Monday, May 22, 2006

The Torah Response

Since everyone's been chiming in on the latest scandal in the frum community regarding the sexual abuse allegations, I figure I have to say something too, even if only to keep up (and also to clarify being quoted out of context). I have just a few thoughts on the subject, and nothing very innovative.

Firstly, despite my well known feelings of antagonism towards the frum world, I don't for a second think that this problem is something which any normal and decent frum person is not incredibly disturbed by. Any implication that decent frum people, regardless of their affiliation, don't consider such behavior troubling is such a gross distortion of the reality that it's not worth dwelling on. I'd also like to clearly state that I don't recall ever being sexually abused in any manner at any point in my life.

However, despite that acknowledgement, I think that this issue brings to light one more manifestation of the denial and coverup that is so rampant in the frum world. The fact is that there are sexual perverts in the frum community. Whether or not they are more or less common than in general society is uncertain, but I don't see why it really matters for the purpose of this discussion. They exist. But like every other aspect of reality that clashes with their perfect Torah World fantasy, the frum world is (or rather, has been up until recently) in denial about their existence and their effects.

Like spousal abuse. And alcoholism. And drug use. And disaffected youth. Until these problems hit so hard that they can no longer be denied, the frum community continues to react to such disturbing facts by either burying its collective head in the sand, downplaying the severity of the matter, or focusing its efforts on keeping the matter hushed up.

In my opinion, this recent scandal is not and should not be only about the actual abuse that was perpetrated against innocent people. That is a horrific tragedy which can not be minimized and should not be ignored, but there is another problem here, one which is far more prevalent than the aberrant perverts in the frum world.

I don't have any evidence to go on to conclude that abuse of any kind is common in the frum world. I would tend to think that it's quite rare, but I admit that that's probably just a result of my ignorance on the issue. However, aside from my possibly mistaken view about actual abuse, I am very confident that the coverup of such incidents is rife throughout the community. People don't want to hear about it. They deny it. They think it can't be true. They're ashamed about it. And they come up with every excuse in the book not to face the issue. They think it's a Chillul Hashem. They think it's all lies. They think it's lashon hara. They think it's inappropriate to speak of sexual matters. They think it'll ruin the shidduch prospects of their family. Of course, if no one is seriously acknowledging a problem, nothing real is ever going to be done about it. So the problem doesn't go away, and the criminals capitalize on that fact, continuing their atrocities unabated.

The characters in this recent incident have had allegations about them going back decades! I have no doubt that hundreds of students were affected by this person. Certainly, many were shamed into silence, but there were also some who spoke to people about the matter. Either rabbis, family members, therapists, whomever. And yet these people were never removed from their positions of power. How is it possible that so many people's complaints and accusations went unheard? We know how. It's because the frum world would rather bury its head in the sand than acknowledge that their precious Torah communities, their respected Torah rabbis, their prestigious Torah institutions, have such a serious blemish in their midst. Doesn't the Torah say, "U'biarta HaRA Mi'Kirbecha?" Expunge the evil in your midst! Don't cover it up!!!

Gil writes about how he knows of many schools and institutions which are making serious efforts to combat this problem, and I acknowledge that such efforts should be encouraged. But as far as I can tell these efforts are not widely publicized. They are deliberately kept under the radar. And until this attitude of keeping things hush-hush is changed, the problems will not be able to be addressed properly.

As long as the community continues to delude itself into believing that its society is such a wonderful and idyllic place which couldn't ever harbor such despicable monsters, these terrible atrocities will continue to occur, and of course, when inevitably the tragedy they were unwittingly complicit in is brought to light, they will shake their heads in shock and sorrow, asking how such a thing could ever have happened in their holy community.

How indeed?

What It's All About

I was recently informed that I had an honorable mention in Gil's recent presentation at the RCA convention. He spoke about the effect of blogs and how important it is for rabbinic figures to be aware of the issues related to them. You can see a PowerPoint slide here. In line with what I saw Ben Avuya and Godol Hador do, I'd like to give a little introduction to any newcomers to my blog, and explain to you a bit about who I am and what this little endeavor is all about.

I myself am no longer a religious Jew, at least in the traditional meaning of the term (which I consider being a halachically observant person). I grew up in an Orthodox home, not one which would be classified as Chareidi, but also not what would be termed Modern Orthodox (MO). We were strictly halachic, but with connections to all the various frum communities and groups that existed, and I don't recall us subscribing to any practices or views which I considered too extreme. Maybe I was just too young and ignorant to know how we identified ourselves, but that's how I remember it. In any case, after childhood, my formative teen years were spent in black-hat yeshivas, and throughout high school I became increasingly more right-wing in my thinking and practice, which closely paralleled a similar change that was occurring in my overall family. After high school I discovered a more moderate form of Orthodoxy, which greatly appealed to me on certain levels, but which also triggered a serious crisis in my views of what it means to be a frum Jew. That crisis was averted and eventually I adopted that more moderate approach and spent a few years in a yeshiva which helped me integrate that philosophy into my life. I stayed that way for some time even after leaving the yeshiva, but soon after leaving the confines of that closed world, I found myself in a new environment, one consisting of many Jews of a much more MO background. Despite an initial ambivalence, I found myself feeling much more comfortable in their company than my old society. Over time, I gradually shifted to living in that more MO world, and remained there for around 4 years. That period was a very eye-opening experience for me, one which I learned much about things I was never exposed to, and which shattered many stereotypes that I had previously considered to be sacred truths of life and Judaism. Eventually, as a result of a variety of changes that were occurring within myself, my commitment to halacha began to wane, and in due course, different aspects of frumkeit were abandoned. At this point in time, I can no longer honestly consider myself a halachically observant person.

To better understand my motivations here, a more in-depth background of my transition is necessary, but it will take too much time to explore for now. Suffice it to say that over the course of my high school years I became a very committed right-wing/yeshivish/chareidi/black-hat kind of person. I completely and totally subscribed to the views they taught me. On issues of secular studies, modernity, interacting with MOTOS, halacha, the primacy of learning torah, Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy, listening to gedolim, and all the other issues upon which lines have been drawn in the Orthodox community, I had fully adopted their views. I implicitly believed all they taught me as absolute and objective truth. I believed what the gedolim said was da'as torah. I knew that the yeshivish/chareidi view of how one should live their life represented the one true derech of Avodas Hashem, and that everything else that considered itself a version of Orthodoxy was just a compromise at best, and a corrupted distortion at worst. I believed all this fully and wholeheartedly.

That was all many years ago and since that time much has changed for me. Although at one time I firmly believed in the goodness and rightness of all aspects of my chareidi lifestyle, eventually, after much honest deliberation, exploration, self-reflection, meeting many different sort of people, and learning new ways to think about and view the world and Judaism, I became aware of many deficiencies in my life, my thinking, and my self. I discovered how weak many of the pillars of my faith really were. I discovered how poorly my religious upbringing met any of my most important and basic needs. I found gaping intellectual breaches in what I had previously thought were strongholds of logic. I discovered glaring holes in our tradition.

After allowing myself to step onto this alternative path which was so different from the one I had initially been following, I encountered other issues which had nothing to do with me personally, but which sowed further doubt in my mind as to the rightness of that former derech. I was shocked to discover how so many of the foundations of my identity were based on lies. I became aware of how people who were charged with my best interests ignored them to pursue their own agendas. I came to understand how so much of what I thought was a divinely inspired way of life was a combination of half-truths, distortions, cover-ups, deliberately maintained ignorance, normal societal development, and sometimes even outright lies. I found hypocrisy and inconsistency. I came to see just how lacking those who I trusted as paragons of virtue, honesty, and spirituality, really were.

That's what this blog is about. It is my voice and my feelings about how I think the Orthodox life that I came from is inadequate. Many of the ideas I express here are personal and subjective. You will generally not find logical arguments disproving the existence of God, or showing how the Bible was written by man. That's not to say that those issues don't play a part in my transition. They do to some extent. But my focus here is rather on how for certain people, for people such as myself, the Orthodoxy that I was raised with can simply no longer work for me.

When reading my entries you will see that I point to many different factors that contributed to who I am now. Family upbringing, personal experiences, societal difficulties, intellectual arguments, communal issues, and many other factors have all played a part in my development. One day I hope to develop all these disparate ideas into a coherent presentation that can clearly show the buildup and breakdown of how these issues affected me. Another day perhaps.

For now, you're welcome to read my incohernet ramblings in their original and contradictory form. Read about my experiences in yeshiva and how they adversely affected my perceptions of Judaism and Torah (link, link). See the manner in which many of the sacred ideas of my former lifestyle deteriorated (link, link, link). Later on I explore the realization of discovering how inadequate my upbringing was in preparing me for real life (link, link). I discuss my efforts to undo the flawed manner in which my mind was trained to think (link, link, link). I share some of the ways my family deals with my change (link). I explain why I don't like certain yomim tovim (link, link). I speak about my struggle to construct a new way of practicing Judaism that is devoid of the painful relics of my past (link). At times I also focus on certain specific and common issues which plague the frum world (link, link).

This blog was originally intended as a personal project to give myself an outlet. It was never meant to be a soapbox. Despite that, at this point in the process, I feel that I want others to hear the things I have to say. The things I'm writing about are not just about me. The experiences I relate are those of thousands of others who feel the same. The dissatisfaction I express is widespread. The frustrations, resentments, and discontent of those like me is a festering sore that the frum community has ignored for far too long. (Just one more unpleasant fact they prefer to deny and consequently sweep under the carpet.)

For myself, the issues I explore no longer hold such significance. I have left the community and have very little interest in returning to it. But I want you all to hear it because it's about you. You are the ones who are causing all these problems. You are the ones that are forcing scores of youth to grow up unhappy and miserable, feeling they are worthless. You're the ones that believe that your lifestyle is the path to the most happy and fulfilled life that a person can wish for. And you need to hear just how wrong you really are. Judaism might indeed be beautiful, but what you're giving us is damn ugly. It isn't fulfilling, it isn't enjoyable, and it sure isn't something we're going to put up with when we finally have an opportunity to escape it. It isn't the outside world, or the Internet, or movies, or striped shirts, or chalav stam, or Rav Kook, that make us want to get out. It's you. You need to hear that loud and clear. You are what's making us hate Judaism.

Yes, I am biased, and subjective, and at times quite bitter. But I am a product of your society. And I am not an aberration. I'm not alone. There are plenty of people out there who have left just like I have. And there are plenty more who would love to get out if they could find a way. And I believe that there are many more that are not yet at that point, but who are on the inevitable path which will eventually bring them to that sad realization.

Ignore me if you wish. Marginalize me. Reject my ideas as the angry rantings of a cynical and irrational individual. I don't claim to always be entirely objective. But what I do say, absolutely and unequivocally, is that even if my views are subjective, they are worth listening to. Even if they are biased. Because your system is failing. Whether or not it's objectively the best, the most true, the most holy, the most whatever, on a subjective level, it's failing dismally. Objectively or subjectively, the fact of the matter is, it's not working for far too many. Emotions might not be rational, but they are real. And in the calculus of what shapes our commitments and attitudes about our religion, they are as important - if not more so - than cold, hard logical arguments.