Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Meet My Baby

"Well, I understand your reaction," she said to me, clearly sympathetic. "But why did you have to go as far as you did?"

I smiled to myself. As if I hadn't heard that before.

"Why shouldn't I go as far as I did?" I replied. "For what possible reason should I retain ideas and practices which no longer have any meaning for me?"

Once again, I was rehashing the well-worn conversation of why I chose the path I did, of discarding the religious practices of my family. And as so often occurred in these situations, the person was earnestly trying to show me how misguided my choice was.

"Yes, but it isn't all bad," she explained. "You need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Ahhhh, there we go. The baby and the bathwater. That time honored and irresistible analogy which frum people love to pull out of their copious collection of kiruv arguments. I doubt I've had a single discussion on the topic of my disenfranchisement where someone didn't remind me not to throw out that damn baby.

It's not that I blame them. I think they're right, actually. I wholeheartedly agree that it's vitally important not to discard the wheat with the chaff. But when it's all been mixed up into that one big chulent that's referred to as Yiddishkeit, it's hard to know what's worth keeping and what's not.

As those who've followed this blog know well, the sources of my religious disillusionment consist of a wide variety of factors, from unpleasant experiences in yeshiva, to being exposed to various eye-opening ideas, to meeting new kinds of people, to experiencing stifling religious dogmatism, to seeing religious corruption, to enduring religious extremism, to so many other formative, and unfortunately, often negative, experiences.

And so, when they finish hearing the story of my long and twisted journey, they invariably let out a long sigh of disappointment, and say something like, "I understand how so many of those things turned you off. But that's not what real Yiddishkeit is about. Just because you don't want those undesirable elements, doesn't mean you have to get rid of everything."

The baby and the bathwater.

In the past, the way I typically responded to this rejoinder was by explaining that although to them having to wear certain clothes, and not having a secular education, and maintaining all sorts of other extremist positions might not seem to be part of Torah True Authentic Yiddishkeit™, why should their particular vision of Judaism be any more authoritative than those who maintained that those practices were essential to proper Jewish living? In the yeshivas I went through those were the very things that distinguished us from those "other" Jews who were clearly not living as a proper Torah Jew should! Why should I trust their version of Yiddishkeit over the one I was raised with?

But as I was having this conversation the other day, something suddenly occurred to me that I had never realized before. There's a better way to look at the issue. They're absolutely right that I shouldn't be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And I actually think that I didn't! The only difference between me and my interlocutors is that we just have very different definitions of what constitutes "the baby" and what to consider "the bathwater".

Yes, they're open-minded enough to admit that being pressured to conform to outrageous chumras is not really an essential part of Judaism. That they can accept is the bathwater which can be discarded. However, to them, keeping kosher, being shomer shabbos, and keeping the basics of halacha is clearly "the baby" that needs to be retained. Well, guess what? I think those things are actually the bathwater too!

To me, keeping kosher is as much an unnecessary practice as wearing a black hat is to them. I agree that it's something that has value, and serves to maintain a group cohesion and identity, but it's no more an essential part of being a good person, or a good Jew, than wearing pinstripes is to being a Yankee fan. If you want to do it, that's fine with me, but when the practice stops contributing to my life in any significant way, and even starts becoming an imposition, then it has, at that instant, earned itself the appellation of 'bathwater', and can henceforth be discarded. (Yeah, that's right. I used the word 'henceforth'.)

What they fail to appreciate is that their baby is my bathwater. Yes, I know they feel that shabbos is absolutely precious, but I simply don't find anything worthwhile in all the work required to observe the day of rest. I don't care if my girlfriend is not Jewish. It doesn't matter to me a whit if the packaging of my lunch has a lovely rabbinic seal of approval on it. The myriad laws and rituals of an observant Jew just don't really concern me in any meaningful way. It's all bathwater to me.

"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater" truly is a wise maxim. That's why I try my hardest not to lose hold of those things from my Jewish upbringing which really matter. The values that truly mean something to me, like cultivating deep and lasting relationships, and honesty, and family, and a devotion to lifelong learning, and kindness, and pursuing truth at all costs, and standing up for the oppressed, and challenging corruption, and appreciation for all the goodness in my life, and constantly working to better myself.

That's the pristine Jewish baby that I hope will emerge when the murky waters of my religious past are allowed to finally drain away forever.



Photo credit: flickr user Vinnie W.


m said...

This really resonated with me - thanks for posting it. I've had some similar epiphanies over the years.

(I'm an ex-Bais Yaakov girl.)

The Hedyot said...

m, so glad you enjoyed it. Feel free to be in touch through email. (daashedyot at the gmail).

Off the Derech said...

I haven't liked a post this much in a while.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

On the other hand your Jewish baby is so small I don't think he could survive a bris... not that I'd think you were planning to give him one :-)

Really though, I think if you tried to stuff yourself with badatz food for a month you'd appreciate the beauty of it. I know that you've eaten badatz before but I think that your mistake was in not eating ENOUGH of it. If you were to try and do nothing else but stuff yourself with badatz food for a whole month I'm pretty sure you'd come to appreciate it as being very babyesque.

Same with shabbos.

And tznius.


P.S. It just struck me that we should elevate the conversation by reframing the analogy to discuss not tossing out the kallah with the mikvah water.

LamedVovnik said...

Good post. Interesting how each individuals interpretation of what is considered the "baby" and what is considered the "bath water" is different. Personally, I am not ready to throw it ALL out. I am scared of my kids ending up being non-Jewish..
Btw, do you know of any other organizations besides Footsteps that provides support for formerly frum people? I was in touch with Footsteps around a year ago and they told me that since I didn't grow up Chassidish, their services would not be relevant to me..

The Hedyot said...

LamedVovnik -

That sounds very odd to me. Many Footsteps members did not grow up chassidish, myself included. Maybe there was some misunderstanding when you spoke to them. Please be in touch with me through email and I will discuss it with you.

jewish philosopher said...

Let's face it, if the Torah would let eat anything and f--- anything, you'd be fine with it.

Moshe said...

It's been a while since I've read much in the apikoresphere but now that I'm here and have been reminded of the unfortunate existence of NJNP I'd like to take the opportunity to let this Nazi disguised as a Jew know that he's a true lowlife. If there's one thing that we Jews have it's that we're Rachmonim Bnei Rachmanoim. You however are not descended from Rachmonim but from Achzorim and you prove more than anyone ever could that kasha gerim leyisroel kisapachas. You're a pervert and a sadist and an ocher yisroel.

We Jews have enough inherited mental illnesses, generally of the nebishy sort rather than of your peculiar psychosexual sado-masochistic cackling cruel sort. We don't want you. None of us do. Not the skeptics in whose realm you seek some sick opportunity to talk about sex that you can't do in frumer circles and not the frum whom you stupidly imagine consider you to be one of their own.

You're a disgusting rasha and you should crawl back to the diseased gunk from which you emerged and return to your people.


P.S. If anyone is unfamiliar with NJNP you should consider yourself lucky and seek no further knowledge of the subject. If morbid curiosity drives you however you can easily find his posts and his comments where he says that he would murder any child of his who chose not to be frum (he later relents into saying he would simply banish him/her forever and consider them dead), where he does all in his ability to "out" secret skeptics and speaks with glee about the hope that the damage he causes them makes them commit suicide as homeless drug addicts in the streets, etc. The internet is a large domain but out of all of the sickly demented sadists out there I dare you to find a minyan that are more repulsive than NJNP, yemach shemoi.

mOOm said...

Hey Moshe why do you need to insult all converts in order to criticize that Stein guy?

Undercover Kofer said...

Brilliant post, couldn't have said it better!

Anonymous said...

To m00m, I don't think that Moshe meant to insult converts at all. I happen to be a frequent reader of blogs where Jewish Philosopher (Moshe calls him NJNP, a term that I believe "shtreimel" made up meaning "Neither Jewish Nor Philosopher") writes and he really is as terrible as Moshe writes. He's even much worse. You should really read Jewish Philosopher's writings on other people's blogs (and on his own also) to see what a horrible human being he is. About insulting all converts though I don't think that you're right. Moshe quoted chazal and he quoted chazal correctly (not like many people like to think that chazal said some of the things they said - people prettiffy chazal a lot). Moshe is using chazal's words and ideas to insult JP and whether he's right (or actually chazal's right) about certain characteristics of Jews as different from converts is a second issue. But again, I think wrong to say that Moshe is insulting all converts. I didn't see him do it at all and I think that you implied bad motives on his part that are themselves very wrong things to do. If you don't like the chazal's statements (and they made many that are similar) then you don't have to like it but Jewish Philosopher knows these chazal statements and he deserves to be hurt by them because he is a very very evil man who for sure has no jewish neshama.

laura said...

Awesome flash in your brainpan. I'm so glad you wrote this. And posted it.

Hasidic Rebel said...

Ok, you're excused on the 'henceforth'. Fine, just don't do it again. But no apology for 'copious'?! That's just wrong, man.

Moshe -- right on, about everything. Especially the kallah and the mikvah water. And funny as hell. But since I know your distaste for LOLs and ROFLs, I'll refrain (henceforth?).

Hasidic Rebel said...

Anon -- To give credit where it's due: not to take anything away from Shtreimel, but NJNP was coined by Mordy, a proud accomplishment he insists on, which he indignantly points out as we share a breakfast together at this very moment. Just for the record.

Jewish Atheist said...

Nice post. My parents used that exact "baby and the bathwater" argument on me.

Um, I'm the "baby." Religion was the bathwater.

The Hedyot said...

Moshe, you should know better than to feed the trolls.

I don't care about that pathetic old man, but I do care when my comment threads descend into hateful screeds. I appreciate what you're doing, but it's entirely unnecessary. Nothing better demonstrates the old coot's worthlessness than the writings of his very own pen.

Just leave him be.

Bruce said...

Nice post.

I guess you could try to think about Judaism from the bottom up or from the top down. Top-down is to take the most extreme form of Judaism you know and start subtracting out the bathwater. It sounds like that is your approach.

But it might be instructive to go the other way. Start with all the good non-religious beliefs and practices you think are good. (You mentioned a few: deep and lasting relationships, honesty, family, etc.) This is your starting point, as a secular mensch. After all, you don't need to identify at all as a Jew to appreciate honesty and family. Then ask what, if any, particular Jewish practices you value that are not already covered. Shabbat, kosher, etc., are out. Are any in? If so, that is your baby.

Shlomo said...

"The values that truly mean something to me, like cultivating deep and lasting relationships, and honesty, and family, and a devotion to lifelong learning, and kindness, and pursuing truth at all costs, and standing up for the oppressed, and challenging corruption, and appreciation for all the goodness in my life, and constantly working to better myself."

Hedyot, will your kids share these values?
Your grandkids?

TikunOlam said...

LOL. I have even used that phrase when I need to explain to OJs why I bother affiliating CJ if I am an atheist. Said I am not observant, don't daven, but like being a part of a community where I can be who I am and I like the ppl. Didn't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater :)

Of course, I in no way am recommending anyone do it my way. I highly recommend anyone and everyone find their own way to live their lives in a way that works for them.

s(b.) said...

I'm sure once it's done draining, you'll find a beautiful baby. :) Sometimes it can take years.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Oddly, my very first blog post was about The Baby And The Bathwater.

Sarah said...

why would his kids not share those values? Those are not values contingent on belief in the supernatural.

The Hedyot said...

Bruce, I love the way you put it. I'm going to try to work through that exercise and see what I come up with. Off the top of my head though, I have to say I can't really think of anything uniquely Jewish that I find so meaningful as to value in any significant way. Any suggestions?

The Hedyot said...

> Hedyot, will your kids share these values? Your grandkids?

Huh? If I tried instilling these values in them, why wouldn't they? Oh, right, I forgot. Of course not. Non-frum children never care to value what their parents do, so how could they? You're right, they're probably screwed.

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

Lily'n'Mimi said...

Amazing, meaningful, beautiful words!

outsidelookingin said...

I really enjoyed this post. By sheer luck, I stumbled upon the Formerly Frum site last week after (what amounts to) almost ten years of self-imposed exile from the religious community. Well..somewhat imposed by traumatic circumstance. I am a convert (orthodox) and endured a disillusioning reality check during my divorce. I've since felt like a PTSD sufferer when it comes to religion and so alone in this way. Thank God for kindred spirits-how I wish I had met folks like you sooner.
You are all very brave and beautiful in my eyes!

Bruce said...

I have to say I can't really think of anything uniquely Jewish that I find so meaningful as to value in any significant way. Any suggestions?

Yep. Here's a few:

The laws of l'shon hara. Wonderfully counter-cultural in gossipy self-indulgent America.

Counting the omer. Think about this symbolically. Passover represents physical freedom, and Shavuot represents spiritual perfection. There's a gap. So we count, and classify, and itemize all the ways we can improve, or the manifestations of goodness (i.e. God) in the world. Use the 7x7 sefirot table, or Aish's 48 ways to wisdom, or make your own chart (think of 7 important categories, and then put 7 items in each category). If you use the halacha as a framework, and the kabbalah as poetry, it's pretty good stuff. It's only when you get too literal that it things get stupid.

Mezuzah. (Evanston Jew called this the lazy man's tefillin.) If you think of this as a magic amulet, you are lost. But the first words of the paragraphs in the scroll are "shema" and "v'ahavtah" - listen and love (both in the imperative). If we are reminded to do those things even 10% of the time when we walk through our front doors (either coming or going), our lives will be better.

The amidah; prayer 4 (binah). As IBM put it, "THINK!" Judaism's addendum: and be grateful that you can think.

Sukkot. It's just cool.

* * *

I have a bunch more, and I'm always looking for more. But the trick --- at least for me --- is to approach this poetically or spiritually (but not in the kooky Shirley MacLaine sense), but not in a fundamentalist way.