Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I Hear You...

Chareidi people are nice. They are generous. They are giving. They are welcoming. Obviously, as we all know, there are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, barring unusual circumstances, my experience with individuals in the chareidi community has been positive and pleasant.

Yet at times one encounters statements from the chareidi world that belie such sensitivity. Remarks that reveal an antagonism that seems quite at odds with the kind and accepting impression they give off. Sometimes those statements are couched in editorials that cleverly mask their derision. Other times the contempt is so blatant that one can't help but be shocked at the brazenness of the affront. Most of the time, those who are charged with presenting a chareidi perspective to the outside world are savvy enough to know how to make their points without insulting anyone (or any institution) outright. For example, writers such as Jonathan Rosenblum or Avi Shafran, whom you will usually find in publications such as The Jewish Observer or Hamodia, or occasionally in non-Orthodox organs. But at times, one can read comments from chareidi writers that are practically dripping with condescension. In publications like Yated (in their articles, editorials, and letters sections) or on blog comment threads from anonymous figures, one can read statements that are anything but accepting. On the contrary, they are mean-spirited, exclusionary, offensive, smugly superior, and contemptuous. They consistently insult anyone or anything that falls outside the rubric of their narrowly defined daled amos of halacha. It can be a person, maybe a rabbi, a teacher, or a public figure who's the target of their scorn. It may be an institution, such as a school, shul, or organization that will find itself under attack. It may even be a practice that is being adopted (or already is the accepted norm) in some communities which will be the focus of their ire. But whatever it is, there is so often a tone underlying the writers point that bespeaks a truly ugly sentiment.

Let me make myself clear. I have no problem with the fact that they disagree with some things. Even many things. In my humble opinion, every group is entitled to draw its own lines where it deems fitting (within reason of course) and is entitled to present its case to the public as much as is necessary to further its cause. I have no truck with people disagreeing and/or arguing.

But why do they have to always be so negative? So disrespectful? So self-righteous?

I was reminded of this tendency when reading a blog post on the well known chareidi mouthpiece Cross Currents. That blog used to be on my regular blog reading list, but I stopped reading it ages ago after I found my comments being censored and I got tired of reading put-downs of other Jewish denominations. But recently I was pointed to this blog post about a woman who was hired as the spiritual leader of a shul in NYC. On the DovBear blog, Krum as a Bagel wrote a response to the CC post, and in the comments section there were a few people who made the following statements:
"What is it with Menken and Cross-Currents? Why are they continuously so mean spirited?"
"90% of Cross-Currents is nasty, smarmy rhetoric. Really, it makes me sick to identify as a frum Jew after reading a typical Cross-Currents post. So full of hate and spite for anyone not exactly like themselves."
Similarly, on a frum discussion board on which I lurk, I often hear incredibly offensive comments made about those who are supposedly less frum, or frum in a different way than what is deemed acceptable. To be fair, it's not that there's usually an overall anti-"less-frum" sentiment from these people. Generally, their view of those outside their community can probably best be described as patronizing pity mixed with a guarded suspicion. The latent hostility usually rises to the fore when an issue catches the public's attention and they feel a need to clearly draw the battle lines, to set the record straight about who the enemy is, and why they are so. It's obvious that on this particular list, because those participants think that they are in a closed, members-only club consisting primarily of like-minded people they feel less inhibited to fully speak their minds, and it's not uncommon for people to really let out the full brunt of their antagonism. (Believe me, it ain't pretty.) Oftentimes their tirade is just senseless ranting, clearly based on nothing more substantive than their emotional biases, and I can't help picturing them as if in some stereotypical caricature - bug-eyed, shouting incoherently, flailing their arms wildly, trying to warn the world of the impending doom. But other times their words are so virulent, so belligerent, that it's truly an upsetting thing to hear.

In countless lectures, seforim, blog posts, dvar torah sheets, op-ed pieces, blog comments, and most of all, in the private discussions heard only by those granted entry to the inner sanctum of the chareidi world, one constantly hears such sentiments: Negativity. Scorn. Derision. Superiority. Condescension. Dismissiveness. It is frequent, it is widespread, and it is very, very deeply rooted.

I said above that my experience in the chareidi world was for the most part positive. But that's all on a very personal and direct level. On a communal level, I had plenty of negative encounters when I lived in that world. Granted, no one actually directly attacked me for being less frum, but that was only because I was smart enough not to show that side of myself to those who would be bothered by it. But throughout those years that I wore the black hat there were plenty of attacks aimed at me - by my peers, by my rabbeim, by my roshei yeshiva, even by my family - they just hadn't yet realized that I was part of those groups they were condemning. And truthfully, I hadn't fully acknowledged it to myself either.

But inside, deep down in a part of my heart that I was afraid to face, I cringed when I heard their mockery. In that dark and lonely corner of my soul, I knew that I was that person they were taunting. That was me. I hated myself for it. I tried my utmost to eradicate that part of me from my self. I denied it for so long. But throughout those years, as I listened to their sarcastic sneering, I gradually understood that they were not just deriding those on the outside. Their barbs were aimed at me.

I was the one that didn't want to learn Torah day and night all my life.
I was the one who wanted to be lax about halacha.
I was the one who wanted to partake of the secular world.
I was the one who took shortcuts when no one was looking.
I was the one who valued this world over the next.
I was the one that wanted to shirk the yoke of God.

I, and so many others.

So, to all you Yated subscribers that think that anything outside of your strict and distorted version of Judaism is such a terrible violation of all that is sacred...

To all you frummies who look condescendingly at those not as committed as you are...

To all you Yaakov Menkins, who think that anything outside your community's practices have no place in Judaism...

To all you Toby Katz's who constantly and consistently attack those who aren't up to your religious standards...

To all you Lakewood Yid's who don't want to ever make any compromises...who want a Judaism that is trapped in some non-existent past...who think that God wants us to live in a restrictive, confined ghetto, idyllically shuckling over our gemaras, obediently following whatever our gedolim tell us to, viewing the world and Judaism through the eyes of a third grader...

Well, I hear you all loud and clear. The message you're conveying is unequivocal: There is no place for me in your world.

Undoubtedly, I expect that you'll immediately deny this, but it's true. Because this is who I am. I cannot be the type of Jew you demand I be. So is there a place in your world for me to be the sort of Jew who I am?

I didn't think so.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Am I Happy?

There is an almost predictable routine that occurs when people first discover that I am not religious. Once the initial shock wears off, and they have reconciled themselves to this new reality (at times arriving at this recognition only after endless debate), they inevitably inquire about my emotional well being. Am I happy?, they want to know.

Although it's quite understandable to me why they are asking me this, the question still irritates me quite a bit. I recognize that their inquiry stems from their assumption that the primary motivation for my abandoning observance was because I was unhappy in my old life, and they want to know if my newfound lifestyle has granted me that elusory state. But the question grates on me terribly. Because I know that when they are asking me that, the subtext of their query is really the following: "Deep down, are you really happy living like this? Of course not! You can't possibly be happy living without the beauty of Yiddishkeit; without shabbos; without Torah; without mitzvos. So you might as well just come back to being frum! After all, if you're not happy like this, why stay here?"

Putting aside for now the faulty assumption that pursuing some elusive emotional state is the root of my shift, and ignoring the condescending belief that a person who isn't frum couldn't possibly be truly happy, what particularly infuriates me about this exchange is the hypocrisy of their position: NOW you think that if I'm unhappy I should leave? What about the countless years when I was unhappy being frum?!! Why didn't you suggest it then that I leave because I was unhappy?! It's a load of crap what you're saying. You don't for one second believe that happiness (or its absence) is a valid basis for choosing a path in life. The only reason you're presenting such a notion is because it suits your purposes. Please! Spare me your bullsh*t concern for my happiness.

However, ignoring their unspoken implications, the question still remains in front of me. Am I happy? Truly, I want to know it as much as - nay, more so than they do. Am I happier living my life the way I am now than when I was frum?

When I examine that question under closer scrutiny, I realize that it seems to be a mostly irrelevant one. Yes, being happy is important to me. But comparing how happy I am now to how I might have felt back then is irrelevant because finding happiness is not the reason that I chose this path. It simply wasn't. True, at times, I admit that I may have actually articulated that it was what I was looking for, that I was just so unhappy in that world, so I had to leave, but actually when we examine the situation closer, it becomes obvious that although I expressed it in those terms, there was so much more going on which was directing me towards a different path.

Although it was something I definitely wanted, finding happiness wasn't the goal of my decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy. The reason I left was to get away from all the sources of misery that were an integral part of my life as a chareidi person: The restrictive environment, the demanding (and often meaningless) rituals, the endless gemara learning, the lack of opportunities to feel good about myself, the hypocrisy that I was beginning to detect, the insistence that my life be shaped in a way that I didn't feel right for me, the constraints placed on my relationships, the intellectual dishonesty, the persistent religious one-upmanship, the intense insularity, the requirement to believe so many disproved ideas, the questionable leaders, and on and on. Conversely, my departure from the community was also intended to be able to increase the opportunities where I would have positive experiences and encounters in my life.

The point I want to make is that the reason I left was not because I wanted happiness. It was because I wanted more of those positive things in my life, and less of those negative things. Happiness is a logical byproduct of taking such a step, but it wasn't the goal.

(In looking at the larger picture, although that explains some of the reasons why I left, it's important to consider the circumstances that allowed me to leave: It was only when certain societal pressures were removed that the door opened for me to actually step out of that world. And it was only when I came to understand the deficiencies in the intellectual underpinnings and ideologies of ultra-Orthodoxy that I lost the motivation to endure that unhappy way of life I was previously committed to. I hope to explore the nature of this trifecta in greater depth some time soon.)

Getting back to the question that my interlocutor posed to me, "Am I happy?" my answer would be as follows:

"Am I happy? I hope so, although I admit that I can't be sure of it. Happiness is a difficult thing to gauge. However, more importantly to me, is the fact that in my life as I am currently living it, I have much less of those negative experiences and emotions that were a part and parcel of my life in your world. And at the same time, I am able to partake of so many wonderful and enriching opportunities that your lifestyle prevented me from experiencing. Am I happy? I'm not absolutely sure. But I am sure that I'm glad my life is no longer shaped by the dictates of your world."