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.

33 comments:

pimp lucius said...

enjoyed the post. i couldn't help but wonder if the stronger learners (in gemara) made intentional mistakes on tests in their 'secular' classes so as not to appear too interested in them. that would be awesome.

GoingGoingGone said...

Very interesting and well-written. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your story and seeing the rest of the path that your transformation took.

XGH said...

So basically your yetzer horoh and taavos made you go off the derech.

Ezzie said...

Two things I read out of this post:

1) From a Charedi POV, you're simply reinforcing extremist approaches. After all, once you stepped off the charedi path, you went all the way off. It must be that stepping off the Charedi path leads to eventually going all the way off.

2) From a non-Charedi POV, you're reinforcing that the Charedi approach is overly narrow and doesn't work for most normal people. Had they not ingrained into you this guilt over not choosing a specific, narrow (and wrong) worldview, when you decided to pursue a perfectly good, normal path you wouldn't have felt like you're off anyway, may as well just keep going.

mn said...

It's a great post, and extremely self-aware, but I can't help but be amazed at how different it is from my experience. My recovery was nothing like yours.

The Hedyot said...

> once you stepped off the charedi path, you went all the way off.

Ezzie -
You're totally wrong. I did not go totally off when I stepped off the chareidi path. I specifically wrote, "I...now understood that there were other legitimate ways to be a halachic Jew." I was still totally frum when I stopped being chareidi, and remained so for a number of years.

The Hedyot said...

> So basically your yetzer horoh and taavos made you go off the derech.

Of course it was my yetzer hara! Is it ever anything else?

But seriously, what people don't seem to be realizing when reading this, is that at this point I was still totally frum. Nothing I wrote about this period is about my becoming not being frum. Unless of course, you consider not being chareidi the same as not being frum.

Ezzie said...

DH - Again, I'm saying that would be the Charedi POV to your story. That there was a years-long gap is immaterial to the point they'd take from it.

However, from my *own* POV, I find the story very interesting, and lean toward the non-Charedi interpretation I noted above (albeit with a difference). By virtue of the large switch from the Charedi world to the non, it makes a later switch that much 'easier' - so while it didn't quite set it in motion, it contributed.

The Hedyot said...

> By virtue of the large switch from the Charedi world to the non, it makes a later switch that much 'easier' - so while it didn't quite set it in motion, it contributed.

Probably true, but immaterial, IMO. That kind of thinking reminds me of what some chareidi people say when they explain why they don't want their children to even KNOW about people who left frumkeit - that by knowing of such people, it makes it that much easier for them to consider it as a possibility.

That all these side issues might contribute in some way, might indeed be true, but IMHO they are so insignificant compared to the much larger factors which were prompting these changes.

Ezzie said...

Agreed when looking at it from a standstill - simply knowing that there are people who go off won't make it easier to do so, or at least it's an insignificant difference.

But someone who has already made one big transition will find it easier to make another one - I don't think that that was insignificant. (If anything, that's evidenced by your inclusion of it in the series. :) Otherwise you'd have started from when you actually started to go off.)

The Hedyot said...

Ezzie -

You're right that I included it because it's relevant, but the key point which I think is most relevant here is not that the actual leaving of one thing made it easier for me to leave something else. I believe that the key experience which had far reaching consequences later on was the realization that things I had strongly believed in as absolute truth were in fact not that at all.

Ezzie said...

Granted. I'm only saying that it was far easier for that to happen once you had that first "bubble burst".

Anonymous said...

How did the ravs react when you told them you weren't interested in that part of the Gemara, or when you missed minyan, etc? And did you ever have a sense that there were others who were secret sympathizers(or even on the fence) but didn't come out the way you did?

Ichabod Chrain

The Hedyot said...

He would usually respond by trying to get me into it, but he wasn't fazed by my attitude. It depends for what though. Some things he wasn't as forgiving about.

I believe that in some ways everyone was a sympathizer.

ora said...

"I'm only saying that it was far easier for that to happen once you had that first "bubble burst"."

I get the impression that there are not so many "security fuses" in this narrow world, because even the slightest change is considered "the beginning of the end"...

Anonymous said...

"I believe that in some ways everyone was a sympathizer."

Heh. That could be very interesting--both that it would have happened and how you would have known. Can you explain, or maybe that's a subject for another post?


Ichabod Chrain

shoshi said...

You know what this reminds me? Of parents who absolutely want their children to be star musicians or athletes or actors...

Only that here, it's not only the parents, but the whole society...

There is a certain value system, with "Talmid Chacham" on its top, and everyone strifes at all costs to become one...

So I think that the problem is not really a problem of the values defended, but of the means to achieve them.

On the one hand I see that it takes a lot of Skiers to get a world champion and a lot of musicians to get a Mozart...
so: the more people devote themselves to Torah, the more it will blossom.

On the other hand, it is so cruel to force a child into a mould where it does not fit.

It's a form of "parent-stupidity".

By the way. Did you know that famous violinist Guidon Kremer lived through similar ordeals in his childhood? He had to practice 4h a day when he was just 4 years old (so, of course, he tried to cheat himself out of it).
He hated it and still became a violinist of world renown.
This must be a cruel situation...

The Hedyot said...

When I say that everyone is in some ways a sympathizer, I am referring to a belief I have that almost all frum people to some degree resent the burdens of frum life, and so they all sympathize to a certain extent with one who manages to escape those burdens.

Freethinking Upstart said...

Thanks for sharing your story. The detail of the struggle of the mind is terrific.

Baal Habos said...

I don't know how I missed this, but great post. BTW, I think this fits in perfectly with my common denominator post.

jewish philosopher said...

I think you became a goy because you want pussy.

Anonymous said...

>.... because you want pussy.

Doesn't everyone?

Skeptanon.

jewish philosopher said...

"Doesn't everyone?"

Everyone wants money, but does everyone become a traitor?

Anonymous said...

So you acknowledge that EVERYONE wants sex (and money)

Then you you can't attribute that as the cause of skepticism.

Skeptanon.

jewish philosopher said...

Sure can. Everyone wants material things, but some people choose to control themselves, some do not. This distinguishes good people from bad people.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog.
I am thinking of putting my own story to words, its just it would upset my family... so I'm not sure. I became religious in college, am still married to a bas-yisrael (covers her hair, hareidi crowd), and I've become a "devout agnostic". A particular book that I read, set in motion what had been simmering in my mind for some time, and it just burst-the bubble completely. I felt the same relief - an unburdening. Not of the yolk of Torah. To me it was never a burden - but the entire concept of religion, of Torah - everything was unburdened and questioned at once. I felt like I had taken the 'red pill' in the Matrix movie and everything changed. I still read the Yated and learn on occasion just to remind myself how utterly rediculous it is. I can play any part, inside I know that TRUTH is subjective - nobody knows it. And anyone or any group professing to know it, knows even less.

The Candy Man said...

Great post, hedyot. I spent a few years in a chareidi yeshiva - a high level one in Israel - and there were several students who also didn't feel cut out for a life of learning! One of them actually left and joined the army, much to the chagrin of his parents.

It's really hard to reject an entire world you're brought up with. Groupthink in the chareidi community is like nothing I've ever seen elsewhere in my little MO upbringing. Kudos for seeing through it. I think when there's a disconnect b/w your emotions and what everyone's telling you, it makes you question more.

You write well and have clearly thought things through. I look forward to the next post.

Anonymous said...

>>I should be trying to squeeze in another pasuk, another daf, another halacha, another Rashi.

I believe that this is the problem. It seems to be all about covering ground and not about serving Hashem. My rebbi, R. Shlomo Volbe, told me once that in the end it isn't oxen goring and who pays what it (learning Torah) is about connecting with Chochmas Hashem (the wisdom of God). When we lose site of this point learning becomes a matter of AMOUNTS of Gemara pages, commentaries, number of sefarim...

Anonymous said...

>>So basically your yetzer horoh and taavos made you go off the derech.

How's the cool-aid tasting?

Bartley Kulp said...

shoshi said...

"On the one hand I see that it takes a lot of Skiers to get a world champion and a lot of musicians to get a Mozart...
so: the more people devote themselves to Torah, the more it will blossom."

Actually Mozart was born with an innate genois. He was writing concertos and performing for royal audiences at a young age.

As far as being big in torah, if you look at Jewish history you will find this theory false. Gedolim do not generally become that way because there are a lot of people learning torah.

I do however agree with you that it is cruel to make your children fit into a mold that they do not belong for any reason whatsoever.

Margo said...

very interesting story!
as a young teen, i believed strongly in the charedi path, which is how i was raised, but as i got older, i realized that i disagreed with a lot of charedi pov's, and switched over to very frum modern orthodoxy, if that makes any sense. as in, i believed in the mo approach, but i also believed strongly in halachah, so i ended up very frum, but not charedi. (for example, i planned to go to college, but, of course, never date non-jews or make male friends.)
things still bothered me, though, and i started to really hate orthodox jewry of any kind. things were off. they would tell me things, and i knew in my heart that they were wrong, but i could not prove it, so i took on the abused-child syndrome, where the child feels guilty bc to say that the parent is guilty is too frightening. my family and all of the great rabbis could not be wrong! no way! i must be wrong!
after a while, i realized that fear kept me back. my heart told me that i was a good person, and that my opinions were logical and fine, but my head suppressed everything, bc to let it out would mean risking everything i knew.
finally, of course, i gained the courage to take a step back, and say, "i dont know exactly what is wrong, but there is something wrong. orthodox judaism is skewed. i dont know how, but i sense that it is, and i trust myself."
once i had done this, other "un-askable" questions were open to question, and as i questioned, i, too, felt like i had taken the red pill. Things opened up to me, made sense, resonated with what i had known in my heart all along. I also gained more self-knowledge and self-awareness, and began to feel more like an independent person than just another jew doing what she is told and thinking what is safe to think.

oh, and about the yetzer hara--i do not believe that there is such a thing. this is just a term that is used to ensure that judaism remains unassailable. if you question, or take a step back, or do anything that threatens judaism, it is labeled, "the yetzer hara" and you are condemned for it. It is a safety mechanism, and i have no need of it. i believe in truth and open-mindedness and curiosity and desire for knowledge, and the yetzer hara has no place in my life.

Margo said...

wow. sry my post turned out so long!

Esther said...

jewish philosopher said...
I think you became a goy because you want pussy.

August 10, 2008 3:47 PM

Why do you leave such comments on people's blogs? Is this what you learned from Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l?
I am sure he would have been deeply embrassed if he heard you say something like this.
You are to show love and care for other Jews as a fellow Jew. I am sure you learned this in your first class before you converted to Judaism.
ps I am not posting my link here cause I know you spam people's blogs or emails when you get angry at them.