Friday, March 24, 2006

The One True Derech

Recently, on Godol Hador's blog, GH reposted one of my comments as a "guest post". Well, I figure that if he can recycle one of my long-winded rants as a featured blog post, then I can too. So, here it is for your viewing pleasure. My comment there was prompted by GH's post about how so many skeptics are ex-chareidim, and how often these people are a result of the black and white nature of the chareidi mindset. (I've actually written quite a bit about the Black and White Principle (as I like to call it) and his illustration is just one more manifestation of what I've long known to be a sad reality. Link, link, link.) To better understand the context of my post, I suggest you read his original blog posting. What follows below are my thoughts, slightly emended from my original words:

While I don't disagree with GH's general idea as it applies to many people from that society, I'd like to expand on the point in a subtle way. For myself, my right-wing ultra-orthodox background did not cause me difficulty in the way that he describes specifically. For example, (back when I cared more about halacha and torah) when I was first exposed to it, I didn't find it problematic to believe in a billion year old universe and still consider other parts of mesorah well founded. The same with ideas like considering the flood allegorical, and evolution. True, it did adversely affect my overall trust in the veracity of the system, but those revelations did not cause the entire structure to immediately collapse in the way he describes.

However, the much more direct impact of the black and white mode of thinking is that I can not bring myself to seriously accept non-chareidi expressions of Judaism as truly legitimate and authentic. That's how they really screwed me over. The truth is that Modern Orthodoxy actually appeals to me in many ways, and I'd probably be ok living that lifestyle and adopting that approach to viewing the world, and viewing Judaism (hell, actually, I was ok doing that for almost 3 years). However, throughout it all, as much as I admire it and consider it to be a better approach to Judaism than the chareidi one, I can't help feel the persistent tug of my past, reminding me that it is not "the truth"; that it's not the right way to be living as a religious Jew. There is a place inside my heart that can not stop viewing Modern Orthodoxy as a compromise, a corruption, a feeble and inadequate substitute for the supposedly real and proper way to be a religious Jew. This, despite the fact that intellectually I'm more than convinced of it's merits (while also remaining well aware of its failings).

This dismal way of thinking accounts for why every time GH presents an approach that reflects some more moderate, reasoned view of Judaism, I typically react with, "Well, that's not how Orthodox Judaism really is." Because, as much as I like what he's saying (some of the time), I still can't help but view his idea as an illegitimate form of OJ. To my twisted mind, true OJ would never subscribe to such a view.

Similarly, in the opposite vein, it's the hold this idea has on my mind which explains why I particularly enjoy comments from people like Lakewood Yid (one of the regular commenter's at GH) and his ilk (here's an example). Lakewood Yid is a proud member of that society which I was once a part of and which I believed so strongly to be the true heirs to what Torah living and thinking meant. He truly is an embodiment of that persona. When he expresses his simplistic and childish ideas about Judaism, Torah, and the world, and reminds us that he is merely articulating the accepted views of his leaders and his community it helps undermine that fictitious notion that they are in any way a genuine expression of any Divine truth. Seeing that so called "Torah True Judaism" in all it's glaring imbecility is the most effective remedy for what afflicts my mind.

How did this notion come to have such an extreme grip on my psyche? It's hold was formed over many years of repeatedly being taught a fundamental precept of chareidi ideology, spelled out in unambiguous, black and white terms: "Our way (however you want to call it - the life of a chareidi, yeshivish, ben torah person) is the only truly proper way to live as a frum Jew. Everything else, no matter what it is, no matter what they call themselves - Modern Orthodoxy, Zionist Orthodoxy, Torah U'Mada, Torah im Derech Eretz, cultural Judaism, Conservative, Reform, whatever, it's all just a sad and distorted misrepresentation of how God really wants Jews to live - as proper, gemara learning, black hat wearing, kollel studying, da'as torah believing, gadol trusting, chumra seeking, gender separating, badatz eating, college avoiding, Degel voting, chareidi Jews. That's what being a Jew is really about!"

That is what they told me was the way to be a proper Jew. I believed them for many years. I even heeded their advice (to some extent) for a long time, but now, after many years, I have come to know myself that I can not live (nor believe) as a chareidi Jew. One would then think, I should become MO. That would work for me. I agree, it would seem to be a good match (to a certain degree). Yet, because in my mind, I still retain that belief that "Chareidism is the only truly proper way to live as a Jew", I can not adopt such a lifestyle. It appeals to me, yet I can not bring myself to genuinely embrace it. My educators have successfully turned me off to any forms of Judaism which are not theirs, and theirs is altogether objectionable on so many levels. As I see it, I am left with only one course of action in this regard: to completely leave behind the religious life.

This is how chareidi black and white thinking has affected me, how it has turned me off totally. (Well, there are more ways, but this is one very prominent way.) Maybe one day, some time far in the future, when I can expunge from my heart the insidious notion that "Chareidism is the only truly proper way to live as a Jew", and I can bring myself to accept the validity of other forms of Judaism, I may, in some way, be able to assume the lifestyle of a religious Jew once again.