Continuing where we left off here...
How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?
Most of my family was quite upset, but because I had dropped many hints about it to cushion the blow, and because I had already left chareidi life for a modern-orthodox one, it was not such a terrible shock. But they still were upset. My sister actually didn’t even believe me when I first told her. Most surprising to me was that one of the frummest members of my family (they’re all really frum, but he’s even a rebbe in a yeshiva) reacted the most mildly of them all. Now that it’s been a few years since I broke the news, the issue is not such a hot topic in our relationship, and we all get along pretty decently. I keep most of the details of my lifestyle quiet when I’m with them, and wear a yarmulke and pretend for the kids to just be "frum-but-modern" around them. They usually don’t bring the issue up and I try to avoid answering any questions in a way that I know they’ll find upsetting. It makes for a pretty superficial relationship overall, and having to muzzle myself when I’m around them is not at all fun, but I respect that this is how they prefer to deal with my situation and I’m ok with going along with it (up to a point).
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
I don’t have any regular involvement with Yiddishkeit and have no interest in doing so. I do have certain friends and family members (who I don’t have to pretend with) that I enjoy visiting for shabbos meals when I find myself hankering for a traditional shabbos atmosphere. When the mood strikes me I might even go to a shul (a very liberal, non-orthodox one) that puts on a great musical kabbalas shabbos. Socially, a lot of my friends are ex-frum people, so I still keep up with a lot of what goes on in the frum world. The only kind of Jewish learning I could claim to participate in these days is that I enjoy reading and listening to progressive quasi-Orthodox thinkers that demonstrate how traditional aspects of Judaism are totally bunk (e.g. XGH, Mis-Nagid, Harris, Kugel, etc.) I do also go to Jewish social events once in a while.
Is there anything from your religious past that you miss in your current life?
I honestly can’t think of anything from my past that I miss in any serious way. But even if I did, if there was something from my past I longed for, I would simply do it. If I wanted to put on tefilin, I would do so. If I wanted to make a bracha before eating, what's stopping me? I find it so silly that people think like that, that I’ve given something up that I will forever regret not having in my life. If there was anything from my past that I wanted to experience, what’s stopping me from having it?
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
Plenty! No matter how long it’s been, every so often I find myself reacting (either psychologically or behaviorally) in a way that is clearly a throwback to my frum upbringing. For instance, the other day I was running from the cafeteria to class with a sandwich I had just bought, and decided to make a quick stop in the restroom. When I found myself in the bathroom with my lunch, I felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that according to halacha I’m not supposed to bring food into a bathroom. The sensation really surprised me, because for the most part, I never think twice about these things, but when it’s something that I haven’t done often enough to have gotten used to, the old yeshiva bochur inside of me wakes up. (And says modeh ani.)
Thinking of a more significant area of my life, I find that the attitudes that I was taught in regards to sexuality and women are the hardest ones for me to overcome. I have yet to achieve (what I consider) a healthy level of comfort with the notion of sex and the idea that being sexual or expressing one's sexuality is not something inappropriate (which is why I really relate to Hasidic Feminist's writing). Even just the act of flirting feels very unnatural to me.
How do you currently view the religious community you came from?
I don’t really care that people are religious as long as they are genuinely trying to live a good and meaningful life. What bothers me about the world I came from is how they get so caught up with stupidities that clearly have nothing to do with spirituality, and everything to do with social status, rabbinic power struggles, halachic fads, pressure to conform, and religious one-upmanship. It irritates me even more when innocent people suffer because of the frum world's slavish adherence to these social expectations. That they care more about these superficial, self-serving and fundamentally materialistic and un-spiritual concerns, rather than what truly matters, is a constant reminder to me that their lifestyle really has nothing to do with righteousness or truth. The amount of hypocrisy that I see in frum society drives me nuts.
What sort of hypocrisy?
In how they behave, in how they think, in how they live, in everything. They are not as devoted to righteousness, spirituality, and truth as they claim. They aren't even as committed to halacha as they claim!
How are they not committed to halacha?
Ok, here's one easy example: Smoking. It is unequivocally forbidden to smoke according to halacha. Yet it is fairly common to find such behavior widespread, not just in chareidi communities, but especially in chareidi yeshiva bochurim! They love to point out how modern orthodox pick and choose which halachos to keep based on convenience, but they do it all the time themselves.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
I still believe that Judaism has value, albeit not necessarily that it is divinely mandated. Many people draw much value from Judaism and there are many aspects of the religious community that I still respect, but I don’t think that just having value means that it is objectively true in the way they claim it to be. I still believe in spirituality to some extent, but more along the lines of how Maslow and Frankl describe it.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?
There are many drawbacks. I went through a long period of guilt, of feeling like I am stupider than everyone around me, of doubting myself, of wondering if I would always be miserable, etc. I guess you could say that, for a period, I bought into the stereotypes that the frum world told me about people who stop being frum. Thankfully, most of that is in the past. I don’t regret it at all. I’m incredibly grateful for my life, for my freedom, my opportunities, my friends, and all the goodness that I have in my life now. But there are undoubtedly areas of my life at which I feel a disadvantage due to where I came from.
Well, mostly they're things in my head. You know, for some people it’s the practical aspects of integrating into secular society that are difficult, but for myself the most challenging things to overcome were the unhealthy religious perspectives that were so deeply ingrained in my head: Realizing that not every sexy girl is a promiscuous slut took a long time to sink in. Allowing myself to genuinely befriend someone not Jewish did not come easy. Just permitting myself to trust my own instincts about what’s right for me, and not feeling compelled to look towards an authority figure to tell me what I should be doing felt incredibly unnatural at first.
Also, I find it harder to develop a genuinely deep relationship with people who don’t share my background. The lack of a common upbringing and shared cultural references makes it more difficult to get to know each other in the way that one needs to in order to build the connection that a lasting relationship is formed around. That’s not to say that one can’t build that sort of relationship; just that it’s harder.
What are some things that helped you get through those difficult times?
Friends probably more than anything. And honesty. To be able to openly articulate my doubts, my confusions, and my insecurities, was what allowed me to overcome them. And the internet. And patience. It takes time to for the iron grip of our past to loosen its hold on our psyche.
Is there anything in your current life which would have been difficult, if not impossible, to have in your former life?
The friends and relationships I have formed would never have occurred back when I was frum. I have gay friends, Muslim friends, born-again-Christian friends, secretly non-religious friends, slutty friends, raunchy friends, militantly atheist friends, pothead friends, Asian friends, and black friends. Most of these people I would never even had had the opportunity to meet, let alone cared enough about them to form a real relationship with.
Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn’t have been possible when you were frum?
Well, technically when I was modern-Orthodox I could have pursued most anything in my life that I’m interested in now. The social restrictions of chareidi society were not in place there. But despite that, I never really pursued anything seriously, because deep down a part of me still believed that my life was meant to be devoted to god, and the only thing truly worth striving for was to be a proper frum yid who served hashem, was kovea itim, and raised a bayis ne’eman b’yisroel. That’s where my efforts were supposed to be directed, not pursuing my own passions. As an example, I often spoke about going to college when I was MO, but I never really did it until I was no longer religious. Even though practically it was possible to pursue that path, psychologically I was unprepared to take such a step.
But even thinking back to when I was MO, there are things that were off limits. One of my fantasies is to one day live in a very foreign country, something like Vietnam or India or Rwanda, for some extended period of time. But I always knew that due to the demands of frumkeit I could never really do that.
But what about compared to when you were chareidi? What is something different in your life now from then?
If I’d consider all the things that weren't open to me from when I was chareidi it would be a very, very, long list! But just to pick one important example, even wanting to achieve a high level of proficiency in my professional field was something that I couldn’t wholeheartedly pursue when I was chareidi, because doing so would be an admission that I was more focused on making money than I was on becoming a proper ben torah.
What do you mean? There are plenty of respected professional chareidim.
True, there are. But for myself, whenever I put any serious effort into an activity outside of torah, there was always someone behind me, looking over my shoulder, and tempering my enthusiasm with the not-so-subtle reminder, "Don't you forget! That's not what's really important." Do you really think a person is going to thrive at any sort of endeavor hearing that message all the time? Plus, I don't think that there actually are that many chareidim from the more yeshivish crowd that are respected professionals. How could there be? Professional fields require higher education, and very few staunchly yeshivish people do that.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
Hardly any of the stereotypes were true. To my utter astonishment, non-Jews weren’t all secretly anti-Semites who had no morals and were only interested in sex and money. They weren’t all looking at religious Jews like total weirdo’s, and judging them critically all the time. In fact, I think the frum world would be really disappointed if they knew just how little the outside world cares about their goings-on.
I actually think that the frum world's overly critical worldview is something that a lot of ex-frum people struggle with when they enter the secular world, because they frequently take that worldview with them even after they've left. Ex-frum people are often very fearful of doing something wrong, because they think that the secular world is going to judge them just like how in the frum world they were judged harshly when they did something a bit 'off'. Thankfully, I found the secular world far more forgiving of my missteps than the chareidi world ever was. No one made me feel like a pariah when I didn't know how to pronounce a word right, or was unfamiliar with some cultural reference, or didn't know how to do something that everyone else was familiar with.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you’d like to correct?
Hah, there’s too many. Where should I start? Maybe I should just say that I wish they didn’t think that we are all unhappy without frumkeit. We are just as happy as any of you are. We also have meaning and satisfaction in our lives. (Well, some of us don’t. But it’s not because we don’t sing z’miros around the shabbos table.) You really need to realize that your belief that without torah and yiddishkeit it’s impossible for people to live happy, well adjusted, satisfying lives is just utterly preposterous. And insulting.
Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?
Granted, much of secular society is totally shallow and idiotic. But there’s nothing compelling one to incorporate that into their life. You can just as easily have a life full of intellectual, exciting, sophisticated, satisfying, and enriching experiences as you can have one that is basically an endless string of inane and frivolous pursuits. It’s totally your choice. (Personally, I prefer a bit of both.) Also, it drives me crazy that for many people in the secular world there is such a crazy emphasis on alcohol in leisure activities.
Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?
I think that what’s changed most dramatically is my attitude towards non-Jews. I no longer view them with apprehension and suspicion, wondering when their inner Eisav will rear his ugly head.
Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your current worldview?
Well, in regards to the issue I just mentioned, being able to genuinely get to know non-Jewish people caused me to challenge (and eventually reject) many of the lingering stereotypes from my past. When I got to see for myself how a non-Jewish person can be just as honest, loving and generous as any frum person it made me much more willing to become a part of their world. As long as I thought that they didn’t really live with any of the morals or ideals that I valued I was still somewhat resistant to stepping into that world, but when I finally realized that they are also good people and that I’m not necessarily going to become an unprincipled degenerate by taking that route, it made it much easier to pursue that path.
Conversely, by being outside of the frum world for some time I now am able to see many of the norms that are prevalent in frum society for the dysfunctional and unhealthy practices they are. When I was living in it, and constantly interacting closely with people who thought it acceptable to behave in certain ways I wasn’t able to see just how harmful certain attitudes and behaviors were. For example, I was never comfortable with the extreme degree that frum people avoided any physical contact with someone of the other sex, even to the point that they would avoid having change handed to them by a cashier in a store, but not until I left that world did I realize just how twisted and unhealthy that really is.
What’s the best thing about not being frum?
Without a doubt, it’s the ability to be honest with myself and to live a life that is true to what I believe in. To not have to hide how I feel about things, about people, about ideas, or experiences is a most blessed feeling. (Although admittedly discretion is sometimes called for, nothing is truly verboten like when I was frum.) I am so grateful that I’m no longer compelled to value things I don’t care about, or respect people that I don’t care for, or subscribe to views that I find problematic, or spend a large part of my day engaged in activities that I find dull and pointless, or pursue a lifestyle that I innately know to be incompatible with who I am. If I davened, I’d say a bracha "shelo asani frum". Well, that doesn't quite make sense, but you get the idea.
What’s the best thing that you recall about being frum?
It’s hard to say. I don’t really have too many fond memories. Maybe the comfortable closeness that I recall having with my friends in yeshiva, and the sense of companionship there was. (But that could simply be a characteristic of a young adolescent who is experiencing his first taste of independence from home than of being frum.) The only positive practical experience that comes to mind is that I used to really enjoy holding the sefer torah. On simchas torah (a yom tov that I liked as a kid, but couldn’t stand when I was in high school) I did enjoy being able to hold the sefer torah during hakafos ("v’sein banu, v’sein banu, yeitzer, yeitzer toiv!"). That’s also why I always liked getting hagbah, because then I’d be able to sit down with the sefer torah, cradling it in my arms. There was always something nice about that. (I imagine frum people will have a field day interpreting what that means about my neshama. Be my guest.)
I did like Chanuka a lot too, but I always suspected that Chanuka's appeal lay in the fact that it lacked all the typical elements of a frum yom tov. There weren’t any extra restrictions or demands. There wasn’t extra time I had to spend in shul. It didn’t necessitate me having to get dressed up and not being allowed to do most of what I enjoyed. Plus, there were presents, parties, games, and I got to play with fire!
Is there anything positive in your life that you would attribute to having gotten from the frum world?
Of course! There are many positive things in my life that I think are thanks to my yeshiva education. My efforts to always make the most of my time is one example. Like I said earlier, there are many aspects to the frum world that I respect.
Do you think there’s anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?
Possibly. But it would have to have been done so early on, and to have corrected so many fundamental issues that I don’t really see how it’s plausible to consider it. Like I said, I had many social and emotional factors that pushed me away, and while I’d love to believe that they could have handled those issues better, I think that many of them are endemic to their belief system and could not have changed even if they had seen the effect it was having on me. How could a society that believes that there is one ideal for a person to strive for really accommodate those of us who don’t fit that mold? The only way I can see myself still being frum and happy is if I had been allowed to go through a modern orthodox liberal education and upbringing. But the thing is, I didn’t realize just how incompatible chareidi thinking was with who I am until late high school age. Even if they had nipped that potential issue in the bud early on and sent me to a MO school, it probably wouldn’t have helped because I had already been through a few years worth of indoctrination that MO was not really the "true" way for a torah person to live.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
Stop trying so hard to cut yourselves off from the world. You’ve turned a heritage that was once admired for being vibrant, engaging, and intellectually innovative into an utter embarrassment.
Is there anything else about your life you'd like to elaborate on?
Well, I’d love for my family to get to know me better (for their sake). I know that some of them are probably very anguished about my life's course and I suspect that they think that my life is constantly full of sinful activities that are making god really angry (which, in turn, upsets them). If they knew that it wasn't really like that, and that I'm pretty well adjusted (for the most part) they might not be as upset about it.
Are there any parting words you’d like to tell the frum world?
We don't deserve to be vilified by the community. I understand that it's hard for frum people to accept the choice we made, but if you were in our shoes you'd probably do the same thing. Ask yourselves: If all the reasons which motivate you to stay committed to Judaism disappeared, would you really react so differently?