Non-Jews in Halacha

Probably every modern Jew grapples with issues where the Talmud and the passed down traditions simply do not go together with our modern sensibilities. One of these issues is the treatment and the status of non-Jews. Anti-semites love to cite derogatory statements about non-Jews from the Talmud and they do not even need to invent them, twist them or cite them out of context. The statements are there and in some places the attitude seems to be there as well (I do not personally know any such people, but some such statements have made the news). This has bothered and continues to bother me a lot. I have been raised in an environment where respect for every human being has been one of the highest values, also it is a personal issue, as my family and most of my friends are non-Jews.

I was glad to discover last week the article Jews and Gentiles on Shabbat: A Rationalist Perspective on the Rationalist Medical Halacha blog which addresses the topic in the context of saving a non-Jew’s life on Shabat. The article is very long, but absolutely worth the read. The author brings many sources that support the view that we are required to treat gentiles the same way as we treat Jews. The same way Islam has a category for people from other monotheistic religions (called "dhimmi" I believe), Jewish tradition has the category of "ba’alei haDat" (people of religion). He cites the Meiri (Menachem Meiri, a 13th century rabbi?) who reasons that a society of ba’alei haDat is moral and just and would have the same status as Jews in halacha. Two other possible ways are to include all monotheistic non-Jews in the categories of "Bnei Noach" (the children of Noach, those who follow the seven laws of Noach, including a justice system and monotheism), or "Ger Toshav" (righteous gentile).

In both cases, the categories require believe in the one G-d, so the next part of the article talks about non-monotheists (Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, etc). Basically, like pretty much all people from his time period, the Meiri found it inconceivable that a just and moral society could be formed on any basis other than monotheism. This is why the category was chosen this way. But the issue is not really the belief. So if there were a just and moral society created by non-monotheists, the people living in it would receive the status of "Ba’alei haDat" and would be considered equal to Jews. And I think we agree that most societies on our planet are moral and just.

The above is my summary of my own imperfect understanding of the article. I lack much of the background in Talmud and halacha, so please read the original article.

The terror is coming to Europe

For many of my fellow Europeans, terror has suddenly become a reality. It’s not the first terror attack in Europe, but this time it has made terror real in a way that the previous attacks haven’t (at least judging by the reaction of people around me). People ask themselves whether they should do this or that. Tourists return from Paris in panic.

What will this mean for Israel? My boyfriend hopes that it will make the world understand Israel better, but I doubt it. I see double standards everywhere. France is bombing Syria in vengeance for Friday’s attacks, hitting civilians. How would the world react if this were Israel doing the bombing? The Muslim leaders in Europe are finally taking position against terror. Why didn’t they do that when the victims were "only" Jews, Christians or Yesidis? Solidarity with France is everywhere. Where is the solidarity with the terror victims of Lebanon (44 dead last Thursday) or Russia (224 dead two weeks ago), not to mention Israel? I don’t really think anything will change.

What will this mean for the Jews in Europe? The year 2015 started for my community with soldiers and machine guns in front of the synagogue because of the January attacks in Paris. I haven’t been there last Shabat, but I guess they are back. Will Europeans turn against Muslims? Or the refugees? And in the end against everything foreign, including the Jews (who after all because of Israel are responsible for everything in the Middle East)?

And finally, what will it mean for Europe? Will it turn into a mess of small paranoid, xenophobic, nationalist states? Will it be able to handle a constant threat and still uphold the values of freedom, democracy and all that? Will we have big-brother-type surveillance all around? How many people actually trust in Europe and have positive associations with it?

According to an Urban legend, a Chinese curse says "May you live in interesting times" — I fear we are living in interesting times indeed.

Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence [fun]

Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence – Enjoy!

Some favourites:

(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Check out the world/universe/giraffe. Isn’t it complex?
(2) Only God could have made them so complex.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) The Bible is true.
(2) Therefore, the Bible is historical fact.
(3) The Bible says that God exists.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) The Bible showed a group of people performing embarassing actions.
(2) It must be true if the book describes negative events.
(3) Therefore, the Bible is describing historical events.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Half of a wing is useless!
(2) Therefore, God exists.

Reading the news

I’m just sad when reading the news. Or angry and sad. Why? One example from today:

Israel und die Palästinensergebiete werden seit Wochen von neuer Gewalt erschüttert. Bislang wurden knapp 50 Palästinenser sowie ein arabischer und acht jüdische Israelis getötet.
(Erneute Messerattacke in Israel, Tagesschau 22.10.2015)


For weeks, Israel and the Palestinian territories have been unsettled by a new wave of violence. To this date, nearly 50 Palestinians, one Arab Israeli and eight Jewish Israelis have been killed.

What they don’t mention is that the 50 Palestinians were mostly killed while they were attacking others and the killed Israelis were mostly just random people going about their business. The image that the news paint is more along the lines of "both sides kill each other" and "as always, there are more Palestinians killed". I don’t even have the energy to talk to people about it any more, I’m so tired of it all.

Labels and boxes

About two weeks ago I was hiking in the mountains with a group. I walked somewhat behind the group. Two men walked in the opposite direction and stopped to briefly talk to our group (in English, none of the group realized they were Israelis). Before I reached the group, the men continued their walk towards me. When they passed me, one of them greeted me with "ma nishma" ("how are you" in Hebrew). I was confused, but automatically answered "hakol beseder" ("all is fine" in Hebrew). He must have seen my confused look and explained that he saw me and just thought I had to be a Jew in with my skirt and headscarf (no visible star of David or any Hebrew writing that day). I answered something in the direction of "only to Israelis" and we went our separate ways.

This is the first time somebody has spoken to me in Hebrew spontaneously on the street just because I look like a Jew. I felt (in this order)

  1. Happy that I was able to carry out a conversation in Hebrew.
  2. Proud that I was recognized as a member of the tribe by others.
  3. Embarrassed that my way of dressing apparently is so stereotypical.
  4. Worried that today might be some holiday that I had forgotten, that they’d know there is no kosher restaurant anywhere near, …

I am not sure what exactly I was worried about. If I was hiking on a holiday, so were they. If I had no possibility of eating kosher food, neither had they. But they didn’t look religious, so they wouldn’t care. Whereas I looked religious and that sort of thing should have been important for me. I guess I was afraid they’d call me a hypocrite for looking the way I do, but behaving in a way that doesn’t fit. Which is sort of true, I dress more orthodox than I behave. For example I wear a headcovering like an orthodox woman would, but eat vegetarian food in nonkosher restaurants which most orthodox Jew wouldn’t do. Does that make me a hypocrite?

Little Mosque S1E8 – The Archdeacon Cometh

The Archdeacon is coming to evaluate the Anglican church. To avoid the church getting shut down, the Muslims decide to fake being Anglican and come to the service on Sunday. Of course the Archdeacon finds out, but he is in favor of the "interfaith experiment" – as long as it brings in money.

Best quote:

Sarah: Don’t we have a New Testament hanging around somewhere around here?
Yasir: New Testament?
Sarah: Yeah or an Old Testament?
Yasir: If we had a new testament surely I would have thrown the old one.

If this were a Jewish congregation instead of a Muslim one, there are several questions: May a Jew go to an Anglican service? May he pretend to be Christian? And how convincing would he be?

I’m afraid the answer to the first question is most probably no. There are some orthodox Jews who do not enter churches at all, not even for a concert or to admire the art and architecture. Many Jews will in general enter churches, but not attend a Christian service. Some will attend services, for example the (orthodox) then-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks generated some uproar when he attended the wedding service of Prince William in a church. There might be quite a few people who would attend a service for the wedding of a friend or family member, but to attend some regular Sunday service to save the Anglican church? I don’t think so.

As far as pretending to be Christian goes, there might be an issue of "marit ayin", giving a false impression. I’m not entirely sure the concept is applicable here, as usually it is discussed in contexts where something that is technically allowed could give a false impression of what a religious Jew is allowed to do. So for example if a man with a kippah walks into a non-kosher restaurant, an observer could think that it is allowed for religious Jews to eat there. Or if you as a known kosher-keeping Jew serve meat in a sauce that looks like milk. As in the case under discussion there is no "identifyable Jew" involved, I’m not sure marit ayin applies, but I am no rabbi. There might also be other issues with pretending to be a Christian.

Next question, if we assume for dramatical reasons that a Jewish community decides to attend Reverend Magee’s service, would they be able to put on a convincing performance? Well, kippot are easier to hide than headscarves. But (orthodox) Jewish services are much more disorganized and have less of this "awed silence" than Christian ones, I guess there would be more talking among the congregation than the Archdeacon expects. Also singing with an organ, loudly speaking whole prayers in unison and sitting and standing all at the same time will be unfamiliar and could go wrong. I’m not sure if Anglicans kneel, if they do this would present a halachic problem. Also, do Anglicans say the Credo aloud? No Jew would do that, ever (some might maybe sing songs that mention Jesus or Mary, but saying "I believe in Jesus"? No way!).

So, while it would be equally fun to watch a Jewish "Christian" congregation, it would be pretty unrealistic, at least if we take an orthodox community as the example. For a bit of background reading on opinions about Jews in churches you can read Is a Jew permitted to enter a church […]? on JewishValuesOnline.

Little Mosque S1E7 – Playing with Fire

A (non-Muslim) fireman hits on Rayyan. Yasir, Baber and Amaar are concerned about this. Out of annoyance, Rayyan goes on a date with the guy, but realizes Islam is too important to her to date non-Muslims.

Best quote:

Yasser: What kind of normal person has any interest in Islam?

[Indeed the same can be said about Judaism – especially if you have crazy people like Baber running around representing it. I actually think Rayyan handles the interest in Islam pretty well, she must have lots of practice with questions from outsiders.]

Being part of a religious minority that insists on marrying people from the same faith has the disadvantage that it’s nearly impossible to find a partner – simply because there isn’t anyone to even consider. I’m not sure how many members Mercy mosque is supposed to have, but probably there is no unmarried man in the age range suitable for Rayyan (besides Amaar). That sucks.

So what do you do? I think every young person in that situation has at least considered dating somebody from outside the faith [though to be fair to Rayyan, he is the one who initiates the whole thing and she rejects his advances several times in the beginning]. Especially if your parents and others freak out about the mere possibility and try to "save" you. Luckily for Yasir and the rest, she decides after a very short time that her faith is too important for her to consider dating a non-Muslim. I guess this is the result all parents of Jewish children wish for when they tell their children about the importance of marrying a Jew. Why is this the one important thing? Yasir is not really that religious, why is it so important for him that his daughter marries a Muslim? Especially when he himself didn’t (well, he married someone who converted for him, half points?). I don’t know. But I do know why he got his wish, why Rayyan decided to only date Muslims from now on: Because Islam actually means something to her, it is an important part of her daily life. So how can we prevent intermarriage? Make Judaism relevant for our children so that they cannot imagine living with someone who doesn’t share this part of their life [and move somewhere where they can actually find a Jewish partner].

Little Mosque S1E6 – Mother-In-Law

Yasir’s mother visits and wants him to take a second wife. Sarah is understandably upset about Yasir’s inability to say no to his mother and moves out. Yasir draws up a "prenup" which forbids additional wives and rescues his marriage. Meanwhile Mercy’s conservatives are in uproar against Reverend Magee performing a gay marriage ceremony.

Gay marriage. The ultimate topic to unite conservatives across boundaries of faith, race and background. Next to the Muslim Baber and the (presumably) Christian Joe, an orthodox Jew would fit right into the "crowd" of protesters. Amaar’s statement that the union of two men is way outside the definition of Muslim marriage could just as well come from an orthodox rabbi. But on the other hand, in liberal Judaism you have rabbis who like Magee officiate at same-sex marriages – you even have gay rabbis. I’m not sure that exists in Islam, but I am no expert on Islam.

I can see a Lebanese Jewish mother pick on her blonde, converted Canadian daughter-in-law the same way mother Hamoudi picks on Sarah. As for polygamy, well, technically it would be allowed for sephardi Jews, but I don’t think it is practiced anywhere anymore. Not having a prenup is totally realistic for Jewish couples as well. I’m not sure the traditional Ketubah covers polygamy. What the Ketubah does cover is the "duties of the husband" towards his wife – what I guess Sarah’s last amendment to Yasir’s retroactive prenup was about.

Little Mosque S1E5 – The convert

Marlon wants to convert to Islam. Baber is enthusiastic, but soon even he gets annoyed at Merlons fanatism and judgemental attitude. Sarah is determined to prove that she is a serious convert as well and attempts to pray five times a day.

Best quote:

Amaar: "Any bit of advice on dampening religious enthusiasm?"
Reverend Magee: "Join the clergy"

So many things! First, the one big difference between Judaism and Islam. Nobody converts to Judaism this fast. No rabbi encourages conversion like Amaar. And no Jewish community is so enthusiastic about a conversion. Which is good (because it is a big decision and shouldn’t be rushed), but also bad (because many good people give up).

Then, what is the correct level of commitment to a convert’s new faith? Marlon takes on too much too quickly. And he judges everybody else on his extreme standards. On the other hand, Sarah doesn’t seem to care about Islam at all. From my experience as a convert and from talking to other converts, it is very easy to overreact in the enthusiasm of having found "the truth". Everything seems so glorious. And also, everything seems so clear, because in the beginning one is taught how the basic things are done, black and white, not all the nuances and exceptions and values behind them. Also, often the first books one reads come from more traditional sources and are rather more strict than what most of the people actually do in their daily lives. After a while the initial enthusiasm usually fades and then either people go somewhere else (like Marlon), cease to care about religion (like Sarah, though I don’t know if she ever had an enthusiastic phase or just converted for Yasir), or they manage to transform their passion into something healthy that becomes a natural and integral part of their lives (like Amaar or Rayyan, although they are not converts but Baalei tshuva, people who were raised as secular and returned to faith later).

Next, how should we treat our converts? From my experience, Jewish communities could work on being more welcoming. This doesn’t mean to encourage people to convert, but just to be a little more friendly and to not actively discourage people or put obstacles in their way. Smile at the enthusiasm the newly interested conversion candidates bring, prevent them from doing stupid things in this phase (like cutting ties with the family or throwing out huge amounts of stuff), teach them how to reconcile the real life with the ideals that they read in a book. And use some of that fresh perspective to renew your own commitment.

Finally, never-ever imply that a convert is not a real Muslim/Jew/whatever (like Baber says to Sarah). There’s enough feeling of being an impostor or being fake just because of insecurity. The last thing any convert needs is the feeling that she/he needs to prove herself by being "more Jewish" than the rest of the community. This will lead to the kind of annoying overzealous behavior we discussed above, which doesn’t help anyone. The Talmud says that it is forbidden to remind a convert of his/her past. Once she/he has converted, he/she is a Jew like anybody else.

There’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave it at this, the post is long enough.

Little Mosque S1E4 – Swimming upstream

Fatima hurts her knee and needs to swim as a therapy. The problem is that even though there is a women-only class at the swimming pool, it is taught by a man (though he’s gay). Fun quote:

Rayyan: " A man cannot see us in a bathing suit, they are too revealing."
Swimming teacher: "Not revealing anything I’m interested in."

Rayyan initiates a petition for a female life guard and although it also gets support from many non-Muslims, it fails to get the necessary number of signatures to make it pass. Fatima gets an "Islamic swim suit" (also called burquini) and takes the class with it, attracting (positive!) comments from the instructor and some other women.

The issue of modest swimwear is one faced by orthodox Jewish women in exactly the same way. So, how to deal with the problem? The other women in the swimming class are apparently ok with a male instructor. Is the correct way to go about the situation to demand a female instructor, i.e., inconvenience others? Or would it have been better from the start to go with the burquini, i.e., only inconvenience yourself? What about if most of the other people would actually prefer the "inconvenient" option (as some women remark when they sign the petition, not all of them are so comfortable with men seeing them in their bathing suits, but they put up with it)? There has been a law suit here about whether a Muslim girl has to participate in swimming classes (mandatory at most schools). The final ruling was that yes, she has to participate, but she can wear a burquini. In principal I consider the ruling just (because after all, it’s a mandatory class and Muslim girls should learn how to swim, just like everybody else), but in this case I wonder why the classes have to be co-ed. Wouldn’t it make more sense to separate the genders and avoid the whole problem? Especially for teenagers? And even for adults, in my opinion having a male instructor for an all-female class is weird. Just as weird as having a female instructor for an all-male class would be. There are plenty of places where we should make statements about the equality of gender, but this is not it. But maybe I’m too biased to be objective on this issue.

There is a second question raised by wearing special swimwear. How do you balance being modest according to the rules of Islam or Judaism with being modest in the sense of "not standing out" in situations like these? When you are the only one wearing a burquini certainly everybody will look at you, whereas when you’d just wear a normal unremarkable bathing suit, nobody would look twice. But then again, how can you go into the building covered from head to toe and then just wear a bathing suit without feeling like a hypocrite? I guess every woman has to figure out the answer herself. Just as some encouragement, I own a burquini and have worn it to a public swimming pool. A few people gave me funny looks, but on the whole there hasn’t been an inordinate amount of staring even though I was the only one at the whole pool. So be brave and try it!

Little Mosque S1E3 – Open House

Amaar wants to have an "open house" and invite the non-Muslims over to the mosque so that they can see that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Some people (like Baber) are very much against the idea in the beginning, but in the end they all work hard to present different aspects of Islam.

I guess everybody agrees that the best weapon against hatred is education, so any non-insular minority will have its version of "open house" to educate the general public. Show them there’s nothing sinister going on and that we are all just human. The question is, what do you do at the open house and what is (not) helpful to promote undestanding. I want to touch on two points here.

The first point is: what is your goal, what is it you want your visitors to learn? In the series, the Muslims of Mercy want to teach about the religion Islam (the five pillars, the headscarf), but also the cultural and historical background (Muslim influence in Africa). In my personal opinion they are doing a good job with it. Where I live, there’s a regular event called "days of Jewish culture" which the community organizes and is very proud of. The mayor and many important people are involved and there is lots of publicity. So you’d think this would be an opportunity to learn about Judaism. Well… not really. There are concerts, book readings, art exhibitions, talks about the local victims of the Shoah, but besides a half-hour tour through the synagogue and a workshop on kosher cuisine, there nothing that teaches about the religion. Sure, concerts and stuff are nice, but there are so many people who are interested in Judaism as a religion*, why can’t we offer them one day where they can learn? [by the way this would also help counter the impression that Judaism is only Klezmer and the Shoah]

The second point is: what do you do with difficult questions? Not only the crazy accusations like "all Muslims are terrorists" or "the Jews killed our saviour", but also the genuinly difficult questions. In the series the woman visitor asks about headcovering, the oppression of women and Muslim dating. Sometimes there are answers, they are only difficult to relay to a person coming from a totally different background. Like only dating for marriage purposes, the example used in the series. Or, to take some Jewish examples, kashrut, circumcision and discouraging conversions. Sometimes the question is hotly debated inside the community and there just are no easy answers. Like the participation of women religious ceremonies (an issue in both Islam and Judaism I think). It is hard to convey the full scope of the discussion to an outsider. So should we better not address these questions at all in public? I don’t know.

I have more questions than answers about this topic, but there is one initiative I wanted to mention in this context. It is called Rent a Jew and brings together non-Jews who are interested in Judaism with Jews who are willing to answer questions. It is controversal and intentionally provocative (including the choice of the name), but I like the idea that it takes "public relations" out of this stuffy corner with mayors, the central council members and community representatives and puts it into the hands of us, the actual people.

* This is an empirical fact, I’ve met tons of people who come as interested guests to services or lectures – and getting the information about this and then getting through security is a pretty high threshold!

Little Mosque S1E2 – The barrier

The conservative fraction of the mosque wants to have a barrier in the mosque between men and women, the more liberal fraction fights this. We don’t have to go far to find parallels. This has happened in my community over and over again.

For orthodox prayers there’s always a separation, but then the reform group wanted to hold services in the synagogue. They were not allowed to, because they would have had mixed seating and women called to the Torah. So the 100 guests for a Bat Mitzva celebration held the service in a small side room while the 10 regulars did the orthodox service in the sanctuary that seats 200. Cause for resentment anyone? Noooo….

There are positive and negative things to say about separate seating. You get to know other women and the distinction whether you are single or in a relationship is not so important. There’s a more warm feeling than in mixed groups, more relaxed. But separate seating can be a pain if you are a family and want to split responsability for the children. If you are the only woman it will be weird sitting alone in the women’s section. If you are single and bring an opposite-sex visitor it basically guarantees he/she will be lost and alone. There might not be enough siddurim (prayer books) or other necessary things and you cannot go and get them out of the men’s section. And of course when separate really means inferior, i.e., you cannot see or hear properly or there isn’t enough space, there’s not much to like about it.

The solution in the series is that "the barrier stays and it goes away" at the same time. Those who want the separation can pray on the side of the room that has it, those who don’t want it can use the other side. A similar solution is the trichitzah, a three-way partition of the space into a men-only section, a women-only section and a mixed section. I only heard about this from blogs (Redefining Rebbetzin, Mah rabu), but I really like the idea and I’d be curious to try it one day!

Little Mosque S1E1 – Little Mosque

There are basically two introductory stories here. One is Yasir finally finding a place for the mosque in a church, the other is Amaar coming in from Toronto as the new imam. And there’s plenty of misunderstandings all around.

Amaars departure to Mercy features the must-have story about Muslims and airport security. Amaar is talking on the phone:

Mom, stop it with the guilt. No, don’t put dad on! I’ve been planning this for months it’s not like I dropped a bomb on ‘im. Oh dad think it’s suicide? So be it; this is Allah’s plan for me. I’m not throwing my life away, I’m moving to the Prairies!

A woman nearby hears the first part, sees a Muslim, thinks terror attack and gets him arrested. It’s a cliche, but it’s also a fact that security controls are different for people who have an Arab sounding name or who look Muslim or Arab [as an aside, you can also get arrested on a plane for being Jewish and strange, i.e., wearing tefilin]. This is the same type of association that takes place when Jews get attacked because of Israel. We over-generalize and blame people for something they have nothing to do with. If you teach people that a Jew who lives outside of Israel is not responsible for Israeli politics, you should also teach people that not every religious Muslim is a terrorist.

There are many more funny or interesting things, but I want to concentrate on the scene where Joe is looking for Yasir and finds the whole community bowing in prayer. He is totally freaked out by the sheer foreignness. Jewish prayer doesn’t have the extensive bowing, but nonetheless it feels very alien to the typical Christian-influenced visitor. I have brought a few visitors to services over time and all of them have felt completely lost in a traditional orthodox service. First, the language issue, of course, our services are completely in Hebrew. But also it is not as "orderly" as church. Yes, people mostly do what the prayer leader does, but they sometimes go at their own pace, several people speak at once, some shout a loud "Amen" during repetition of Amidah or in Kaddish – it can feel pretty foreign to an outsider.

So, should we adapt? Should we change the services to be more "normal" and "orderly" (that’s what Reform did)? Should we not wear tefillin and tallit? Should we pray in the language of the land instead of Hebrew? Should we change our dress to fit in (no kipa, no long skirts, no beards)? I don’t know. But when we decide to not change, we should keep in mind that we look and act foreign and we shouldn’t be annoyed if we get strange looks and suspicion. And work to get others accept the differences.

Little Mosque on the Prairie [movie/series recommendation]

This is another recommendation about a series. It is called "Little Mosque on the Prairie" and is a sitcom about a mosque somewhere in rural Canada and their struggles. It is a fun way to explore Islam. The characters are lovable and understandable and there is more depth to it that to many other series (although it is still a sitcom). Many serious topic like discrimination, racial profiling, the clash of tradition and modernity and being a minority come up, but in a light way that does not try to give moral lessons.

You might ask what the connection to Judaism is. Well, there are not really any Jews in there. But I can relate to two points. I guess in a city like New York or London it is normal to be a Jew (or a Muslim). I do live in a city and there are plenty of immigrants from all over the world and you see muslims all the time, but there are no Jews (at least none that are visibly Jewish). So I can relate very much to the feeling of being "strange". And also, my community is small and divided, just like the mosque in the series. Too small to split up, but too many opinions to get along. And in many aspects Islam is really similar to Judaism I have discovered!

So if you are bored and looking for something small to watch, give "Little Mosque on the Prairie" a try.

Why are young people leaving religion?

Torah Musings has an article by Rabbi Joshua Berman about why young people are leaving religion. Of course you can blame the internet (which he does), but that’s not all. During the last century, societies around the world have undergone massive changes. In the article, Berman identifies four "core values" (his term) of young people that lead them to leave religion: (1) Choice and tolerance, (2) complexity, uncertainty and doubt, (3) individual expression and (4) reduced regard for hierarchy and authority. I am not a social scientist or any authority on the topic, but I am a young person and I have seen many of my friends and family leave religion, so I would like to offer my perspective on the topic.

I think he is correct about choice being a major factor for people abandoning religion. Never before has society as a whole been as tolerant of different choices. We live in democracies with freedom of speech. Religion and state are separated. Mainstream frowns on people who say there is only one correct way to live. We are performance-oriented instead of status-oriented, where you come from is less important than what you can do. For the first time ever, leaving your social group is manageable and might not even be that hard (provided you grow up in a culture that’s not completely isolated from the mainstream and you have the skills mainstream culture presupposes). Of course there’s still discrimination and unequal opportunities, but society as a whole strives to abolish them. And when it is ok for others to be different, why not be different yourself? Why not abandon the things you don’t find meaningful if you can still keep your job, your friends and everything else? And I don’t think this is a bad thing. It is bad to keep people just because they cannot leave. It cannot be what G-d wants.

I am not sure individual expression is that relevant a factor for people leaving religion. The concept of individuality is not new in our time and age, it emerged in Europe already during Renaissance. It is true that individuality and self-realization is important for young people today. And yes, if you are in a sect that completely frowns on any self-expression that’s outside the prescribed box, you will want to leave. But young people don’t leave because services are the same every day or the same holidays are celebrated or it’s a group experience not something individual. They leave because they cannot find meaning or relevance for their lives in the services, because they don’t understand the language, because religion is taught in a way that completely misses the point they are looking for. We don’t have to personalize religion to appeal to young people. We have to make it meaningful.

The other two points (complexity, uncertainty and doubt and reduced regard for hierarchy and authority) belong together for me. We have access to vast amounts of knowledge through the internet. We are encouraged to think for ourselves and question everything. Plus, as said above, society has opened up, we are not concerned with status so much. With the natural consequence that we just don’t do X because somebody tells us to. We ask why. And if the answer is not satisfying or can be proven wrong with a simple internet search, why should we do X? But that’s a good thing! Blindly following authority hasn’t produced humanity’s greatest achievements. Real authority can deal with questions. Real teachers don’t see it as a threat when their students doubt what they are saying, they see an opportunity to grow. In the long run, intelligent questions and dealing with complexity will make religion better.

I have more to say, but this post is long enough already. So I will turn to what we can do to prevent people from leaving in my next post.