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What Are They Choosing?

"The serpent’s words come in a vast array of forms, but its goal is always the same"



In Nurture Their Nature, Rabbis Yosef Lynn and Jack Cohen present a fascinating interpretation of the conversation between Chavah and the serpent, which they first heard from Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, based on the words of the Vilna Gaon and the Meshech Chochmah.

In their telling, the serpent’s entire goal was to obscure the fact that the first mitzvah given to Adam was to enjoy the fruits of all the trees of Gan Eden. The verse (2:16) specifically uses the term of a command, “vaitzav Elokim,” and the doubling of the verb for eating, “achol tocheil,” indicates the imperative form.

The serpent sought to distract Chavah’s attention from that first commandment — an expression of Hashem’s desire that man should experience the full range of sensory, spiritual, and intellectual delights even in this world.

True, Chavah pushed back when the serpent asked, “Has Elokim not said that you shall not eat from all the trees of the Garden?”

Not so, she responded. “We are permitted to eat from the fruits of the Garden.”

But in that response, they detect a subtle change. No longer is the eating of all the trees of the Garden commanded; rather, it is permitted. The difference is that the former indicates that Hashem put man in the world to partake and enjoy of it; the latter suggests something more akin to an indulgence of our weakness. And if what was the first mitzvah is now only a heter, then the first mitzvah becomes to not eat from the fruit of the Tree at the center of the Garden. And the Torah’s focus shifts to denial to man.

Here’s how Rabbis Lynn and Cohen put it:

According to his worldview, the only questions were how large the jail cell was and how strong the cage. Hashem’s essential will that we live and enjoy this epic opportunity called “life” was hidden from view. Instead of a flourishing garden where we, too, could flourish, the world was transformed in our minds into a minimum security prison. In such a world, who would not want to rebel?

The serpent has won, they write, every time he succeeds in obscuring the truth that Hashem loves us, believes in us, and wants us to be happy. “The serpent’s words come in a vast array of forms, but its goal is always the same. It always seeks to make Hashem out to get us, and conceal from us the fact that the Torah shows us how to live the richest and fullest life possible.”

In that vein, Rabbi Uri Zohar once told me that our world is filled with people who believe deeply in Hashem, but in a totally unhealthy and destructive manner. Their relationship consists solely of the certainty that Hashem is out to get them, chalilah. That is how they absorbed their entire chinuch.

THE FOREGOING discussion relates directly to a recent column by my colleague Gedalia Guttentag, in which he argued that when we are analyzing all the reasons that young people abandon religious observance, we should not leave out of the mix bechirah (free will). That observation triggered an angry reaction in some circles, based, I believe, on a fundamental misreading of his intent.

His article followed one by Rabbi Shimon Russell, a highly respected therapist, in which he discussed some of the reasons that young people may feel “compelled” to leave religious observance, such as abuse of one sort or another at the hands of figures whom they have been taught to view as representatives of Torah, or of those charged with their protection, including family members.

Some read Guttentag to be saying, “Don’t forget that there are also bad kids, who just choose not to remain religiously observant.” But that reading ignores what he actually wrote, and it also reflects a misunderstanding of free will. First, Reb Gedalia did not label young people who leave religious observance as “bad,” nor did he imply anything of the kind. He was just observing that not all departures from the religious fold can be attributed to some form of psychological trauma, and we must attend to the wide variety of other reasons that young people depart from the way that they were raised.

Second, that these young people exercised free will does not mean that their choices were based on perfect information. Free will does not require that those opting out were exposed only to the best and most inspiring teachers or raised in families “on fire” with love of Torah. It simply means that their choices were not compelled by psychological trauma.

Yet those choices may have been made with very imperfect information. If the young person’s education never emphasized Hashem’s love for us, for instance, then he is lacking basic information.

I once heard my friend Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky speak at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the subject of teenage dropouts. He described how he had once asked a group of Jewish teenagers with whom he was working, “If you could choose to be born Jewish or not, which would you choose?” He would not even share the percentage of those who said they would choose not to be born Jewish so as not to depress the audience.

For our purposes, it does not matter what sort of group of Orthodox teenagers he was addressing. But it is crucial to understand what those who would have chosen not to be born Jewish were saying. For them, being Jewish meant primarily being bound by a particular set of rules from which non-Jews are free.

Those rules, in their eyes, were nothing more than arbitrary obligations imposed to secure obedience — a sort of checklist that one must get through before one can really “live” and do what wants. Negel vasser, check; Modeh Ani, check; bircos hashachar, check. And so on.

Now, if someone offered you a choice — front row seats at an Avraham Fried concert, either for free or for $100 — which would you choose?

So those teenagers were expressing a preference for avoiding the entrance fee to life — a checklist of mitzvos of no great meaning to them.

Many outside factors influence the choices that people make. For instance, who is more likely to be more successful in kiruv — someone who has a genuine interest in the lives of those with whom he or she is working? Or someone who gives the impression of being solely interested in whether they become religiously observant or not, i.e., one who makes the object of their attention feel like a notch on the mekarev’s gun? Obviously, the former is much more likely to gain an open ear to Torah.

But the influence of outside factors — e.g., hormones, or exposure to the Internet — does not mean that choices are not being made; only that the context of those choices makes a difference.

All that Reb Gedalia was saying is that we have to pay attention to the precise nature of the choices those who leave the fold are making. What is the vision of Torah to which they have been exposed before deciding to abandon mitzvah observance? Was it one of Torah as a “minimal security prison”? Or Torah as a pathway to the richest, most empowered life possible? Was it a perspective of mitzvos as random obligations on a checklist? Or of mitzvos as the basis of connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the means of refinement of human nature into something approaching holiness?

In that view, young people who opt out are neither bad nor good. They may simply be misinformed, and their choices the result of that misinformation. And once we understand that, we can adjust our chinuch and parenting accordingly to correct for distortions.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 879. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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