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I think skepticism is part of my nature. I have always been one to question and probe, but until my last year in high school, I hadn’t thought to question my belief in god or the practice of my religion. During that year we had a weekly “mishmar” class that dealt with Jewish philosophy and that is where I started to hear both my fellow students and myself start to express doubts. I think that is very natural at that age, and at the time I felt like my rebbe provided me with some good answers, though I continued to seek deeper theological understanding. I really wanted to understand what god was. This type of probing was too intellectual for the seminary students and teachers in my year in Israel program, and my belief began to founder, while at the same time I felt compelled to increase my stringency in halakhic observance. The upshot I guess of the seminary experience was to learn what god supposedly wanted, but not what god was. I started coming up with my own answers, that I later learned were similar to Spinoza’s god is nature. It helped me keep davening and I remained observant. Though I flirted with conservative Judaism for a bit, I kept coming back to orthodoxy, where I was most at home. I skirted the edge of orthodoxy, however, and stopped following chumras, reinterpreted and accepted the most lenient opinions, and became increasingly disappointed with the clash between my liberal, feminist views and the orthodox establishment. It took me 20 years to get out of this limbo state of adherance to Judaism and doubting. Ultimately I had to make up my mind that I didn’t need to believe, I didn’t need to follow anything but my conscience, and that I could be myself.
For at least a decade, I felt like I had a problem that had to be fixed. I desperately wanted to find some rav, some teaching, or even some segula that would cure me of my apikorsus. I spoke to countless rabbanim and frum scholars, and I would get some answers that made sense at the time. But later, when I realized those answers had holes, the questions just came back stronger. After many years of this psychological limbo, I finally had a turning point when I discovered that I actually had no problem at all. I realized it’s actually a good thing that I don’t believe claims that go against what we know today from science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship, and that if anyone has a problem that needs fixing, it is those who make such claims, not I.
I thought I was the only one. You know, the only baal teshuva to go off the derech. Surely, no other BT had gone off the derech before me and my little family. Except that I wasn’t yet thinking about it in those terms. I was thinking that we had to flip the circuit breaker, or we’d lose a refrigerator filled with food, including all of the food for Shabbos. I was thinking how ridiculous it sounded to ask a non-Jewish neighbor to press a button for us. I was thinking how if there was a god, why would he want us to suffer yet another financial loss, and this time, for something we could control ourselves? It was several more months before my husband, children, and I left orthodoxy completely. And those months were filled with questions that that nobody could seem to answer in a way that made sense to me.
Hi Steve, could you describe your family’s religious background to us?
My parents are part of the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect, called Bobov.
As in most other Hasidic sects, we grew up sheltered from the outside world. Movies were forbidden, there was no television at home, and even listening to the radio was frowned upon. Boys and girls were kept separated to the extent that I never chatted with any of my girl cousins! From age three and on, we wore a large yarmulke and grew long sidelocks. When we turned thirteen, we were required to follow the community’s bland dress code which consisted of a black beaver hat, a black suit and a white shirt. When a beard would start to grow, we were not supposed to shave or trim it, not even a bit.
Secular education was limited to a mere two hours a day, beginning at age seven and ending at age thirteen. From age thirteen and on, we studied nothing but ancient Jewish scripture. Going to college was forbidden because they teach about Evolution and the classes are mixed gender.
Yiddish was my first language. I grew up with parents who occasionally spoke English between themselves so it naturally rubbed off. But at age 22, when it was time for me to find a job, my vocabulary was at the level of your average American eight year old kid. Writing was even a bigger challenge and I had to spend countless hours with a dictionary and a thesaurus, figuring it all out on my own.
Did you have a pleasant youth?
Not really. All of our actions were dictated by the community and strictly enforced in school. My choice of clothing was dictated by the community. When I was 5 years old, I was sent home from school for showing up with sneakers that had white soles! My choice of music was limited to only a handful of Hasidic singers, the others were considered harmful to a Jewish soul. Even some of the mainstream orthodox singers were openly condemned!
Being a curious child and a deep thinker by nature, I feel like my childhood has been wasted on learning ancient Jewish laws that had little to no practical value. I had questions, but I was silenced. I was curious, but discouraged from exploring. I had nowhere to spread my wings, nowhere to exercise my own will. No chance to nurture my personal passions. Instead, it was expected of me to devote my entire life to studying the Torah.
Indulging in materialistic pleasures was strongly discouraged to the extent that eating nosh (sweets) was considered not in line with the reason why God sent us down on this world.
I carried around guilt my entire life, feeling that I am not a good enough Jew. I could’ve always learnt a bit more or managed with one hour less sleep, thus having more time in my day to serve God.
What was even more disturbing was the threat of hell. Being a naive child, I really believed that I would be judged after death for every little misdeed, even for things such as owing someone five cents. I was pretty horrified for what would await me after death.
So, to answer your question, the answer is no. My childhood was quite unpleasant.
So you couldn’t wait to throw off the proverbial yoke?
Not really. I grew up thinking that this lifestyle was normal. I was raised with it, so I never really knew better. My own desires and passions were so suppressed that I didn’t even realize that I had any.
It never occurred to me that leaving was an option. I just accepted my fate and expected it to remain that way forever. In fact, this lifestyle was so normal to me that I had planned on raising my kids the same way. Only later, when I lost my faith and stopped following everything blindly, did I open my eyes and realize how wrong it was. But the reason why I left my former life had nothing to do with the way I felt about it. It was solely due to a change in ideology.
When do you believe that your apostasy started?
It started on Rosh Hashanah, when I was 23 years old.
I was reading an article about cults, when I suddenly noticed that my own community is structured pretty much like a cult. We are isolated from the world, our personal choices are dictated by our community leader, we have an us-versus-them mentality, we are encouraged to live and socialize only with people from our community, questioning is strongly discouraged, and when we come across anything that is against the faith, we immediately shut down and don’t allow ourselves to even think about it. Those are the exact characteristics of your typical cult.
The thought that followed was: if cult leaders can manage to get people to have unshakeable faith in their false ideologies, then this proves that a person can be absolutely convinced that a false ideology is true. I immediately realized that my beliefs might in fact be false too and I’m just not realizing it, just like cult members don’t. I figured that perhaps, Judaism started out just like a cult and just grew into something large and established over many years.
How did you go about searching for the truth?
The first thing I did was to search for evidence that Judaism is a true religion and that it was not like all the other false ones (that people believe in just because they were raised with it). I conducted a thorough search through every piece of Jewish literature I was able to lay my hands on. I was hoping to find at least one compelling argument as to why I should believe. I was surprised to find that all they talk about is how important belief is. I found chapter upon chapter talking about the importance of faith without offering anything to strengthen it.
I later found (on the Internet) that Judaism does offer some arguments to support their faith. As of today, I’ve heard of four forms of evidence for Judaism: Mass revelation, divinity of the Torah, miracles, and near death experiences.
If I had approached a rabbi demanding evidence, he would certainly dump some of those arguments on me, adding a teaspoon of manipulation, just enough to make me doubt my stance and make me feel guilty for not believing. I didn’t trust these rabbis, and rightfully so. Some of those rabbis are professional manipulators, and as a salesman, I knew all too well how easy it is to use tactics to get people to do virtually anything. I wanted to review the evidence and scrutinize it on my own and reach my own conclusion, without a rabbi breathing down my back.
So I Googled it. I searched “proof for Judaism” and I found online articles that offer those above mentioned arguments.
I took the time to scrutinize all of them. And I found many many holes in the so-called evidence. It was as if someone was so desperate to prove the veracity of Judaism that they willfully ignored the fallacies in their arguments. The mass revelation never actually occurred, the Torah shows no signs of divinity, and so on.
At this point, I didn’t know anything about Evolution or about the Big Bang. In fact, I still believed in God. The only thing I lost my faith in was in Judaism. I figured that perhaps God exists and He created everything. But the notion that He wants us to worship Him, might just be not true. Perhaps, God never communicated with Abraham or Moses, and they were just like those cult leaders who lie about their communication with God. Or perhaps, Abraham was hallucinating and sincerely believed that God spoke to him. After all, they weren’t aware of mental illnesses like hearing voices and hallucinations, in those days.
I noticed that all the other religions, all of which are considered to be false according to Judaism, believe in their religions for the same reasons we believe in ours. Almost everyone follows the religion that they happen to be born into. They all believe that their prayers are answered. They all claim to have amazing miracle stories. They all claim to have evidence (that crumble when subject to scrutiny). It was clear to me that if my parents were Christian, I too would think that Christianity is the one and only true religion. I was left with absolutely no rational basis for believing in Judaism (or in any other religion).
At that time, were you able to share your experiences with someone else?
No. I kept it a secret for over a year. I was afraid that my wife would divorce me the minute she learnt about my beliefs. I was also sure that my mother would suffer a heart attack.
Losing faith in Judaism is serious business. It would likely ruin the blissful lives of my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my grandparents, etc. Too many people would be hurt and it was very possible that at least some of them would cut off ties with me.
In addition to that, I stood a great chance to lose business from clients who wouldn’t want to support a heretic.
I stood to lose too much if I were open about it. So I chose to hide it and to live a double life.
How long were you able to keep leading a double life and how did it come to an end?
It lasted for little over a year.
During that year, one of my sisters, who unbeknownst to me, left the faith many years before me, came out openly as non-religious. At first, I was afraid to confide in her. I was so paranoid that I didn’t trust even one person with my secret. But after a year, this double life started taking its toll on me. I felt miserable. I kept on dwelling on the fact that I could’ve been free if only I’d be willing to accept the consequences. I felt like a slave, contemplating whether the cost of escaping is worth the freedom.
To fake this double life, I had to put up a show as if everything was normal. I had to spend hours every day praying, all the while believing that prayer is meaningless. I had to keep all the nitty-gritty details of the Shabbos laws, all the while believing that I will not receive any reward for it in the afterlife. It was tough. Doing things that have no meaning, cannot be sustained for too long.
Thirteen months after I lost my faith, I came to a point where I couldn’t keep it in me for much longer. I opened up to my sister. Getting it off my chest was so liberating!
She introduced me to a Facebook group with people who are in a similar situation. To keep my identity secret, I joined the group using a pseudonym.
Learning from others who shared my challenges, was extremely valuable. It gave me the courage to start moving forward. A few weeks later, I finally felt ready to join a live meetup where I met others like myself, thus revealing my identity to a few more people. Over time, I slowly became more and more comfortable to reveal my true status.
Despite lacking the courage to tell my wife, I started to let down my guard with the hope that I’ll be caught. I so badly wanted to be open with her. It wasn’t long before my wife figured it out and told my in-laws and my parents. I never actually had the courage to break the news to any of them so I was relieved that she did it for me.
What are some of the basic misconceptions about OTD people in your opinion?
There are many. In my opinion, the most prominent misconception is that those who leave the fold, do so out of pain. Some even go as far as painting those who leave as emotionally disturbed, to the extent that they can’t think logically.
While it’s true that many leave because they were hurt by the system, it’s not the case with everyone. Many (probably the majority) leave simply because they lost their faith.
The community would rather further the myth that the only reasons for leaving are pain and poor rationale, than admitting that there are good reasons for losing one’s faith.
One would think: If so many are leaving, wouldn’t that raise a red flag? Wouldn’t people start thinking that something must be wrong with Judaism? Reinforcing the myth solves that problem. By making them believe that those who leave are just in pain, and that deep down they still believe, it all makes sense and it keeps them from asking questions.
And it doesn’t even surprise me. They did the same in Soviet Russia under Communism. People who wanted the leave the Soviet Union were painted as mentally ill. Something is surely wrong with them, because what normal person would want to leave such a wonderful country.
How do you see your own future?
As of now, I am an Atheist and I already lead a completely secular life. So, regarding my personal life, I’m basically there already. The only two things I have yet to break through is, walking around my jewish neighborhood without a yarmulke and driving there on Shabbos.
One of my goals for the future is to write a book, exposing fundamentalist religion. I’m already doing it in the form of short articles on blogs and on Facebook, but I believe that a well articulated book will have a stronger impact.
My hope for my kids is that I’ll be able to raise them without the negative aspects of the ultra-orthodox lifestyle. Ultimately, I want to raise them with the proper tools. I want to teach them how to think logically, how to question things, and how to evaluate claims, so when they grow up, they can make their own choices of what lifestyle they want to follow.
What advice would you like to give people who are considering leaving the fold?
My experience and the experiences of my friends showed that, although the transitioning stage wasn’t easy, it was well worth it.
When I first lost my faith, I was sure that I’ll never actually have the courage to come out and tell anyone. I was sure that I’ll die with my secret. I couldn’t fathom the idea of myself becoming the outcast of the community. I didn’t think I’ll ever have the courage to shave my beard. I didn’t think that I’ll ever be able to face my parents and tell them that their oldest son, the one that they had their highest hopes for, the one that spent four years in kollel (Rabbinical College), the one that promised to raise generations of holy orthodox children, will no longer be following in their footsteps.
My advice would be: surround yourself with people who are going through the same thing and learn from them. I found the “Off The Derech” Facebook group to be very useful. You learn from others that are struggling with similar challenges. I made very little progress in the first year after losing my faith. It was only after I joined Facebook and I saw how others progress, that I gained the courage to start taking baby steps that eventually led me to greater achievements.
It’s a tough journey but it looks worse than it is. When you don’t know the future, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But it usually doesn’t turn out as bad as you’ve imagined. Give it some time and you’ll find yourself doing things you thought were impossible!
This site is dedicated to the memory of Deb Tambor, a young mother who was rejected by her family and community for the ‘sin’ of following her own path and exercising her right to religious freedom.
The Maccabees make complicated heroes. Yes, they stood up for being Jewish against forced assimilation to Greek culture. And yes, they achieved Jewish independence for a hundred years, a model for Jewish self-defense and dignity that resonates even today. At the same time, they were religious fanatics, the haredim of their day: the first person killed in the revolt was a Jew participating in Greek religion, and the Maccabee kingdom made the nations they conquered convert to Judaism (including circumcision!). We who enjoy to modern, secular culture, we who like a clean shave and “immodest” clothing, we have more in common with Hellenized Jews the Maccabees hated than with the Maccabees themselves.
Hanukkah is a complicated holiday. The miracle of the lights story first appears in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is NOT in the histories of Josephus or First or Second Maccabees, which were written much closer in time to the Maccabean revolt. In fact, the Books of Maccabees give alternative reasons why the holiday is 8 days long: a Temple dedication like Solomon’s in I Kings, or Sukkot out of season. There may even be an earlier lighting holiday connected to the winter solstice, a common human experience not unique to the Jews, buried behind it all. Most complicated of all, for people who have become less religious, and who may have family they no longer connect with, a season of celebration and joy can bring loneliness and sadness instead.
What can we do with this history and this holiday? There are many human reasons to celebrate light fighting darkness that also apply to those on their own derech: the light of knowledge fighting superstition, the light of inspiration helping us move forward, the light given by human discovery to improve the world. Even though the Maccabees and today’s traditionalists try to impose their Judaism on others, the fact that Jews are still arguing about ways to be Jewish makes us part of a deeply rooted tradition. And, even without miracles or mitzvot, many of us value Jewish survival, Jewish distinctiveness, and the richness of unique Jewish expressions of the unique Jewish experience, our family’s subset of the human experience.
The most important symbolism Hanukkah can provide to those “off the derech,” on their own derech, is the role they can play. When the shamash is used to light other candles, it keeps burning just as brightly, and together even more light shines. We can be the shamash to others, to our community, to people in need, even to ourselves through difficult times. The secular Israeli Hanukkah song “Anu Nos’im Lapidim – We are Carrying Torches,” puts it very well in its last stanza:
Ness lo karah lanu –
Pach shemen lo matzanu.
Basela chatzavnu ad dam –
No miracle befell us –
No cruse of oil found by us.
We quarried rock until we bled –
And then there was light!
Rabbi Chalom was ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2001, and received his PhD in Near Eastern Studies – Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies concentration from the University of Michigan. In addition to his work with the Institute, Rabbi Chalom is the rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago, Illinois. Contact Rabbi Chalom at email@example.com or 847-602-4500or read his blog on http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com.
Remember Chanukah – dreidels, chocolate coins, latkes, lamp-lighting, all that stuff? Great wasn’t it? One of the really great things about Chanukah is that it’s almost as good as Christmas, but without the whole goy-guilt.
Remember how it was put: the time when the few defeated the many; the small beat the great; a handful of yeshivah bochurim and Kohanim defeated the whole Greek army. The nasty goyim tried to stamp out our religion and desecrated our Temple; but God performed a miracle for us and provided oil for the menorah – so now we light the Chanukiah for eight nights to publicize the miracle. Chanukah doesn’t have any fasting, like Yom Kippur, or any crazy cleaning like Pesach, and we don’t even have to build a shack to live in. All in all, Chanukah is a very feel-good festival. It even helps us feel better about Christmas.
However, there is another side to Chanukah. The Rabbis of the Talmud were more diffident than is their norm when describing Chanukah, and with good reason. Jews are very attached to their status as a victimized minority, so winning battles (at least since the time of Yehoshua) hasn’t sat very easily with our self-image. And I’m sorry to say, it gets much worse.
We are given to understand that Chanukah is a war of liberation against the Greek-Syrian forces under King Antiochus Epiphanes. But, sadly, it really wasn’t. It was a civil war, with Jew fighting against Jew, until King Antiochus intervened on one side. The first person killed by our hero Mattityahu, was a Jew. It was not only a political struggle, it was preeminently a cultural and religious struggle between Jews who saw themselves as part of the wider Mediterranean world of Greek culture, of religious tolerance, of secular education and science; against religious extremists who wanted to keep Judaism and Jewish culture exclusive, narrow, intolerant and ignorant of the wider world. The Maccabees were the Islamic State of their day, killing any Jew whom they suspected of deviating from their own version of fundamentalist Judaism.
Rather than possessing an irrational hatred of God-given Jewish religious practices, Antiochus was, as was normal at the time, very tolerant of all the many religions in his kingdom. And the leader of the Hellenising party in Israel was none other than the Kohen Gadol (high priest) – who rejoiced in the Greek name of Jason. He presided over the opening of a Greek-style gymnasium in Jerusalem, and many of the Kohanim enjoyed wrestling and bathing after a hard day’s korbanot (sacrifices).
The Jewish diaspora was very numerous even then, and, although still religious, was overwhelmingly Greek in culture. Jews were doing very well for themselves as part of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, thank you, and they were happy to leave being meshuggeh frum to the peasants back in the middle of nowhere.
Well, it couldn’t last, could it? The traditionalists tried to take over and oust the Kohen Gadol, putting one of their own choosing in place. King Antiochus, hitherto happy to let the Jews get on with things themselves, had to intervene to prevent what had become a civil war from getting even more out of hand. And we all know the rest: eventually the fundamentalists won and set up their own priesthood and government, outlawing Greek-style practices.
Think for a moment what it’s like for the fundamentalists to win. Think of Iran when the Islamic revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Think of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Think what it would be like if Islamic State won. That’s what happened to Israel as a result of Chanukah.
Of course it backfired. The fundamentalists invited the Romans in to help them, which was rather like inviting a wolf to guard your sheep. Then they took over Edom and forcibly converted its population to Judaism; which came back to haunt them because King Herod was an Idumean descended from such converts. After another battle a few years later with the Syrian Greeks, there was another civil war, this time between the Maccabees and the Pharisees. Finally the Romans, again on the pretext of coming in to help, took over Israel and ended any real independence.
Very interesting, but so much for history – what does all this mean for us?
At Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the fanatics, the fundamentalists and the extremists over the forces of education, internationalism and tolerance. Rather than being a festival of light, it is about extinguishing light in favor of darkness. For those of us who have left the Charedi world with its own intolerant fundamentalism, and have boldly stepped into the world of secular learning, scientific thinking, respect for others and tolerance of others’ views, Chanukah is no celebration. It is a disaster. Make no mistake: if Mattityahu and Yehuda the Maccabee were here now, we would be the first up against the wall.
Think of that when you are munching your latkes.
Several years have past since I wrote about anger during the early part of my journey. These days I am in a good place emotionally, and I have two miracle children, born thanks to advanced medical technology. I don’t hold grudges, but who would I be angry at anyway? I no longer believe God is responsible for individual suffering. It is up to human beings to make the world a better place. On my own derech, I have learned profound lessons that I never imagined possible without religious guidance. One is that there is no such thing as perfect. I have learned to forgive fallible people for an imperfect religion.
While I don’t have expectations beyond what is humanly possible, I also don’t feel limited: I see that humans have an amazing capacity to grow and change. My still frum family has grown in acceptance of our differences. And I am proud of my own growing strength in facing new challenges, such as advocating for my special needs child or fighting for social justice. Today, I am filled with hope and determination.