Aryeh is 21 and was raised in Seattle. Today, Aryeh considers himself to be an atheist, but a human before anything else. In many ways he identifies more with his hunter gatherer, primate, and non-mammalian ancestors than his more recent Jewish ones but feels a cultural kinship not related to religion for his fellow Jews.
Hi Aryeh, what was your family’s religious background?
Raised by Aish parents, so orthodox. In my teens I became devoutly yeshivish (black hat) and eventually developed my own mix of Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Yeshivishness.
How was it like to be ‘raised by Aish parents’?
Like everything in life, it was terrible and wonderful, and deeply, deeply, bizarre.
Ironically, it provided me with a lot of the values that eventually lead me away from Judaism – ideals like seeking truth above all else, standing up for what you believe in, the primacy of knowledge and its ability to relieve others from suffering. It also made me fiercely confident in my belief in God – I watched my parents convince many people to become observant of judaism and grew up convinced that there was objective proof for its claims. It wasn’t just a religion, it was reality – I remember my father saying those exact words. It also exposed me to some of what proselytizing can necessitate – for example, when convincing people to accept the 613 commandments, you’re taught not to mention the genocide or the slavery and whatnot first. On the plus side, having 30-100 secular people at the shabbos table every Friday night taught me a lot about people and how to communicate with them, as well as giving me a taste of the outside world. I feel very close to my fellow OTD’ers, but even closer with those who made the journey out of Aish families (of which there are many – it is hard to keep kids in the bubble when you’re letting the influence of the secular world into your home, even when it is to convert them. It’s the same with Chabad families).
What made you become a devout yeshivish person?
I took religion very seriously. I was deeply inspired by it, and wanted to serve God as well I could. I haven’t met any other OTD people who took it as seriously as I did. I chose to go to the most intense yeshivah possible because I wanted to become a Rabbi, and spread the good word. I even fantasized about being moshiach, or at least one of his good friends. I cried to God, and begged his forgiveness for various assorted sins such as masturbation, walking more than four steps without washing my hands in the morning, and not spending every possible moment of the day studying Torah . I stayed up until the early morning learning. I gave up movies and music and tried my best to fit their mold. I did have a personal version of God that I defended against yeshivah as well – I was very into chassidus and kabbalah and would often have my books confiscated by my rebbeim. So there was a kind of double layer of intensity there – intense pressure from friends and rabbis, and then my own personal relationship with God, whom I would speak to constantly, often more than any of my friends. The Yeshiva world seemed the most devoted to Torah, and Torah was what i wanted- so i jumped in without thinking.
So where did things “go wrong”? 🙂
It’s impossible to point at any one thing. I started getting into science by sneaking in iPods full of educational podcasts into yeshivah during my last year. During my last year of Yeshivah in California I would hike nearly every day and learn about nature, which made me feel happier than any amount of gemara ever did. I had one English teacher in the early years of yeshivah with whom I learned about science and some philosophy, and my conversations with him were always disturbingly more interesting than my chavrusas were. After high school, I became very depressed, and when I looked to God and Torah for help, it was only exacerbated by the guilt, the pressure, and the ignorance i was surrounded by. I constantly struggled with the faulty logic of the gemerah- when id point out its irrationality my rebbe would say that i had a ‘goyishe kup’. Eventually exploring a previously prohibited combination of philosophy external to judaism, such as Buddhism, Existentialism, and Psychedelic literature, provided some healing. The array of new ideas offered something i had sought in vain for in judaism- paradigm shattering experiences so large i had to rearrange myself to make them fit. But these things were not earned, and this profoundly disturbed me. For example- these plants that helped me so dramatically grow naturally out of earth, they evolved out of our planet just as I had come to accept I did. Meditatio, too does not subscribe to the reward/punishment paradigm-, the experiences I had were not earned, they were uncovered. From then on, I began to feel that bliss is not something to be earned or bestowed, it is a human birthright, accessible to all. The idea that the wisdom I had found in Buddhism wouldn’t be the first words God spoke to his people was the first real strike of doubt in my mind. What kind of God has this knowledge and hides it? How could my people be the chosen ones if they can’t even figure out something as essential as peace of mind?
There were a few specific thinkers who really practically changed my life and perspective. Discovering them was an incredible experience – I truly was on a quest for truth, and I knew I had found it in these ideas. Alan Watts, Terence Mckenna, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, Aldous Huxley, and the words of many many others were fuel for a fire that burned in me the way my Rebbeim described the greatest Rabbis learned. I felt everything I was told I was supposed to be feel about the words of Torah when I read their words. I would write furiously, read furiously, and then experience blissfully their perspective, in meditation, isolation/sensory deprivation tanks, in nature, and in daily life. I had one or two friends at different stages of this process as well, on parallel journeys. Talking to them was a very big part of speeding up the process for me, but for the most part it was an intensely solitary process, as i was usually in different countries than them.
This process, and the ideas that I encountered along the way, brought up a lot of old questions, ranging from moral ones like “do homosexuals really deserve to die?” to logical ones like “how the hell did kangaroos cross oceans to reach Noah’s ark?”, to spiritual ones like “why does staring into the eyes of a deer feel more Godly than learning what is supposed to be his holiest publication?”.
The philosophical and and intuitive issues I had wouldn’t have been enough alone. Once I was introduced to the concept of rational thought I really had to figure this out on that level. I was home for medical treatment and had access to the Internet and began watching debates and reading books on the subject. I watched dozens of hours of debate with the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse, which was when a lot of the logical wars were won. I had one friend who was on a similar journey, spiritually, philosophically, morally, and logically, and that was hugely important to the process as well. The loneliness and alienation is probably the most painful part. Having your context for existence punched out of your lungs is one thing; being the only person you know who knows what it feels like is another.
Around this time, I volunteered for a frum organization devoted to helping kids with cancer. I remember one day a kid from the camp died, and the staff were telling the children to daven harder so that god wouldn’t take any more children. I knew then something had changed in me. I didn’t see God’s grace and mysterious ways. I saw dying kids, often with diseases caused by scientific ignorance, whose parents were cousins, who didn’t bother or know to check for genetic diseases common in the inbred ashkenazi gene pool, suffering immensely. Telling them they weren’t praying hard enough seemed terribly abusive for the first time.
After that summer, I went to Israel to speak to the same Rabbis who had convinced my parents to throw away their secular lives and devote themselves to ending “the spiritual holocaust of intermarriage.” I needed to bring them my questions and see if they had any answers. This was their job, after all. I’m sure I wasn’t the first kid who came to them with questions. My father insisted he had done the same and was convinced. I needed to see for myself. Over the course of a few months, I spoke and debated with them. It was a fascinating experience and mostly disappointing. I was raised being told there were proofs for orthodox Judaism’s claims about reality. This trip confirmed, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was false and that my moral and philosophical issues with Judaism had no satisfactory resolutions.
Could you give us a glimpse behind the curtain of your debates with these kiruv Rabbis?
One of my favorite moments was when this rabbi was arguing intelligent design to me by giving the classic example of how amazing the human eye is (despite the fact that a quick google search reveals that it has very few frames per second, can see only a very limited range of light, and is wired completely backwards). I paused for a second and pointed at his glasses. “Rabbi, you’re wearing glasses. Obviously, something’s gone wrong.” It’s a great metaphor for the whole experience really. They were great at spouting rhetoric and arguments that had the appearance of being well thought out, but at second glance were laughably illogical and deeply flawed. One rabbi shouted at me, in a crowded coffee shop, that he would murder and rape his wife and children if God didn’t exist. That was a fun night. Others were much more respectable and moderate, but when I pressed them hard enough, for long enough, and took their logic trains to their last stations, we always arrived at the same place: blind faith. And that was never going to be enough for me. Not with so much evidence against it. Not one rabbi could give me a good reason why we really needed to commit so much genocide in God’s name, or why it was ever ok for Jewish fathers to sell their daughters into slavery, or why every year, millions of infants die while their mothers beg their respective Gods to spare their children. They have some great matrix metaphors, but again, when discussed for more than an hour, the kiruv stuff really falls apart. They were not really willing to do or respond to research, which stopped a lot of conversations in their tracks. They were specifically comfortable with circular logic, which is impossible to point out to someone who hasn’t seen beyond it. You’re dealing with a very infantile twisted sort of logic that mimics reason – the only way to disprove it is to wade deep into those waters and point out the issues one by one. The response is usually belligerent repetition of the faulty logic, and that’s where it gets really exhausting. With my yeshivish Rabbi’s, even that would have been impossible- you simply cannot convince someone who does not value reason to value reason using reason.
At the end of the day, they were people, which meant some got mad, others sad, and others didn’t really care either which way. I used to speak to my rabbis only in third person, and this really shattered the illusion of grandeur that can create. The other thing I saw again and again, and was impressed by, was the tenacity of cognitive bias. These rabbis had everything to lose if they were wrong, and it showed. There was one rabbi, however, whom I spoke to, who I saw I was really getting to. I realized in one moment that my doubts had spread to his mind, and I saw genuine fear on his face. I got scared too. I was in a lot of pain, as my world came crashing down on me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that to this man, who had a wife and children. I stopped pushing him so hard, and watched his cognitive biases erase the fear, as he assured himself things would be ok. It was a powerful lesson for me. I knew what it felt like to bury doubt; I had been doing it for years. To watch an adult man do it in front of me, in real time, was a powerful thing to witness, Especially because these were the rabbis that had convinced my parents- and thus were at least partly responsible for my existence in the first place.
What are the most positive aspects for you of going OTD?
Yahweh, as Dawkins put it, could be the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. For me, leaving his shadow meant leaving behind a great deal of shame, paranoia, pressure, and delusion. I live a less deluded life, in line with what is as close as possible to what I perceive as the truth. Perhaps more important than even that, though, is the loss of meaning.
A lot of the positive aspects of being OTD are born from the loss of unnecessary bullshit. As religious jew, I believed my life to be the most meaningful possible life one can live. Now I know that life is a fantastic bizarre mistake, and that meaning is something we make for ourselves, like tea or art or air conditioning. This is incredibly liberating. The stars are no longer pretty decorations in god’s pretty terrarium, but rather massive nuclear furnaces in which everything I have ever cared about were cooked. I don’t have to be alive. I can opt out whenever I like, without fear of eternal punishment. Every moment I stay is my choice, not a commandment. I count the loss of the afterlife, too, to be a gain. I was nothing a lot more time than I was something, and I will lapse back into nothingness within the next 80 years or so. Makes this whole affair a lot less of a burden. It’s real freedom. The experiences I had with psychedelics were also astonishingly powerful and healing. With psychedelics, I experience honestly and completely every cliche I had ever heard about feeling at one with the universe, at peace with myself, and in love with my fellow beings. I finally felt, not just intellectually, at home in the universe, not a stranger banished from eden but a product and part of the universe the way a fruit is a part of a tree. I really felt that, in my bones, and came for the first time to love my primate body and the squirmy-comfortable sensation of being an organism. I shudder to think of dying without having had such experiences, which I count among the most spiritual, most meaningful, most liberating moments of my life. I can finally be the person I daydreamed about being, and I’ve only been out a year. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
One final gain I must mention is the wonderfully queer pleasure I can now experience of changing my mind. Once you step out of the rigid thinking of belief, you can constantly have your mind changed through conversation and research. Knowing I will never stop doing that means knowing I will probably be unrecognizable to my current self in a few years. I’ll die and be reborn again and again in a certain way. It makes it a lot more fun, and a lot funnier.
When we met in Israel a few months ago, we indeed found a common interest in meditation. What does meditation mean to you and what could it mean for people who are going through life changes like yours?
I’d like to preface whatever I say here by saying that, while it has changed my life quite dramatically, I do not currently have a ton of experience with meditation, nor do i have a very devoted practise or respectable understanding of buddhism and/or modern mindfulness. Most of what I say here is paraphrasing the ideas of people who do.
I believe that there is a baby in the bathwater of religion – and that baby is the secret tip of maslow’s hierarchy: above the need for food and water and safety and community resides the need for self-transcendence. The respected neuroscientist and author Sam Harris discusses in his book ‘Waking Up’ how nuns, monks, rabbis, and priests, when put in MRIs, tended to show similar things happening in their brains as they prayed. Meditation has a comparable effect, without the need for spiritual mumbo jumbo, dogma, and shame. More often than not, when you are raised frum, you are told that Jews have the monopoly on spirituality, on being Godly, and on true peace of mind. For me, engaging in meditation disproves that, scientifically and experientially. Scientific research has confirmed dozens of benefits of meditation – from better sleep to less anxiety, from better athletic performance to a literal increase in grey matter, from enhanced creativity to increased susceptibility to awe – but the real benefit isn’t as concrete as that. The real benefit promised by practitioners of meditation is a fundamental shift in how we relate to ourselves and the world.
Religion isn’t the only lie we were brought up with. There are plenty of other flawed human constructs that are, while incredibly powerful tools for the growth and organization of our species, (as explained brilliantly by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’) cause immense human suffering, for example concepts such as free will and a self. From a meditator’s perspective, these too are illusions to be shattered, and if the claims of buddhism are to believed, for some this change is more or less permanent.
Judaism is often all about commemorating the past, undoing the sins of the past, explaining the past, in the hopes that we will build the temple in the future, live in gan eden in the future, be out of exile in the future. The present moment is extremely neglected. Meditation gave the present moment back to me. I do not mean to claim that I am free of anxiety or the notion of self or anything as radical as that, but the edge has been taken off. For me, meditation allows for a sort of atheist spirituality that is far more meaningful than anything I had as a slave to Yahweh. It gives me the best possible chance of letting go, really letting go- of everything, including my preconceived notions about meditation. It is a continuous practise, to unlearn something new everyday, to embrace every facet of life without resistance, to return to the primacy of direct experience, to improve the only thing we have at the end of the day- our subjective experience of reality.
To people going through changes like mine, I highly recommend it. Cliches are cliches for a reason. Change really can be embraced. It’s easier said than done, but that doesn’t make it not worth trying. The insights and perspective changes meditation brought were powerful enough that they acted as a catalyst for my most serious doubts. No God worth taking seriously has this information and hides it from his chosen people. I couldn’t accept that he would.
Another big part of what meditation is to me is the exploration of consciousness and self. The spiritual truths Buddhism holds differ from Judaism’s ideas because they are accompanied by evidence. Buddhism is among other things, a science of mind. You do not take anyone’s word for it – that’s religion. Here you have your own experiences – that’s spirituality. To me this process is very well complimented by psychedelics. Again, you don’t take anyone’s word, no matter who their father is or how many days they spent talking to God on a mountain. You eat the plant. You have the experience. And unlike meditation, you are guaranteed a powerful experience every time. It’s extremely hard to put into words what these experiences contain, but given the opportunity, I could go on for hours about them, as they contain some of my most treasured memories, exciting epiphanies and cathartic moments of healing. But like meditation, it helps one rediscover what was stolen from us by religion – the primacy of our direct experience.
How has your family and environment reacted to your new derech?
It hit my parents the hardest, and in the beginning it was terrible. The fact that they were raised secular is both a blessing and a curse. They sacrificed a lot and believe in a way that only a baal teshuvah can, and they project that onto me. I was the only son planning on becoming a rabbi, and the only one as inspired about and committed to Judaism. On the other hand, they left behind secular family who they still make an effort to maintain a relationship with. So the idea of secular family isn’t completely strange to them, as it may be for Frum From Birth families. In the beginning, they freaked out, and responded with judgment, condemnation, threats, and guilt i came to expect hearing about other people’s stories. Now it really is an ongoing process, but one that is moving in a positive direction. In recent weeks, a real shift has occurred- they apologized for their initial reactions over the past year or two and come through with real change. Its overwhelming and tastes of the same cognitive dissonance I experienced in the beginning of this process- radical change is such a bizarre yet consistent reality of life.
Besides my parents, there was my siblings – my sister who was wonderful about it, and my younger brother, whom i’m headed home to soon and does not yet fully know. I’m quite concerned about telling him, as i think it will trigger the same sort of crises I experienced in him, and he’s far younger than I was at the time. But I can’t hide the truth from him.
I lost most of my friends from yeshivah. We might as well live in alternate realities. With them, it really is that black and white. But I’ve found my new secular relationships, and friendships with less intensely Yeshivish Jews, to be far more fulfilling and supportive than any yeshivah friendship.The religion I was hurt by in yeshivah is very different than the ones my parents and many of my friends practise, though it is not without its own similar issues. It is definitely more extreme with certain people and sects. I had this one friend, my best friend from middle school till after high school, with whom i was extremely close – telling him I was OTD was like telling him I had cancer. We tried to meet up when we were in the same city, and I really honestly tried to connect, but he was so insecure about his beliefs that just seeing me without a Kippa was obviously too much. We haven’t spoke since. It’s a terrible loss, but in my new friendships outside the shadow of God, a new, uncensored, unregulated form of friendship is born. A friend in God’s world is a temporary thing and not a priority. In the real world – the one where we are shooting through infinite space on a tiny rock lit by a giant nuclear explosion made by mistake – choosing to be someone’s friend is a very special thing.
How do you see your future?
Wow, and I thought that last question was hard to answer!
I’m figuring that out as we speak. After coming to Israel to talk with these Rabbis, I ended up finding friends here, and during that incredibly hard time, I learned what friendship really was. There was one period where in the space of a short span of time, I told my parents I was going off, had my first breakup, and was forced out of my apartment by a terrible landlord. I don’t know if I would have made it through that without those friends. Standing outside with everything you own at your feet, along with the shattered remains of everything you believe in, and pieces of your heart you didn’t know you could lose, in a country that feels more and more foreign everyday… it’s unspeakably lonely, not in a romantic way, but in a deeply panicked and horrible way. My friends carried me through that in many ways, and It’s very hard to say goodbye to people who express that sort of love and selflessness.
So I spent over a year here, and am so grateful to have spent it with such wonderful people, but now I know in my bones I need to step out of Israel and move on to the next chapter of my life. I want to see the world I was deprived of. I want to discover the education I was tricked out of, and I want to live a life completely outside of the Jewish bubble. Israel is not a great place to do that. So I am headed to America. I have a job lined up at a sensory deprivation tank facility, which is a sort of dream job for me. It looks like I’ll probably be going to college, which is as terrifying as it is exciting. I truly love to learn, now that I can pick the subject matter. I have discovered a deep love for science, for philosophy, for psychology, anthropology, history, and literature, and I have years of reading to make up for.
I haven’t lost the idealism being raised by kiruv parents comes with. I still want to spread the good word. Just different words.
What would you like to achieve by writing a book?
I want to make this journey less daunting for kids like me. Being raised orthodox is hard enough. I am not even fully in the healing phase yet – it’s been a full year and I still feel like I am still discovering exactly how deeply this ideology messes with a child. Leaving can and should be easier. I wish I had someone who had been through it to tell me I wasn’t alone, that I’d see beauty I couldn’t imagine on the other side of my fear. So if you’re reading this interview, take it from someone who did it, from all of us: this is possible. It’s been done in a thousand ways and there are people waiting for you on the other side. And we’ve got bacon.
The OTD story is a relatively new one, and I’d love to see it it more often told, so why not do it myself? Books shaped me into who I am today, liberated me from oppressive ideas, gave me an escape from the prison of my yeshivah, and connected me with like minded people, across cultural, temporal, and mental barriers. I’d love to be on the other side of the pen.
Books were a huge part of my journey. I’d actually like to name a few here that I’d recommend to anyone on this path: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts, Food of the Gods by Terence Mckenna, Waking Up by Sam Harris, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, My True Type by A.J Drenth, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
I love talking about my story, and these issues, so anyone with questions can feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org