Friday, October 27, 2006

The Evolution Of My Disbelief - Part I

A friend recently asked me, "What got you to stop believing?" I was ready to respond with a few memorable incidents that I distinctly recalled strongly affected some of my former perspectives, but I stopped myself short, because I realized that his query was much too vague. Although I understood that he was referring to a general belief in Judaism, his ambiguous formulation didn't do the question justice. What got me to stop believing what? Traditionally, not every belief in Judaism is considered essential. And not every essential belief must be subscribed to in the absolute sense. Answering him with an example of a minor setback in my faith wouldn't paint an accurate picture. Further clarification was necessary. What aspect of belief was he referring to? Belief in the whole entire Judaism? Belief in God? Belief in the Divine nature of the Torah? Belief that the Torah is all literally true? Belief in Revelation? Belief in certain halachos? Belief that all these beliefs are essential? Before answering the question of "What caused me to stop believing?", I needed to specify exactly which belief it was that I would be speaking about.

Before I proceed any further, there is an issue on which I need to elaborate a bit: As is well known, within Judaism in general, there are many core beliefs that are demanded of a religious Jew, such as belief in one God, belief in the Torah, belief in the binding nature of halacha, etc. These are some of the central, fundamental areas of Jewish belief. But within the ideology of Chareidi Judaism, there are countless additional beliefs that - although never explicitly delineated - demand equal, if not greater, adherence and loyalty. Some of these issues might seem trivial and mundane, but because they are considered an essential part of how Chareidi Jews observe Yiddishkeit, they become articles of faith with as much import as the established and better known ideas.

To my mind (as it saw the world back then), and I believe to the mind of any properly indoctrinated Chareidi person, one doesn't just believe that Judaism is true. One believes that CHAREIDI JUDAISM is true. And the beliefs of Chareidi Judaism which its educators and leadership make efforts to bolster and promote do not revolve around issues of God, or Sinai, or veracity of the Bible, or historicity of the Mesorah. Those issues are so taken for granted as accepted truth that they never enter the discussion whatsoever. No, our articles of faith were about a totally different list of beliefs. Rather than making statements about the rightness of Judaism, our list of beliefs underscored the rightness of Chareidi life:

We believed that all chareidi people were honest and moral. We believed that the gedolim never made mistakes. We believed that no respectable frum Jew would ever own a TV (let alone admit to it). We believed that wearing a black hat and jacket (and white shirt) was imperative. We believed that anyone who observed halacha as he was supposed to was inevitably a very happy and contended person. We believed that all proper Jews throughout history believed what we did, and practiced what we did, and that going back through the generations, they all were essentially Chareidi Jews (including the Rishonim, Tannaim, Nevi'im and even the Avos). We believed that all the fantastical and miraculous tales of the great rabbis of previous generations were all true (and if they didn't really happen, well, at least, they could have happened!). We believed that there is nothing more worthwhile and important in life than studying Torah. We believed that all traces of modernity were forbidden. We believed that every instruction and directive that our gedolim told us was right and just. We believed that every Torah idea spoken by a respected rabbi (chareidi, of course) was true in every way. We believed that every halacha, every minhag, every detail of our lifestyle was the way it was because that's how God wanted it. We believed that Rashi's pshat was what the Torah meant to say. We believed that frum marriages were bastions of happiness and fulfillment. We believed that Modern Orthodox Jews didn't really care about what mattered in life (i.e. halacha, torah, yiras shamayim, etc.). We believed that if you wore a colored shirt, or went to college, or participated in popular culture, or didn't strive to learn in kollel for the rest of your life, or didn't adopt as many chumros as you could, well then, there was obviously some deficiency in your moral character. We believed that every word of advice our gedolim dispensed was for our well being and in our best interests. We believed that all goyim were immoral and unethical (aside from the occasional exception). We believed that the "outside world" and all that it contained was a terrible, evil place, designed to tempt and seduce us from the proper path. And most of all, we believed all this unequivocally and absolutely, without any doubt in our puny little minds.

Like I said above, these ideas might seem absurd. But they were fed to us with the conviction of absolute, unadulterated truth, and violation or contradiction of any of these implicit principles was met with condemnation on par with denying any of the explicitly stated articles of faith. No one ever contemplated challenging these precepts. (Actually, I do recall an incident where a bochur in my class openly said, "I'm not interested in learning Gemara. It's boring." From the stunned reaction of the rebbe and the collective gasp from us classmates you would have thought he just confessed to something as heinous as masturbating on a sefer torah.)

So, for me, the things that initially got me to question my beliefs were not philosophical or existential difficulties that challenged those core issues of Judaism. No, for me, what shook me up were revelations that challenged the ideas which were a part of Chareidi Judaism.

When I discovered that not all respectable Jews subscribed to everything the gedolim demanded, I was shocked beyond belief. But, but.... how could they?!
When I read books about Jewish history that told me things that didn't conform to my understanding of the past, I was terribly troubled. This couldn't be true!
When I was told that I didn't have to be a learner, I simply refused to acknowledge it at first. That's ridiculous!
When I discovered sincere and irrefutable frumkeit and yiras shamayim in those people who were condemned as "not really frum", I was shaken beyond belief. But I thought....?
When I heard a non-Jewish song that moved me in a most meaningful way, I didn't know how to process it. How could this be? Isn't it all pritzus?
When I read a non-Jewish book full of ethical and moral ideas, I was totally confused. There was only one way to explain it. He must have gotten it from us.
When I discovered that some of the niggunim (tunes) which were used to accompany our holy prayers were taken from non-Jews I was aghast. Impossible!
When I discovered that various established minhagim may well have had sources in non-Jewish practices, I was deeply disturbed. This can't be. Someone's making something up.
When I realized that gedolim have political agendas and even try to rewrite history, I was devastated.
When I saw my Rosh Yeshiva spin a Torah idea one way on Monday, then another way on Tuesday, I realized that Torah and Truth were not as synonymous as I had thought, or at the very least, Rabbis and Truth, or Rabbis and Torah, or whatever it was, I no longer even knew myself.
When I discovered Rabbis with impeccable Chareidi credentials doing and saying all sorts of things that didn't fit the stereotype of how a Chareidi Jew is supposed to behave, I was totally confused. Now who am I supposed to believe?

These and so many other revelations and experiences continued to challenge my preconceived notions. At first, I tried to resist them, dutifully maintaining the beliefs they had instilled in me. People were lying to me. Distorting the truth. I couldn't trust the people who were telling me these things. I must consult my Rosh Yeshiva so he can explain to me how to understand these things. But eventually, I could no longer withstand the mounting challenges. It was irrefutable. The truisms that I had believed to be as certain as the sunrise fell by the wayside, one after another. Over time I gradually discovered more and more that led me to realize how false this thing called Chareidi Judaism really was. The more walls that fell down, the more disingenuousness I discovered.

All this didn't immediately lead me to reject the central precepts of Judaism. Those challenges arose much later in my transition. At this point, I never even considered that the fundamentals of Judaism were in any doubt. For now, I was only discovering how specious the religion of Chareidi Judaism was. But since I equated Chareidi Judaism with real, authentic Judaism, I was deeply unsettled by these revelations.

I have no doubt that many people are reading this and getting very pissed off that I'm pointing at all these trivial and superficial notions and referring to them as central tents of Chareidi ideology. I admit that if you asked any Chareidi Jew if any of these things are really as important as belief in Torah M'Sinai, they'd think you were nuts. But actions speak louder than words. These "trivial" issues matter to people a lot. These are the things that are focused on in yeshiva. These are the ideas that the stories they tell are meant to prove. It is these issues that a person going through yeshiva thinks about when he thinks of being a proper Jew. Obvious issues like the importance of keeping halacha aren't addressed. Such things are as taken for granted as wearing pants. They don't teach why a person should keep halacha; they teach why a person shouldn't keep halacha like a MO person does. It may sound absurd, but normative Judaism is not what they teach in yeshivas, and if you think about it, of course they can't teach that, because so many of the groups whom they deplore claim to practice Judaism: MO, Tzionim, Conservative, etc. They need to distinguish themselves from those deemed unacceptable, and they do that by stressing these minor issues as significant and crucial. They may not really be the true tenets of a Chareidi Jew, but to a teen going through a Chareidi yeshiva (and to many adults who have gone through the system), they are as close to gospel as it gets.

Some people may read this and think to themselves, "That's ridiculous! So your fairy tale image of something that never existed was shattered. That's not a basis for rejecting Judaism!" I agree. All this does not claim to explain or justify why I would fully leave observance. But that was not the subject which is being addressed. What I'm doing here is answering the question of "What got me to stop believing?" That question can only be addressed when we first examine what the ideas were that I believed in so earnestly. As I explained, I believed in a mythological religion called Chareidi Judaism, which consisted of many detailed ideas, histories, figures, and practices. That's what I first stopped believing in, and it didn't take much to shatter those beliefs. Just a little reading outside the approved literature.... a few innocent meetings with people outside my frum ghetto.... some honest and unbiased questioning of assumed notions.... a little exploration outside the establishment.... once those fallacious beliefs were exposed to the light of reality, it became abundantly clear how little foundation they really had to stand upon.

34 comments:

XGH said...

Awesome writing as always. You always seem to perfectly capture the essence of whatever it is you are writing about.

Shame your hashkafas aren't as clear as your writing :p

Mis-nagid said...

That is the best post I've read in a long time. My own experience is not identical, but shares the experience of creeping disillusionment. If that's not true, then what else...

P.S.
Keep posting or I'll break your legs. Ok, send you emails, but leg breaking sounds so much cooler.

Baal Habos said...

Fantastic post.

I can't say my journey was similar at all in that I never into the full Chareidi thing, rather it was Chareidi Lite. I always felt there was not necessarily only a single path.

I wonder if this is a generational thing. When I grew up, Charedi Lite was perfectly acceptable. It was called normal.

So maybe I had a higher threshold for variability.

But at some point, I had "kashias". and it was Teiku, not doubt, just Taiku, i.e. "from a Kashia Shtarbed men nit". And then other Kashias and more Taikus. And then, with more history and science, I encountered s straw that broke the camels back.

What I don't understand from your desciption , as per your post, why aren't there thousands of Bnei Torah out there, like you, who SEE with clarity that, a mere 20 years ago, things were not always Chareidi. Silly question, I guess that's the power of indoctrination.

Burry Katz is back said...

Brilliant, as usual. Just want to add that one of the biggest lies ever told was "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews."

Wrong. It says "lo bashamayim he." The Torah is not in the heavens - it's right here. If these guys do the wrong thing, it's huge.

I think the first quote was made up by some rabbis who wanted to excuse their buddies from acting like idiots.

Harry Maryles said...

Impressive post. Great piece of writing. Mis-nagid led me here.

I really do think that your disillusionment with Charedi Judaism must be entirely separated from your disbelief in Judaism or God.

You seem to characterize your journey as somewhat of a slippery slope that could have been prevented had you not been indoctrinated by the Charedi world. I'm sure there is some truth to that, but I have to believe that the issue of Charedism is completely separate and distinct from the issue of atheism, which IIUC is what you believe today.

FWIW, I doubt there is any individual with even a modicum of intellectual honesty that hasn't struggled with issues of belief.

I do not think there is any way to conclusively prove one way or the other the truth of Judaism or God. For me it boils down to a combination of factors that have to do with intuition which admittedly is not scientific. But even if intuition does not do it for you, in my view one should err on the side of caution when it comes to believing in God. How one translates that into practice… I’m not sure.

The Hedyot said...

Thanks everyone for all the feedback.

> I really do think that your disillusionment with Charedi Judaism must be entirely separated from your disbelief in Judaism or God.

I said exactly that. From the post:

"All this didn't immediately lead me to reject the central precepts of Judaism. Those challenges arose much later in my transition....All this does not claim to explain or justify why I would fully leave observance."

>...the issue of Charedism is completely separate and distinct from the issue of atheism, which IIUC is what you believe today.

Your understanding is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I live in a very frum community. Yet, my grandchildren call me and my wife Grandpa and Grandma - not bubby and zaiiiidy !! (or even saba or savta). And my kids call me daddy not tati.

DH, This is yet another symptom of the stupid idiotic charedei belief structure.

The Hedyot said...

>This is yet another symptom of the stupid idiotic charedei belief structure.

What's the "This" that you're referring to? Having to call people by frummie sounding names and titles? I'm really not sure what your point is (since your story doesn't seem to show that to be the case), but it does remind of an incident I heard about recently: A friend of mine in Lakewood was talking to his kids and referred to his father-in-law as a baal habos. Now, this guy's father-in-law is a wonderful man, a real baal chesed, involved in the night kollel, etc. but he most definitely is what is considered a ba'al habos. Anyway, the 10 year old kid hears this and gets all upset, "Zaidy isn't a baal habos! How could you say such a thing?!" The stupid kid thinks that being a baal habos is something shameful, and insists that his grandfather is not that. He preferred to call him a yungerman, or avreich, or talmid chacham or something like that.

The worst part of it was that the grandfather found it humorous. He actually was "shepping nachas" when his son-in-law told him about it! He doesn't care that his grandson thinks of him as a lowlife, as long as the kid can fool himself by calling it something else.

How sad is that?

Anonymous said...

it's very sad. Thanks for the clairification!

The Hedyot said...

Huh? What did I clarify?

Harry Maryles said...

Your understanding is incorrect.

I'm sorry. Please accept my apologies. The title of your post seemed to imply that you are an atheist .

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

Very moving and well written. Keep up the great work.

The Hedyot said...

> The title of your post seemed to imply that you are an atheist

Why? Because I used the word Evolution? :-)

But seriously, I don't get how you can conclude that if you had read the piece, which you said you did. The whole thing was about how there are different kinds of beliefs, and the beliefs being discussed have nothing to do with God.

Harry Maryles said...

I don't get how you can conclude that if you had read the piece, which you said you did. The whole thing was about how there are different kinds of beliefs, and the beliefs being discussed have nothing to do with God.

My bad. I jumped to a conclusion that I shouldn't have. Maybe it was because Mis-nagid directed me here.

:)

Sorry.

The Hedyot said...

Apology accepted. I actually had a few more paragraphs about how many people look at belief as one whole big issue, and consider a rejection of one tenet to be a rejection of all, and that they need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the concept, that one aspect of belief does not necessarily impact others. I took them out to keep the post more on topic, but it probably would help some people to have that explained. It sounded to me like you were falling into that trap.

kanponton said...

1-We believed that all chareidi people were honest and moral.
2-We believed that the gedolim never made mistakes.
3-We believed that no respectable frum Jew would ever own a TV (let alone admit to it).
4- We believed that wearing a black hat and jacket (and white shirt) was imperative.
5- We believed that anyone who observed halacha as he was supposed to was inevitably a very happy and contended person.
6-We believed that all proper Jews throughout history believed what we did, and practiced what we did, and that going back through the generations, they all were essentially Chareidi Jews (including the Rishonim, Tannaim, Nevi'im and even the Avos).
7-We believed that all the fantastical and miraculous tales of the great rabbis of previous generations were all true (and if they didn't really happen, well, at least, they could have happened!).
8- We believed that there is nothing more worthwhile and important in life than studying Torah.
9-We believed that all traces of modernity were forbidden.
10-We believed that every instruction and directive that our gedolim told us was right and just.
11- We believed that every Torah idea spoken by a respected rabbi (chareidi, of course) was true in every way.
12- We believed that every halacha, every minhag, every detail of our lifestyle was the way it was because that's how God wanted it.
13- We believed that Rashi's pshat was what the Torah meant to say.
14-We believed that frum marriages were bastions of happiness and fulfillment.
15-We believed that Modern Orthodox Jews didn't really care about what mattered in life (i.e. halacha, torah, yiras shamayim, etc.).
16- We believed that if you wore a colored shirt, or went to college, or participated in popular culture, or didn't strive to learn in kollel for the rest of your life, or didn't adopt as many chumros as you could, well then, there was obviously some deficiency in your moral character.
17- We believed that every word of advice our gedolim dispensed was for our well being and in our best interests.
18- We believed that all goyim were immoral and unethical (aside from the occasional exception).
19- We believed that the "outside world" and all that it contained was a terrible, evil place, designed to tempt and seduce us from the proper path.
20-And most of all, we believed all this unequivocally and absolutely, without any doubt in our puny little minds.
I spent most of my adult life in chareidi yeshivos and I must say
other than #8 and more complex less caricaturized versions of 12 & 13 I don't know anyone who believes any of these things let alone all of them let alone "unequivocally and absolutely, without any doubt in our puny little minds." You are either rewriting history or you appear to have been the most naive person in the tri-state area

The Hedyot said...

> I spent most of my adult life in chareidi yeshivos and I must say....I don't know anyone who believes any of these things

What they tell a person in an adult yeshiva - which I will guess is a ba'al teshuva yeshiva (since why else were you there only as an adult?) - is way different than what they teach kids who go through the mainstream route.

Isaac Kaplan said...

kanopton: I'm with Hedyot on this one. I've been through the system, and all those beliefs have been expressed by the leaders of the yeshivos in one form or another. And as the Hedyot said, it's not always about a verbal expression of importance, but the way certain issues are treated in the yeshivos.

kanponton said...

"What they tell a person in an adult yeshiva - which I will guess is a ba'al teshuva yeshiva (since why else were you there only as an adult?) - is way different than what they teach kids who go through the mainstream route."

Perhaps I phrased that awkwardly.

"I spent most of my adult life in chareidi yeshivos and I must say
other than #8 and more complex less caricaturized versions of 12 & 13 I don't know anyone who believes any of these things let alone all of them let alone "unequivocally and absolutely, without any doubt in our puny little minds." You are either rewriting history or you appear to have been the most naive person in the tri-state area"

To clarify, I spent all of my childhood and most of my adult life in charedi yeshivos.

"kanopton: I'm with Hedyot on this one. I've been through the system, and all those beliefs have been expressed by the leaders of the yeshivos in one form or another. And as the Hedyot said, it's not always about a verbal expression of importance, but the way certain issues are treated in the yeshivos."

If you are discussing what a second grade rebbe might have said then I don't know, but second graders believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus also. "In one form or another" a hedge phrase. I believe in the tooth fairy in the form of parents putting quarters under the pillow. The beliefs listed here are not believed by virtually any haredi adults.

The Hedyot said...

Kanponton, you're welcome to register your disagreement. I stand by my statements. This is not just about what second graders believe. People believe this stuff (and are taught it) throughout their yeshiva years. I don't dispute that your experience may have been different, but there are many people who can corroborate what I describe based on their own personal experiences.

jemima said...

It's a steady drip feed indoctrination from the day one can talk, so that thinking intelligent(chareidi) adults can effortesly bypass any such doubts later on in life. Their minds simply won't travel that path.

Anonymous said...

I attended Bais Yaakov for 12 years and I agree about the complete indoctrination Da'as Hedyot discusses.

Burry Katz said...

Hedyot, I'm with you on this one.

I would also like to add, after reading through all your archives and comments that I find it amazing that so many recommend that you give Modern Orthodoxy a try. That's all well and good, but why didn't they say that years ago? Perhaps had your rabbeim said that instead of yelling at you for no hat and jacket in the street, things might be different now.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Hedyot on all 20

"ed"

Jak Black said...

I have to agree with Kanponton here. I'm not saying that there isn't a kernel of truth in some of your "Chareidi assertions." But most of them have been perverted or seriously exaggerated. Additionally, you seem to be suggesting that all of these beliefs are fundamentally ludicrous. #8, for example, can be found in many sefarim (and not just recent, Chareidi ones, heh).

At any rate, it should come as no surprise that if this is what you were actually taught, or led to believe, that you one day awoke from this lotus dream. There are plenty of Chareidi Jews who have their heads on their shoulders, understand the limitations and advantages of their brand of Judaism, and see the world and the Torah as it really is.

Anonymous said...

Impressive writing! I enjoyed reading your post, can't wait for part two! It seems to me that you write a lot about what you are not or what you don't believe in anymore. I was wondering… what do you believe in? Could it be that the reason someone understood that you are an atheist is because it is not so clear what you do believe in?

The Hedyot said...

> ...you seem to be suggesting that all of these beliefs are fundamentally ludicrous.

I wasn't actually taking a position on that. But since you asked, from where I stand now, I think many views of chareidi Jews are ludicrous, regardles of if it's in a well known sefer, said by a respected Rabbi, in the gemara, or even in the Bible.

The Hedyot said...

> Could it be that the reason someone understood that you are an atheist is because it is not so clear what you do believe in?

Sure it could be. But the person who made that assumption did it not because I was unclear. In his own words, it was based on a superficial reading of the title which was clearly reftued by a basic reading of the post.

Peleg said...

WOW!!! Someone else who sees the crazy and often foolish Charedi world the same way I do. Just because some Godol says it, I don't feel bound to do it if it seems either stupid or something beyond my abilities.

I've decided, in order to live in the frum world, to just do it my own way. I've always marched to a different drummer, anyway. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm always going to be an outsider. And a funny thing happened as soon as I made that admission - I got a lot more happy and comfortable in my skin.

At least once a month, some holier-than-thou Charedi-type berates me for carrying in Flatbush/Brooklyn. There are no less than two Eruv's around the neighborhood. Two string around town is enough to convice me that I can carry.

For a long time, I didn't carry. A few years ago, the supporters of the Eruv came out with a small book in which they clearly and completely stated their position and justifications. I was printed in Hebrew and English. Shortly thereafter, the Charedi opposition came out with a flyer, mostly in Hebrew, that I will paraphrase by saying: "We are the Golodim and we say you can't carry." No attempt to defend their position. Merely an attempt at intimidation. I think it worked for everyone... except me. That is when I decided I could carry.

I do some part-time teaching at one of those Charedi yeshivas. I teach science and math. I have been asked by the boys more than once why math and science are important. I have not been able to convince most of them that these things are as useful in life as knowing how to kasher a spoon. I try my best to open their eyes to the entire world. I hope it doesn't get me fired.

happywithhislot said...

ed
all 20 eh?
sad
even jak black and kaponton dont buy the 20. dont tell me youre frummer than them?

Rabban Gamliel said...

Chareidi Judaism as you describe it is not many decades old. My grandfather was a Gerrer Chassid. The world you describe was not his world.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering who told you that the Charedi approach was the only acceptable one. The Rebbes I had in Yeshiva had a much broader and more open minded outlook, while being commited to Torah and Halacha. Could it be that you received your indoctrination form your peers, who lack wisdom and experience, and like most young people see the world in absolute, black and white terms? My exepriences where quite similar. Could it be that your mentors where encouraging you to follow the ideal way to observe? They may very well have felt that there are other acceptable ways within the parameters of Halacha and Hashkafa? They may have presented it to you in absolute terms because that is the way to get through to a young person.

Anonymous said...

The Heraidi system works for some but not for all. You might say, well there's modern orthodox? But what a bad name. That too defines it's self against another group of Jews. Modern as opposed to old fashioned? I might feel more at comfortable with MO but I hate the name. A sect of Jews should be created that doesn't define itself against his brother. There is so much good to all sects of Judaism but one size does not fit all and if we stop defining ourselves in anger against the sects that we don't fit in and instead, create a new sect to gain strength, we can bring people to Judaism with love. And this all starts with the education system. It doesn't start with poisoning people's minds against our fellow Jews. It starts with standing out and showing how we're different. This might sound like all talk, and it is but I think most things start with an idea.

Anonymous said...

and by 'showing how we're different' that might sound also like someone defining themselves against but I don't mean that to be the core message. The core message of a new sect like this would be to 'love your fellow Jew' and although you have a different opinion, you don't shove it in their face and think you are better. You do however think that how you are living is better for you.