Torah Sociology: Are Our Children Becoming Less Religious?

Has something changed, and if so, why?

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen
IN: CCC

Something is happening-Our children are under a cyber attack

This article discusses the specific question, "Has the younger dati leumi population (15-25years) become more, or less, religious over the last ten years?" This question has become very pertinent, because almost all parents and educators that I know look around and feel, 'that something is different; this is not the way that it was when I was growing up'.

To answer this question I interviewed (a conversation of 15-30 minutes) thirteen religious educators, from a range of institutions, working for many years with religious youth. All were eager to answer. All thought that it as an interesting and important question. These reported 'findings' should be understood as portraying 'social trends'. I cannot say whether they represent 40 or 70% of all, or of part, of our younger population. At the end of the article I address the question, to what extent we should be worried by these social trends.

My basic finding is that our children are under cyber attack. The hyper- individualism, and the moral vacuum, that they have experienced in interacting with the internet throughout their youth has seemingly changed the way that they relate to G-d's Torah. Their relationship to halakha has become more individualistic, and less obligatory. This change is likely to pose a serious challenge to our religious way of life, posing both opportunities and serious difficulties.

The findings- 'The 'glass is half empty'

Maybe the most concrete example of these new social trends is the selective wearing of the kipa by younger dati men. Most educators interviewed suggested that we should understand this selective kipa wearing as a 'symbolic statement' conveying social trends that are likely to have both negative, worrisome (the glass is half full), and also positive, encouraging (the glass is half full) affects on our relationship with G-d and his mitzvoth.

The educators report the following worrisome, 'half empty glass', social trends with regard to our youth's Torah observance:

1)There is a major trend to selectively  accept the authority of the halakha, and to do primarily mitzvoth which seem personally relevant ('speak to me ); to do mitzvoth that serve as an expression of one's individuality and creativity, and mitzvoth that are not emotionally burdensome or heavily restrictive.

2) The youth's selective performance of mitzvoth is done openly and with forthrightness, and without apology, as if to bluntly say-"Accept me as I really am".

3) Our youth also want to relate 'selectively and individualistically' to the social authority of the family and the school. If in the past the student felt a primary obligation to adjust himself to the expectations and the demands of the family and school, now there is an increasing trend that says, "I expect the family and school, first, to adjust itself to my educational and personality needs. And then we will talk."

4) Our youth are called upon at a much earlier age to cope with the increasingly powerful questions of sexual identity, sexuality and sexual behavior, and pornography. Our educators report that most experience great difficulty coping with these questions.

5) Virtually ALL educators testified that, with comparison to ten years ago, today's students have shorter learning attention spans, have greater problems focusing on learning tasks, and show less self discipline, initiative and responsibility in completing learning assignments.

6) Most educators felt that the students who most successfully cope with the above social trends are those who possess greater self confidence in their intellectual-cognitive abilities, and come from homes where a joyous, meaningful Torah observance is a central concern of family life. Students who have a lower level of self confidence in their cognitive-intellectual performance, and come from homes where Torah observance tends to be a secondary, peripheral concern, encounter much more difficulty in handling the above social trends.

The Findings- 'the glass is half full'

The educators were also eager to point out the more positive, encouraging aspects of the social trend of a more individualistic, 'selctive  kipa wearing' mode Torah observance. They are:

1)      Most of our youth understand themselves to be 'religious-traditional dati leumi' Jews. They are not rejecting the Torah in favor of secularism. The 'dat-lash, no longer religious' phenomenon of ten years ago is today much less prevalent. Many feel/hope/want that they will be more observant when they complete their process of self definition, and begin to raise a family.

2)      Most of the youth remain conservative and nationalistic in their socio-political views, and support right wing political parties.

3)      Our youth are interested and open to learning   about emunah(faith) and spirituality. Many sincerely want to know how the Torah can add existential and personal meaning to their lives. However they find it very difficult to transform this spiritual searching into Torah performance.

4)      In many cases their Torah observance is thus based more on individual choice, and less on conventional conformism. This can be positively understood as, 'doing less, but what is done, possesses more personal importance and meaning'.

5)      Almost all educators agree that our youth today speak more openly, honestly, and easily when discussing personal problems and religious observance than did the youth of ten years ago. It is easier to hold a meaningful conversation with them.

6)      Our youth are, at least, as idealistic and concerned with social values, as ten years ago. There is a very strong desire to contribute to society, and serve in the army. Our youth do not show any signs of despondency or exaggerated self indulgence.

7)      They are very supportive, accepting and non-judgmental concerning social differences among their peers.

8)      There has been no decrease in the enrollment for yeshivot hesder, mechinot, post-high school, and post army learning programs. The Torah is seen as being interesting and meaningful. People want to learn Torah. The yeshiva oriented dati leumi sector is continuing to build and strengthen itself.

Explanation and analysis of the findings- 'The glass is half full'

What is the meaning of the above 'findings'? From a positive perspective we can say the following:

1)      Nothing has really changed. The above social trends of individualism and Torah observance are in reality, 'the same lady, but in a different attire'. A strict observance of halakha was never really the DNA of the dati leumi community. Strict observance was usually understood to be the ballgame of the ultra-orthodox. We, it seems, gave priority to other areas of Torah related endeavors such as army service and settlement (despite the painful sociological reality that army service, for over 60 years, has caused the vast majority of our youth to become less observant during their service). And we have passionately insisted all along on 'dancing simultaneously at two weddings'-the Torah way of life and also the secular way of life, with all the compromises and temptations facing Torah observance that this inevitably entails.  This is to say that probably the same percentage of dati leumi who go mixed swimming, eat without brachot, and go to synagogue only once a week, has not really changed much over the last 30 years, even though the establishment of the large network of Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools and ulpanas was expected to change that. The present range and variance of mitzvoth observance is probably similar to that of the past. What has changed is the face of surrounding Israeli society. It has become both more individualistic (less hierarchical) and more Jewish.

2)      Over the last ten years the dati leumi community has becoming increasing academically educated, more middle class-bourgeois in its life style, and holding more leadership positions in Israeli society. Naphtali Bennet has replaced Efie Eitan as a 'cultural hero-role model'. The 25 year ideological, idealistic struggle,'revolution', for settlement in the Land of Israel, one that was led by rabbinic role models, has played itself out. My rabbi summarizes this development by saying, "the last ten years has seen the dati leumi youth becoming more Israeli, and Israeli society becoming more Jewish." The dati leumi community is succeeding in  adding Jewishness to Israeli society, and probably paying a price in Torah observance for doing so. 

Explanation and analysis of the findings: 'The glass is half empty'

1)      With all due respect for individual searching, creativity and self fulfillment, the only operative definition of Orthodox Judaism is a Judaism that accepts the authority of  rabbinic halakha. One who does not do his best to live the maximum of his life according to the halakha, can be a wonderful person, a wonderful Israeli, and a contributing Jew, but he cannot be considered an orthodox Jew .Accepting rabbinic authority has has been, is, and will be the historic, 'bottom line' definition of what constitutes orthodox Judaism. We all do not succeed in doing most of the mitzvoth all the time, or do all the mitzvoth most of the time, but this does not mean that  we can legitimize or make an ideology of this all too human situation.

2)      An observance of Torah that focuses on self fulfillment and creativity will all too easily succumb to a self centered self indulgence, particularly given the strong encouragement (tail wind) of surrounding liberal society.

3)      Strict Torah observance in an open, modern Israeli society is probably too personally difficult for the majority of dati lemi Jews. The ultra-orthodox achieve a higher level of mitzvoth observance due to parochialism and intense social sanctions. However there is a sizeable, minority group of the dati leumi community who seem to be capable of being fully involved in Israeli society, and at the same time, waking up in the morning sincerely wanting to try live their daily lives according to the exacting prescriptions of the Shukan Aruch. And Israeli society today is interested in accepting and cooperating with such a Torah vanguard. Such a vanguard has the potential of demonstrating to Israeli society how the social truths of the Torah can enlighten areas of civil life such as army service, welfare, economics, and mental health.

A Personal Note

At the age of 25 I made a personal decision to leave liberal, Reform Judaism, and to try to live my life according to the Torah's authority. Lax, uninspired observance of the Torah in the dati leumi community pains me. Yet I cannot be an ultra-orthodox Jew because I am an ardent Zionist, and cannot live confined to the closed, severely structured sub society that the ultra-orthodox have created in order to bolster Torah observance. I thus find comfort in Rav Kook's prophetic promise that G-d is actively working to create a final redemption for our people out of all of our current individual, well meaning differences, achievements and confusion.    


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