I was born into a Jewish family which was very involved with Jewish and synagogue life, long before we all became Orthodox. Our family belonged to a synagogue affiliated with the centrist Conservative movement of Judaism (religiously in between the more liberal Reform and more strict Orthodox movements) in Rockville, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford. I attended that synagogue through Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and participation in the Conservative movement’s USY youth group in high school. I also became familiar with Reform Judaism after my family moved to the neighboring town of South Windsor with its Reform synagogue, and I occasionally attended events with the Reform movement’s NiFTY youth group.
At the time, the Conservative movement was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States. Since that time, Reform and Orthodox Judaism have grown in their share of congregants; Reform is now the largest denomination. The Conservative movement was an attempt to meld the traditional/Orthodox belief that Jewish law is binding and obligatory on all Jews (rejected by Reform Jews, who believe Jews are free to choose their ritual practices) with an openness to the seemingly heretical findings of scholars about human authorship of the Bible (rejected by Orthodox Jews). In reality, Conservative rabbis, including our own, tended to be strict in their observance of Jewish law like Orthodox Jews, while Conservative congregants, including my family, tended to pick and choose their practices like Reform Jews (though on average Conservative Jews were a bit more traditional than Reform Jews).
While my parents, like most people who attended suburban American Conservative synagogues, did not observe Jewish law as understood by Conservative or Orthodox rabbis (for example, they ate food which was not kosher, and did not follow the laws restricting various activities on the Sabbath), their level of involvement in Jewish and synagogue functions was unusually high. They were vocal supporters of Israel, and they were part of a small group of local Conservative families which got together for traditional Sabbath meals. Also, they were very concerned about Jewish assimilation and the prospects for “Jewish continuity” (the survival of Judaism in light of assimilation and intermarriage). Throughout my childhood, before my family’s journey towards Orthodoxy began, my parents repeatedly expressed their disapproval of “interdating” and “intermarriage” with non-Jews. They even argued that Jews who intermarried were “finishing Hitler’s job” of destroying the Jewish people, because many of their children were not Jewish.
The first person in my family to become Orthodox was my older brother, who became interested in Orthodox Judaism around the age of 11. My brother was inspired by the writings of extremist/militant Rabbi Meir Kahane (though my brother later became an Orthodox rabbi who opposed many of Kahane’s teachings). After some initial resistance, a couple years later, my parents started becoming interested in Orthodox Judaism themselves through my brother and the Orthodox Rabbis and communities he was in contact with. My parents’ move towards Orthodoxy was partially a reaction against assimilation (most of my cousins intermarried), partially because they liked what they saw, and, I now realize, partially because they had a lot of personal problems and it was an escape.
Looking back, even with all of the complicated and conflicted feelings I now have about both my family and Orthodox Judaism, I have to give my family, and particularly my brother, credit for their commitment and perseverance in becoming Orthodox Jews while living in a town where there were no other Orthodox Jews. I remember my brother bravely deciding to wear a yarmulke to the Orchard Hill public school in South Windsor, Connecticut in 6th grade. Soon thereafter, my brother became fully observant of Orthodox Jewish law and started attending Orthodox schools. My brother wished to attend services at an Orthodox synagogue when he was home for the Sabbath, as Reform and even Conservative synagogues had “mixed” male and female seating, and women who led the services, which he saw as improper (in contrast to Orthodox synagogues where men and women sat separately and only men could lead the service). Because my brother could not use or benefit from electricity or the burning of gasoline according to Orthodox Sabbath restrictions, instead of traveling in a car, he walked approximately six miles to and from the nearest Orthodox synagogue, which was in a neighboring town (Ellington, CT; its tiny synagogue was set up by early 20th century Jewish farmers and lacked Orthodox congregants). However, walking such a distance was in violation of the Talmudic restriction of traveling more than approximately one kilometer beyond the limits of one’s home city on the Sabbath. Therefore, before the Sabbath, my brother placed food on the ground in the neighboring town. Per the legal fictions of the Talmud, the food established his “home” as extending into the neighboring town, thereby allowing him to walk an extended distance and into that town on the Sabbath.
After I graduated from high school, my parents moved away from such difficulties and to West Hartford, a town which had a sizeable Orthodox community and multiple Orthodox synagogues in walking distance of each other. The community there was welcoming to my family despite our non-Orthodox backgrounds; I recall the many invitations extended to my family for Sabbath meals. Most of that community considered itself “Modern Orthodox”, meaning that they believed in combining the better parts of modern culture and a secular education with Orthodox belief and practice, and that is how my family chose to identify as well.
Still, I resisted my family’s move towards Orthodoxy at first; I didn’t get the attraction of it, and its myriad rules and loopholes seemed somewhat odd. My interest was finally piqued when I read and reread conservative talk show host Dennis Prager’s and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s grossly misleading book, “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism”. I came to believe, mainly from that book at first, that Judaism was eminently universalistic, rational, and ethical. That view, combined with my positive impression of the Modern Orthodox community, left me slowly drifting towards Orthodoxy.
I began college at the University of Connecticut, where I became more concerned about Jewish assimilation myself; I noticed that most of my Jewish friends were interdating, and even that most of my “brothers” in my Jewish fraternity (AEPi) had non-Jewish girlfriends. I also began reading books by Modern Orthodox Rabbis (such as Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s To Be a Jew and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz’s Not in Heaven), and I came to believe in the concept of “Torah m’Sinai”. That central belief of Orthodox Judaism, which differentiates it from the other denominations, states that the text of the Torah was conveyed to Moses and the Hebrews while they were wandering in the Sinai desert. Such a belief is in opposition to the consensus opinion of Biblical scholars that the bulk of the text was written at a later time by multiple authors, and compiled and redacted over an extended period.
I thought my decisions to adopt Orthodox beliefs and (gradually) to observe Jewish law were rational choices which were supported by the evidence. The evidence to me was mainly the “impossibility” of Jewish history without divine providence, as illustrated by the Jewish people’s disproportionate impact on the world and its survival against the odds through centuries of discrimination, persecution, violence, and genocide. I also thought the “proofs” advanced by Orthodox propagandists, such as the “Kuzari hypothesis” contending that the Hebrews could not possibly just make up a story of mass revelation in the desert, were intriguing, even if not absolute “proofs”.
For a time, I was the only Sabbath-observant undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut, which was difficult and lonely. As I became stricter in my observance, I could only eat kosher certified cereals, salads, and frozen kosher dinners in the school cafeteria. Because I did not use electricity on the Sabbath, I had to climb ten flights of stairs to get to my dormitory room. Because I could not “carry” on the Sabbath, which was interpreted as prohibiting the transportation of items placed in a pocket, I had to hide my dormitory room key in creative places when I went out to services on the Sabbath. In light of these difficulties, I transferred into New York University, which had a significant undergraduate population of Modern Orthodox Jews in a city filled with Orthodox Jews of all types. NYU also had a fully kosher student cafeteria, and dormitory doormen who knew how to arrange for the Sabbath needs of Orthodox students.
I made the many sacrifices Orthodoxy requires despite the fact that, as soon as I started becoming Orthodox – in fact, even before that – I saw what should have been warning signs. There was a series of apparently anti-semitic arsons in Connecticut; a Jewish politician’s home and synagogues were set on fire. The arsons left the Jewish community on edge and led to Jewish neighborhood lookout patrols and even an invitation to Rabbi Kahane to speak about Jewish self-defense. However, when the arsonist was finally caught, he turned out to be my brother’s roommate in yeshiva. (A rabbi at that yeshiva was later exposed to be a child molester. I have wondered whether that rabbi’s wrongdoing somehow played a role in the arsons).
At the University of Connecticut, I learned that the Hasidic Chabad organization on campus, in order to register as a student organization, had fraudulently claimed that various students the Chabad Rabbi knew, including myself, were its “officers”, without our knowledge. When I and others complained to the University, after we learned not only of that breach of trust but also that the Chabad Rabbi asked Rabbi Kahane to speak on campus under our names, the Chabad Rabbi attacked me, even calling me a “moser” (meaning an informant to the gentiles, who, under Jewish law, can be put to death; I did not know what the word meant at that time). Jumping ahead a couple of years, after I transferred to NYU, a fellow student, who had been my first Orthodox friend at NYU, was deeply disturbed following Rabbi Kahane’s 1990 assassination in Manhattan. As a result, he invited another extremist to speak on campus, a mentally unstable individual who ran a fledgling militant Jewish organization. After I wrote an editorial in the school paper denouncing Jewish extremism and took other actions which upset the extremist, my friend conveyed to me an alleged death threat from the extremist.
In addition to these unusual and unfortunate experiences, I was also quite disappointed with my fellow non-extreme Modern Orthodox Jews, albeit perhaps due to unrealistic expectations I had. Because I believed that Judaism properly interpreted was eminently universalistic, I was surprised to learn that there was as much casual racism in the Modern Orthodox community as in general society. Despite the mass of traditional/Orthodox Jewish literature forbidding gossip and demanding the highest of ethical standards in interpersonal relationships, I did not find Modern Orthodox Jews to be particularly exceptional (or unexceptional) in their proclivities to gossip and the way they treated others. One of my deepest disappointments came when Connecticut’s most prominent Modern Orthodox Jew, state Attorney General Joseph Lieberman, ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat held by a well-liked moderate Republican, Lowell Weicker (later, a governor of the state). I was deeply conflicted at first, as I liked both candidates. To my shock, late in the campaign Lieberman attacked Weicker with television ads depicting Weicker as a hibernating bear sleeping through Senate votes. The ad was both personally insulting (Weicker was overweight) and dishonest (Weicker’s voting attendance record was unexceptional). The advertisement likely led to Lieberman’s narrow victory. I remember my fellow Modern Orthodox Jews debating questions such as whether Lieberman could vote in the Senate on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, and even whether he would be able to observe the Sabbath and eat only strictly kosher food if he were ever elected president. I did not understand why nobody was asking whether it was a violation of Jewish law for an Orthodox Jew to run nasty, misleading political advertisements.
I stuck with Modern Orthodox Judaism despite my unfortunate experiences with extremists and my disappointments with the community, because I believed Orthodox Judaism’s claims were true. I also believed that Kahanists and other militant Orthodox Jews, and those ultra-Orthodox who were extreme in their religious practice, had misinterpreted Judaism.
But also through the years, I slowly became more and more aware of the moral backwardness of much of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and other traditional Jewish texts. At first, that only left me more dedicated to Modern Orthodoxy, as I believed it alone understood the true ethical, universalistic core of Judaism. Subconsciously, however, I was beginning to realize that the more I learned about the tradition, the more problematic the tradition became.
My harshest experience came between college and law school, when I spent a year studying at the Shapell’s/Darche Noam Yeshiva in Jerusalem. That yeshiva advertised itself as a place where people without an intensive Jewish background could learn how to seriously study Jewish texts, and not a school, like many yeshivas, which pushed a particular Orthodox ideology.
To their credit, that was true; most of the students were Modern Orthodox Baalei Teshuva (“returnees” to the faith) like myself, while most of the teachers were black-hatted “Yeshivish”/ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, and that dichotomy caused little tension in classrooms devoted to the serious study and understanding of the grammar, structure, and logic of the Talmud and other texts.
However, I could not just let the disturbing ethical implications of the things I was learning pass by without further questioning and analysis. I probed as deeply as I could to understand how traditional Judaism viewed non-Jews, women, and non-religious Jews by asking questions. The answers were often disturbing, and I learned that Judaism’s most central texts were often the source of the most serious problems. At one point I privately broke down in tears, because I realized I had lost something permanently…. the idealized Jewish religion of books and my imagination, which I had placed at the core of my identity.
The rabbis at the yeshiva, and even the students, thought I went a bit overboard in my concern with issues regarding traditional Judaism and human equality. Perhaps I did. At one point, I even asked a former Chief Rabbi of Israel a question pertaining to violating the Sabbath to save the life of someone who isn’t Jewish. I asked if that was done out of respect for all human life, or simply to prevent anti-semitism, as the sources related to that question were, I discovered to my horror, unclear. He provided me with sources for both answers, and then asked me if I was studying to become a doctor (who might have to confront that question in relation to his work), I believe because he did not understand why I found the question so distressing.
I left the yeshiva around the time of the Purim holiday to return to the U.S.A. for my brother’s wedding, and I was told that the Purim shpiel (humorous play, a Purim tradition) the Yeshiva arranged was partially about me and questions I asked the rabbis. In the shpiel, someone playing the character of, well, me was walking down the street on the Sabbath, and saw a person wearing a T-Shirt that said “akum” (a word which means idol worshipper) get struck by lightning. The character playing me did not know what to do; could he violate the Sabbath to save the idol worshipper’s life? My character mulled it over; one rabbi says such-and-such, but another rabbi says something else. By the time my conflicted character was done thinking about it, the “akum” had died from his wounds. (In defense of the yeshiva, they knew I was self-deprecating with a somewhat warped sense of humor.)
But I still returned to the U.S.A. dedicated to Modern Orthodox Judaism as the antidote to all bad traditional Jewish beliefs, not to mention the excesses of modern secular/liberal culture. I moved to the upper west side of Manhattan, with its large population of Modern Orthodox singles, while I was in law school at NYU and for a short time thereafter. Later, while working as an official with the Anti-Defamation League, I lived in New Jersey and I was part of a very warm Modern Orthodox community in Highland Park, NJ. I had an overall positive social experience with every Modern Orthodox community I was part of. I had good friends (some of whom I’m still friendly with), most of the women I dated were nice, and there was always a more liberal (religiously and politically) contingent of people within those communities I could seek out, even if they were in the minority as mainstream Modern Orthodoxy was becoming increasingly Republican and traditional.
My move away from Orthodoxy – and Judaism – did not begin until I was around thirty years old when I moved to Midwood, Brooklyn, with its large ultra-Orthodox community. I stayed Modern Orthodox for the first few years, and was part of a small but friendly Modern Orthodox community there, the Yavneh Minyan. However, seeing how extreme many knowledgeable Orthodox Jews in the area were, I started questioning the foundations of my belief that, even with its flaws, Judaism correctly interpreted looked like the most progressive elements of Modern Orthodoxy. I began to consider the possibility that a plain reading of the texts, in line with mainstream traditional Jewish thought, could lead to tribalism, sexism, homophobia, and a resistance to change and antipathy towards competing knowledge. Maybe, even if there was enough room in the tradition to interpret the texts in a more liberal way, the ugliness was too deeply entwined into the tradition to ever fully root it out.
Then I started questioning whether it was all true… I did not realize at the time that there was a growing online community of Orthodox and ex-Orthodox skeptics debating Orthodoxy’s claims and “proofs”, which was largely centered around the blog of my own former Modern Orthodox roommate. My ex-roommate’s blog and web pages exposing wrongdoing in the Orthodox community impacted thousands of Jews who left Orthodoxy, which was becoming known as “going OTD” (“Off the Derekh”, meaning off the one true path; a term intended as an insult by the Orthodox, but proudly adopted by those striking out on their own path). Even though I was unaware of those developments at first, materials I saw on the Internet and other research materials did play a huge role in my OTD journey. The most impactful thing for me was the realization that the central story of the Torah, the story of the slavery of millions of Hebrews in Egypt, their miraculous escape and decades of wandering in the desert, and their rapid, violent conquest of Canaan – would have left a huge archaeological impact if historically true, while in fact there is no archaeological record of it at all. While some Modern Orthodox Jews read portions of Genesis “allegorically”, such as the days of creation (thereby allowing for a billions of years “old” universe), they still by and large insist on the general historical truth of Biblical stories of their putative ancestors, including Moses and his contemporaries.
This rift between scientific evidence and the beliefs I adopted left me angry … at Dennis Prager and those supposedly “Torah u’Maddah” (Torah and worldly studies) loving Modern Orthodox rabbis, who didn’t even think this was an important enough issue to address in their books drawing people towards tradition and Orthodoxy. I was also a bit upset about the lack of attention paid to the findings of archaeology and Biblical scholarship in my public school education and American society at large. I now believe the vast conflicts between the extensive archaeological record of the ancient Near East and the claims of Biblical “history” are so straightforward and important that they should be taught in every public school in America… in fact, they should be taught to every child on Earth who is being raised in an Abrahamic faith so they can make an important life choice armed with a vastly important piece of knowledge. Still, to this day, to some extent I’m also mad at myself, because even without access to the extensive materials which are now easily available on the Internet, the scholarship about archaeological findings and biblical authorship was in the library. Like many other people, I should have researched further and asked more questions before deciding to become Orthodox.
My family did not take my decision to leave Orthodoxy well. At one point my mother started asking me questions about the decision, and when I told her that there were many things in Jewish tradition I found deeply immoral, she asked “like what?” In response, I gave the example of the Jewish law requiring that a man of priestly descent (a Kohain) divorce his wife if she is raped, and a look of shock came over my mother’s face. She had no idea that law existed. In fact, many “returnees” to the faith, and, I came to learn, even many “frum [religious] from birth” Modern Orthodox Jews, have no knowledge of much of the worst ugliness in traditional Jewish texts and law. After my discussion with my mother, she mentioned what I had told her to an Orthodox rabbi, who responded that perhaps I “know too much”. I now believe that nobody should ever become Orthodox without first knowing that God and Moses command (and follow through with) the murder of babies in the Torah, the many disturbing laws about people of priestly descent which are still applicable today, and that there is a mountain of Jewish source material which is particularistic and anti-gentilic, and which far outweighs the universalistic sources in tradition.
I went OTD quietly at first, and somewhat depressed about it (I was living in a highly Orthodox neighborhood, most of my friends were Orthodox) in the early 2000’s. When I became aware of the OTD and Footsteps communities I became very involved with them. I could probably relate to the large percentage of ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews who are in those groups more than some ex-Modern Orthodox Jews because, like many of the ex-ultra-Orthodox, I was completely estranged from my family at that point (religion played a large role, but there was more… I slowly came to grips with the facts that I was a survivor of child abuse, and that my family’s deep problems played a role in their lifelong obsession with religion and turn to Orthodoxy).
I wanted to give something back to the OTD community, so I started a Facebook group which has connected hundreds of ex-Fundamentalists around the world, as well as a meetup group in NYC which brought OTD Jews together with people in the area who left other fundamentalist faiths (discussed here). It was overall a great experience, but people in the OTD community were struggling with more problems than I expected. The first person from the OTD group to help me with the group I started was Faigy Mayer, an ex-Hasidic woman who tragically committed suicide by jumping off a Manhattan rooftop.
While I sometimes feel I can’t completely relate to the struggles of people who come from more culturally extreme fundamentalist backgrounds than my own, I have developed a great deal of respect for the ex-ultra-Orthodox community. I have seen very young people somehow overcome tremendous challenges, including excommunication and secular educational deficits from the yeshivas they attended, and accomplish amazing things. I also deeply respect people I’ve met from the ex-Muslim community (the bravest people you will ever meet), ex-Jehovah’s witnesses (shunned every bit as much as ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews), and ex-Mormons (similar to the ex-Modern Orthodox in terms of prior exposure to the outside world, but from a more centrally organized, cultish faith, albeit a less demanding one).
Unlike most ex-religious people, I identify as agnostic and not atheist because I think that the evidence against religion is far more obvious and powerful than the evidence against any type of “God”, “higher power”, or “higher intelligence” (though atheist friends have insisted that I am technically an “agnostic atheist” because I do not have an affirmative belief in God). Unlike some OTD’ers, who call themselves ex-Jews (which I accept), I don’t mind calling myself “culturally Jewish” based upon my background.
While I have maintained some friendships with Modern Orthodox Jews and religious Christians, in the past couple of years, I have felt increasingly disconnected from both my former community and American fundamentalists generally as a result of the horrific embrace of President Donald Trump by so many fundamentalists, including their failure to oppose his grossly dishonest and corrupt administration and his immoral and anti-democratic policies. I was surprised to learn that conservative talk show host and moralist Dennis Prager, who played such a significant role in my embrace of Orthodoxy (even though Prager himself does not identify as Orthodox), has become one of President Trump’s most vocal and disingenuous supporters. Prager even joined Trump in supporting the Senatorial candidacy of Roy Moore, who was credibly accused of serially harassing and assaulting teenage girls. This person convinced me to turn to religion as an ethical imperative??! But in a way, I realize I should not be surprised. When people of various fundamentalist faiths and outlooks embrace a book calling for the murder of children and gays, and slavery and the selling of daughters (while saying absolutely nothing about the physical and sexual abuse of children), and to varying degrees reject the findings of science, you will inevitably end up with people who embrace patriarchy and a politics of willful ignorance. As for those brave fundamentalists who have bucked their communities and stood against Trumpism (including some Modern Orthodox Jews I know), they have my deepest respect as I know how difficult their position is.
Lately, my involvement with the OTD community has somewhat slowed down; I’m just a bit burnt out of it. As for the group I started, I was hoping someone else would take the reigns and organize social events like I used to, but that hasn’t happened yet. To keep it going, we set up a monthly social/support group meeting, which I am still helping to organize.
I’m now at a point where I want my OTD’ness to be a facet of my life, but not as central a facet as it has been for the past few years.
While some aspects of my story are unusual, I think other aspects, such as being mislead by religious propaganda materials, not sufficiently researching evidence regarding the historicity and authorship of the Bible, and not realizing the full depths of the moral difficulties with religion, are common problems. I hope that my story will raise awareness and understanding of those who leave Orthodox Judaism, as well as those who leave fundamentalist religions generally. Our numbers will surely increase with progress and the passage of time.
Thanks for sharing your story Todd. It seems like it has been quite a personal journey for you. You show much bravery and willingness to be open . I was very moved.
Thank you for your kind words!
I am deeply moved by your story, especially the moments you describe where you broke down in tears when you realized that what you thought you had in Judaism didn’t truly exist.
I had a similar moment in my life when I cried because I realized that god does not exist. It was quite a lonely feeling at first.
As a secret-OTD married man in my thirties, I am obviously not using my real name.
Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you for your thoughts. While Orthodox, I viewed God in as detached a manner as possible within traditional Judaism (taking some ideas Rambam, Soloveitchik, and others), and to this day I do not find some of the arguments of strong atheists particularly persuasive. Therefore, I refer to myself as an “agnostic” (accurately or not, nobody seems to really know what these words mean). In my view back then, even if God existed, I didn’t think he interacted much with the modern world (maybe not at all), so he wasn’t very comforting to me in any immediate sense. Judaism and its laws and ethics were my comfort and refuge in a cold, difficult world created by a just God who was testing and watching us. I have always wondered what it is like for someone who feels they have a close personal connection to God (as so many in the ultra-Orthodox and mystical/Hasidic communities do) when they accept the ideas of hard atheism, and a very personal God disappears suddenly and entirely from their lives. That must be incredibly difficult. My loss was difficult, but in a different way having more to do with loss of meaning and direction than loss of a personal relationship with a deity. After learning about the depth and breath of moral problems in the TaNaKh and halacha, and struggling with them for years, in a way, I was happy to be done with HaShem.
I am so sorry for the difficult decisions the people in your situation, losing belief after they are married and have families, have to contend with. I wish it was a universally accepted human right to be provided with an accurate, detailed understanding of the religion one is raised with, along with criticisms of that religion, before the age when we are likely to make major, irreversible life choices…. But that’s unrealistic, so we should probably all just support organizations like Yaffed, which promote a sufficient secular education in religious schools. With that, hopefully more people will have an opportunity to explore and ask questions before it is too late.