Friday, January 22, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Derech Acheret (Part II)

Continuing where we left off on the interview with Derech Acheret from a few days ago, here is Part II of her story.



Is there anything from your religious past that you miss in your life now?

I miss having answers and knowing that I am 'right'. The complexity that comes with living in modernity and being governed above all else by Western Liberalism, acceptance and openness and my own sense of right and wrong is sometimes confusing. I am never totally 'right'. And I don't have a whole community and GOD backing me in my rightness.

I miss community and I miss the company of women and only women, knowing that men are not allowed in.

Can you highlight an example of something in life that confuses you now without your religious structure?

What to do when with guys is still confusing. Carrie (from Sex and the City) always says how confused she is by men but I sometimes feel that I have a whole additional few layers of confusion.

I'm confused about how to keep Israel Jewish while not giving into Hareidi stricture, especially in Jerusalem. For example, I really want parking lots to be open on Shabbat so that tourists can come here and enjoy the city but I don't want to be inundated by huge numbers of outsiders taking photos, clogging up the roads and making loads of noise on Shabbat.

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

Tsnius modes of thinking still inform much of my self-image. For instance, flirting with a guy is still very hard for me to do. Often, I'll think I've been totally demonstrative, and everyone around me, including the guy I was trying to flirt with, will tell me I was totally coy.

I'm still self-conscious showing cleavage.

I try really hard to be cool in a bikini but usually put on a sarong the minute I get out of the water.

I am still overly analytical and earnest. Although I feel so much more chilled out than I used to be, when I meet new people they say that I'm pretty intense.

Yes, well, from your answers so far, I can understand why they think that. How about behaviors? Are there any religious activities you still engage in?

I still don't eat non-Hechshered meat yet, I have no idea why not. It must be emotional because I definitely can't think of an ideological reason! I live in Jerusalem though, so it doesn't often come up. If I lived in most other places I'd have to face the issue a bit more.

It took me a long time to stop saying brachot on food and asher yatzer. It was so Pavlovian that I'd just start reciting them automatically, and would have to remind myself, "No, I don't do that anymore".

Why did you feel a need to make yourself stop these behaviors? If it didn’t bother you, then why not just let it be?

Because it did bother me. I no longer believed in the male god of the brachot or the system that wrote them and would have me say them. Saying them felt not true to who I now was.

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

When my mother was alive I didn't bother thinking about it much. I was grateful to where I had come from but I was concentrating on growing into the person I still wanted to become. Any time I would get irritated by something, my mother would remind me that I had made my choice that was good for me and other people make their choices that are good for them.

Now, without my mother's reasonable voice, I oscillate between feeling sorry for people who are still frum, feeling furious with them and feeling love, warmth and pride for where I came from.

When frum people patronize me and imagine that my leaving was in any way easy or not thought out I hate them and want to shake them. One of my aunts told me that I should be frum now "because that's what my mother would have wanted". I wanted to punch her in the face!

When I hear about random acts of chessed performed by Bnei Akiva I am proud to have been part of something good.

However, I think it is an inherently immoral system because a legal system written by men, in which men are the primary beneficiaries, and which, by the system's very nature, relegate women to a second-class status in which they have no real recourse for their voice to be heard, is immoral. (I know Avi Weiss has recently set up a program for women but he's hardly mainstream Orthodoxy!)

Of course the Western system has problems too but it is reexamining and developing them everyday. If my choice is Kiryat Sefer or Beverly Hills, I pick Kiryat Sefer; if my choice is Miley Cyrus or eshet chayil, I pick eshet chayil - but I want neither. I want to live in a system that allows me to pick something else, something bigger and more self actualized than both.

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

Yes, but I'm very upset with Her at the moment for taking my mother away from me. Yup, there is a part of me that still believes in an immanent God. I feel a godliness in the world, but I can't explain it. My mother's death was utterly and overwhelmingly devastating for me and the only vocabulary I have to describe the devastation is in terms of god being an utter bastard for making it happen.

If I were to have children I would probably send them to the Masorati (Conservative) school system in Israel and maybe even start going to one of the Masorati shuls so that they could have some sort of knowledge of how some Jewish things work. I think I'd also want them to learn gemara and Torah, so that they could access their culture and history. But as I have none presently and apparently it all changes when you actually have them, the answer is yes to the god question and no to the version of Judaism part.

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

I don't really have much of a community. I have amazing friends and everything in my world is within a half hour walk, but I don't have an extended community and thus don't know that many people any more. Also I have to make my own rules, I wasn't trained for a life of infinite choice.

But no regret or guilt for a minute.

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

Making new friends. I don't really know what one talks about, secular small talk is different from religious small talk and I haven't quite figured it out.

And the guy thing?? I find myself even now confused and overwhelmed by the guy thing, I was trained to constantly repress my sexuality. It is amazing to live in a world where sexuality is viewed as a good, exciting thing, to be enjoyed and cherished, learnt about and relished. I don't understand basic cues yet that come instinctively to others.

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

Knowing that ultimately my life is more authentic on this new path I've taken than on the frum one dictated to me by others.

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?

Self actualization, and erring. Self actualization simply isn't valued in the frum world, even in the MO world. Totally leaving your home and community in search of something entirely different is not encouraged.

I always felt that making mistakes in the frum world was so dangerous. There were so many people watching with so much to say about it. In the world I live in today if I make a mistake its no big deal, people are so much less judgmental and I am of myself too, its a mechaye.

I now teach Torah as history and culture in the secular world. I teach it only as literature and am able to appreciate it on a whole new level from how I did when I was religious.

So once you left, what surprised you most about the world outside orthodoxy?

That there's not just one 'world' once you leave Orthodoxy. There's loads of people and communities out there to pick from. Some parts are open and giving and nurturing and full of chilled out, intelligent, committed, deep thinking people who are interested in making the world a better place yet not confined or hysterical about it. Some are awful and mean, and some people really do value their possessions above all else.

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

This was not some impulsive, immature, hedonistic phase that I went through as a kid. I stopped davening at age 21 and stopped keeping Shabbat at 32. It was a long, long, extremely well thought out ideological process. I came from a loving, warm home and nothing terrible happened to me to make me frei out. I asked every possible question from every possible source during the eleven years between not davening and not keeping Shabbat. Some issues simply cannot be resolved by Torah.

Also, I wish frum people wouldn’t think the outside world is so horrible. When I told one friend I had decided to become sexually freer she was horrified and said to me, "You mustn't! You'll be raped! I've heard what happens to untznius girls!" I think people who believe that are pathetic. I have had a lovely, safe, exhilarating, educational and, of course at times, frustrating time. But raped? Dangerous? Regretful? Never. (Now why do I suddenly want to add kneine horo to that?! That superstitious claptrap, just never leaves me!).

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

There's no inbuilt community, I had to build it myself. Some men are revolting (but then again, some frum ones are too).

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

I'm much more relaxed, more focused, calmer, happier, softer, less judgmental, more fun to be around, less intense. On the down side, I don't eat as well as I did. Now that I can eat most things, I do.

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

Dancing is brilliant and fun. Trance and dance music really do sound great!

Sex is brilliant and lovely and nice and disappointing both in a relationship and outside of one. Choosing to have it and not to have it are both good and right choices. Knowing when to make which choice takes wisdom. Having the opportunity to make the choice is a gift.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

Not being judged by everyone, being able to wear comfortable clothes, being able to be who I am and engage in the challenges of everyday life from an authentic place inside me.

Being able to go dancing with friends, being able to talk about many intimate aspects of my life with other women who I know can relate to what I'm talking about and guide me without personal agenda.

I understand why people become ba'alei teshuva. The frum world is great, warm, kind, inviting. The secular world is not inherently warm nor inviting because it is not cohesive or homogenous. But for me the diversity of the world I now inhabit is fantastic! Even just seeing people dressed so differently from each other gives me a kick. The range of ideas and opinions of the people I mix with is lovely. The freedom of ideas and expression is amazing.

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

Community, friends, a sense that however difficult an act was, I was doing the right thing and it would be alright; random acts of chesed, the g’mach system, being right.

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

The sexism and homophobia. The xenephobia, the angst, I could go on but you said one.

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

There are so many things that would have needed to be different it feels disingenuous to name any specific one as it must be the system in itself that is repellent to me and not products of it.

So many frum people are so judgmental, accusatory, self-righteous and bigoted it seems to be part of being frum. People have said such mean things to me since I stopped being frum. It seems to me that frumkeit compels the person to say something when they see a yid living a life they consider sheker.

Do you really feel that frum people are compelled to act that way? After all, your mother never stopped being entirely loving towards you.

That's about our relationship though. I do think that inherent in the system is bigotry and judgmentalism. Sometimes people who love us are able to put those aside, allow themselves to be overcome by love, but that is a bediavad not lehatchila, I think...

Oh, that's another thing I love about not being frum - no one's looking at what I'm doing and telling me how I should be doing it differently or better.

Maybe if I'd been brought up in an environment where my learning was valued, or where I was taught gemara like my brother, or in a Minyan like Shira Chadasha, where I could lein and be shatz for tefillot that don't need a minyan, I wouldn't have realized quite so early on how much women get excluded from leadership and law making roles. (I was told that it was egotistical for wanting to be shatz, yet my brother was a rising star for wanting the very same thing!)

But I'm not sure that would have helped as ultimately women are excluded from those roles and it is that exclusion that distances me from Orthodoxy.

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

We are all individuals with individual stories. Of course some people leave because they are troubled and some people become frum because they are troubled; some leave because it is better for their souls and some become frum because it is better for their souls. People leave for all sorts of reasons and I'm sure some are furious, miserable and frivolous because that is humanity. Mostly people are multi-layered and complex. There are a myriad of reasons to leave the frum world and if the frum world dared explore just five or six of them it would become healthier and calmer.

My reason for leaving in the first place was feminism but now I have a host of reasons never to return.

The world is ok, once you learn how to navigate it. It is as dangerous and as safe as the frum world and you need to work out who and what is bad for you just as you do in the frum world, but there’s no need to be so afraid of it.

Unlike the frum world you don't have to second guess yourself. If something makes you feel uncomfortable there is no one telling you that it is good and you are bad for not realizing it is good.

Or maybe that's just the world I have had the fortune to create for myself.

Actually, after all is said and done, all I really want to say to the frum world is - calm down!



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25 comments:

gamzoo said...

Hi Derech Acheret,

I enjoyed reading your interview.You seem like a good and intelligent person. I have a few questions. How long have you not been shomer shabbos? And what do you mean by self actualized? Do you mean following your own judgment as opposed to looking to others for what to do?

Thanks

Off the Derech said...

Great interview!

It was overall excellent, but I liked Part II better than Part I.

Jewish Atheist said...

Great stuff. Keep up the interviews please! :-)

G*3 said...

One of the things I’ve found really interesting about this series is the variety of reasons why people leave frumkeit.

If I understand correctly, Derech Acheret left because she found the misogyny inherent in Orthodox society to be immoral. But doesn’t that depend on a necessarily arbitrary definition of “moral?” After all, if “moral” is that which God commands, then women’s second-class place in Judaism is by definition moral. It is only if you deny the principle that morality is defined by God or if you deny that a particular value system is based on God’s command that the immorality of the system becomes grounds for abandoning it.

Or to put it a different way, isn’t the question of whether or not Judaism is the Truth more to the point than whether or not it conforms to a modern system of morality?

Or was the misogyny just the thing that pushed her to question everything else?

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your postings. Please keep up the good work. I have read that there is reseach suggesting that one'e attachment to religiosity is genetically linked. I have always been a totally nonreligious person and have a lot of trouble understanding how otherwise intelligent people could believe in things that are to me totally nonsensical. This blog is helpful to me in this regard.

Jonathan

Shmendrik said...

Ok, so here we have the baby and the bathwater again:

--
It took me a long time to stop saying brachot on food and asher yatzer. It was so Pavlovian that I'd just start reciting them automatically, and would have to remind myself, "No, I don't do that anymore".
--

A few paragraphs later, you are saying that you prefer the religious lifestyle to Western materialism and that you believe in God, though not necessarily the Orthodox version. So why would you stop saying brachot? When done properly, they're a nice way to remind ourselves to feel grateful for what we have. What made you decide that you "don't do that anymore"?

The Hedyot said...

> So why would you stop saying brachot?

Shmendrik, I asked her exactly that:

Why did you feel a need to make yourself stop these behaviors? If it didn’t bother you, then why not just let it be?

Because it did bother me. I no longer believed in the male god of the brachot or the system that wrote them and would have me say them. Saying them felt not true to who I now was.

Shmendrik said...

Oops. Further proof that blog reading/commenting and 20-hour medical school study sessions don't mix. :-)

But in any case, why not do a bracha-like thing without the male god reference?

derech acheret said...

Gamzoo, I've not been keeping things for about seven years now. By self actualized I mean that I am living the right life for me, a life true to who I actually am as opposed what others hope me to be.

Derech Acheret said...

G*3, I enjoyed your word play but really didn’t understand it, despite extensive efforts, sorry.

'Or was the misogyny just the thing that pushed her to question everything else?'

Yes. As I said in the interview, ‘Maybe if I'd been brought up in an environment where my learning was valued, or where I was taught gemara… or in a Minyan like Shira Chadasha … I wouldn't have realized quite so early on how much women get excluded from leadership and law making roles’

Derech Acheret said...

Bless you Shmendrik! I hope you become a great doctor!

‘why not do a bracha-like thing without the male god reference?’

I was at a Shabbat lunch and a woman learning at Hebrew College made motsi in the feminine, using words like, brucha at, schina, malka, hamotzia, the whole bracha with totally correct female grammar and it sounded lovely and more power to her.
There was a time when I tried to put all the tphillot into the feminine and it’s damn hard work! Try it just for the brachot. Now try the Amida. It takes ages and really deep kavana. And I did it for one Kol Nidrei.

But then I realized that that's really not the point. Judaism is not intended to be in the female. It is male. So all our liturgy and literature reflects that. And therefore brachot are not true for me.

There is an attempt to ‘female’ davening in the Renewal movement and I really look forward to seeing what types of liturgy they create. But still, SO not mainstream. Imagine the hostility that siddur will provoke once published!

Bob said...

Is it just me, or is this a bit ridiculous? If you are against male gender Judaism and prayer/blessings, why would you bend to the same extreme just switching genders?!?!? Wouldn't the whole point be to incorporate both genders and create a sense of balance, of ying and yang?!?! However, Judaic prayer/liturgy, to an extent, already does that re shabbat/shabbos. Shabbat/Shabbos, which is central to Jewish observance, is the embodiment of the feminine(shechina), hence "shabbat malketa" and the entire "Lecha Dodi".

Regarding this issue of the feminine/Judaism, I recommend studying some of the writings and ideas of Rav Kook. He writes alot about this topic. Kabblah as well, talks alot about Judaism in masculine-feminine terms. Actually, there is a lot of feminine in Judaism. It may not be the same as in your western sensibilities of feminism, but it is there. Judasim incorporates both male and female energies.

G*3 said...

> G*3, I enjoyed your word play but really didn’t understand it, despite extensive efforts, sorry.

All right, I’ll try again.

It seems that your objection to Judaism is that it is misogynistic. You say that you find the male-orientation immoral, and you therefore rejected the religion. That is, you find it immoral that prayers are addressed to a male God and that as a woman you are excluded from leadership roles.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that God revealed himself to you and told you that Judaism, misogyny and all, is His will. Would you still reject it? If so, on what grounds?

The usual religious definition of “moral” is “what God wants.” If God personally told you that this is what he wants, would you still consider it immoral, and if so, from where do you derive your moral standards? And do those moral standards trump God’s will?

Like I said before, I think that whether or not Judaism is objectively true (God exists, Torah miSinai, God-given right of rabbinical interpretation, etc.) is more to the point than whether or not it matches our personal definition of morality.

> 'Or was the misogyny just the thing that pushed her to question everything else?'
> Yes. As I said in the interview, ‘Maybe if I'd been brought up in an environment where my learning was valued, or where I was taught gemara… or in a Minyan like Shira Chadasha … I wouldn't have realized quite so early on how much women get excluded from leadership and law making roles’

None of the things you mentioned are questioning the truth of Judaism, they are merely objections to how Judaism is practiced. It seems that if Judaism were more egalitarian you would have no problems with it. Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but it sounds like you reject Judaism not because you think its factually wrong, but simply because you don’t like it.

The Hedyot said...

> ...from where do you derive your moral standards? And do those moral standards trump God’s will?


Do you need god to tell you not to kill someone to know it's morally wrong? We all have the ability to perceive certain moral truths, regardless of if it's written down in a supposedly holy book.

In fact, if it's true that people don't possess an ingrained understanding of basic elements of right and wrong, how was god able to hold Cain accountable for killing his brother? After all, god hadn't told him not to do it, so how could Cain have known it was immoral?

As I understood her story, Derech Acheret, like many other such people (myself included), recognized certain basic truths about morality that seemed to fly in the face of what Orthodox Judaism claimed. And that contributed to her rejection of it.

The Hedyot said...

> The usual religious definition of “moral” is “what God wants.”

If so, why would Abraham argue with god about destroying Sodom, claiming it was unjust? If God wanted it, didn't that necessarily make it the moral thing to do?

The Hedyot said...

> Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but it sounds like you reject Judaism not because you think its factually wrong, but simply because you don’t like it.

Some may not like such an accusation, but I actually don't have any problem with it. I don't see why it's in any way any more problematic to reject Judaism because you don't like it, than it is to keep it because you do like it - which is why the overwhelming majority of people are observant.

I often tell people that I'm not frum for the same reason they are frum - because of how much I like it.

G*3 said...

> Do you need god to tell you not to kill someone to know it's morally wrong? We all have the ability to perceive certain moral truths, regardless of if it's written down in a supposedly holy book.

Certainly, you can construct a moral system without God, but such a system relies on personal preferences and popular opinion. In such a moral system, it is wrong to murder because everyone agrees that it’s wrong to murder. It’s like fiat money. A dollar bill is worth a dollar because everyone agrees it’s worth a dollar, not because the green piece of paper has actual intrinsic value.

That we all “perceive certain moral truths” is a quirk of our wiring, not proof that these things are truly “right” or “wrong” in an objective sense.

Given the subjective nature of such a moral system, how can you use it to reject what would be, if its assumptions are true, an moral system established by the only Being in a position to rally know what is objectively moral? (And yes, this is subjective in the sense that it relies on God’s will as the arbiter of morality, but such a system based on an omniscient Being should be more reliable than a human-constructed one.)

> In fact, if it's true that people don't possess an ingrained understanding of basic elements of right and wrong, how was god able to hold Cain accountable for killing his brother? After all, god hadn't told him not to do it, so how could Cain have known it was immoral?

Beside the point. You can argue that God wired us to instinctively recognize certain parts of morality, or you can say God was being a jerk. What we’re discussing is whether a person’s personal moral system (and there are enough differences in moral systems across time and cultures to support the argument that many parts of morality are not universal) is a justification for rejecting an ostensibly God-given religion.

> And that contributed to her rejection of it.

This is part of what I was asking. Was her moral outrage alone what her objection rests on, or was it merely what made her investigate Judaism’s truth-claims?

G*3 said...

> The usual religious definition of “moral” is “what God wants.”
> If so, why would Abraham argue with god about destroying Sodom, claiming it was unjust? If God wanted it, didn't that necessarily make it the moral thing to do?

Again, specific examples in the Chumash are really beside the point, but Avraham didn’t claim destroying the city was wrong, he claimed that killing good people along with the bad was wrong. And in fact, we see that Avraham’s bargaining was unsuccessful, implying that God was in the right all along.

> I don't see why it's in any way any more problematic to reject Judaism because you don't like it, than it is to keep it because you do like it - which is why the overwhelming majority of people are observant.

Granted, if the only reason for accepting or rejecting religion is personal preference, not liking misogyny is as good a reason as any to reject Judaism. And I think you’re right that most people are religious due to inertia rather than an objective evaluation of the truth of their religion. If you treat religion as a lifestyle with no larger consequences, then rejecting it because you don’t like it is perfectly reasonable. But religions make larger claims. Shouldn’t whether or not God exists and endorses certain practices at least be part of the equation?

To put it a different way, a religious person has his faith to rest on as a reason for accepting his particular superstitions and rejecting those of everyone else. While I think faith is a lousy epistemology, it at least provides the illusion of rationality. Once faith is no longer a consideration, some other reason is needed to reject religious truth-claims. “I don’t like it” is just an appeal to consequences.

(I’m not saying that religious claims need to be proven false – a lack of proof that they’re true is a valid reason to reject them. To reject a religion simply because you don’t like it, though, is saying, “I don’t know or care if the religion’s claims are true, but I don’t like its practices so I’m going to act as if they’re not.”)

The Hedyot said...

G*3, you may well be raising valid points (although I sense that many of your premises are fundamentally flawed), but I for one have absolutely no interest in engaging in any of those particular discussions.

G*3 said...

All right.

Would you mind pointing out the flaws, though? If it's too much trouble, that's fine, but if it's not I'd like the opportunity to correct any errors I may have made.

The Hedyot said...

Like I said, not interested.

G*3 said...

Okay.

Tova said...

Hedyot,

Will you make me your next installment in this series?

- Tova

Anonymous said...

@G*3

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_command_theory

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma

G*3 said...

Yes, I know. But even assuming God commands that which is moral rather than morality is that which God commands, I don't see how anyone could claim to know with certainty the dictates of the higher morality. Without certainty, how can we reject the commands of an omnisceint Being who necessarily knows better than we do on the grounds that they're immoral? I think it is first necessary, at the very least, to reject the Being's omniscience, which means rejecting some of the tenets of Judaism.

That is, whether or not the tenets are true is more of an issue than whether or not we like the commands/practices.

There is also the question of whether it is wise to disobey an omnipotent God, whatever His morality.