Could you describe the religious environment you grew up in?
As some quick background, my family moved us to Zurich, Switzerland when I was 2 years old and we lived there until I was 10, after which we moved to Austin, Texas. There are some religious differences between the two areas we lived, but overall we were slightly more observant when we were living in Switzerland than when we were living in Texas (at least that’s how it seemed to me). Also, I am the third oldest of a family of ten children, so that is a little unusual for a non-Orthodox Jewish family.
I grew up in a conservative Jewish home, more on the traditional side. We kept basic kashrus1, including having separate dishes for milk & dairy, but we didn’t worry too much about whether any of the food had a hechsher2 (although it was a plus) so long as there wasn’t any treif3 in the ingredient list. We attended shul4 usually every Shabbos5, although we drove there. When we lived in Switzerland, we had regular Friday night meals at home. Also, in Switzerland, I attended a nominally Orthodox Jewish elementary school, but began attending public school when we moved back to the States.
Overall we were mostly secular and I lived life as a normal kid, but being Jewish was very important to my parents and it became very important for me as a result. However, being Jewish to us was more about doing Jewish things like keeping Kosher, observing the holidays, going to shul on Shabbos and the holidays, etc., and in terms of belief there wasn’t much that was essential other than believing in God.
What inspired your parents to have such a large family?
Whenever I have asked them this question the response is simply that they just loved each of us so much they just wanted to keep having more. I think it was simply a personal choice rather than any sense of having an obligation to do so.
Did you always feel attracted to orthodoxy? If not, how did this develop within you?
I grew up with a deep appreciation of Orthodoxy. Whether it was imparted to me by my parents or just from the religious education I got, I remember viewing Orthodox Jews with a lot of respect. From my perspective they took their Judaism very seriously and preserved the religion through their study and observance. However, I did think they were too fundamentalist for me by taking their religion too literally, so I was mostly comfortable seeing myself as a Conservative Jew while I was younger.
On the other hand, I felt that often times Conservative Jews didn’t take Judaism seriously enough. Once, I found an older book about Jewish ritual observance and I tried to adhere to the rules in the book (saying various blessings throughout the day, trying to avoid certain things that were muktzah6 on Shabbos, etc.). When I asked about some obscure rules to my LCR7 they sort of laughed it off.
I began to become concerned with my level of observance over time. I had, at the request of my mother, applied to YU8 and after the interview I came out feeling extremely embarrassed at my lack of knowledge of Judaism. I would ask myself, how could I raise my own future children to be Jewish if I barely knew how to practice myself? This combined with negative pressure I was getting from my parents once I began dating my future wife (who was at the time not Jewish), led me to become very anxious about this issue.
Surprisingly, two weeks before the fall semester was about to begin I got a call from a YU Rabbi explaining that there was a new Mechina9 program beginning at YU for students with a non-Orthodox background. I was very excited to go. This was really the beginning of my transformation to becoming Orthodox.
The religious classes I attended (with the exception of Hebrew) were essentially kiruv10 lessons and I bought the whole thing hook, line and sinker. The explanations allowed me to reduce my doubts about Orthodoxy being too fundamentalist and I was led to believe that an authentic understanding of the Torah was both rational and compatible with science (Torah Umadda). This combined with Shabbos meals with the Rabbis and other feel-good activities. I was determined to be a more observant Jew and began to regularly read/watch Orthodox kiruv material and attend religious services.
I left YU after a semester since I felt they had a poor mathematics program and at this point I was thinking about becoming an actuary. I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin in the following spring. At the time there weren’t any on campus Orthodox organizations other than a minyan11 at Hillel (which I didn’t enjoy too much) and Chabad12. I was at first reluctant to go to the Chabad House since I was given a very negative impression of Chabad while at YU, but eventually I broke down and began coming to services, soon becoming a regular there. Ultimately, it was my exposure to Chabad throughout the rest of my college career that led me to decide to be a Chabad Chassid13 once I graduated, at which point I was basically fully observant.
Could you describe your transition from Chabad Chassid to atheist? What was the timeline of your kefirah14 process?
Although I can recall the exact moment I had the epiphany of atheism, which occurred a few years after I graduated and began working, my transition out of Yiddishkeit15 was occurring even during the times I felt my faith was strengthening. There were a lot of issues that were building up even while I still felt very committed to Judaism. As doubts were raised there were many times when I felt these doubts were bringing me closer to a more mature understanding of God, but they ultimately compounded to the point where my faith had nothing left to support it.
Out of college I believed that mitzvoim16/kiruv was an important duty of being a Chassid. This coupled with my belief that Judaism was essentially rational and verifiable if you studied enough, and the only reason non-Orthodox Jews didn’t accept it as truth is because they are unaware/misinformed, led me to attempt to enlighten my fellow Jews in person and online. Having discussions with people I met online after college was the first time I really engaged with the arguments that were critical of the Jewish apologetics I had been inclined to believe up until then.
For instance, I would bring up the Kuzari Principle which I felt was a very strong argument in favor of Judaism, and the push back I got was very surprising for me. Others pointed out issues I had not considered, but since I felt committed to the idea I was compelled to come up with various solutions to the problems they brought up, no matter how far-fetched the solutions were. This went on for a number of issues ranging from the history of the universe & evolution, morality in the Torah, the validity of the Talmud, the reasonableness of Orthodox views/practice, etc.
I remember becoming frustrated that I was unable to convince many people of my beliefs, but I was even more frustrated by the fact that their arguments were very difficult for me to dispute. I remember one evening I had cried out to God with tears in my eyes asking him why he had made their arguments so hard to undermine. Why is it, if evolution wasn’t true, that there isn’t much evidence against it and there was so much evidence that supported it? Why wasn’t an honest and objective look at the facts on the ground supporting what I knew to be true?
In addition to arguing in favor of Judaism I often argued against Christianity. I had known a number of Jews who converted to Christianity and this had disturbed me a lot. Especially organizations like Jews for Jesus who used deceptive tactics and distorted & cherry picked bible verses to prove their points. After engaging with Christians on these topics and hearing their defenses of Christianity, I began to notice many similarities between how they defended their Christian faith and how I defended Judaism. It became hypocritical of me to tear down their arguments as being irrational while using the same kind of arguments in defense of Judaism. I wasn’t sure how to handle this.
Concurrently, I would begin studying the entire Tanach17 with my father; a chapter a week, beginning with Deuteronomy. As time went on, reading the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles carefully and in context alongside someone who I knew would look at the texts more critically than I had in the past, led me to be continually surprised at the things I read. From contradictions with narratives between various texts, inconsistencies between how I anticipated leaders of the Jewish people would behave and how they were portrayed and apparently immoral actions commanded by God like genocides and killing children. I tried in vain to explain these problems away with apologetics I would read from websites like Chabad.org, but I began to notice how unconvincing these excuses really were.
I did briefly find solace in the philosophy / theology of “Rational Judaism” which took most of Genesis to be non-literal while still maintaining a mostly Orthodox worldview. However, the multitude of issues and doubts that still existed eventually led me to seriously consider, for the first time in honest reflection, what if God is simply an idea humans created. What if God does not exist? What would the world be like?
Like looking at the optical illusion of the old lady and the young woman, I shifted the way I viewed the world. In a moment everything became much clearer, much less confusing and the world as it is just made a lot of sense. It was also a moment of exhilaration, viewing myself not in the arms of a protective father but on a small rock hurdling through space. There was so much to know, so much to discover. It was freeing.
I attempted to shift back to the worldview I once had, but like eating the forbidden fruit, you can’t return to a place of ignorance. You can’t un-know what you have already discovered. Overall I was Orthodox for about 6 years before I became an atheist.
Did your apostasy impact your marriage? Did you have any kids already by that time?
To answer this properly, I need to add some background. As I mentioned earlier, my wife Raquel and I had dated in High School. We had met at a party I was throwing at my parents’ house and we had been in a relationship from that day on. Raquel was my first everything. First kiss, first girlfriend. The religious question came up early on. She was an agnostic at the time, but was interested in Judaism. I was pretty satisfied with this, thinking that one day she will probably convert Reform or Conservative.
My parents were not happy with the relationship though, both because Raquel wasn’t Jewish and we were a somewhat juvenile couple, as many high school relationships are. Unknown to our parents we had eloped at a local courthouse a few weeks before we graduated High School. We had stayed committed to each other throughout college, even though she went to a school in Lynchburg, VA and I was in New York and then Austin.
During her first years at college, Raquel was undergoing a Reform conversion at her local Temple. Later, when that Rabbi moved away before her conversion was complete, she was already thinking of performing a Conservative conversion. The same process occurred with the Conservative Rabbi (he left the community just as she was about to complete the conversion process). She had begun an Orthodox conversion, but was unsure how devoted she was to that path.
We were both very committed to each other, but the long distance and our religious transformations put a large strain on our relationship. We helped mitigate this by talking on the phone with each other virtually every day, visiting each other during breaks in school and living together during the summers. However, I was feeling guilty for being in the relationship mostly because of my new religious views.
On the one hand, we were legally married and she was in the process of conversion, so maybe she will eventually have an Orthodox conversion (which at this point in my life was the only conversion I considered legitimate). On the other hand, if she converted for my sake I wasn’t confident that it would be sincere. She wasn’t certain whether a conversion to Orthodoxy was for me or herself either. In addition, my current relationship with her was against Jewish Halacha. It didn’t help matters much that my parents and many Rabbis I spoke to didn’t think we should be together at all.
The issue came to a head after having a particularly uncomfortable Shabbos during the summer. Raquel asked me if we should break up I said yes. It was an extremely difficult time for me and after we had broken up I was a complete mess. But only after about a month or so we had gotten back together. Even though, I had my commitments to God and to follow the Torah, I simply couldn’t be without her. We re-established our relationship and I promised her that whatever path she chose I would be committed to her first and God second. I know that this was pretty unorthodox of me, but fortunately it saved our relationship.
Afterwards, Raquel began a second try at an Orthodox conversion in earnest with a different group of Rabbis, eventually converting at a Bais Din18 in Houston. Following this, she attended Bais Chana19 in Crown Heights for a few months before we had our “Jewish” wedding, which was very religious (separate seating, separate dancing, etc) and Lubavitch20 in custom. Shortly afterwards we began having a family.
By the time I had become an atheist I had a toddler, Moshe, and my second son, Shais, was on the way. After Shais was born, it must have been clear to my wife that my worldview was changing because when I came out to her she said she already suspected it.
I felt very guilty for having lost my faith. We had gone through so much strife and we had changed our whole lives to become Orthodox Jews at my lead. Raquel was very understanding, I found out that she herself was had some unorthodox views regarding evolution among other things. But the next year was still very hard on us.
I had remained observant in most ways, but didn’t hold any of the beliefs (Orthoprax). However, the whole situation involved rethinking how this would impact our lives. How would we raise our kids? How will our religious observance change, if at all? How will this affect our relationship within the community?
We were at the time living in Baltimore, MD within the religious neighborhood of Park Heights. When I had come out openly as an atheist, we began to feel more isolated in the community. Some people would no longer eat at our house, our relationship with some of our neighbors were strained and I was getting some unwanted attention from people who were essentially trying to mekarev21 me back, while my wife was really given no support on how to handle the situation. This combined with me being unhappy with my current position at work, caused our marriage to go through a pretty difficult year.
Fortunately, at the request of my wife, I searched for a new job, eventually ending back in Louisville, where the community was more open to us. Now although I am not very observant, except for Kashrus and Shabbos/Yom Tovs at home, our marriage is great. It still needs work, as all relationships do, but ultimately we are more in tune with one another than we have ever been in the past.
How did you two decide to raise your children with regards to religion?
It was a tricky issue at first. I personally don’t want my children to hold any dogmatic views about the world, but I appreciate the value of knowing about one’s culture and history. Ultimately, I care more about their morals, values and critical thinking skills than I do about what particular religious beliefs they have.
In terms of morals and values, my wife and I came to realize that, even after my deconversion, they are almost entirely in sync. We have similar views on what it means to be a good person, how we view following authorities, being independent, the relative importance of wealth, aesthetics, etc. When it comes to what our kids should believe regarding religion and how, our views begin to differ.
The question “why do you believe what you do?” holds a lot more weight in my mind than the question “what do you believe?”. Learning methods of rationality, logic and critical thinking without applying them to religion on their behalf so they can make up their own minds about religion is primary. As a result, I would prefer my children learn about other religions and belief systems, to try to understand what compels people to both accept and reject various ideas. Whether they end up Jewish or not, and the faith of any of their future spouses/families is virtually irrelevant to me.
However, while my wife appreciates the value of critical thinking and rationality, she believes that religious faith is more about choice rather than being compelled to believe via evidence/reason. As a result she strongly desires our children to grow up to be faithful Jews and to marry Jewish as well. She also frowns on our children learning too much about the religious doctrines of other faiths. She would rather the religious education of our children remain strictly Jewish.
For a time, my wife wasn’t comfortable with me being forthcoming about my lack of belief in Judaism to our children. She feared it would undermine our children’s faith and lead them to eventually give up Judaism as well, to be like their father. Recently, after many discussions about it, she became comfortable with it, so when my eldest has asked questions about the matter I am open about how I feel, while underscoring the fact that it is ok to believe differently than I do, as his mother does. It hasn’t become problematic.
So in terms of education we have sent them and may send them in the future to Jewish schools (so far they have attended Chabad cheders22, but they are currently being home-schooled). We may not agree entirely with their religious studies and have some reservations occasionally about what they are learning in that environment, but both of us appreciate them getting a strong background in Judaism. In addition to ensuring they have a decent Jewish education, we also highly value their secular studies as well. Most of all we would like to help them appreciate and enjoy learning.
In terms of day to day life, our home is essentially Modern Orthodox. We raise them in an environment where we want to make Judaism enjoyable, while still keeping our practice traditional. It is also important to us that our kids interact with both Jews and non-Jews, so we are trying to encourage extra-curricular activities. Overall we raise our children to be immersed in both Jewish and secular life to gain an appreciation of both, and hopefully help them become well rounded individuals. Our children are still very young though (the eldest is almost 6), so we still have plenty of time to figure it out.
What is one misconception or stereotype about inter-religious couples that you’d like to correct?
Aside from the very idea that Orthodox Jews and Atheists can’t have loving and successful relationships (something our marriage disproves out of hand), the biggest misconception I hear is that having parents with different worldviews is confusing and unhealthy for the children.
I think children are much more capable of dealing with this situation than people give them credit for, so long as there is mutual respect and trust between the parents. Hiding your true beliefs is likely to be more confusing for them than being forthcoming, since your actions won’t always match what you tell your children.
Additionally, showing our children the example of how people with different religious beliefs can still love and support one another is a valuable lesson. Children grow to make their own choices, and parents should let them know that they will be loved and supported regardless of their faith.
To finish off, would you like to give any advice to these ‘mixed’ couples?
As much as people may think that their beliefs are fundamental to who they are as a person, the truth is that people are not static and beliefs and ideas are transient, even beliefs about religion. Even for those who remain faithful their whole lives, their current beliefs aren’t the same set of beliefs they held as a child.
People and their beliefs about the metaphysical change and that is a good thing. Realize that only thing you know for sure is that you have a real relationship with your spouse, you have a history with them, you have a life with them. So long as there is trust, love and respect within the marriage, it’s best to focus on shared values and not let the particulars of your personal religious beliefs get in the way of that.
1 Kosher rules
2 Kosher certificate
5 Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest
6 Forbidden on the Sabbath
7 Local Conservative Rabbi, play on words to LOR, Local Orthodox Rabbi
8 Yeshiva University
9 Preparatory educational program
11 Prayer group
12 An Orthodox-Jewish Chassidic moment, well known for its outreach activities
13 An adherent of Hasidism
15 Outreach campaign
16 Yiddish for Judaism
17 Hebrew Bible
18 Rabbinical court
19 Chabad girls’ seminary
20 Yiddish name for the originally Belorussian village Lyubavichi where the movement’s leaders lived for over 100 years. Has become identical with Chabad itself
22School for Jewish children