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Changing Lifesyles

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of NISHMA, an international Torah research, resource and educational endeavour devoted to the fostering of individual inquiry and the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further information about NISHMA, please click here. In addition to his scholarly and administrative duties within Nishma, Rabbi Hecht also serves as a blogger for Huffington Post Canada , Jewish Values Online and United with Israel. He also serves on the Rabbinical Advisory Board of Koshertube and as Rabbinic Advisor to Yad HaChazakah – the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center. He also holds degrees in law, psychology and business.


With the recent survey conducted by Nishma Research (no connection to this Nishma) on why people leave Orthodoxy the issue of “Off the Derech” (a subject which we have also previously addressed has again become a focus of the Orthodox world. The survey has presented a large amount of information on why people leave Orthodoxy. A challenge still exists, however, in how this data is then to be processed and understood. There are also those who wish to describe the data as presenting how individuals wish to explain their departure from Orthodoxy and, thereby, not necessarily the real reasons. Either way, the data must be recognized as very personal and not fully dispassionate. What are we thus to learn, what can we learn, from this information?

Part of the difficulty in analyzing this data emerges from a lack of, what we may term, a sociological or psychological framework from which to evaluate the data. We have individuals stating that they left Orthodoxy for a specific reason: an actual experience. The fact is that there may have been others who had the same experience but, even while having a similar immediate reaction, did not decide to thereby leave. We also could possibly find individuals who had a similar experience but did not have a similar reaction to it as the one who left. In this regard, it is even possible that, in some circumstances, a reaction to the experience could have been reached by another which could have resulted in a greater allegiance to Orthodoxy. (I am reminded of the story of the two individuals who responded to the Holocaust in fully opposite manners; one questioning ‘How could there be a God?’ and the other declaring ‘How could there not be a God?’) This is, of course, not to say that there is no great value in identifying the external events that are defined as instrumental in bringing about a lifestyle change. What we, though, must also recognize is the significance of the human factor in this analysis.

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With this in mind, it would thus be significant to include, as it also involves lifestyle transformation, the process of kiruv [the movement of people to Orthodoxy] in such an investigation. What we may be trying to identify is why people go through certain lifestyle changes but to honestly do so we must recognize that the study of specific lifestyle movement is still part of an examination of lifestyle change in general. As such, including in this study an investigation of why people become Orthodox may greatly assist the examination of why people leave Orthodoxy. Of course, these are two different phenomena but a fuller recognition of the dynamic nature of the subject we are studying could be of great assistance. There is the specific nature of a change and there is the issue of change in itself.

A broader definition of the subject could also be a great help in the process of reviewing various categories of observance which were identified in the survey but did not fit easily into simple categories. These would include those who were described as ‘double-lifers’, who maintained some aspects of identity as Orthodox but not others. Such a fuller recognition of the dynamic nature of the subject matter would also recognize those who have gone through multiple changes. There are those who became Orthodox and then left and there are those who left Orthodoxy and then came back. Such movement must also be a consideration in a study of this nature.

In a certain way, I already introduced this overall consideration in my previous post on the subject when I raised the idea that we should be scrutinizing as well why people remain Orthodox. I presented the assumption that much of the discussion on this subject applies the theory from physics that objects stay in a state of inertia unless acted upon by another force. We simply assume that people will stay frum [observant] unless they are acted upon not to be. Is this assumption, though, actually correct? Are human beings so ‘inert’? The dynamism of life which we are now asserting – with its myriad of possible human responses to the same stimulus – may actually point to another reality.

The human being may not be in such an inert state but may really be, inherently, in a dynamic psychological and sociological state which would mean that change is to be expected. In fact, people usually go through many changes in their lives – natural growth, marriage, parenthood, etc.—even within more settled lifestyle choices. Different human beings are also simply different in their resistances to and earnest longings for change. Our understanding of the nature of human beings must necessarily affect how we look at this entire subject.

* * * * *

I once attended a shiur from Rabbi Chaim Lifshitz, the noted Torah scholar and psychologist from Israel, who addressed the issue of why, as presented in T.B. Yevamot 64a, the prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik [a righteous child of a righteous individual] is more effective than the prayer of a tzaddik ben rasha [a righteous child of an evil-doer]. In a broader sense, this would clearly seem to indicate that the former has achieved some level of accomplishment that the latter did not achieve, and could not achieve, by the nature of each one’s very upbringing. Rabbi Lifshitz’s question was: what could this be?

To further highlight the nature of this question, he also quoted the famous gemara in T.B. Berachot 34b which states makom she’baalei teshuva omdim tzadikim gemurim einum omdim [in a place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous are not able to stand]. This statement would seem to present the totally opposite view, that one who has gone through religious movement and has emerged righteous – similar, in a sense, to the tzaddik ben rasha – has achieved a level of accomplishment that one who did not go through such religious movement could not achieve. To Rabbi Lifshitz, the question was now expanded: what is it about religious movement that could yield such opposing conclusions as to its effect?

At issue is the very nature of individual identity. Change inherently introduces dynamic motion into this nature and, with it, a force of potential clarity as to one’s individuality. The ba’al teshuva, by definition, has created flux in his/her being: first, through actions which would be defined by the Torah system as transgressions, with the reinforcement of the associated drives, and then the overcoming of these forces with subsequent observance. Identity, as such, has a value of being the persistently individual mark of this person throughout this dynamic movement. This is what distinguishes the ba’al teshuva. The individual is not just the result of the outside forces which have molded his/her personality. Through this dynamism, he/she has made his/her own essential, internal mark.

Rabbi Lifshitz pointed this out in connection to Avraham Avinu. There was struggle in his life. He was born into a culture of idolatry. He emerged though, distinct, as Avraham. The being Avraham became could not simply be seen as Terach’s son for Avraham clearly was distinct from his father in his choice of being. There is, inherently, such a call in our being — to be recognized as distinct. In the world of psychology, this is most noted in the study of adolescence when the child is clearly wishing to distinguish himself/herself from his/her parents. There is, of course, much true challenge in such movement as Avraham experienced and not all can be successful in achieving the desired goal. But the one like Avraham Avinu, who can overcome powerful negative forces and emerge righteous, dynamic and unique as an individual clearly stands out. The ba’al teshuva is clearly dynamic and unique but also righteous.

But, then, Rabbi Lifshitz turned to the specific challenge that must have thus faced Yitzchak Avinu. It was, in a certain way, easier for Avraham to establish his own individual identity for there was the comparison with Terach. Avraham’s drive for righteousness inherently also served the value of the creation of his own, distinct identity. How could Yitzchak, though, make his own mark of individuality, for righteousness in his case would call upon him to follow in the footsteps of his truly illustrious father? This, Rabbi Lifshitz contends, is the challenge of the ben tzaddik – to also develop his/her own distinct individuality while walking in the path of his/her upbringing. And this is the accomplishment of the tzaddik ben tzaddik for such dynamic individuality should also be part of the personality of the true tzaddik. This was the accomplishment of Yitzchak Avinu. The tzaddik ben tzaddik is clearly righteous but also dynamic and unique.

Within the broader context, what Rabbi Lifshitz is further identifying for us is the multi-faceted nature of the human personality. While he does not address them, there are also forces of inertia, both positive and negative, within the human personality. There is attraction to the familiar especially if it has also been agreeable. Simply, without even considering the effects of external stimuli, within the very nature of an individual is a collection of different psychological forces, each affecting potential responses in a variety of distinct and, even, contradictory, ways. Data regarding the effects of external stimuli are still, obviously, very important in understanding the process of lifestyle change but to disregard the vibrant nature of the human personality would be equally, seriously problematic.

To study movement within lifestyle clearly demands an investigation of the external stimuli that may cause such change but it also demands an examination of the internal dynamics of the being going through this movement. Study of the stimuli that lead one to go ‘off the derech’ – and/or, by extension, become frum ­­– also demands consideration of the personal human processes within variant individuals.

* * * * *

The processes by which we relate to the external world must also be considered. Certain important, personal, psychological forces within an individual that affect the very movement of change have been identified. We wish to stay the same and we wish to be different. Any decision we make, even without consideration of the actual external issues at hand, is affected by this tension. What we also often don’t consider is how our decisions related to such external stimuli can also be affected by similar tensions within other aspects of our personality. Other psychological factors – tied more to how we see, relate and interact with the world – are thus also significant. Within this context, we may wish to focus on three at this time: pleasure, truth and ethics. These categories are found extensively in any discussion on lifestyle change of the nature we are discussing but their depth is often overlooked. The present goal, though, is not to actually present this depth but to simply introduce a recognition of the importance of such investigations in the context of this discussion.

For an external event to affect a human being it must, in fact, somehow be drawn into the personal mechanisms of a person. Objective truth, for example, is really not a significant factor, in itself, in connection to human behaviour. The fact that the North Star is 400 light years away, for example, does not, in itself, have personal relevance to an individual unless this information is somehow perceived as having some type of effect on the person. This is true of all external information – some, though, has more obvious personal effects while others, such as this knowledge of the North Star’s distance from Earth, have much less, if any. When we thus consider such matters as pleasure, truth or ethics, what we must also investigate is through what processes this external information connects with a person, thereby affecting human behaviour.

This is not to say that these three are the only yardsticks that may be applied by a human being in the process of converting external stimuli into an effect on personal behaviour. Pleasure, truth and ethics, however, are three extremely significant ones especially in our context. They clearly also were referred to in the discussion surrounding the Nishma Research survey and its results. A challenge, however, may be that these yardsticks were not, in themselves, subject to investigation.

What these yardsticks each do in regard to external stimuli is, essentially, evaluate their connection to personal interest. The pleasure yardstick evaluates the information pursuant to the spectrum of pain and pleasure of the individual. Similarly, the truth yardstick evaluates such facts along the spectrum of truth and falsehood – as established by the individual — while the ethics yardstick does so in regard to the spectrum of the ethical and unethical – again as established by the individual. The external information converted into such evaluations as determined by these yardsticks will then affect a person’s behaviour. These yardsticks in themselves, though, are not objectively defined. While there may be objective elements in them, they also have subjective elements. The issue, as such, cannot just be what the impact of some fact will be upon such a yardstick. The issue must also include how a person arrived at his/her determination of the yardstick and the influence of the subjective in that very process.

Let’s also consider the further impact of what we may perceive to be the direct cause-and-effect of a stimulus on a person in regard to these yardsticks. Applying the principle of pleasure, telling a person that a sandwich tastes good, and is thus pleasurable, would be expected to lead to this person eating this sandwich. But who is to say that, even if the person would find the eating of this sandwich to be pleasurable, if he/she wishes such pleasure. If for some reason, though, the person specifically does not wish to experience such pleasure, the result will be the opposite; he/she will not eat the sandwich. Such recognition of possible differing results in behavior is but a further example of the complexity in determining the connection between outside stimuli and resultant behavior.

We must start with the reality that each person’s determination of whether a certain taste is pleasurable or not – or even painful – can be different. As such, we may have the fact that the person did not eat the sandwich but what does it really say about the sandwich – and the person? Does the sandwich simply not taste good – to all? Is it perhaps, though, that while others found this sandwich pleasurable, this person subjectively did not? Then, though, we may ask: does it really taste good but the person wished to avoid this pleasure for some reason?

A similar analysis can be applied to the truth and ethics yardsticks as well with the obvious resultant effect of further complicating the nature of this overall study. A study of the effect of external stimuli on individuals cannot just be about the external stimuli. It must consider the individuals as dynamic factors in the causal sequence. In this regard, the yardsticks of evaluation used by these individuals must also be recognized for their dynamic nature.

* * * * *

The connection of the truth yardstick to personal behaviour is, of course, a key. At issue is not really, as mentioned, the truth of the external fact itself but the truth of the consequence which, in turn, will affect behaviour. Our example of the North Star being 400 light years from Earth is a case in point. Whether this fact is true or not, in a vacuum, is really irrelevant in itself to the truth yardstick tied to personal behaviour because the fact, generally, has no impact on behaviour. The truth, though, of whether someone has an illness or not is of a very different nature because this fact will, necessarily, impact the person because of the possible consequences.

Questions which reverberate with the person thus emerge: Is it true that this is the illness? Are the assumed consequences true? How do I know that what is being presented as the truth is actually correct? If we then re-consider the issue of the North Star, what if someone begins to develop an argument for how the truth of this information could impact upon a person? How someone considers such an argument could then be deemed as having an effect. There is also the desire, in many people, to simply know the truth of any fact. The question of truth has many different elements within it. This is so with the pleasure and ethics yardsticks as well. The cause-and-effect of lifestyle change is clearly not linear. Many questions emerge – with many, different possible answers.

It is thus of significance in any discussion of the causes of lifestyle change to consider the multi-dimensional nature of the issue. We are clearly not discussing a matter of simple and clear cause-and-effect. At the centre of the movement is the dynamic nature of the human personality with a multitude of considerations which may be elements in any decision of this nature. In this regard, it is important to truly look at the three yardsticks to which I am referring. The subjective nature of the pleasure yardstick is basically understood – but it can also be easily overlooked. We see this in the process of kiruv in that arguments are often made with an assumption of a certain result when, in fact, people can respond differently across a wide spectrum. (Not everyone, for example, experiences spiritual elevation as the Shabbos table.)

The role of the pleasure yardstick can even be greatly misapplied in viewing the phenomena of people leaving Orthodoxy. The perceptions of people finding the practice of Orthodoxy to be lacking pleasure, and thus exiting such practice, creates almost contradictory responses. In one way, there is reluctance in accepting such a conclusion for there is a hesitancy to define such practice as unenjoyable or painful. People want to promote Orthodox practice as pleasurable. In another way, an opposite assumption also seems to exist at the same time — that, obviously, not being observant would be more pleasurable — and, as such, a major reason for people leaving Orthodoxy would be expected to be the desire for more pleasure. Is Orthodox practice, as such, more or less pleasurable? Is pleasure a motivation for observance or a motivation against?

This distinction in approach is then often explained in terms of the pleasures of the non-Orthodox lifestyle being more carnal or physical while the pleasures of the Orthodox lifestyle being more spiritual or ethereal, with the implication that the latter forms of pleasure are superior. This question then touches upon the ethical yardstick, connecting the issues involved with that yardstick to those associated with this yardstick. That in itself is also a further argument that highlights the challenge that what one finds pleasurable is really subjective and personal. Some people like being Orthodox and some do not – and there can be numerous reasons for both possibilities. The challenge, again, is not to assume a single personality profile for every person is different.

What does it say, though, about observance in that it may be less pleasurable? Is there not then a need for a significant argument for maintenance of observance even though such observance may be less pleasurable or even painful? The issue of the pleasure, of sacrifice, the pain of it, then becomes a further issue. This in turn touches upon questions of metaphysics and the truth yardstick. What is again often overlooked is the distinctive individuality of all human beings. What is often not recognized is that an argument for universal observance of some lifestyle connected to some comprehensive standard such as the system of Torah, must be personal. A byline of this Nishma declares that the way of Torah is: From Sinai to Self. Each connection of a person to Torah must be, by definition, unique. This does not mean one cannot learn from the experience of the other but that it must be approached with thoughtfulness.

Truth also seems to be approached as a given without the recognition of the subjective – and objective — in this determination and investigation. The complexity of this issue of epistemology is often ignored. Of course, there are some concrete parameters to such an investigation – in the base of 10, 1+1 does always =2 and 1+1 equaling 3 is always wrong – but the different possibilities of what may be correct answers in general — given our limited knowledge of all the facts — is also much more numerous than many may want us to believe. The result is people speaking in terms of a definite or arguing that the only definite is that there is no definite – both problematic theories especially pragmatically. While the fact that we cannot be absolutely certain of much of our knowledge of reality must be recognized, it is just as obstinate to assume that any possibility is then of equal value. There is a value in the best possible choice given one’s analysis. This does not mean, though, that there will then be universal acceptance of this universal best possibility for there could still be disagreement regarding the best form of analysis.

Fundamental disagreement exists in how truth is reached – from faith to logic to intuition and all the subsets and divergent definitions in between. Discussions of lifestyle changes of this nature invariably touch upon the issue of truth – but then how we know truth is rarely, honestly investigated. If it is introduced, it is simply done so in support of the desired conclusion. Opening up the discussion honestly, though, does not necessarily have to lead to nihilism. We make decisions every day. The call is to do so bearing the weight of responsibility.

The role of the subjective in the ethics yardstick must also be clearly recognized. Because our ethical perceptions are so emotionally powerful to us, it is difficult for us to question our ethical perspectives – but the question always exists: how do we know what is ethical? How do we know that our present ethical perspectives are really correct? How can we be so sure when we act upon our ethics? The alternative is obviously most frightening for how could a world exist without any ethical parameters? But then, again, how much evil and harm has been done by those acting upon an ethical perspective they believe to be correct? These questions obviously go beyond just the issue of lifestyle change but much of this personal investigation of ethics exists in the context of lifestyle change. Arguments are presented for lifestyle change based upon ethics; what is often really being said, though, regards more the self than the system.

The argument may be that the person made a move because he/she disagreed with the ethics of his/her previous lifestyle. It cannot be that the previous lifestyle is objectively unethical as that determination is, actually, inherently problematic; such a determination opens up a whole realm of thought, investigation and questioning which usually is not truly undertaken in most cases of lifestyle change. What is, honestly, simply identified is that the given system has a different ethic than the person. It is a personal challenge. This should yield a different argument than is often the case. It is not ‘right and wrong’ but ‘like and dislike’. (We are not talking about situations when the system clearly is seen as violating its own ethics in a given situation – such as abuse by a teacher in a religious school. That is a different discussion.)

There is obviously much to discuss as I attempt to open this discussion to the personal. This is not to say that there is no benefit from the statistical analysis of lifestyle change and the identification of general trends. Quite the opposite: it can still be of immense value. For this the Nishma Research study must be noted. A great problem exists, though, when we discount and/or ignore the personal. In almost every aspect of such a study, individuality plays a significant role. Lifestyle change must always be seen as personal. Beyond that, the connection of any person to Torah must be recognized as highly individualistic and personal. We talk of the seventy faces of Torah.

This really means there is, within certain Halachic and Hashkafic parameters, a different Torah for every person. (The question of how we draw the line of these parameters is, obviously, an important one within Torah, especially in that we accept some distinctions but reject others. That discussion, though, is beyond the frame of this posting. To begin such a study, though, please see Tolerance, Nishma Introspection 5760-3.

What works for one does not necessarily work for the other: the genius of Torah is that it connects to the individual in a unique manner responsive to that individual. While there are obviously objective, general tenets involved in any analysis of a lifestyle, it is necessary for us to always consider, most significantly, the force of individuality.



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