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?