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?!