Thursday, December 20, 2007

Based on Trust

Many people have disputed my analysis in the previous post where I assert that trust is the key underlying factor for many frum people's belief in the truth of frumkeit. Here's another way of making my point:

Consider two scenarios: First one, you go over to a frum woman and tell her that her son, who she has raised all her life, is not her son. How would she react? "You're crazy! Of course he's my son."

"Well," you reply, "what about if all the roshei yeshiva and gedolim came over to you and told you that he wasn't your son. Would that change your mind at all?"

"Of course not!" she'd laugh. "I know my son is my son, and no one can change my mind about that!"

Now consider the second scenario:

Go over to a frum person and tell them that frumkeit is not true. The reaction? "You're nuts! Of course it's true!"

Now follow up with the same remark: "Well, what about if all the roshei yeshiva and gedolim came over to you and told you that it's not. That actually they don't believe in it themselves. Would that change your mind?"

The parent doesn't doubt what they know about their child, because it's solidly based on their own firm belief, and no one else's uncertainty about that idea has any bearing on that conviction.

Does anyone honestly think that a frum person would remain convinced of their belief if faced with the same challenge?

My point here is not to say that frumkeit is true or false, but rather to point out that most people's belief in its truth is based more on a trust of others than a solid recognition of its own inherent trueness.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My Investment - A Short Story

When I was around 14 years old, I came into a fairly large sum of money. I wasn't actually given access to it, but I was able to decide what should be done with it. So I figured I had to find some sort of worthy investment opportunity for my newfound riches.

I knew that the smart thing to do would be to take some time and properly research the different opportunities presented to me; to carefully examine what my financial goals were and what ventures would best meet those goals. I did briefly look into the Wall Street Journal, and picked up an Investing For Dummies book, but being the lazy kind of person I am, I ended up opting for a much simpler route. I was aware of a certain wealthy individual in the community who was known as having the keenest financial acumen ever, a fellow by the name of Dan Thompson. Everyone I knew swore that this guy was more brilliant than Warren Buffet. All my family members claimed that he was unbeatable. When I asked around a bit, there seemed to be unanimous agreement that this guy was unparalleled in the field. He had a perfect track record. He would make me rich! I couldn't go wrong! It was a sure thing!

So I figured, hey, this seems like a smart move. He's obviously trustworthy. I should look into it. But there was an aspect of this endeavor that bothered me just a bit. Strangely enough, this particular investor demanded that all the parties that were involved with him follow an unusual set of guidelines in their personal lives. He emphatically insisted that these rules enhanced and improved the viability and success of each person's investment profile. They weren't terribly difficult things to do, and the potential reward far outweighed any slight inconvenience that they might have caused, but some of them were a bit odd. For instance, he demanded that all bathmats in an investor's home be green; when an investor was dressing oneself, and putting his belt on, he had to skip over the second and fourth belt loop of his pants; all dishes that were eaten off of were required to have some green in their design. Either a stripe, or a pattern, etc. (entirely green dishes were preferred). These were all trivial things that no one seemed to mind much, but there were a few injunctions that were a bit more onerous, like the requirement that every home have the complete collection of his books (24 volumes in all!), and that investors were expected to review them regularly. Additionally, any time one traveled, he was required to bring along a copy of the complete collection. Needless to say, most of his people didn't get around much! Curiously, he also only allowed men to participate; women were not welcome in his inner circle.

But all these demands seemed rather insignificant compared to the potential return on the investment that was promised by his firm. I figured I should look into it. So I went to talk to him.

It was impressive. No doubt about it, the guy clearly was respected in his field. He had people buzzing around him, asking him advice, handing him papers, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to ask him for a quick tip. His offices were astounding, and I was thoroughly bowled over by the regal quality of his surroundings. Luckily for me, I had been granted a few moments of his precious time, and when he saw me enter, he warmly welcomed me into his office. Certificates of commendation and other honors covered his walls. Framed photos of his illustrious father and grandfather, well respected figures in the financial world, were scattered around the room. I knew his time was valuable, and so I jumped right ahead to the reason why I came:

"Mr. Thompson, I'm looking to invest in XYZ Properties, and I'd like you to clarify to me how their company works, and how my money would be invested," I explained to him.

"My dear friend," he said to me. "We could do that if you'd like. Not a problem. We can spend hours delving into the technical details of their corporate structure, going over their financial reports, and examining their stock history. But let me ask you this: Look around this room - do I look like I know what I'm doing? Do you think you can understand the system like I can? I'm sure you know that you don't have the knowledge or experience to grasp all the subtle intricacies of this issue. And you also know that this is a venture that has proven itself over time. Wouldn't it be smarter to just trust me that this is the intelligent thing to do, and let me handle things from there on out?"

Of course it was. He was absolutely right. But I was still a bit unsure about all the preconditions that came along with the deal. I asked him to explain why it was all necessary. He explained to me that it was all a very intricate and elaborate system that had been followed over the years, established by investors far wiser than he, and that by following them meticulously he had been blessed with unprecedented success. And besides, he reminded me, with the prosperity I was about to experience, did it really matter if I adjusted a few of my daily habits?

He was correct of course. This was a no-brainer. What was there to even think about? Our brief conversation was sufficient to convince me of what I needed to know. He was trustworthy. It was worthwhile. I was going to go for it. When I told him of my decision, he pulled out a stack of papers for me to sign and we sealed the deal with a handshake.

True to the assurances of all my friends, the investment was a wise one. Over time I began to see a gradual increase in my value. As my bank balance increased ever more, my reputation grew, and my popularity soared correspondingly. Life was good, and I was pleased that I had made the right decision. It was clear that going with this investment was the right one. And the little rituals that I thought would be a burden actually proved to be the opposite, as I gradually became used to them and found them to be a unique way of declaring my distinctive status as one of Thompsons' chosen associates. People even started coming to me for financial advice, and I unhesitatingly told them of this winning investment. "It's rock-solid," I explained. "XYZ Properties is the way to go. Tried and true. You can't go wrong."

At times, there did seem to be slight hiccups along the way. On rare occasions, I would see a strange discrepancy in the numbers, and I would contact Dan to ask about it. Invariably, he would allay my fears, assuring me that all was well and I should just trust that he knew what was best. He would start explaining to me about market forces, inflation rates, P/E ratios, and other incomprehensible financial concepts until I just admitted to myself that he knew what he was doing and I should just stop worrying about it all.

He truly was a great financial manager. There were times when the rules he demanded seemed to be just too much to deal with, but he would patiently explain to me how important it was to follow them all, and how they actually affected my portfolio; for instance, how the increased green in my life enhanced the flow of money in the universe to my investments. I didn't really understand it all, but he clearly knew what he was talking about, and it did seem to make sense when he explained it.

I trusted him implicitly. Even when there were a few periods where I saw my valuation drop precipitously low, I knew that it had to be some minor glitch. Sure enough, things got back to normal eventually. Those few times did make me very uncomfortable, but I was confident I was placing my trust in the right hands. Dan was taking good care of me.

Due to my newfound involvement in the financial arena, I began to read up a bit more on the topic, learning about some of the prominent figures in the industry, the insider gossip, and some of the history of the companies. It was all quite fascinating to me, and I lapped up this new fount of knowledge eagerly. And then one day I found a disturbing news item. In a deeply buried story, someone mentioned that a Dan Thompson had once been indicted for fraud. I couldn't believe it! That was impossible. The Dan Thompson I knew had impeccable credentials. I brushed it off as the angry rantings of some disgruntled foe, and promptly forgot about it.

A few months after that, I was attending a conference out of town, and struck up a conversation with a few friendly fellows sitting nearby. The conversation turned to how our fortunes had been made, and I proudly told them of my close relationship with Dan Thompson. Much to my surprise, they reacted with barely concealed shock. When I asked them to explain themselves, they told me that Dan Thompson had an infamous reputation in the investing community, and everyone knew that it was wise to stay away from him.

"But he's making me a fortune!" I exclaimed. "He's a great investor. Why should anyone stay away from him?! He's the best thing that anyone could ask for!"

"Haven't you read anything about him?" they asked me. "Haven't you heard the rumors?"

"Sure, all the time," I replied, slowly recalling that lone article I had stumbled upon. "But everything I've seen, and everyone I spoke to, seems to consider him an unqualified expert!"

"What?!" they responded in amazement. "What sort of stuff are you reading?! Who have you been talking to?"

I told them of the books and periodicals that I regularly reviewed; of the complete collection of his works that I frequently perused. And of the countless people who encouraged me to invest with him. They laughed uproariously. "Of course those people are supporting him. Don't you know that he employs a significant contingent of that community? They're either all his employees or they're just repeating the stuff everyone there says about him! And the books? They're written by his company! They'll never say anything bad about him! You're getting a totally skewed picture of reality by reading that stuff!"

"But this can't be!" I stammered. "How can everything that everyone told me about him be wrong?"

Unimpressed by my impassioned defense, they sat me down at a computer and typed in an address of a site I had never seen before. Upon entering his name in the search engine, I was returned with a long list of articles and reports. Much to my surprise, the articles seemed to be corroborating their accusations. I took a closer look. No! This couldn't be true, I thought to myself. I turned to my companions in amazement, "How can this be? Is this for real? How come I never knew about any of this? How could it be that no one ever told me about it? Is this trustworthy?!"

They looked at me with a combination of pity and sadness. "Of course you don't know about it. You're living in a different world from reality. But the rest of us are well aware of these things. And have been for ages. Look around for yourself if you don't believe us."

"But the investments - they've been successful! If all this were true, how could everything be going so well? I'm very happy with what he's done for me!"

"I find that hard to believe," said one of them. "Haven't there been some points where things didn't seem quite right to you?"

I thought back to those occasional upsets I had noticed. Yes, they had happened, but Dan had explained to me that they were nothing to be worried about.

I didn't know what to think. This was too much for me. As I returned home to the safe environs of my family and community, I tried to put these disturbing ideas out of my mind. But I couldn't forget what they had shown me. What if these allegations were true? I returned to the web site they had shown me. Page after page showed incontrovertible proof that Dan Thompson could not be trusted. I was torn. After all, he still seemed to be successfully making me money. I decided to discuss my dilemma with some fellow investors. When I revealed to them what I had discovered, they totally disregarded it.

"You can't believe what they write there!" my friends explained. "They don't know what they're talking about! They never do. They just make things up to make themselves look good, and to make people like us look bad."

"But they have proof, records, witnesses," I insisted. "How can all this be made up?"

Yet they remained unconvinced. To them it was clear that none of these accusations had a shred of credibility. How I wished I had their certainty. But unlike them, I just wasn't able to dismiss what I had stumbled upon.

Although I wasn't as confident about Dan like I used to be, I still trusted him. He had, after all, earned my loyalty, and justifiably so. Why didn't I just ask him? I knew he was an honest and straightforward person. Like in the past, when I was unsure about things, he would probably just simply explain to me why it was all nothing to worry about. So I did that. I approached him one day and mentioned one of the incidents I read about it. In his typically good natured way, he told me how it was just a misunderstanding that had eventually been straightened out. However, due to my extensive reading, I knew that wasn't quite the case, and I pointed it out to him. His manner turned colder and he started talking angrily, muttering about rivals, and enemies, and lies that people were saying about him. I turned to him calmly and explained that I trusted him and just wanted to hear the truth, as I was confident that he had a good explanation for it all. But he responded that he didn't want to talk about it, and ushered me out of the room, saying that he had an important meeting that he was late for. Needless to say, it wasn't very reassuring.

True, things didn't seem as rosy as when I had started out, but Dan was still making me money hand over fist. He was still one of the most respected individuals in the community. And as long as I was in his good graces, I still retained a distinctive cachet among my peers. Unfortunately, word had gotten out that I was looking into things I wasn't supposed to be, and I had fallen a few notches from my previous position of distinction. Additionally, I had not been attending to all the rituals like I was expected to, and people were starting to notice. They often approached me, asking why I was neglecting these important responsibilities, and I tried explaining that I just didn't seem to be enjoying them anymore. The novelty was starting to rub off and they were seeming more and more burdensome, but everyone just encouraged me to keep it up, and that I'd eventually come to appreciate their value.

On occasion, I would call Dan and mention the troublesome issues further. There were additional reports surfacing every few weeks, of newly questionable activities. Each time he'd give a brief explanation that hardly satisfied me, and when pressed further would get upset at me for pursuing the matter.

"What's wrong with you?" he'd shout at me. "Isn't it good enough what I'm doing for you? Haven't I proven my reliability to you? Do you really think you can do this job better than I?" Our relationship began to sour. I realized that I was getting nowhere and stopped asking for explanations. We eventually avoided conversation altogether. I began to skip more and more of the rituals. Word got out of our split. Unsurprisingly, in short order I found myself marginalized in the community.

And then it happened. One morning, as I was reading the financial reports, I saw that once again, my valuation had dropped to practically nothing. I was virtually broke. Almost instinctively I told myself not to worry, that this had happened before and with time the ship would right itself. But then I realized that I couldn't do that again. I didn't believe it anymore. This was the last straw. I picked up the phone and called Dan.

"Dan, please sell everything I have. I want out."

"What!?" he exclaimed in surprise. "You can't do that! You know this is just a setback. It's happened before. You've seen it yourself! C'mon, just give it some time and everything will be fine."

"No. I'm not taking any more chances with you. I don't trust you. I want out."

"How can you not trust me?! I've made more money than anyone. I've given you more than you ever dreamed of! You're making a terrible mistake! You can't do this! It's wrong!"

We went back and forth. Over and over, he insisted that this was a terrible decision. I kept explaining that it was my decision and I felt it to be the right one. I tried to spell it out for him as best I could.

"Dan, I just don't trust you anymore. Don't you understand that? There's just too many unexplained discrepancies. Too many unanswered questions. Too much questionable behavior. I just don't trust you like I used to."

"Fine, maybe I'm not trustworthy," he finally conceded, much to my surprise. "But what does that matter? The investment is a sound one. XYZ Properties is a proven winner. What difference does it make if I'm a crook or not. It's the investment that matters. Why pull out of a proven thing?!"

He made a good point. I thought about it for a while. And then the answer struck me; it was crystal clear.

"I don't know that XYZ Properties is a good thing," I explained. "In fact, I never did. I never knew more than the bare details of that company. I never invested in it because I knew it's a winner. I invested in it because I trusted you. Because I trusted that you knew what you were doing and that you were reliable. You told me it's a winner. I didn't really know that myself. It was entirely based on your word. And I trusted everyone who backed you up. They told me you were the best there was. But none of your opinions matter anymore to me. You've all proven yourselves to be dishonest, self-serving crooks. I have no reason to believe any of you when you tell me anything! You have no credibility whatsoever in my eyes."

"But XYZ is still the right choice!" Dan persisted. "Can't you see that? Can't you see how it's proven to be the truest path to success for everyone?!"

"No! I can't!" I insisted. "Why would I conclude that? Based on your say-so? I never knew it to be proven. I never really knew anything about it. Every time I wanted to know something about it, you just confused me with incomprehensible explanations and reminded me that I should just trust you!"

"But what about all those years that you believed in it as the right choice?! All those people who you encouraged to follow after you! You can't just change your mind!"

"You're not hearing me Dan. I never really deeply believed in XYZ myself, or knew much about XYZ, and truthfully, I never really cared to. I just believed in it as the right choice because it was working for me and because I trusted you. Those were the two reasons I was in it. Not because of my belief in it, but because of my trust in you and because it was benefiting me. But both those reasons are gone, Dan. I don't trust you and I don't feel it's providing me what I need. In fact, all your rules are just making my life miserable."

"But didn't you see how all the rules helped your success?! You saw it all yourself, the countless ways in which it improved your portfolio!"

"No Dan. I didn't see that. I saw you explaining things how you wanted to see them. Those rules might have helped me in some minor ways, but I don't feel that they are crucial to the portfolio in any significant way.

We kept at this for hours. He just didn't get it. He kept telling me that XYZ was right and true, and no one who invested in it would go wrong. That it would prove itself over time. That it had proven itself over history. That the rules were guaranteed to help me succeed. I kept telling him that he didn't understand how I saw the situation. Finally, when I could go on no more, I demanded the conversation be over. With a heavy heart, he agreed to return my remaining funds, and we hung up.

But it didn't end there. The next day, Dan called me up, and then the day after, and the one after that, insisting that I had made a mistake and that I should reinvest my money. We rehashed the same conversation, again and again, getting nowhere repeatedly. At one point I yelled out, "Dan, I don't care whether you say it's true or not. You're not trustworthy to me! Don't you get it!?"

"Well then, you should learn about it yourself!" he exclaimed. "You should investigate it and find out how worthwhile of an investment it is. You owe it to yourself. This company has a proven track record longer than any other. Maybe you're right not to trust what I say, but just because I'm flawed, doesn't mean the company is bad. You should only decide against them if your own investigation proves to you that they're a bad choice."

I had to concede that he had a point there. Maybe he was right. Just because he was untrustworthy didn't mean that the investment he was backing was also. Maybe I should take a closer look before I made a final decision to stay away forever. But then I realized something. He was right, XYZ might actually be a sound investment, but why should I choose it over the myriad other opportunities presented to me? From where I was standing now, XYZ Properties was as viable an investment as any of those other ventures. But it also had some major strikes against it. For one, it was closely associated with a group of people that were clearly of questionable character. But more significantly, there was a big price to pay for that investment. I had to turn my life upside down to get in on that opportunity. All those requirements ended up driving me nuts, getting in the way of my life, causing endless hassles, preventing me from pursuing other investment opportunities and overall, providing very little tangible benefit to me. And moreover, there were policies in his organization that I found fundamentally objectionable. For example, I strongly disagreed with his views on how and when I was allowed to trade with outside investors. For someone who was willing to take all that on, XYZ might indeed be a worthwhile path to pursue, but I truly did not feel I was that person.

"No," I said to Dan, finally. "You had your chance. I'm done."

"You're making a terrible mistake. You know that you'll never succeed like you can here!"

"I know you feel that way, Dan. I'm sorry."

"It's just wrong to leave," he pleaded earnestly. "No one else has the true way like we do. You have to realize that! You've got to!"

"Well, you might be right about that, but I just don't see it that way now. I'm sorry."

Suddenly his tone turned darker. "Well then, if that's how you feel, leave already. We don't need you! Take your money and invest it elsewhere. I always knew you were a bad seed, you know. Always asking questions, challenging the truth, even the first day I met you! Don't think I wasn't aware how you would skip the rules. That's what messed you up! If you had been following them properly, nothing like this would have ever happened!"

I decided I had had enough. "Dan, I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm going to go now."

He kept on going, as if he hadn't heard me. "You see, you can't deal with hearing the truth...just avoiding the issues..."

I hung up the phone slowly, hearing the last words of his diatribe abruptly silenced with the satisfying thunk of the phone returning to its cradle.

Goodbye Dan, and good luck.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What I've Become

There are a few new blogs which have appeared lately that address the issue of leaving Orthodoxy. One such blog, The Journey Off, written by someone who refers to herself as GGG (GoingGoingGone), brought up some interesting ideas related to Jewish identity. She asks, "...if not observant, what would I do on Yom Kippur? Would I fast, go to shul? Would I still have a Pesach seder and abstain from bread for a week?…what being a Jew means without the strictures of Torah. Are we still a people, a nation, a family, without that book to bind us together?"

Hearing her articulate these questions piqued my interest, not only because I used to ask them myself, but also because this past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I couldn't help noticing how much my life has changed from when I too had these questions on my mind.

This year, I didn't go to shul on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I didn't fast on YK. Aside from meeting up with some ex-frum friends on RH for a potluck dinner (devoid of any religious connotations), and talking to a friend (who is going through her own religious transition), the days had no Jewish associations whatsoever.

And you know what?

It didn't bother me! Not a whit. I didn't feel that I was missing out, or cutting myself off from my people, or being a terrible, self-hating, turning-his-back-on-his-traditions, evil, assimilated Jew. It just didn't matter to me whatsoever.

I remember when I was first stepping onto the path of irreligiosity, how my mind would contort itself to figure out a way to fit Jewish holidays and experiences into my conception of Jewish identity in a compatible and comfortable way. I still felt they were too important to just abandon entirely, so I wanted to retain them in some way that was still meaningful to me, yet devoid of their unappealing components. But I didn't want to become one of those Jews whose most Jewish part of their holiday is the food they eat on that day. To become that would be a terrible thing, I knew. I needed to hold onto their true value, in whatever meaningful way I could. I had to make sure I still cared, one way or another.

And I look at myself now, and realize, to my mild amusement, that I have turned into exactly that person whom I abhorred so vehemently. Judaism has become, more or less, pretty irrelevant for me.

And guess what? It's not so bad. In fact, it's not bad at all. Surprisingly, my life has not devolved into nihilistic anarchy. It isn't meaningless and angst-ridden. Thankfully, I have wonderful friends and many meaningful relationships, some of which have carried over from my frum days, and many of which have formed since adopting my new life. I've discovered that there is as much (if not more) genuine goodness in the dreaded "outside world" as there supposedly is in the holy and sacred enclaves of Frummieville. My life is full of enjoyable, stimulating and enriching experiences. And I even still participate in Jewish events, when the mood suits me.

I know I'm supposed to be ashamed of who I am, of what I've become. But I just can't seem to muster up the indignity. I simply don't feel any loss for not having Judaism be a significant part of my life.

This person that I was so afraid of becoming, it turns out, he really isn't so terrible after all. He still cares about doing what's right, even though he doesn't think god has anything to do with it. He still tries to cultivate meaningful relationships, even though shabbos is just another day of the week. He still tries to be ethical, even though Yom Kippur barely registers on his mental calendar. He still tries to be generous, even though he doesn't wear a yarmulke. He still cares about his fellow man (and yes, also his fellow Jews), even though he doesn't shake a lulav. He still cares about morality, even though his conception of it doesn't concern itself with covered hair and elbows. He still cares about Jews and Judaism, even though it isn't at all an active part of his life. And when he doesn't quite succeed, he vows to do better next time, even though he doesn't swing live poultry over his head. Why should this person be ashamed of themselves?

I can't answer her question of what it means to be a Jew without Torah. Actually, I don't think I even care anymore what it means to be a Jew. I just know that I want to live a good, fulfilling and meaningful life, to the best of my ability, in all it's myriad aspects. I think that, at heart, that's what most of us really want, yet we've been told that if we give up those traditional practices and values, we're forfeiting the best chance we'll ever have to such a life. So I just want to say to everyone who feels that if they stop caring about the rituals and strictures of Judaism, that their lives will descend into a morass of immorality and meaninglessness, that no matter how much of a bacon-eating, shiksa-loving, shabbos-violating, Yom Kippur-eating person you may ever become, it doesn't affect one bit how wonderful and fulfilling your life can be.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I commented at the Brookyln Wolf about some ideas that he was throwing around in regard to the frum world's approach to shidduchim. As it turns out, I just started reading The Outside World, which has quite a sarcastic take of it's own on the shidduch process. One of the things he was writing about was the idiotic way rabbis advise people to turn down prospective matches without even meeting the people involved, based on superficial and irrelevant issues, and disregarding whether the person really is a compatible match in the ways that truly matter. Not that it matters, but I think he's conflating various issues in his criticism:
1) the problem of irrelevant details mattering so much
2) the tendency to think there's only one right way for a person to be and discounting people who don't fit that picture
3) the increasingly common trend for people to defer these decisions to their rabbis.
They're all problems that are touched on by various comments that he and his readers made.

I'm not going to get into all the things I see wrong with the shidduch issue. Suffice it to say, that even when I was a believer, I had enough sense to understand how that aspect of frum society highlighted so well the many dysfunctions endemic to chareidi life. And the simple fact is that my life now is free of all those idiocies that frum society demands of its adherents, so I could care less if they continue their silly games. But when one commenter made the point that she finds it absurd that people who have had the maturity to make the monumental decision to get married are not thinking for themselves about who to marry, I felt it prudent to set the record straight:
Shoshana, you said, "...these are people who have declared themselves mature enough to be married..."

I disagree with that. Most people in the shidduch market have not declared themselves mature at all. The only reason that they are in that arena is because they've simply arrived at that stage in their life where this is what "they're supposed to be doing". You know.... went through high school, a few years of post HS beis medrash or seminary, maybe a year in Lakewood for the guy or a short stint working for the girl, and now, at the age of 19-20, it's time to get married. And just like every other decision of their life which they submitted to the dictates of their handlers (whether that be family, school, or rabbi's), this decision too is being deferred to them.

Hardly any of these people have seriously looked at themselves and asked if they understand what starting a family is about, and if they are prepared to take on that responsibility. It's just assumed that when you reach a certain age, you're ready! For these people, marriage is just the next fad in their life, to be followed shortly by having a baby...

Sorry, I don't see any maturity here whatsoever. Only reckless and shallow self-indulgence.

To just put a bit of a finer edge on my point above, Why is anyone surprised that shidduchim are being broken off for the most superficial and idiotic reasons, when actually the very decision to marry someone is probably also really based just as much on unthinking and shallow motives?

Another point - the way the rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva often look at marriage is as a solution to the problem of a guy or girl becoming too independent now that they are older. Instead of asking "Are they mature and ready for this?", the question they seek to address is, "How can we make sure they don't stray or get involved in unsavory activities now that we have less control over them?" The answer: get them married as soon as possible!
I appreciate the points made by the Wolf and his readers. Yet, as I read them all, I can't help thinking that they're actually very sad, yet unsurprisingly, also so very typical of popular frum thinking. All the attention is focused on the idiotic details after the fact (which I agree are definitely worth criticism), and they avoid scrutinizing the more serious and significant problems that are at the root of the issue itself. Sure, it's obvious the whole frum approach is flawed, and all of its myriad issues are each worthy of a post all their own: how people are rejecting (and accepting) each other based on superficial criteria; that people are allowing others to make such important and personal decisions on their behalf; how just because someone has a different hashkafa they are deemed sub-par and unworthy; how being a "learner" is the overriding criteria for so many people; that people seriously consider keeping crucial information about themselves hidden from their potential life partner; that people are rejected based on things totally unrelated to their character and often totally out of their control. Sure, that's all stuff that is problematic and in need of serious remedy.

But all of that hardly matters at all when the whole motivation for people getting married in the first place is so misplaced! Why do these sad and pathetic behaviors matter at all when they're stemming from something so much more troubling?! It's like someone going to a restaurant and being upset by the poor service when the food they're being served is a putrid glob of guck.

It amazes me that anyone is surprised at all about all these various problems of the "shidduch crisis". When the basis of the match is originating from a distorted perspective, then it's only natural that the reactions to it are going to reflect that skewed ideal! Of course the color of the shabbos tablecloths is important if getting married is just the next step to take in fitting in to the community! Sure the car they drive (or the size of the house) matters when the whole point of the match is to increase one's status in the community! And why is it so surprising for the rabbi to deem the prospective partner unfit when to him getting married is primarily a means to make sure his young charge "stays on track"? Why shouldn't the candidates misrepresent themselves if what matters more than anything is just to get married already? And of course, all those countless trivialities, the endless rules and rituals of who does what, when, where, and how, matter so much when getting married is just the latest fad they're into. Like all other fads, you have to fit in with what everyone else is doing...

When getting married is not about two people connecting, exploring each others person, loving each other, and growing continuously closer*, but rather about marrying the right person in order to put another notch in your social belt, or about how it can fit in with your rabbi's plan for your spiritual progress, or about just following the crowd and doing it because that's what everyone else does at that age, then is it any surprise that you end up with a so-called "shidduch crisis"?

The sad thing is they really do have a shidduch problem that needs to be solved. It's just that, like so much else in their world, it's a problem of their own making, and unfortunately, like so many of their other problems, will probably never be solved, since doing so necessitates taking a long and hard look at how they approach the issue, and considering that their "Torah True" approach might not be so right after all.

* Note - I'm not saying that in frum marriages people don't do all that (love each other, grow closer, etc.). I am saying that that is not WHY they get married.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A New Perspective

Far too often than I care for, I'm posed the question of "What made you become non-religious?"

Similarly, I noticed on Rabbi Horowitz's website, he has added a poll, asking basically the same question, "What is (are) the primary cause(s) of children abandoning Yiddishkeit?"

Like Hillel being asked to teach the entire Torah in a brief lesson, I believe that it's impossible to properly address that question with any simplistic answers (at least in my case). Every time I think about the matter, I uncover new dimensions of the issue that seem to shed further light on my choices, and at times, the new insights even contradict perspectives that I had previously, confounding me further.

The other day, as I was sitting in my bed, pondering this never ending quandary, it occurred to me that the discussion might be enhanced somewhat if the question was sharpened just a bit. I realized that in my case, to ask the question of what caused me to become irreligious was too vague, as there were actually two distinct categories of what led me along my path, which can be reflected in the following formulation:

1) What made me want to become non-religious?
2) What made me actually become non-religious?

The distinction highlights that there are two aspects to the process: the experiences, ideas, and emotions that make a person want to leave, and the things that actually allow the person to act on those feelings, which usually are the circumstances in the persons life changing to some degree.

I realized that when people discuss this topic they often mix up the different aspects quite a bit, and one can usually tell from which aspect they may focus on how they fundamentally view the issue.

When you hear people talking about how important it is to keep young people away from those things that might cause them to "go off the derech", what do we usually hear? Internet, college, people from different religious backgrounds, secular media, etc. But if we take a closer look, all those things don't make a person actually want to leave - they just open a door to a world that is off limits to a person. Isn't it strange that they're so afraid of opening a door? Well, it's not really so surprising, because they know very well that so many people, if given a chance to get out, would jump at the soonest opportunity. These things don't make a person want to leave, they just help them make the choice to leave. The seeds of discontent which have brought the person to this point had been lain much earlier, when they were experiencing all the unpleasantness that can be part of a religious upbringing.

So most of the frum world's (and seemingly the Gedolim's too, based on their public pronouncements) strategy against defectors is basically premised on the fact that they know that people don't want to be frum. But they figure if they lock the ghetto doors tight enough they can prevent people from leaving. Or at least keep them in until they're old enough to somehow find some rationale of their own for staying; either due to arriving at some sort of appreciation of their own for being frum, or because they are trapped due to familial and/or social obligations, or some other factor which compels them to adhere to that lifestyle even when no external pressures are present.

Yet so few leaders (if any!) ever address the real issue of why people want to get out. They just talk more and more about how crucial it is to keep people under a tighter and shorter leash, always keeping an eye out on everything that a young person might do, just in case there is some telltale sign of their potential straying. Their whole focus is on restricting access, and tightening the reins, instead of honestly examining what is so fundamentally wrong with their lifestyle that so many people want to get out of it.

I had this confirmed recently in a talk I had with a close relative. We were discussing his choices for where he was going to send his son to high school. It was quite clear to him that his son is not the serious learning type, and is more interested in basketball, music, computers, and other non-torah pursuits. To his credit, he is ok with his son being like that, but he is concerned that if he isn't in a strict torah focused environment, the kid will be at risk of ending up much less seriously religious. I told him that he should let his son go to a school that is less frummie and more accommodating of his child's natural makeup. He says that if he goes to such a school, he runs the risk of ending up less religious, and then who knows what might happen? I knew right then he was thinking of me when he said that, being that when I was a teen, I was just like his son - not interested in being serious about my torah studies, distracted by my own interests, etc. and I ended up going to a less strict yeshiva, and see where I ended up?!

What he (and so many others) just don't get is that my going to the less strict yeshiva, where I had friends from Modern Orthodox families, and where they took secular studies seriously, and where I first listened to non-Jewish music, and flirted with some local girls, and where I was allowed to thrive in a field outside of limudei kodesh, isn't what made me not frum, and it's not even what put me on the path to being not frum. All that environment did for me is to make me feel that I no longer had to hide my long suffering dissatisfactions as much. It allowed me to admit that I wanted things which were forbidden to me. And even to experience them a bit. It allowed me to connect with people who had lives like I wanted to have.

Basically, it allowed me to get in touch with all the things that my yeshiva conditioning had made me repress.

Instead of trying so hard to make me stifle something that was a genuine feeling, maybe if they had actually allowed me to express it openly, and give me an environment where that part of me was able to flourish, there would have been a chance that much of the resentment that was building up inside of me would have dissipated. I don't know, maybe. And although I doubt I ever would have really gotten into frumkeit, maybe I would have been ok with it enough that I wouldn't have felt that I had to get as far away from it as possible. Who knows?

What I do know is that no matter how hard they may have tried to prevent me from being able to leave frumkeit, deep down inside of me, nothing they ever did made me stop wanting to get out.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


A lesson from the yeshiva bochur's playbook:

1) Torah is right and true, and that fact is patently obvious to everyone who bothers to think about it.
2) So, then, how could it be that people don't follow the torah?
3) Because they simply don't care enough about doing what's right.
4) Obviously, no one wants to think of themselves as someone who doesn't care about right and wrong, so in order to let themselves sleep at night, they rationalize and say that really they believe that the torah is not at all true.
5) But of course, we all know that the torah is totally true. From here we see the amazing power of the mind to rationalize and make us change our beliefs when the heart wants to do something that it shouldn't (a.k.a. following the yetzer hara).

This is a basic fact of the world that most any yeshiva guy would be able to tell you. "It's pashut," they would tell you. Simple. And just one of the many unflattering ways in which non-religious people are portrayed in the chareidi world - unprincipled, impulsive hedonists who do whatever they want and then come up with a justification after the fact to rationalize their behavior.

Putting aside the fundamentally flawed premise that the argument rests on, I would actually agree with part of that assertion. I tend to agree that people find ingenious ways to rationalize their behavior all the time. Cognitive dissonance is probably far more prevalent in our lives than we care to acknowledge. We don't ever want to admit that something we are doing may be wrong. But despite that concession, I don't think it's fair or accurate to look at the world the way the chareidi world does.

And specifically in this regard, I think there's another approach which might actually better explain why people stop believing certain things about Judaism when they stop following halacha: It's simply that for many people, the main reason they were believing those ideas in the first place was not out of a conviction of their truth, but rather because they needed to believe in them in order to justify how they lived their lives! And now that they aren't living that lifestyle anymore, they consequently have no need to believe the ideas anymore either!

Think about it: What could possibly justify putting ourselves through the burdens and nuisances of frum life? For most people, the only thing that could really make it worth staying committed to such a demanding responsibility would be if they believe that it really matters in some larger sense. But if they stopped having that massive yoke weighing down on them, they wouldn't have to believe that all of that stuff mattered!

Imagine a person who is trapped in an unhappy relationship, with no chance of ever escaping it. Because they're stuck in it, their mind comes up with all sorts of reasons why this relationship is actually a good thing - how it provides so many benefits, why no one else can see how wonderful it is, how it's the fulfillment of all their deepest wishes, etc. They need those explanations, because without them, the reality of their life is simply too distressing to acknowledge. But if somehow, through some unexpected yet fortuitous turn of events, they managed to escape their prison, do you think they'd retain those views? Would they actually look back on that relationship with any fondness?

This perspective is actually the exact opposite of the frum explanation. They see the situation as people starting with a core belief, and from that conviction their torah observant lifestyle arises - The actions derive from the belief. The way I'm seeing it now is people being straddled with a challenging and difficult lifestyle and needing some rationalization for why they have such a demanding life -The belief is born from the actions. So, according to the frum world, when people's beliefs change in response to the lifestyle changing, it's a result of dishonest rationalizing. The way I see it, when the beliefs change to match the actions, it's actually a more honest expression of who they truly are than when they imposed those beliefs on themselves. In fact, now that I think about it, it was back when they were believing all those ideas, that they were rationalizing more than ever!

Ironic, no? Chareidim look at the rest of the world and see endless rationalizing, yet it may well be that for so many chareidim, it's their ability to rationalize that lets them get by without having to face the inconsistencies and inanities of their lives!

You know, I think they may have been a bit mistaken about something they taught us back in yeshiva: It wasn't Torah that sustained klal yisrael through the ages. It was our ability to rationalize the absurdities of our existence.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Showing Their True Colors

The Wolf recently wrote a post about a correspondence between an anonymous young fellow and a supposedly well known Rav in which the esteemed Rabbi relates his sentiments about the importance of full time learning and those who devote themselves to it. More accurately, he spells out in no uncertain terms his feelings towards those who don’t engage in it full time. Some choice excerpts:

"...there is no question in my mind that you are NOT doing that which HaShem wants you to do."
"...the truth is precisely that: you ARE sub-par!!"
"You are missing everything. I don't understand how you could believe for even a second that your lifestyle is what HaShem wants for us."

I must admit, it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything that so accurately reflects the worldview that I used to subscribe to. The whole thing was like a ride back in a time-machine for me. I could practically envision the Rabbi, standing at the front of the beis medrash, the bochurim looking up at him earnestly, and him repeatedly slamming his hand down on the shtender, shouting at us, "Those who learn one hour a day don't even know what quality in learning is all about! They don’t even know!" (Ahhhh... those were the days...)

I strongly suggest you read the full conversation here. There are so many worthwhile points to highlight from this exchange. Let’s start with the most obvious.

It should be patently clear to one and all the utter derision this rabbi has for those who do not devote themselves to learning. Now, to me, this is not news at all. Throughout the years that I spent in the black-hat world, this message was ingrained in us to a degree that we pretty much knew it was just one more incontrovertible God-given Truth. After all, isn’t it what all the gedolim and tzaddikim throughout history have done?! One can even hear in Rabbi B.’s words an almost confused tone, since he can sense that the guy wants to be a proper Torah Jew, yet the fellow just isn’t grasping something that is taken for granted by any well trained frum kid.

I’m not at all surprised that Rabbi B. is saying what he did. The reason I want to point out his statements though is not to put the focus on him, but rather to show the lie of those who deny the existence of this view. Far too often, when I’m discussing this issue with yeshivish people, they challenge me when I say that the chareidi world promotes a view that disrespects those who don’t devote themselves to learning. People deny that such a sentiment is common among the frum world, and that it is promoted in yeshivas. Well, here we have some irrefutable evidence of just how negatively they view such people. His words are dripping with contempt and condescension: "You are sub-par!", " need to think that in order to make you feel good about your lifestyle.", "Anyone who really believes really very very confused.", "You are missing everything." And let’s not forget his blasé disregard for women: "Don’t worry, most girls don’t understand a word about what I am speaking." Actually, what’s even more revealing to me than the content of his words is his tone. He fires off insult after insult, without even a pretense of being remorseful or apologetic. I suspect that he does so not because he’s an insensitive boor, but because he simply doesn’t even realize that he’s being offensive. To him, it’s obvious: some people are less than others - why should anyone have to apologize for stating what’s plainly obvious? His tone shows just how much he takes for granted that his views are immutable truth.

Once again, I don’t want to point at this rabbi as particularly culpable in this regard. I heard these sentiments expressed in such manner over and over by every single rebbe and rosh yeshiva I ever encountered during my years in the yeshivish world. It’s how it’s done in that world, at every level, from the earliest days of kids in cheder to the private chizuk-talks yungerman are given by their roshei yeshiva. This Rabbi is not the least bit unique. As one of the commenter’s said, "...where i live this is the hashkafah of the vast majority of the schools. in terms of high schools specifically, i think we are talking 90% or more (with perhaps some minor variations on the overall theme of the sentiments)."

And herein lies the hypocrisy. Because don’t these same people also endlessly moan about the "crisis" of people who "go off the derech"? Don’t they constantly write and talk about how we need to figure out and understand the causes of why someone would want to leave the frum world? (It’s the Internet. No, it’s movies. Maybe it’s the year in Israel. It’s probably all the sexual imagery nowadays. Could be it’s exposure to secular studies. No, no. It's because he eats chalav stam.) Is it really so hard to figure out? How can anyone in good conscience be surprised that someone would want to leave a society in which they are deemed sub-par?! How can this rabbi - and all those in the yeshivish world who subscribe to this view - honestly claim that they are bothered by the trend of people leaving frumkeit, when they are actively fostering a societal attitude that is pushing them out?

Of course, what I’m pointing out here is not anything new. Much ink has been spilled by people who acknowledge how harmful this view is. But what I want to know is, how does this Rabbi reconcile his stated view with the idea that he wouldn’t want to do anything that would push people away from being frum? Does he not realize what he’s saying? And more importantly - will those figures who claim to be working to solve the problem of "kids-at-risk", directly speak out against this Rabbi? Will they challenge him? Will they demand that those gedolim who he claims support his position explain how they can defend such a view?

Another interesting thing to bring attention to in this exchange is the fellow who is writing to this rabbi. I can’t help wondering, why is the guy even talking to this rabbi? He clearly subscribes to a different world view. He obviously feels that it’s ok not to be in full time learning. That he isn’t less valued, or judged somewhat deficiently in how he lives his life. So why is he looking to convince the rabbi of his view? If he’s confident in his position that he’s still a valued and respected Jew even while he’s not learning as much as Rabbi B says he should, why not just shake his head in amusement at the silly fanatic rabbi, and just go about his merry way?

As I read through the fellow’s replies, I found myself recognizing myself in his words. People often ask me, when I write about how the strictures and conformity of the society I came from contributed to me leaving the chareidi world, "But why did you have to go all the way? Why couldn’t you just have become a bit more moderate and join a Modern-Orthodox community?" It’s definitely a valid question. The truth is that I did live in the MO world for a few years. But throughout all my time there, I never could really get myself to believe in it the way I believed in the Chareidi worldview. (I don’t think it was because of any deficiencies in that particular system, but rather because of the tight grip the Chareidi world still had on my consciousness.) I liked that society, and I had rabbis and friends and even some family telling me that how I lived was perfectly acceptable, that I didn’t have to judge myself by the standards of my former peers, yet it seemed that I still looked towards my former world for validation. Like this sad letter-writer, I was living in a world that had one set of values, but I couldn’t give up on the idea that I should still be respected by those who judged me by a different set of values. I mistakenly believed that we both could see eye to eye.

In fact, the reality was that it wasn’t all just in my head. It wasn't just I that was looking over my shoulder to my former society. It was also them who were actively telling me to "come back." I had many encounters where people would usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, make some remark that expressed their disapproval for the life I was living. On the one hand, it would seem that I was outside of their sphere of influence, yet they were often still deliberately attempting to reach in and try to regain their hold on me. Like this Rabbi B. who tells his correspondent (who clearly lives by a different set of rules) how he can’t possibly be living the life that Hashem wants of him, I heard many of those messages from my family and acquaintances as they tried to impress upon me how mistaken my lifestyle was. (I find it especially ironic now, since some of those same people who were telling me then how I shouldn’t be MO because it’s so wrong, are now trying to convince me to adopt a MO religious lifestyle.)

It was only later in life that I realized how all this was actually an early step in my evolution out of the frum world. I was subconsciously realizing that as long as I was still frum, I would never stop judging myself by their standards. And by those standards, I would simply never be good enough. If I ever wanted to respect myself in a real way, I’d have to drastically adjust the basis of my values in a very fundamental way.

I think that this fellow, and so many others like him, do not quite realize the dilemma that they are facing. They think that there is one basic community with essentially a common message, and that they should be able, for the most part, to fit in comfortably anywhere within that nebulous society known as The Torah World. This is the mistake he is making. He doesn’t realize that Rabbi B. regards his view of "Torah Living" as only slightly less bastardized than how he himself would think of a Jews for Jesus adherent’s take on that same concept.

Wake up and smell the coffee, people! You’re not all on the same team! Didn't you learn anything from Slifkin?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Doing Your Own Thing

Back when I was religious, and struggling to fit into the frum worlds norms and mores, I would have many discussions with people about the problems that I saw and the difficulties I had in fitting into that society. Very often, people would say to me, "So don’t worry about what society does. Do you own thing!" Similarly, during the years that I lived in the Modern-Orthodox community, I was constantly judging myself by the standards of the chareidi world. When I spoke to people about this tension, they would say to me, "You shouldn’t judge yourself by what others think! Do what you think is right!"

As much as the idea appealed to me, I never really could take it too seriously. I used to think that was because I just didn’t have the backbone to be so independent. That might have been partly true, but another way to look at it (although I didn’t realize it at the time, and I doubt that those people who gave me that advice realized it themselves - since they were quite religious themselves) is that the idea of "doing your own thing" actually goes against one of the basic tenets of what my frum upbringing had taught me: The community (i.e. the torah, God, etc) sets the rules, not you. You can’t just do what you think is right, you have to follow the torah. If, back when I was in yeshiva, I had ever responded to my rebbe’s insistence that I observe some halacha with, "No, I truly don’t think it’s right, and I should do what I think is right!" rest assured, it wouldn’t have gotten me very far. Of course, it was understood that whenever people gave me such advice, they meant for me to stay in the realm of what halacha considers acceptable and that I should have chosen an option from within that spectrum of choices. But even within that range, the idea contradicted something much more fundamental: It suggested that I could somehow make a decision for myself in regards to my life, when all along I had been taught that I had to follow the advice of my rabbeim, or the gedolim, or da’as torah, or whoever it was, since they obviously knew much better than I did what was right for me. I suppose that if I had possessed any critical thinking skills at the time, I would have responded with, "No, I’m not allowed to do what I think is right! I have to do what my rabbeim tell me is right!" Of course, if they had possessed any of those same critical thinking skills, they probably wouldn’t have made the suggestion in the first place. (I guess it’s just one more example of the dual and contradictory messages that the frum world sends out, yet which very few people actually pick up on.)

The real irony is that, when you think about it, I actually did end up taking that advice very seriously! I do live my life now by what I think is right and not what other people tell me is right. Yet, I have yet to meet a frum person who thinks that’s ok!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Four Sons

What does The Wise Son say?

I love Yiddishkeit! It's so inspiring! It's so meaningful! It's so beautiful! And most of all - it's so true! There is nothing more wonderful than knowing that everything we do in our lives, from the trivial to the most significant, is according to the traditions of our ancestors, handed down to us through the ages. Even when there is no tradition about an aspect of life, we know that we can follow the example of our gedolim, and look to their behavior as a guide for how we should live our lives. And to top it off, what is most incredible about our brilliant Torah way of life, is that we have an internal checks-and-balances system, so that if the community considers any activity or idea inappropriate, even if expressed by a respected Rav, we have built-in ways to reconcile the conflict. For example, we sometimes resolve such difficulties by explaining that only certain people (on very high spiritual levels) are able to have such ideas, or behave in such ways. The rest of us, who aren't on such high levels, must follow the established practice. It makes total sense.

We learn this idea from Avraham Avinu. As we all know, Avraham was the forefather of our nation, and since it's well established that "maisa avos siman l'banim" (the actions of the fathers are signs for the sons), we try to learn as much as possible from the life of Avraham, in order to instruct us how to live our lives. But doesn't the midrash teach us that Avraham came to a recognition of God through carefully examining nature and reality and using his incredibly sharp, gemara-honed, critical thinking abilities to conclude that there must be a Divine Creator? And didn't he end up challenging the established idol-worshipping religious authorities in his time? Wouldn't that mean that we should also try to look at life with the tools we have and carefully examine any evidence we have regardless of where it might lead us? Yes, one might think that, but they'd be sadly mistaken. Because the torah also teaches us that "niskatnu hadoros" - the generations have degraded over time (also known as "They were great enough to do that. But we aren't.") We can't compare our puny imperfect selves to the righteousness that was Avraham Avinu. Only Avraham was great enough to use his intellectual faculties to explore reality in the way he did. We, unfortunately, are not great enough to think about such things in that way. Only Avraham had the right to take a personal stand when it went against the popular view. Only Avraham was allowed to challenge God when he felt that God was telling him to do something that went against his personal sense of justice (like we see at Sodom). The rest of us are obviously not at the level of Avraham and must learn to ignore the protests of our conscience when they go against what God (i.e. the torah (i.e. the rabbis (i.e. halacha))) tells us to do.

We see from all this that we must be careful in how we learn lessons from our leaders. When the example of the leader fits our accepted tradition of what's true and proper, then we can be sure that the gadol is leading us properly, and we must follow him exactly as his da'as torah instructs us. However, when the gadol is doing something that we know isn't what should be done, we must realize that only he is able to do such exceptional things, because of his unique spiritual level, just like Avraham Avinu. Only his distinctive ability to understand the true nature of what Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants of us grants him this ability to be different in this rare situation. The rest of us, as we all know, are not on such a high level, and should never be so arrogant to think that we too can behave thusly.

This is the beauty and wisdom of Torah living! Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkelinu!


What does The Wicked Son say?

Isn't this all a bit dishonest? I don't get it. You say you follow your gedolim, and listen to whatever they say, but you only seem to do so when it's convenient for you, when it fits into how you would like things to be. When the gadol's behavior or ideas doesn't fit with your preconceived notions of how things should be, then you pull out some convenient saying or concept to explain why their example is an exception and need not be followed: "Hora'as Sha", "niskatnu hadoros", "it's a minority opinion", "eis la'asos", "yesh al mi lismoch", "minhag yisroel torah", whatever it is, there's always something you can rely on to write off the opinions and examples that you'd prefer to avoid following. There always seems to be some idea which you can apply to the circumstance to produce the result that you want and still claim a fealty to torah concepts. You clearly have a set way that you want to be, and despite your claim of faithfully following what your leaders ask of you, your loyalty is to your own interests. I'm sorry, I know this doesn't sound kind, but it's honestly how I see it. What, you want me to muzzle myself because that doesn't sound reverent enough? I'm not trying to be disrespectful. I'm trying to be honest. Don't you want my honest opinion? Isn't speaking ones true opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be, a worthwhile value?


What does The Simple Son say?

Yeah, sure I love Yiddishkeit. It's wonderful knowing that we're living our lives properly, acting according to Hashem's will. Yeah, it's true, sometimes the things we're supposed to do don't really seem so appropriate to me, but that's ok, because whenever I speak to my Rebbe, he shows me just how to make sense of it all. It's my fault actually. I get confused too easily. Because I don't try hard enough in gemara class. After all, doesn't the gemara say, "If you didn't succeed, you must not have really tried hard enough!" So, I know I'm just not at the level to always understand things properly. Like, the other day, when I learned in yeshiva how we should always follow the example of our gedolim, and I decided to try to be just like Rav Levi Yukelovich who I had just read was always friendly to people on the street (I read it in the new Artscroll biography about him). I figured, hey, that's a good thing to do, I like people, why not? So the other day when I was on the bus going to yeshiva, I decided to chat with the shvartza woman sitting near me. She seemed nice and was reading a book I had heard about so I asked her about it. We had a brief but pleasant conversation about it, and I thought I had just done a pretty cool thing, but later on that day, Rav Shmuel, the principal, called me into his office to talk to me about it. I'm not sure how he knew about it, but I think I noticed Chaim Yankel Friedman was on the bus too and he must have said something. Anyway, Rav Shmuel explained to me that I shouldn't be talking to goyim, ever; that it was best if I didn't even look at them. I asked him why, and he told me that they could be a bad influence on me. When I told him that that couldn't be true because the book said that Rav Levi talked to strangers all the time, he explained to me that I had misunderstood what the book meant. First of all, he explained to me, Rav Levi probably only talked to strangers who were frum Yidden. (That made sense. I'm not sure why I didn't think of that.) And additionally, he said, Rav Levi only did this sort of thing when he was older and could protect himself from their negative influence, not when he was only a young yeshiva bochur. Back when he was my age, he no doubt only spoke to people from his frum neighborhood. You see, this is why it's important to have a rebbe who you're close to, so he can explain to you when you're not understanding things right. It's so important. And afterwards, when I asked the principal why Rav Levi would have to protect himself from the negative influences of strangers, if they were anyway frum Yidden, he told me that if I would only try as hard to understand Rashi and Tosfos like I do his own words, I would most definitely be at the top of my class, so why was I being lazy all the time? He's right, I guess I am lazy. That's another reason to have a close rebbe, so he can always encourage you to try harder and strive for gadlus. Like Rav Levi Yukelovich.


What does The Son Who Does Not Ask say?

He doesn't say anything, just sits there quietly, thinking to himself, watching those around him, trying to make some sense of the contradictory rhetoric that he hears from everyone around him. Should he speak up? Last time he chimed in, his brother reprimanded him for not speaking with the proper respect. How was he supposed to know that you have to refer to the rabbi a certain way?! He was just trying to make sense of the man's commentary. Oops, did it again! Can't say that! It's not just "some man's commentary" - it's "the heilege Ramban"! Well, he didn't care who the guy was, the explanation just didn't seem to ring true to him. And the other time he spoke up, he wasn't trying to take a position, but his other brother pounced on him for being so gullible. Why is he so cynical anyway? All he did was mention how he liked the way the writer explained the issue from a psychological perspective and his brother laughed at him for taking things so literally. Geez! Why say anything that's in his head anyway, he thinks to himself. He knows that to really be accepted, he'll have to toe the party line anyway and stifle the thoughts that are really running through his head. If he really expressed himself, he's be thrown out of yeshiva for saying the things he believes, so why should he risk opening his mouth? Better to stay low, pretend to everyone like he's fully on board and bide his time until he's free to make his own choices. Of course, he's aware that course of action might not work out so well either, as evidenced by the recent goings-on with his friend Moishy. He grimaces inwardly as he reminded himself about that recent fiasco. Moishy's brother had just started attending college in the city. Now Moishy's sister was having shidduch problems and Moishy's father had started going to another shul. "Why'd his idiot brother have to go ahead and do that?!" he thinks to himself. "Now my family is always whispering about the Schwartz's and I'm not allowed to hang out with my best friend anymore." Selfish bastard. "Why can't his stupid brother just suck it up and go along with the routine like everyone else does? If I can fake it my whole life, and keep my mouth shut about what I really think, why couldn't he?"

"Yes," he thinks to himself. "Better not to speak up at all," he concludes, as he nods along politely while his family continues their discussion.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Exit Interview

In Rabbi Horowitz's latest article he writes about the concept of the "Exit Interview". Overall, I think it's a worthwhile read. After going over it, I found myself thinking more and more about this concept of the Exit Interview, and after some time, it made me figure out something that's been bothering me for a really long time.

The analogy of the exit interview is a truly excellent one. Because an institution that truly cared about improving itself would eagerly want to do such a thing, and they'd want to be brutally honest about it. And it wouldn't be afraid to face the flaws that such an inquiry might reveal about itself. Frum society likes to think that it does these sort of exercises. When a problem finally becomes big enough that the public starts grumbling about it and the leadership can no longer ignore (or deny) it, that's when we usually start to see some sort of activity. Articles start being printed. The issue gets talked about at conventions. Organizations start. Studies are done. Reports are published. Experts are trotted out. Panels are held. Tehillim starts being said for it. And you know that it really has their full attention when it's pronounced "a crisis".

It's all crap, in my opinion. It's a farce. It's all just empty gestures. Ok, not totally empty, but not anything worth applauding. Because no one really is seriously responding to, admitting to, and most definitely not addressing any real issues. If we pictured some actual "Exit Interviews" at a real company that were conducted similarly to how the frum world responds, I imagine they would look something like the following exchanges:

Company Representative: Please tell us what we're doing wrong.
Former Customer: I think your service sucks.
CR: What are you talking about?! Our service is the best. If you don't like it, you're obviously the one with the problem, not us! Can't you see how many satisfied customers we have!

CR: Why are you leaving our company?
FC: Your service doesn't provide anything of value to me.
CR: What do you mean no value? How can you say that? You're just not using it properly!
FC: Maybe not. But I tried it for 10 years and it didn't do squat. I think that's enough time to try something.
CR: No, you're just not doing it right! Stick around and we'll show you how to really do it. You just need to try harder!

CR: Why are you going to our competitor?
FC: They offer me much more of what I'm looking for.
CR: No, you're mistaken. They're lying to you. We're really the best. We're the only ones that matter! If you go to them, you're going to regret it terribly.
FC: Are you kidding me? Look how many successful people are with them!
No, it's all a lie. They're not really successful! Our people are the only ones who have real success! Really!

Tell us why you're leaving our company.
FC: I found your representatives insulting, abusive, manipulative, obnoxious, and all around offensive.
CR: No, that can't be. You're just leaving because you're angry.

CR: Tell us why you're leaving our company.
FC: I'm leaving because I'm angry with you! You people don't respect me, you ignore my needs, and you make my life miserable!
CR: Oh, please! You sound like you have some emotional problems you need to deal with. Stop blaming us for your problems.

CR: Tell us why you're leaving our company.
FC: I find that you're not meeting my emotional needs.
CR: It doesn't matter how you feel! We're the only ones who are based on truth! And we've been around the longest! You have to stick with what's proven, and not go with what the latest popular fad is.

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: I think you're business model is a crock of sh*t and founded on a pack of lies. Totally unsustainable.
CR: No, you're really just angry. You were probably abused. You know, it's just dishonest to try to rationalize your emotional reactions with intellectual justifications. What's really going on is that you're not prepared to make a commitment.

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: Your company abused its customers, lied to the public, and covered it up for years!
CR: Impossible! You're making that up!
FC: It's not impossible. And it's true.
CR: You're always looking to bad-mouth us! Don't you know how much good we do?!

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: I find your company out of touch with its customers. You don't know what the hell is going on in today's market. And your executives are totally misinformed about how things are running in the company.
CR: What?! How can you say that!? Do you know who our CEO is?! Do you know how many degrees he has?! Do you know how many billions of dollars he's amassed?! He'll make more money in one minute than you'll ever make in your lifetime. Who do you think you are to question our executives? Misinformed?! Our board knows more about the market than anyone else out there! You have no idea how many connections they have and how much they do behind the scenes! It only looks like they're not doing much because they try to stay out of the public eye. But really, they're the ones holding it all together! You have no idea!

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: Why am I leaving you? I've been trying to tell you for years why I want to get out. I just never had the opportunity or the guts! You've never listened to a word I've said!
CR: You're acting impulsively! Come, have some kugel and we'll talk about it. Can't you see how concerned we are for you?
FC: Oh, now you're concerned?! That's really convincing! If you were really concerned, how could you have let things gotten to where they are now!? Don't you see how screwed up everything is!?
CR: Oh, please, stop exaggerating. It's not that bad!

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: You obviously don't value your customers. You treat us like children. You try to control every aspect of our relationship!
CR: You misunderstand. We truly do value you. But we know that our way is really the best way for you. Trust us. We know what's best for you. We're just trying to look out for your best interests.

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: How can I possibly stay with you? Your clearly do not have my best interests at heart.
CR: No, we truly do care about you. We care about every customer. You wouldn't believe it, but our executives cry themselves to sleep trying to figure out the best way to serve you! We promise!
FC: Really? Then how come I lost all my money when I followed their advice?

CR: Why are you leaving us?
FC: To be honest, I just can't keep up. You're standards are just too demanding for me. I'd like something a bit easier to handle.
CR: Well, our standards are absolute. We don't bend just because someone can't handle it. Either you keep up, or maybe you really should be finding someplace else.

CR: Why are you switching to a different group in the company?
FC: Well, I found a different group where I feel much more comfortable. In fact, I'm glad I didn't have to leave the company entirely, I want to stay with your company, but your department's style and standards weren't a good match for me. Now, I'm still in the company, but without the discomfort I had prior.
CR: No way! You're not serious, are you?! That division sucks! They don't know what they're doing! They're just pretending! Believe us, its not worth investing in that group. Those guys are idiots! And you've got to be an idiot to join up with them!

Yes, they're parodies, and exaggerated (but only slightly). But they all illustrate how the frum world just doesn't really understand what this process is supposed to be about. They say they want to know, but then they just defend themselves. This isn't what listening is supposed to be about. They're mouthing the words, "We care", but their body language and tone very clearly says, "Go screw yourself." And when faced with real issues, they just keep on denying it in some way.

Yeah, the frum world likes to think they go through lots of "soul searching." And to their credit they actually have finally come to grips with some of the serious problems in their society. But they never really want to admit the real problems. They won't admit how it was some of their society's values and the insistence that their lifestyle is the ultimate, the perfect, the God-ordained lifestyle and society, that caused those problems to become so pervasive.

You can't pat yourself on the back for saying "Oy! There's sexual abuse in the community!" when you were the ones preventing anything from being done about sexual abuse for decades! Your act of "coming clean" about that abuse might be admirable, but it just deflects from the much more deeply rooted problem that you were a society that allowed child molesters to get away with their shit for decades! (And still do!)

I remember ten years ago when they first raised the issue of how kids were dropping out of yeshiva. And all the articles, and all the experts, and of course all the Gedolim (well, some of them), concluded then that there needs to be more remedial learning, and people shouldn't be held to such high standards, and that they need to give everyone a chance to become a successful learner, not just the smarter guys. So they started new programs. And they adjusted curriculums. They were so proud of themselves for all they were doing, their Jewish Observer Special Editions, and their panels, and their "tackling the issues", and I was just disgusted by it all, because never at any point did someone say, "Hey, instead of all that crap, maybe we should just stop teaching our children that they have to be learners to have value in our society?" The real problem was never addressed, never raised, never even mentioned. And from what I can tell they still haven't seriously said that. (But there are more people realizing it, thankfully.) But of course they won't look at the real, underlying issue, because that would mean they'd have to reexamine one of their core values and see if it really is working for them like a Torah True(TM) value is supposed to.

Besides for all that avoidance of looking at the deeper issues, there is still so much denial about problems even when they're being spoken about outright. People just don't listen to what is being said. The following exchange actually happens all the time:

Yeshiva Guy: I really don't believe in God, Judaism, Torah, all of it.
Rabbi: No, you don't know what you're talking about. You just want to have sex.

When you're in the frum world, you're taught how to see the world, how to see life, how to see people, how to process and understand all that you may encounter. And no matter what others tell you, about themselves, about their choices, about their experiences, about their values - if you've been properly indoctrinated, you know better than them. After all, you're frum. You have the Torah perspective. You have the Gedolim. You have Da'as Torah informing you. How could they possibly know more about life than you. You have the Shulchan Aruch guiding you. Those other people have nothing, only MTV and the Internet. How sad for them. And they don't even know it!

That's why this whole pretense of doing an exit interview, of being self-critical and truly looking at why people are leaving is just a farce. Because the frum world never really thinks there's anything wrong with their system. They believe their system is Torah True, through and through. It's the system God wants there to be. It's the system frum yidden have been living by for the past 3000 years! It's the system guided by generations of gedolim going back to Moshe Rabbeinu! There are no flaws in God's system. Yes, they acknowledge, at times things might not be working out exactly right. But that's not a problem with the system. That's only a problem in the implementation. Somewhere, at some juncture, we're just not doing something exactly right, and we'll investigate that, but the system is as sound as ever!

That's not a true self-examination. That isn't honesty. That's just an infantile way to make yourself feel like you're doing something to better yourself while allowing yourself to maintain the fantasy that everything about your life is just fine.

You're all so full of it.


PS - I invite the readers to submit their own interview exchanges.