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.