Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Kofer Among 8 Million

Many people in the blogosphere have already posted links to this touching piece, but since it is somewhat in line with the "Better Know a Kofer" series, I figured it would be nice to add it here also, just in case some of my readers might not have seen it.

The link is to an audio/visual slideshow narrated by a former Lubavitcher who talks about her feelings of leaving the frum world of Crown Heights. It's part of a series from the New York Times called 'One In 8 Million ', which briefly profiles all sorts of different kinds of people that are living in New York City.

Make sure to also see the comment thread on the piece, which has many additional worthwhile perspectives.

If anyone is interested in meeting Rivkah, I happen to know of an art exhibition that she will be putting on this week. You can email me privately for details.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


After writing up my answers to my own 'kofer interview', it got me thinking about the past a lot, and the experiences that I went through all those years ago when I was still frum. Back when I was younger, and struggling with the challenges of making sense of the frum world I wasn't fitting into, I actually wrote down a lot of the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. My purpose in writing them was not because I ever intended to share them, but simply because attempting to transcribe all the confusing ideas onto paper helped me make sense of it all, however slightly. It helped me clarify and untangle the disjointed mess of new ideas, old beliefs, personal biases, and unclear motivations that were constantly battling each other in my mind. So, after thinking about all the things I had shared in the interview, I figured it might be worthwhile to take a look at some of those writings, and see how they appear to the very different person I am now.

It was a surprising, but quite pleasant, discovery. Because, amazingly, so many of the journal entries seemed to express exactly the sentiments that I had described in my interview, and in many of my previous posts. It's been almost a decade since I wrote some of those things down, and the pain of that period has indeed subsided, but my memory of that difficult time has not let me down. The doubt and confusion that wracked my thoughts were indeed very real to me.

I thought that it might be interesting to share some of those emotional/intellectual battles I was trying to work through back then. Below is one brief stream of consciousness that I committed to writing. I'm not absolutely certain, but I believe that it was written when I still had both feet firmly planted in the yeshivish world, but was probably a few years out of high school already. I've decided to reproduce it here without changing it in any way from the original. Please keep in mind that this was never intended to be read by anyone other than myself (in fact, I didn't really intend to read it myself. The act of writing itself was the point!) so it isn't entirely grammatically correct or even totally coherent at some points. It isn't meant to be an eloquent essay, or some articulate statement of skepticism. It is just a very fleeting glimpse into the mind of a pained and confused young man.


Somewhere in the last five to seven years of my life when I was in yeshiva and hearing the message of "learning is the most important thing in life" etc.. I somehow became antagonistic towards that idea because somehow I felt that it was putting me down, disregarding me, and those who encouraged that idea were stepping on me. Consequently I became antagonistic towards those people. Nowadays, it seems that anyone who is a self respecting Torah Jew (and G-d, who most definitely is a Torah Jew!) subscribes to that idea and if I am against that idea then, in effect, I'm against a Torah philosophy, which brands me a heretic. I don't like to be a heretic. (Although I don't particularly mind seeming like a heretic.) Therefore I want to find out and figure out exactly where the tension of this idea and my personal feelings lies.
This is how I feel it is. It's like this: They're yelling at me "you're wrong! you're wrong!"
And I'm saying "No! Stop it! Stop hurting me!
And their saying back: "We're not hurting you, you're hurting yourself by not agreeing to us, by not joining us."
I'm in this world and I'm constantly hearing things which I feel are putting me down. And I want to distance myself from these things because it hurts me. But the problem is that it seems that this is a Torah-true idea and if I want to distance myself from it and not accept it then I'm somehow a traitor and a heretic.
So I want to figure this out once and for all because I can't go on living like this where I have to be part of a society that I feel hurts me and if I break off from that society I'm not able to live with myself (both from myself and from outside myself)
It could be put like this. There seems to be an idea - from what I have been taught and instilled with is the Truth - that I am somehow something which is to be somehow disregarded. And it's not a simple matter for me to ignore it and say "Na, probably not, it's probably only someone's personal idea.", because it seems to be that everyone who is someone seems to be saying it. And I also can't somehow say that all these people who are saying it are a bunch of fanatics, because it's been driven into me - very, very deeply - that these are the people who are speaking the truth.
Is it true that I have to associate and be a part of that which I feel hurts me?
To answer that I don't have to associate with it - isn't an alternative. Because it's something which has been driven into me is part of the fabric of my existence.
The only other answer is to redefine it into something which doesn't hurt me (and remain consistent with what everyone seems to be saying it is).
And that's somehow what I've been doing this past while. I've been saying that learning isn't the most important thing and that it's only an aspect of a larger picture. But it doesn't seem to be working because I'm still hearing these messages, quite often too, that it's really learning, learning, learning.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Shaya Getzel

Today's kofer hails from one of the established and well-known chassidish sects. He also happens to occasionally blog at Confessions of a Koifer. We'll skip the intro and jump right in.

Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?

Chassidish. Beard, Peyes, Shtreimel, Williamsburg, Monsey. You know, Chassidish.

Yeah, I think we know what you mean. What can you tell us about the religious tone in your home?

As a kid I wanted to join the Miami Boys Choir, but they were deemed too “modern”.

Can you highlight an example of an experience you encountered that made you question your upbringing?

My fathers brother - who is not frum - is married to a non-Jewish woman, when he came to visit us for a family simcha, he was informed that his wife was not welcome. In theory it was not a new concept to me, but to see that upfront really bothered me.

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

A combination of a few of those, as I told one the “experts” sent to talk sense back into me: I don’t believe, I don’t care, I don’t want, I don’t like. At first it was the extremism that bothered me, but as I started to dig deeper, everything I grew up believing in started crumbling before my eyes.

In what way did you dig deeper? And what were some of the things that started falling apart?

I read books, spoke to "professionals" aka Rabbonim, and researched matters of faith, religion, God, nature, etc. to death. The more I looked though, the less proof I found for the things I grew up believing. Everything from the truth and/or infallibility of the Torah, to general claims of the supernatural, all the way to the belief in god, came up short in the evidence department. When my father confronted me, I asked him the questions I was having, and after yelling and screaming for a while, he basically said there are certain places he won't go (figuratively)...

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

Probably the first thing was not putting on tefillin, and at first I felt very guilty, but over time it stopped bothering me. Aside from that I remember the first time I ate gebrucks, heard “goyishe music”, and ate a cheeseburger, but by then I didn’t care anymore.

How old were you then?

About fifteen. It started out as indifference, and the feeling spread.

Was this period accompanied by intellectual challenges?

No. I wasn't having any big theological thoughts at the time. I believed in all of it, I was just cutting corners and feeling (at times) slightly guilty. When I got married, I was a perfectly content Chasidishe Yungerman. The intellectual issues that I mentioned all came after I was married.

How did your wife react to all these changes going on, and how did you get her on board?

At first she thought I had gone crazy, but eventually she came around. We had a lot of discussions and I made it very clear to her what I felt, but I didn't force her to agree with me, and eventually she got it. At the time, it took a serious toll on our marriage, but we pulled through, and we're happier than ever.

How did you family react to your leaving?

Surprise ("You, out of everyone?!"), sadness ("What are people gonna say?!"), anger ("You loser!"). At first they wouldn’t talk to me, but they slowly came around, and we are pretty close to normal now. I still love my family, warts and all.

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

My dog-tags say Jewish on them. When people ask I say I’m Jewish, but I don’t really do anything overly Jewish. On the other hand I keep track obsessively with news and gossip from back home. Oh, and I’m hopelessly in love with Jewish music.

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

Yamim Tovim with family, some of the food, but mostly the assuredness. Ignorance is definitely bliss.

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

I am no prude, but I do think the outside is a little over sexualized, but who am I to complain about that? In addition, my eating habits are definitely influenced by my past. I don’t like bacon, seafood, pepperoni pizza, or cheese on my burgers.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from? (Hostility, fondness, indifference, etc.)

Again, a mix of the above. While I disagree categorically with everything they stand for, I still am a bit jealous of the naivete and innocence of most of the people I grew up around. Plus, I still have many good friends there.

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

Absolutely not. I am a 100%, flaming atheist. And not because of any experience I had growing up, but rather through years of studying and trying to reconcile what I believed growing up, with science and nature.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave?

Not being as close to my family as I once was bothers me. Hurting them through my actions as well, but the alternative was for me to have had a nervous break-down. I chose the former.

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

Leaving the community was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was gut wrenching, and took years to actually go through with. I basically lost all my friends and family, and had to restart my life from scratch.

What are some things that helped you get through those difficult times?

My grandparents - who are not frum - and my wife, who wasn’t far behind me in our journey. Also getting up and leaving the area entirely. I got on a plane and flew across the country just to get away.

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

The very way I make a living. I’m in the Army. There’s no way I could have joined before. I wanted to serve my country, I was looking for an adventure, and excitement, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had it (whatever it is) in me, and I was able to do that by joining the Army. I have a job satisfaction I never had before, even in jobs where I made many time more than what I make now. None of this would have been possible before.

Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?

Get my PH.D. (working on it), run a marathon (working on it), and most of all blend in with society (done).

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

How regular and mundane it is, we were told growing up that the outside world is like a scene out of Mad Max, just death, destruction, crime, and rape (it's not). Another thing is the reaction I get all the time from people, “You’re Jewish?!” Yeah, uh what did you expect - horns?

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

Well the obvious, we’re not all miserable, drug addicts, sex-hungry, or crazy. I was happily married, doing well financially, had many friends, and happy, but I still chose to do what I did.

How does your life now compare to when you were frum?

I am by far a much happier fulfilled person now, and as I said I was a perfectly happy, adjusted person before.

Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?

Before leaving, I was very conservative (I voted for Bush twice), since leaving I’ve become a lot more liberal in my thinking (not only did I vote for Obama, I cried when he won), which is one more thing I don’t discuss with my family.

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

Being stationed in Korea (great Chabad House), and just by studying society and culture, through books, the internet movies, and so on.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

FREEDOM OF CHOICE. And the fact that when I finally stopped believing in God, it was a huge burden off my shoulders. People say religion is comforting, I see it quite the opposite. Aside from the constant guilt, unattainable goals, and illogic, religion tells you there is somebody to blame when things go wrong. How is that comforting? (I know all the arguments, don’t waste your time) Nature on the other hand is organized chaos, who are gonna blame for that? By the way, I did not set out looking for the conclusions I found. At first I genuinely thought I could find a way to make my beliefs jive with what I was learning about science. But alas, it didn't work out that way.

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

Like I said, yomim tovim, simchas, family and friend gatherings, etc.

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

To be more open-minded. But then they wouldn’t be the same community I left.

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

No. I tried all different level of Orthodoxy, even Conservative, and Reform Judaism, they all have the same fundamental flaws.

What flaws are you referring to? Aren’t there fundamental differences to the three branches?

They all believe in the supernatural, to one extent or another.

Is there anything else about your life you'd like to elaborate on?

Sure. Check out my blog:

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

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Little Foxling

One of the more popular skeptic bloggers some time ago was a fellow by the name of Little Foxling. In November 2007 he posted a five-part series on his blog that traced the progression of the breakdown of his faith. Instead of completely interviewing Little Foxling, I've asked him permission to reprise those old blog posts for the series. Although I prefer that the profiles I share tell a larger story than just the part of "why I left OJ", I'm choosing to publish this as part of my series because I think LF's tale will appeal to many of the readers here who have been clamoring for a more intellectually rigorous story to be told. Also, it's freaking long, so adding even more detail to it would be overkill.

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.

Part I

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.

Part II

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.

Part III

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.

Part IV

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.

Part V

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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Reality of Ideals

A few weeks ago Harry Maryles wrote a blog post that ruffled quite a few feathers. His post seemed to be a personal rant of all the negative qualities he sees in the chareidi community. He mentioned their extreme obsession with tznius, their tendency towards apologetics, their reluctance to report criminals from their community, their negative views of those outside their community (especially towards non-Jews), their unhealthy fixation on super strict rituals, their focus on maintaining external conformity, and other various problematic issues. Naturally, a lot of people got upset with his characterization of chareidim and took him to task for such a negative portrayal. They claimed that these practices are not actually part of the chareidi community and that he was misrepresenting the true nature of that society. One commenter wrote:
One thing is clear [sic] evident is that you know very little about what chareidim are and stand for.
The next day Harry put up another post which presented a totally different perspective. In this one, he wrote in glowing terms about all the positive qualities he sees in the chareidi community: Their dedication to god, their single-minded commitment to learning torah, their countless chesed projects, their efforts to do every mitzvah in the nicest way. These and other various examples demonstrate the positive side of chareidi life. Unsurprisingly, this post garnered appreciation from those who had taken issue with the first post, and earned him praise for painting such an accurate picture of who they really were.

But you have to wonder - how can one group elicit such dramatically different portrayals? Which of these depictions truly represents the chareidi community? Are they really a bunch of superficial, xenophobic fundamentalists? Or are they a group of spiritually sensitive, kindhearted and generous scholars? Which is it?

As I read these pieces, I found myself somewhat agreeing with both pictures that he painted. As odd as it might seem, they're both true. Both these sets of qualities can be found to a large degree throughout these communities. One simple explanation for this discrepancy is the obvious fact that no community, not even one that preaches conformity like the chareidi community does, is entirely monolithic. Although they all like to place themselves within the expansive tent of 'chareidi' ideology, there is actually a broad spectrum in which one can find a wide range of behaviors and perspectives. But although this is true, I think there's an even more key issue to understand. When looking at these contrasting perspectives it's imperative to realize that one is an expression of the ideal chareidi community and the other is the actual reality of what you find in the community.

Chareidi society is a very idealistic place. The standards in that culture are set incredibly high. So it's true, in a sense, that they are all about serving god, doing good, and learning torah. If you asked any person in the chareidi world, he would tell you that these ideals are in fact exactly what the chareidi community is all about.

But if you look just a little bit closer at that world, you'll find that although they have these wonderfully admirable ideals, the actual day-to-day norms which are prevalent among its members are so unbelievably far from those ideals, one would be hard pressed to draw any plausible connection between the two. The reality falls very short of the ideal. Yes, the ideal is that they encourage people to devote themselves to pure torah study. But the reality is that that policy translates into vast numbers of people spinning their wheels unproductively, and wasting years of their lives on something they have no inclination for. Only a very select few have the mettle to live up to the ideal in the way it should be done. The vast majority find themselves frustrated and bitter, and the consequences are an economically crippled society. Yes, they have an admirable ideal of promoting Jewish continuity by raising large families, but the reality is that hardly any have the practical, financial, and psychological wherewithal to properly undertake such a responsibility. Instead, as a result of a misguided effort to live up to that ideal, far too many families struggle with high levels of dysfunction and family instability, which consequently causes all sorts of other problems in their society.

When those people took offense at Harry's depiction of the chareidi community, they were partly right. Those aren't the sort of practices the community defines itself with. But the sad reality is that those sorts of attitudes and practices are actually very commonplace in the community.

So I guess the question is - how should a community be defined? By its ideals, or by its adherents?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Elisheva

Today I'm pleased to bring you an interview which will differ slightly from the previous profiles. Until now, I've only highlighted individuals who hail from strictly chareidi backgrounds. Today, we will be getting to know someone who comes from a different kind of Orthodox upbringing. Elisheva is a former Modern Orthodox Jew who grew up in the Tri-State area. She began to question her faith during her high school years. In her early twenties, she married a man from an Orthodox background and together they gradually became less and less observant until they ultimately left the Orthodox Jewish community altogether. Here is Elisheva's story.

Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?

I came from a centrist Modern Orthodox home. My family were members of a local Young Israel, I attended coed Modern Orthodox day schools, studied in a Modern Orthodox seminary for a year post high school and attended Modern Orthodox summer camps throughout my life. I was also involved in youth groups such as NCSY and B'nei Akiva. My family has a "Torah U'Mada" philosophy and are very Zionistic.

What was the impetus for your transition out of that world?

My transition out of Orthodoxy had a solely intellectual basis. But I did not have any earth shattering epiphanies. Starting in high school I started to question even the basics of the "Ani Ma'amins" and stopped davening when I felt like all I was doing was faking it anyway. In college, with the help of courses in religion, political science, anthropology, psychology and philosophy, it became apparent to me that all religions were human creations and that one could lead a productive and moral life outside of a religious structure.

Did you try to reconcile these conflicts with any religious figures?

Throughout high school and especially during my year studying at a seminary in Israel I was constantly questioning my teachers and rabbis. Constantly. Some of my teachers grew so impatient with me that though I had earned a Salutatorian spot in High School for Judaic Studies based on my grades, my teachers chose to skip over me to the student ranked below me for this honor as they had concerns about my commitment to Yiddishkeit.

There was one particular rabbi in high school that had more patience for my skepticism than most. We often met one-on-one and we would talk religion and he would allow me to ask anything I wanted. He even gave me a set of books on Musar at graduation, something he didn't give any other student. I am sure his concerns for my religious future were behind the gift.

I sought out the same types of relationship with teachers and rabbis in seminary. I really wanted to believe. Life would have been much easier if I could have remained a believer. For many years I walked the walk, hoping "me'toch she' lo l'shma ba l'shma"- basically, I hoped that if I kept doing it, I would believe.

My teachers and rabbis tried. I tried. But I was always a big reader and the more I read, the more alternative ways to look at life and the world there seemed to be. I am not saying that I have all or even any of the answers, I am just saying that the Judaic version of god is no less a fairy tale to me than the FSM or the tooth fairy. Hashem is no less mythological than Zeus or Athena.

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

Even as a "frum" Jew, like all frum Jews, I messed up. But the first time I actively made the choice to cross a line was when I was about 21 and I had my first slice of non-kosher pizza. It was no big deal.

Were there any lines that were a big deal to cross?

I'll never forget the first time I drove on Shabbat. I had stayed at a hotel on a Friday night and there was a mistake with my reservation. They did not have space for me for Saturday night and I needed to find another hotel to stay at. It was summer and a million degrees outside. Because it was camp Visiting Day Weekend in the area, I was concerned that I would have trouble finding a place for Saturday night. I decided to get in the car and drive to look for an available hotel room for Saturday night. I wasn't a believer anymore, but I hadn't crossed that line yet. Incidentally, I stopped at an antique store on my route and when I returned to the car, I had discovered that I had locked my keys in the car. I had to call AAA from the store (these were days before cell phones). Every time I tell this story, I am asked if I wondered if god was punishing me. I didn't. And when I realized that I didn't, I knew for certain that I really didn't believe anymore.

On the other hand, I still don't eat pork or shell fish. I bit into shrimp once when having lunch with a friend. We ordered a "box lunch" which came with a variety of food. I didn't know what it was and it tasted weird. When my friend told me it was shrimp, I started to gag and had to spit it out. Some things are just still ingrained. I can't learn to think of pork or shell fish as food choices any more than I can imagine eating dog or cat.

How did you family react to your leaving?

I remember one specific day when I was about 24 and already married with a child. I had gone with my father to visit my ailing grandfather. Afterwards, I sat him down at a Dunkin' Donuts (a kosher one of course) and told him, "daddy, we (my husband and I) are not shomer shabbos." He didn't say much in response or argue with me. I don't know what he took away from that conversation and I did not bring up the status of my religious observance again and neither did he. Years later he found out from a sibling that I had met my non-frum aunt and uncle for lunch on a Shabbat when they were visiting from out of town. My father called me seemingly shocked that I would meet someone at a non-kosher resturant on a Shabbat. I was shocked that he was shocked. I thought I had made myself clear many years before that I was no longer an observant Jew and I didn't understand his reaction. This led to some intense verbal conflicts. Basically my father told me that he simply expected that "the pendulum would eventually swing the other way." He was shocked that it hadn't. After a handful of heated discussions, things quieted down.

Both my husband and I are ex-OJ Jews. We celebrate many religious holidays with our parents and siblings at their homes and do our best to be respectful of the their beliefs and practices. Our children have been raised to follow their family members' more stringent observances when we are with them as to respect their way of life. We mostly actively avoid talking about religion as it is an uncomfortable subject. I think that our families love us but are hurting because they believe that we are not living life as Hashem intended.

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

Though I consider myself an atheist, I am a member of a Conservative Jewish shul and send my children to a CJ day school. In shul, however, I do not participate in the services. I avoid the High Holidays but on many Shabbatot, I am a member of the "lobby minyan," which is basically a whole bunch of us who come to shul solely for the sake of community. I do not consider myself a Conservative Jew because I neither believe in the tenets of Conservative Judaism nor do I observe halacha to CJ standards.

I don't like everything that my children are taught in school. However, I am focused on the fact that they are getting a good education and being provided with an avenue to develop a solid Jewish identity and understanding of their heritage. They are learning to speak Hebrew and are being taught to love Israel, and they are being provided with a values based education. The values are certainly Judaic derived, but the school is egalitarian, includes children of gay parents and invites Jews of any denomination to attend. So the values that I value are included in the curriculum and the ones that I find aversive are (for the most part) not there.

I have mixed feelings about the fact that my children are being taught to believe in God, but I am finding that with this particular school, the benefits outweigh the discomfort I might feel on this issue.

How do you handle it when your children come home from school and want to celebrate a Jewish holiday or ceremony?

There are whole Jewish movements, such as the Reconstructionist movement, in which Jews celebrate holidays and traditional rituals but do not believe in the concept of god in the OJ sense. I don't think of myself as a representitive of any particular Jewish movement but I am no different than many of the Reconstructionists in this way. My family eats matzah on Passover, builds a sukkah for sukkot and gives Mishloach Manot on Purim. We often share Shabbat meals with friends and when we do, we light candles, make kiddush and eat challah. Like the millions of non-OJ Jews who participated in a seder this year, we do this for the sake of tradition, not halachic observance.

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

At first it was just a place that I didn't fit into anymore and for a very long time there was no hostility at all.

I discovered the J-Blog world about 2 years ago. Since then, I have to admit, I have been exposed to a number of Orthodox people, who, when free to anonymously spout what is on their minds, have shared some thoughts and beliefs in the name of Orthodox Judaism that I have found deeply offensive. I have found some of their notions so offensive, that I am finding myself developing an "anti" point of view. I wonder sometimes if I really understood what I was being taught growing up in the Orthodox world, and I feel like I am seeing some things completely differently now that I am both an adult and an outsider.

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

No. I don't believe in God. I do believe, however, that the evolution of Judaism (like all religions) derived out of the nature of human beings to want to develop civilized societies in which prosocial behavior is promoted and anti-social behavior is discouraged. Human beings are social animals always in search of ways to successfully coexist and share resources. I have a lot of respect for where the evolution of Judaism has taken human beings and recognize that Judaism has had a major role in civilizing the modern world.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave?

I miss some of the people with whom I grew up. There has always been a part of me that found it easier to make friends with other people from MO backgrounds, because of the common culture and upbringing. That, however, has gotten easier over time.

I kept my kitchen kosher for many years. However, my family would not eat my cooking or on my dishes because I am not Shomer Shabbos. Though I accept my family's reasons, I find it painful that I can never host Shabbat, Yom Tov or even Thanksgiving at my home unless the food is ordered from a kosher place and eaten on paper. I cook for friends all the time. I wish that I could cook for my family.

I have no regrets about leaving, but I wish I had done a better job of involving my family in the process. I thought I was protecting their feelings and treating them with respect when I kept my lack of observance quiet, but I found out later that the way I went about it hurt them and they felt that I had been keeping secrets from them.

There is no guilt. Leaving OJ was the right decision for me. I am living a life that I am proud of. I try to be a good person in a humanistic sense and aside from people who might cast me off because of my lack of belief in god, I really don't think that there are too many people who would disapprove of how I lead my life. I only feel sorry that my decisions have hurt some of my family, making them wonder if they have failed in some way.

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

I found it overwhelmingly difficult to transition and I did it a little bit at a time. When I started, I had no idea where I would land and for a while it felt like I was in some sort of free fall. For a long time, as I became less and less observant, I still socialized primarily with the OJs. The process of leaving the OJ world was very lonely and I felt lost and disconnected from what had been my whole world. I was afraid that I would never again feel like I could fit in anywhere.

And how long did it take for you to feel like you did fit in again?

When my husband and I first got married, we lived in an apartment building that can best be described as being like a YU dorm for young married couples. We stayed for 7 years while we finished graduate school, started our careers, and saved money to buy a house. We had a lot of OJ friends there and it was wonderful when we had young children to always have someone's door to knock on when the kids needed a change of scenery. We had a lot in common with the people we lived around, we were in our twenties, we had young children, we were all saving up for houses, many of us were in graduate school or in the early stages of careers and almost all of us came from MO backgrounds. It was only with regards to religious observance that we didn't fit in.

We knew a lot of what we had in the apartments was good and wanted to retain some of the positives of living in a tight knit, supportive community where there is a focus on family life. A somewhat distant cousin suggested that we look into his neighborhood and the school where he sent his children. An ex-OJ himself, he related to us not wanting to "throw out the baby with the bath water." We wanted to be a part of a close knit community as we were accustomed to. My husband felt very strongly about sending our children to a Jewish Day School but did not want an OJ one. After spending some time in our cousin's neighborhood, we decided to buy a house there. I fit in pretty well in my current community. Though many of my friends are more observant CJs than we are, in our community, there are many like us as well and there is no pressure to hide what we do and do not observe or what we believe.

Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?

No. I never felt that being frum held me back from any of my dreams. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to earn a graduate degree and build a meaningful career. I wanted to be a part of a close knit community. I am fortunate to have fulfilled these dreams. All of this would have been just as possible if I had stayed in the Modern Orthodox world.

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

Well, there are a few that come to mind. I want people to understand that my parents, teachers, youth leaders and community did nothing "wrong." I didn't leave the frum world because I was traumatized, angry or rebellious. It was a gradual process for me and I Ieft because I lost my belief in god and no longer believed Orthodox Judaism to have a monopoly on life's "truth."

How does your life now compare to when you were frum?

It is not as different as one might expect. I dress a little differently, eat in non-kosher restaurants and am not Shomer Shabbos. But I am a family woman, involved in chesed, and am an active member of my Jewish community. I care about Jewish causes, I often have Shabbat meals with friends and share Yom Tovim with friends and family. We may drive on Friday night to get to the meal, but it still has that community building feeling. I have fewer OJ friends (though a couple of my dearest friends are practicing Orthodox Jews), but still primarily socialize with Jews.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

Being frum was never a hardship when I believed in what I was doing. When I was a believer, I had no complaints. When my beliefs changed, my way of life changed, so I guess I am just glad that I never felt trapped into continuing in an OJ life past the time that I believed it to be truth.

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

It was great to believe that I had all the answers to life's questions. It was comforting to have a belief that there was a purpose to my life, that there was a reason that I was here and that there was some "right" way to be.

Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?

I work in a helping profession and knowing that I am making a difference in people's lives is very meaningful to me. I also found that since becoming a mother, I certainly haven't lacked for purpose. I am not really all that bothered by existential angst anymore. I just try to live my life as a good person (by Humanist definitions), live up to my responsibilities and find joy where ever I can.

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

No. I don't think so. My siblings remain Orthodox as did almost every one of my childhood friends. I can't point to any specific reason or something that happened or didn't happen with me that was so different. The only thing that I could imagine that could have kept me "on the derech" is if I was kept from getting a higher education. But I am not sure that would have kept me "on the derech" either.

Monday, May 04, 2009

More Frum Hypocrisy

Another day – another travesty from the frum community. Well, this one isn’t really new, it’s actually an old issue – how to deal with the problem of sexual molestation in yeshivas. But it's in the news again. Firstly, there was a powerful article in last week's Forward which profiled a victim of such an atrocity. And also, recently,a person that I tremendously respected has backtracked on the issue and is now taking a side diametrically opposed to what he seemed to have previously held. According to various blog reports (Failed Messiah, Vos Iz Neias, Harry Maryles), Rabbi Yakov Horowitz has publicly declared his opposition to the Markey Bill. This bill would extend the statute of limitations for victims of molestation to bring their perpetrators to justice, and it would also provide them a brief window of opportunity in which to bring to justice crimes that have long since passed. Unsurprisingly, certain powerful religious institutions – namely, the Catholic Church and the Agudas Yisroel – are vehemently opposed to this bill. (You can listen to a recording of the radio show where he made his statement by going to those aforementioned blogs.)

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Agudah is against this bill, and I’m not going to rehash the debates that are going on in the comment threads of those blogs (I strongly recommend the VIN one), but everyone (including myself) has been pretty shocked that Rabbi Horowitz has actually come down on the side of the Agudah on this one. Until this point he has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of the victims, and it’s truly disappointing to see him change his stance in this manner.

Anyway, in the debate, one of the big red herrings that is being thrown around to excuse the Agudah’s position is that if this bill is allowed to pass, the schools will risk being shut down due to an onslaught of litigation. Everyone is screaming that if it passes, people will be suing left and right, and then the sky will fall in, and all the yeshivas will be forced to close, and it will be the end of the world as we know it!!! Oy vey!!

Please! That is such a bunch of BS.

Let’s put aside the fact that in the other states where such a bill has been passed, no such dire prophecy has ever come close to happening like that.

Let’s ignore the fact that the schools have nothing to fear unless they know they have something to cover up.

Let’s instead talk about this issue of schools closing down. Because, you know, it’s come up some time in the past. There was a point in recent Jewish history where the most famed and prominent Jewish school was actually forced to close down.


Volozhin was the jewel in the crown of 19th century European Jewry. Putting aside the fact that there is much misinformation about what exactly caused the institution to shut its doors, the version of the story that the chareidi world believes is well known. Ask any black-hat yeshiva boy, and he will tell you, in a most proudly defiant tone of voice, that Volozhin was closed down because the heads of the yeshiva were being forced by the Russian authorities to incorporate secular studies into the curriculum. And the roshei yeshiva felt, horrible as it may sound, that it was better to have this sacred institution close its doors than to sully it with the taint of secular knowledge! That’s how bad secular studies are! And that’s also how important pure torah study is!

This legend is one of the foundational myths of the chareidi world, and regardless of its veracity, it tells us that, to the chareidi mindset, there are some things that are worth paying the awful price of closing down the most venerable of torah intuitions.

So, I can’t help wondering, if chareidim feel that it’s ok to close down a yeshiva because of secular studies, but it’s not ok to close it down because it harbored (or may still be harboring) child molesters, does that mean that chareidim believe that learning secular studies is worse than molesting a child?


Update: Rabbi Horowitz has posted an article explaining his rationale.
Update 2: Rabbi Horowitz apologizes (for offending people, but not for his position).

Friday, May 01, 2009

Better Know The Hedyot (Part II)

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.

Such as?

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?