Thursday, April 30, 2009

Better Know The Hedyot (Part I)

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.

Such as?

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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stupid Chumra Alert

Last week I went to a friend who was sitting shiva. For those who aren't familiar with it, shiva is the week-long period of grief and mourning in Jewish law. Traditionally, the close family members of the person who died (children, sblings, etc.) stay together at someone's home throughout the week and visitors and family members stop by to talk to them and comfort them through the difficult period. There are a lot of laws and customs regarding this period - how the mourners have to sit, how visitor's should behave, who can initiate the discussion, what to say when you leave, etc. Whole books have been written on this topic. One of the more unusual customs that I've seen practiced in many religious homes is that all the mirrors in the house are covered up. I think this is due to the idea that people shouldn't be too materialistically focused during this period. Ok, it's not something that I'd care to follow, but I can respect the motive behind it. It's an appropriate sentiment for a house of mourning. Anyway, while at the shiva house, I happened to walk through the kitchen, and I noticed that there were some paper towels taped up over the microwave door. That's weird, I thought to myself. Why would anyone do that? I turned to a family member and asked about it. They helpfully explained that because the microwave door is somewhat reflective it might be considered a mirror so they felt it better to cover it up!

Oh, you chumra-chasing frummies! Is there no custom in Jewish tradition that you can't take to a crazy extreme, making Judaism look idiotic in the process?

(Oh, just for a little context - this is a family that is mainstream chareidi, but most people would not typically consider them crazy frum. Some of their kids even attended college.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who is Your God?

Pen Tivokeish recently wrote a great post describing his idea of what god is like in his mind. It reminded me of how I used to think about god years ago. When I was old enough to articulate it, I realized that my perception of God was akin to how I thought of all my principals in yeshiva: If you were a good kid who did what you were supposed to, followed the rules, got decent grades, and stayed on his good side, then he was always happy with you, and you'd probably even get some sort of reward every once in a while. But if you were the sort of kid who didn't always do as he was expected to, then the relationship was totally different. You always had to be on the lookout to make sure he wasn't around the corner, looking to catch you doing something you weren't allowed to. If he busted you messing around, you knew that you were in some serious trouble. You probably were often called to his office every once in a while for some infraction that he would berate you for. Usually when that happened, you knew you had broken some rule, but oftentimes you probably really had no idea what the big deal was that you had done. And of course, between all the reprimands, there would be a punishment or two meted out.

That's pretty much how I thought of god. The Principal in the Sky. Who was going to eventually bust you for every single violation of the rules you ever committed.

What persona was your god?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gaius Responds

I got an email from the second interviewed kofer, Gaius Octavius, that he wanted to post a follow-up to his interview. Here are his remarks:


Most of the criticisms of my interview were along the lines of (a) you are boring and/or a square; (b) at thirteen you were too young to become atheist because you could not possibly have understood evolution; and, (c) if you were intellectually honest, you would have asked rebbeim questions. That you didn’t just proves you were looking for a reason to become not frum.

(a) You are boring and/or a square.

I regarded this criticism as the most surprising; it simply never occurred to me that people read blog posts simply for their entertainment value. I would imagine that most of the people who post on these blogs fancy themselves intellectuals and would not admit that they read blogs solely to be entertained. With that said, my life would be very interesting to most people who read Da'as Hedyot. With that said, I am constrained by my desire to maintain my anonymity from writing about it.

(b) At thirteen you were too young to become atheist because you could not possibly have understood evolution.

At the outset, I will admit that when I first believed in the theory of evolution by natural selection, I had a rather primitive understanding of the theory. (As an aside, the same could be said of Charles Darwin, who developed the theory without being aware of Mendelian genetics).

But my decision to believe in the theory of evolution was not just because it made sense to me, but also because I became aware that it was the general conscious of scientists that it was correct. In that sense, I chose to accept one form of authority, scientists, over another form of authority, rabbis. And before becoming aware of the theory of evolution, I was already skeptical of the religious explanations for the natural world, particularly since in learning gemara the amoroim struck me as so primitive.

My explanation for why I accepted evolution without fully understanding it might bother some people who find it not very intellectual. But if you had a medical issue, I suspect that you would readily accept the diagnosis of a western trained medical doctor over a Santeria practicing witch doctor. But using your logic, the fact that you would take a medication without fully understanding how it works is proof that you are just looking for a reason to not believe that Santeria is the true faith. After all, you accept that this medication will be effective without having reviewed any of the clinical studies or read the peer reviewed articles that explain how it works.

(c) If you were intellectually honest, you would have asked rebbeim questions. That you didn’t just proves you were looking for a reason to become not frum.

Firstly, there was nothing that I would have heard had I asked that would have surprised me. While issues of emunah and/or hashkafah were not a formal part of the curriculum, (which was almost entirely gemara), being in yeshiva all day meant that I was frequently exposed to the “party line” on issues of belief.

Further, in the yeshiva environment I was in, it was made clear that having “emunah peshutah” was preferable to “rational belief.” As such, asking questions would hurt the perception of me in implying that I did not have “emunah peshutah.” (And at that time I thought I would remain fake frum.) Further, I never got the impression from my rebbeim that they had anything other than “emunah peshutah” and I believed that they would be uncomfortable with me asking them. In the yeshiva I went to, rebbeim were there to answer questions on the difficult tosfos that you did not understand, not why does Bereshis say that the world was created in six days less then six thousand years ago when science provides overwhelming evidence that it does not.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Natalie

Continuing our series of interviews with people who left the religious community, I am pleased to now present our next participant, Natalie. Natalie is a former Lubavitcher who grew up in Crown Heights. Over the years she gradually stopped believing in the tenets of Judaism, but continued to remain part of the community, even marrying a religious person. After a few years of marriage, her husband eventually came around to her way of seeing things, and they decided to openly stop being religious. They now live with their children in a well known Jewish metropolis where they go about their business and live life the way they please. Here is Natalie's story.


Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?

I grew up in Crown Heights, in a large Lubavitch family. My parents were baalei teshuvah and very strict about everything. Despite their deep religious beliefs, I grew up in a house that regularly received the New York Times, which I read voraciously. So, while I was being raised and being schooled in a strict environment, I was constantly exposed to different schools of thought, the arts, and culture in general via the Times. However, when I got married I left the strict Lubavitch community and moved into a more modern-orthodox style of Judaism that my husband was raised with.

Is there any incident, idea, or experience that you can relate which captures the religious tone of your home?

My parents equated the big things with the small. Eating before Kiddush was a big one; I may as well have been eating treif. I can't recall a specific punishment for such a transgression, just the disappointment it would have evoked in my mother. Another thing that was a big deal to them that bothered me intensely was tznius, wearing tights in particular. Even though most of the girls in our neighborhood were free to wear socks, albeit kneesocks, we had to wear tights. Walking out without them would have been like walking out without a shirt. To this day I don't feel comfortable in tights, they feel very restrictive to me.

Can you highlight something you encountered growing up that made you question your upbringing?

I can't think of one specific incident that made me question, but I will never forget the first thing I learned that made sense to me. Learning Pirkei Avos when I was young, we came across a mishna, that said something to the effect of, "You show God how much you love him by the way you love his creatures." It was a big moment for me, and I remember looking around the classroom wondering why this wasn't a big deal to everyone else. It struck me then that there really wasn't a lot of love for all of God's creatures in my environment, and I wondered why, if these people loved God so much, they couldn't love every one of his creations? (Remember, this was in Crown Heights where "goyim" and "shvartzes" were very much looked down upon, and weren't they God's creatures too?) The contrast between what I was being taught, what made sense to me, and what was actually being practiced made a huge impression on me at that age. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.

Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?

For me it was all of those things. I never found a way to reconcile the way I was taught that God cares about everything little things we do, and God wants us to do x but not y, with common sense. I couldn't reconcile the scientific evidence of the age of the world with the story of the world I was taught in school. I didn't really know enough about Torah, being a girl and going to girl's yeshivas, but what I did know just didn't jive with what I knew about the world. Emotionally and socially, I could see the way children from certain families, either with money or yichus were treated differently by the schools. They could get away with almost anything with no consequence and it was blatant. I also saw the way the community was willing to give anything and everything, from scholarships to support and understanding, to those who they were trying to be mekarev (make frum), but they would not offer the same to those who they had already made frum or were born that way. When the whole Moshiach craze started I didn't think it would get far because it seemed insane to me, and I felt very removed and distant from the community when it did take hold and the Rebbe did nothing to stop it (before he died obviously.) I did not identify emotionally, intellectually, or culturally with the community I was raised in and never felt comfortable in my own skin within that community.

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

They were little things, like turning on and off lights on shabbos and not waiting between eating milk and meat. I didn't feel any specific way about them outside of the momentary quickening of fear at the thought of being caught. I felt no guilt, I felt no elation - it just felt normal to me since I saw no reason NOT to do those things.

You mentioned that when you got married you joined your husband in practicing a more modern orthodox style of Judaism, but it sounds like you had already stopped believing things at that point. Was he aware of this?

Yes. My husband was fully aware of my religious beliefs at the time. I literally told him, "You are marrying an apikores." He thought I didn't mean it! We laugh about it now.

So, at what age did you come to this realization that you no longer believed in it? And why did you decide to remain in the community if you no longer believed?

There was no age or moment that I stopped believing, it's more that I don't ever remember believing. I always felt disconnected from Orthodoxy, almost as if I was learning about the life of other people, not myself. However, before I was married, I was living an outwardly frum lifestyle because that's how my family and friends were, and I felt comfortable in that lifestyle. There was no real drive to step out of that world because I was not rejected by my family or friends and it was just easy and familiar. In general I was always a good girl and did my own thing without a rebellious flair. I never gave them a reason to be worried about me, I got good grades, didn't drink or do drugs, etc. so there was never any really dramatic confrontation or discussion about my religious beliefs.

However, as I've grown older I've felt the drive and the need to live a life more consistent with my beliefs (or lack of them). In addition, as a parent, living authentically is important because I can't bear to pass something I have no belief in on to my children. Now that I am responsible for other lives I can't just go with the flow like I did when I got married at a younger and more naive time of life.

How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?

I was not the first one in my family to go "off the derech" so it was not a huge surprise. I did get married young, and married a guy from a modern orthodox background. My parents were not thrilled, and they still treat him in an inferior manner sometimes (as compared to my brothers-in-law who are Lubavitch.) I have to give my parents credit though, when I told them I wanted to marry him they did not object. In fact, my father said, "If you love him, and he will take care of you, of course you should marry him." My parents moved out of Crown Heights when I was a teenager and I imagine they blamed my going off on that. I did not leave frumkeit completely at that point, so I think my parents were just happy I was getting married and marrying a Jewish guy. Modern Orthodox wasn't as bad as not being frum at all, so they dealt with it. At this point, a bunch of years down the road, and with my husband having joined me in my religious leanings (or lack of them,) things are a little different. Some of my family knows that I am not shomer shabbos, which is the worst thing they can imagine, and they have handled it very well. Some have questioned me, but ultimately have accepted it and me. The family I am not very close to, my parents included, may not know at all. I won't lie to them if they ask me about it but I let them assume whatever makes them feel comfortable. I didn't leave in a spectacular or rebellious manner, so they don't have much wiggle room to argue with me about it, and if they choose to cut me off they will lose out on not only myself, but my children too.

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

We live in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, so our physical connection is fairly strong. We keep a kosher home so that family can feel comfortable eating here or dropping their children off to play. My children are still in a modern orthodox yeshiva, but this is their last year there. I do have a strong connection to and feeling for Jewish culture. Jewish art, ideas, song, etc. I don't believe in it as a divine religion, but I enjoy celebrating and living the culture of my nation and I have no intention to stop. I don't observe and celebrate everything, but the ideas and holidays that have value or meaning to me are celebrated with my own twist. For example, shabbos. While I am not observing a day of rest because I think God said I should, I recognize the value of spending one day a week relaxing and reconnecting with my husband and children without the stresses of work, errands, and other demands on our time. So I spend the day with my family. We usually spend it at home hanging out, maybe watching a movie, playing board and card games, occasionally going on a fun outing together - whatever strikes our fancy.

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

The only thing I miss is the sense of community. There is something to be said for the way the different Jewish communities band together and help each other out in times of need.

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

Yes and no. Growing up I was taught to be a decent, honest, moral person and I remain that way. I don't attribute that to my past religious life specifically, but more to the way my parents raised me. A perspective that does stick with me is the idea that we are here to make the world a better place. If I am here I may as well do my best to leave the world a better place, regardless of whether I believe that I was put here by a god or not.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from?

I have an amount of pride and fondness for the community I was raised in. I am proud of the good things they do in this world, and they do a lot. Of course, from an outside perspective I also have some pity and sadness for them. I can clearly see how narrow their views are and the mistakes they've made and continue to make. The feelings for my old community are complicated, but I don't have much anger or hostility toward them. I can't claim to view them objectively, but I think they're human just like the rest of us - they try to do good but make some mistakes just like every other community out there.

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

Judaism as a nation and a culture? Absolutely. As a religion? No. I don't believe in God. I think he is a nice fairy tale for grown-ups, but I don't begrudge those who have that belief. I wouldn't declare myself a complete atheist because really how could I know for sure, so I guess I'd categorize myself as agnostic.

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

One of the biggest drawbacks is trying to figure out the parenting thing without religion. It's very easy to raise kids when you have a set of rules to teach and raise them by. It's more difficult when you have to figure out how to teach them to go about their lives in this world without the comfortable certainty that religion brings. I don't regret leaving it, I am comfortable, happy, and guilt free. I've always wondered why I don't feel guilt about leaving religion when so many people do. I'm not a guilt free person in general. I feel guilt when I hurt someone in some way or go against my moral values, so the guilt mechanism is there and working. I guess I don't feel it about religion because I believe so deeply that it's just not true.

Aside from the challenge of parenting, I also sometimes have a hard time being open with my family about what I do or feel about religion because I worry that they won't want their children to hang out with me or my children. Family is very important to me and I don't like to risk alienating them. I don't lie when asked directly; I am just not as outspoken as I am about other things (and trust me, I am pretty damn outspoken about most things!)

What helped you get through the more challenging periods of your transition?

The support of my husband and friends. My husband was, for a long time, a believer, or at least tried to be frum in the way he was taught, but he always supported my right to live as I wanted. He never asked me to keep religious observances that I was uncomfortable with and was never judgmental about my lack of belief. I am lucky to have a strong, stable marital relationship and equally strong relationships with friends that are both religious and not religious who all support and love me regardless of my religious beliefs, or lack of them. I include those family members that I am close with and really know me well in this "friends" category. The absolute certainty that I would not be happy living a religious lifestyle has also helped me get through difficult times. I tried being happy in that lifestyle on more than one occasion but it never stuck and the certainty that what I am doing is right for me definitely helps.

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

Nothing very interesting comes to mind. Just the freedom that comes with not living with a very narrow, prescribed set of rules. There is nothing in particular in my life that I could not have done in my former life. I am married, have children, have my own business, travel - I could do all of that in a religious lifestyle, albeit not as freely.

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

I was surprised to find out that everyone is prejudiced and judgmental about some other group they deem inferior to them. It is not a specifically Jewish thing to judge and condemn that which we don't understand or that doesn't jive with our beliefs. Everyone has some one they think they are better than.

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

Oh boy, there are so many! One is that ex-frum people have left because they are too lazy to live a religious lifestyle, or just want an "easier" life. Like I told my sister in law once, "If you think I left because I want to wear short sleeves, you're crazy!" A non-frum lifestyle might be easier in some practical ways but more challenging in others. I think the frum lifestyle is a very comfortable one because there is little to no guesswork. You do this now, that at that time, and a third thing at another time. It's all laid out for you, even down to which shoelace to tie first, and there is a very strong support system built in.

Another thing that bothers me is the idea that all ex-frum people have left because they've been traumatized in some way. Of course we've been traumatized - hasn't everyone? I don't know a single person who has not faced some challenge and trauma in their life (aren't there researchers who believe that birth is traumatic?) Most ex-frum people I know have had no more trauma than any of the people I know who have remained frum. Sure there are some of us that are more damaged than others and have faced tougher times, but being OTD is not necessarily an indication of severe trauma in someone's childhood or life.

Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?

No, people "out here" are just as different and varied as those in the frum world. There are good guys, bad guys, and in between guys - just like in the frum world and every world.

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

I think seeing so much injustice and hypocrisy in the community growing up has made me very sensitive to injustice and hypocrisy everywhere. One of the experiences outside of the frum world which has shaped my worldview is the experience of different people and their cultures. Experiencing the music, food, and getting to know people of different types and cultures has made me realize that we are all the same even if we are different "flavors". Of course having grown up reading about different places and cultures had me suspecting that already but actually experiencing and spending time with people from all walks of life has made me very tolerant and open to different people and ideas.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

This may seem like something silly and small, but being able to go out for the day and not worry about food makes my life SO much simpler. It's the small things ;o)

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

The very strong sense of community.

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

Only one thing? I would make them less judgmental of their own. They are very tolerant of those who were not raised frum but less so of their own who have questions or cannot live the way they do. I also think that the concept that education in a secular environment (i.e. college) is bad needs to change. I know my life would be different and easier had I been encouraged to pursue a higher education instead of disparaged and discouraged for wanting to do so.

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

This is a tough question to answer because it's like imagining an alternate universe. I suppose that if they had somehow made the observances really meaningful instead of onerous, or if they had somehow managed to convince me that there was a god and that this is what he wants from us, I would still be there.

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

I would like the frum world to know that we are normal, average people just like them, who simply believe differently. We are not disturbed or dysfunctional (any more so than any other group of people.) We want the same things they and all people want, the freedom to pursue our lives as we see fit, the freedom from judgment, and the acceptance and love of our families and communities.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Finding Religion in College

The other day I was sitting in the library at college, trying to get my mind to focus on the poly-sci textbook in my lap, but as usual, being far more inclined to space out and let my mind wander wherever it pleased. As I watched the myriad students passing all around me, one particular student caught my eye. I vaguely recognized him from a class we had shared some semesters ago, but that wasn't what had grabbed my attention. From the distance where I was sitting, it seemed that he was carrying something unusual. As I looked closer, my suspicions were confirmed. He was carrying something, something totally unexpected.

A brick.

Not just any ordinary normal-sized brick, but a large, cinderblock-sized one, heavy enough that he had to carry it with his arm raised up, hoisted over his shoulder. In the library. On its side was painted a purple symbol I didn't recognize.

I was dying to know what the deal was here, so I approached him, and inquired as to the unusual behavior I was observing.

"It's a fraternity initiation rite," he explained sheepishly. "I have to carry this thing around for a week, everywhere I go, never entirely letting go of it."

I sat back down, pondering the absurdity I had just witnessed. Why would anyone subject themselves to such a pointless exercise, I thought to myself? And what's with these crazy fraternities that they make people go through these idiotic rituals?

Eventually, the obvious answer became all too clear to me. I realized that it's simply a loyalty thing. The guy is doing this to prove to the fraternity how loyal he is willing to be for them. By fulfilling this meaningless ritual, he's demonstrating to the group that not only does he want to be a part of their group, but that he is willing to subject himself to their demands, even when those demands go against his own self interest. They're not asking him to perform 30 hours of community service, or maintain a certain GPA, or score a certain number of foul shots. They're asking him to do something that has absolutely no sensible rationale whatsoever; something which no sane person would ever agree to doing. And why? Why perform a pointless task? Only because they told him to do so. It's an act of pure obedience. By agreeing to perform this task, he's implicitly acknowledging that their authority takes precedence over his own moral and logical sense. Although this act might indeed seem harmless enough, by his willingness to surrender his interests to those of the wider group, he's proving to them that, in the future, if need be, they can rely on him to protect the welfare of the collective over his own needs. They can rest assured that if he is ever faced with a choice between doing what his own mind tells him is right, and doing what the group tells him is right, he will act appropriately. In appreciation of this compliance, the person will no doubt be amply rewarded. He'll be granted entry to a select group of people, and be provided countless benefits that outsiders are denied. But his access to these privileges will be contingent on his continuous and unyielding submission to the demands of the greater group.

As I sat there contemplating this incredibly brilliant system that the inventors of the fraternity came up with, it suddenly occurred to me that I had actually just been deconstructing one of the key aspects of religious society. After all, hadn't I just described so much of what religion is about? Doing things that in ordinary circumstances you'd find ridiculous and pointless, but because some authority figure deems them necessary, you acquiesce to their demands? Isn't so much of religion about subverting your will to a greater interest?

The parallels were uncanny.
  • Religion often (not always, but often) asks people to live their lives by a set of rules that doesn't make any sense whatsoever to a rational person. And why? Because the religious authority (god, the rabbis, the talmud, etc.) says so.
  • Religion often says to its adherents, "Don't trust your own moral sense of right and wrong. It's only right or wrong because we say so."
  • Isn't it common to find religion highly averse to independent thought?
  • Doesn't religion grant its adherents countless benefits denied to outsiders, in exchange for its members' continued loyalty and devotion?
It's amazing the things you learn in college.

Monday, April 06, 2009

When to leave frumkeit?

The interviews that I've posted have prompted both positive feedback and also a number of negative reactions. Many people have said that the subjects interviewed only perpetuate the stereotypes which I had hoped to overcome. Although I thought it was clear that they are mature and thoughtful individuals who didn't leave religion based on shallow, impulsive motivations, and who are living meaningful and productive lives, many people still were quite critical of them. They felt that each one simply demonstrated a weak and untenable approach to rejecting Judaism, thereby proving the critics right that people who leave really have no idea what they're talking about.

It seems that many people feel that there are only certain, very specific, reasons to stop being frum, and if your motivation for leaving does not fall within those rationales, then your choice is clearly illegitimate and your rejection of your family’s tradition is indefensible.

Irrespective of the conclusion that the critics seem to be drawing, the premise of these objections do touch on an important question: Does one need a justification for leaving religion behind? And if so, what is a justifiable basis for doing so?

One can find a broad range of opinions addressing this question. On the one hand are those who feel that any reason whatsoever – no matter how trivial - is good enough, since there’s no rational basis for a religious lifestyle anyway ("Does anyone demand a solid intellectual refutation to reject the tooth fairy?"). At the other side of the spectrum are those who feel that no rationale at all could ever justify a person leaving frumkeit, since it’s the only true and right way to live ("It doesn’t matter what perfectly constructed argument you have, if you say 2 +2 = 5 you’re obviously making a mistake!"). And there are those in the middle, that seem to grant, albeit very cautiously, that in certain situations, leaving frumkeit could possibly be the prudent and correct choice for a person.

I haven't totally made up my mind about it, but personally, I feel that any person is entitled to take whatever steps he wants to in his own life, for whatever reasons he desires, and does not have to explain himself to anyone. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all reasons are equally valid. Sometimes people do things for stupid reasons. Ideally, any significant choice a person makes in his life should be approached with deliberation and proper reflection.

Off the top of my head, here are some general reasons why I think it makes sense for a person to stop being frum:

If he has put a sufficient amount of deliberation into the issue and concluded that...
  • he is unhappy, and his unhappiness is a direct result of the frum lifestyle (e.g. if his frum society insisted he value things that he finds deeply objectionable)
  • due to frumkeit, he is always going to be lacking things that he feels are essential to his life (e.g. he feels there is no outlet for his creative expression)
  • he finds that many of the core premises of the frum lifestyle factually untrue (e.g. historicity of the Bible)
  • he finds too much of that lifestyle (either practical or theological) to be incompatible with what he feels to be right (e.g. perspectives on homosexuality or women's issues)
  • it provides no significant benefit or meaning to his life
  • he no longer trusts the system
(I suppose some of those categories overlap a bit, but it covers the general areas for me. Please don't try to disprove the examples above by showing, for example, that other branches of Judaism do provide a creative outlet. We're all well aware that there are many different kinds of societies in Judaism and that some of them have environments which don't have the flaws mentioned above. However, disproving the example is pointless because a) the examples are just that - examples. The general category still stands, even if you feel a specific illustration of it isn't accurate. And b) irrespective of the possibly mistaken impression the person has, the fact remains that this is the reality to them! They may be wrong, but they think they're right, and since they believe that Judaism is falling short somehow, they have a right to act based on what they perceive to be true.)

Obviously, in a situation where the person has certain practical obligations and commitments (such as kids), that affects the decision somewhat. But in a normal situation where the person is single and mature minded, he should be allowed to pursue a path that he feels is right for him.

What do you think?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Gaius Octavius

UPDATE: I accidentally screwed up and posted an earlier draft of the interview with Gaius that got mixed up with the finished version. I will post the updated responses to the questions in red text. Sorry!

The second kofer we're meeting in our series, is Gaius Octavius, a single professional working in the financial services industry who lives in New York.*

Gaius grew up in a moderately prestigious yeshivish family but became a kofer as a teenager. However, he pretended to be frum for many years. Currently, he publicly lives an openly secular lifestyle except when he's around certain groups of people.

Here is my interview with Gaius.

* Some identifying details have been changed, as Gaius prefers to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious shortly.

Can you describe the religious environment which you grew up in?

I grew up in a yeshivish community where secular education and knowledge were proscribed. However, English was my first language and I had more exposure to the outside world than if I was chassidish.

My family was yeshivish before it was common to be yeshivish. I have a grandfather who was a prominent rabbi. However, in a strange way, being from such a family probably meant that I was in an environment that made it easier to question frumkeit. The primary reason that frum people give why to believe is that even if you do not understand, there are rabbis who are much smarter than you who did figure everything out. But if you are around the people who are considered daas torah, it is easier to see that their motives are not always religious devotion but self interest.

What was the primary impetus for your decision to stop being frum?

It was an intellectual decision. I became an atheist when I was thirteen, when I was first exposed to the theory of evolution. Even after becoming an atheist, I never considered the possibility of leaving Orthodox Judaism; I never knew anyone who did, and as a thirteen year old, I could not imagine it could be done. I assumed I would spend the rest of my life living as an Orthodox Jew while secretly not believing any of Judaism's claims. It was only when I was older that I realized that I could leave.

When I was thirteen, I was in a boarding school, (yeshivish people call them “out of town yeshivas”) where no radios were allowed. I was always a curious sort, interested in world events, so I smuggled in a radio. I was already having doubts about what I was being taught, primarily gemara. The amoroim seemed so primitive in their understanding of the world, and we were supposed to believe they were all-knowing. I toyed with the idea of becoming a karaite, even though I assumed (falsely) that there were no karaim left for hundreds of years. I then became a tentative atheist after I decided Chumash itself seemed untrue. Then one night I heard Jay Diamond on WABC radio interview the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an evangelical Christian who was a “creationist” and a Catholic priest who believed in evolution. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was very persuasive (at least to a thirteen year old). But I was amazed by the fact that the Catholic priest believed in evolution. I was led to believe that people believed in evolution because they were hedonists who needed to deny god’s existence so they could pursue their immoral desires. Thus, I could not make sense of a priest believing in evolution for any reason other than that it was true. Because I believed that evolution was incompatible with the existence of god, I have remained an atheist ever since.

Did you ever encounter any rabbinic or religious figures that you felt addressed your questions in a satisfactory way?

No, I never asked. I thought it was best not to.

Did you ever meet anyone who might have been open to even hearing your questions?

No. But although I never asked, I knew exactly what answers I would have gotten had I asked.

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

Since I was young, I always hated pashas zachor. On the shabbos before Purim, everyone is required to hear the torah portion in which god requires the Jews to remember that the Amalek people attacked the Jews in the desert when they were wandering to the "promised land" and as such, the Jews should heed god's command to wipe out the Amaleki people. Even as a child, I thought genocide sucked, big time. I learned in yeshiva that I was required by god to hear every single word of pashas zachor. Thus, I would always cover my ears for one word to assure that I was violating the religious requirement to hear pashas zachor.

How did you family react to you becoming non-religious?

Actually, my parents don't know that I'm not frum. They think I'm "modern orthodox." I put on a yarmulke when I visit. They'd prefer that I be ultra-orthodox but they're accepting of the fact that I am not. Of course, they would be very disappointed if they knew that I am an atheist who does not observe anything, which is why I do not plan to ever tell them.

Of course, there are many hints that should clue them in, but denial is a powerful thing and the hints are simply ignored.

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

I'm interested in learning about a lot of cultures, including Jewish cultures. I'm more likely to see films with a Jewish theme and I have a particular interest in Jewish life in places where Jews are an extremely small minority group. Note that I use the plural "cultures" because being Jewish has different meaning in different places and there is no such thing as a single "Jewish culture."

On the other hand, I find the Jewish religion to be meaningless to me. At the core of the belief is the idea that a god appeared at a mountain a few thousand years ago and said you are special people and if you just follow these special weird 613 rules, you will be blessed. I don't believe in that myth. When you take away the myths, there is simply no reason to see value in the Jewish religion.

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

I'm sure if I was more self aware I could come up with something, but offhand, I can't think of anything.

Now that you've left, how do you view the religious community?

It demands extreme conformity and a willingness to sacrifice the right to engage in independent thought. It must be comforting to believe that there are people that are much wiser than them and/or have a direct connection to god who have everything figured out. I could never believe in that, but for those who do, the community probably works fine.

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

The biggest drawback is that I'm more distant from my family. This is to be expected of course, as I don't share in their joys the way they do. When my sister tells me excitedly how her kid is making a siyum mishnaois at his bar mitzvah, I feign happiness while secretly thinking, he's a smart kid, why couldn't he spend his time learning something useful like AP algebra.

With that said, I never regret for a moment my decision to leave. If I had to do things over, the only thing that I would have done differently is that I would have left earlier on. It's emotionally hard to live the double life.

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

Dating is more difficult. At some point, I would like to marry and have children. Many women are put off by my background and bothered by the fact that me marrying might somehow impact my relation with my parents (who expect me to only marry a religious Jew, being that they think I am modern Orthodox.) As such, I prefer dating people who are more liberal minded but also come from a culturally conservative background. They can relate to the conflict I feel.

I often joke that when I meet women I want to say that I am an orphan; it would make my life much simpler. But I obviously would never start a relationship based on dishonesty.

Can you name something you are currently doing in your life that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?

Exposing myself to a multi-cultural environment in which I could have close friendships with people from diverse backgrounds. I am really interested in other people's experiences, (I should have been a sociologist), so cultural diversity is important to me.

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

The world outside of ultra-orthodoxy isn't monolithic so it's hard to say. I can only comment on the portion of it that I've interacted with. With that said, I found that it's more carefree and less intellectual than I expected. You would think people who have greater freedom to think would take advantage of it, but many do not. I guess its like when the Eastern European counties became democratic. In the first election, everyone voted, but after a while, people took it for granted and fewer people did.

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

I think that there are a lot of misconceptions, but I'm past the point that I care to address them.

When you left the frum world, were there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?

I became a non-believer at such a young age that I really don't remember buying into this caricatured view of general society. I actually have difficulty articulating how I perceived "general society." Thus, I can't really say whether those perceptions were true or not.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

The ability to read and say what I want without having to worry about whether it's kefira (heresy) or is in violation of communal beliefs.

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

Cheesecake on Shavous. We associate the yom tovim with heavy fleishig meals so having a milchig meal on Shavous was great.

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

No, because I don't think that they would listen. From a very early age, frum people are raised with the idea that everything about the frum world is the greatest. They take a lot of pride in that belief. Thus, they engage in irrational denial when faced with the possibility that not everything is so perfect in their utopia.


Update: Gaius posted a follow-up the following week.