Monday, July 5, 2010

About That Derech

We have all heard a lot of derech talk. A lot of it has been about people going off the derech. But what do we mean by that? I posted quite a while back about a woman who believes her daughter has gone off the derech because she is no longer following the exact same derech that was followed in her parents' home. I have a feeling that a lot of the derech talk we hear, although not specifically designated as such, is of this type of "offing" as opposed to the other type of off the derech, which is leaving religious observance entirely. So yes, some of the off the derech discussions (and predictions of woe) could use better definitions for just what off the derech means in that particular context.

I spend a lot of time on NYC's highways and byways going to work and visiting friends and family who live spread around the city. It occurred to me yesterday, while driving on one of those highways, that right in front of us is a way to clarify the off the derech discussion.

Let's take the Belt Parkway (and oh yes, you can keep the darn thing). It snakes its way from Brooklyn into the far reaches of Queens. Along the way people from Staten Island connect to it. It's a three-lane major highway--a right, a middle and a left lane. Sometimes the highway goes straight and sometimes it twists and turns. For most of it the exits off the highway are via the right lane; however, in some cases the exits are to the left (the same with many other of our city's highways). Sometimes you have other highways of 2 or 3 lanes merging into the Belt, causing clear congestion whenever the merges take place.

And then there is driving on the highway. Pretty much those who are slower know to keep in the right lane. Those who are in a real hurry and want to thread through traffic are going to head to the left lane. The middle lane is for those who aren't speed demons but aren't turtles either. Now it happens frequently enough that drivers and their lanes are mismatched. You'll find a turtle in the middle or left lanes who clearly doesn't belong there. You'll find a speed demon in the right or middle lane who also doesn't belong there. Eventually most of those people find the correct lane to be in. Sometimes they don't. When that is the case one of two things happens: either they cause an accident or they can't take it any more and get off the whole highway completely.

Some people eschew the major highways altogether; they don't like the congestion, they don't like the tolls on some of those highways, they don't like the frustration. Their preferred mode of travel is to use less congested byways. They may travel on roads that have only one or two lanes. They may travel using the streets instead of the highways. Some of those streets are two-way and some one-way. Some of those streets are single-lane and some are multi-laned. Those streets generally have stoplights or stop signs that stop the driver at intervals along the street. Sometimes this frustrates drivers and they start turning left and right, snaking through the side streets to avoid the stop and go traffic elsewhere.

Okay, not to belabor the point any further, let's get to the tachlis. Just what kind of derech and what kind of driver are we talking about when we say "off the derech"? Are we talking about highway drivers or street drivers or some combination of the two? Are we talking about constant lane changers? Are we talking about those who enter on the right or left but then spend the rest of their journey in the middle lane? Are we talking about those who followed a particular highway only to discover that the destination was the wrong one and they take a different highway seeking the right destination? Are we talking about people who have become frustrated by the constant red lights when they are on a particular street and who opt for a less controlled byway?

In short, let's finally recognize that throwing around "they'll go off the derech" as a threat if someone doesn't buy into a particular practice or belief of a particular family or community or rabbi or geographic area is meaningless. In NYC there are any number of highways and byways that can be used to get from point A to point Z. Each of those roadways is different in nature and character (although sharing some characteristics) but they will all get you to Point Z. Just as getting from SI to Far Rockaway offers many,many traveling choices, there are many ways to "travel" the observant life.

Next time someone throws out that "off the derech" comment hand them a road map and make them point out what that means in detail. I have the feeling there are going to be a lot fewer people who are totally lost than we are being led to believe.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. For years my family has considered me as off the derech. They are chassidishe and I am not. What I am is shomer Torah u'mitzvos differently from them. They did everything but rais kriah when I changed my practices. I'm one of those off the derech statistics that isn't really off the derech.

Suri said...

When I was a little girl off the derech meant only one thing--not being a frum or observant person any more. Today I'm never sure what people mean when they use it. There are so many derechs that to someone out there I guess all of us are off the derech if it's not their derech.

Julie said...

To me the answer is really clear. Off the derech means on a road that will not lead you to the desired end. There are seventy roads to God. But there are also roads that do not lead to God.