Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Proper Chinuch

When I speak about my former society, people often draw incorrect conclusions. Because one doesn't hear many positive statements from me about that world, one might assume that it's all pretty horrible. My strong personal sentiments seem to lend support to the idea that it's quite an awful place to grow up in. When they discover my overwhelming aversion to many things frum, people often react with something akin to, "What did they ever do to you?! Were you abused or something?" This is all very far from the truth. Growing up frum was not as terrible as some may think, at least for me. As a matter of course, I was not hit as a kid, neither by my parents nor rabbeim. For the most part, I enjoyed myself as a kid, and was probably as happy and unhappy as most of the kids I grew up with. I wasn't abused. Well, actually, maybe that's not true. I definitely wasn't physically or sexually abused, and I don't even think I was emotionally abused. Generally speaking, I didn't lack love and attention in my youth. But I wonder, is there such a thing as intellectual abuse? Because if there is, maybe that's what I suffered.

Just as the scars of physical abuse remain with a person long after the actual bruises have healed, the lingering effects of intellectual abuse can mar a person's psyche for far longer than the short period of time one's memory recalls any particular ideas one was taught.

My antipathy stems not from any vicious or brutal experiences I suffered at the hands of my mentors, but from the relentless and meticulous assault they subjected my mind to; all the ideas and views they planted within me that are now holding me back every second of my life:
  • The way they conditioned me to be afraid of the non-frum world; to distrust all from outside that world; to view it all as a place of sin and temptation always.
  • The way they taught me that nothing is worth working for except torah.
  • The way they taught me that being a good person counts for nothing if you are not keeping halacha.
  • The way they taught me that a non-frum person could not possibly live a moral and ethical life, full of goodness and value.
  • The way they taught me never to trust myself. Not my own ideas, my own conclusions, or my own feelings. Especially when a rabbi disagrees with them.
  • The reliance on authority they ingrained in me which resulted in a horrible lack of personal responsibility.
  • The distorted perspective of relationships they espouse.
  • The persistent suspicion they implanted in me for any woman who isn't properly tz'nua (according to what they taught me tz'nua is).
  • The negative self-image they cultivated in me by teaching that every infraction and deviation of halacha was a result of a moral failing.
  • The sickening manner that they inject inappropriate sexual connotations into totally innocuous activities, ideas, and interactions.
  • The shoddy manner of intellectual debate that is accepted in that world, which one is taught to believe is the proper way of thinking.
  • The view that choices in life are all black and white, all or nothing, and that I have to choose it all, or else I'm choosing nothing.
  • The way they've delegitimized in my mind any and every manner of religious expression aside from their own extremist approach.
These are just a few examples of how they trained me to be, to feel, to think, to function, to believe, in ways that are so foreign to the person I want to become.

To some extent I've managed to eradicate many of these toxic and debilitating ideas from my personality. Yet even with those successes, I can sense that they're still within me, because so often I have to consciously and deliberately tell myself not to react the way my natural instinct tells me to.

This is the sort of abuse that is so prevalent in chareidi society. Of course, they don't call it by that term. They refer to it instead as getting a proper chinuch.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Growing Up Chareidi Really is Different

It's not uncommon for me to get comments (both online and off) saying that the issues I write or talk about are not as unique as I'm portraying them to be. Sometimes it seems that I'm asserting that a certain problem is exclusive to the chareidi world. Other times I may appear to be pointing at the yeshivish/chareidi influence in my life as the cause of various difficulties I experience. People often take issue with such portrayals, and tell me that there's usually a more general and universal cause for the problem, and the issue itself is something that people from all walks of life deal with.

(Ironically, it's often the same people who love to crow about how unique and distinctive their society is that when hearing my concerns, turn around and tell me that the problems that I see in their society are actually common to everyone and not connected at all to their lifestyle. I see. So only the flattering and complimentary qualities are unique to your society, but the unsavory ones are prevalent everywhere else? Riiiiight.)

I agree that it isn't all applicable only to the scenarios that I focus on. To some degree, much of what I write about could apply to people from all sorts of backgrounds, not just the one I came from. Part of the reason that it comes across that way is that it's my preferred style of writing. I could write in more general terms, speaking about "people" and "societies" (and at times I do), but I prefer to adopt a more personal tone, and therefore I speak specifically about my own formative experiences and influences. Although meant to draw focus, it's not intended to claim exclusivity.

That being said, there's still some important distinctions between those from non-Orthodox societies who have similar difficulties and those who come from a strict Orthodox culture. One notable difference being that no other society in western culture, even a religious one, has as many rules, regulations, and beliefs as chareidism does (to the best of my knowledge). Besides the well known mass of torah obligations, there's also a heap of rabbinic requirements. On top of that, and usually the most intrusive, are all the many rules and requirements that affect the normal everyday quality of our lives. I'm not sure if these are actual halacha, takanos, gedarim, minhag, chumra, communal practice, or just OCD gone awry, but they're the ones that can really drive you mad. For example:
  • how to get dressed
  • how to take a shower
  • how to put on one's shoes
  • how to cut one's fingernails
  • how to wash our hands
  • how to lay in bed when going to sleep
  • how late one may sleep
  • how one may decorate their home
  • whether Food A can be eaten before Food B
  • whether Book A can be placed on top of Book B
This is just what I could think of off the top of my head. Feel free to contribute your own examples in the comments. What other society makes such incessant demands on their laypeople? (Note: I'm not saying that every minhag and chumra has the severity of a Torah obligation, and admittedly, not every person takes every issue so seriously. But they are all part of the lifestyle, and all are expected to be lived up to to some degree or another.)

Another unique characteristic to chareidism is the severity with which they view every single halachic obligation, from the most trivial to the most fundamental. I've heard of non-Orthodox societies (and families) with lots of rules and regulations, but do members of those groups actually believe that infractions of the regulations condemn one to severe penalties in the afterlife? In chareidism, minor offenses are as severe as capital ones. In fact, it's a well known principle among religious minded people that one shouldn't even think of bigger or smaller rules, and every one of them should be considered as if it's the most important.

The point I'm trying to make is twofold: Firstly, while every society has laws and rules dictating aspects of life, none of them have as many as does Orthodoxy, and especially chareidism. Secondly, even for those people who do have very regimented upbringings, violations of these policies are not the mortal and unpardonable atrocities that chareidim view the breaking of halacha as.

This all-encompassing and very intense existence means that someone raised in such a home or society feels very different about their values, priorities, and norms than does a typical non-Orthodox person raised with their own set of principles.

For example, I've never heard of anyone who thought they were going to hell for not eating a proper diet, not making their bed, or sleeping until noon. On the other hand, I have met many people who believed they were going to suffer some time in hell for not making a bracha, not putting on tefillin, or coming late to davening. There's a qualitative difference in how some people stress the importance of saying please, thank you, and your welcome, while others stress saying baruch hashem, bli neder, and bli ayin hara. I think it's perfectly normal for children to be taught not to use other people's things without their permission. It's a bit different when you're taught that doing so causes you to lose the merit of all the good that you've ever done in your life. Not to gossip sounds like a great educational lesson. Adding that doing so is one of the worst sins a person can commit is just not the same thing. I see no problem with a person feeling guilty for having fantasies about someone other than their spouse. I think it's unhealthy when they view it as if they've actually committed adultery. Educating about taking responsibility for one's actions seems like good parenting. Including exhortations of fire and brimstone makes for a very different kind of lesson. I'm all for a child being brought up with certain concepts of right and wrong. It's a bit different when those concepts provide absolutely no flexibility or room for the person to adjust them somewhat. Guidelines for all sorts of areas of life are perfectly reasonable. Immutable demands that can never be violated are a different story.

It's true, we all have issues to deal with. But growing up chareidi just can't be compared with anything else that's out there.