Searching for a way to bring light and meaning to the upcoming Jewish holiday?
Here’s a great resource from the Society for Humanistic Judaism:
Searching for a way to bring light and meaning to the upcoming Jewish holiday?
Here’s a great resource from the Society for Humanistic Judaism:
As Baal Teshuvas, we had done everything right, even choosing to make aliyah so we could guarantee our kids a Jewish education. That dream dashed after a year completely opposite of what we’d expected, we came back home to a bad economy and dwindling savings, a good chunk of which went to a year of yeshiva tuition for our older kids. It was that year back in the US that I began seriously questioning everything. I couldn’t understand how people could do everything right, and still have to suffer. There was no logical god-centric reason why our little family, unable to get decent paying work in our professional fields, was facing the possibility of losing our home. Yes, we had the requisite college and graduate school degrees, the training, the experience, and the exemplary resumes. But God wasn’t with us. When we finally admitted that we might need some temporary financial assistance to hold us over until we had steady work, my faith was already waning. It was with a mix of shame and anger that I called social services in order to find out how to proceed. How could we have done everything right and still be forced into poverty? My rabbi told us that we can’t always understand the ways of God. But that wasn’t good enough for me. If there was a God, I thought as I prepared yet another tight budget meal of pasta and sauce for our family of six, he was horrible and ineffective, and he had no place in my life. I was done.
I had never been angry enough at God to go against what I thought were his wise teachings. But after my second miscarriage in three years of trying to start a family, I was not simply depressed like the first time. This wasn’t just a random fluke, not only was conceiving a struggle (we had gone through several cycles of clomid before conceiving the first time), this time, when a miracle had happened we thought, and we somehow had conceived on our own without any of the drugs, this time, God had failed. I can’t remember exactly what procedure/test we were doing, but we were again staying overnight at a hotel close to the fertility clinic so I could walk back and forth on shabbat (fertility treatments require precise timing, for there to be a chance for it to work). Shabbos morning we woke up to the rain, and as we trudged through the wet cold streets, I started to explain to my husband, that I couldn’t take it anymore, I didn’t deserve this, I had tried my best with every halakhah that I thought was important, even though I didn’t follow chumrahs, I didn’t believe that God nitpicked and condemned for little things. God was supposed to be merciful, kind, but he wasn’t. When we finally arrived exhausted at the clinic, instead of going right up to the receptionist and explaining that I couldn’t write on shabbat, I took the pen and wrote down my name to check in. I didn’t want to explain anything. Afterwards, my husband (who had never been orthodox, but followed the rules at home for me) offered to go back to the hotel by himself and get the car. It wasn’t yet motze shabbos, but I let him check us out of the hotel, and before dark we were driving back home. I had had enough.
At first I had trouble thinking up any sort of resentment I have developed on this journey. In my case, my progression towards my own derech has in no way been caused by anyone in the frum community who may have wronged me, and so generally don’t carry any resentment towards my frum family, rabbanim, etc . After giving it some thought, however, if I do, in fact, feel any resentment , it is towards those back home who would look at or treat me differently, or even cut ties with me altogether, if they knew that I was no longer frum. I realize that “if they don’t accept the real you, then they never were really your friends,” but my hometown is my hometown, and I should be able to go back there and be my true self without having to feel like people are looking at me differently. Life is easy since I live far away from my hometown, and so I really do not think about this issue very often at all. But on those occasions when I do, the resentment just motivates me to do whatever I can to create a more tolerant world, where, as long as they’re not harming anyone, people can be truly accepted for being themselves.
It was very difficult for me to lose my faith. I really did enjoy every aspect of being frum. I enjoyed learning and davening. I liked the frum look. When I was growing up I dreamt of having sons with long, curly payes. I liked feeling connected to generations before me who I was following in their path.
I especially connected to the idea of having a Loving Father in Heaven who I can trust is making sure everything is working out and who I can turn to whenever I needed anything.
This helped me to understand that the truth lied in the opposite of what many religious people like to say. My bias was that the Torah should be true, not like frum people say that non-believers have a bias that it shouldn’t be. The allure of being connected to the All-Powerful Omnipotent Being as His beloved Jewish child is much stronger than we realize.
It hurt me to understand that I had no reason to believe in God, as much as I really wanted to. I had every reason not to believe in Torah, as much as I loved it.
The first shabbos that I was in Boro Park after I had really started to lose my faith, I remember walking down the street and thinking about the men in their bekitches and shtreimels. Just a short time before that I had felt that a shtreimel was a special way to identify with our ancestors, by keeping their traditional clothing, and thereby to connect with our Jewishness, and from there to God. And now, for the first time, I saw them – and myself – as fools who were wearing this outlandish outfit to connect to a fantasy that had never really existed.
It hit me how scary it was that millions of people have lost their lives and are continuing to lose their lives because of some political move of giving Yoshiyahu a Sefer Devarim, setting off a chain reaction leading to a group of people believing that they are God’s Chosen People who must give their lives for that belief, and spinning off world religions who spent centuries fighting for world domination.
It was horrible to realize how the lives of everyone I know were being controlled by nothing more than a bluff.
What are your plans in regard to staying or leaving?
At the time I initially lost my faith, I thought that I would just pick up and leave. But then I thought about it and I realized how many people I would have to answer up to, from my own family, my wife and her family, and everyone who knows us. I couldn’t imagine having to face up to all of them and have to answer up.
I once saw a blogger write that in order to leave, one needs something to push you out or to pull you out. I would try making a list of the pros and cons of leaving or staying. I felt that that I didn’t have any personal negative experiences being frum, so there wasn’t anything pushing me out. And I couldn’t think of anything I was really missing on the outside that would be pulling me out. Not to say that I wasn’t missing anything, just nothing that i could think of that would justify leaving or facing up to everyone I know.
But today I find it very taxing on me emotionally to keep up this charade. Having to pretend and to hide myself to the extent which I do now seems to me a good enough reason why I should have left. The problem is, the older I get the more difficult it is to just get up and go. I feel that my only choice is to build up the courage to just get out.
How does your observance look today?
I went on for a few years pretending all the way. I came to shul, said shiurim, and did everything I was supposed to. I convinced myself that I would be able to say the words of davening even if I didn’t believe in it, and that I would be able to say shiurim in things I didn’t believe in.
But as time went on, it started becoming a real burden to daven and say words mindlessly. Little by little I stopped going to shul. I started hating to give shiurim, to try motivating people to live up to ideas which I believed to be pure bluff.
Now, unless I’m with people I have to keep a show for, I don’t daven, make berachos, etc. I let myself read and watch watch what I want, etc. But for the most part I still look the part.
I decided to get a degree, and I chose Social Work.
What were your motives in choosing Social Work?
One reason was that I’ve had experience in helping people in a non-professional way. I wanted to learn what science and academia has to say on the subject.
Another reason is that I saw it as an opportunity to get a rounded education in the social sciences. Here in Israel, at least, to get a degree in Social Work it’s necessary to take courses on a wide variety of social sciences, such as sociology, criminology, psychology of course, ethics, etc.
Of course, knowing the hard sciences certainly could help a person come to heresy. But I found that even the humanities and social sciences can have a significant influence, and in some ways even more. They might have a larger margin of error than physics, but at the end of the day, all of their claims have to be backed up by research, and presented with empirical testing.
Torah, besides its claims about the world which can be disproven through simple biology, zoology, history and archeology, also makes claims about the human, or Jewish psyche, sexology, sociology, and criminology. The deep insights of Chassidus and Mussar claim to know how and why we do things and what would be the healthiest way to live and conduct our relationships and society. When you hold them up to what objective empirical research has to say about all of that, you realize how so many of the assumptions of religion are just so plain wrong.
Even to learn a philosophical or psychological approach to ethics helped me to understand just how shallow and childish the frum approach is to good and evil, right and wrong. The same thing when you learn a little bit about art, writing, storytelling.
Do you think there’s anything that the frum world could have done to keep you ‘on the derech’?
Not really. Being that I’m a naturally curious person, I would have eventually found everything out anyways. I’m impressed that they were able to keep me in for so long, and frankly, I’m embarrassed with myself that I let them.
Not having access to internet or libraries without taking the risk of getting into trouble only worked to an extent, but for someone who really wants to know, it can’t go on forever. I probably would have found books eventually, somehow, I just don’t know when.
I never understood the internet ban. Whoever wants to find anything out will eventually. Whoever wants to access the internet will do it anyways.
Is there anything that provides you with purpose and meaning in life now that you no longer believe in Orthodox Judaism?
OJ does all the work for you. It tells you what your meaning in life should be, and it also tells you that there’s no meaning besides what it teaches. I find that condescending. Unless you’re God Almighty, who are you to tell me what’s meaningful and what’s not?
You know, I feel that I find more meaning in looking into myself and searching for what’s really important to me and what I really care about, instead of having someone else tell me what I should want and feel. That search in itself gives me meaning and a reason to live.
Are there any misconceptions or stereotypes about OTD people that you’d like to correct?
Of course. Most of all, the misconception that I had that there’s nothing out there besides taavos and that’s why people leave or choose not to believe.
I think the frum community subconsciously knows that it’s dangerous to acknowledge that Haskala is not dead, and that there are more than plenty of intellectual reasons why not to believe. They know that it’s dangerous to consider that there might be sociological and psychological benefits to not living frum, and that there may be ways to find meaning outside of the frum world.
In recent years the frum community has begun to understand that not all their parents, rabbis and authority figures are trustworthy, and that their own communities aren’t heaven on earth. But they still don’t let themselves see that the outside world isn’t hell, and that there is something intelligent and intellectual, and even meaningful, to not being a believer.
Also, the idea as if belief is necessarily connected to happiness, as if a happy person with a happy life would never consider questioning his faith. It’s as if you dared question, it must be that you have something emotional which is pushing you. For some reason, the emotional ulterior motives of Baalei Teshuvah aren’t questioned.
Everyone, if you look deep enough, has some type of issue. I see that frum people, instead of dealing with the threats to their faith head-on, rush to find that issue and blow it up. They’ll blame your mother and your rabbeim and which chassidus you were part of, etc. They insist that something else must be pushing you other than intellectual honesty.
To close off our interview, is there anything you would like to give along to people like you who are still ‘in the closet’?
I find chizuk in reading and hearing about people who did take the step. But I’ve come to understand that everyone has a unique predicament. There are so many reasons and variables why someone would choose to stay or to leave, or how much to cover up or divulge. This means that not only shouldn’t we be judging other people for their decisions – we also shouldn’t be judging ourselves, comparing ourselves to others and wondering why can’t we just be like them?
At the same time, I do believe that many of us, and I myself am guilty of this, are sometimes afraid of our own shadow, and tend to exaggerate our fears or how difficult our situation is. Yes, we’ve all heard the horror stories that can happen when someone takes a step. We certainly are entitled to choose for ourselves to endure one difficulty in order to prevent something worse. But often, irrational fear prevents me, prevents us, from being true to ourselves in whatever amount of freedom we really do still have for ourselves.
One of the things I’ve learned in my study of psychology, is that often the things that I’m afraid of are nothing more than things I’ve been conditioned into avoiding over my lifetime. In other words, more often than not there really isn’t what to be scared of, just we’ve trained ourselves over so many years to avoid those things which cause us to feel that fear and anxiety.
This is true about phobias and anxieties, and it’s also true about social phobias, the fear of presenting ourselves confidently as we really are, the fear of making ourselves vulnerable. I feel that the few times which I let myself choose not to give into my fears helped me to see that things can turn out much better than I would have previously imagined.
When did your doubts come back again?
In my late twenties, I used to help my Kollel by writing fundraising newsletters. Thus, I had access to the Internet in the Kollel’s office.
In my down time, I would read anything I found online remotely connected to Judaism or Charedim. I eventually found blogs written by people who weren’t frum anymore. What caught my interest was that they all claimed to have left for ideological reasons, and most of them claimed to have left as adults.
Like I said before, I had only known kids who were looking to escape or to have a good time. Most of the ones I had grown up with were pretty far from any sort of success in life, and some of them had become frum again by the time they reached their mid twenties. So my perception of the whole idea of ‘going off the derech’ was pretty negative.
And here I had a group of adults leaving, not kids. And they claimed that they have ideological, not materialistic reasons. It impressed me that they would write how they didn’t see losing their faith or leaving Orthodoxy as a step down, but as a step up, closer to the truth.
I remember reading one of the bloggers who asked why frum people expect not-frum people to be totally open to question their beliefs and lifestyle up to the point of hopefully changing their whole life, while frum people are encouraged not to question, or only to question when they are certain that they won’t change their beliefs as a result. This double standard stood out for me strongly.
I also read how an ex-BT wrote that on his dying breath, he would be more concerned about how much time he spent with his loved ones, and not how many shiurim he participated in.
I was so shocked to read all of this that I reached out to them, and had email exchanges with a few bloggers. When I first started, I was genuinely shocked to hear that there really were any logical reasons why someone wouldn’t believe. I wrote to them, asking them to explain themselves. And I decided to approach this with the same skepticism and questioning which I had used in my questions on chassidus. This all started for me a slow process of unraveling of my entire faith.
What were the questions that influenced you?
The first thing that hit me was the understanding that the scientific process was much more than we had been led to believe in yeshiva. I started understanding what empiricism means, the idea that as long as a proposition cannot be tested or falsified it can’t be anything more than a belief was a total paradigm shift for me. It helped me to understand that even if I had a metaphysical explanation why the world seems godless and might even necessarily seem to be that way, I still needed an empirical way of testing that explanation, of measuring it, and falsifying it. Yes, I might have an explanation for everything, but why should I accept those explanations?
Once I realized that, my impression of the science which went contrary to Torah changed entirely. For example, I knew about evolution before – it just had never clicked for me that it was based on something. Not just guesswork, but a serious evaluation of all the available evidence, which leads to a pretty obvious conclusion.
But when I went back to the Rabbis this time, they had nothing to answer. I wrote back and forth with a few famous Kiruv rabbis, and I went to meet a few others. I got to see firsthand how so many of their arguments were forced, arguments from ignorance, only quoting experts who agreed with them when they agreed and ignoring them when they don’t.
For example, a rabbi sent me to read Michael Behe, a so-called Intelligent Design proponent. I was shocked to learn that even he believed in evolution and an ancient universe. That there really weren’t any serious scientists who doubted evolution.
I had a conversation with a friend about homeopathy and alternative medicine, and I mentioned that they have no scientific verification. He became excited, how could a frum person raised on the value of simple faith demand scientific verification to believe something? As if it’s better to be a fool and believe even in what might be wrong than to be a skeptic and to deny what they believe to be right and true.
Over the next two years I would spend a lot of time in Barnes & Noble and the library reading all sorts of books on science and religion. Little by little, things started clicking, if it was the lack of archeological evidence for any of the stories in Nach, or even opposite archaeological evidence; that the Gemara when read objectively seem to be nothing more than personal opinions which aren’t very well substantiated, and not a record of an age-old tradition; that many opinions of contemporary rabbis just don’t make sense objectively; that Documentary Hypothesis just makes sense.
I could go on and on about each example. Each time I discovered something new and something else ‘clicked’, I would try speaking to a rabbi about it or looking at kiruv books, and I just never found that the rabbis had really done their homework. Pretty soon they would spiral down to personal attacks, such as accusations that I had a rough childhood or that I never really enjoyed Torah, which even if true was totally irrelevant.
I would follow discussions on blogs and the arguments that people would offer to back up Emunah. It soon became pretty obvious that those arguing against faith had much more logical, mature and thought out arguments, and those sticking up for Torah were just plain full of logical fallacies, ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, and so on.
I tried reading older seforim, like R’ Saadia Gaon and the Ramban, and I saw that they were even worse. In Emunos V’Deos it’s clear that R’ Saadia Gaon obviously had no clue how about elementary astronomy, for example. The Ramban is Shaar Hagemul proves that Gehinom is a real place in this world since we see its fire turn the sky red by sunset. I even discovered that many of their arguments, such as the so-called Kuzari proof, were really stolen from the Kalaam Muslims (4), and sometimes entire passages in the Rambam and R’ Saadia were word-for-word quotes from Islamic philosophers (5).
During that time, I also started realizing how the Charedi world isn’t really the heaven on earth that I had thought it was.
My family is well-connected with many askanim, and I was privy to much first-hand information about all sorts of stories which went on behind the scenes by ‘Gedolim’, such as what happened by the ‘Making of a Gadol’ cherem, the ‘Kosher cellphones’, as well as some psakim which officially were issued by Rav Elyashiv.
But until I started doubting, I took the same attitude that my family did. They were able to make some sort of disconnect in their minds, to be able to say that all Batei Dinim are corrupt but still think it admirable to spend your life learning Choshen Mishpat, to be able to say that anyone can convince any Rav of anything but still encourage your children to aspire to be one.
I guess when you never consider the option that it’s all just a farce you just make yourself accept whatever you see, even if I had already lost my trust that whatever a rabbi says is necessarily true, and even if I was already noticing much more than my friends did, most of them who were just so naive that they can’t even fathom the possibility that Rabbis are any less than super angels.
But once I lost my faith, I also lost any motivation to try answering anything up.
It was also around that time that I started finding out about sexual abuse in the frum world. I had a neighbor whose husband was accused of molesting children in the playgroup she ran in her basement. Another neighbor was caught looking into people’s bedroom windows. My wife’s customers and friends would tell her all sorts of things that they and their husbands were doing, and I started hearing about all sorts of hair raising stories about adultery and worse within the yeshiva community where I lived.
All that helped me to understand that Torah doesn’t make someone a better person or a purer person, and whatever happens on the outside happens by us too. The only difference is that we were doing a way better job of covering everything up.
Online, I also got to know formerly religious people of other religions, such as ex-Mormons and ex-Evangelicals. I was struck to the similarity of their experiences to mine. I saw how despite what we were led to believe in the frum world, many of the claims of their religions weren’t too much different than what we were taught to be exclusive and novel to the Torah, and the justifications weren’t too much worse.
Were you able to discuss your heresy with anyone?
Most of my friends, and my wife, looked up to me as a choshuve yungerman, although many of them had warned me that my curiosity was dangerous. I didn’t feel comfortable showing them any weakness in faith, or vindicating their warnings about my curiosity.
I did have a few friends who I nonchalantly asked what they thought about say, evolution. Their responses just pushed me further. I had one friend who answered me that he thought that it would take too long to investigate it properly so he relies on Kiruv Rabbis whom he assumes did their homework. He did end up buying the book, Why Evolution is True, saving me the purchase. When he finished he told me that if the facts presented in the book are true, then evolution probably is, but he doesn’t have the time to check up all the claims.
I have a friend who was a ger tzedek. He’s highly intelligent, and I had always assumed that if he left a wife and kids and a high paying job to start over as a kollel yungerman, he must have a good reason for it. But when I did approach him, again, nonchalantly, to ask him why he accepted the Torah to be true, his answer was that he liked this certain Rosh Yeshivah and he trusted him.
I have one friend, also otherwise very intelligent, who as a teen claimed to have been not been a believer for a year until his emunah questions were sorted out. He’s the only friend from my emunah days who I’ve told outright about my heresy. But with him, too, when I confronted him to present me with what did convince him to believe, he shocked me with a convoluted version of the Kuzari principle, that there are millions of witnesses to Sinai. When I pointed out the fallacies of this claim, he accused me of limiting my options by not accepting any sort of logic possible.
This went on for two years, in which I was slowly becoming more and more convinced of the Torah not being true, but not knowing anyone else personally, outside of the blogosphere, who also felt like that.
Near the end of this time I moved to Israel. There were several reasons why I made the move, but one of the reasons I agreed to the move was to try to run away from a place where I was looked up to as a choshuve yungerman while on the inside I wasn’t sure if I believe. In my first few months here I tried giving emunah one last try, but that didn’t last too long.
So you never told your family about it yet?
For the first two years I didn’t say a word to my wife. I was too scared to cause a fight. She had already told me many times that she didn’t like the idea of changing, such as what I did in going from Litvish to Chassidish. I didn’t want to impose on her any more changes.
After two years, she once asked me why I had gone to meet a certain Kiruv Rabbi. I told her that I was curious why people stopped believing that the Torah was true, but I didn’t tell her that I also had stopped. A few months later I told her that I now knew why, and that I didn’t have answers to their questions, and that that bothered me.
Surprisingly, initially, she took it very well. I assumed that she didn’t take it very seriously. She had never considered the possibility that someone would really change their mind, and thought that I was just going through some sort of intellectual investigation with no practical ramifications.
But over time, I guess as it started sinking in for her, she did get very upset. Every so often it would hit her again and she would get into a bad mood, but she would usually recover pretty soon. For example, when she found out that I had stopped davening and putting on Tefillin, she told me that she doesn’t know what meaning she could have in her life. But after a week she was back to normal.
In the beginning, whenever it started getting to her, she would call a Rabbi who respected me very much and would start telling him this and that, but he would never listen to her and would tell her that she has to trust me. I assume he also couldn’t fathom that I would really be a heretic. Whatever it may be, after a while she just started being accepting.
She’s still a very strong believer, but part of that belief is that she has to be accepting of me. So although she knows what I think, we just don’t discuss it for the most part.
(4) See the book גדולי הרוח והיצירה בעם היהודי: רב סעדיה גאון
Could you tell us something about your religious background?
My family was officially very Litvish/Yeshivish. My grandfather studied at the great Litvishe yeshivos before the Holocaust, and I have an uncle who is a Rosh Yeshiva. As a kid, I learned at one of the most yeshivish elementary schools in Brooklyn.
Having said that, my parents were still very open minded, both towards the right and the left.
Towards the right, my mother came from a Hungarian family, and so, even though they weren’t in any way chassidish, they still respected Rebbes and chassidim as something legitimate. For us this meant that unlike my friends at school, we would sometimes pop into Bobov or Karlin for a tish, or even to 770 for dollars or their Lag B’Omer parades.
On the left, my parents very much encouraged us to read as much as possible. They would take us to public libraries and enroll us in reading contests. They would buy us any book we wanted. They themselves weren’t such readers, and they also had a naivete in that they never really censored anything we read, and we literally got our hands on everything.
So from my extended family and my school I got a very Litvish view on the world and Yiddishkeit, while respecting chassidim, and at the same time getting a pretty good idea of what was going on in the ‘outside world.’ By the time I reached my Bar Mitzvah, I already knew something about evolution, Biblical Criticism, Christianity, as well as Western pop culture, and had also read quite a few kiruv books.
Did your knowledge of the outside world make you question things?
All this exposure didn’t make me question anything. If anything, it somewhat inoculated me, since “I know about that already,” even though that knowledge was really an embarrassment. I never doubted that the truth was anything than what I was taught at cheder. Every time I read anything which contradicted what I was taught I just assumed that there was an answer out there.
When did you first start doubting?
Although it might not seem that way at first glance, I believe that my first ‘skeptical’ thought happened when I was thirteen. I remember being at a Bobover tish and watching the thousands of men dancing. I was already old enough to know that as a Litvak, I was supposed to be looking at these people as wasting their time singing and dancing when they should have been in the Beis Medrash learning, and that thought crossed my mind. But then I thought to myself, how could Hashem let so many tens of thousands of people who are trying to serve Him make such an awful mistake? Aren’t they trying to serve Him to the best of their knowledge? They’re not Reform or even Modern Orthodox who (in my mind then) are just looking for an easy way out. But at school I was being taught just that.
This question lingered with me and bothered me enough that I felt that it caused me to lose a little of the trust I was supposed to have in my Litvishe rabbis in cheder. I couldn’t accept that they had a monopoly on what was the right way to be charedi. This made me feel that I had the right to choose for myself if I should be Litvish or not.
I would ask my rebbeim in yeshiva to explain to me why they thought the way they did, and then go to chassidishe Rabbis to hear what they had to answer, and go back and forth.
Looking back, I realized that this was the first crack in my emunah.
Often, my rabbeim in the Litvishe yeshivas where I learned would tell me that by questioning them, or by choosing a different path than them, I’m questioning not only they themselves but the entire mesorah that came before them. At the time, I understood their argument as little more than a rhetorical device meant to keep me in place, and I’m not sure that they themselves meant it as any more than that.
However, today I realize the depth and truth of what they were saying. Charedi Judaism at its core is nothing more than trusting that your rabbis are passing on the unbroken tradition from Sinai. If you question your own rabbis as representing the authentic tradition, you’re on the path to questioning all rabbis.
But as a teen, this possibility didn’t cross my mind at all.
But you were still frum by then?
Yes, I was still frum. In a sense, I was even frummer than before. I started hanging out with chassidishe bachurim, and learned chassidishe seforim, and by the time I was fifteen I identified as chassidish.
I took on chumros that my father didn’t have, like wearing a gartel and not shaving, and I got involved in ‘avodas Hashem’ in chassidishe ways that were unheard of where I had grown up, such as davening b’hislahavus, slowly, loudly, singing zemiros with an earnestness, and making a conscious effort to control my taavos beyond the letter of the law.
I enjoyed it all and was happy with it all. I remember enjoying davening so much, that I sometimes wished I could daven Shachris again, just so I could feel that ecstasy more than once a day. I loved learning Gemara, B’Iyun and B’kiyus, and altogether I loved everything about being frum.
I consider this stage an important part of my path towards kefirah because it debunks many of the claims I hear from frum people. Often you hear something like, “if he wouldn’t have been Skver/ Satmar, if he would have been exposed to Modern Orthodox / Litivish / Chabad, if he would have learned hashkafa / mussar / chassidus”, then he wouldn’t have lost his faith.
Well, I grew up Litvish. I learned Mussar, Hashkafa, and Chassidus. I hung out with friends from Skver, Emunas Yisroel, Breslov and Satmar and learned Chabad. And I still ended up where I ended up.
Something else that I learned throughout those years is that each Charedi group is utterly convinced that they are the ones continuing the Mesorah while everyone else changed, and they are often totally unaware that the other groups don’t agree with them on that point. It’s like saying that many Orthodox Jews are convinced that the Pope knows we’re right – I’ve found that many Litvaks are convinced that all the Rebbes know that they are right, and vice versa.
I had Litvish friends who thought that the Litvish Derech of learning b’iyun and Mussar is in our mesorah from Har Sinai, and chassidim who didn’t learn our derech had changed. Until I discovered that the Derech Halimud of our yeshivos was invented barely a hundred years ago by the talmidim of Reb Chaim Brisker, and the Mussar movement was around only since the 1860s, and was probably based on Ben Franklin’s ideas and wasn’t even accepted by everyone in the Litvishe world.
I also had many chassidish friends who were convinced that until recently, all Jews had long payes, shtreimels and bekitches, and only the Litvaks changed. The problem was that my grandfather and his friends grew up in Lithuania and I had eyewitnesses as to how Jews looked there.
Inside each group I also saw how it was becoming impossible to discern what was the real mesorah. I saw how Rabbonim, even within the same yeshiva or same Chassidus would talk about each other and how the other one didn’t have the real mesorah.
But throughout all this I never considered the possibility that maybe the whole thing wasn’t true. One of the reasons why is that I had never met anyone who I could take seriously who didn’t believe.
I was close friends with a lot of boys who ‘went off’. This was the mid-90s, before the frum world even recognized out loud that kids were leaving the system, before the term ‘at-risk’ was even adopted for OTD, but I had friends who were part of the crowds at Friends’ Field or Netanya Pizza for anyone from Brooklyn who remembers that.
We’ve all heard the stereotype that Charedim like to push, that no one would go OTD unless he had psychological issues. Growing up, I always felt that every one of the kids I knew personally only served to reinforce that. They really seemed to me to be only doing it for taavos. They all either came from a broken home, were learning disabled, or had something odd about them. I couldn’t say that any of them gave me any impression of having anything serious or intellectual about them.
Today, I’ve learned that “at-risk teens” is a concept that has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit. Every society and culture has its share of teens who don’t conform to what their society expects of them, often from broken and abusive homes. It’s the frum community which has taken advantage of that phenomenon to give leaving Yiddishkeit a negative connotation.
I would also add that taking Chassidus and Kabbalah seriously also kept me back from questioning, because of their metaphysical explanations of the world. Chabad and Breslov especially offer a theology which basically beg for heretical questions to exist. The result is that when confronted with questions, instead of feeling threatened by them, a chassid is instead emboldened to believe stronger. Not because he is fighting the threatening question – but because that question itself verifies his faith. I know this sounds paradoxical, but for someone living it…
Once, a talmid of Motta Frank (a mashpia in Breslov who mainly teaches American modern-Chassidim) tried telling me that if I would come to Motta he would be able to set me straight in believing in God. I answered him by shooting off all the Torahs in Likutei Moharan which I predicted Motta would use to try to convincing me. When the guy heard this, he backed off.
So you didn’t have any doubts during this time?
The truth was that throughout this time I always had questions, but I ignored them. For example, anyone who learns let’s say, Meseches Brochos, realizes that the Amoraim did not daven the three tefillos which we have today (1). From a Gemara in Bava Metzia it sounds like normal people didn’t make havdala at home (2). There’s quite a few places which show that almost no one wore Tefillin until the late Middle Ages (3).
Or that I realized that the language of the Zohar just seemed too wordy and elaborate as compared to Midrash and Gemara, when it was supposedly written at the same time. Or that there is a history of Egypt and China going back more than five thousand years.
But I always told myself that there are answers, or I came up with my own answers. At the time, I had an impression of scientists and researchers as something like a bunch of bachurim in a yeshiva coffee room, sitting around smoking and each one offering his ideas. “I think that we came from monkeys!” “That sounds great, maybe Chinese history should go back six thousand years!”
.מסכת ברכות (ד’ ע”ב): דאמר רבי יוחנן: איזהו בן העולם הבא, זה הסומך גאולה לתפלה של ערבית
Rabbi Johanan says: Who inherits the world to come? The one who follows the Ge’ullah immediately with the evening Tefillah. Apparently not everyone said the Shemonah Esrei after Shema in the evening! Which is difficult to understand if you believe that the siddur was fixed already by that time.
שבת י”א ע”א): חברים שהיו עוסקין בתורה מפסיקין לק”ש ואין מפסיקין לתפלה)
If companions [scholars] are engaged in studying, they must break off for the reading of the shema’, but not for prayer.
בבא מציעא מב ע”א: ואי צורבא מרבנן הוא סבר דלמא מיבעי ליה זוזי לאבדלתא
But if he [the depositor] was a scholar, he [the bailee] might have thought, He may require the money for havdalah.
ספר חסידים י’, תשובות הגאונים האם להתפלל עם תפילין – בכלל! – “מיחזי כיוהרא”, אורחות חיים להרא”ש שמזהיר ללבוש תפילין?כל יום – ופסקי הרא”ש כזה – למי הם דיברו?
Shimra is 36 years old and lives with her husband Aaron and 3 children in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graphic artist and nowadays defines herself as an Agnostic Deist. She is somewhat of a celebrity in the Off The Derech Facebook group.
Hi Shimra, welcome to this interview. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your religious background?
I was raised by a single mom. She was a Baal Teshuva by way of Lubavitch, although we were never actually Lubavitch. She sent me to the local Bais Yaacov, which I attended until the end of high school. I grew up pretty confused considering my mother wasn’t all the way frum yet. She wore pants and didn’t cover her hair. I also didn’t have a ‘Tatty’ around. My classmates all had moms who wore sheitels and tichels, and were married to Tatties. We didn’t live in the frum neighborhood because my mother couldn’t afford it. All my classmates were neighbors with each other, so I felt like an outcast. My mother was really doing her best to follow her beliefs and to raise me frum. But I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t have a lot of friends.
As I grew older, I had a small circle of friends – mostly other oddballs and smart kids. School was something I excelled in, and I easily got good grades, except in math. I loved to draw and was known for my artistic talent. I was usually enlisted to help with school election posters and such. While in Bais Yaacov, my mind was conflicted between two mindsets. There was the track that God was going to get me because I wasn’t frum enough and the other was that I could be spiritual without all the extraneous baloney. In the end, the latter track won out…but it took years. Read more
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.