Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Phrase of the Day: Off the Derech

Calling someone "off the derech" can mean many things, depending on who the speaker is. There are apparently many ways of categorizing someone as off the derech. But at the end of the day, it's a judgment about someone else, which you should probably avoid when you can. It may matter to know whether someone is off the derech or not (for example, whether you can eat their food), but that doesn't mean you have to go around announcing it to others.

Now if you don't know this phrase already, I've got you all confused. Most basically, it means that someone who was once orthodox is no longer orthodox. There is no distinction whether the person was frum-from-birth, baal teshuva, or a convert. 

Derech means path, so this Hebrew-English hybrid means that someone has "left the path." They've "lost their way," so to speak. And yes, it generally comes with the attitude you'd imagine in "Oh...Jimmy sure has lost his way." Add a "bless his heart," and you just translated it to Southern. Just so we're clear, someone must have been on the path in order to fall off the derech.

However, that's not the only way you see people use the phrase. I've heard the term used in chassidic and chareidi contexts for someone who has left a particular community, usually leaving for modern orthodoxy or "just plain orthodox" orthodoxy. Sure, maybe they don't hold by cholov yisrael anymore, don't have peyos or a beard, or ::gasp!:: are women wearing pants! In my opinion, that's far from off the derech if you have a solid observance of Shabbat, kashrut, taharat hamishpacha (the Big Three for judgment purposes), dressing modestly (which can be done with pants, though I personally chose to hold by my community standard not to wear pants), davening regularly, keeping the interpersonal laws, and otherwise being a Good Yid. Holding by halacha and actually following it is what makes an orthodox Jew, not the physical trappings of a uniform. Don't accidentally mislabel someone as off the derech because they're wearing the wrong uniform.

As I mentioned above, it can be important to know if someone is off the derech. For example, before setting someone up with your friend on a shidduch date! Or eating in their home. It can also have halachic implications. For example, you can only cook on yom tov for people who would otherwise be unable to cook for yom tov, which can be a real problem when inviting conversion candidates to yontif meals. (There's several answers to "fix" that, but I don't think we've put them into one post yet...I'll make a note.) But it's not limited to non-Jews. It also creates problems with "public Shabbat violators." The "fix" is the same as with a conversion candidate, but if you get upset that there's one more difference between you and born-Jews, remember this example as something that can also apply to born Jews. That's a petty thing to make you feel better, but no one claimed the emotional side of conversion brings out your best qualities.


  1. This was well-put and clearly explained. I like that you mention how people "misuse" the term to mean that someone isn't their favoured brand of orthodox. That gets on my nerves and it makes Orthodox Judaism look bad when everyone is lined up against one another making judgment calls about just how Orthodox they feel another Jew is.

    As for the not inviting conversion candidates to yom tov (yontif) meals, that is a tricky subject. My conversion Rabbi has told us he expects us to hold all the laws (or be in the progress towards holding them) aside from mikveh, being counted in as part of a minyan and so forth. Some feel differently. I'm glad mine feels this way because I think it's very important for someone in the true process of conversion (meaning someone under the supervision and approval of a beis din) to be at as many Jewish functions as possible to not only get an ideal feel for what Judaism actually is all about, but also to learn how to eventually keep it themselves. Can you imagine not experiencing Yom Tov until after conversion? What a smack in the face that would be if you'd never experienced it before!

    1. The rules for yom tov meals really go to how the person cooks for it. Of course conversion candidates can be invited, so long as the cook takes it into account in how he or she prepares the meal. (And some rabbis say that conversion candidates should be counted as any Jew is because they should be-eventually, if not now-fully observing yom tov even before conversion.) The easiest way is to cook things that don't have to be prepared individually. For instance, blintzes have to be prepared one by one. You couldn't prepare one for someone who isn't observing the yom tov fully. However, a big thing of chicken or cholent can include a lot "extra" without an issue because you don't know exactly how much someone will take (and I believe the lack of "extra" effort matters too, but I'm blanking right now).

  2. "But at the end of the day, it's a judgment about someone else, which you should probably avoid when you can."

    Love that line. It blew my mind when I learned that the phrase was used in context of shifting from one camp w/in Orthodoxy to another. I never really got that. But perhaps I'm open-minded. Nice post.

  3. Never heard the phrase used that way, actually. But I do try to avoid such discussions in any case. I have heard people refer to themselves as "otd" or even "the otd community" so not sure where judgementalusm fits in. Maybe only when is used by others?

  4. OMG. Kochava, I love you.
    (lol- don't take that the wrong way!)

    It's just so refreshing to read some thing so non-judgemental about us.
    (I too am a convert. Long-term. Got fed up w/ the community I was in & went OTD for a while, and am slowly making my way back...)