Sunday, September 25, 2005

My Truth

I've gotten some nice feedback on my previous posts, and I've discovered, as is frequently the case, much of what I wrote was misunderstood. Many conclusions were drawn that should not have been. This probably happened because my disclaimer at the top was disregarded. I'll repeat it here: It shouldn't be assumed that the quotes I provide from my side of the dialogue fully and accurately reflect my sentiments on the issue being discussed. I made that disclaimer for a reason: Because it's true. In the discussions, I was rarely presenting my own comprehensive views on the issues. It was not meant to be a thorough and exhaustive review of the theological and ideological viewpoints of Da'as Hedyot (I don't think even I know that). Like an attorney who might defend a cause he doesn't fully support, I was just trying to deflect EYG's points, and the manner in which I did so shouldn't be construed as a basis for understanding how I myself feel about the issues. When I challenged his premises, I did so by sometimes positing a well known objection (but not one that I necessarily put much stock in), sometimes throwing out an idea that I think has some merit, but not that I am absolutely convinced of, and at times also occasionally presenting a view that I personally subscribe to.

Many people viewed the exchange as a fierce and fiery debate between a believer and a non-believer, each staking their claim to the truth. I didn't think of it like that at all. It's more just a simple dialogue between two Jews: One, a staunch proponent of black-hat Judaism who never really examined the foundations of his beliefs or the choices he's made, yet feels compelled to impress upon his friend the truths that he holds dear. And on the other side is a guy who just wants to be left alone, but if pressured enough will give his colleague a run for his money, demonstrating that many of his assumptions are at best unfounded, at worst, mistaken, but most of the time simply not as universally agreed upon as he thinks.

A lot of the comments got me thinking about the issues more and motivated me to work on writing up a clearer picture of how I personally feel about them. One particular (anonymous) comment was really very thought provoking and after thinking over the objections he raised, I started responding to the comment, but when I found my (typically wordy) response stretching to two pages, I realized it warranted a post of it's own, which I'm presenting here. Before continuing further, go back for a moment and read this fellow's interesting comment.

(By the way, EYG called back again, but thankfully I wasn't home.)



Your comments were very interesting and got me thinking quite a bit about what I had written. But some of your objections were quite surprising to me. I wasn't aware that I was professing the things that you were claiming I was. In fact, I had to read over the posts a few times just to make sure I really wasn't. I believe that you raise some really good issues in your comments but after reexamining my words and my thoughts, I think that you've drawn certain conclusions that are simply wrong. One simple explanation for that might be that you didn't see the disclaimer that I put at the beginning of the post. Please go back and read that carefully. Additionally, I think your own biases on the issues are causing you to draw certain unjustified inferences. In fact, hearing the conclusions you jumped to reminded me of some of the same assumptions that EYG made in my discussion with him.

> Should we really just act like animals that do whatever pleases them? Surely, someone has probably told you this before, but what you are espousing is hedonism.

As I understand it, hedonism is a philosophy of gratifying oneself primarily through physical pleasure. Contrary to what you read into my words, I never espoused that (except in the ridiculous idea I threw out as a red herring). What I'm after is not a life of pursuing pleasure. It's a life of genuine meaning and fulfillment. Pursuing pleasure is not synonymous with pursuing fulfillment.

> If you really believe this, I hope you'd have no problem with a serial murderer who tells you that killing people gives him a tremendous sense of fulfillment.

Comparison to murder is obviously ridiculous as what I am doing has no significant bearing on anyone else's life but my own. Even if I was out to just satisfy my physical desires (as you claim, not as I ever did), I'm not harming anyone in my pursuit of that lifestyle. The analogy is way off. Advocating a life of pleasure seeking (which I'm not) does not logically lead one to accepting the legitimacy of a serial murderer who claims to be happier killing people.

For the fun of it, I'd just like to point out that one can make the murderer argument the other way too. If you claim that one should only do what they truly believe is true and right, especially when it is instructed by God, then you have to accept the approach of those who claim a divine mandate to murder. Taking your own words of...

Therefore, realize that if you accept the dogma of "it makes me feel good" you also have to accept the serial killer.

...and applying your position to that statement, changes it just slightly:

Therefore, realize that if you accept the dogma of "you must follow the divine law of God" (as one truly believes it) you also have to accept the Islamic suicide bomber.

> I'm honestly surprised that you're willing to admit to yourself that you live the way you do without regard to the truth.
> say that truth doesn't matter is, to say the least, astounding....

I was quite surprised when reading this. Do I really not care about the truth? And all this time I thought was an honest guy! I believe you're implying ideas from my statements that I never alleged. I looked over the posts and tried to find what it is I said that could lead you to that conclusion. I found two possible culprits. The first one was when I said, "Caring about the emes is not the issue." It should be obvious that I never claimed here that I don't care about truth. I simply was pointing out that IMHO, objective, intellectual truth is not the deciding factor in why a person ultimately chooses a certain path. Not that it doesn't matter at all or that it doesn't matter to me.

The other possible statement I found was in a comment where I said, "but if all they can prove to me is that the other lifestyle is "more true" than I don't really care too much". I can see how one might conclude from that what you did, but it is mistaken nonetheless.

I care very much about truth. One of the truths I hold dear is that we all are entitled to live a life of genuine fulfillment and goodness. And (barring certain unique circumstances) that no one should be forced to live a life that they find unfulfilling, objectionable, or one which causes them endless misery; that it is cruel and unjust to force a person to adopt a lifestyle and/or values incongruous with who or what they know themselves to be.

When I say "I don't care", I don't mean that I don't care about truth. What I meant is that I don't care about proofs. I say this for a number of reasons. Firstly, I know that many great minds have debated the issues for thousands of years and no one has ever been able to conclusively "prove" anything one way or the other. Additionally, over the years I've had so many people "prove" tons of things to me that later on I discovered were just outright falsities. I simply was not smart enough to see the error of their position. As you might suspect, most of those people were religious figures that were trying to push their particular agenda on me. So when someone comes to me claiming some religious truth I just can't help being a bit skeptical, even if they seem to have the most convincing proofs ever.

But I think the main reason I don't trust proofs is because I don't believe that truth exists in a vacuum. Just because someone can prove an idea in a theological or philosophical test tube does not really prove it as true. Truth also has to be consistent with an inner conviction. I believe that I'm entitled to pursue a life that brings me genuine meaning and happiness. When I say and mean that "I believe", I'm saying that I consider that ideal to be true. If you were to somehow "prove" to me that that's not true, it doesn't matter. That truth is felt deep inside.

I can see that I'm not really explaining myself too well. The best way I can think of to explain my point is to examine why many homosexual people have a problem with halacha. A truly homosexual person knows that this is who they are. But the torah apparently says that this way that they are is wrong, is an abomination (yes, I know that it only speaks about the act, not the person, but the point still stands, there's a part of them that is supposedly immoral according to the torah). They can't accept this. It doesn't matter how "true" the idea is, how "proven" it can be, how black-and-white indisputable the claim is, or how authoritative the source of the idea is, a person can not accept an idea as truth when it is fundamentally objectionable to who they are or what they believe inside.

Ultimately, no matter how incontrovertible the evidence seems to be, the truth has to be consistent with what we feel inside ourselves to be true. The values which we hold dear are truths too. Whether it be the pursuit of justice, or compassion, or human dignity, or equality, or the value of human life, or education, or freedom, or morality - those values are truths too. And intellectual arguments to the contrary will not sway a person who truly believes in those values, no matter how convincing.

(That's not to say that intellectual debates about these issues are not worthwhile. Sometimes an honest discussion will show a person that what they once valued so much is not so supreme anymore. Other times, a confrontation with a convincing opponent will motivate a person to try to intellectually back up their inner convictions. Oftentimes, forcing a person to closely examine their values will reveal that they don't truly believe all that they thought they did. But at the end of the day, if the person truly values the idea as a deeply held inner conviction, I don't think logical arguments are going to change the person's views.)

> And if you really don't care and think Judaism is unimportant or irrelevant...

Another claim that is unfounded. Where did I ever say this? Maybe you drew that conclusion when I said, "I found that observing many parts of the torah did not provide me with any fulfillment or meaning whatsoever. It does nothing for me." If so, please understand that "many parts of the torah" does not mean Judaism as a whole. And "did not provide me with any fulfillment or meaning whatsoever" does not mean unimportant or irrelevant. For example, a person can not want to keep shabbos because it does nothing for them personally, yet still appreciate the contribution that shabbos can have on other people, on families, and on society as a whole. (Also, while I'm at it, I might as well mention that "I'm hungry" doesn't mean I'm about to die of starvation, and "she's pretty" doesn't mean that I want to marry her. Just in case you might misunderstand that too. :)

Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate your insights and welcome any other comments you have on my writings.

For all those of you who really are wondering what I believe or don't believe when it comes to the intellectual issues that were raised......sorry, I'm not going to tell you. And why should I? It really doesn't matter. The stuff I write here is what I want to share, not what other people want to know (unless of course, I want to share what you want to know). I also haven't told you my favorite movies, eateries, about my recent job promotion, how my phone line got turned off, the politician I met at the car wash and so many other varied and sundry aspects of my personal life. This blog is not about those things. And it's not even really about me personally. For those who haven't figured it out yet, when I do write a piece, even when it is presented in the first person, it's not meant to be focusing on me. When I write my views about aspects of Jewish society or thought, it's also about how many other people like myself see things. When I write about how I am a certain way, or feel a certain way, due to experience X or idea Y, it's not meant to be a self-indulgent kvetch, but to show how those parts of Judaism can have consequences that so many don't want to face. The things I share here are not meant to help you get to know me better. They're to help you get to know us better. And your society better. And your Judaism. And maybe even yourselves.

Edit: Um, I just realized that last paragraph isn't entirely accurate. I actually do write about my personal experiences sometimes. But didn't that whole shpiel at the end sound so impressive? My ego sure thinks so! I can't just delete such a fantastic finale! I think I'm just going to overlook that minor detail and leave it all in (after all, as the commenter said, I have no regard for truth!). Your allowing me to indulge my grandiose fantasies is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


I've recently been granted the dubious honor of having one of Godol Hador's songs named after me. I understand that it's a really big deal, and I should be more appreciative, but I'm actually pretty disappointed. The lyrics are really not that apt for who I am or how I feel.

However, walking along the street the other day, a long forgotten song came on the radio, one which I hadn't heard in years, but which brought back vivid memories of when I was first introduced to it. Even more surprisingly, as I listened to the lyrics, I couldn't help noticing the words moving me in a most powerful and deep way. Much more than GH's Daashedyotian Rhapsody ever did. I figured that I should share this song with you to give a more accurate depiction of what a song that should have my name on it would be like.

I remember that when I had first encountered this song, I had been unsuccessfully attempting to dissuade my friend from making me listen to it. He was insisting it was the most brilliant masterpiece of all time, but from my vantage point the song was from a particularly "unkosher" group and I did not believe it was at all possible for anything they produced to have any sort of redeeming value.

Eventually he prevailed, and I sat down with his discman to hear the wisdom of Metallica. As the song began with it's slow and somber melody I admitted to myself that it was actually quite enjoyable. Had I misjudged it after all? But suddenly I was jarred from my reverie as the delicate notes were replaced with a crash of cymbals and a loud, angry, shouting vocalist. I was right after all! This was crude, unrefined noise, not worthy of being called music!

But as I began to make out the words, I slowly realized that my initial dismissive assessment really was quite premature. This song was expressing something very real, and very painful. The lyrics alternated between anger & accusation and sadness & longing. It was very raw. And I understood well how my friend could feel that the song was all about him. As poetry so often does, it was expressing what was in his heart, better than he could ever hope to.

I never thought much about that song after that. Although I recognized that it spoke meaningfully to a whole group of people who strongly identified with it, I never considered how it related to me.

But hearing it the other day I realized how amazingly powerful and true that song is. I probably dismissed it so easily back then because I was unaware just how relevant it was to me. Or maybe I knew but was afraid to admit it. Either way, now I understood it's meaning and the revelation was bringing tears to my eyes.

The song isn't an entirely accurate portrayal of how I feel about things (both in the past and the present). However, there are parts in it that are so dead-on that it truly is a masterpiece. I just hope you don't get the wrong idea from certain parts. (I'd like to believe that I'm not a bitter old man.) I strongly recommend that you listen to the original song, rather than just read the lyrics, but in the meantime, I present to you, The Unforgiven:

New blood joins this earth
And quickly he's subdued
Through constant pain disgrace
The young boy learns their rules

With time the child draws in
This whipping boy done wrong
Deprived of all his thoughts
The young man struggles on and on he's known
A vow unto his own
That never from this day
His will they'll take away

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never be
Never see
Won't see what might have been

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee unforgiven

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his
He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is
Throughout his life the same
He's battled constantly
This fight he cannot win
A tired man they see no longer cares
The old man then prepares
To die regretfully
That old man here is me

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never be
Never see
Won't see what might have been

What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee unforgiven

You labeled me
I'll label you
So I dub thee unforgiven

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Soul Saving - Part II

Part I here.

The conversation with my erstwhile yeshiva friend did not just end that night. He called me up twice more after that. The second time he dived right back in, swinging as hard as he could but sadly, hardly ever making any solid contact.

Not all of his arguments were so terribly weak. Some were ok, but were just so misdirected that even though they made some sense, they really had no bearing on the specific issue being focused on (as best as I could tell). I can't really claim that my defense was so outstanding. For the most part, the assault that I was up against was practically ineffective all on it's own. There were some arguments that I conceded to him, but invariably they were predicated on some presumption that I totally did not agree to. For instance, many of his arguments were preceded by the statement, "Let's say, hypothetically, that you agreed that..."

Very often, when presenting his positions, he would employ a mashal (an analogy) to make his point. On the one hand, I was unsurprised to hear these familiar arguments, as I knew they were standard fare when discussing these topics. On the other hand, this was quite surprising to me, as they were all the same infantile, simplistic analogies that I had heard from rabbeim years ago. Did he really not have anything better to offer than those same tired arguments that were used on us when we were gullible, unthinking high school kids? The very fact that he was utilizing tactics that I knew were straight out of the yeshiva rebbe's playbook made me have even less respect for the ideas he was proposing. (And the fact that I wasn't able to easily squash every one of them made me have even less respect for my own critical thinking abilities.)

I definitely did not mount such a brilliant defense. I didn't perform as impressively as I would have liked. Not that I cared too. I really didn't. I would have liked to, but it didn't really matter that much to me. After all, I hadn't initiated this whole debate. Our dispute did not end with him being overwhelmingly crushed by my dazzling and unassailable logic. I deflected his attacks adequately, but it was by no means a knockout.

All in all, in my opinion, a very sad performance, from all sides involved. Below I share some of the more memorable moments of our sad and pathetic exchange.

(Disclaimer: It shouldn't be assumed that the quotes I provide from my side of the dialogue fully and accurately reflect my sentiments on the issue being discussed. They are just brief snippets of conversation, meant to draw attention to a particular point, and not wholly representative of my full view on the specific issue.)


DH: I don't think that everything in the Torah is false, but some things definitely are.

EYG: How could you say such a thing? The toirah is kulo emes! If you believe parts of it are true, then obviously all of it is true! It can't be both emes and sheker!

(Could I have asked for a better example of The Black & White Principle?)


DH: I really don't have time to keep talking about this endlessly. I have to hang up already.

EYG: No, wait! Don't hang up!

DH: I really don't have time for this! You've kept me on the phone for 2 hours already!

EYG: But what if I was offering you a chance to get a million dollars? Wouldn't you give me another 15 minutes for the chance to get a million dollars? Wouldn't you?!


At one point I tried taking the offensive a bit:

DH: You know, you keep claiming that I should try out torah and mitzvos again, that I should speak to people that have answers to my questions, that I'm throwing away what's important, etc. Well, I'll tell you what: I'll do that if you do something for me. I want you to speak to people that will show you the problems in your beliefs. People that will clearly demonstrate the falsity of so much of your way of thinking and way of life. Okay? How about it?

EYG: Well, the Rambam says that a person shouldn't discuss certain inyanim unless he's ra'ui (fit) to understand them properly.....

DH: So basically you're saying that you're not interested in discovering truth. You know exactly where the answers lie. But you're only allowed to search them out if you're trusted to end up where they want you to. Is that right? Have you ever heard of intellectual honesty?

EYG: Um, no. But I think I understand what it means.


EYG: Do you find yourself happier now than when you were frum?

DH: Yes. I really think so.

EYG: I think the real reason you think you're happier now is because as the gemara says, "Mayim g'nuvim yimtaku." Stolen waters are sweeter.

That one really left me speechless! And I still have no idea how I to counter such a brilliant argument! How does one respond to such stupidity? Where to start?


DH: I found that observing many parts of the torah did not provide me with any fulfillment or meaning whatsoever. It does nothing for me. All it contributes to my life is headaches and hassles.

EYG: The toirah promises that following the mitzvos is the best thing for you. If it doesn't seem so good now, that's only because you sometimes have to wait a little before the good part comes. Not all good things come right away. You're only 30 years old! If the richest guy in the world asked you to do a few things for him in exchange for a billion dollars, wouldn't you do it? If he didn't give you the money right away, would you tell him you're not interested in it anymore?! If it got a little difficult at some point, would you just say you don't care anymore?! You'd have to be a meshugene to do that! No?!


Very often when I did give him a point that he didn't know how to answer, he replied with:

EYG: Look, I'm not claiming to be the Godol Hador. (I know that. He is.) I don't have all the answers. But I guarantee you that there are experts out there than can answer your questions. You really should speak to them.


The discussion just kept on going nowhere. He kept coming back to every little point, trying to convince me that my perspective was wrong, that my understanding of torah was wrong, that my questions could be answered, that I was making a mistake, and on and on. Eventually, at the end of our second discussion, I realize that he's not ever going to give up on this. Not until he gets me to admit the error of my ways. So I figure I'll just throw out a ridiculous idea, one which obviously wasn't true but which didn't give any recourse to debate:

DH: You know, you're right. It's not about sfeikos (doubts). I still believe the torah is true. But if I followed the torah then I wouldn't be able to have sex 3 times a day with 15 different women! I'm living the life I am to satisfy my taivos (desires) and give in to my yetzer hara (evil inclination). That's the real truth.

It was quite obvious that I stated this with exaggeration, and it was clearly intended to just send the message of leaving me alone and ending the debate, but the next day, when he calls me up and tries to go at it again, he starts off by telling me that he wants to respond to what I said at the end about the relationships I have.

DH: Huh? (I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.)

EYG: You mentioned about how you have some kind of relationship with certain ladies.....

DH (trying really hard not to laugh): Oh, that! Um, okay. What about it?

(I was really tempted to play dumb and force him to elaborate what he was referring to. It was plainly obvious that the guy was deathly afraid of repeating what I had said and he was probably even uncomfortable with saying the word sex. But I let it go. I'm just too nice.)

And then he goes into this rambling mussar shmuez which sounded something like this:

EYG: I'm not sure if you were serious about what you were saying, but you should know that just because you're oisek in can always do teshuva.....ain tzadik b'aretz asher loi yecheta......everyone gets involved in chatoyim.....hashem is noisein yad lapoyshim.....especially now that it's elul.....yoim kippur is mechaper on all sorts of aveirois.....

It went on for quite a while until I told him he was wasting his time again. But it was really something to hear!


After lamely sparring with each other for over an hour over various intellectual issues which I feel give one a basis for doubting every ikkar of today's accepted frum hashkafa, I finally tell the poor guy that he's just totally barking up the wrong tree. First of all, his arguments are entirely unconvincing. But more importantly, these issues really are not the crux of why I've chosen to live the way that I am. So even if he was somehow effective in his presentation, it wouldn't really matter. The path I've chosen in my life is not (primarily) due to any of these intellectual issues.

DH: Enough already with all these irrelevant and abstract issues! First of all, you've clearly demonstrated to me that you have no freaking idea what you're talking about in any of these areas. So please, please, shut up already. (At this point in the conversation my patience has begun to wear thin and I'm getting kind of snappy.) Secondly, it really doesn't matter to me one way or another.

EYG: What do you mean? Don't you care about the emes?

DH: Caring about the emes is not the issue. People aren't frum because they believe the torah is true. Yes, I know that's why they claim they're frum. But it's not the real reason. You need to understand that the reason people choose to live their lives a certain way is not solely because of logic and truth. It's a combination of factors involving beliefs, community norms, personal values, familial and social expectations, trust in the system, lifestyle choices, education, indoctrination, and other complex factors.

Understandably, this idea offended him a bit. Frum people like himself are fiercely proud of the fact that they are living their lives out of a heartfelt devotion to the truth. He asked me to amend my comment by saying, "For some people, the choice is based on these factors." Fine, I really don't care if he agrees with me or not. I'm trying to help the guy out by giving him a better understanding of why I am the way I am, and he's telling me he doesn't like my perspective. Amazing.

So this drags us into another pointless debate which has him bringing out proofs from rishonim, pesukim, gemaras, all sorts of stuff that I just am totally not interested in. Eventually, I've had enough and tell him he's barking up the wrong tree again.

DH: Look, you obviously have no idea what you're doing here. You don't understand that pesukim, rishonim, the Rambam, gemaras, the Rashba, R' Shach, or whoever it is - they're irrelevant to me. I have no interest in what they have to say. None whatsoever. If you want to convince me of anything it's not going to happen by bringing me proofs from torah sources. I'm living as I am because it works for me. I'm happy. I feel I have more genuine joy, achievement, goodness, meaning and fulfillment in my life this way than what you are proposing to me. If you want me to give this up, you have to show me you're offering me something better. Not something that has proofs that it's true! I'm always interested in improving my life. If you think you have something that can do that for me, I'm willing to hear about it. You need to approach me as someone who knows nothing about torah, does not care what rabbis have to say, and am only motivated by my own enlightened self-interest.

(Basically at this point, I'm giving him advice on how to better present his case to me!)

EYG: I hear what you're saying. I hear you. (...thinks to himself for a little while...) Okay, so can you tell me what you're looking for in life? What is it that you want?

DH: You've got to be kidding me, right?! You're trying to sell me something, claiming that it's so great, will fulfill my greatest desires, and you don't have any idea what my desires are! How can you even believe that torah will give me what I want if you have no idea what it is that I want?

He tried to appeal to me from this angle, but as I suspected would happen, it was an even more dismal case than his intellectual one. The presumption that a frum person obviously has a better life than anyone not frum is so ingrained and so taken for granted by a person with his outlook that he really has no idea how to even broach the subject with someone who disputes it.


I tried (unsuccessfully) getting him to realize that I'm a big boy and do not need his help:

DH: Why can't you just leave me alone already? Don't you understand that I'm not a kid? I'm an intelligent, responsible adult that is entitled to make his own decisions about his life. My choices in my life are none of your business.

EYG: Well, imagine if you had a friend who wanted to commit suicide. Wouldn't you want to help him out? What if he really believed it was the right thing for himself? Would you just leave him be to hurt himself like that?


I tried another tactic:

DH: The fact that you know nothing about life outside your constricted world should make you realize that you are not qualified to speak about these things. How can you judge another person's life, or values, or choices if you don't have the slightest inkling or appreciation for what may bring a person to such conclusions?

EYG: Well, what about terrorists? You know about terrorists?

DH: Huh?

EYG: There are terrorists all over the world. Ready to kill other people. To blow themselves up. To hijack airplanes and smash them into the twin towers. To shoot innocent Jews. To go into a restaurant with a bomb strapped to their waist. To teach others hatred. To...

(He keeps going on with his analogy for a few minutes, until I interrupt him and tell him to make his point already.)

EYG: Well, don't you think they're wrong? Can't you think they're wrong even though you don't understand what it is that makes them do what they do? They claim that what they're doing is right, based on their values and understanding, so is it then ok with you?


There was so much more. But I think it's finally over. At the end of his third phone call, I think I finally got the message across that nothing he has said to me has had any positive effect whatsoever. In his own words:

EYG: I see that there's no pesach in your mind for discussion...

DH: Huh? Pesach? What does Pesach have to do with anything?

EYG: Not Pesach as in the yontif. A pesicha. An opening. There's no opening in your mind...

I implored him once again to please drop the whole subject, to just stop calling me already and to leave me be. Hopefully, he'll listen to me and finally leave me alone. Even if he does, I know there's still hope for me, because before saying goodbye, he asked me my Jewish name (as in the name to use when davening for me), so when I finally hung up the phone, I did so secure in the knowledge that maybe one day, with enough siyata d'shmaya and heartfelt prayer, my soul may still be saved.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Soul Saving

It finally happened. I got the phone call. Someone tried to save my soul.

And baruch hashem, he was successful!

I now know that I've been making such a tremendously tragic mistake in my life.

I now understand that all the problems that I have with Yiddishkeit are readily resolved.

That R' Schach zt"l and R' Elyashuv shlit"a have answers to all the sfeikos (intellectual doubts) I might have had.

That Toirah & Mitzvos is the guaranteed path to a fulfilling and meaningful life.

That the only reason I thought I was happier is because - as the gemara so wisely tells me - "mayim g'nuvim yimtaku"(stolen waters are sweeter).

That - chas v'shalom - not believing that every word of the Toirah is true - chas v'shalom - was grossly mistaken.

That R' Avigdor Miller has answers to all the questions posed by scientists.

I've been saved!!!

Oh, wait a second... that actually wasn't exactly how it turned out. Hmmm....maybe I should start at the beginning:

This past week I've been returning home to find messages on my answering machine from a certain fellow that I knew back in high school. He was someone that I was somewhat friendly with, we probably played ball together and learned together a few times, but I don't recall that we were particularly close at any time. We weren't even in the same class. I never kept in touch with him after we parted ways and didn't follow up on what was going on in his life any more than anyone else from my high school days.

However, a few years after leaving high school I did bump into him at one point. At that stage in my life I was still firmly grounded in the yeshiva world, but I was starting to stretch my wings a bit and at the period that I met him I was only in yeshiva part of the day. After the initial pleasantries and catching up on the past few years, he asked me what I'm doing:

Earnest Yeshiva Guy: Nu, so what are you up to now? What yeshiva are you in? What mesechta are you learning?

I explained that I was in yeshiva X in the morning and was studying computers in the afternoon and evenings. His pleasant demeanor was abruptly replaced by a solemn expression.

EYG: You mean you're not learning full-time?

Thus began a 6 hour debate (in the street!) about all sorts of arcane and irrelevant matters relating to the well-being of my neshama (soul). I don't recall the specifics very well, but I do remember that he was gravely concerned that my hashkafa (ideological outlook) had changed so dramatically (e.g. that I was ok - chas v'shalom - with the idea of me not learning full time - chas v'shalom!), and he strongly felt that I needed to go speak to gedolim about the issue. Suffice it to say, I didn't take his advice. (And anyway, at that point in my life, my actions were actually based on the advice of my rabbeim. So I felt I had all the rabbinic approval I needed.)

But unfortunately for me, this guy was not willing to give up so easily. Despite the fact that he hadn't convinced me to repent my evil ways during our initial encounter, he was determined to keep trying. Apparently, my soul was too precious to give up on. After trying my hardest to get out of it, he compelled me to agree to a seder (learning arrangement) with him once a week. I'm sure he figured that all I probably needed was a good dose of some serious torah learning to get me back to my old uncompromising self. None of that watered-down modern stuff they were passing off as torah in the so-called yeshiva that I was currently attending. (I mean, after all, how could it really be a serious place if they let me learn only half a day!?)

But alas, it was not meant to be. I'm not sure why in the world he thought it would have any appeal, but he picked one of the most obscure and inscrutable sections of mishna for us to study. I think it had something to with how a horse's saddle becomes impure. Anyway, much to his annoyance I kept interjecting the study session with all sorts of unacceptable and heretical comments. It upset him greatly when I asked, "So what lessons applicable to our lives can we learn from this?" or when I brazenly proclaimed, "This stuff is so boring. I'm really not interested in learning this." Such remarks would inevitably spark a hashkafic (ideological/philosophical) discussion where he would try to impress upon me how mistaken my approach was and how I needed to appreciate the error of my ways and I would in turn further distress him with my scandalous thoughts and comments. Not the most fruitful endeavor for either of us. I don't recall why or how it ended, but I think he recognized that he wasn't having any positive effect whatsoever, or maybe I insisted that I had had enough of humoring him, but the whole thing eventually ended and I never heard from him again.

Fast forward 7 years.

When I first heard his message on my machine he was just inquiring how I was doing, calling to say hi, mentioning that he ran into some family members of mine and figured he'd get my phone number and say hello.

Hmmm.... How should I handle this?, I thought to myself. I very well suspected that the real reason he was calling was "to check up on me". So how should I play it? I could just pretend that I'm as frum as he'd like me to be, lie about it all, and that would end the whole thing. On the other hand, I hate pretending. But I also knew that if I were to be honest with him I was in for a repeat of what I had been through 7 years earlier - only it was going to be way worse this time around. I wasn't interested in another stupid debate. Yet, a part of me actually was quite eager to play that game. I've never actually had a chance to push those buttons with a frummie like him, and I figured it would be kind of fun. And then there was another part of me that said to avoid it all since opening that door and having that whole discussion was just going to upset me. In the end, I figured I'd just drop the whole thing and not call him back and it would all go away.

No such luck. The next day I was greeted by another message. I figured it wasn't polite not to respond to two inquiries, so I bravely picked up the phone and dialed his number. Thankfully, I got his answering machine. Great! I could leave a message, he'll know that I did my part to get in touch with him, so I'm now in the clear, and it'll all be over. Unfortunately, it didn't end with that, and he kept trying to contact me, eventually reaching me when I was at home and available to be spoken to.

My dear readers, how I wish I had recorded this conversation! It was so unbelievable, so ridiculous, so sad, so mind-numbingly pathetic that words can not do it justice. You just had to hear it! The closest thing I could offer to you is to recommend that at your soonest available opportunity you seek out your friendly neighborhood frummie, approach him earnestly, and confess that you're an apikores and you want to be saved.

The first bit of hilarity that I had to endure was hearing him broach the subject of how frum I was. After all, last he heard I was still a proper frum kid (ok, maybe not properly frum, but still somehow frum) so after the initial pleasantries his first task was to gauge "where I was holding".

(Note to readers: The comicalness of the following example and much of the ensuing discussion might not be decipherable to those uninitiated in the manners, thoughts, and sayings of the yeshiva world. I'm sorry, but I just can't explain the subtlety of it all.)

(Another note: When reading the words of Earnest Yeshiva Guy, try to read the words with a very yeshivish emphasis and inflection. It's not Torah. It's Toirah.)

EYG: So are you a Mizrachi?

After befuddling him a bit by asking exactly what he meant by that, I told him that I wasn't anything in particular.

EYG: But are you a ma'amin? (A believer?)
(You've got to pronounce it maimin - sounds like a-rhymin.)

DH: A ma'amin in what?

EYG: That the toirah is true.

DH: Well, first of all I don't know what exactly you mean by "the torah", and secondly, I don't know what you mean by true. That every idea in it is truth? Literally true? True for all time? True for everyone?

So the discussion devolves into all sorts of stupid tangents where he tries fruitlessly to define his terms and articulate his arguments with some sense of cohesion, and all the while I'm throwing him curveballs that both confuse him in his own arguments and in what my own beliefs are. I'm pretty much enjoying it, mainly playing defense, softly deflecting his points without getting into things too heavily. After a while he realizes he's not getting anywhere, and tries to switch tactics.

Let me take a little break here and give some background on this guy. As became clear throughout the conversation, I was dealing with an absolute novice. This was a guy who pretty much was raised on the typical frum, yeshivish positions for everything. He's the type of guy that would be described as eidel (something akin to sweet and naïve). Although his family is not at all yeshivish, they allowed him (since high school) to adopt that lifestyle and he has devoted himself to faithfully absorbing the teachings and truisms of that worldview. He never (even during our previous encounter) got all fire and brimstone on me. Never tried to guilt me by just saying how terrible it was what I was doing. Never got angry with me. He seemed to be truly distressed by my religious breakdown. (As he put it in one of his idiotic analogies, "If you saw someone you cared about deeply doing drugs, wouldn't you try to help him?") He's a very decent, kind-hearted, sincere person. Like most guys in his position, he probably never encountered any serious challenges to his way of life or thinking, and he felt sincerely confident in the truthfulness and rightness of his outlook and lifestyle. He knew that he was no kiruv expert, but he also knew without a doubt that the ideas of the torah were absolutely incontrovertible. Even though he never consciously addressed it, he's sure that and he must have built some sort of foundation to rest that belief upon during the past 15 years of his torah learning (he's thirty and in kollel). So he figures it should be a relatively easy matter to convince someone as myself about what a terrible mistake I was making. It never enters his mind that the fact that he's never genuinely examined his own beliefs with any serious scrutiny should give him some slight pause.

Now, as any reader of my blog knows, I'm not the sort of person who writes prolifically about the intellectual arguments against Judaism and the Torah. That's not to say that I don't know of them, or that they don't concern me to some degree. I've read enough, learned enough, and spoken to enough people, to know that the issues are complex, that simplistic approaches are wholly insufficient, and that much of the accepted approaches that people believe as absolute truth are highly questionable. (Thank you Mis-Nagid, Godol Hador, DovBear, Hirhurim, and the many other great writers out in the blog world for tackling those complex issues.) For the most part I don't get too involved in these intellectual debates. I listen and observe, occasionally contributing on some minor point. When the dust clears and I ask myself who has the better argument, I'll usually admit that I don't feel competent to judge, so I'll tend to just let myself settle somewhere on the side of tradition, but with a healthy dose of skepticism about the issue. Basically, I haven't been convinced of anything, so I'll allow some sort of status quo to stay in my head, but keeping in mind that the view I'm maintaining is not at all a strongly founded belief.

So, regarding all these intellectual issues, I don't consider myself any sort of powerhouse that can disprove God, Torah, Judaism or whatever with any strong arguments (and I have no desire to whatsoever). But what I do feel confident enough to do, with the little bit of knowledge I have gleaned, is counter the arguments that a novice such as this guy can confront me with.

So, getting back to my story, my dear friend tries mounting his offense. Sadly, for the most part, it was really, really pathetic. I'll give him an 'A' for effort. But in most other areas he was a dismal failure! He wasn't at all articulate; for example, he repeatedly rambled on uninterrupted for minutes, losing track of his original argument, trying to preempt what he thought I'd say and usually forgetting the original point he was trying to make. His arguments were often disjointed and confusing, conflating disparate ideas and issues that weren't really connected one to another (except in the fact that they were all equally heretical to him.) He used infantile analogies which he felt necessary to illustrate to ridiculous degrees. Here's one exchange that highlights it well (I'll try to recapture it as best as I can recall). The background is that he's basically trying to tell me that I owe it to hashem to keep the torah and mitzvos.

DH: Why do I owe it to hashem?

EYG: Because hashem has done so much for you! And don't you think that if there was a person that had given you life, and had taken care of you for many years, and had protected you, and nourished you, and clothed you, and helped you get better when you were sick, and had helped you in yeshiva, and with your learning, and had paid for everything that you needed, and helped you when you were in trouble, and helped you get married, and helped you find a home, and helped you raise your kids, and helped you have a parnoso, and………

(Finally, after five minutes of this endless prattling, I've had enough and I interrupt him.)

DH: Ok, I get your point! You're trying to tell me I should have gratitude for all that God's done for me, right? Ok, fine, I have gratitude. What does that have to do with believing the torah is true, observing the halacha, and all the other stuff you're arguing with me about?

EYG: Well, if you really had gratitude then you'd do what the other person asks of you.

When I point out to him that no one in the world, including himself, believes that a person has to do whatever his parents tell him, even though they may have tremendous gratitude towards their parents, (and all the while as I'm saying this, I'm mentally kicking myself for actually taking his ridiculous argument seriously enough to respond to!) he responds with what will be a constant refrain throughout our discussion:

EYG: I hear what you're saying. I hear you.

At some point in the discussion, he tried taking a more methodical approach, and asked me what specifically I didn't believe, and then tried countering it with proofs that I was wrong. Unfortunately, I never bothered systematically remembering all the many arguments I've heard against so many of the accepted ideas in the torah, and I'm sorry to say that I didn't stump him as badly as I wanted to. That's not to say he was a resounding success. Far from it. He wasn't anywhere near that. But on some of the issues that I raised he had some sort of rishon or something that countered it to some degree, so it resulted in more of a stalemate. As I've said above, I don't really care too much about the intellectual arguments anyway, so I was just tossing these things at him to throw him off guard (and because he asked), but I was disappointed that I didn't remember anything powerful enough to flummox him satisfactorily. (Mis-Nagid, maybe you want to brief me on that?)

I wish I could recall for you some of the arguments he used. To hear what he thought was a convincing argument was truly astounding. I remember at one point he said to me, "But doesn't the fact that R' Elyashuv, and R' Shach, and the Gra, and the Rambam, and R' Akiva believe it, doesn't that prove to you it's true?!"

After listening to his arguments for a few minutes I realized that I was basically being subjected to the standard yeshivish approach to all these issues: A combination of assumed trust in the system, with a bit of Aish Hatorah style "proofs" thrown in, an unqualified rejection of any ideas not proposed by a chareidi rabbi, and a thorough rewriting of the history of those accepted figures of the past that might actually dispute some of his basic assumptions.

For example, when I point out some of the scientific issues that raise difficulties with the accepted understanding of certain torah topics, he countered with a standard yeshivish response:

EYG: Have you ever read R' Avigdor Miller? He read all about the scientists and he answered up all their questions!

When I point out an obvious and irrefutable problem, such as the gemara saying that the world is flat, he replies:

EYG: The Artscroll gemara brings down from gedoilei hatoirah like R' Shamshon Raphael Hirsch…

(The answer might not have been all that bad, but I didn't really hear it as I was laughing too hard at that point.)

At one point I even pulled up one of Dov Bear's posts where he proves that the text of the torah which is accepted today is not the same as that received by Moses. It was quite fun, because I was able to quote a Radak and a tosfos and lots of other frum sounding stuff. Unfortunately, it didn't do much good as he defelected it with some illogical yeshivish logic about the fact that R' Moshe Feinstein knew these meforshim proved that it wasn't an issue.

Instead of responding to each and every recycled yeshivish answer he was trying to propose to me, I pointed out to him that his view of all these issues was just a bit too narrow, informed from absolutely unreliable and biased sources, and that there was no way I could actually take his propositions seriously.

DH: You've never seriously read about history, science, philosophy, ancient cultures, archaeology, mythology, biblical criticism, and many other subjects which have bearing on many issues of torah. You've probably never even read a sefer from a non-chareidi rav! You've probably never heard a serious argument against any of your cherished beliefs your whole life! So how do you expect me to take you at all seriously?

EYG: Have you heard of R' Berel Wein? He's a well-respected frum historian. Don't you think he knows these issues well enough? I guarantee you that Rav Shach totally knew the answers to all these issues without any problems!

One of the funnier bits about it all is that throughout the entire discussion he's constantly peppering his sentences with "chas v'shalom's". After all, I am making him state ideas which are heretical! For instance:

EYG: So what you're saying is that you don't believe - chas v'shalom - that hashem gave the torah at har sinai - chas v'shalom - and that parts of the torah - chas v'shalom - might be not emes - chas v'shalom! Am I hearing you right?!

Eventually, I got tired of all the arguments that were going nowhere and told him to wind it down already. Since he was able to come up with his lame answers, he thought he had somehow "won" the argument and we've reached a point where he's basically waiting for me to say, "Yes, you're right. The torah is true. I'm making a big mistake in what I think." Much to his dissapointment, I respond a bit differently.

DH: Ok, fine. You don't see a problem with the issues. I don't really care. I'm not trying to convince you to change. I'm just telling you why I have doubts about a lot of things.

EYG: But like I just showed you, there are answers to help you not be mistapek in these areas. So don't you think you should reconsider shmiras hatoirah?

In my mind I'm thinking You call those proofs?!, but I decide to drop that tack, and instead just plainly tell him something else.

DH: I really don't care. I'm not interested.

Now he's dumbfounded. This is totally unheard of. He thought he had me. He had just PROVED to me the emes! He's not going to let me get away so easily.

So the conversation now takes a totally different turn.


I hate to break it to you, but I'm going to have to continue this another time. It's too long enough as it is. Rest assured, this went on for over 2 hours. And then he called me back a day later to keep trying. I have much more to write and hopefully more of the conversation will come back to me, but for now here ends the first part of how not to save Da'as Hedyot's soul.

Update: Part II posted here.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Cross-Currents is an interesting blog. Despite their very Christian sounding name, the writers on that forum lean very heavily towards right-wing Orthodox perspectives (also known as chareidi, yeshivish, black-hat, ultra-orthodox, etc.). Despite their frequent disclaimers of only being interested in fairness and truth, they have a reputation of censoring comments that might reflect unfavorably on their positions. I’ve had my share of comments disallowed for those very reasons, and it’s always annoyed me.

Well, it seems they’ve done it again. But this time, foreseeing that it might happen, I saved my comment, and am going to rewrite it here.

In the post, Jonathan Rosenblum writes a tirade against Ephraim Zuroff (which explicitly violates their own stated rules of addressing ideas rather than personalities) and among other things expresses his dissatisfaction with the way that Zuroff understands the chareidi approach toward history. He writes that, "Somehow Zuroff links that misuse of the Holocaust to the charedi attitude towards history, which he describes as "purely instrumental, with historical accuracy of no inherent value.""

Well, I’ve got news for you Mr. Rosenblum. That perfectly describes the chareidi attitude towards history. And they’ve even admitted it! In an article in the Yated Ne’eman they explicitly state this unabashedly. Here’s what they had to say on the issue:
A related complaint that is sometimes made is that we leave out information. This is true, but the reason is that in our Torah-based scale of values, the harm or embarrassment that can be caused to someone - perhaps a family member or bystander - rates much higher than the needs of the historical record or journalistic objectivity.
Straight from the horses’s mouth.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Positive Hazards

I consider myself a positive person. I tend not to let unpleasant things get to me, and even when in a less than ideal situation I try to stay focused on any positive aspects that may be present. It's not that I'll be ignorant of the whole picture. Even while remaining optimistic I'll usually be well aware of the negative issues involved, but I'll refrain from letting them bring me down. I think I picked up this quality from my yeshiva days where the concept of "Aizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b'chelko" was emphasized (Pirkei Avot 4:1). (Who is the happy man? He who is satisfied with his lot.) I've always been glad to have such a personality, and have considered it a great asset to have through life. But recently I realized that being a positive person can have it's down-sides too. Staying focused on the positive can actually have detrimental effects on a person too.

I came to this realization when I recently examined my life and saw that I wasn't doing anything significant to achieve what I really wanted in life. There is so much that I want to accomplish and to be, and I've had specific and concrete ideas of some of those things for some time now. Yet, I haven't been doing much to reach those goals. Why is this? Is it due to laziness? Possibly. But I think a better explanation is that I'm quite happy with my life as it is now. Even though I'm not achieving my goals, I usually feel good enough about my life that it kind of takes away the drive to work towards other things. After all, if you're happy with what you have, why pursue other things? It sounds like a pathetic excuse, but I think it explains well why I haven't been trying as hard as I should be to achieve certain things. Despite my aspiration to be more than I am now, I haven't been bothered enough by my situation to want to work towards achieving those goals. And why haven't I been bothered by it? Because I don't ever let myself take a good look at the negative aspects of my situation and how it's preventing me from growing the way I want to.

Lesson #1: There's a fine line between being happy with one's life and settling for mediocrity.

Another issue which raised this awareness in my life was in regard to relationships. Relationships are never easy to succeed at, and there are innumerable pitfalls that can ruin a potentially meaningful one. Any mature person understands that it's inevitable that even someone who is liked a lot will still have certain qualities that may be less than endearing. The trick is not to let those bothersome aspects get in the way of all the good that the relationship has to offer. You need to focus on the positive. I suppose I'm pretty good at doing that. In fact, I know I'm way too good at it. I can't think of a single time that I ended a relationship because of any specific disturbing or annoying characteristic of the other person. I'm very forgiving of most things and can put up with a lot if I feel the payoff is worth the price. And this also I've always considered an asset that I can be proud of. But it too has a serious downside that shouldn't be ignored.

If you don't admit to yourself that there are troubling aspects to a person - or even if you admit there are, but not acknowledge just how troubling these aspects are to you - it will come back to bite you in the ass later on in the relationship. Issues that really bother you shouldn't be ignored, even if they do seem to be outweighed by many more positive characteristics of the person. If you only focus on the positive and not let yourself feel just how much those issues affect you, you aren't doing anyone any favors.

Of course, this does have to be balanced with the other factor that obviously not everyone is perfect and one must be prepared to accept certain flaws in the other person. But those "flaws" need to be carefully examined and determined how much they truly bother you.

Lesson #2: There's a fine line between being forgiving and giving up on something that you really shouldn't.

Having a positive outlook is a wonderful quality that I wish we all had. But as with all things, one needs to understand that this wonderful quality should be used with discretion and that there are situations where a more critical and unforgiving attitude would definitely serve one better than being sameach with one's chelek.