Monday, November 24, 2008

It's Not Just Individuals - It's The Community

Oftentimes in my life, when people discover that I used to be religious, they inquire as to why I chose to leave that lifestyle behind me. When I first encountered people asking me this, I would try to explain that the choice I made was a very personal one, based on what I concluded was right for me specifically, and that my decision wasn't intended to make a statement about the objective truth of Judaism in general. It's not that theological and ideological arguments didn't play a contributing part - they most definitely did, in that they significantly loosened the grip which my fundamentalist upbringing had held me in. And it's not that I was oblivious to all the scholarship (from science, history, biblical scholarship, and other fields) which challenged the veracity of Orthodox Judaism. While I never did get too involved in those discussions, I was well aware of how powerfully they undermined many of the foundations of Orthodoxy. But more importantly, I knew myself, and I knew that what was really motivating me was the particular social and psychological needs which I was facing in my life. Orthodoxy was doing nothing for me (intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and in other ways) and even worse, I felt it was actively crippling me, by forcing me to subscribe to a lifestyle and value system which I didn't believe in at all.

So when someone would assume from my decision that it was an indictment of Orthodoxy as a whole, I would go out of my way to correct the mistaken impression. I would try to make it clear that while I was most definitely critical of aspects of that world, the community as a whole was not deserving of condemnation and that there were still many Orthodox people who I wholeheartedly respected (well, maybe "a few" is more accurate). But to presume that I was critical of Orthodoxy as a whole was an assumption that was not justified.

However, these days, when faced with this question of "Why am I not religious?" I find myself frequently questioning this approach I had previously settled upon. While it's obvious that the motivations for my choice couldn't have retroactively changed, the simple fact is that I am finding myself less and less able to look at the chareidi community that I came from and be able to describe it as anything other than a corrupt, dysfunctional, and totally unhealthy environment to be a part of.

The many recent indiscretions, dysfunctions, and outright misdeeds of individuals within the Orthodox community have been well documented in the media: Hundreds of sexual abuse cases being reported, including many by rabbis and principals (Kolko, Mondrowitz, Weingarten, Beis Yakov Principal, Satmar Principal in Williamsburg, West Bank Rabbi, Baltimore Rabbi), acid and bleach thrown at those not dressing modestly enough, beatings by modesty squads, attacking women who sit in the front of the bus, tax fraud by Hassidic Rebbes, infants killed by abusive fathers, indictments at glatt kosher slaughterhouses, eviction threats because of not being frum enough, etc., etc. I can keep on going, but I think the picture is clear. There's a lot of ugliness to be found within the chareidi community. A hell of a lot. This is way more than just a few isolated incidents.

However, despite the fact that these stories are appearing with ever increasing frequency, I don't think that these incidents are truly representative of the entire community. They are unfortunately more than just a few people, but I don't think that these sorts of extremely awful behaviors are actually widespread in the frum community. And I honestly don't think it's fair to tar the whole community with the transgressions of a small minority who make the rest of the community look bad.

The thing is though, that small minority of deviants aren't the reason that I think so negatively of the community as a whole. If it was only these incidents, I probably wouldn't be as critical as I am of the frum world. Rather, what fills me with such a repugnance is the behavior of the entire community itself, specifically in how it reacts to the many truly awful crimes happening in their midst.

For example, let's look at the child molestation issue: It's not just that there are child molesters in the community. Yes, that's awful, but as bad as it is, I'd concede that it's not more than a tiny percentage of the community, and I wouldn't judge the whole community based on just that. But what isn't a tiny percentage is the number of people who willfully and knowingly hamper efforts to bring these molesters to justice. What isn't a small number is the amount of people who would prefer to let these criminals remain free rather than risk sullying the reputation of their venerated institutions. When a community as a whole allows such crimes to go unpunished and penalizes those who are trying to help innocent children, they can no longer hide behind the defense of "it's just a few lone individuals". At that point the community is also guilty. When the leadership (both rabbinic and lay) which the community looks up to is continuously silent on such a grave matter, it is a clear indication of where the community's priorities are. When a community leader publicly admits that he has knowledge of hundreds of abuse cases, and yet his constituents prefer him to keep it all away from the police, the community has then become complicit in the crimes. When everyone cares more about what their neighbor is going to say about them, or their children's shidduch chances, or what yeshiva their kids will get into, or about being shunned by their friends (all commonly heard excuses for why no one wants to step up to the plate on any of these issues) - when they care more about all that than they do actually solving the problem, they're saying that they care more about maintaining the community's standards than doing what is right and just. That it's better to keep these things quiet. This is why I can no longer look at the chareidi world with even a modicum of respect. The community as a whole has clearly expressed that they place the reputation of their society, and their place in that society, above the well being of their own children. How can anyone not be disgusted by such a society?

If the community truly cared, then it wouldn't ostracize people who try to bring the criminals to justice. If the community cared, a chassidish family wouldn't be afraid to tell the police who raped their 14 year old daughter. If the community cared it wouldn't stand behind and support a man convicted of killing his own baby (UTJ Knesset member Meir Porush called him a "good, quiet and disciplined" young man). If the community really cared, people wouldn't have to continuously be ashamed to report abuse to the police.

When last year, a chassidish man was found to be selling the Monsey community non-kosher chicken, the community showed how much they cared. The man and his family were run out of the community, in shame and in fear for his life. The community showed what they cared about then. And when the community allows accused child molesters to peaceably remain a part of their community, but those who try to help victims are harassed and attacked, they make it even clearer to the world what they care about. When a frum politician is able to back down on a promise to stop a molester from teaching kids, and no one demands that he keep his word, it shows where the community's concerns lie. When the rabbonim get more worked up about "illicit" music and "heretical" books than they do about yeshivas harboring molesters they reveal to us just what matters most to them.

This is why I have become so absolutely and utterly disgusted with the frum community as a whole. It is no longer just individuals committing these crimes. It is also the general public, and the leadership, which is responsible for allowing these horrible injustices to be perpetrated. It is the community and rabbis which turn a blind eye (or worse) towards these indiscretions. Their inaction, and relative silence (aside from a few vocal and brave activists), is a shocking admission of where their priorities truly lie. Their unwillingness to step up, and yes - risk condemnation and possible political fallout - is a clear indication of what the community values. If your community is going to condemn you for bringing a criminal to justice, isn't the community unambiguously saying that they prefer to protect criminals? Aren't they also then complicit in their crimes?

Admittedly, I know that there are many individuals in the community who are as horrified and sickened by all this as much as I am. Probably more so. But then why don't you speak up? I know the answer to that - because it's too costly for you. You will be shunned, ostracized, maybe even worse. I understand that. But how can you not be ashamed of yourself? With your silence, you are making a choice, a choice to be part of a society that prefers to let some of the very worst crimes of humanity - rape, violence, murder, abuse - go unpunished.

How can any self-respecting person - let alone one who considers themselves spiritual and religiously principled - stand to be a part of this world?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Some interesting links tying together science and religion

I'm too lazy to write up a whole post, so I'm giving you some interesting articles (tangentially related to religion) to read over instead. Enjoy!
  • Research indicates that people who find themselves losing control tend to develop superstitions and to find patterns in random things (think images of deities in grilled cheese). It's a subscriber-only article, but you can read a synopsis here.

  • A biologist reviews an evolution textbook from the Intelligent Design camp. I wonder if evolution can still be considered "only" a theory if it is actually witnessed. Because that's what this article discusses actually happened recently - evolution caught in action!
  • For many people, facts don't matter as much as ideology (PDF article). You can read a summary of that here. This should be fairly obvious to anyone who followed the discussions at XGH, no?

  • This research examines the developmental roots of fairness and altruism. Summary here. On the other hand, here's a study which show that those who believe in an all-seeing god might be nicer than those who don't.

  • These guys demonstrate that the concept of a dirty sin might not just be metaphorical.

  • Researchers at Oxford University have discovered that believers in religion can draw upon their faith to endure suffering. Interestingly, while googling this topic, I found an old article that mentions this research before they actually began the tests.

  • And finally, in this great TED video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we're left, right or center.

  • Update - Just found out about this: Can virgin births be real? A female shark that had been in captivity for eight years with no contact with any males of her species gave birth to a single shark pup this past week.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Evolution Of My Disbelief - Part II

When I last left off discussing this topic, I had described that I had been going through a tumultuous period in my life. Many long established ideas and perspectives were being challenged in fundamental ways, and as a result, my belief in the veracity of chareidi Judaism was being drastically affected. Before I continue on, I’d like to step back briefly and expand on that period a bit further.

Although I described some of the challenges which I encountered as primarily intellectual in nature, it’s important to recognize that although the challenges were rooted in intellectual issues, they didn’t just affect me intellectually. Like any other seriously committed chareidi Jew, the ideas that I believed in were directly expressed in my behavior and psyche. When I subscribed to ideas such as the notion that secular studies held nothing of any lasting value, or that people who owned TV’s didn’t really care about halacha, or that people who interacted with the opposite sex were licentious and immoral, it wasn’t just an abstract notion of no practical relevance to real life. No, it was a very real and tangible concept that translated directly into how I acted, what I valued, what I believed, and how I thought about the world. For example, when my rabbeim explained how dressing stylishly was an obsequious attempt to fit in with the goyim, I stopped wearing any kind of brand name clothes, and even let myself dress kind of shabbily (which was the accepted style among the yeshivish crowd I was in at the time). I even lost much respect for people I previously admired, simply because by caring about dressing nicely, they had proven themselves to be too materialistic for me to emulate. These numerous ideological perspectives had direct effects on my actions and thought. But even more critical than my behavior and beliefs though, was how the ideas they taught me directly affected my emotional state. Because even though on the outside I might have been going along with all these new ideas and adopting all these strict new ways of behaving, inside, a part of me still felt some connection with all these now-forbidden practices. And this tension often caused me quite a bit of guilt:

That I still did in fact care about my appearance clearly demonstrated how, inside, I was just a vain and self-absorbed person. The fact that I would rather be studying math than learning gemara was a painful reminder of how I wasn’t really a true ben torah. That I tended to not be super careful with every little halacha was one more sign of how spiritually deficient I was. That I let myself sometimes sneak a little Entenmann's donuts despite my vow to only eat chalav yisrael just proved that in my heart I really was just another "oisvorf".

All my time in yeshiva, I sincerely did want to become what they taught me was the only kind of person who really mattered - a proper ben torah. But throughout it all, I knew that a part of me just wasn’t really trying as hard as it should. And despite the fact that in many ways I was truly striving to become that ideal person, the subconscious awareness that I was never really going to become that ben torah, that person who had any true worth, filled me with a deep unhappiness.

So when I started having the intellectual challenges that I described previously, the effect was not limited to a purely cerebral debate of how to reconcile an intellectual quandary. It disturbed me on a multitude of levels. Yes, it was a theoretical puzzler to me - how could something which all my rabbeim had told me was bad actually not be so? But more fundamentally, it raised extremely upsetting questions with more practical ramifications - if it really wasn’t bad, then couldn’t I have it in my life? And if I can have it in my life, then I didn’t have to feel bad about it! And if I didn’t have to feel bad about it, why had my life been shaped in a way which had caused me so much guilt?

The most fundamental example of this crisis was, unsurprisingly, in regards to the idea of learning torah. As I’ve mentioned here many times, I had been through many years of indoctrination where I was told that there is nothing more important in my life than learning torah; that learning torah should be the prime focus of my life; that learning torah is so great that it outweighs all the other mitzvos of the torah; that people who don’t devote their lives to torah are wasting their lives; that every spare moment of my life I should be trying to squeeze in another pasuk, another daf, another halacha, another Rashi. The messages were endless, and they were very effective - I knew what my life was supposed to be about and that I should desire nothing more than to be able to sit in the beis medrash for as long as possible and imbibe the wisdom of the sages. The only problem with this lofty goal was that I actually sucked at this learning thing. I didn’t have a clue how to do it right, and after years of banging my head in frustration, I absolutely abhorred gemara. (Truth is, I wasn’t too fond of the other yeshivish areas of study either (halacha, chumash, mussar, etc.), but those I could get through with a modicum of competency.) But the very notion that my ultimate purpose in life was meant to revolve around something that I could barely stand caused me a fair bit of cognitive dissonance.

As a loyal devotee of the yeshivish hashkafa, I fully believed that this message of torah learning primacy was the truth, yet I also couldn’t deny that it clearly wasn’t working for me. I lived with this tension for many years, struggling to succeed at what I knew to be my divine mission in life, but all along knowing that my heart wasn’t really into it. Somewhere along the way I resigned myself to the idea that I would never be the kind of person god really wanted me to. As difficult as this was to admit, I knew that I had no one else to blame but myself. After all, the gemara teaches "If a person doesn’t succeed, it’s because they haven’t tried" (Megillah 6b). I obviously hadn’t tried hard enough. Yeshiva lore was filled with tales of students who had overcome insurmountable obstacles through the sheer determination of their commitment. Despite my extra kavana when davening the words of, "v’sen chelkeinu b’sorasecha," I was quite clearly not meriting the divine blessing I so desperately needed. I knew that this didn’t make me a bad person, but I also knew that my place in heaven (and society) would never really amount to much, that I could never call myself a real ben torah, and that I would have to answer for my failure in the world to come.

So when I was first exposed to the idea that I actually didn’t have to devote my life to torah learning, aside from the disbelief that such a concept could actually be true, what hit me was a tremendous emotional upheaval: If I didn’t have to be a learner, then why had everyone told me I did? Why had so much of my energy been wasted in that objective? Why had people who were supposed to be bastions of truth lied to me about something so essential? Why had people who had claimed to act in my best interests discouraged me from succeeding in other areas? Most importantly, if this idea was true, then I didn’t have to feel that I was a failure; that my life didn’t have to focus on something I didn’t enjoy. If this was actually true, I didn’t have to feel ashamed for who I was.

The perspective of how to view torah learning is just one example, but so many more of the beliefs which were being challenged were not just abstract ideological principles, but concepts which had direct, practical consequences to how I viewed my life and myself:
  • The idea that secular studies were of no value had always been difficult for me to swallow, considering that the only classes I ever did well at were in those subjects. They had, by negating the value of secular studies, in essence, deprived me of the one activity that could provide me a sense of accomplishment. If it was true what I was now discovering that secular studies indeed had value, then I could be proud of my accomplishments in those areas (instead of hiding that fact, as those of us who did well in secular studies were often mocked for focusing on such "worthless" activities). Maybe I didn’t have to feel like I was totally useless.
  • If wanting to dress nicely wasn’t really so terrible, then I didn’t have to feel like I was betraying my heritage (by imitating the goyim!) when dressing more contemporarily.
  • If being super medakdek about every single halachic issue was not absolutely crucial, then I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty for being resentful that God was making my life crazy with the endless halachic inanities invading my life.
  • If not everything a gadol said had to be followed unquestioningly as the word of god, then...well, I couldn’t even bring myself to conceive of what that would mean.
So when I started realizing all the ways in which my chareidi upbringing were untrue, my life really started changing. It changed in many external ways, such as how I dressed, activities I allowed myself, and people I hung out with. And it began to change in internal ways too, such as my values and priorities shifting considerably. But more importantly, it changed how I viewed myself. I no longer felt a need to hide who I was. I could be open about my true nature and not have to be ashamed of it. When my rebbe asked why I wasn’t paying attention in shiur, I could be honest and say, "Because this stuff doesn’t interest me!" (Not that I would be openly disrespectful, but privately I could admit this to him.) When I’d sleep late and miss the minyan, I wouldn’t feel it necessary to apologize for it. When someone would demand of me why I wasn’t following a certain chumra, I’d just shrug and say I didn’t feel it was necessary. When some big rabbi made a new pronouncement, I no longer felt it necessary to go along with it like everyone else.

And so, for the first time ever, I allowed myself to step off of the chareidi path I had been traveling upon all my adult life. I had begun to escape the restrictive mindset of my past and now understood that there were other legitimate ways to be a halachic Jew. But I had no inkling of just how significant this step would prove to my life down the road. Because even though this transition didn’t cause me to challenge the underlying foundations of Judaism, it had opened the door for me to question principles which I had previously thought unassailable. And once that door had been opened for me, nothing would ever be the same again.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Role Models

You know how every time there is some new crazy tznius policy in the frum world, there are people who get all up in arms about it and compare the extremist chareidim to the Taliban? And of course, there are those who take offense at the comparison and consider it totally unfair?

For example, everyone got all worked up a few weeks ago when it was reported that some guy in Beitar had thrown acid on a teenage girl because she wasn't dressed properly (in his opinion).

Well, it turns out that the comparison is not as far off as some people would imagine. In this US News article about Afghan Warlords, there is mention of one Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is at the top of America's Most Wanted list. The article mentions that in his early days, Mr. Hekmatyar, "distinguished himself by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Atheist Questionnaire

I've been tagged by Shtreimel to answer the Atheist Questionnaire which has been making its way through the intertubes lately. Before I even start this questionnaire, I have to express some ambivalence at the very outset since I don't actually classify myself as an atheist. That caveat being said, let's answer the questions.

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

Don't have a good answer for this, and as I don't consider myself an atheist, the question has never concerned me enough to figure one out. I'll pass on this.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised religious, in what could best be described as a yeshivish (a version of ultra-orthodoxy slightly less extreme than chassidish) environment. As a very young child, we were actually much more moderate (we had a TV until I was around nine), but over the years, the nature of my family's religiosity has only become more extreme. I once came home to discover that when I washed the dishes, I had to place a plexiglass cover over the second sink to prevent any splashing from the milchig side getting into the fleishig one. Don't ask.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?

Desperation. (To be honest, I don't know enough about it to really express any opinion on it, but judging from other examples where religious people utilize pseudo-scientific arguments to reconcile their faith with the facts, it seems apt.)

Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

Cellular Biology. Proteinomics.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

I think that some of the more militant voices of that group (community might be too strong a word) could do well to be a little less disrespectful of those who don't see things their way. Christopher Hitchens might well make some brilliant points, but he won't be changing anyone's mind when he speaks like a pompous jackass. They'd all do well to read a little Dale Carnegie once in a while.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

My first response? "Uh… I have a child?"

Seriously though, I would try to ascertain exactly what is motivating my son or daughter to make such a decision. If the rationale for such a path is sensible and responsible I'd like to believe that I would support it. But if the child was doing it for the wrong reasons, I don't think I'd be able to give my blessing. In any case, I'd like to believe that no matter the motivation, my child wouldn't be rejected or made to feel horrible for their choice.

Q7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Well, my favorites are the really dumb ones, and they don't really need much in the way of refuting. Like when someone says, "Well if you believe that the world couldn't have just magically gotten here from nowhere then obviously you should be following the torah!" Do I really need to refute that?

What I find really fun is to show the inconsistencies of thought common to religious people. For instance, when they say that halacha never changes, I demonstrate just how often it actually does. Or when they say that the torah is timeless and should be our moral compass forever; I then show them something in the torah which runs contrary to their moral standards and they use the line of "Well, it was written for that era." Or when they point to prior torah leaders as role models for how we should conduct ourselves; I then point out that there are countless things these figures did which are not acceptable today, then they respond with "Well, they were great enough to do (or believe) such things. We simply aren't!" And the amazing thing is that they don't see themselves as being inconsistent in the least!

As for serious theistic arguments, one of my favorites is when a religious person will respond to the observation that so many atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion, with the answer that plenty of godless, atheist societies (Communist Russia, North Korea etc.) have done plenty of damage too. Harris answers this objection really well. He eloquently explains that these aren't actually atheist societies. A genuinely atheist society would allow for exploration of ideas and be based on reason and common sense, and not be bound by any dogmas, whether they be religious, political or scientific. These are simply authoritarian dictatorships which have rejected the tenets of science and discovery as much as they have the teachings of Christianity. None of the perpetrators of such atrocities ever seriously claimed that they were acting in the name of discovery and skepticism. (I don't think I did his explanation justice. You've got to hear it from him directly.)

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Probably that I'm not actually an atheist.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

That would be Harris. I think he approaches the issues with a certain humility and respect that is lacking in some of the other figures. Hitchens just sounds like an angry buffoon talking down to everyone. Dawkins often reminds me of an impatient professor that is just totally dumbfounded why his students can't see the obviousness of what he's trying to tell them. And Dennett I only heard a long time ago so I'm not familiar enough with him to comment on.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Any majorly respected black-hat rosh yeshiva or gadol. Someone like Rav Elyashuv would be just awesome. It's not that I care one way or another what view any particular man subscribes to, but the effect on the frum world of such a figure defecting would be so much fun to watch. You know what? He doesn't even have to abandon all his beliefs. If he would just renounce any commonly held frum ideology it would be incredible. Can you imagine how freaked out they'd all get if he publicly announced that mixed seating in shuls is allowed?

Now name three other atheist blogs that you'd like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

I'd actually love to hear from Enigma4U and Mis-Nagid, but since they don't have blogs, I'll pass this on to Little Foxling, Orthoprax, and Spinoza.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Halachic Choices

There's a well known, yet unpopular saying in the Orthodox world: "Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halachic way." It's unpopular because it implies two very unpalatable things:

a) The halachic system itself doesn't rest upon any concrete and lasting principles; that they can be adjusted and modified to meet the popular demands of the day

b) That rabbis can essentially rule in whatever direction they want, and if they don't address certain issues, it's because they just don't care enough about the issue to deal with it

Strictly observant types consider this idea practically sacrilegious. I've always (well, in the past decade or so) believed the aphorism to be quite apt. Once upon a time I also found it to be offensive, but the more I learned about how things operate in the real world (as opposed to the idealized portrayals we are given in yeshiva), and the more I learned about Jewish history (and other areas of knowledge which the average yeshiva guy is ignorant of), the more I realized how true it was. There are so many examples of rabbis responding to cultural and societal needs, and bending the rules to meet the needs of the populace that it's hard to believe anyone can actually think otherwise. Whether it's pruzbul, or mechiras chometz, or eruv, or some previously forbidden activity now being permitted, or some previously permitted activity (or person, or idea, or practice) now being forbidden, the rules often change to suit the popular mood (or need). Sometimes it's just an original and novel heter, sometimes it's a convoluted workaround or legal ficiton, sometimes it's a reliance on an obscure opinion, but whatever methods they employ, it's just too common to deny that the unbending rules of halacha can be quite flexible when the right pressure is applied. Sometimes this flexibility can be used positively, like when it's used to help people out of overly burdensome situations (eruv and mechiras chometz). Other times, and this is what's most common nowadays, the strategy is employed less charitably, and we see it often used to impose stricter standards on the community.

In our contemporary era, one of the most egregious violations of justice that is allowed to be perpetrated in the name of halacha is the problem of the aguna - a woman whose husband will not grant a divorce and who (according to halacha) is forbidden to marry another. There have been countless efforts to address this problem, but overall none of them have seemed to make much headway. One of the solutions that I recall hearing about was to retroactively annul the marriage so that no divorce is even necessary, and the woman would then be free. There was, of course, much opposition to this proposal, with one of the objections to this solution being that it would then mean that the children of such a marriage would then be considered to have been born out of wedlock. In any case, like so many of the others plans, this idea was never implemented, and to this day very little has changed in regards to the general situation of agunos, with the rabbis continuing to insist that their hands are tied by the dictates of halacha.

I was recently reminded of this issue as I was reading the latest reports of the wholesale and retroactive nullification of thousands of Jewish converts by the beis din in Israel. For those who aren't up to date on the latest brouhaha, the Jerusalem Supreme Rabbinical Court (not to be confused with the Israeli Supreme Court) has nullified all the conversions from a particular rabbi, thereby revoking the Jewish status of all the people he has converted (and presumably also the children of the women he converted). Now, I'm not going to get into the ramifications and implications of this decision (there's been more than enough of that in the print and blog media), but I can't help comparing the two situations (aguna and conversion). They seem to be using the exact same methodology: retroactively declaring a halachically approved commitment null and void. In one situation, the rabbis don't want to employ the tactic even though it would have a positive result (the aguna being freed). In the other situation, they are willing to employ the strategy, even though it would have disastrous consequences for thousands of people.

To me, this discrepancy highlights a crucial element of what I find so troublesome about Chareidi Judaism. The goal for them is never about trying to improve things, to be inclusive, to create allowances, to use their talmudic ingenuity in order to produce something positive. It is instead always negatively oriented, to exclude people, to keep ideas out, to place further restrictions and create further divisions. I can't recall the last time I heard a p'sak which made me think, "Wow, halacha really enhances people's lives!"

That this attitude is so ingrained is disturbing enough, but what bothers me even more is when I see the law itself being used in exactly the opposite way which I think it was intended for. Sure, we can use our brilliant halachic minds to figure out a way to write out hundreds of sincere and committed Jews from the community, breaking up countless relationships, possibly delegitimizing their children, and causing untold heartache. But to use that very same logic to help out a suffering woman who is being tormented by a malicious bastard who is himself abusing the halachic system - no, that would be unacceptable according to halacha!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shidduch Shams

A short while ago I posted about how I think that people in the chareidi world approach the whole issue of shidduchim wrong. It's not just that they get caught up with stupidities (which they definitely do), but that the very basis for their getting married is founded on idiotic and superficial reasons. To be precise, I said that it's not that I think people in religious marriages don't love each other and have healthy stable homes. I'm sure even in situations where the marriage was entered into for the wrong reasons, many of them eventually do. It's just that that's not why they get married. And it's irresponsible and reckless to enter into something like marriage for the wrong reasons, regardless of if there's a chance that it might turn out ok.

Various people took issue with my position and said that my portrayal isn't quite true. Well, sadly, I now have some more first-hand anecdotal experience to corroborate what I wrote. A relative of mine is now engaged at the ripe old age of 17 (and a young 17 at that). Now, the obvious problem with this is simply that the person is just a bit too young and way too immature to be getting married. But putting that aside, what really bothers me about it is that the sole purpose of this marriage is because the person is not in a yeshiva and does not have a job and basically has been drifting aimlessly for the recent past. So the parents evidently feel that it's important to have them enter in some sort of structured arrangement rather than possibly get involved in even riskier behavior than has already been done (which hasn't really been anything too terrible AFAIK).

I expressed my misgivings to a different relative, someone who I thought would share my reservations with this arrangement. He is a respected talmid chacham in the yeshivish world, and someone who I usually consider to have a broader view of things than the typical yeshiva graduate. Well, it turns out I don't know some people as well as I thought. He actually thought it was a good idea. Here's what he said:

"Look, now he may be young and immature, but after a little time married, he'll adapt and become more responsible. It's better that he get married now than continue to be involved with the crowd he's been hanging out with and then who knows where that might lead.... I've seen this been done many times. It'll be fine."

Well, there you have it folks. Unless you think that "preventing someone from hanging out with the wrong crowd" is a valid justification for marriage, please don't tell me that chareidim don't marry people off for the wrong reasons. Yes, I know, this is just one anecdotal case, and doesn't prove anything. It might not, but my friend's attitude about it does prove something. If this is his view, then it is more than acceptable in his mainstream black-hat world. Whether or not it happens often, I wouldn't say, but the fact that people look at marriage this way says a lot.

When you think about it, it's also pretty hypocritical. Chareidim are the ones who extol the importance of marriage over everything else, saying how it's the most sacred and central component of Jewish life, how the institution of the Jewish family must be treated with the utmost reverence, you know, all that "bayis neman b'yisrael" crap.

Really? Is this how you treat something so sacred? By just using it as an excuse to avoid properly dealing with a totally unrelated problem? You consider it responsible to put someone immature and flighty in charge of one of your most venerated institutions? Gimme a break! This kind of attitude shows that to you marriage is actually nothing special at all; it's merely a tool; a tactic to be utilized when the need arises.

Mazal Tov!