The Silent Victims of the Intellectual Shutdown of Orthodox Judaism

[The following is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Josh Berman in Kol Hamevaser. Emphases are mine, as are the comments below. – AIWAC]

Educationally, should we try to expose students to some of the issues in Academic Bible or is it safer to not risk raising questions in them by bringing it up?

There are challenges, but the question is how to combat them.  I have had a big change in my own thinking about this in recent years that goes against the conventional wisdom. I used to think that it was, from a hinnukh perspective, a good idea not to share any Bible studies with, say, students in high school or in the post-high school programs.  We can learn Rashi and Ramban, even R. Menachem Leibtag and R. Yoel Bin-Nun, but that is it.  We do not want to talk about anything else and we do not want to run into problems that are out there or proposals that are given to answer those problems.  “Why expose them to this?” was my approach.

But that is not my approach anymore based on what I have seen.  I have noticed that we are paying a big price for not addressing the challenges that are raised.  That price is this – I see that people, later in life, begin to ask questions. People in college do not ask questions; I have never seen a student in college who went off the derekh because he took a Hebrew Bible class and there was suddenly P and Wellhausen. What does happen is that people grow up and they begin to become aware of the complexity of many things and they learn about biblical studies and have never heard anything about it in yeshivah or day school, and they sense that the whole religious ma’arekhet (framework) is like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Now, here is the main point that I have come to realize only recently: even in cases where adults do become exposed to some of the complexities in Bible studies, very few people go off the derekh.  But what I see more and more is that there are many people running around with questions who do not know how to deal with them because no one ever talks or writes about these issues.

And so what happens is that you get people – lots of them – who have questions that really bother them. What happens to these people is that when they are challenged to choose between their intellectual honesty and their Yiddishkayt, they choose to maintain their Yiddishkayt and simply close down all intellectual engagement with their Judaism.  What happens to them religiously is that they go to shul and send their kids to day school and everything looks fine, but inside they are not fine, and the burning esh ha-Torah (fire of Torah) inside never gets rekindled.  This is the cost that we pay.

You can pretty much replace “Biblical Criticism” in the above excerpt with any of a number of serious challenges to Orthodoxy – the questions on the status of women, the frozen nature of contemporary halacha and halachic policy, science and religion, the infallibility of gedolim &c &c. It would still ring just as true.

There’s a lot of discussion on the Ortho-blogosphere about Jews who go “Off the Derech” or become “Orthoprax”. I sometimes get the impression that far too many educators and leaders (even the open-minded ones) think only in terms of OTD and Orthoprax stats. Some think, wrongly, that the losses are troubling but manageable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is because there is a third category of people who are hurt by the closing of the Orthodox mind, a category that I believe to be larger, maybe much larger, than the above two combined. This is the “religious burn-out” or RBO for short. I’ve met people like this and so have you. You meet them in the academy, in Shul and in the Beit Midrash. They come from every sector of Orthodox society, no matter how sheltered. They’re everywhere.

RBOs certainly talk the talk and walk the walk. They send their kids to the right schools, say all the right platitudes and pay homage to all the “right” ideas. Oftentimes, they are “frummer than thou”, though usually they just go through the motions. But it’s all a façade – the religious energy that is so crucial to religious growth, leading a healthy religious life and raising religiously healthy kids is gone, snuffed out. All that’s left is the outer shell.

OTD’s and Orthoprax Jews at least have the luxury of being comfortable in their own skin. RBOs, on the other hand, do not. They go through the motions because it is all they have left, and they cling on to it for dear life. In the name of maintaining their yiddishkeit and attachment to God they have completely shut down the most wonderful gift God gave us – the human mind. I never cease to shudder when I see the deadness in the eyes of people who have had to make this sacrifice. This is especially so since I believe that it could have been prevented in many, though not all, cases.

Maybe if policy leaders, Rabbis and educators understand the existence of this third category they will stop closing their eyes to the awful results of the closing of the Orthodox Mind. At least, I hope so.

Shabbat Shalom



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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4 Responses to The Silent Victims of the Intellectual Shutdown of Orthodox Judaism

  1. fred says:

    the distinction between orthoprax and rbo is unclear.

    • AIWAC says:


      I suppose you could call RBOs “Orthopraxers in denial”…:)

      The difference is that Orthopraxers are fully aware of what they’re doing (as well as the fact that they don’t believe to whatever degree) and emotionally complete with it. RBOs, on the other hand, struggle to maintain the illusion that everything is as it was before. Still, their religiosity hangs by a thread.

      Hope that clears things up.


  2. Pingback: A Debate Between Me and Myself on Orthodoxy and Academic Jewish Studies: Second Round | QED

  3. Pingback: The Most Important Issues of the Day for Modern Orthodoxy | QED

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