By Doni Joszef
In a recent article, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, one of the more vocal and visionary figures on the Modern Orthodox social-media circuit, addresses an issue that has been lingering on my own mind and heart lately. I will piggyback on the rabbi’s remarks, as I spend a large majority of my professional time working with the very population under discussion: Modern Orthodox teenagers who feel disconnected, disheartened, and discouraged by the role their religion (or lack thereof) plays in the overall context of their consciousness.
The problem posed in the rabbi’s title: “Why Are Our Teens Going Off the Derech?” The solution posed in his subsequent statements: Parents need to reinvigorate their own commitment to Orthodoxy, particularly in the realms of Torah study, prayer, and Shabbos observance.
While I agree with Rabbi Pruzansky’s call for an overall upgrade in parental involvement and spiritual advocacy in their own lives, I think the matter runs deeper and requires a more mindful approach than the helpful, but not holistic, behaviorist methods of modeling and conditioning.
Yes, parents can (and if I felt comfortable using the word “must,” I’d insert it here as well) reevaluate their roles as models and examples for their children to perceive as spiritually sound and religiously reliable. But, in my view, based solely on the experiences and exchanges I’ve personally shared with teenagers and young adults of such nature, the issue requires a more fundamental understanding of its root causes before grasping for simplified solutions.
Modern Orthodox teens don’t consciously choose to “go off the derech.” Many were never even “on the derech.” The modern mind—by its very nature—seeks to omit G‑d from the equation of our experiences.
As seen in works ranging from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith to Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul, the great thinkers of modern times struggled deeply and direly to figure out where and why to infuse unseeable, unknowable, often uncomfortable spiritual standards into an otherwise secular psyche. We live in 2012. We believe what our eyes can see and what science can confirm. We don’t like rules, and we don’t like conforming to systems without first running them by the litmus test of our own comfort levels. This is the modern mindset, and this is the operating system off which modernity runs.
Yes, there was a time when youth did exactly as they were told, without second-guessing the credibility and motives of their parents and instructors. And, yes, that time has long since expired. If modernity is synonymous with secularism (which, from a psychoanalytic as well as historical perspective, it most certainly is), the phrase “Modern Orthodoxy” often becomes synonymous with “godless Orthodoxy,” and this, I believe, fuels the phenomenon at hand.
Ask a Modern Orthodox teenager if he or she believes in G‑d. Better yet, ask a Modern Orthodox adult if he or she believes in G‑d.
When I ask myself this question, I don’t always feel comfortable with the immediacy of my affirmative answer. Faith needs ongoing nourishment and nurturing—ingredients which I, personally, often neglect to include in the mix of my everyday, rushed religiosity.
Of course, there is believing and there is believing. A belief that starts and ends with a nursery rendition of Uncle Moishy’s “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” is a belief built for an eventual breakdown.
Teenagers are uniquely authentic and self-aware. They have little tolerance for superficial behaviorism without matching cognitions and emotions to fuel the fire of spiritual endurance. To be religious and a member of modern society at the same time can feel like living a double life. Try as we may to mend this incessant sense of cognitive dissonance, there is no escaping the fact that modernity and Orthodoxy, though sometimes playing in the same key, don’t always follow the same tempo. Until we train our teens to accept, perhaps even embrace, the frustration of this fact, our attempt at preparing them for an Orthodox life in the modern world can hardly be considered a comprehensive one. v
Doni Joszef is a cognitive psychotherapist practicing with adolescents and young adults in Cedarhurst. Visit his website, DeficitOfAttention.Com, or call
516-316-2247 to meet in person.