Here is his entire essay, reprinted verbatim, aside from a few minor grammatical changes. I've also added some links to help people out with some of the ideas and figures he mentions that may be a bit unfamiliar.
I frequently receive e-mails with questions of a personal nature. How did it happen? What made you go OTD? I usually respond to each question and end up writing the same story again and again. XGH’s recent post, which I thoroughly enjoyed, has inspired me to put down my own story, to the best I can recollect it. I’ve written it out in great detail and so the story is quite long. It’s too long for a post and so it will be a miniseries. This will be part I.
So, how did it happen? How did a nice eirchlich temimisdick kid become an evil atheist rushu kofer?
To me, the journey off always began back in September 2003 with my friend Moshe. Back then. I was Modern Orthodox and proud of it. I took pride in the fact that I was open minded, but frum and successfully fused the worlds of Torah and madah, of tradition and modernity.
Part of my great pride was in my ability to deal with the issue of evolution. The world was divided into 3 categories on this issue. Those who stuck their head in the sand and didn’t care to learn about science, those who were intellectually weak, and couldn’t see that evolution didn’t refute the Torah, and me. I knew that there were three resolutions to the evolution problem:
1. Evolution is a conspiracy made by scientists and isn’t true.
2. Gosse theory
3. Genesis 1 is a mushul.
One day, Moshe mentioned to me that he had attended a shiur by a certain YU rosh yeshiva. The topic was the historicity of the mabul. The rosh yeshiva had said that there was scientific evidence against the mabul. It’s obvious to everyone that answers 1 & 2 above don’t help you with the mabul. And, so, this rosh yeshiva had gone with approach 3. He said it was muttur to say the mabul was a mushul. I, however, was uncomfortable with this approach. The mabul doesn’t seem like a mushul. The issue began to grow and we would talk about it often and I also began to speak about it to other friends. Moshe also introduced me to blogs and I discovered that this issue was one that actually troubled many people.
Anyway, in August of 2004 I met a girl named Sorah. Sorah was also interested in this issue and so she and I got to talking about it. In addition to all the scientific arguments, Sorah also introduced me to parallel ancient mythologies like Enuma Elish. This only added to my aggravation.
One day, Sorah brought up the issue of the Documentary Hypothesis. I had heard of DH before in chumash class. I knew all about it. DH was when you went through the Torah and you took every passuk with YHWH and said "This is J" and every passuk with Elohim and said "This is E" and then when you were done you looked back and said "Poof! All the YHWH’s are in J." my chumash teachers had made fun of it incessantly. Also, it was humanities, not sciences. And, I knew from college that the humanities were crap. I was very glad to have the discussion switch to an area I was on firmer ground in and so I started to make fun of the DH.
As the conversation continued though, I realized that whether DH was true or not, I knew pathetically little about what it actually said and was really not in a position to talk about it. This bothered me and so I went to the library and got a few books out on DH.
The first one I read was Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?. It confirmed everything my rebbeim had said about DH. The book was basically a migdal poreach baavir. He had maybe 5 or 6 good contradictions and this YHWH/Elohim thing and from that he concocted this complex conspiracy theory of how the Torah was written. It was complete crap and I knew better. I got a few other books out of the library and they were all the same.
So, what happened next? How did I go from being a mini RJM to a mini mis-nagid? Tune in next time when Littlefoxling faces some problems he wasn’t prepared for.
I continued along this path. I took book after book out of the library but found each one to be worst than the last. Each just asserted DH was true but none actually proved it.
One day, a thought occurred to me. REF and all the other authors I was reading generally had some kind of line about how the DH was already established and they weren’t going to spend time proving it since it was already unanimously accepted. I wondered if perhaps the problem was that these books just took it for granted and didn’t bother to present the evidence.
I had this idea. Maybe if I looked at some older books I would get more of the evidence. I stumbled upon S. R. Driver’s "Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament," which was published in 1913.
I was mortified. The book was absolutely chock full of completely irrefutable proof for the DH. For weeks and weeks I struggled with him, Driver and I locked in epic battle. But I could not defeat him. Everything I threw at him, my best apologetics and sevorahs were no match for him.
I saw that I could not overcome him, but I was unwilling to concede defeat. The kofrim couldn’t be right. Anyway, I wasn’t scared. I knew from chumash class and from reading frum blogs that now the DH was debunked. No one actually believed in it anymore. Driver was outdated. Although I personally didn’t know what the answers to his questions were, I knew that if I looked hard enough, I’d find it – since nobody actually believed in the DH anymore.
I began to read the apologists. Cassuto, Hoffman, David Gottlieb, Breuer. I was mortified once again. They were all complete crap. Me, a freakin finance guy who was doing this all on the subway to and from work could see how stupid everything they wrote was.
But, it didn’t phase me. I knew from frum blogs and chumash class that today even the modern secular scholars didn’t hold of DH. So, I reasoned that sometime between 1913 and today there must have been someone who wrote a book showing that DH wasn’t true. So, I started reading more modern secular books. From what I had read, there were two camps of modern scholars that had both succeeded in undermining the DH.
The first was a camp of scholars that had underminded it not by directly refuting its arguments, but instead by focusing on other aspects of analysis which had underminded the DH. This included the literary school, the archaeological school, Noth’s school, and many others.
So, I began to read books from these various schools. I found pretty soon that there was actually very little in any of these schools that was even remotely relevant to DH. Yeah, maybe DH had fallen out of favor in terms of if people were interested in studying it. But, that had nothing to do with if it was true. That just meant people weren’t interested in it. And, I found that many of the members of these schools, such as Noth and his talmidim or Robert Alter, actually held of DH. They just weren’t interested in studying it but they still thought it was true.
The other camp was the camp that dealt with DH directly. I started reading books from this camp. Most of the books I read seemed to actually support the DH and hold of it. And, as I went through this camp I stumbled on some arguments that were even more compelling than those I had read by Driver. In fact, I reread many of the more modern books that I had read originally on DH (like REF's "Who Wrote the Bible?") and realized that they weren’t crap after all. They were actually quite good. It was just that when I had read them the first time I didn’t have the background to understand all of their arguments. Now that I had read Driver, I saw their arguments in a whole new light.
I did find some books that didn’t agree with the DH. But, they were in the minority. Also, none of them actually responded to the DH’s arguments. They just said the DH wasn’t true. But, no one had any real responses to the arguments. Also, none of them held the Torah was from Moshe, they just held of a different way to break it up and that didn’t do me much good as an OJ.
But, I knew the proof against the DH had to be out there. My rebbeim and the frum blogs had all said so. I started to ask my rebbeim where all this proof against the DH was. They told me to read Hoffman and Cassuto. I was mortified yet again. Cassuto and Hoffman were crap. Not my knight in shining armour.
So, I began to look at the frum blogs to try to find where all this evidence against the DH was. Most of the time they would either point you to some apologist like Breuer or to some guy’s unpublished dissertation that you could only get by going to his university’s archives or something. I started to get very annoyed. I knew the answers were out there. Everyone had told me that nobody believed in the DH. But, why couldn’t I just find one guy who wrote a book with all the answers. Why was this information that was so important to my life kept so secret in a hidden locked away university vault?
So, how did the search end? Did I find my knight in shining armour that refuted the DH? Tune in next time to hear the surprising twist I had never expected.
And, so I was waging a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, I was getting barraged daily by the blogs. GH was now in full force and I was reading him regularly and it was seeming less and less likely that the mabul had happened. On the other hand, the DH was seeming harder to answer.
Those were dark times. The one ray of light, ironically, was that I was so busy at work that I didn’t have that much time to think about it. I was doing most of my readings on the subway to and from work and didn’t really have time to reflect on it.
And then came sukkos of 2005. I was off from work and so I had the time to really think. I spent a lot of time reading thinking, and looking up verses. Driver udeimei were killing me. So, I started to think about what my options were. Of course, I was holding out to find the scholars that underminded DH. But, what if I couldn’t find them? What did that mean? I started to wonder if maybe I could reconcile DH with Yahadus. DH wasn’t too far off from Halivni’s continual revelation. Maybe I could believe in DH and still be a frum yid.
I had a number of options I was considering. This Halivni option was one. Breur's methodology seemed to be to adopt the DH but argue that it was one author writing from two point of views. Cassuto basically said that the whole DH was deceptive and faulty reasoning. And then there was Hoffman. Hoffman argued that one could use the DH's reasoning and come up with authors and divisions even the DH didn't hold of which showed even scholars didn't hold of the reasoning really.
But then something occured to me. On my list of possibilities, the possibility of "The Torah is not divine" didn't even appear. But that seemed strange given that that possibility was winning soundly in my research.
And, then, it hit me. It hit me like a bag of bricks. The moment that would forever change my life. There was a realization. It wasn’t about it the DH, the mabul, or the Kuzari proof. It was about me. I looked in the mirror and said to myself "What am I doing?" I realized that I was not trying to find the truth. I wasn’t looking for the answers. I was looking to prove that OJ was true. I realized that in all my inquires, if it was DH, KP, mabul, Enuma Elish, I was always trying to figure out how to answer for OJ, not how to find the truth.
Since I was a boy I have always been troubled by one theological question: OJ clearly views OJ’s as being on a higher spiritual plain than non OJ’s. YHWH cares about them more. Their life has more meaning. YHWH looks after them both in this world and the next. But, it seemed unfair to me. Why were all the saintly OJ’s coincidently born into the same tribe? Why were three of the saintliest people ever coincidently Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov, father, son, and grandson? I had struggled with this question since my youth. But, in that moment the question took on new meaning. I realized that it wasn’t that all the saintly people who realized that YHWH existed were all coincidently born into OJ. It was the other way around. Everyone who was born into OJ was brainwashed to believe in YHWH. I realized that 99% of the religious people in any religion were religious for the same reason: they were brainwashed. And, I realized that not only was I an OJ because I was brainwashed, but that I was a Zionist MO with a chareidi tinge and that I could totally account for that ideology based on sociological factors and that reason and intellect had nothing to do with it.
I was devastated; my soul blackened to the core. I sat there despondent, devoid of all energy. I’ve always cared about honesty a lot. If there is one word I could use to describe myself it would be honest. And, so, this realization horrified me. I started to look at things in a whole new light. I realized that the mabul issue pretty much disproved OJ. And, so did the DH. And, so did 1,000 other things. Once I started to look at it honestly, there was no question anymore. It wasn’t just about any one particular thing. But, the totality of the evidence, once you looked at it fairly, was so conclusive that there was absolutely no other way to go about it.
But I didn’t know what else to do. OJ couldn’t be wrong. If it was, it would mean that I had spent 20 years of my life on total crap. It would mean that I would either have to continue with that crap and pass it down to the next generation or else anger my family and friends. It would mean that the minutia of my life would no longer have cosmic significance, that I was no longer immortal. And, besides, if I became a kofer I would go to Hell. And, worst of all was the loneliness. I had spent every waking moment of my life believing someone was with me. Feeling now for the first time in my life alone chilled me to the bone. I couldn’t leave OJ. But, what to do? It was so obviously crap! I couldn’t bear to lie to myself. I am a very honest person.
Luckily, I’m also a clever person, so I found myself an out. I told myself the following. I said that OJ could not be proven rationally and that I recognized that a fair analysis of the facts led one away from OJ but that I was choosing to ignore that fair and rational analysis of the facts and believe anyway. A leap of faith if you will.
This resolution restored my sanity. I was being honest, since I admitted that OJ wasn’t rational, but I was still being OJ.
Sadly, it was only a temporary solution. I felt uncomfortable with it and my religiosity gradually began to slip. I stopped davening with kavanah. Stopped going to minyan etc.
A few months later I went out with a girl. We only dated for a few months and I came clean with her about my religiosity. She was very troubled by it and it was a huge strain on the relationship. The relationship was probably doomed to failure anyway, but, the religious issue certainly didn’t help. It made me realize that the compromise I had struck might not have been the most feasible. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was really stumped and confused.
So, how did I leave this hazy and dark confused state and enter into the clarity and light of atheism? More on that in the next post.
And, so, I was very confused. I started getting very desperate to find a solution but none presented itself. I despaired.
Luckily, with time the emotional issues dissipated. Even with the death of a loved one, time heals all wounds. And, the realization that I was mortal and that no one cared about the minutia of my day to day life, while painful at first, eventually stopped bothering me.
But, the practical issues were still of a great concern. What was I going to do?
Over the past few years I had generally kept all this stuff to myself. But, I had a few friends that I spoke to about it. Sorah from above, some rabbis, the blogger lamedzayin (who, of all the believers I have ever debated, I find to consistently be the most intelligent, open minded, articulate, and most successful at convincing me) and a few others. I was also reading blogs now, especially XGH. I found all this to be very helpful. Not for what I necessarily got out of them but just because I wasn’t alone. I was unwilling to come out of the closet and so couldn’t discuss the matter with my friends, but I wanted a chance to expand my circle of anonymous friends. And so the blog was born.
I had been reading blogs for years but I had never commented and never had my own blog. This was a whole new experience. I started to post my own stuff and comment on Dovbear, XGH, and Baal Habos. But, basically, I was totally ignored. No one ever came to my blog. When I commented on Baal Habos, nobody would ever respond except for Baal Habos and when I commented on XGH nobody responded except for Rabban Gamliel. (I didn’t understand why at the time, though in retrospect it’s kind of obvious). I was going to cancel the blog, but that gradually began to change. Mis-nagid, baalhabos, happywithhislot, Spinoza, rjm, and josh Waxman all started to comment on my blog occasionally. People stopped ignoring my comments on other blogs as well. And, in December of 2006, I got into a huge fight with Dovbear about the DH in which I met a large number of bloggers. So, I decided not to cancel the blog.
The blog helped clarify a lot of things for me. The first thing it did, almost immediately was make me realize how stupid my "leap of faith" sevorah was. That works when you are thinking about things yourself, but try explaining that to someone else and you realize how dumb it is. In the very first few posts, I tried convincing people that I really believed in YHWH despite the fact that I was arguing vehemently for the anti OJ position. This confused all my commentors and I realised how dumb it was.
The blog also helped me move away from OJ because:
1. I became exposed to even more evidence against OJ. I found out about archaeology, about Hume, Spinoza, about comparative religion, about the DNA evidence against YHWH, about scientism, about other national revelations.
2. Seeing the way the frum people responded to our questions on the blogs, and engaging them in debate, confirmed that there were no answers. Before I did all this blogging I always thought - maybe there are answers out there. But once I saw the best the frum crowd could put up was Rav Elchanen Wasserman, telling the skeptics they hadn’t read enough medieval philosophy, and saying that skeptics think with their penises, I realized there were none.
3. People are always affected by their peers. Before I was blogging, my peers were all OJ’s so I couldn’t go against that. Seeing likeminded people reinforced my views.
But the biggest thing the blogs did was something totally different. It rephrased the question. When I started my blog, I was asking the question: Is OJ true? Go back to the earlier posts and see how I obsessed with this question. The blogs exposed me to the general atheist chevra: Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, Harris v’siyatam. I realized that the question isn’t "Is OJ true?", but “Which, if any, of the religions are true?" That makes a world of difference.
Before the blog, I had my doubts. Are we really just a bunch of random particles? Why does the universe exist? Is there no purpose to our life? But, when I heard Christian apologists make the very same arguments, I realized that even if these concerns were valid, they had nothing to do with OJ.
When I started, the argument “But it just can’t be wrong," worked. How could so many people believe it if it’s crap held a lot of water. But, when I heard Christian apologists make the very same arguments, I realized that even if these concerns were valid, they had nothing to do with OJ.
When I started, Pascal’s wager meant a lot to me. But, when I heard Christian apologists make the very same arguments, I realized that even if these concerns were valid, they had nothing to do with OJ.
And so, I became a committed skeptic. But, what about the issue of practice? How did that play out? And, what is my current status and what will happen in the future? Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion of this series.
So, where we last left off our hero had just discovered that YHWH doesn't actually exist. This was an emotional strife of course, dealing with the loss of my BFF. But, it also raised some questions. What was I going to do about practice? On the one hand, keeping orthodox Judaism, or any Judaism for that matter, seemed nonsensible for an atheist. On the other hand, how could I go OTD? What would it do to my family and friends? What would it do to me? What would it do to my shidduch chances? I had spent my whole life in this world. Could I survive outside of it? Would life be empty, devoid of meaning?
This question was very troubling. When I found the blogs, and started connecting with people in similar circumstances, it helped me feel better as I knew I wasn't alone. But, it didn't really help resolve anything.
I really didn't have a solution. But, I realized that my approach of putting up a pious exterior but being secretly a kofer was unhealthy and unlikely to yield any results. So, I began to allow my exterior to slip.
Of course, I wasn't about to start being mechalel shabbos bifarhesya. But, I started becoming publicly lax in some of the more public displays of Judaism. Also, I started sharing my views with some very close friends. Of course, I didn't make a public speech about it. But, I had some conversations sharing various degrees of information with different friends.
I was actually quite surprised by the reaction I got. A very small number of friends were shocked and horrified. But, the vast majority expressed approval, jealousy, admiration, agreement, respect, and empathy. Many said they too were in the closet atheists. Some said they were not atheists but they had very nonconventional views about Judaism. Others admitted that they too had some very serious questions about emunah and wished that they had the courage to make the leap towards atheism but were afraid to do so. Others said they were not atheists but admitted they were simply biased and admired my honesty.
This warm reception was welcome, but it also got me thinking. If so many orthodox Jews are actually kofrim, what does that mean?
I came to realize that religious life isn't just about YHWH. It's so much more than that. It's also an ethos, a culture, a heritage, a community, and family. Just because I don't think it's true doesn't mean I don't value all of these aspects. I don't want to go into the whole theory of it here as this isn't the place. But see my post on dovbear if you are interested.
To put it this way: Spinoza recently asked me, "Isn’t your state a sad one? You are frum even though you don’t believe in YHWH just for these social/cultural reasons?" I replied, "Could you not ask the question on all frum Jews?" It's clear that OJ's believe in YHWH in a two stage process:
First: they want the Jewish heritage, community, culture and ethos, so they stay part of the frum community.
Second: Since they are part of the community anyway, being part of the community and not believing in YHWH is for them a hard thing. So, they believe in YHWH as well.
That this is the direction, and not the other way around can plainly seen by statistics. If people really picked their communities based on their beliefs and not the other way around, you wouldn’t see 99% of Jews being born Jewish and the 1% who aren’t being complete whack jobs like Jacob Stein.
So what if stage 2, the cognitive dissonance stage, where one starts believing in YHWH has broken down for me? The first stage, of family/community is still in force for me.
I’ve been experimenting with some different forms of Judaism. Specifically, I’ve been looking into the egalitarian wing of the Orthodox community. Though, honestly, it doesn’t do much for me. Just because we are now pretending that halacha thinks women are not inferior to men doesn’t make it anymore meaningful, at least not for me anyway.
What about the future? That’s the question everyone always wants to know about. Unfortunately, I myself don’t have the answer so I have nothing to report. I haven't thought about it much. Right now I'm orthoprax. I don't see it as such a profound decision in either direction. It's not that hard and it's not that important. I don't see any reason I need to leave. But, who knows?
So, that’s where I am now. It was a long, hard, but also meaningful and enlightening journey. If we didn’t have these challenges, life wouldn’t be worth living.
Where will I go from here? That, only YHWH knows.