In the modern world, the phenomenon of someone leaving a sheltered minority to become part of the majority culture is hardly newsworthy. Orthodox Jews have been abandoning their community for well over a century, occasionally in floods and sometimes in trickles. Deborah Feldman’s recent memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots, joins thousands of other similar stories. The more interesting people are the many who struggled with the temptation of leaving but chose to remain . . .
After a disastrous marriage and lacking any status or support in the community, Feldman took her son and left Judaism entirely. She did not have many alternatives but this one certainly took great personal courage. However, despite Feldman’s difficult personal journey, hers was a path well traveled. The world is full of formerly religious people who have abandoned their community. I’ve heard this tired story so many times, and witnessed it as well.
I find more interesting those who choose to stay, who resist whatever societal trends are pushing them and overcome their personal issues. Bialik memorably described the late nineteenth century yeshiva student who survived the crushing winds of rebellion and remained in the yeshiva, all alone (Levadi, and in English). Everyone was carried away by the wind, except the individual with rare strength who stayed. The simple Jews who ignore such issues and those who succumb to them are no match to those who battled the powerful forces and won. There is dignity in a principled staying, in a sense becoming born again into the community.
There are many reasons to leave a restrictive community for the vast opportunities of the majority culture. There are also many reasons, particularly regarding family, to stay. Successfully navigating this complex maze is a remarkable task. Do you balance the competing claims without surrendering to either or creatively resolve them? Acknowledging that life is full of sacrifices, some decide the closeness of family is more important than additional personal freedom. Others recognize that the novelty of majority life eventually fades and the personal relationships we build are more important. Some find the intellectual obstacles to belief less compelling after digging into the foundation of the challenges while others simply recognize their own limitations in deciding the greatest scholarly debates of history. There is no one formula but everyone I’ve met who has resisted the substantial pressure to leave displays unusual insight and spiritual strength. In the end, who wants to be a statistic, another casualty to the forces of modernity, rather than one of the surviving remnants of Jewish continuity? Why choose to be one in billions when you can be one in a few hundred thousand, one of the remnant survivors who continue a special story spanning thousands of years?
This article can be viewed in its entirety at http://torahmusings.com/2012/02/leaving-and-staying/