"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.