Today's participant in our Better Know a Kofer series, is none other than myself, The Hedyot. Because the interview is way longer than anyone is interested in sitting through in one shot, I'm going to be splitting it into two parts. I did this 'interview' by answering the same questions I posed to the other participants, and then had people give me follow-up questions to those responses, which I addressed also. Let's get right to it:
Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?
As a young kid my family was fairly moderate. We had a TV until I was around 9, and I went to an elementary school that had a half-decent secular studies program. However, gradually my family started becoming more and more strict, and after my bar mitzvah I attended yeshivish high-schools where secular studies were frowned upon and the general chumradik, torah-only agenda was pushed as the only legitimate way to be a good Jew.
What were some of the ways that it became more strict for you?
Well, when I was still young, my parents encouraged us to go to the public library every week, but by the time I was in high school you’d be hard pressed to find any reading material in our home which was not published by Feldheim or Artscroll. We went from eating just about any mainstream hechsher, to eating only the strict hechsherim, to eating cholov yisroel, then only pas yisroel, bishul yisroel, yoshon, and who knows what else. One time when I came home I found out that when I washed the dishes in the milchig sink, I needed to put a covering over the fleishig sink (and vice versa) so as to make sure nothing would splash from one sink to the other! It seemed like every other week there was another chumra we were following, another inyan we had to be careful about, another part of my past that was now unacceptable.
How did you respond to these changes?
I mostly went along with it all, trusting that this was what was right (after all, more chumras means more frum, which means better Jew, right?), but as I got older all these innovations my family was adopting started bothering me more and more. One of the worst examples of this was when I once stumbled upon my mother at home without her tichel on and she got all upset about it. It truly upset me that my mother had changed so much that she now felt there was something inappropriate about her own son seeing her hair uncovered.
Did these changes cause you to question the ideas you had been taught?
Not really. Like I said, I mostly went along with it all, begrudgingly. None of these things caused me to question any of the fundamental tenets of Judaism, but they did make me realize just how flawed chareidi society was in its norms and behaviors, and this eventually led me to questioning other accepted parts of the lifestyle. The more I thought about it and looked into it, the more I realized that the chareidi way of life as “the one true torah way” (TM) was an unequivocal lie.
Can you give one such example?
Like all properly indoctrinated chareidi people, I was taught that only chareidi Jews really care about halacha, yiras shamayim, and being an eved hashem. When, for the first time, I met some modern orthodox people who were unquestionably serious talmidei chachamim and were as concerned (if not more so) about being medakdek in halacha as any of my chareidi peers, it was really hard for me to reconcile it with what I had been taught. Such people were not supposed to exist! I also found it very unsettling when I discovered that many principles and practices of chareidi life which I had been led to believe were as true as Torah M'Sinai were actually recent innovations that had no real halachic or hashkafic basis whatsoever. All these confusing issues caused me to wonder just how much of what I had been taught could be trusted.
But these doubts weren't in areas that touched on the core tenets of Judaism.
No. Encountering these sort of challenges didn't make me doubt any of the main principles of Judaism, but they did cause me to start doubting other ideas of Judaism that I had accepted as god given truths. I guess you could say that these were the first hairline cracks to start appearing in the edifice of my belief.
At the same time (I was around 19-20 then), there was a growing recognition occurring within me that I did not belong in the chareidi world.
What do you mean by that? What made you realize that?
The chareidi world has some very strong opinions of those not from their group. At times these opinions leak out to the wider public, but usually they're pretty good at keeping their most strident and offensive views known only to those members in good standing. Throughout my time as one of them, I heard it all, and at times even spouted some of their hurtful invective myself. But at this point in my life, when I was starting to stretch my wings a bit and try on some new ideas and practices, I was beginning to realize that I was identifying more and more with the 'other' who was so often vilified by my fellow chareidim. All the mockery and sarcasm and derision that they aimed at people who didn't dress like them, who didn't read chumash like them, who wanted to partake of the secular world, well, it wasn't just some other group of people anymore. I was starting to understand that I too was a target of their contempt.
So that's all what got the ball rolling. But what prompted you to to actually leave?
I think it was a mix of emotional, social, and cultural factors. Emotionally, I wasn't a very happy person as a chareidi yeshiva bochur. The frum world in which I lived had a very clear value system of who and what was important, and being that I wasn't a good student who excelled in limudei kodesh, I wasn't able to think highly of myself in any meaningful way. There were no opportunities for me to seriously succeed in any way, and the endless amount of time and effort that I put into trying to make sense of gemara was incredibly unpleasant for me.
So you had low self-esteem because you were failing academically? That's not at all uncommon.
I know. But it's important to recognize that my low self-esteem didn’t just stem from the fact that I was a poor student. It was also a direct result of the yeshivish worldview (a worldview that I fervently subscribed to) which considered anyone who wasn’t a successful learner as second-class. But it went even further than that. Eventually, as I got older, my unhappiness was compounded with the realization that much of the burdensome trappings of chareidi life, which I had believed to be as important as any other mitzvos, were actually not as imperative as I had been led to believe.
How did you deal with all this unhappiness?
Well, I wasn't at all considering leaving. After all, at this point I still believed that this was the only right way to live! So I tried to carve out my own place in the chareidi world without a lot of the craziness that they demanded. However, I eventually came to the recognition that it was impossible – I was always reminded of how my way of life was not up to par, and that I should be more frum. It finally became clear to me that as long as I didn't live life according to their standards, they would never truly value who I was. I would never be good enough. I realized that I had to get out of there. I was around 22 at the time. So I entered the modern orthodox world (which anyway at that point in my life didn’t seem as treif as my rabbeim had led me to believe). Living in the MO world where there wasn’t so much pressure to be strictly halachic, and being exposed to a wider variety of religious (and in general, critical) thought and cultural experiences, led to a further deterioration of many of my beliefs (and practices) of Judaism.
It seems that intellectual factors didn't really play such a strong part in your journey.
Now that I’ve fully stepped outside the religious box, a lot more intellectual factors have taken a role in my skepticism towards Orthodox Judaism, but no, they weren’t present at the beginning of my journey. Of course, 'intellectual factors' is a broad term. When using that term, people tend to think of issues like the documentary hypothesis, age of the universe, historicity of the bible, etc., things that demolish some of the foundations of halachic Judaism. But isn't learning about how contemporary Orthodoxy is ideologically inconsistent also an intellectual factor?
Can you point to any one thing which you feel was the primary cause of your decision to leave?
No. Definitely not. The very premise of the question is misleading. There was no single moment when I 'decided to leave'. The whole process took place over many years. And I really don’t think that there is any one thing that can be pointed to as THE primary cause. There were many contributing factors, that each on their own probably would not have led to the path I took. But each experience and idea that I encountered had a cumulative effect, eating away at my commitment little by little, and each revelation compounded the effect further.
Can you give an example?
When I first learned about the harchakos of taharas hamishpacha and the extra 7 days that a couple is separated, I found it very troubling, just for its practical inconvenience. However, despite that resentment, I accepted it as something mandated by god, and that I had to follow. After all, I knew that it wasn't always easy to do what god wanted. But when I learned that the basis for this law was that it was a chumra that the “bnos yisroel” took upon themselves, and really had nothing to do with what god wanted, the rationale which had previously ameliorated my antipathy was now gone and therefore the frustration I had previously suppressed was now given full expression.
Another example comes to mind: All that time in yeshiva where I felt like a loser was not enough to make me even consider challenging what my rabbeim told me was true, because I believed that it was what god desired, and I just had to try harder. But when I finally understood that the very idea that everyone has to be a learner is a load of crap, and there was no need for me to have gone through all that, the agonizing weight of all those torturous years in yeshiva caused whole pillars of my faith to begin crumbling.
I think it's crucial to recognize that there is no one thing that can be pointed to as THE cause. Many different issues accumulate and interact with each other to help a person arrive at that ultimate decision. In fact, these examples perfectly highlight the complex interplay of emotional, social and intellectual factors: I was unhappy for quite a while when I was frum, but that wasn't enough to get me to even consider leaving. It was only when my mind was opened to various alternative ideas about Judaism did I even consider the possibility. But even that wasn't sufficient to enable me to leave until I found myself in a particular social setting that allowed me to consider taking that step.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
Many of the violations that I felt most guilty about were actually just chumras. The first time I ate food that was only ‘rabbanut’, and not mehadrin, I felt absolutely terrible about myself. Like I had just sold my soul to the devil. Intellectually, I knew that I had plenty of justifications for why there was nothing really wrong, but that made no difference to how badly I felt. (In fact, it probably made it worse, because they always taught us in yeshiva that when we rationalize, it's a sign of the yetzer hara winning us over.) Every time I didn’t keep up with one of the chumras that I used to practice, I could hear the voice of my yeshiva rabbeim admonishing me, “You see, this is how the yetzer hara gets you!”
I was often meikil (lenient) in many areas of halacha (or so I thought, eventually I discovered that often it wasn’t a leniency that I was following, but normal standards), and when I actually did violate something unarguably forbidden, such as turning off a light on shabbos I didn’t really feel so guilty about it since I had already felt that I had entered the halachic forbidden zone all those past times I was being lenient. After all, if I've already violated shabbos by brushing my hair, wiping a stain off my suit, using a sponge, folding my pants, opening a soda bottle, untying a knot, clapping my hands, using a teabag, taking the bones out of my fish, adding salt to the chulent, or picking out the seeds from my watermelon, does it really matter if I turn a light off or on?
Also, the more learned you are about halacha, the more you realize that so much of it is creative legal fiction, and that it’s pretty arbitrary why certain things have heterim and others don’t.
Well, a simple example would be a shabbos timer. People who have no problem using a timer on shabbos for their lights or AC will find it totally unacceptable to use it for other things, such as turning on a TV. There really is no solid halachic basis for the distinction except for the nebulous excuse that watching TV is ‘not shabbosdik’. So the more aware I became that much of halacha was not what god wanted as much as it was what certain rabbis wanted, the easier it became to rationalize my transgressions. I realized that if you're good at learning you can always find a way to make something appear muttar or assur.
In what way did you try to reconcile the challenges you were confronting?
Well, many of my issues were not based on a logical argument, more like something that I was just uncomfortable with, so when I expressed some ambivalence about an idea, I basically got back the usual, "Suck it up! This is what being a Torah Jew is about! It's not about what you like, or what seems right to you. It's about following halacha and serving hashem!" (Not in those words of course, but that was clearly the intended sentiment.) Another common response was something along the lines of, "Who do you think you are, to assume to know better than [insert famous rabbi here] what the right thing is?!" When I approached my rabbeim about actual intellectual problems I had, there were various responses. Sometimes they acknowledged that the issue was valid, but didn't feel that it really was such a serious concern ("Is it really such a big deal to not be allowed to do certain things that are technically allowed?"). Other times, they agreed it was something serious, but didn't really have a good answer for me. (Saying "They have their mesorah," is not a good answer to explain why people are lying about history.) Other times they'd give me the standard, "You're too young to know enough to understand the issue properly," reply. But very often my difficulties were simply not reconcilable because there really was no good answer. It was just how things were done in the chareidi world, and that was that.
What do you mean, 'that was that'?
That's just how it is for some things. The issue is not open to discussion. For example, one time when there was a big chareidi demonstration in Jerusalem for some issue, and everyone was buzzing about how crucially important the issue was, my rebbe found out that I wasn't planning on going and approached me to find out about it. I explained that I felt I didn't really know enough about the issue to make an informed decision about it and didn't want to support something that I wasn't sure I agreed with. He responded irately, "What do you mean,'You don't know!?' The gedolim have called for everyone to come out in support and so that's what we do! What's there to know? It doesn't matter if you understand the issue or not! They say to go, you go!"
Part II available here.