Guest post by R. Yonatan Kaganoff
Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff served for many years as a Rabbinic Coordinator in the OU’s Kashruth Division and was the founding Online Editor of the journal Tradition. He has semikhah from RIETS, studied Jewish philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School and serves on the Board of Advisors of K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights.
I would like to describe particular phenomena within Orthodox Jewish communities, not to be pessimistic or alarming but rather to bring a significant problem to the attention of those who have the necessary skills, talents and experience to address these concerns.
I have a friend with whom I studied in Yeshiva who, after years of struggle and study, concluded that he no longer believe in the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism and decided to no longer keep its commandments. However, as tragic as this may be, most singles are unlike him. They do not wake up one morning or one month and decide to abandon their previous lifestyle and its values. Rather, they have a long slow slide into a sluggish desertion of their former way of life.
There are many causes for this trend. It can be partly attributed to the fact that no one is formulating a morally orienting Judaism for single people. What I mean by “moral” is not the conventional sense of moral as in moral vs. immoral or amoral. Rather, moral as in creating a viable personal framework by which one can live his life. All humans need a morally orienting framework in order to thrive. This framework or theology defines what are good and bad choices and creates significance to those choices as well as superimposing religious meaning to all aspects of their being and all parts of their daily life.
If one is living with a Judaism that is not personally compelling or theologically orienting to one’s life as lived, then continually, consistently maintaining one’s religion in the face of challenges, large and small, is not viable.
For many singles, the Judaism of their youth and yeshiva or seminary years, slowly no longer relates to their lives as lived and they become alienated from normative Judaism as it was presented by their former Rabbeim and Rabbanim. This may also be true with some of their contemporaries with families raising young children. However, marrieds experience this phenomenon to a much lesser extent. The Judaism which most animated them no longer relates to their lives as lived.
Of course, one might rightly claim that if Judaism is true, then people should observe its laws even if they do not and cannot relate to them or the discourse surrounding them. This may be true, but it’s hard to observe a strict lifestyle to which one does not relate on an emotional, psychological or spiritual level.
In theory someone, anyone, could formulate such a morally orienting vision of Judaism. I, for one, would welcome it gladly.
This is my basic suggestion. However, as my wife has noted, one needs to distinguish between the experience of men and women. There are a number of factors which distinguish men from women in this regard. Women with more traditional Jewish backgrounds were raised on the premise that their Judaism would be fully manifested as a mother and wife. Therefore, when they find themselves being neither wives nor mothers, they recognize a dissonance between their Judaism and their lives.
In theory it is easier for men to lead a traditional Jewish life while single than for frum women. Single men could work a 9-5 job or even a 9-8 job, still learn Torah, either in a shiur or with a chavrusah and volunteer for communal organizations. In contrast, single women often can only express traditional Jewish roles by doing chesed which often infantilizes them or encourages them to play a marginal role in someone else’s family. However, in practice, very few communities, other than a handful of “singles communities,” will give significant communal positions to single men or women.
However, as any sociologists of religion will attest, women on average tend to be more religious than men by most measures. Therefore, women generally hold on to levels of religiosity longer than men when the religion of their youth is no longer morally orienting. Additionally, with some notable exceptions, women psychologically connect more easily to their future selves as mothers and wives than men do to their future roles as husbands and fathers. Therefore, even while they are single, women can relate and draw strength from a religious role which they do not yet have.
This question deserves a much longer treatment than I am presenting here. I am raising this issue to foster a discussion which will hopefully more fully address the issue and generate possible solutions.