Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I was watching this incredible video of an underwater volcano explosion, and it reminded me of an incident that occurred to me a few years ago, one chol hamoed, back when I was still pretty frum. I had gone to visit the Soreq Caves near Jerusalem. These are caverns with incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations that have built up over hundreds of thousands of years from the slowly dripping minerals. (According to wikipedia, the drip rate is approximately .005 inches / year. At that rate, it would take around 2,400 years for just one foot to build up!)

One nice thing that the frum world does is that people are always encouraged to seek out the natural beauty in the world, being that they consider it a testament to the handiwork of the creator. So witnessing this magnificent natural beauty really moved me. It truly was an awe-inspiring sight. But then the guide told us an interesting tidbit: up until only a few years ago, no human had ever laid eyes on these caves because they were entirely sealed off to the world. They were only discovered because of excavation blasting that was being done for a construction project. Surprisingly, hearing this detail had an unexpected effect upon me. It just made no sense whatsoever - if god wants us to marvel in his beautiful creation, why would he have kept this treasure hidden away from the world all this time? I was really thrown off by this piece of information.

This issue continued to bother me as I saw more and more of these fantastic formations, each more stunning than the last, and I tried coming up with some plausible resolution to my dilemma. The best answer I could muster was that god had chosen to save this cave for our generation, and I should be grateful for this 'gift' that was denied to everyone but us. Kind of like getting exclusive entry to a prestigious art gallery. It was an answer, but it didn't really satisfy my discontent.

I'm not saying that this incident caused me to stop believing in god, or that as result of it, any dramatic changes occurred in my life. I probably went home, forgot about it within a short time, and my life continued pretty much the same way.

But it did definitely affect me. Like so many other similar incidents that I encountered. Every one of those experiences, regardless of how trivial they were, caused another chink in the armor of my faith. When people ask me what caused me to stop believing it all (an entirely different, though not unrelated, question than 'why did I leave frumkeit?'), I usually have a hard time answering that well. This partly explains why - it's hard to pinpoint any one specific idea that thoroughly changed my view. In fact, I don't think that there really ever was one. Rather, like the accretion of minerals that formed these amazing structures, it was a slow and steady accumulation of countless small experiences, incidents, conversations, and personal revelations that finally tipped the scale of my belief towards a more skeptical worldview.

It's kind of ironic though, how seeing god's beauty can contribute to losing faith in him.

Photo credit: flickr user Sagipolley

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Chanuka Story

When I was just a young child of twelve years old, like every other boy in my eighth grade class of Yeshiva Toras Kedusha, the mundane routine of elementary school life was suddenly transformed into a most tumultuous period, filled with the cacophony of hundreds of irrelevant details being endlessly fussed over. It was February and my bar mitzvah was only three months away.

I found myself suddenly thrust into the exciting undertaking of preparing for an extravagant party of which I would be the center of attention. There were seemingly infinite details that needed to be dealt with in preparation for the upcoming gala. Catering halls needed to be investigated, visited, and negotiated for. Invitation choices analyzed, deliberated upon, and then rejected. Clothes needed to be shopped for, purchased, returned, repurchased, and then fitted. Accommodations needed to be arranged for relatives traveling from abroad. It was all very hustle and bustle, and for the most part, I was more than glad to be at the center of it all.

Every now and then, amongst all the endless planning, my parents would inquire as to the progress of certain other preparations that I was supposed to be tending to. You see, although the celebratory aspects of the bar mitzvah planning were taking up most of our energy, there was another side to this event which was meant to be focused on too. Beneath all the silly distractions of suits and centerpieces, I was also expected to be contemplating, if only just a little bit, on the significance and meaning of the approaching event - my coming of age to Jewish adulthood.

Through the numerous life adjustments being subtly foisted upon me during this period, it was being made abundantly clear to me that I was expected to be taking my religious duties far more seriously than I ever had before. Missing davening was no longer tolerated. Sub-par test scores in chumash and gemara were not forgiven as easily. Sports and leisure activities were more blatantly discouraged. The comfortably casual clothes of my wardrobe were being mysteriously replaced by more formal and presentable attire. Most annoying of all were the numerous bar mitzvah related duties which were regularly interrupting my usual routine. The parsha I would be reading in shul had to be regularly practiced with my trainer. And the p'shetl I was to be presenting at the seudah still needed serious attention.

I was keenly aware that this upcoming event was meant to mark my transition to a responsible, religiously conscientious person, and I knew that my family was impatiently expecting me to start behaving like one already. But the simple truth of which I was afraid to admit, but which was clearly still informing my actions, was that I actually felt quite content to remain a typical, red-blooded, American kid; one who would rather concern himself with comic books and video games than dutifully stepping into the role of devoutly religious servant of the Almighty God.

At some point amongst all the hubbub of event planning and party preparation, I learned that it was a tradition in my family for my grandmother to present the birthday boy with a special gift, an expensive and extravagant menorah of his own choosing. The menorah is the candelabra used during the Jewish holiday of Chanuka when Jews around the world light candles to commemorate the rededication of the Temple in 167 BC. Every Jewish home has at least one fantastically ornate menorah, which together with other ceremonial items typically found in a Jewish home, is kept in a prominently placed display case. During the holiday, the menorah comes out of its case and is usually placed in a street-facing window so that all passer-by can see it burning brightly.

In the past, like most other kids, I had used an inexpensive store-bought menorah, but now that I was about to leave my childhood behind, it was clear that such cheaply manufactured trinkets would no longer suffice. If I was going to be a true servant of God, I needed to have an appropriately impressive menorah. I needed something bigger, something more grandiose and imposing, something that wouldn't fail to tell the world just how seriously I took my religious duties. And so, one Sunday afternoon, I found myself with my parents in an exclusive silver store in the heart of Brooklyn, shopping for menorahs.

As I excitedly browsed the shelves of the silver store, scanning the endless array of seemingly identical candelabras, I tried to ignore the nagging jumble of emotions I could sense at the back of my mind. On the one hand, I knew that my motivation for wanting this menorah was totally self-serving. I was being offered a flashy, expensive new toy and I liked that. Plus, I knew that a fancy religious object was just the ticket I needed to improve my credibility in the game of religious devotion I was expected to be playing. Yet, I also knew that the main reason my parents were indulging me in this silly extravagance (aside from the fact that my grandmother was footing the bill) was because they hoped that my interest in a religious object, even if primarily motivated by shallow self-indulgence, would grow into a more genuine interest of the spiritual dimension of my life. I knew myself well enough to realize that such an outcome was quite unlikely, and felt somewhat guilty going along with it all. But I quickly reminded myself that my grandmother had made this offer to me, irrespective of my motivations, so I didn't have to beat myself up about my lack of sincerity.

As I surveyed the shelves, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed with the selection I was being offered. The menorahs all seemed virtually identical. The basic design of a menorah is a central stem with four symmetrical arms branching out on each side, and having various decorative designs carved into the silver. There were slight variations among them, with some having more elaborate flourishes, and others with more intricate detail, and they came in varying sizes, but essentially they were all very similar. This wasn't a surprise to me, as I had grown up seeing these designs all my life, but facing that fact brought with it a sudden realization: By acquiring one of these menorahs I would be donning one more mantle of the religious garb that I so preferred to avoid. It was a disturbing revelation and I suddenly found myself unsure as to how I should proceed.

And then I spotted it. In the rear of the display case, I noticed something that didn't seem to quite fit in with rest of the selection. There in the back, hidden behind all the sparkling and polished tradition, was a menorah of a totally different sort. Sleek, modern and as non-traditional as could possibly be, it was unlike any other menorah I had ever seen. Like an art deco piece, smooth straight lines emerged sharply from one central arm, elegantly angled to the side, each topped with a simple, unadorned, silver cup. It looked like it belonged in a gallery of modern art. Immediately, as soon as my eyes settled on it, I knew that I wanted it. That was my menorah.

"That one," I said out loud, to the surprise of my family. "That's the menorah I want."

"Which one?" my mother asked excitedly, figuring I had settled on one of the typically traditional ones in the front section.

"The one in the back, the one that looks… different," I pointed out. I knew well enough not to refer to it with that dreaded 'M' word - modern.

They finally saw what I was referring to. Uncomfortably, they looked at each other, unsure how to handle this unexpected development.

"Are you sure?" my mother asked. She tried distracting me. "What about one of these nice ones over here? That one on the right looks just like your brother's. Don't you want one like he has?"

"No. I like that one," I insisted. "That's the one I want."

Her resistance didn't surprise me. In the back of my mind I was trying mightily to ignore the vague sensation that I was violating some vital, unwritten rule of my world. This menorah was just too different. It was too modern. It was definitely not what they had in mind when bringing me to this store. Like the purchase of the black hat weeks earlier, or the buying of the velvet tefillin bag embroidered with my name on it, the true underlying purpose of acquiring any of these items was to signify to the world my willingness to conform to the religious standards of my society. These external indicators were very important to my people. They announced to my peers that I was one of them, an appropriately committed religious person, one who approached his traditions with reverence. We all knew that choosing this menorah was undoubtedly not going to advance that goal. There was simply no way people would look at that item on our mantle and think "devoted to tradition". It practically screamed "REBEL!" I knew exactly what my parents were thinking, how uncomfortable they were with my choice, but I didn't care. That menorah just spoke to me in a way that no other religious object ever had. It was brilliant. It was precise, and smart, and innovative, and cool looking, yet amazingly, it was still a religious artifact! I loved it instinctively, and desired it immensely. And I wasn't going to let my parents talk me out of it.

My father took a look at the price tag, clearly hoping that the expense would be high enough that he could claim it was out of our budget. Much to his dismay, it was easily within range. He looked at my mother, volumes passing between them in silence. I didn't need to be a mind reader to follow the unspoken conversation going on between them.

"What should we do?" my mother was silently asking.

"I don't know. He seems determined to get it," replied my father with his eyes. "What can we possibly say?"

"But, but… look at it!" my mother stammered. "We can't have that sort of thing in our house! What will people say?!"

"I know, I know," my father reassured her. "But what can we do? It is a kosher menorah. And we told him he can pick one out. We can't go back on our word now."

Realizing they had no alternative, they finally relented. It was mine.

Feeling that their plan for furthering my religious conformity had entirely backfired, they tried to cash in on their graciousness by demanding my commitment in other ways.

"But if we get you this, you have to promise that you'll go to shul every day, ok?" my father ordered me.

"Ok," I assured him, knowing it was the price I had to pay.

"And you'll practice your parsha leining every day?"

"Absolutely," I vowed.

They wheedled a few more commitments out of me, hoping in vain that by raising the cost of the object of my desires, I'd eventually back out of the deal, but they ultimately realized it was not going to happen. We finally left the store with the menorah in hand, me, feeling victorious and joyful, they, resigned and nervous about what this experience portended.

As the rest of the bar mitzvah preparations progressed, the menorah-buying episode remained an isolated incident. My parents wisely learned their lesson from that encounter and from that point on, when it came to bar mitzvah decisions, I was not given much latitude in the choices made available to me. Any time I was presented with a selection to choose from, I knew they had been carefully pre-screened prior to my choosing.

In the end, my bar mitzvah was a wonderful event. It turned out to be a typical affair, exactly like everyone had hoped it to be, lavish enough to get the requisite admiration, not fancy enough to elicit any disapproving reactions. I played my part dutifully, solemnly accepting my new status, displaying the appropriate degree of somberness expected of a budding ben torah, and my family graciously accepting the compliments of our friends and relatives.

With the grand event now behind us, the months passed swiftly, all of us gradually settling back into our typical routines. The bar mitzvah no longer front and center allowed me a modicum of relief in the religious expectations placed upon me. Like before all the excitement, I was allowed a bit more autonomy in my life. I relished the freedom to just hang out with my friends and pursue whatever fascinations ignited my young imagination. But the school year eventually passed, my era of elementary school education came to a close, and after the brief summer hiatus, I began a new phase in my life, high school, in an entirely new school, and a wholly unfamiliar environment.

The school that I now found myself in was of a significantly different caliber than my previous one. Sensing my ambivalence in taking my religious duties seriously, my parents had felt that it was necessary to put me in a more spiritually focused environment, and so they had sent me to a yeshiva which would sufficiently impress upon me the importance of those duties. Not only was the curriculum at this school far more intense, but the student body was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. Everyone was diligently focused on religious topics, endlessly discussing chumash, halacha, and gemara, even outside of the mandated classes. This was a far cry from my prior environment where religious studies often took a back seat to the more general academic requirements. More significantly, in this new setting, not only was I expected to excel in religious studies, but I was also expected to abandon all other pursuits that were not of a spiritual nature.

It was all quite a shock to me, and at first I resisted. All these new changes being foisted upon me were not what I was used to and I didn't like it at all. But eventually, after just a short while there, I realized that if I wanted to fit in and be accepted in this new environment, I would have to change, and so I gradually came to accept it. I slowly began to adopt the distinct mannerisms of my peers, changing my clothes to the more somber business attire that was common among them, modifying my speech to use the unique amalgam of Hebrew/English/Yiddish they employed, and most drastically, finally accepting the yoke of my religious responsibilities, which essentially consisted of dropping most of my former interests, and pledging to devote myself more seriously to religious pursuits. I was determined to become the kind of person that would be respected by my fellow students. And so I eventually did, gradually discarding my old identity and slowly becoming the person that my parents had wanted me to grow into ever since my bar mitzvah.

Before I knew it, the first few months of high school passed me by, and with the winter leaves crackling beneath our feet, the holiday of Chanuka was upon us. Like our family always did, the night before the holiday began, we went to the breakfront to take down our menorahs in preparation for the lighting of the first candle. As I took out my new menorah from the display case, I realized with horror the predicament I now faced. My recently acquired menorah, which just a few months earlier was the object of my deepest affection, was now a source of utter embarrassment for me. Yes, it still looked utterly magnificent, but I no longer identified with the image it conveyed. I was now a staunch traditionalist, respectfully venerating our customs, and this menorah embodied something that I had so earnestly worked to leave behind. It was like an indelible record of my sordid, youthful indiscretions, taunting me mercilessly of my shameful past.

Despite my misgivings, I realized that I had no alternative. The menorah had to come out and be placed on the mantle along with everyone else's. Seeing it there alongside all the other candelabras, their time honored designs proudly attesting to their owners' allegiances, my gleaming, polished sleekness now only made me cringe uncomfortably. My parents, seeing that I now shared their distaste for it, gave me a knowing look, their discomfort with the presence of this blasphemous object somewhat tempered by the knowledge that I at least had learned my lesson, cleansing myself, however slightly, of my sacrilege.

Once Chanuka passed, I put the menorah away, thankful that the embarrassing ordeal was over. These past few months I had tried so hard to bury that past life, to eradicate all traces of my former self, and this damn menorah had practically undermined all my hard work. I vowed to work even harder to prove my devotion. I would make sure that no one could ever suspect me of being anything less than a fully committed adherent, completely devoted to our sacred traditions. As the year progressed, I did just that, further cementing my place among my peers as a faithful devotee. The following year, I grew only more strict in my practices, and when Chanuka time came around again, I decided that it was better to return to using an inexpensive store-bought menorah than suffer through the indignity of what I had experienced the previous year. I would rather endure the shame of not being adequately sophisticated than allow the taint of modernity to ever come upon me.

Throughout the ensuing years, I continued this practice, keeping my beautiful, dazzling menorah that I had loved so much, hidden out of sight. Eventually, I permanently removed it from the display case, and put it somewhere out of the way, where no one could ever discover it, and where I would not have to be reminded of its presence or what it represented.

Throughout my high school years, despite my unwavering commitment to the strictly religious lifestyle I had adopted, there were times I found myself confronting mixed feelings regarding my dramatic transformation. Although I felt confident of the path I had taken, the occasional lingering uncertainty would drift across my consciousness, teasing me with fantasies of what my life would have been like if I hadn’t taken the turn I did. The myriad frustrations and disappointments of adolescent life didn’t help my state of mind either. As I got older, I found myself constantly torn between the ideals of the strictly religious world that I lived in and believed in, and the incessant pull of deeply buried parts of my self tugging at my heartstrings.

When high school ended, feeling discontent and confused, I found myself unsure what path to pursue. I knew it was expected of me to follow the route that most of my peers were taking – a few more years of yeshiva, maybe a short stint in Israel, and then a brief dating period when I’d find my bashert. I knew I didn’t want to do that now, yet there were no other viable options available to me. So I decided I would travel around a bit. Maybe taking some time off would help me straighten out some of the turmoil that was wracking my soul.

My mind made up, I began to prepare for my trip, saying goodbye to friends, planning my itinerary, and gathering all my stuff together. The day before I was to depart, as I was rummaging through my closet, desperately searching for some much needed travel gear, I noticed something unexpected laying at the bottom of an unmarked box. There, buried beneath a pile of worn out velvet yarmulkes and albums of faded gedolim pictures, was my beloved menorah. I gently pulled it out, and sat down on my bed with it, this long lost relic of my past.

Alone in my room, I took a long look at it, admiring its finely sculpted design. Despite the slight tarnish dimming its brilliance, I still found it utterly magnificent. So much had changed since that impulsive twelve-year-old had excitedly picked it out from all the others, but it still managed to capture my heart like it had the first time I laid eyes upon it. What was it about this object that so enthralled me? Seeing it again after so many years reminded me of all the tumultuous feelings it had evoked in my life over the years. The inexplicable excitement upon first discovering it. The frightening confusion of disregarding my family’s expectations. The shame of my brazen indiscretion. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for those heady days back in yeshiva, a time in my life when I felt more sure of who I was and what I wanted. Wistfully, I briefly entertained the thought of taking the menorah with me, but the idea was promptly shelved as I realized that I had far more pressing things to concern myself with at the moment. I gently returned it to its place in the box and put it out of my mind.

Traveling was not the comforting salve I had hoped it would be. New experiences were constantly challenging me in ways that I didn't understand how to deal with. New sorts of people were introduced to me. New ideas explored. New ideologies adopted. New identities assumed. All of it clashed angrily in my head and wrought further changes. For a while I settled down in one place, thinking I had found the contentment I sought, yet eventually, the dissatisfaction would creep up on me again, and I would be off seeking enlightenment elsewhere.

Years passed and my life shifted further. The rules of my religious lifestyle gradually began to lose their relevance to my life. They no longer seemed to hold the significance for me which they once had, and I found myself discarding the strict practices and perspectives of my former world. Eventually, I settled on a more moderate and liberal approach to my life, one which didn’t demand such single-minded devotion to religious ideals.

And then one day, during a phone conversation with my mother, she informed me that she had been clearing out the house, and came across the menorah I had received for my bar mitzvah. She was coming to visit in a few months. Did I want her to bring it?

The memory of my menorah brought a smile to my face. My dear, beautiful, neglected menorah. It just kept on resurfacing in my life, shouting not to be ignored. Never letting me forget it. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about bringing this piece of my past into my life now. Did I really need this reminder of what I had left behind? But the way this curious object had such an endearing hold on me throughout all these years intrigued me. Maybe seeing it again would be nice. I told her to bring it along when she came to visit.

A few weeks later, when Chanuka arrived amidst a chilly December night, I delicately unwrapped the menorah from its ragged cloth coverings, and placed it on the window sill, visible for all to see. Taking a few steps back, I took a good long look at it, admiring the subtle grace of its form. Alone on the window, it looked out on a beautiful Jerusalem vista, the setting sun reflecting off its polished surface.

As I stood there, candle in hand, ready to kindle the tiny, fragile wicks, I reflected on the twisted path my menorah had taken, what it had gone through before making its way here today. For so long, I had valiantly tried to keep this treasure hidden from the world, hidden from myself.

I leaned in and brought the burning candle close to the silver cup, holding it steady, allowing the flame to catch on to the thin strands. It sputtered for a brief moment, unsure of itself, and then, suddenly, my beautiful menorah was finally alight.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Hedyot Revealed

I've noticed that here is quite a bit of talk on the interwebs lately about how it can be proven from the bible that Barack Obama is Satan, or alternatively that he is the Messiah, or alternatively that he is the President of the United States (this has yet to be adequately proven according to many people). I have nothing to add to these useless prognostications, as I only concern myself here with matters of real importance.

However, once we're on the topic of finding hidden messages buried in words, I'll mention that one astute reader pointed out in the comments to my last post, that the pseudonym I used for my fake article, Shaya Oddet, was actually an anagram of Daas Hedyot.

Yes, it's cute, but it's not really anything special. Anyone who's learned a little ba'al haturim should be able to could come up with something like that. But aside from useless fake names, there are actually far deeper secrets hidden in the depths of this blogger's identity. Yes, indeed.

Probe a little deeper, look closer at the sacred glyphs of the Latin alphabet, rearrange the letters some more, and you can find an answer to one of life's deepest mysteries...

Daas Hedyot = Sod haYated!

Yes, it's true! I am the secret, the deep, inner, hidden part of the Yated! All this time, my chareidi readers considered me to be an enemy of their worldview, but finally my true purpose can be revealed! I am the real source of all chareidi propaganda. Somehow though, by the time my eternal truths reach the Yated editors they get all mangled up and distorted and turned into the boneheaded drivel they call chareidi journalism. But now you know from whence their power derives. And that's why you should drop that paper and only read this blog instead.

Naturally, people will find this claim to be entirely preposterous. The Hedyot has lost it, they'll insist. Delusions of grandeur, and such. I understand their ambivalence. My friends, you don't have to believe me. Trust me, I did not ask for this responsibility. But this is who I am, and there is no denying it. The letters do not lie. I am the source, the very foundation of all knowledge. Like all eternal truths, if you believe in it enough, it shall be revealed, and revealed it has been. If you rearrange the letters of my name some more, the indisputable proof of my eternal truthiness is revealed to one and all:

Daas Hedyot = Yesod Hadat!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Breaking News!

It seems like I was wrong for criticizing the Asifah last week. The following article someone just sent me from this week's Yated seems to indicate that serious changes are coming to the chareidi world. I can't believe they're really doing this! What's next? Allowing people to daven for the amud with no hat and jacket?

Jewish World in Shock as Ultra-Orthodox Admit to Wrongdoing

By Shaya Oddet

In a stunning reversal of a decades long policy, the ultra orthodox world has publicly declared that they will no longer deny, excuse, cover-up, minimize, whitewash, or rationalize the criminal indiscretions of their community. Beginning this coming Elul, community spokespeople have announced, chareidi society will be taking full responsibility for any and all transgressions by its members and leadership.

Ari Shamran, spokesman for the Nogudah, explained the change, "We decided it was best to stop pretending that Chareidim are so much better than everyone else, and finally admit what we've known all along, that we don't really behave any differently than the goyim. For many years, we were able to maintain that myth, but due to all the recent press coverage, we realize that such a story simply isn't plausible anymore, and we need to stop promoting it. It just makes us look foolish."

The head of the Nogudah, R' Shlomo Ferlow told the press, "What with a new scandal being exposed every few days, it's become far too difficult to attribute our misdeeds to a few rotten apples in the community. People just don't buy it anymore."

"We realize that many will find this decision difficult to accept," counseled Shamran, in the official press statement released earlier today. "But after weeks of agonizing deliberations by our gedolim, it was decided that this is the most da'as torah-ish course of action available to us."

As was feared, not everyone was supportive of the novel ruling. One Brooklyn resident, Chaim F. (not his real name) told us, "It's mamesh crazy that they're doing this. Can you imagine the chillul hashem that will come about when people hear about all the stuff going on?! And during Elul?! They really need to ask a rav before going ahead with this."

It seems that the change in policy was a result of not only the increased frequency of the crimes, but also due to the more severe nature of the acts themselves. "It's understandable if we have to whitewash a little tax evasion or the occasional Ponzi scheme," explained Shamran. "But do they really expect us to put a positive spin on trafficking in human organs? No, I'm sorry, but there are some things that even a Torah Jew just doesn't try to excuse."

Another critic, Yehuda R. of Monsey (not his real residence), was less than convinced by Shamran's explanation. "What's the big deal?! They can just say it was pikuach nefesh! Anyway," he said, wagging his finger in angry frustration, "I don't really believe he did it. It's all just a blood libel by the anti-Semitic media. It never happened. My cousin davens in the guy's shul. I'm telling you, there's just no way he could have done that. And besides, it was pikuach nefesh!"

But Shamran insisted the time had come for the community to face the facts. "It's one thing to cover up child molestation that's been going on for decades. It's quite another to refute a two year long undercover FBI investigation." He held up his hands in a gesture of mock surrender. "Yeah, looks like you finally got us," he said laughing. "What took you so long?"

"I think it's a good thing," remarked Mrs. Miriam L., a Lakewood housewife (not her real occupation). "It's about time. I found it much too confusing always having them tell us contradictory things. One day they'd give a speech at the Nogudah Convention exhorting us to always be careful never to make a chillul hashem, and then the next week, they'd be explaining why they don't think child molesters should be brought to justice. How's a da'as torah following person supposed to make sense of it all?"

Despite the many prominent rabbonim who declared their support for the new policy, some rabbis still urged caution. "It's important for people to understand that this is not a p'sak," said R' Moshe Richtig, head of Yeshivas Torah v'Tzedakah. "This is a very complex issue, and anyone who is faced with a situation where they might have to admit to something inappropriate should probably consult their posek first."

Most people in the media were unsure how to take the news. Bloggers in particular were a bit concerned. "I suppose it's a positive development," said the writer known as XGHRWMO. "But it's also a bit troubling. If they really adopt this policy it's going to have a drastic effect on the blogging community. What will we have left to mock? Fake interviews with ex-frum people? I really don't want to go back to writing about the documentary hypothesis," he said, clearly alarmed at the prospect.

Others expressed concern about how the policy would affect their day to day lives. "I know money laundering is a problem, but does this mean I'll have to start paying my workers on the books?" asked the owner of a plumbing supply store. "If I do that I'll probably only be able to afford sending my kids to camp for one month. Do you have any idea what that would do to their shidduch prospects?"

"Does this mean we can't cheat on the regents anymore?" a yeshiva bochur inquired. "They weren't referring to that kind of stuff, right? Mistumeh, that's not really stealing anyway."

But some in the community weren't at all worried how the new policy would affect them. "After all," one storeowner explained confidently. "They never said we have to start abiding by the rules. Just that we should stop denying that we're breaking them. As long as we're careful not to get caught, I don't really see why anything has to change."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Change We Can't Believe In

So in yesterday's rant, I made a passing reference to the recently indicted Spinka Rebbe, and how I found the idea that one of the goals of the symposium was "...to learn to distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not," to be evidence of their disingenuousness in truly addressing the systemic problem in their community. After all, it’s not as if the Spinka Rebbe doesn’t know the halachos!

I also mentioned about how I thought it was ludicrous that one of their keynote speakers at the event was going to be a man who has proven to be a ruthless and dishonest thug. Well, leave it to the Agudah to outdo themselves. Not only did they have that fellow speak to the crowd, but they also had the Spinka Rebbe himself! Yes, barely two weeks after pleading guilty to a decade-long tax fraud and money laundering scheme, Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz is being presented as the opening speaker at an event meant to tackle the problem of fraud and corruption!

Now, I’m sure there are many people who will argue that this is not as bad it seems, and that he’s actually an appropriate choice, because firstly, he's done teshuva, and secondly, someone who has been guilty of such a crime is the best person to speak to the community of the problem, kind of like how convicted gang members talk to inner city high school kids. Yeah, well, sorry, but I don’t think it’s the same thing. He was up there on the dais as a respected leader of the community, not as a convicted felon. The unspoken message to that crowd was that you can commit these crimes but we will still respect and honor you as if nothing happened. Which we all know is par for the course - as far as I know, there hasn't been a single op-ed or article in the chareidi press criticizing the man for his indiscretions. And more importantly, if you look at what he said, it shows that he actually hasn’t owned up to the problem. From the Forward article:
Weisz spoke in great detail about the compliance program that the Spinka board has entered with the government and he said, "Our community, baruch hashem, is not lacking in smart experienced lawyers and accountants that are willing to teach the tzibur [community], how to conduct their communal affairs in a manner that is in compliance with the law in all respects."
And from the VIN article:
The Spinka Rebbe told the audience about a new organization founded with the help of prominent askonim. Members include experienced attorneys, accountants and other professionals. “A lot of effort has gone into this matter and the staff can help people set up tzedaka and chessed organizations. Little by little more and more mosdos are joining the program and we’re hoping that in the coming years there will no longer be any organizations that don’t keep proper accounting records.”
Please! What a bunch of unadulterated bulls#*it! He’s making it sound as if, nebach!, we just didn’t really understand that what we were doing was wrong. But thankfully, now we have people who will teach us how to do things right! He isn’t in the least bit owning up to what he did! Just like how Zwiebel explained the asifah, not as a moment of true self-reflection and an opportunity to acknowledge their misdeeds, but rather as a chance for people to learn right from wrong! Suuuure... it’s just a matter of educating people! As if no one really intended to cheat, deceive, and steal from the government (and the taxpayer)! Even Braffman, one of the attorneys who spoke, made it sound like these things are innocent mistakes (from VIN):
Later in his talk Atty. Braffman touched on day-to-day affairs. "People don’t learn how to run their day-to-day lives after getting married, when they’ll have to report income. You have to know how to write checks, how to buy a home. When today’s generation grows up we’ll be in a much bigger mess because young people know nothing about how to run their day-to-day lives. You have no idea how careful you have to be to avoid chilul Hashem."
What a bunch of horses#%t! This is not a mea culpa! This isn’t admitting wrongdoing! This is exactly the opposite! Focusing on people's (supposed) ignorance is not how you take responsibility!

This is why I think the Agudah and all the frum people who are talking about ‘addressing the issue’ are so full of crap. They aren’t really interested in looking at themselves in a mirror and admitting to any real wrongdoing. Instead, they’ll point to ‘flaws in the system’ that contributed to the problem. Already, we are seeing people pointing to the fact that secular education in the frum world is so poor as a cause for these kinds of problems. Yeah, it’s true, their secular education does suck, and that cultivates an environment where people are lacking skills to support themselves, which can often lead to such shady activities, but that’s not the real problem!!! Nor is the problem - as everyone seems to be focused on - because these sort of things cause a chillul hashem!

These are just side issues to deflect from the real issue that no one wants to face, that for the past few decades the chareidi world and its leaders have turned a blind eye to the widespread financial impropriety that is commonplace in their society. They don’t want to face the real issue that they have been complicit in cultivating this attitude, that its ok to take advantage of any loophole (legal or not) they can come up with, if the goal is to support their mosdos and their frum lifestyle. They don’t want to acknowledge the many shmuezzen and divrei torah from their rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, and gedolim, which have subtly (and sometimes explicitly) sent the message that the only rules in life that matter are the torah rules and what the goyim say and think doesn’t really matter at all. Anyone who had been in yeshiva has heard a shmuez or two where the rabbi stands up at the podium and thunderously exclaims to his flock, "It’s only wrong because the torah says it’s wrong!" Any proper yeshiva bochur knows that the whole notion of being an ethical person really doesn't matter at all to a torah yid. All that matters to such a person is being a halachic person. And while many will point out that according to halacha all these things are forbidden (well, according to some opinions), it doesn’t really matter. Because once you’ve disregarded the notion of ethics, and put all of life into the box of halacha, all it takes is one clever gemara-kup to come up with a legal loophole, or to find some obscure psak, or figure out some rationale as to why it’s not a problem according to halacha, and the frum people will do whatever the hell they want.

How many more incidents is it going to take before they acknowledge the real underlying issues? In fact, in the past 24 hours, two more incidents have come to light - one of a couple in Monsey that were arrested on welfare fraud, and another of two young guys stealing checks from people’s mailboxes. A few months ago a Monsey guy pled guilty to wire fraud. Before that it was Leib Pinter (an Artscroll author) getting busted for a $44 million fraud. Last year it was a Lakewood bochur scamming elderly people. These are all symptoms of a very deep and disturbing issue.

Like so many other problems in chareidi society (lack of education, poverty, sexual abuse, violence, and more), this is one more travesty that they themselves can proudly take credit for creating. I’m not saying that everyone in the chareidi world is a criminal. Absolutely not. Just like not every chareidi person is a sexual abuser. But just like with the problem of sexual abuse, the community as a whole has knowingly fostered an environment where this sort of thing is not just tolerated, but is allowed to flourish. They chose to look the other way when it went on in front of them, thereby allowing the problem to get ever worse. And as was so amply demonstrated last night, they have chosen to hastily forgive the misdeeds of those who have been guilty of these crimes.

If these people ever own up to the detrimental attitudes that are endemic to their value system, there may be hope for real improvement. But as long as they refuse to face the real issues, and instead distract themselves with every excuse they can come up with, I’m quite confident that nothing more than superficial changes will come of all this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Moment of Reflection

So, it seems that the Agudah is having an asifa (a communal gathering) to address the recent scandals that have come to light. Here’s the letter that got sent out by Chaim Zwiebel, the Agudah’s VP:
The asifa, which is being sponsored by community askonim, will be focusing on the timeless (but also all too timely) theme of "Vi’asisa hayashar vi’hatov." It will feature two distinguished rabbonim - Harav Avrohom Schorr, shlita, and Harav Dovid Ozieri, shlita; as well as two respected legal experts - Benjamin Brafman, Esq. and Jacob Laufer, Esq. I will be serving as the evening’s chairman. We will start with Mincha at 7:15 and then proceed with the program.

Introspection about how to better live our lives in consonance with Torah ideals is always timely. It is particularly timely during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the fact that we remain in Golus, and the reasons why.

And in the wake of recent headlines and front-page photographs that made every feeling Jewish heart ache, it is even more timely for us to take a good, hard look at our obligations to our fellows, to our society, to our government.

I don’t think I can adequately convey how compelling this gathering should be to us all. But I am confident that you realize how vital it is that we hear words of mussar and chizuk, and that we learn to distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not. I am also confident that you understand how important it is to demonstrate to the wider world how heartfelt and determined Jews respond to news like the tragic tidings of recent days. Tomorrow night’s symposium and our attendance are an important part of that response.
This is without a doubt the biggest load of crap I've heard since Shafran's contemptible defense of Madoff. "To distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not?!" What the hell does that even mean? It sounds like he's saying that because people don't realize that these things are actually assur (forbidden) due to dina d'malchusa, unfortunately some bad mistakes have happened. Riiiiight... because without knowing that dina d'malchusa forbids it, it's understandable that someone would find it acceptable to cheat the government, launder millions through charities, bribe officials, and engage in illegal organ trafficking! (Not to mention sexually molest children, grant special treatment to prisoners, defend abusive parents, smuggle drugs, abuse immigrant workers, violently riot because of a parking lot opening on shabbos, and protect pedophiles - just some of the recent crimes that have been perpetrated by ultra-orthodox people in the past few months.) Sure, it's a lesson in conforming to dina d'malchusa dina that people need - people like the Spinka Rebbe, who was busted this past year for money laundering and tax evasion. If only he had known the halacha!

The hypocrisy of these people is utterly astounding! They can’t even acknowledge the problem they claim they want to address! Why can't they just say it like it is?! To admit what everyone knows is really going on?! Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone at the Agudah actually said the following: "We need to take a close look where it is we've gone wrong if every other week another rav or frum person is being busted with crime after crime. We need to consider how the view that we've promoted throughout the last few decades (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) - that the goyim don't really matter and that it's ok to disregard them, cheat them, and lie to them, as long as we don't get caught and cause a chillul hashem - might actually be responsible for all this awful behavior. We need to acknowledge that the fact that the Otisville prison looks like a heimishe bungalow colony says something very disturbing about our society. And that few frum people seem to be bothered by this is even more disturbing. We need to admit the painful, ugly truth, that - to paraphrase Shakespeare - something is truly, very rotten in the state of Chareidistan."

Of course, this would never be said in a million years. Why not? Because the attitudes and behaviors that have produced this dysfunctional rot have been taught to scores of frum people as part of the one True Torah Derech (TM). I guarantee you that every person who commits one of these crimes, or defends those who have done so, can find some rav or halachic source to justify his behavior. Just look at the recent debacle over R' Dovid Cohen's statement that it's ok to cheat on one's taxes. Although many in the MO world spoke up against this, the chareidi world was mostly silent, and in fact most of the discussion that I saw from those quarters was defending him. The fact that the Agudah doesn't even have the guts to openly refer to the problems which need addressing just proves how disingenuous they are about actually fixing them. The simple, yet disturbing, truth about all this is that they won't ever really address these issues because so many of their constituents, and their leaders, don't really see these attitudes as problematic.

And let's not forget this little gem:
I am also confident that you understand how important it is to demonstrate to the wider world how heartfelt and determined Jews respond to news like the tragic tidings of recent days.
Hahahahahaha! What a freaking joke! Yes, we have to make sure that the goyim know we’re very upset about all this. Damage control! We wouldn't want them to draw any conclusions from this tragedy about the disregard that our society has viewed them with these past few decades! You know, Rabbi Zwiebel, it's funny you should mention how Jews respond to these things, because until this week, whenever I heard a frum guy share with his yeshiva or shul buddies some ethically questionable shtick that would save them some money, all I heard in response was admiration of his clever yiddishe kup! (Who in the frum world hasn't knowingly winked at the ingenuity of the camp administrator who bussed in loads of kids on the day the inspectors were coming for a visit?) Where was the chareidi community's moral outrage when their criminals weren't being paraded in front of the whole world?

As usual, they profess an earnest sense of remorse and self-reflection:
Introspection about how to better live our lives in consonance with Torah ideals is always timely. It is particularly timely during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the fact that we remain in Golus, and the reasons why.
As DovBear so eloquently put it, the reason the Temple was destroyed was because the leaders of Jerusalem were pious frauds, who used the Temple to justify their selfish behavior.... In the language of the Prophet, they did not "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow." They didn't protect the vulnerable or defend the rights of the innocent. Instead they just kept showing up on the Temple Mount, day after day, with their fat bulls and incense. While vulnerable people went exploited and unprotected, the leaders of Jerusalem gathered on a mountaintop to pay lip service to God.

They say they want to take a close look at themselves. Well, how about taking a look at this? One of the featured speakers at this asifah, Rabbi Avrohom Schorr, is one of the fundie nut jobs behind a lot of the banning thuggery that goes on in the chareidi community! Yes, the man who unjustly caused damages in excess of $500,000, and tried to ruin an innocent man’s reputation is going to lecture to them on the theme of "Vi’asisa hayashar vi’hatov!" The person who publicly humiliated Lipa Schmeltzer by rushing the stage at a wedding and grabbing the microphone away from the singer is going to speak "words of mussar and chizuk" to the community!

On Tuesday, these god-fearing people will gather to, in their words, "take a good, hard look at our obligations to our fellows, to our society, to our government."

I honestly can not wait to see what they discover.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ulterior Motives

We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe, casually reminiscing on the frivolities of our lives, when my friend suddenly leaned over the table, and like a seedy peddler in a back alley, held his jacket slightly open, and said to me conspiratorially, "Hey, check it out."

My interest sufficiently piqued, I watched as he reached into his inside pocket and withdrew a highly polished pen of unique design. Holding it out in the palm of his hand, he looked at me expectantly, clearly wanting me to let him know how impressed I was.

"Ok," I said nonchalantly, refusing to play along, "So you got yourself a nice pen. What's the big deal? Why all the fuss?"

"No, no, " he said to me, nodding his head disapprovingly. "This isn't just any pen. It's a Mont Blanc. Retail price $700." His mangled attempt to pronounce it with the French accent made him appear pathetically condescending.

"Seriously?" I said, mildly impressed, despite myself. "How'd you get your hands on that?" There was no way my friend could afford anything that extravagant, let alone a mere pen.

"Hmmmm..." he replied mysteriously, pleased that I had taken the bait. "That isn't important. I've been using it for a week now. I love having this thing. It writes amazingly. Such an incredible piece of craftsmanship."

His pretentiousness was starting to grate on me. "Really?" I retorted sarcastically. "It writes so amazingly? That's why you enjoy carrying it around? For some reason, I suspect there might be some other motivation at work."

"What do you mean?" he answered defensively. "This really is one of the finest writing instruments ever produced. When writing with it, it smoothly flows along the paper. It sits perfectly balanced in your hand. It's elegantly sculpted. There's no doubt in my mind that this is a superior pen to the crap that everyone else uses!"

"Yeah, that may be true," I replied. "But it's still not why you enjoy using it. The real reason you like it is because it's a status symbol. It gives you cache. People look at you differently when they know you have a Mont Blanc. It may indeed be a far superior pen, but that's irrelevant to why you like using it."

Naturally, he vehemently disputed my allegations, insisting that it was the exceptional quality which earned the pen his unabashed adulation, but the begrudging tone in his voice told me I had indeed hit upon a sore point.

We kept going back and forth on this inane triviality until he insisted he had to take off, and left me alone to ruminate on our petty squabble. But even after he had been gone half an hour, the conversation was still repeating itself in my head. There was something oddly familiar about it to me, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on exactly why it felt that way. Finally, it came to me! I had had this conversation once before, a few weeks earlier! Only then I wasn't talking about luxury pens, but rather, about religion.

You see, every time there's something in the media about people leaving frumkeit (and lately there has been quite a bit about that topic - articles, books, movies, custody battles, documentaries, and more) people talk about the issue more and more. And inevitably I am approached by someone - a friend, a co-worker, a relative - and get asked the million dollar question: Why do people leave frumkeit?

There's many ways to approach this issue, but when the question is posed by a chareidi person, the conversation usually takes a very predictable turn. Chareidi people are ostensibly very bothered by this phenomenon, and when they ask it, they aren't just inquiring out of sheer curiosity, but rather because it's an immensely troubling issue to them. They ask because (so they say) they want to understand the issue better, and by better understanding it, they can work on figuring out a solution to what they see as a serious problem.

So in responding to their inquiry, I usually flip the question back around and ask my interlocutor to explain to me why people are frum. A variety of answers are usually presented in response, but the main one given is simply that... It's the truth! Frum people believe that god has revealed to them the proper way to live, he explains simply, and so observing those rules is the most correct and true lifestyle one can follow.

However, I always dispute that point. Yes, I fully acknowledge that they believe it's the truth. But I don't believe that this belief is the reason why they are frum. I maintain that most people are frum because it serves their own interests, and not because of some lofty devotion to truth. I don't dispute that they believe it. They can still believe it is true, and at the same time, they can be primarily motivated by something other than that truth. Just like my friend with the pen, he honestly believed that it was a truly superior pen (and was probably correct about that), but despite his claim to the contrary, that superiority was not really why he liked the pen so much. His real motivation in using that Mont Blanc was the fact that it brought some tangible benefit to his life (the newfound respect with which people viewed him). And it's the same thing with frumkeit, I say. Whether or not people believe it is true, that's not really why they're frum. They are frum primarily because it brings some tangible benefit to their life. The truth is mostly irrelevant.

Unsurprisingly, frum people staunchly resist attributing their motivations to such self-serving forces. They much prefer the notion that they are frum because they are fervent devotees of the truth and they therefore follow what they believe to be the truth of god's revealed word.

It doesn't bother me that they think this. I honestly don't have any interest in arguing with frum people about it, nor in trying to convince them that my perspective is correct. If my advice on how they can better solve their problem is too difficult for them to accept, I'm not going to force it on them. But despite their resistance, I oftentimes can't help bringing it up in discussion because I feel it satisfactorily resolves a question that is repeatedly raised by frum people in response to a very frequent occurrence, that of the pronouncement by someone (typically an ex-frum person) who, in response to some indiscretion, corruption or criminal activity by a visibly religious figure, will loudly exclaim, "You see?! That's why I am not religious! If that's how religious people behave, I don't want any part in it!"

Whenever they hear someone say this, chareidi people immediately reject it out of hand with what, at first glance, seems to be a very logical reply. "But that doesn't make any sense! Just because some people aren't behaving properly, doesn't disprove the truth of the religion! Their indiscretions do not invalidate God's truth! Why would you throw away something good and true just because of a few rotten apples?" It's a logical reply because they're absolutely right in making their point. Witnessing a religious person behave unethically doesn't have any bearing whatsoever on the truth of the religion. But nonetheless, it always frustrates me when I hear frum people responding this way, because they are entirely misunderstanding the subtext of what one is expressing when making that angry accusation!

When a person passionately declares that seeing a prominent religious figure act inappropriately makes him want to stop being frum, he's not saying that the religion per se has now been disproven. Rather, the primary incentive for him being religious has now been demonstrably refuted. Until that moment he believed that being religious improved the "quality" of a person, or that it genuinely enhanced one's morals somehow. But faced with this spiritual fraud, he now recognizes that religion, in fact, falls far short of achieving that goal. This, then, is what is being expressed in that moment of rejection. Not a statement about the truth of religion, but simply a newfound appreciation for what frumkeit can and can not do for a person's life. He understands now that the benefits he was hoping to accrue from frumkeit will not necessarily be granted to him. And if he isn't going to obtain those rewards, then why bother with it at all?

This is what I keep trying to make frum people understand, but they seem unwilling to accept it: Most people stop being frum for the same reason they choose to remain frum - because of how much they are or aren't benefiting from it. As long as they feel they are tangibly benefiting somehow, either because they genuinely enjoy torah and mitzvos, or because they trust that being frum somehow protects them from the evils of the outside world, or because they think it will guarantee them eternal reward, or because they think it ensures them a moral life, or because they think that they have a better chance at a happy life following those rules, or even simply because they enjoy the social aspects of frum life - for whatever reason it might be, as long as they feel they are prospering in some way from it, they will want to stay frum.

But as soon as the benefit is reduced sufficiently, either because the person doesn't get any significant enjoyment from it anymore, or because torah and mitzvos have become more of a burden, or because the promise of a world to come seems less certain, or because he sees that being frum doesn't guarantee a more moral life, or because he has come to realize that it doesn't shelter him from criminals, corruption, and the dangerous elements of 'the outside world', or for any of a variety of other reasons, then he will stop caring about being frum.

This mental calculus, which more often than not is an unconscious thought process, has very little to do with how much one believes in the truth of Judaism. It is almost entirely self-serving. No doubt on some level they genuinely believe in the truth of Judaism. But again, that belief plays only a very minor role in why they are frum.

Admittedly, if a person truly believes, with a firm conviction, that Judaism is true, he probably won't stop being religious even if he no longer benefits from it, but this is a moot point. The vast majority of frum people do not possess any such conviction. Their 'belief' in Judaism's truth, if it can even be called that, is a barely sustainable faith built upon a hodge-podge of gedolim stories, midrashim, gematrias, some degree of trust in their rabbinic leaders, a whole lot of superstitions, and a few poorly constructed arguments that they might have once heard from a kiruv rabbi. (Additionally, if a person really has a firm conviction that Judaism is true, then he presumably still believes in olam haba, so in effect, he still DOES believe that he is benefiting by being frum.)

"Why are so many people leaving yiddishkeit?", the frum world constantly asks. They can ask it as often as they want. They can hold conferences devoted to the topic, and every month print op-ed's in their publications about it. They can seek the advice of gedolim on the topic and hold tehillim gatherings for siyata d'shmaya in solving it. But all their efforts simply won't amount to much at all. Because until they put aside their inflated sense of spiritual devotion, and acknowledge the mundane truth of their society's self-interested motivations, they will never even begin to truly understand why so many people choose to leave that world behind.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Shoshana

Once again, I am very excited to present a new interview for the 'Better Know a Kofer' series (see the sidebar for the other interviews). Our kofer today - a 45 year old molecular biologist who stopped being Orthodox only a year ago - tells quite a different story from our past interviewees. In fact, in some ways it's almost the exact opposite of Sara's story. Please join me in welcoming Shoshana to the blog.


Hello Shoshana, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. To begin, can you tell us a bit about the religious environment that you were raised in?

My background is a bit different from the other interviewees because I didn't grow up in an Orthodox home. I converted to Judaism as an adult. In fact, I was not raised in any sort of religious environment at all. My father was brought up Catholic and has a lot of negative feelings about the Catholic church. I don't know if my mother was raised with any religious upbringing; she certainly never spoke of one. When I was younger my parents did send me to Saturday morning Catholic education classes, which I think are probably the equivalent of afternoon Hebrew school. The teachers weren't very good, we didn't really learn anything, and even the nuns said the classes were a poor substitute for Catholic school. We rarely went to church and the classes ended at confirmation (age 12).

How did you get involved in Judaism?

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago and my dad was in the scrap metal business, so most of the people I knew were Jewish. I became attracted to Judaism because of them, particularly my best friend Robin. I liked the holidays, traditions and most of all the sense of being part of a community. When I got to college and began exploring different religions, I liked Judaism because I didn't have to believe in Jesus. I was never comfortable with the whole idea of Jesus.

After college, I hung around different synagogues for a couple of years. I had picked up enough Hebrew along the way that I could follow a service. For the holidays, I would usually go to a synagogue that didn't require tickets, so I never became a member anywhere. When I met my husband he belonged to a large Conservative congregation (800+ families). After he brought me as a guest on the High Holidays, the rabbi called to welcome me. The rabbi was a bit surprised that I hadn't converted, and invited me to come in and discuss it. I spent a few months studying. I had a pretty good Jewish background already, so there wasn't a lot to learn. It was during this process that I started asking fundamental questions, such as "Where did we get the Torah?" At the time, I didn't realize that that was such a politically charged question. I was disappointed that the rabbi didn't have a better answer. He told me that the Orthodox believed in Torah m'Sinai, but wasn't able to give me a coherent alternative to TMS.

So what brought you to Orthodoxy?

After about a year as a member of the Conservative synagogue, I really became dissatisfied. It was a large congregation and I didn't find it to be very welcoming or personal. I met an Aish HaTorah rabbi at a funeral and started talking to him. He invited me to attend some classes. I'm pretty sure he didn't realize I had already converted to Conservative Judaism. When it later came up, there was a very awkward conversation with his wife which ended with her suggesting that I break up with the man I would eventually marry. I don't recall who, or if anyone, suggested an Orthodox conversion, but I eventually called an Orthodox rabbi on my own to talk about converting.

My Orthodox conversion was very different from my Conservative one. I was living with my future husband at the time and obviously had to move out. I moved in with a wonderful family and lived with them for over a year. I live in a medium sized city with a small Orthodox community (100 or so shomer shabbos families). Over the years the Orthodox community has become much more yeshivish due to an influx of families from New York, but at the time, there were a handful of kollel families and the rest were BTs. Some people were incredibly welcoming, others weren't; I had a mix of good and bad experiences. I remained Orthodox for 18 years.

What was the impetus for your transition out of Orthodoxy?

My move out of Orthodoxy was due to a combination of intellectual and social factors. While I always had certain intellectual issues with some of the things the Kiruv folks said, e.g. I had some reservations about the Kuzari "proof", I was willing to push my intellectual doubts to the back of my mind in order to obtain the social benefits of being frum. Those social benefits began to decline when my son started having trouble in school. Against the advice of the school’s principal and our rabbi, my husband and I opted to pull our son out of the day school. After that, we became marginalized in the frum community - we stopped getting invitations for meals, frum kids wouldn’t associate with our son, I was virtually ignored at shul and eventually stopped going. After my husband passed away and I became a widow, I was even more marginalized.

Was it primarily the unpleasant social dynamic that was causing you to feel more distant from Judaism or were there also ideological/philosophical difficulties arising?

I think there are three parts to my answer to this question. First, there was just the general social difficulties of widows, particularly young widows. Orthodox women my age are busy with children and grandchildren; we did not have a lot of common ground. Secondly, my husband was the only person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about things. After a few years in Orthodoxy the luster began to wear off and we started to see problems in the community. We often talked about how we felt we were in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," i.e. there were problems that everyone pretended didn't exist. Without having my husband to talk to, I found it harder to live in this kind of environment. Finally, my husband's cancer diagnosis and eventual death did cause me to have questions about my faith and belief in God and I didn't find Orthodoxy's answers satisfying. For example, shortly after my husband was diagnosed, a rabbi suggested that we have our mezzuzahs checked. I understand that the rabbi meant well, but I find it hard to believe that God would give someone cancer because their mezzuzah's weren't kosher.

When I first started looking outside of Orthodoxy, I needed to address my original question of "Where did we get the Torah?" This was the question that got me into Orthodoxy. If the Torah was from Sinai, then, at least according to my thinking, I had to follow it. When I was involved with Aish HaTorah I heard the Kuzari argument and I am now embarrassed to say that I believed it. All it took was a quick internet search to find lots of counter-arguments, perhaps not enough to convince someone that it isn't true, but at least enough to introduce doubt. I am embarrassed to say that I didn't do this research earlier and that I bought into the Kiruv arguments. I should have been more skeptical and less trusting. I feel like I got taken by a con man.

Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?

My first acts were for convenience rather than to make a statement, e.g. if I forgot to turn off my alarm before Shabbos, I would turn it off on Shabbos. My thoughts were that it was ridiculous to spend all of Shabbos listening to the alarm because I wasn’t allowed to flip the switch. Later, when I started doing more public things, such as driving, I felt guilty when I was in the frum neighborhood; if I wasn’t in the frum neighborhood, it didn’t bother me. I think the first time I drove on Shabbos was when I was out of town. My son got sick and we decided to come home early, rather than stay through the weekend. I didn’t give it a second thought when I loaded up the car and drove off on Shabbos, but I was concerned about getting home before dark and having someone see me.

How has your family reacted to the changes you've instituted in your life?

My family has always been wonderfully supportive in everything I’ve done. They didn’t object to me converting or becoming frum and they haven’t said anything about my going OTD, other than to ask if I would be joining them when they went out for dinner.

How have the Orthodox people from your past reacted? Has it affected your relationship with them in a significant way?

At this point I do not have any contact with my Orthodox friends. I have been avoiding them because I'm not ready to explain my decision to go OTD. I don't want to hurt them and I don't want to fight with them. It would be nice if they could see that I am happy and accept my decision, but I'm afraid that they won't.

What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?

I currently belong to a wonderful Jewish Renewal congregation and am actively involved.

Can you elaborate on what Jewish Renewal is?

I don't know that I'm the best person to do this, as I'm still trying to figure out what it is myself. Basically, the synagogue I attend now is very free flowing, do what feels meaningful for you. Very 60s. There is a lot of singing and talking about individual spirituality, not a lot of structure. Also a lot of emphasis on building community. Every service is different.

What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?

I really miss Shabbos. I always attend Shabbat services and come out feeling wonderful and refreshed, but then I get in my car, some idiot cuts me off in traffic, and the whole mood is spoiled.

Are there other aspects of shabbos which you observe besides going to services?

I try to do things that are "shabbosdik", e.g. read, meditate. I don't go shopping, do chores, check my email or do other things I would do during the week. I prefer that my son not watch television or play video games, but that's not a battle I want to fight.

How old is your son? How has he adapted to changing his lifestyle and living without halacha ruling his life?

My son is 14. He never liked being Orthodox, never fit well in the Orthodox community, so he is thrilled with all of the changes. We talk a lot about things I consider important, e.g. be honest, kind, etc. and things I don't consider important, e.g. dressing like a penguin.

Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?

I like to think that being frum taught me about ethical behavior. I am still very conscious of shmiras ha lashon. In fact, I still read the Chofetz Chaim's "Lesson a Day." My husband was also very careful about what he said. When we decided to pull our son out of the day school we spent hours discussing what we would and would not tell people because we didn't want to say anything negative about the school or people involved in the school.

How do you currently view the religious community you were a part of?

Although I can understand why some OTDers might have very negative feelings about the frum world, I don’t. My son still has a lot of anger and I am trying to help him work through it so he can let go of it. I think it takes a lot of energy to be angry and I don’t want to waste energy on the people who hurt me. I miss some of my friends and being able to have some of the experiences; other people I don’t miss at all.

Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?

Yes, though I am still working out what it is.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?

As I said, I miss Shabbos. I don’t regret leaving; I think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. If anything, I regret not leaving sooner.

Do you think that becoming frum was also a good decision?

That's a question I've given a lot of thought to. At this point, I regret becoming frum, though I do see some positive things came out of it. If I hadn't become frum I probably would not have gotten married and wouldn't have my son. Additionally, I learned a lot. When I first started going to the synagogue I attend the rabbi commented that I might be frustrated because I am far more knowledgeable than most of the membership.

Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?

It has been hard losing my Orthodox friends. At some point I am going to need to talk to a few of them and let them know what's going on with me. It would be nice if they could accept my decision, but I've heard the way they talk about the synagogue I now attend, so I don't think they will.

Being OTD is still very new for me. I've landed in a Jewish Renewal synagogue, but I don't know if that's where I will stay. It's a comfortable place for me to be right now while I figure out what I believe and what I want.

What helped you get through the challenges of leaving Orthodoxy?

The people at my new synagogue have been tremendously welcoming and supportive. At first, I was afraid to tell them that I had been Orthodox, but no one has held it against me.

Can you name something significant which you are currently doing in your life, or that you’ve experienced, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?

Not really, but I never totally conformed to the frum code of behavior anyway. I just completed my first marathon, but I would have done that anyway. I want to do some serious mountain climbing and through hike the Appalachian trail. My son’s life has been much more affected than mine. He has been in plays and traveled with the school chess team, which he wouldn’t have been able to do because of Shabbos.

What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?

Nothing really, but I never totally left it. I guess the one thing that surprises me is that no one has held it against me that I used to be frum.

What led you to believe that they would?

I've heard non-frum Jews make negative statements about Orthodoxy, just as Orthodox Jews make negative statements about other movements.

What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you’d like to correct?

That we’re all angry, lonely, bitter drug addicts. We’re not.

When you were frum, what was your reaction when you heard some of the stereotypes that were expressed by frum people about general society?

At first, when I heard some of the outrageous stereotypes I just kept quiet. During my conversion I didn't want to do or say anything that I thought would jeopardize my conversion. My husband and I would talk about things, particularly later when we started to see flaws in the Orthodox community, but I didn't discuss it with anyone else. After he died, I lost the one person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about some things which made it harder for me to stay in the Orthodox community.

How does your life now compare to when you were frum?

Much, much better.

Care to elaborate?

I think what's better is that I'm living honestly. When I was frum I felt like I couldn't always say what I was thinking or I wasn't free to disagree with things I disagree with. There was a lot of pressure to conform. Now I'm not afraid to speak up when I disagree.

Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?

Watching my husband die of cancer has definitely changed the way I look at things. I have less tolerance for BS and I am less concerned about other people’s expectations. I refuse to live my life just "going through the motions."

How did being frum play a role in how you dealt with that ordeal?

Being frum was both helpful and not helpful during the ordeal. It was helpful in that many people in the community were tremendously supportive of my physical needs. People brought me meals, helped with rides to doctor's appointments, etc. I will always be grateful for their help. However, I did not find much psychological support. Being a caregiver is emotionally and psychologically exhausting, but the frum perspective seems to be "suck it up" because "it's a mitzvah." I also tired of people trying to link my husband's illness to a behavior, e.g. check your mezzuzahs, don't speak loshon hara, etc.

After my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer somebody called me to tell me that different ailments are associated with certain types of aveiros and lung ailments are associated with loshon hara. I'm sure the person thought she was being helpful, but the implication was that my husband's lung cancer was a punishment for speaking loshon hara. I understand that because frum people believe that everything happens for a reason they have a real need to find a cause for every bad thing that happens. But, I can't tell you how upsetting it is to be in the midst of trying to cope with a fatal illness and getting calls from people who think they have ruach hakodesh.

By the way, from my conversations with other widows I know that kind of behavior isn't limited to frum Jews. But it did kind of surprise me. A lot of frum Jews like to claim moral superiority, but when it comes to helping people in crisis, my experience with frum Jews is mixed. Some people I knew were great, but some weren't. And it was my non-Jewish neighbors who noticed that my grass needed cutting and came over and cut it.

Is there anything positive in your life that you would attribute to having gotten from the frum world?

I learned a lot about Judaism by being frum. My Hebrew is better than almost anyone I know outside of the frum world.

What’s the best thing about not being frum?

I don’t have to put up with judgmental, holier than thou attitudes.

What’s the best thing that you recall about being frum?

Shabbos. I miss the peace and calmness I used to feel on Shabbos. When I go to services now I do get into a peaceful state, but then I have to drive home and as soon as I get in traffic I get tense again. I try to create the Shabbos feeling as much as I can. Recently I started making Shabbos dinner again and then I go to services afterward (services don't start until 8) which is nice, but it's not the same.

Do you have a favorite character or incident from the Bible?

I've always been intrigued by Orpah. Even when I was frum, I wondered what it was that made Ruth stay with Naomi and Orpah return home. I wonder if it's just that she missed her family or if she saw something in Judaism that she didn't like.

If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?

I would like it to be more tolerant and accepting, less judgmental. I would like people to be a little less sure of themselves and more aware of the gray areas of life.

Do you think there’s anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?

Not unless they were willing to change their entire mindset.

Are there any parting words you’d like to tell the frum world?

There is a lot of good in the frum world, but the frum world does not have a monopoly on goodness. The frum world is not as good as it thinks it is; the outside world is not as bad as the frum world thinks it is.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming and Going

Although much of my focus here on the blog tends to focus on the chareidi world's attitudes towards people who leave the frum world, the other day I had an encounter that made me think about their attitude towards certain other people in the community - baalei teshuva (aka "born again religious Jews", or 'BT's') and converts.

Although they won't usually admit it, the chareidi world has always had a very conflicted attitude towards such people. Most of the time, when the issue arises, what you'll typically hear a born-and-bred chareidi person (aka FFB) express about a BT is unabashed admiration. Baalei teshuva and converts are often minor celebrities in those circles, frequently called upon to speak to the masses, and held up as "proof" that frumkeit is better than a non-religious lifestyle. And every frum person will eagerly pull out the quote from the gemara that heaps unequivocal praise on such people: "In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand." And to their credit, frum people want to make sure that newcomers to religion are made to feel at home and welcome so they do their utmost to treat them with the greatest respect and sensitivity, trying their best to be as accommodating as they can to the newcomers often clumsy adoptions of the norms of frum life.

One of the main reasons that FFB's love baalei teshuva so much is that the BT confirms for them that they are living the right kind of life. In the back of every FFB's mind there are always some niggling doubts haunting his thoughts: Am I really sure that we are so right believing what we do? Do I really have a better life with all these restrictions? How can I be certain that Judaism is the more logical path to follow if I never really investigated the alternatives? The BT's decision to adopt a frum lifestyle lays to rest all these troublesome questions. After all, thinks the FFB, if this guy who had a chance to live on the outside chose to give it up for Torah, then obviously it's right! All those questions that supposedly challenge the truth of Yiddishkeit don't have to concern him anymore, because if this formerly secular guy - who doesn't have the bias of being born frum and who most probably looked into Judaism very thoroughly - feels that Torah stands up to scrutiny, then clearly Mr. FFB doesn't have to worry that they are of any consequence!

But if you listen closely, and look a bit more carefully at how FFB's interact with BT's and speak about them when they are in private company, one can sense more than a little ambivalence and skepticism mixed in among all the adulation. BT's are admired... but still thought of as a bit odd. They are welcomed... but still kept at a distance. Their devotion to god and truth earns them endless praise... but no one really wants to be too much like them.

I think that if one examines the reasons for this conflicted relationship, it reveals a number of very interesting things about how Orthodox Jews look at their Judaism.

One of the explanations sometimes pointed to for the ambivalence towards BT's is the atypical zeal that BT's often bring to their religious life. It's not uncommon to find in newcomers to religion an enthusiasm for religious practices that is almost entirely absent in those who were raised frum. For the FFB, some of this religious lassitude can obviously be explained as the result of a lifetime of habituation combined with the sad reality that many frum people never really think much about their frumkeit in the first place, but the undeniable fact is that the passion that the BT brings to his religious service often makes the FFB very uneasy.

This is actually highly ironic because it is often this almost childlike eagerness to serve god that earns them such high accolades in religious society. But when the FFB sees the BT davening with such fervor, and being super meticulous in his halachic observance, it raises all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable questions in his mind: On the one hand, he acknowledges that the excitement with which the BT is performing his duties is admirable, even in some way ideal, yet at the back of his mind, he can't help wondering, do I really want to be like that? Is it normal to really be so medakdek about serving hashem and halacha?

When I was learning in Israel, there was this one BT in the yeshiva who I was friendly with. He was a very sweet guy, but he had the habit of treating every single minor religious rule with the most extreme attentiveness. His benching was like a yom kippur neila. He was fastidious about lashon hara. He would never walk in front of someone davening shemone esrei, even if it meant he was trapped in his seat for an extra 30 minutes. And I was told by the fellow who would go around the rooms in the morning to wake up the bochurim for shachris, that when he woke this guy up, as soon as his eyes opened, he would immediately leap out of his bed, because he wanted to follow the halacha that said "one should arise in the morning like a lion to serve god."

Now, on the one hand, such people are usually dismissed as odd or out of touch, but on the other hand, aren't these people living up to the ideals that all torah true Jews supposedly aspire to? Don't chazal teach that one should treat every halacha, no matter how seemingly trivial, as if it is of the utmost importance? Don't they impress upon people not to care about how people may look at you as 'weird' for keeping halacha? This fellow might be a bit unusual, but only because everyone else's standards have fallen so low! In god's eyes, there's nothing at all wrong with him. It's everyone else who has the problem!

So I think that when the FFB witnesses the BT recite asher yatzar with such devout sincerity, even as he admires the fresh faced eagerness, he is also a bit unnerved. Both by how this new adherent's worship highlights the inadequacy of his own divine service, and also by the fact that despite his professed admiration for the BT's devotion, the FFB doesn't really want to be as frum (read: weird) as the BT is. He likes his communally accepted religious standards where he can practice halacha in a way that isn't overly burdensome to his lifestyle and that doesn't make him seem fanatical or out of place. He doesn't want this version of Judaism that the BT keeps holding up to his face and reminding him is how he should be living.

Aside from the atypical religious excitement of the newly religious, I think there's another significant reason why FFB's are uncomfortable with BT's. I've always suspected that despite the professed admiration for the BT, there is actually an unspoken suspicion that the FFB always harbors to the BT. This mistrust is rooted in the very nature of the journey that brought the BT to religion, a nature which directly conflicts with the accepted thinking in the chareidi world of how a Torah Jew's mind should work.

You see, according to the chareidi perspective, a proper Torah Jew serves god by putting aside one's own ideas of what's best and commits himself to only following what god has deemed proper, as expressed in halacha. And by unequivocally embracing this philosophy, the BT (and even more so the convert) has proven how committed he is to this ideal.

Now, generally this aspect of the BT's life is greatly admired by frum people. That someone came to this conclusion on his own is incredibly inspiring to them. Invariably, they find the decision to voluntarily reject the more permissive life of general society and instead take on the responsibilities of Orthodoxy to be a far more impressive type of religious allegiance than the FFB who was raised with this lifestyle being the norm. But despite that admiration, there's a subtle implication of the BT's act of social defiance which troubles many chareidi people. Because unlike the FFB who has always shown that he is loyal to what his society tells him to do, the BT has revealed a dangerous streak of independence.

So on the one hand, by fully accepting halacha, and demonstrating that he is fully committed to the idea that god's word is more important than his own judgment, the BT has earned his stripes in frum society. But on the other hand, the undeniable fact is that the BT only came to this approach by following his own mind and making his own choice to join this lifestyle. So if his dedication to Torah and mitzvos is really rooted, not in a status quo devotion to god, but in his own mind's judgment that this is the correct path, then what's to stop him from coming to a different conclusion about what's right sometime later down the line? How can we really be certain of his absolute loyalty?! Maybe five years down the line, the same independent thinking that made him realize that Judaism is true, might make him think that Islam is true?

While probably most are unaware of this thought process, I think it's part of what underlies the FFB's uneasiness about the BT. And I think this sentiment actually leaks out a bit at times, such as when FFB's express disapproval at BT's who retain some of their unique character and don't entirely conform to the social expectations of the chareidi community that they live in.

Of course, there are also more prosaic reasons that BT's are often treated as second-class citizens by FFB's. It could simply be the same as any close-knit social group that has to deal with newcomers to their community. Outsiders are rarely granted the same legitimacy as a true-blue member who was raised in the club from his very youth.

I actually think that all these issues are simply part of human nature, and it's understandable that the community is not truly as welcoming as they profess to be. But it's quite sad that a society that prides itself upon its devotion to god's word, has no problem with such a widespread and systemic violation of the biblical commandment to wholeheartedly welcome the stranger without any prejudice (Exodus 22:20).

I wonder how many baalei teshuva would actually decide to be frum if they knew that they would forever be held at arms length by the people they so much want to become like?