Monday, March 23, 2009

Better Know a Kofer

Photo Credit: Alexey LapinAs someone who hasn't been frum for a number of years, one of the issues that really irritates me are the myriad stereotypes that chareidi people have about individuals who are no longer religious. Whether it’s misconceptions about why people stopped being religious, or distortions about how we live our lives now, or even fabrications about our current relationship to Judaism, there are so many warped views about the lives of those who have chosen to stop being observant. For example, at some point or another I've heard all of the following ideas put forward by well-meaning individuals.
  • We are deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.
  • We have no morals.
  • All we do with our lives is eat cheeseburgers, have sex, and do drugs.
  • The main reason we left is because we wanted to have sex.
  • We intensely despise religious Jews and Judaism.
  • The whole purpose of our lives is just to make money.
As absurd as it may sound, these claims, and so many others like them, happen to be wholeheartedly believed by many chareidi Jews. I know this not just because I hear them said now, but because I used to be one of those believers. Back when I wore the black hat of my youth I heard my rabbeim frequently make such comments, and like everything else I was told then, I had no reason to doubt them. It made sense, after all. I mean, if you don’t have torah, then what do you have? If you don’t think god told you to be honest, then why would you bother? In fact, not only did I believe this when I was religious, I also believed it when I first became non-religious. Even after I had discarded most of my frum beliefs, they still had me convinced that I was risking a life of moral decay and personal ruin by taking that step of leaving religion. The possibility of that happening truly terrified me. Even after I was no longer observing halacha in any way, I would constantly find myself questioning my actions, asking myself, “Does doing this mean I’m now the degenerate they warned me I would become?”

As anyone who has bothered to get to know us knows, the notion that our lives are nothing more than miserable cesspools of decadence and materialism is really quite a far fetched thing to believe. Although there are some exceptions, most of the people I've met who have left frumkeit behind are really not that different from any other person who is trying to live a decent and fulfilling life. They try to instill their lives with meaningful experiences. They strive to better themselves. They struggle to reconcile their past lives with their current ones. They still care about having meaningful and committed relationships. They try hard to live their lives with integrity. They endeavor to help other people. And they do all this even though they may not believe that doing so will earn them heavenly brownie points.

The simplistic explanations that are often given for why people leave religion are also an endless source of frustration. Very rarely do any of the pat explanations offered (“he ended up with a bad crowd”, “he read the wrong books”, “he discovered porn”, “he hung around with girls”, "he couldn't control his yetzer hara", "he came from a troubled home", etc.) give a realistic picture of the dynamics that are going through the persons head and heart when they are experiencing those changes in their lives. (And FYI, if any frum person wants to have sex, there are plenty of easier ways to go about getting it than having to give up your entire social support structure of family, friends, and community.)

Despite this unpleasant situation, I can’t really blame a chareidi person for believing much of this nonsense. After all, there usually are a few notable examples that can be pointed to which supposedly prove their assertions. And even if it is totally untrue, how many frum people ever have a chance to genuinely get to know any ex-frum people? Such people are shunned from the community, thereby precluding any chance of getting to know what their lives are really like, or what really motivated their decision to leave. In the few circumstances where contact is maintained, the topic of the person's transformation is usually verboten. So a typical chareidi person really has no basis on which to question the commonly accepted claims he hears all around him.

For this very reason, because chareidi people currently have no way of overcoming the stereotypes to which they are subjected, I’ve decided to launch a new initiative. I’m excited to announce the start of a new series on this blog, called, “Better Know a Kofer”*. Every few weeks I will be posting an interview with a person who grew up frum (preferably chareidi, but we won’t exclude anyone) and no longer is. I’ll try to explore as many areas as possible, from why he chose to leave, to how she lives her life now, to what their current relationship with Judaism is like, to anything else that can shed some light on this terribly misunderstood topic.

If you would like to be interviewed for the series, feel free to email me (daashedyot at the gmail), and I’ll be happy to arrange it.

Stay tuned for the first installment, which I hope to post in just a few days!

*Yes, DovBear, you inspired me.


Update - Here are direct links to all the interviews:


Baal Habos said...

I'm all ears.

Mark said...

I've run into all of them. I will say that I do have one of my former Rebbeim who I keep up with, who does admit that my reason for my Apikorsus was rational. It goes without saying that he thinks I'm wrong, but he doesn't lump me into the general Cholent. Admittedly, he always says you're not like the rest of them, who have too much Taivos, so I'm not sure if he really means it when he says I'm different, or he is still trying to be Mekarev me. Although I did convince him that the boat has sailed there, and that no matter whom I speak to, they won't convince me to change my mind. I was actually surprised that he was able to get that. But he is a unusual man, and the rest of them abide very strongly by the stereotypes you mentioned.

David said...

We are deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.
"We have no morals.
All we do with our lives is eat cheeseburgers, have sex, and do drugs.
The main reason we left is because we wanted to have sex.
We intensely despise religious Jews and Judaism.
The whole purpose of our lives is just to make money."

If you just take this section of the post and expand it slightly, you'd have a great "JP" article!

kisarita said...

I just realized that I never really wanted to leave the community I just wanted the community plus. And I wanted to be in a society who valued me as a female.

And I couldn't have both, but couldn't give up on either, so now I struggle between them.

i may not fit your paradigm of people who left but you can interview me anytime.

shira said...

kisarita, in which way did the community not value you as a female?

Jewish Atheist said...

Great idea! I look forward to reading. (And participating, if you want a former LWMO dude.)

kisarita said...

here is one example: All I need to know I learned in SEMINARY>

Ariella said...

I love my cheeseburgers and sex. sometimes at the same time, and I take 4 meds daily for my condition...whoo hoo! I am stereotypical otd!

Anonymous said...

1. We've kept in touch with friends (from yeshiva days) who are OTD and so do others of my friends and we live in charedi land (albeit relatively moderate haredi). friends know we keep up with them - we don't hide it and do discuss it - and think it's fine. don't know how rare this is. but we are not the only ones. generally it seems to be viewed positively to have a connection with them and NO this is not only kiruv. People seem maybe surprisingly "normal" about this and just think it is good for people, emotionally etc, to be in touch with friends they grew up with and not have no contact and complete disjoint with their previous life. It happens that people move back to frumkeit a little or a lot and it happens not, but we are friends either way.
2.I think OTD are more likely to have troubled backgrounds at home. It's not a negative! It's simple psychology. When they are unhappy, hate going home for shabbos, then they start to question and think and have doubts coupled with not having been happy frum they have serious questions. When they are happy, they don't question the same way and have also less incentive not just to question, but to explore more, to want a different life etc. especially question. r Horowitz says IIRC that he did a survey and most of those who said they didnt like shabbos at home b/c it was tense and there was fighting went OTD. It's easy to understand. You question everything you see if you are not happy at home and dont see the system "working" to make your life positive. It doesn't mean skeptics are screwed up-it may mean they are more thoughtful. It doesnt mean EVERY OTD comes from a difficult family background. But a difficult family background makes it easier to move to skepticism and OTD. Dont you see this too?

The Hedyot said...

Anon, that's an interesting point. I would tend to agree. What you're saying is that a less happy and stable home, where a person is not as content, creates an environment where one would be more inclined to look elsewhere. But that is not the same as saying that "they left BECAUSE of their troubled home", which is the intention when people pull out that line. When people say that, it's meant to deflect from any actual problems that might exist in the community and its values, and to instead place all the blame on the fact that the problems existed solely (or primarily) in the persons own private circumstances.

TikunOlam said...

Love this idea.

If you need any more participants, would love to share how non-money grubbing, hedonistic and otherwise negative stereotyped of a lifestyle I live now about 15 years out of the OJ world.

disaffiliated said...