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.