realize that their anger controls their lives and is not letting them make any responsible decisions.
They should be open to considering what level of Frumkeit they may be comfortable with and work towards that goal.
b. Believing that if they become Frum again they’ll have to return to their parents’ or own previous level of Frumkeit. This may not be true. They should be open to considering what level of Frumkeit they may be comfortable with and work towards that goal. (I’ve written on this subject and the article is available upon request)
If their present lifestyle is the one that they truly want to keep, then it becomes very difficult to explain to them why they should change. Most young adults have friends, who as teenagers, lived the way that they’re now living but may have by now settled back into their old communities with their old friends. Knowing that their friends were once certain that they’d never return, but have returned, should cause them to rethink their own firm beliefs that they’ll never return. Life is fluid, something that was perceived to be right at one time, may not always remain right.
If they eventually do change, then the time before the change becomes “lost years”. Therefore, immediately after rejoining the community, they must start to make up for lost time by winning the confidence of those they love and respect. This often requires a career change, something which will, again, cost years of their lives.
Despite our decisions to make life simpler, life is not simple and will never be. Success in life, and being comfortable with ourselves, is not achieved by avoiding responsibilities, or by avoiding how we really feel. The avoidance only pushes issues below the surface. Sooner or later they’ll float back.
Photo Credit: MZACHA from rgbstock.com