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