Sunday, February 27, 2005

Will The Real Orthodox Judaism Please Stand Up?

I've been thinking a bit about all the back and forth regarding Wendy Shalit's criticism of the way Orthodox Jews are portrayed in modern fictional literature (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for relevant articles). Similar charges are made against bloggers who write about their (sometimes former) communities in less than flattering terms. This isn't at all surprising. No one likes having their flaws laid bare for the whole world to see. Especially not the frum world. Most definitely not the chareidi world. If it was up to them, all literature would be published by Artscroll and all news reporting would be done by the Yated.

Most of the arguments I've been hearing on the issue are about the supposedly distorted picture that is being painted in these stories. Many people feel that these characterizations do not accurately represent the societies and individuals that they're speaking about. Another point raised is to what degree authors of fiction have an obligation to authentically recreate their fictional settings.

But I think that the real problem that everyone is so upset about has nothing to do with how or even if these stories misrepresent what the frum world is like. Only someone who views the world in absolutist black and white terms would think that a novel's characters are wholly representative of the society that the story is set in. The real issue that's of so much concern is that to many frum people, even if it's acknowledged that the depictions aren't descriptive of the whole society, the very existence of these less-than-stellar figures and narratives are a problem.

After all, frum society loves to portray itself as so much better in every way than anything else that's out there. It perpetually presents its adherents as a content and fulfilled lot, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to follow God's laws, striving for goodness, righteousness, and the pursuit of virtue. Pettiness, dishonesty, selfishness, immorality, decadence, corruption and all the other moral failings that are part of the fabric of human society are concepts that the frum world would like to believe are absolutely foreign to their constituents.

I think it's that fact that Shalit and her advocates are so bothered by. Not about the distorted view of frum society these books supposedly convey. What bothers them to no end is when people share experiences and views which are contrary to the exaggerated claims of the amazingly inspiring, you'll-want-to-give-up-everything-and-join-us-right-away, frum fantasy pitch. They don't like it when frum people's hidden failings are uncovered. When frum people show less than a full commitment to halacha. When frum people behave corruptly. When a person strict about halacha behaves crassly. They don't like it when the cheerful and rose-colored image of frum life is debunked. When drugs, promiscuity, delinquency, mental illness, crime, abuse, and other social ills are revealed to exist. When a dark underbelly is exposed. The point isn't whether these things are common or not. It's whether they exist at all.

This is why they don't like books like The Outside World, The Sacrifice of Tamar, or Sotah. Movies like A Price Above Rubies or Trembling Before G-d. Blogs like Hasidic Rebel, A Hassid and a Heretic, Frummer and The Sheigetz. It's why no frum publisher had the guts to print a much needed book about spousal abuse. It's part of why Baruch Lanner got away with what he did for all those years. And it's why every unpleasant subject in the frum world is swept under the carpet until the problem is just too big to ignore.

Opponents of writers like Tova Mirvis and Naomi Ragen often accuse them of having an axe to grind, of pursuing an agenda. It may be true, it may not be true, but I think it's irrelevant to the point. The fact is that all of these authors, bloggers and social critics speak from a place of genuine experience. Whether that experience is representative of the whole community or not doesn't negate the fact that their feelings on these issues are just as valid and authentic as the feelings of one who has had mainly positive experiences.

No one's saying that all Orthodox Jews are deviants, crooks, and lowlifes. That all Orthodox communities are about superficial materialism and halachic one-upmanship. That Orthodox Judaism is full of hypocrisy and misogyny. But don't try to pretend that these things don't exist. Orthodoxy done right can be a wonderful, inspiring, fulfilling lifestyle. I truly believe that. But not everyone has a great Orthodox experience. Not every Orthodox person is so wonderful. And not every Orthodox experience is so inspiring.

Those of us who have had such experiences are entitled to share our view of Jewish life also. You don’t have to like it. But please don’t tell us that it’s any less authentic than the delusional fantasy that you think you’re living in.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


In this post from 2 weeks ago, I concluded by saying that the ideas I had written about were leading to a specific point. Interestingly, an anonymous commenter on the post wrote something which alluded to the very point I wanted to explore:
"What puzzles and saddens me is that even "burn outs" from the "frum" world continue to view religiousness as black or white. The view seems to be that you're either in for a penny, in for a pound - or not, and nothing in between."
His observation is accurate, and not just relevant to this subject. On many varied issues, people often encounter individuals who have left the yeshivish/chareidi world, or the frum world, or whatever world, and are surprised that many vestiges of their former life are still evident in their activities, their outlooks, and their personalities. Why is that? they wonder, If you've left it so wholeheartedly, why are you still looking at things like you're still in that world?

Shlomo shares some of his thoughts on this issue in his typically eloquent and inspiring prose. I want to explore a slightly different angle than he does over there.

As I explained earlier, my own departure from my former society resulted more from an emotional reaction than an intellectual one. During my religious transition, for the most part, I wasn't seriously examining all the intellectual and rational foundations of my religious upbringing. Some of them, yes. But even for those few areas that I focused on, my criteria for acceptability was probably based more on a subjective cognitive appeal than any critical intellectual analysis.

Over the years, I've changed quite a bit. I've changed the clothes I wear, the style of my speech, the manner of my interactions, the activities that interest me, the people I associate with, the things that are important to me, the way I think, and the perspectives I have. I've even had opportunity to adjust my views on the deeper philosophical issues of Jewish thought and practice.

The changes happened in many different ways. Some of them were done with conscious effort and some just gradually happened on their own. A lot of them came to me naturally while others were met with incredible resistance. Many of those changes were due to the appeal of the new way of doing things, and many others were a deliberate rejection of the old approach. Most probably came from subjective considerations, but at least a few are probably based in semi-solid convictions.

But there are still myriad areas of thought and experience that I haven't adjusted my perspective on. For the most part, this is because I haven't had any opportunities to seriously reexamine these issues and feelings. Changing ones lifestyle and society can raise many issues that one needs to clarify and take sides on, but there remain countless other areas which are just not touched on by the events and experiences of everyday life. Additionally, the sheer volume of ideas, habits, perspectives, and tendencies that the frum world inculcates in their followers makes it practically impossible for a person to totally undo all the subtle, yet deeply rooted, effects they have on one's psyche.

This is all the more true when speaking about one who, like myself, made the transition not primarily due to intellectual considerations. I didn't get up one day in class and proclaim that I no longer believed in the truth of Torah. Even after I left, I still pretty much accepted and believed that most of the ideas that they had taught me were God-given truths. I didn't reject everything as false and irrelevant. And contrary to what frummies like to think that all rebels do, I didn't consequently make efforts to violate every religious principle and halacha that I could.

But even after all these years, even though it's been a blessedly long time since I've had a rabbi demand an explanation of why I wasn't on time to davening, and even after I've made a pretty complete adjustment into my current community, I still have many of those old yeshivish/chareidi perspectives about life and Judaism lingering within me.

My experiences since leaving my native culture have exposed me to a lot of things, a lot of new ideas, a lot of new approaches to old ideas. But only in certain areas. Those areas of thought and experience that I haven't reexamined still retain the same traditional (and usually restrictive and objectionable) view on the issue that I had all those years ago.

Lying dormant within me, and within so many likeminded individuals, are many beliefs, ideas, value judgments, perspectives, preferences, and feelings which actually are totally at odds with the person that we have become. Unfortunately, those old patterns of thought don't gradually die out, or just fade into the background of our psyche, never to bother us again. They actually are very much still alive, yet because the particular issue may not be raised by the experiences we encounter, they're able to remain undetectable to our consciousnesses for a very long time. Only many years later, possibly when an idea is raised in conversation, an incident catches our attention, or an experience evokes a reaction, will we discover the phantom that's been lurking within us all this time.

At times these epiphanies are rather benign. But more often than not, they can end up coming back to haunt us in a most detrimental way. Let's take a closer look at the scenario raised by the commenter I mentioned above:

A kid is taught that black-hat frumkeit is the only valid and legitimate approach to Judaism. Due to various frustrations and other emotional/sociological factors he decides to chuck it all and drop frumkeit altogether. Some years down the line, after he's achieved a certain balance in his life, he decides to try to take another look at his tradition. Leery of his former society due to the negative associations and memories of his youth, he looks around at other alternative approaches to Judaism. He explores, he tries out, he discovers. Yet, despite the fact that so much of these approaches appeal to him, he finds himself cynical and skeptical of them all. He can't bring himself to wholeheartedly embrace any one of them. Why is this? Because subconsciously he still has the belief he was taught all those years ago that all these approaches are illegitimate when compared to the one authentic derech of chareidism. He never rejected that view when he left that world. And since he studiously avoided any and all contact with religious society in the years since, he never had the opportunity to reexamine the idea and reject it then. As a result, the old perspective still holds sway in his outlook of these issues, and triggers feelings that are counterproductive.

These unconscious views that are latent within us often emerge when we least expect them. They trigger immense frustration in our lives, in so many areas of life, not even ones directly related to religion: relationships, goals, trust, work-ethic, family interactions, child rearing, etc. As mentioned, Judaism has views, opinions, and ideas on every conceivable area of life, from the most mundane to the most significant. And a person that went through the black-hat world probably had so many of those views drilled into him as dogmatic and immutable truth. Any of those ideas or beliefs which are allowed to recede from ones focus and then be ignored for many years will probably resurface years later when an issue that asks the person for their feelings on the matter arises.

If a person is lucky (or self-aware), they can recognize the source of these unexpected feelings and hopefully counter them appropriately. But many people must battle these demons throughout their lives, never fully understanding why they constantly seem to react to experiences in ways that seem so counterintuitive to the person that they understand themselves to be.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Shimon Lives!

Some time ago I wrote an entry about a possibly fictional character named Shimon. Shimon was a commenter on the Hirhurim blog who was spewing some pretty extreme views. Many doubted whether those comments were meant to be taken seriously or not. I felt that it was irrelevant whether Shimon was real or not, as the ideas expressed were fairly common in the yeshivish world. Some disputed that claim and said that if he was in fact real, he was just a crackpot that was an exception to the rule.

The issue can now be settled. R' Moshe Shternbuch, one of the most prominent rabbinic leaders in the chareidi world, has released a letter regarding the Slifkin controversy, and in his letter he expresses ideas almost identical to Shimon's. Thank you R' Shternbuch, for confirming what so many of your constituents try so earnestly to deny.

See Gil's latest for a thorough analysis of the letter. May the pain he must have endured while restraining himself from saying what he really wanted to be a kapara for all the apikorsus he has read (and written) in his life.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Leaving It Behind

How does one go from being a fully committed Jew to one who doesn't really care much about halacha or a torah life? I often find myself asking that very question (to myself). Back in yeshiva we were told that the route to becoming "frei" is a result of any of a variety of subtle triggers:
  1. the yetzer hara convincing us to sin; giving in to our base impulses
  2. our minds rationalizing how our transgressions are really no big deal
  3. allowing ourselves to be put in potentially compromising situations
  4. not following our rabbeim and gedolim
  5. not learning enough torah
  6. stepping on to the slippery slope (I suppose all of the above could be examples of that)
All these rationales seek to place the blame of choosing such a path on the individual themselves. Those who believe these are the reasons for a person "going off" usually see the torah way of life as very fulfilling, consistently true, appropriate for everyone, and not in any way in need of any critical evaluation or adjustment. To their eyes, any person who "strays" from this path must obviously be making a mistake, either by having gotten "farkrumpt"(corrupted) somehow, or otherwise by knowingly choosing to abandon principles of right and wrong in order to "give in to their yetzer hara".

Those may well be legitimate explanations for the phenomenon of people choosing to leave the traditional way of life. No doubt there were many times that when faced with the "do what I think is right vs. do what I want" dilemma I willingly chose the path of self-indulgence and then rationalized it away after the fact. Admittedly, that may well have had some affect on my overall torah commitment. (Actually I have no idea if it did. But I also have no idea if it didn't, so I won't rule it out.)

But there are other catalysts at play which I believe are more deserving of attention. I can think of other, more honest and more genuine reasons why people choose to step out of the seemingly warm, comfortable and secure world of frumkeit to one so foreign and unfamiliar.

Looking back on my own journey of transition, I can clearly identify a variety of factors that were instrumental in the weakening of my allegiance and devotion to a committed torah life (in no particular order):
  1. Frustration that I was not allowed to pursue activities and experiences which were enjoyable and meaningful to myself. And the opposite:
  2. Being forced to constantly engage in activities which I found boring, meaningless, and even painful (and even being taught that I must be devoted to it and enjoy it!).
  3. Engaging in innocuous activities, but because they have been characterized as unkosher, feeling guilty about it and reinforcing the self-image of a transgressor.
  4. Witnessing hypocrisy, lies and injustice perpetrated in the name of Torah, halacha, and Yiddishkeit.
  5. Being made to feel second-class.
  6. Not being allowed to freely express my true feelings and views about many issues.
  7. The constant and endless harping about so many trivial and irrelevant halachos and issues as if they were the most important issues of life.
  8. Discovering that certain basic tenets of Jewish life and thought might not really be as true as I was led to believe; that facts, history, and even torah were being distorted to further an agenda.
  9. Realizing that those charged with my upbringing (family members, rabbis, teachers) made decisions which were far from being in my best interests because they felt that a proper frum upbringing demanded that such a path be taken.
  10. When I realized that the trust I had in the torah system may be a bit unfounded.
  11. When I came to the conclusion that I was just not going to be happy living a typically frum, torah lifestyle.
These are all general categories, each of which has myriad examples, some trivial, others more significant. All of which probably contributed in some way to my loyalty to frumkeit being reduced to a mere echo of it's previous commitment.

It's obvious that the above listed items are primarily emotional issues. Despite what led some others to renounce their ties to Yiddishkeit I freely admit that the primary impetus for my departure from the chareidi world was not due to any deep intellectual convictions. True, there definitely were other issues along the way which had some influence on my choices (some of the more intellectual type) but I think it's fair to classify my "rebellion" as mainly an emotional response. (Although, as is often the case in these situations, I probably felt it neccessary to legitimize my decisions by pointing at the intellectual issues.)

Since exiting the chareidi world and the koslei beis medrash, I've been exposed to many ideas and views on life other than the typical frum ones, and I have heard many opinions and intellectual arguments which seem to undermine much of the foundations of frumkeit. A lot of it is quite convincing. I've also heard some more solid arguments for the cause of Torah than I was previously aware of. At this point there's a whole mess of ideas and opinions within me vying for my attention and allegiance. Some trying to convince me why so much of my former life is so wrong and not worth paying any more attention to and some pleading with me not to make the biggest mistake of my life. Much of it is quite intriguing, but actually, the simple truth is that I really don't care too much whether it's true or not. What I do care about is to live a meaningful, fulfilling, enjoyable life, filled with as much goodness, love, enrichment and happiness as I can, and as devoid of pain, pettiness, shallowness, and injustice as possible. Something like that.

In the next installment (which hopefully won't take 3 weeks to compose), I'll try to explain how this is all relevant to something I'm going through now.