Friday, December 31, 2004

Why I Write

Over the years, I've written a lot of personal stuff regarding the various issues in the frum community that has bothered me. None of it has ever been released publicly, and I figured that I'd look it over to see if any of it would be appropriate for this forum. While much of it is still relevant and quite on the mark, I realized that the person who wrote those pieces is not the same person I am now. In fact, it's a voice only vaguely familiar. Those essays are mainly private dialogues, where I'm battling my inner yeshivish demons and often defending myself, arguing, and trying to show those powers that be how they're screwing everything up (in the name of Torah, of course).

But today, I'm not like that. I've left that society and don't have any need to defend myself. No one's accusing me of anything (except on occasion associates from my former society). I'm respected, appreciated, and valued for who I am, not how long my shemona esrei is. And I have no need to convince anyone of those positions. Because those arguments are all attempts to change their society into one where someone like myself could be at ease with themselves, not being constantly eaten up by guilt and shame. And I no longer have any desire to be a part of that society.

So why do I bother concerning myself at all with the goings-on of dysfunctional yeshivish/black-hat culture? A few reasons: Firstly, because it hurts me to see people that I know and care about being ruined in the same way that I was. No, I don't really care if you insist on having your life revolve around necklines, sheitels, water filters, learning torah 24/7, hashgacha pratis, tehillim groups, assering cellphones or the Internet, or why unmarried 20-year-olds are a "crisis", but please keep in mind that these views and stupidities are making your children more and more miserable every day. For their sake, please, get a clue.

Additionally, the fact of the matter seems to be that the influence of yeshivish society is spreading far beyond their local communities. This is quite unfortunate, yet indisputable. It's been discussed quite a bit in many recent articles, and is often referred to as "the shift to the right". And while my particular community hasn't been affected in any noticeable way, it's probably only a matter of time until I find myself having to walk on a different side of the street than my wife.

Most importantly, deep inside I really would love to like Judaism more. It is my religion. It is my heritage. And it probably has a lot to offer that would enrich my life in many ways. Once upon a time I was interested in all that. But these last few years my feelings about yiddishkeit have turned much more grim. As long as I have to keep dealing with idiots and extremists, who only know how to make my life more unpleasant than I could ever dream of, and who insist on imparting dogmatic and obnoxious "Torah" teachings and pronouncements whose goal is to scare me or guilt me, I just want to get away from anything that has to do with yiddishkeit, torah, halacha, rabbis, or the god that supposedly insists on it all.

I want to enjoy my life. To live a fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, productive, sincere existence. And the popular Judaism that is being peddled nowadays seems to offer anything but that.

So I write, partly to help others, partly to stave off the encroaching menace that threatens my last unspoiled refuge, and partly to save myself from turning into something I don't want to.

Have a Good Shabbos and a Happy New Year

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Enjoying Learning

In line with my previous post, one of the things that everyone knows is one of the worst problems of that society (yet one that so few are willing to really do something about) is the problem of how there are loads of kids in yeshivas who are being forced to spend the vast majority of their day in front of a gemara, even though it's a total waste of time.

Yet, how often do you ever hear any of these individuals openly say, "I don't want to learn gemara." or "I don't like learning gemara."? Instead, when asked why they aren't doing well, they'll usually reply with, "I'm too tired.", "I'm out of the sugya.", "It's not working out with my chavrusa.", "I can't follow the rebbe.", "I'm distracted by whatever." No one is ever honest about how they really feel about it. And lest you think (did I actually just use the word lest? Yikes!) that they are just too embarrassed to openly express it, the fact is that most of these people don't even admit this to themselves. After all, learning is supposed to be the most exalted and wonderful activity a Jew could ever aspire to. What self-respecting frum kid would admit to not loving learning? Or at the very least, to not wanting to love learning?

Actually, when I was in high school this did happen to me. A kid had his head down in shiur and despite the rebbe's insistent prodding, wouldn't start paying attention. Finally, the exasperated rebbe asked, "Chaim, what's the matter? Why aren't you getting up?" The kid bravely (or stupidly? It is a fine line sometimes.) replied: "Why should I? I'm not the least bit interested in this." Of course the class was stunned and the rebbe didn't know what to say. I myself almost blew a fuse. Who ever expresses such heresy? How could he say such a thing? I mean, it's bad enough that he feels this way, but to admit it in front of everyone?! I eventually recovered from this traumatic episode and Chaim was unsurprisingly kicked out, but that experience was the first and last time that I ever heard anyone openly express the idea that it's possible for someone to not like learning. I have yet to hear it repeated. Even when I openly ask a kid if he likes it or not, giving him the opportunity to confess his sin to an understanding soul, he will vehemently deny such a thought ever entered his head. God forbid to say such a thing!

"The Seal of God is Truth" - Yuma 69B

Halachic Honesty

I truly think there’s a serious problem of dishonesty in the frum world. I’m not talking about people lying to or cheating one another (which is not to say they’re not problems too). I’m referring to the fact that people are not honest with themselves. More specifically, people are not honest with themselves about how they feel about Yiddishkeit.

We all know that there are certain basic tenets of being a good frum Jew. One of those vital, yet unspoken, creeds is that we’re supposed to love being a frum Jew. It’s supposed to be something that we’re proud of, something we would wear as a badge, a mark of honor. Something that we would gladly give our lives up for. But the truth is that for so many of us - I’d venture to say the overwhelming majority - being frum is not something anyone’s particularly excited about. We try to tell ourselves how grateful we are that we have this lifestyle because it’s what’s keeping the ills that plague modern society from affecting us (as if that’s true), or we point to the various aspects of our societies that we are justifiably proud of, but I’m positive that most frum Jews, if they were able to be truly honest with themselves, would admit that they really would prefer to not have to put up with all the annoyances and restrictions that halacha imposes on them.

On occasion I have met people that truly do seem to love being frum. They love the Torah, halacha, the whole frum lifestyle, and even though they admit that there are often times that halacha is a burden, they appreciate the whole package enough that they are more than willing to pay that price. I’ve met such people and I truly am impressed with them. And incredibly jealous too. Ironically (or not), almost every person that has such a view (and that I believe is authentic) is from a home that was more open and modern than the typical yeshivish, chareidi, black-hat one. The typical product of a yeshivish home, while more than committed to his halachic lifestyle, is more than likely to view it as a heavy burden, while of course telling himself (and the rest of us!) that he just loves being a Torah Jew. We all know that story with R’ Moshe, right? The one where he hears a guy kvetch about how hard it is to be a Jew, and he tells him, "No, it’s wonderful to be a Jew!" Wow! It’s like magic. Say it’s wonderful and all those annoyances just disappear! (Not to belittle R' Moshe, I've heard he was truly a great man. But yes to belittle those who think that saying a few words can magically change anything.)

I think it’s time that frum people started admitting that they don’t like things about halacha. It doesn’t mean that they have to stop doing these halachos. But stop lying to yourselves, and be honest about how you really feel. After all, the first step in solving a problem is admitting it. And isn't it a problem?

Anyone want to start telling us what they can't stand about halacha? C'mon, out with it!

Innocence Lost

For most of us who are from the frum world, throughout our development, there was an implicit trust in the system we were raised in. We believed it to be true, to be good, to be the epitome of righteousness and the path to a truly happy life. But inevitably, at some point in our journey, something happened which altered our perception of our sheltered world, and triggered a reassessment of our society. It may not have been a catalyst for discarding all of our beliefs, but that first encounter had a lasting impression on our views about Yiddishkeit.

For me, it happened when I heard a mussar shmooze (lecture on character improvement). The Rosh Yeshiva had given a most inspiring shmooze on the power of tefila (prayer), how it can change our lives, how it can overturn the worst gezeira, how it can erase the worst aveiros, blah, blah. So moving. So uplifting. At shacharis the next day, I must have really shaken things up in heaven with my prayers. Some time after that, maybe a week or two later, he gave another shmooze, this time on the damaging effects we can have with the improper use of speech (lashon hara, bitul torah, nivul peh, blah, blah). In this shmooze he told us how even the most powerful tefila can be prevented from being answered if the person had corrupted their speech.

Like any typical yeshiva guy I wasn't much of a critical thinker, but for some inexplicable reason I realized that this idea totally contradicted what he said a week ago. Of course I knew that the whole point of these things is just to encourage us to better ourselves, and it doesn’t have to make total sense how he arrives at his conclusions (at least when the conclusion is as self-evident as these were), but I suddenly realized that I can’t really trust anything that a person tells me is from the torah. It suddenly became clear to me that any person who is knowledgeable enough, and has learned enough torah, can probably find a support for any position he wants to present. So if that’s the case, how can I trust anything that is "proven from the Torah"?

It didn’t make me totally stop trusting rabbis or the truth of torah (or even start to question all those things which are supposedly based in torah), and I don’t think any significant changes came as a direct result of this particular epiphany, but from that point on, whenever someone would try to convince me of a particular position by citing some source in a gemara or whatever, I would just tell them the two mussar shmoozes and they’d shut up with their proofs.

It would be a long time before I followed this idea to it's next logical step but it's clear to me that this experience further reinforced the inner distrust that would later reveal itself in my thought.

At what point did the crack in your wall of trust first appear?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Subversive blogs

Here's what I've come across in the blogosphere in the way of subversive yeshiva guys (and girls) speaking their minds: (not updated)

I know that there are a lot more blogs out there, but I'm interested in a listing of the ones where a person who is (or was) ostensibly frum, or living in the frum world, speaks out with specific criticism about the frum community he's living in (or came from).

Have I missed anyone worthwhile?

Joining the party

So it seems that every dissatisfied yeshiva bachur is getting on the bandwagon and telling the word about how he really feels about yiddishkeit. Being one myself, I hereby announce my entrance to this distinguished fraternity. Let us rant!