My journey from an extremely religious ben Torah to an atheist was long and painful. Over a few years, I transformed from being someone who loved nothing more than connecting with the Torah to facing the realization that I had devoted my life to a lie.
My questions started innocently enough, subtle incoherencies in the Rambam and the Ramchal, but the deeper I dove looking for answers, the more questions seemed to surround me. Problems with Chazal, historical inconsistencies in Tanach, the impossibility of the Mabul, for two years I became cripplingly obsessed with trying to resolve the questions that haunted me.
Eventually, I realized that no matter how hard I tried to fool myself, I was already aware of the glaring and obvious truth – there were no good answers. I had found the cracks revealing the gigantic deception of my existence. My, my family, my friends, and my community were all trapped in the matrix – living their life based on entirely false doctrines.
My entire worldview crumbled to pieces. I was not a member of the chosen people. God did not care what I did in the privacy of my own home. The Torah was not holy. There was no great exodus from Egypt. My ancestors were likely Canaanim. Chazal was mistaken about almost every single statement they made regarding the natural world.
I had nothing to guide me in this new reality. For the first time in my life, I had to face the prospect that all the happiness in my world was in jeopardy.
I often think about what my tipping point was, what pivotal thought pushed me from being a believer desperate for answers to a nonbeliever who was simply in denial about reality. I used to believe that it was entirely intellectual, that my decision was a dispassionate analysis of the probable likelihood of Judaism’s core propositions. I was not like other OTDers. I had nothing against my community. I loved learning, enjoyed halacha, as well as the camaraderie of my community. As far as I could discern, I had no emotional tug away from Judaism.
But the deeper I thought about it, I realized that the root of my decision was emotional. I hade devoted over half my life to the study of Torah, and one day the sheer moral depravity of our legal codes hit me and left me dazed. There are so many odious laws littered throughout our tradition, rules that, if not for a lifetime of indoctrination, anyone with a shred of empathy would instantly reject in total disgust.
During this time in my journey, I became obsessed with the concept of gehenom. As I studied the Reshonic works on the subject, it became clear that our sanitized idea of hell is not the picture envisioned by our mesorah. Hell was a place of pain and punishment. It contains terrifying fire, scorpions that ate people’s eyes, and pots of boiling semen. But the truth is that even the most genteel version of hell simply did not make sense to me. How could God cause people pain after they have died and can no longer rectify their misdeeds? No one watching the people burn in hell have any free will to be changed by the experience. How could a merciful God create such a macabre system? According to Jewish tradition, some people are punished forever. What is the purpose of their pain? In a trillion trillion years they will still be roasting away. Why? How did this reality comport with a merciful and benevolent God?
I also started viewing the suffering all around me. I realized how utterly evil someone must be to deliberately create a hierarchy of animals that had to eat each other in order to survive. God essentially told the animals that they – and their children – will starve to death unless they bite out the necks of their fellow animals and eat other sentient creatures alive. For thousands of years elephants who live to adulthood eventually lose their teeth and die from starvation, desperately trying to peel the tree bark that they need to survive. Every year, for hundreds of generations, thousands of sperm whales travel with their newborn babies hundreds of miles from their breeding grounds to their feeding grounds. Along the way, hundreds of deadly orcas lie in wait to eat the frail infant sperm whales. Why would a merciful God create such a sick system?
Here is a video of a hyena fighting a terrified wildebeest:
Eventually, the hyena goes under the wildebeest and bites his testicles clean off. From there the wildebeest falls to the ground helpless, as the hyena begins eating his intestines. This happens every single day to countless animals. Could an all-powerful, perfectly merciful deity really think of no other way to order his creation?
I also could not accept the story of the Midianites. According to Chazal, the Jews rounded up approximately 20,000 orphan girls between the ages of two and three and had them pass before the Choen Gadol. Any girl over three was killed. I simply could not imagine how a moral God could command his people to line up 20,000 little orphan girl captives and make them do an Auschwitz style selection. (Even if it only took 15 seconds to process each girl – bringing her in front of the cohen gadol, deciding if she was over three years old, and executing her or bringing her back to captor – it would still almost four days of nonstop 24-hour slaughter to get to the end of the line. Try to imagine how large the pile of four-year-old girl bodies and heads must have been at the end of three days!)
Logically, I do not know how strong these questions are. If God’s nature is completely unknowable, then perhaps there is no basis to ask questions on how he operates. But nevertheless, for me, these issues were the tipping point. My heart exploded in anger at any entity who could act so capriciously. I simply could not bring myself to worship or care about the opinions of such a monster. Even if the Torah was perfectly true, I would want nothing to do with it – or its author. It was this emotional impulse that ultimately led me to abandon Yiddishkeit.
You may be wondering what halachos I found so vile and problematic, so I have included a sampling below as well, as some of the common rebuttals. I have researched – rather extensively – every one of these topics and can provide sources for each one if you wish. This list is by no means comprehensive. Every time I open a Gemara I seem to stumble across something new and disturbing. But these are the ones that I have studied so far.
1 – the Rambam writes that if a Jew has sex with a non-Jew, for example, he rapes a 6-year-old gentile child, THE CHILD is put to death. The reasoning for her death sentence is so that the Jewish man does not suffer shame when people see her and remember his deed. Rav Feinstein, someone I adored as the paradigm of sensitivity and brilliance, discusses the Rambam at length. He is deeply curious what form of death we administer to the child (stoning or beheading), what form of bais din administers the sentence, (a court of three people or twenty-three people) and many other details. Other authorities ponder the source of this Halacha, pointing to various Midrashim as their source. At no point in all this lengthy discourse does ANY commenter point out the sheer horror and insanity of the Rambam’s law.
2 – it is unequivocal from the pesukim down to modern poskim that it is forbidden to save a dying gentile on Shabbos. Even during the week, if there is no concern for arousing animosity, it is quite difficult to find a basis for saving a dying gentile.
3 – it is forbidden to return a gentile’s lost object. If you are sitting behind a newlywed gentile on the bus and see her ring slip off her finger, many poskim forbid returning the lost ring to her.
4 – if one damages a gentile they do not have to pay. If a gentile damages a jew, they are fully culpable
5 – if a person is negligent to some level and causes another to die, for example, he is chopping wood and the blade flies off the handle and kills someone, the blood relatives of the deceased can KILL the person who caused the damage. Some sages say it is a mitzvah for the blood relatives to exact vengeance. There is nothing just about such a system.
6 – if a gentile accidentally kills a jew, they are put to death. If a jew deliberately kills a gentile he does not receive any punishment.
7 – if one finds a gentile foundling in the forest, they can keep them as a slave forever.
8 – if a father kills his child while beating him or her, he does not receive any punishment
9 – if you see a gentile overpaying you, you can keep your mouth shut and pocket them money. The Gemara records numerous sages who indulged in this practice.
10 – the Torah encourages every Jew to seek out and kill anyone who leaves the faith
11 – if a 13-year-old boy violates Shabbos in front of witnesses, he is put to death
12 – the Netziv allows husbands to rape their wives forcibly
13 – if a Jewish city decides that they no longer believe in the religion – the entire city, man woman and child – are put to death.
14 – if a person raises small animals in Jerusalem, every Jew is actively encouraged to kill the person
15 – if you borrow money from a gentile and they die without telling anyone about the loan, one is exempt from paying the money back to the gentile’s children.
16 – it is forbidden to give a gentile good advice
17 – if a gentile father decides that he wants to sell his child as a slave, a jew is allowed to buy the child in the slave market and make him work as a slave for the rest of his life.
18 – if one has an old slave who, after serving you faithfully for many years, wants his freedom, it is forbidden to free the slave out of pity. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the reason the Torah encourages and even enforces the Jews owning slaves is that we are the most superior race on earth (mivchar mi’min ha’enushi). As such, it is our right to devote ourselves to divine service while other – lower races – tend to our menial needs, such as planting our fields and washing our clothing. This is why the Torah forbids freeing gentile slaves. One is only allowed to free a slave if there is a religious need requiring his or her freedom (for example, one needs another person to complete a quorum for prayer.) Sans such a reason, it is the will of God for gentiles to serve the physical needs of the Jews.
19 – if one wants to incentivize his slaves to work harder, he can use his female salves – even children, as sex workers and offer time with them as a reward for hard work.
(The Rambam distinguishes a Jewish slave from a Jewish slave. A master cannot share a female slave with multiple Jewish men. But gentile male slaves can share one gentile female slave.)
20 – only men inherit their parent’s property.
21 – women are legally excluded from all positions of authority (Kol minui shel sirrah)
22 – if a twelve-year-old child steals bread and wine from his parents, his parents can have him killed
23 – if a gay person wants to consummate his relationship with his life partner, the Torah commands that he – and his partner – are to be put to death.
24 – a Jewish soldier can rape and keep any gentile woman he finds during wartime
25 – if the gentile woman who was captured during wartime does not renounce her gods and accept Hashem within 12 months – she is put to death
26 – a gentile can be tried and killed in a court of one judge. Any Jew can act as a bais din to kill a gentile.
27 – a gentile is killed based on the testimony of a single person, even his relative. That witness can also act as the judge and executioner for the gentile.
28 – a gentile is put to death for violating any single one of the seven Noahide laws. For example, if a gentile steals a penny, he is liable to be put to death by any onlooker.
29 – Unlike a Jew, a gentile does not need to receive or acknowledge any prior warning that his actions carry the death penalty before being tried and killed.
30 – if a Jewish king desires, he can mobilize an army at any time to plunder the nations around him.
31 – when a Jewish army attacks other nations, Jews are commanded to provide a chance for peace. To this end, the Jews make the following ultimatum: We are offering you the chance to surrender and become our serfs. Half of your entire economy (land and material possessions) will be confiscated. You will become our subjects, and your people can be drafted at any time as slaves for the king’s projects. You must also reject your God and accept Hashem. If not, all males will be killed.
Trying to “disprove” the Torah by pointing out moral issues is, in a sense, utterly futile. The Torah and Chazal provide internally coherent justifications for many of their seemingly barbaric rules. The gentiles did not keep the seven Noahide laws, so God was mafkir their money to the Jews. Hashem understands the Yetzer horah of the Jewish soldiers, so he allows soldiers to rape the gentile war captives. Someone who does not believe in the Torah is a Rasha and deserves to be punished. Etc. Everything if internally justified.
Intellectually, I understood that these issues did not directly attack the truth of Torah. But my heart screamed out. There is simply no way a merciful, kind God would pen such barbaric laws. Did God not understand that gentiles are people also?! That they have feelings and hopes and dreams just like the rest of us? I grew disgusted with our legal tradition. Every one of the above-mentioned laws catalyzed endless discussion amongst the commentators. Yet, at no point does anyone stop and acknowledge the horror and evil of the encoded laws.
I felt betrayed. I had spent years of my life studying the intricacies of the laws of slavery. I had sweated over hundreds of Rav Akiva Eiger’s on the laws of defrauding gentiles. I had lovingly written countless pages of notes on jurisprudence and the fairness of the Torah laws. But I was living a lie. It was all evil nonsense.
When confronted with these moral issues, I have found that the answers offered invariably fall into four categories based on one’s religious denomination and background.
BAALEI TESHUVA AND LAYMEN
This group simply denies the truth of the above halachos. They have been taught by their rabbonim that the Torah is a guiding light of morality and they simply cannot accept that the Torah can say anything that does not conform with their worldview. When presented with positive evidence, for example, clear sources codifying a troubling halacha, they simply hide behind a number of prefabricated excuses that essentially boil down to a misguided appeal towards complexity.
You are taking the statement out of context.
“The issue is much more complex then you are presenting it.”
“This is only one side of the issue.”
“You are reading things too literally. If you wanted, you could present anything in an unflattering manner.”
This position is essentially an appeal to faith. These laymen do not possess the knowledge to research the issue, but they trust and have faith that I must be distorting the issue. Unfortunately, they are wrong. These issues do not result from cherry-picking or reading things out of context. This is our tradition, and we must own up to it.
THE RIGHT-WING CHAREDI RABBONIM:
There is no problem here. The goyim are wicked. Stop with you American liberal narrishkeit and have a little humility. Who are you to question Gods morality? Maybe God knows a little more about the world then you do?
In a sense, this group is the most honest. For their entire lives, they have been soaking in anti-gentile sentiment. As little children every Shavous they are taught that God approached all the nations of the world and offered them the Torah. “What does it say inside it,” the gentiles asked. “Do not murder,” said God. “we can’t accept that,” the nation responded. “We love murdering and cannot give that up for the Torah. Another nation refused the Torah because it prohibited stealing. Another nation refused because of the prohibition of forbidden relationships. This continued until God finally came to the Jewish people who proudly said naaseh vi’nishma.
Think about the unconscious impact this Midrash can have on a developing child’s mind. When children are taught the story of Yaakov and Eisav, they are taught the famous dictum, “halacha hi bi’yadua sh’Eisav soeneh es Yaakov.” When these children get older, they learn the law in the Shulchan Aruch that it is forbidden to be alone with a gentile out of a fear that they may kill you. Additionally, our sages warn us that one can only use a gentile barber in a public place with a mirror because one is concerned that the gentile barber will take the opportunity to slit the Jews throat. It is no surprise that when children raised with this upbringing come across the Talmudic statement that, “tov shebagoim haroag – even the best of the gentiles deserve to die” they do not bat an eyelash.
To them, the above halachos simply reflect reality. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why Rav Moshe Feinstein had no problem creating the well-used heter of cheating on taxes or why the Spinka Rebbe is not viewed as less of a tzaddik for running a multi-million dollar money laundering and tax fraud empire. My questions simply bounce against a stone wall of apathy and arrogance that has been built over countless years of conditioning.
THE MODERN ORTHODOX
The Modern Orthodox seem to be much more threatened by these issues then the frum tzibbur. They rightfully understand that, given the exposure of their youth to the outside world, such archaic and backward positions put them at risk of losing adherents. Their arguments come in two flavors:
BUT MAYBE IT’S A MACHLOKES…
This approach usually consists of the following statements:
“Sure, the Rambam says to behead anyone who doesn’t accept Hashem, BUT here are many many obscure Rishonim who – if you read them in just the right way – can possibly be construed as potentially arguing on the Rambam. Also didn’t you know that the Meiri says that there are no ‘real’ gentiles nowadays? And also, if we stack these four non-normative and speculative opinions on top of each other, it is conceivable to consider everyone – even Avodah Zarah worshipping Hindus – as geiri toshav nowadays. So, there you go – problem solved.”
This approach is mistaken for several reasons. Firstly, a divine moral code should not contain such deeply problematic halachos – even if they are disputed. Secondly, I have never seen anyone argue on a Rama or Pri Migadim based on moral outrage. Sure, it is a machlokes if you can steal from a gentile, but the machlokes revolves around small didactic issues of interpretation and abstract legal concepts – not whether it is morally abhorrent to steal from another sentient human being or not.
Thirdly, this approach often confuses speculative theories with practical halacha. The Mishna Berurah really actually admonishes doctors for saving gentiles on Shabbos. During the Rosh’s time Bais Din truly really put people to death for blasphemy. King David actually went to war simply to plunder and boost his economy. He actually really took a gentile woman captive and married her. Chassidish Rabonnim often explicitly approve of all sorts of fraud. These are not silly abstractions, but often practical real halacha.
META-HALACHA TO THE RESCUE
This approach sounds like the following:
“Sure, the strick halacha says that you cannot save a drowning gentile, but one must look at the meta-halachic principles. Here is a couple of ambiguous over-puffed statements about the responsibility of being a ‘light onto the nations’/the mercifulness of Jews/the importance of glorifying God’s name, and with these, we can magically wipe away all your problem
Additionally, it says that you can save a gentile if there is a concern that they may hate the Jews and possibly hurt us if we refuse to treat them. As such, I can distort this “aiva” loophole and interpret it as actually a code for a divine moral imperative teaching us to create a world of harmony and love. Silly, you think we really meant what we said in our huge legal tomes codifying halachic practice for all time. Of course not! All that really matters is some vague non-halachic statements in Perki Avos that can be taken out of context. I will now say a bunch of sophisticated words that don’t really mean anything, and act offended that you even considered the clear and unambiguous statements of Chazal to represent the Torah’s view on the matter.
Also, the Torah’s use of the death penalty is purely theoretical. Sure, God prescribed the death penalty for tying a double knot on Shabbos, wearing dirty clothing in the Bais HaMikdash, practicing sorcery, cursing your parents, separating the ‘bad from the good’ instead of the ‘good from the bad’ on Shabbos, bowing down to an idol, committing infidelity, convincing other people to reject Hashem, bearing false prophecy, contradicting the rulings of the other sages, cursing God, making tea on Shabbos without pouring the water back and forth from one cup to another three times, and numerous other infractions, but God never meant it LITERALLY, dummy. Sure, he created an enormously robust system of judicial procedures on how to administer the death penalty, and there are numerous cases in the Gemara of people being put to death, but look here, I found a rabbi who said that if he was a member of bais din -which he wasn’t – no one would get killed. Ever. Even murders. Aren’t we amazing! God is just trying to teach us how much he hates double knots and uses a very practical system of death penalties as a TEACHING INSTRUMENT to make his point. Gosh, don’t you know anything.”
As you can tell, I believe this view is dishonest. God really wrote that we are supposed to enslave the nations of Israel. He also really allowed Jews to defraud non-Jews. This is the actual reality. It is disingenuous to hide this overwhelming reality being a few principles that are taken out of context.
LEFT-WING MODERN ORTHODOX: THE EVOLVING TORAH
You think God really meant all this stuff to last forever. Of course not! Don’t you know that the Rambam says that God created the concept of korbonos simply because the Jews like animal sacrifice, not because it signifies anything important? Back then everyone was a bunch of pagans, and God was easing them into a better moral system. God simply couldn’t come out and tell them outright that they could no longer own other human beings as property. So He started small by giving them thousands of ritualistic laws, telling them to chop off part of their penis, and subtly imbuing them with a moral code by making laws such as the one that forbids coveting your neighbor’s slave. The hope is for the Jews to evolve past this system and eventually forbid slavery altogether, not just the prohibition of coveting slaves. While the Torah contains many barbaric laws and cannot be changed because it is the eternal word of the Creator of the universe, nevertheless God planted inside the Torah seeds of morality that we are supposed to use to evolve our moral sensibilities and outgrow the Torah’s laws.”
This approach is also mistaken. At the same time that the Torah was being given, eastern traditions were already concluding that slavery was morally wrong. The first oath of Jainism is to not harm other sentient living things. God is omnipotent according to Jewish tradition and it hard to believe that his hands were tied, and he had to let all this barbaric nonsense into the Torah.