Sunday, April 17, 2005

My Choice

After writing so much about how my former society is all about seeing things in black and white, many have accused me of being the most black and white of them all. Yes, my dear readers, I am guilty of that. I admit it. Sadly it's one of the most deeply ingrained effects of my upbringing. It's one that I struggle with daily to overcome. Allow me to share with you some history that may shed some light on just how profoundly entrenched this trait is within me.

At the end of my 12th grade year, I was a very confused kid. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I was sick of yeshiva. I was very clearly not a learner, despite having spent most of the last 5-6 years in front of a gemara. I wasn't a bad kid or a troublemaker in any way. Nor was I stupid. In fact, I was top of the class in many of the non-Torah subjects. But I just couldn't get myself to develop an interest in learning Torah. Not gemara. Not chumash. Not halacha. None of it. And after the many years of lying to myself how much learning Torah meant to me, I had finally broken down and admitted the simple truth: I couldn't stand it.

But this admission was simply a statement of my own personal situation. It didn't cause me to have any fundamental crisis of faith. I didn't stop believing in the ideals and rightness of the yeshivish/chareidi view of life. I remained a staunch believer that a person's life should be devoted to learning Torah. I knew very well that I could still be a frum yid even if I didn't "stay in learning", but I also strongly believed that any life that wasn't devoted to learning would be a cheap sellout that I would always feel guilty about. After all, the last 5 years of my life I had very faithfully absorbed that one absolute truism they had unceasingly drilled into us: Life is all about learning Torah. Through all the innumerable and varied ways they had of telling it to us - "All God cares about is Torah." "God created the world for one purpose only: Torah." "Torah is what sustains the world." "Reward in olam haba is Torah study." "One of the worst sins one can commit is bittul torah." - the message came across loud and clear. And I knew very well that I could never live with myself if I didn't devote my life to learning Torah.

But what was I to do? Until recently I had convinced myself that despite my being very poor at it, I was truly devoted to that very pursuit. But now that I had admitted the truth to myself, I knew that I could never really be happy doing that.

So I figured I had two choices. The first course of action I gave myself was that I somehow had to retry becoming a learner. I figured that since all my years in yeshiva, with all my myriad chavrusas, rabbeim, tutors, helpers, etc. didn't succeed in lighting my fire, I had to go back to the beginning and somehow restart the process. I wanted to go back to alef bais and work my way from there. I didn't have any concrete idea how I was going to achieve this but it was the only viable option that I thought had a chance of turning me into that learner I so desperately wanted to be.

The other choice I gave myself was the polar opposite. I reasoned that since my life wasn't going to be worth much anyway if I wasn't a learner, then why bother being frum at all? I mean, I knew that the few mitzvos I'd have in my life if I stayed frum were better than none at all, but if it was a matter of having 5% of my olam haba vs. having none at all, I just didn't see it being worth the trouble. And that's exactly how I saw the value of my religious life if I wasn't going to be a learner: worth so little, there was no point investing in at all. I also knew that I couldn't face my family (or any frum person) if I was going to abandon it all, so I figured I'd run away to some remote locale where no one knew me and somehow I'd work it all out once I got there. (I know, incredibly brilliant planning.)

(One of the funnier things about this thought process that was going through my head at the time was that, throughout all this soul searching, I still believed in everything my chareidi upbringing had told me, and one of those beliefs was the absolute wrongness of going to college. So even though I considered not being religious, I never once considered college as an option!)

So what happened in the end? Well, I didn't have any strategy on how to achieve my going back to the basics plan, and before I could muster up the guts to leave it all behind, a relative stepped in and convinced me to try out Israel. Initially I resisted, insisting that I was done with yeshiva and had no interest in suffering through any more time in a beis medrash, but eventually, after much persistence on his part, I caved. The rest, as they say, is history. (I buckled down, got serious, shteiged for 10 years in the Mir, married my chavrusa's sister, moved to Bnei Brak, and am now about to complete the last section of my 3 volume series on Hilchos Shnayim Mikrah v'Echad Targum. Oh, wait a second...that doesn't sound right...)

I trust you can find the faint traces of black & white thinking in this story without me spelling it out for you.

What should surprise anyone about this tale is not the extreme position I believed in. Believing that a life not devoted to learning torah is not much of a life at all is not at all an uncommon view in the chareidi world. Yes, I know, no one actually says in so many words that there's no point in being frum if one isn't going to be learning, but it's the clearly intended message that is relayed in every mussar shmooze, gadol story, and dvar torah. The only unusual part of my story is that I was seemingly very close to actually acting on those beliefs in that manner. You see, when they teach this concept to you, they don't actually expect you to act on it in that way. What they want you to do instead is just take the message seriously enough that you never, ever give up on the learning. And if you do ever decide you've had enough of learning, you're not supposed to actually give up being frum (as being frum is also obviously a truism of chareidi life), but instead you're supposed to be eaten up with guilt about that decision for the rest of your life. And what follows from that is that you're supposed to constantly attempt to assuage that guilt by a) learning every spare moment you can, and b) financially supporting those who weren't as spineless as you were and who are still learning in kollel 24/7.

In my case, I was considering taking the unusual step of actually leaving it all behind because I wasn't willing to live with the shame. It amazes me just how thoroughly they screwed me up. I was willing to throw away everything in my life - my family, my friends, my religion, my society - all in one fell swoop. Why? Because if I wasn't a learner, the stigma of such an unspeakable crime was just too much to bear. I was ready to leave it all behind, yet...I still believed in it all as absolutely true! Does it get any more twisted than this?!

This all might sound sad, but let me tell you the real tragedy. There are thousands of people suffering with this ridiculously absurd stigma every day of their lives. They try to alleviate it by following the prescriptions I described above (learning "every spare moment" and supporting learners), but I can't imagine that it ever really drowns out the incessant voices (both in their head and in their batei medrashim) reminding them how pathetic they are for not being fully devoted to learning. And worst of all is the hundreds of kids being taught these ideals every hour of every day in every chareidi yeshiva out there. When is anyone going to wake up about the damage being done and do something about it all?!


BrooklynWolf said...


You and I could have been twins.

I had many of the same concerns/issues that you did. I too was not a "learner" (although I'll admit that I wasn't as "sick of it" as you were by the time I left high school). In addition, I had a different outlook on life than my very right-wing Yeshiva wanted me to have.

I, too, wondered in the year or so after graduation if staying frum was worth it - my Yeshiva had it drummed into me that if I didn't fit their particular mold, then I was little better than the bums on the street. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in the end) because I didn't share my Yeshiva's fundamentalism, it made it even harder - I couldn't just "turn off" my knowledge of biology and astronomy. I couldn't just "close my mind" to the outside world. And, for that, I was made to feel rejected.

In the end I chose to remain frum for a number of reasons. Perhaps the main one was that I eventually learned that, even though I wasn't a "learner," I could still accomplish a lot on my own - and I could be proud of those accomplishments. So I didn't finish Shas by the time I was 21 - and I still haven't years later - but I can be proud of what I have accomplished. I also learned that one does not have to share a fundamentalist viewpoint in life to be a good Jew. I could actually disagree with my former Rosh Yeshiva on any number of issues and, despite what I was made to believe, I'm not an apikorus for it.

It is a shame what my Yeshiva did to me, and I'm determined to make sure that my sons' Yeshiva (NOT the same one) doesn't do it to them.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

DH - I'm fascinated -- what actually happened to you?? (Without giving away personal details.) Forgive me, but I can't work out how much of the bracket is true ..... Your posts are priceless.

The Hedyot said...

Thank you for the kind words about my writing.

None of the bracketed events occurred. (Thought that would be obvious to all.)

JCScott said...

You write: “I still believed in … the absolute wrongness of going to college.”

I went through a very similar crisis in HS, and the pressure manifested itself very destructively.

Eventually, someone urged me to consider where I wanted to “belong”—did I want to be “chasidish”, “yeshivish”, not frum at all, etc. He also pointed out that college was not “beyond the pale”—stuff I really needed to know.

Long story short: I’m in college, in one of the top schools in the state, and learning more than I was in HS or in any year but my last in BM.


Ben Sorer Moreh said...

DH, firstly, and seriously, I hate the term "learning." It's based on a Neanderthal understanding of language and behavior. Learning is passive, what people in a bet midrash do (to their credit) is active, so, IMHO, the appropriate term is "studying."

Secondly, to change the subject, I fully understand why one would want to "walk away from the whole deal" after struggling with "learning." Here's what "learning" looks like to an anxious child or teen-ager.

- You, as a young Jewish child, are obligated to "learn" and to make "learning" your priority. Our obligation to care about you, to take the time to teach you and insure that you actually learn is secondary, very secondary.
- Beyond the age of 8, the only learning that matters is Talmud. No matter what talents you have in any other area, Jewish or otherwise, we don't care. If you struggle with Talmud but have other talents, we'll belittle you for them.
- The only proper way to "learn" is "our way" at "our pace" using "our" traditional methodologies. The only questions that you may ask are the ones we allow.
- Study aids are for "someone else," not for a true "learner."
- If you have a tutor, he'll probably be a less experienced and barely more patient guide. And don't let anyone know you use one, by the way.
- Did we mention, no other talents that you have matter. Ideally, we'll beat them out of you.

It's not surprising that that child wants to say "!@#$ you" to this way of life once he grows up.

A zissen Pesach

Ben, Yeshivah survivor

ari said...

I still am in the yeshiva system,(though I will be taking a zman off to go to college in the summer),I went through all the same in HS and it didnt help that my yeshiva was so strict that I wanted to become not frum just to get away from it all.Eventually all my freinds and I rebelled in some way either girls or drugs,however BH i went to yeshiva in Israel where I realized you CAN learn and then go the buisness world or college.Fortunatly there are more and more yeshivas uderstanding this and allowing college (Ner Baltimore.Landers etc)unfortunatly high schools are still brainwashing these kids and leaving them completly mixed up.We can only hope that Rebbeim will soon realize this and finally have a high school that doesnt leave a guy completely confused

Isaac said...

Excellent post, DH, and one I can relate to personally.

I think most people who are Yeshiva products and go through the black-and-white hashkafos you described have a similar but different approach. I think they emotionally go off the derech, i.e. they'll go through the motions of yiddishkeit, eat kosher, daven, maybe even learn a little, but do it all by rote and not try to think too much about it. For them, thinking too much about yiddishkeit leads to feelings of inadequacy, and brings back memories of those mussar shmuessin talking about how you'll rot in hell for going to college.

Perhaps these guys want a good shidduch, perhaps they don't have the beitzim to throw it all away, so they stay frum. But it's a dead, monotonous frumkeit, not a living, joyous frumkeit. And it sure doesn't bode well for future generations of Jews.

Anonymous said...

I've had 2 sons drop Observance now at 16 (both were born in Israel, and both are products of the cheder system).

IN both cases, they didn't enjoy "Learning" (and both are VERY bright -- and therefore were bored in class). The fact that we have positive attitudes towards secular studies at home, I'm sure, also contributed.

But a large part of the reason, from the little they've been willing to discuss (they don't want to discuss the issue), was realizing they weren't part of the system.

Anonymous said...

I had a teacher who told me that it says al shlosho d'vorim ha'olom omed, and everyone has to do all three, but it doesn't say in what proportion.

It's my observation, that once people leave yeshiva, those who weren't interested in learning do very well. They do badly while in yeshiva. OTOH, those who want to learn and are good at it, but leave for other reasons (financial and otherwise) never feel that the rest of their life matches up. They can do badly once they leave (kind of like ex jocks in the secular world).

Anonymous said...

I don't know why it's never stressed that "learners" who have horrible tempers, regularly shame less devoted/less intelligent others, disrespect their wives and neglect their kids are 100 worse than layman who adhere to all principle of the Torah and do not concentrate on one so thoroughly

The Rabbi's Kid said...

DH and others,

I totally understand your point, having gone to an UO school but coming from a MO home.

Has anyone published a work aimed at products of the B and W world that tries to disabuse them of these ideas that are stuffed down their throats and tells them they can stay frum? I think there is a need and a market for it.


ron asheton said...

This rings somewhat familiar to me too.

I remember when I was in "first year beis midrash" my brother-in-law, who was about 30, would anxiously question me about yeshiva. He is a guy that yeshiva is made for. I was not and couldn't understand what exactly his interest was. He was nostaligic for it in a big way.

Isaac said...

TRK said: "Has anyone published a work aimed at products of the B and W world that tries to disabuse them of these ideas that are stuffed down their throats and tells them they can stay frum? I think there is a need and a market for it."

Good idea in theory, but in this charedi black-and-white world, such a book full of "k'firah" would be banned faster than you can say "Slifkin."

Anonymous said...

> Has anyone published a work aimed at products of the B and W world that tries to disabuse them of these ideas that are stuffed down their throats and tells them they can stay frum? I think there is a need and a market for it.

Thats what my blog is (partly). An attempt to get rid of all the ridiculous fundamentalist thinking which is so ingrained in us sometimes we don't even realize it.

The Rabbi's Kid said...

DH and GH and others,

I am being deadly serious - a book, article or pamphlet specifically describing your experiences aimed at helping people in a similar position stay frum - Et Laasot Lashashem Heferu Toratecha. Please step up to the plate and do it. I'm sure Reb Gil Hirhurim would publish it. It can be surrepticiously passed around. If we are really lucky we can get a Slifkin type ban, but that might be a pipe dream.


The Hedyot said...


Your idea is interesting, but I think you're mistakenly assuming something about me. I'm not sure I would encourage someone in a similar position to stay frum. I'm not against frumkeit in general, and if someone truly finds it a fulfilling lifestyle, then I think they should be allowed to adopt it (or keep it). But when a person is in it because of guilt, or obligation, or some other negative extrinsic motivation, and overall the person feels dissatisfied and unhappy as a result of that lifestyle, then why would I want to encourage the person to stay frum?

Truth is, I’m not entirely sure about that. I suppose I’d need to look at the persons overall situation before deciding. But I wouldn’t necessarily presume that I would be for it.

What I could go for is helping the person find his own path in way that doesn’t cause him to reject every last trace of his tradition and endure a lot of self-destructive behavior.

Mirty said...

Thanks for writing your story. I am going to direct my brother to it. He was under intense pressure from my father to be a Talmud scholar. (My father had to earn a living, so he wanted his son to be the scholar he never was.) He was sent off to a Yeshiva in another city.... It was terrible pressure on him to live a life he didn't want. In the end, he rejected it ALL -- not just yeshiva, but Orthodoxy, and even Judaism. He became an atheist and for many years lived a dangerous life. I always felt the combination of my father's strong desire to turn him into a rabbi combined with the pressure of the Baltimore yeshiva just put him right over the edge. {sigh} When will this change? When can the Jewish community accept a wider range of ways to embrace yiddishkeit?

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

When can the Jewish community accept a wider range of ways to embrace yiddishkeit?

The greater Jewish community does accept a wide range of expressions (that's why they're referred to as "frei.") It's a very small segment that's this rigid.


The Rabbi's Kid said...


Maybe I wasn't clear enough. I was also nearly totally turned off by a UO high school, and luckily was sent to a MO Yeshiva in Israel and realised that not everyone propounds the hypocrisy I was fed in school. My idea was people from the inside who discovered other ways to Hashem within Jewish religious life could describe their experiences, their discoveries which could help people in that world decide at least from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance, what they want to do.


ari said...

I once suggested to a good friend of mine writing a book.It would be 2 part from my perspective and his and it would be about our yeshiva experiance the beg. till end. Unfortunatly we realized unless we want get in major shist it was not worth it.That is exactly what the community needs (a book like that,showcaseing the flaws in the system)but it wont happen.However we should realize (like a lawyer told me this shabbos) we have a community here,and Im not kidding,from Gadol Hador to Hirhurim there are normal ppl trying to end this nonsense.We have to keep trying to change the system,whhile still maintainig our identity(and staying frum)There are normal orthodox ppl out there,we just gotta hang in there

Air Time said...

Excellent post. My yeshiva experiences with that type of thinking have led me to send my children to a modern orthodox yeshiva day school that is more in line with my personal hashkofos, regardless of what my neighbors and parents think of my choice of school for my kids.

Anonymous said...

They were absolutely wrong. The main point of Judaism is to be a part of the world and to bring the light of Judaism to it. Learning is a means, not the real end. Please read the writings of R. Samson Raphael Hirsh and modern Torah U'Madda writers. Hashem wants us to be engaged in the world. The Torah came after the world was created. It came to add to the world, not be an alternative to it.

According to one interpretation of the "spy story," the Jews didn't want to go to Israel because they enjoyed the desert where they could sit and learn all day. But hashem wanted them to enter the land and build a country which they considered a lower level of life. They were wrong. So are all your teachers.