Recently, XGH wrote about the advantages of being orthoprax over becoming not frum. He wrote that these advantages include an increased focus on spirituality, morality, and community.
This resonates with me because recently I have been thinking about the question of whether it is worth it to be frum even if the Torah is not from Sinai. I once read something written by a woman whose husband told her, before they got married, that despite being an atheist he chose to stay frum because he believed that Orthodox Judaism was the best lifestyle yet discovered. He felt that in order to have the benefits of the lifestyle it is necessary to keep halacha completely in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the law. Therefore, despite his lack of belief, he davened three times a day and asked a rav whenever any questions arose.
So, the question is, does following Orthodox Judaism enable one to have a better life than one could without it?
My inclination is to say that the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, at least in its charedi form, is a better lifestyle for children and a worse one for adults.
As someone who grew up in both the secular and frum worlds, and is now raising children in the frum world, I can confidently state the advantages of raising children frum. Children who grow up in the secular world are exposed to a barrage of bad middos emanating from much of the media, and even if the parents themselves limit or forbid any inappropriate programs, it is quite likely that their classmates' parents have not. Therefore, it is quite common for children to look up to and try to emulate the behaviors of superficial and morally-bankrupt movie stars and sports heros. Additionally, there is very little emphasis on middos in general presented to little kids in secular society. Frum schools and parents, at least in theory, teach children the importance of concepts such as not gossiping, respecting elders, and self-control in a way that is not taught in the public school system. As the Rambam states, even the act of keeping mitzvos themselves can help improve middos. A kid who grows up keeping kosher learns self-control better than one who does not. Frum children also typically have more siblings than their secular counterparts and thus gain the benefits of learning to consider others needs before their own.
Another huge advantage to kids that the frum world offers is the emphasis on learning. In most public schools, any child who is actually interested in learning is regarded as nerdy. The children consider learning to be a necessary evil and place greater value on those who are good at sports than those who are good at learning. Unfortunately even some of the parents feel this way too. Frum kids, however, recognize the value that both the Torah and society places on learning and therefore regard it highly.
So why, then, is the lifestyle not better overall?
To me it seems that in spite of the advantages that the frum lifestyle offers for children, it has significant drawbacks for adults. The frum lifestyle, as I discussed in previous posts, expects everyone to fit into a mold and thus removes much of the freedom of choice from its adherents. In many circles, one must marry young, not go to college, and have many children. Women are supposed to place family first and therefore face a very restricted list of potential careers. Men, who are expected to place learning first, also face a limited variety of career options and often end up getting to spend little time with their families. The limited career opportunities, combined with the high expenses of living an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, force many frum families to live under unbearable financial hardship and stress. These factors combined leave many people feeling stressed, trapped, and miserable, and prevent people from finding fulfillment in areas outside of the home and/or bais medrash. This is particularly true for people who do not fit the mold.
While it is true that people who are "atypical" struggle in secular society as well, they are likely to struggle less. Secular society, being as large as it is, has many subgroups in which everyone can find his or her place. Frum society is so small and so rigid that many people simply do not have a place within its confines.
Okay, so if frum society is better for children and worse for adults, what is the answer? Modern Orthodoxy may work as a compromise, but the problem with MO is that it provides fewer of the benefits for children while still having some of the problems for adults, such as monetary stress and a lack of time for family.
Is it worth it to sacrifice our children's childhood so that they can have a better adulthood, or vice versa? What if the children have the personalities that make them likely to succeed in the frum world?
What are your thoughts?