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!