I met Dan in Israel a few years ago during an OTD meetup, where he told me that he is learning under Professor Israel Finkelstein at the Tel Aviv University.
Before we start, I would like to ask you how it is to learn under Professor Finkelstein? One of the first books that I read that catapulted my apostasy was the book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts he wrote together with Neil Asher Silberman.
Finkelstein is great. He’s an amazing scholar and a great teacher. Very instructive, very ‘socratic’.
I mean we have lectures and seminars and stuff too, but during our meetings and stuff, its very informal. Just asking questions, and responding, creating a conversation / discussion about what I’ve done, what I think, and where and how to progress forward from there. He’s a great scholar to study under, because in addition to the actual material, he is a very successful professional scholar with lots of appointments and publications, and learning under him is providing useful for learning (at least the beginning stages) of how to do that for myself.
A note / addendum, though: Israel is only my secondary advisor. My primary adviser is Dr Guy Steibel, who is equally learned, accepting, friendly and a good teacher / mentor.
Could you tell our readers a little bit about the home you grew up in and where your family stood on the religious spectrum?
I grew up (mostly) in Chicago, to an Israeli-American socialist kibbutznik (non-religious, but pluralistic) father and a ‘traditional’ American mother. I also lived in Europe (Scotland, mostly, but also Spain and London). But when I lived in Europe I was already fully secular. I would describe our level of frumkeit / observance as ‘conservadox’. We didn’t keep strict kashrut, but certainly when I was younger, at least, there was an approximation of it. As I got older, the strictness got more lenient as my dad, especially, ‘lost’ his faith (which he never really had, I don’t think, to begin with), and thought it was a good idea for me to be able to choose if I wanted to be religious or not.
For a while I chose to be religious because I was not really accepted by my peers in secular circles: I was too Israeli / foreign for the American kids, and too American (or too religious) for the Israeli expat kids. The religious people accepted me (as per usual with kiruv), and made me feel at home, and it made my mother and grandparents very happy.
Of course, this didn’t last so long, but this was how it happened. Neither of my parents I would consider BTs (ba’alei teshuvah or someone who ‘returns’ to Orthodox Judaism -ck). We did go to synagogue every Shabbat, and most major holidays, and I was active in Jewish youth groups (NCSY and USY) for most of my life.
Would you say that you had a happy childhood?
I’d say I had an average childhood. I mean, when I was living it, I didn’t know any better, ya know? Of course, now I know that it wasn’t exactly … ideal, if that makes sense. And a lot of the things one, or both, of my parents, plus extended family did, could easily constitute emotional abuse, in multiple cases. But like, when I was growing up, I didn’t know any better. If that makes sense.
What made you decide to move away from these religious influences?
I don’t think there was one thing that I can pinpoint. I started reading a lot more of a lot more varied things. Lots of science and philosophy and history, which I continued once I went to university. My aunt is also secular and a scientist, and so I was exposed to that from a young age; though even she and my dad were of the types who tried to argue / help me ‘see’ that god and science are not incompatible.
When I was at a Shabbaton for a youth group even when I was sixteen I was caught fooling around with one of the girls in the year above me, and I was forced to listen to a long lecture from the Rabbi about ‘kosher sex’ and I started to realise it was all kind of bullshit. It caused me to question why some old dead Rabbi, or some book, knew better about how I should express myself (physically or otherwise) with people (especially in a sexual / romantic way) and how or why people thought they knew better when I could use logic and reasoning as well as my own emotions of what I thought was right / felt right, etc.
What would you say was your main motivation for your transition?
Primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor? Probably mostly intellectual and social, in equal measure. I never really felt a cultural separation (at least not like people who grew up yeshivish did), or emotional. But after many years of being fully secular / OTD, I am realising that being out has benefitted me in these ways, as well.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line? How old were you then?
Not counting the ‘grey area’ that was fooling around with the year above me at the Shabbaton, I started breaking Shabbat (covertly at first, things like not turning off my computer before shabbat so it didn’t ‘count’ if I used it on shabbat, things that were ‘cheating’ the system) around 15 or 16, and then I started officially breaking shabbat and kashrut about 17 or 18. I think the first properly non-kosher thing I had was a bacon cheeseburger. I decided to go all out, haha.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure I believe in an afterlife of some kind, though I’m not 100% what form that this takes; I like to convince myself that its ‘scientific’ due to the law of conservation of energy and stuff, that if the soul exists it doesn’t get destroyed (i.e. never fully ‘dies’) but continues on in another form, etc, etc. But at the same time I know that that isn’t the most logical of thoughts.
I have a hard time separating, in this case, what I want to be true (i.e. I think it would be nice to have a life after death in which we are reunited with our loved ones; especially people who were taken too soon/tragically, and pets, but I’m not sure that I believe this to be the actual case or not) and what I actually believe. I can say that I do not believe in organised religion, Jewish or otherwise. I feel that organised religion is the root cause of the largest amount of harm to the largest amount of people on the planet, and if given my way, I feel it should be done away with, as a whole. I mean, I still do / want to do certain holiday things, for example, as long as I can do the relatively ‘liberal’ version and keep the brow-beating and god-propaganda to a minimum. Especially when I have children/if I have children. Its important to have traditions and holidays. But, if let’s say, I marry someone who is nominally xtian, like I am ‘nominally’ Jewish, I wouldn’t object to having christmas trees and doing those traditions, as well.
I guess you could qualify me as a non-theistic agnostic. There may be a god, I don’t know. I just frankly don’t care, because whether god does or does not exist has no bearing on my daily life. I figure, if God does exist, and is, indeed, just and loving as we are told that he is, then he won’t care if I do or do not keep shabbat/kashrut/holidays or not; All that will matter is whether or not I am a good person and tried to make the world a better place. And, if god doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t matter anyway, so why bother making myself crazy over it?
How do you currently view the religious community you came from?
I’m honestly apathetic to it, pretty much completely. It has no bearing on my life anymore, I don’t care.
What’s the best thing about not being frum?
Freedom, in a word. Essentially I’m free to be who I want, do / act how I want / how I feel best, think / read / believe, etc. as I want.
What’s the best thing that you recall about being frum?
There was definitely more of a sense of community, of security, a sense of belonging, that kind of thing.
Sometimes (OK: a lot of times) after going OTD I, and many others, felt sort of…adrift. Some would call it a lack of purpose, but for me it’s more the fact that you can be / do anything you want now, so you don’t such a hard and firm sense of identity or belonging as you did when you were frum. More things are up in the air and uncertain.
And definitely the community aspect itself is lacking in the secular world. And yes, I would like to find a way to have that community feeling back, maybe, but not at the expense of having to be frum. I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty, the ‘up in the air’-ness of living an OTD life.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
This is a very tough question, and one which is constantly evolving (as I feel people’s spirituality should do). My biggest ‘connection’ with a Jewish anything is that I live in Israel and that I am an Israeli citizen. Having said that, I am a Jew, and always will be, ethnically. And I do have a ‘connection’ or soft spot in my heart for American and British-Jewish culture (i.e. mostly through the proud tradition of ‘our people’ in the arts / entertainment and academia).
Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?
Now that I am no longer an adherent to strict Orthodox Judaism, I actually feel that in many ways I am more comfortable, spiritually, ethically,etc.
I have explored many different philosophies (both ‘divine’ and not) and have read widely and have, in many ways, I feel, come up with my own personal philosophy of life. I don’t reject everything out of Judaism out of hand. If there are good things there with which I believe, I continue to try my best to adhere to / bring them into a part of my own personal philosophy. Things like tikkun olam and g’milut hasadim, etc. But I also take beliefs from other philosophies, ranging from the pagan Graeco-Roman philosophers, to Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, to Nietzsche and Kant.
I find meaning in a simpler, less regimented, freer spiritual experience which is largely based on ethics, reason and logic, and in which nature plays a large part. I find meaning in my work, in my research, in intellectual pursuits. In simple pleasures of life, like good friends, good food and good conversations.
Removing myself from a community, belief system, and way of life which demonises these sorts of things, from which I now draw a great amount of contentment and sometimes even existential meaning was probably the hardest, but greatest, thing I have ever done.
Is there anything you would still like to convey to the readers of this blog?
My final thoughts, if you can call them that, are simple. Follow your heart. It tends to put you in the direction you need to go. Don’t be afraid to live a free life because its frightening, or new, or different. Yes, it is all of those things, but its all those things and so much more, and if this is the kind of life you want, nothing is holding you back except yourself. Don’t limit yourself. Do what feels right. Don’t be afraid to be who you really are because of societal pressure, or something like that, or whatever. And if you find something you believe in, don’t be afraid to stand up for it, even if it puts you at odds with people, even people you love.