Jewish Atheist

An agnostic atheist perspective
from a once orthodox Jew.

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Full Essay

A few weeks ago I posted my 2008 essay, “Confessions of a would-be apathetic backslider.” I parsed it up so as not to overwhelm anyone. But thinking about it now, it can be annoying going through tons of posts. So I’m reposting it in full here. (I’m actually going to copy/paste from the other pages, so you’ll get some of my brief notes/reactions when rereading this year.) Also, there’s a glossary for some of the jewish terms at the end.

I ain’t gonna lie, it’s pretty long - around 10 pages. But it was a very important point in my transition, and I still think it’s a killer essay. Enjoy!

~~~~

This is very personal. It’s an essay I wrote in 2008 which which was published in the Queens College Jewish Studies Journal. {Sorry, I don’t have the ISBN handy in case any of you weirdos wanted to look it up.} Oh, and no, I didn’t attend QC but I had some friends who did, one of whom was on this journal committee and asked if I’d write something. Anyways..

This is back from when I was religious but struggling with my religiosity. It’s kind of trippy for me to read it, though I’m quite glad that I sat down to paint my thoughts at the time. {Much like I am now with this blog.}

The essay was pretty popular - or so I heard. I never really got credit or criticism, unfortunately, bc I published it pseudonymously for much the same reasons that this blog is anonymous. {I’m actually rather pissed at the chief editor bc he changed my pseudonym last minute to “ploni almoni” which is a really cheesy jewish version of “joe-shmoe”. What an inconsiderate jerk. Anyways.}

The essay is also around 10 pages - I can’t believe they let me publish it! - but to avoid brain overload, I’m gonna break it up and publish a full version at the end.

So, brace yourself, you’re about to jump back 4-5 years and get a look at a younger, struggling, and somewhat credulous version of me.

~~~

Part 1:

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider

By: Jacob Factor

      “Off the derech.” The phrase, in the argot of the yeshiva world for one who embraces apostasy, still makes a slice of my heart shudder and skip a beat. Yet how else to describe the direction my religiosity is taking? It certainly isn’t following strongly along a well-worn, straight trail, nor carving out a new path on a road less traveled leading to unity with G-d. So I cagily eye the phrase “off the derech” as a strange bedfellow in a dubious alliance. Unfortunately it’s not just me, not at all. The ubiquity of post-Israel transformations is well-known, and quite frankly, I would have expected more attention be paid to the issue. Although I frequently wonder, how did we get here? Leaving Israel armed – or burdened, depending on your perspective – with the knowledge of good, and then being reacquainted with a wide world brimming over with the knowledge of evil, what will be the fruit of our existence? What will become of my generation of young, Jewish adults who are ill-content with their religiosity? “Ayecha, Where are you?”, as the analogy would beg.

      It’s a good question. 

      Wandering the streets of New York, I often feel like a nomad, with no place to call my own and no real destination in mind. Visiting Brooklyn only confirms the suspicion that I don’t belong around other Jews, at least not frum ones. Their eyes scan me from top to bottom and I can almost picture a Terminator-esque computer screen inside their brain evaluating me: No kipa, no tzitzis, loud clothing, and a female companion… scan complete: not Jewish. If only it were that easy. Later that day, along St. Mark’s street in the Village, a similar process occurs with different results: “Hey, you coming to the show on Saturday?” No. “We’re heading over to that new Thai restaurant.” Sorry, can’t make it. It becomes clear that I’m a stranger in a strange land; after the Jewdar alarm starts ringing, things are never quite the same. So where am I? I’m in Jewish Limbo. I’m not sure if Judaism believes in Limbo, but it definitely exists, since I’m trapped in it.   

      That may be the worst part of my predicament, not being able to enjoy either world fully. I have a good friend who often says, “G-d created us to have pleasure. So take your pick: olam haze or olam haba [this world or the next world], but make sure you grab at least one!” Oh David, how right you are. You see, I’m ruined from really making that choice.

Please allow me to preface my explanation. 

       “Rebbe stories”, as they’re endearingly called by my Orthodox Jewish brethren, were never that intriguing to me. And “vortlach”, the warm Yiddish term for mini-sermons, have been of very limited interest. Nonetheless, there are a few, a very precious few, rebbe stories and vortlach which have deeply affected me, changing my perspective and at times too tenacious to be forgotten. I pray you’ll be patient and indulge me if in the course of recounting my life, my secrets, my fears and my assessment of the situation, I share one or two of which I’m fond – not to imply that they’re cute and inspiring, as vorts and Jewish stories typically are, but that I think about them often. They visit my mind in pensive moments alone and hang over my head like the sword of Damocles in the midst of exciting escapades. I might describe them as my specters, haunting me and demanding that I confront the decisions that I’ve made. They’re eerily efficient in encapsulating the dilemma, my entire predicament, and that of many of my peers. These days I usually try to ignore the stories and lessons, though not always successfully. And that is a major part of the issue itself. It’s tough being an apathetic backslider.  

One of these vorts I heard from a rabbi I love and it goes as follows:

רבי צדוק אומר, לא תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם:

כך היה הלל אומר, ודישתמש בתגא חלף; הא

כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נטל חייו מן העולם.

      Rabbi Tzaddok would say, “Do not make [the Torah] into a crown to glorify oneself nor into a spade with which to dig”; [Similarly,] Hillel would say [the same idea] as follows: “Whoever uses the crown will disappear.” That is to say, anyone who had gratification from the words of the Torah, his life is taken from the world. (Avos 4:7)

      There’s another way of reading the text, my Rabbi explained, specifically regarding the closing line: “Anyone who has ever had enjoyment from the words of Torah, his life in this world is taken away from him. He can never go back to his old life because, having experienced the ecstasy of Torah, everything else pales in comparison. Truly experiencing Torah, evidenced by the joy it brings, changes a person. He is reborn as someone new.”  

      Therein lies one reason why I am ruined. I can’t go back. I have tasted the fruit of Torah knowledge and I’ll never be the same again. These are not merely words; I wish they were. No, it is a fact. My pre-Israel life – the American music-loving, trouble-seeking, stolen kiss grinning, carefree and careless superb delight – is long gone. Though so much of my present existence is lived trying to recreate it, the truth is that it’s a futile endeavor. My experiences in Israel cannot be erased; my past life can never be truly re-constituted. I’m left with an ersatz replacement, a soul-less clone posing as the former me. How odd it was to start watching T.V. again, after abstaining for so long. I oafishly followed the characters racing across the screen and dumbly listened to the laugh-track, but simply couldn’t understand. The shows made no sense. Nothing did. “You’re reading too deeply into it,” was the coaching advise of my friends. My gosh! Never in my life had I expected to hear that phrase so often. “You’re reading too deeply into it!” It reminds me of that joke about the Jewish kid who is being babysat by his Christian neighbors. As the joke goes, the kid bothers them endlessly about details regarding the Christmas decorations that they’re putting up: “What’s the maximum height of the tree? What’s the minimum height? Will any type of tree suffice? How many stockings are required? Is one OK for the whole family? How many decorations are necessary? What kind of star must crown the top of the tree?” The questioning is ceaseless until the child’s parents arrive to pick him up, and the neighbors, out of concern, warned them that their child may have some mental illness and they should have him checked out. That’s the gist of the joke, ha ha ha - except that when I’m the kid who’s lost and puzzled and doesn’t understand what’s going on because I’m gazing too deeply into a shallow realm which is not accustomed to such scrutiny, I’m the one who feels like he has the mental defect. Perhaps I do, as those yeshiva years still affect my thought processes and behaviors, how I analyze the world, and the way I appreciate – or, very often, don’t appreciate – all that society has to offer. “This world or the next”, David would say, “otherwise you’re getting gypped.”    

~~~

P.s. My own reactions to reading this now.

I remember how torn I felt, that feeling of limbo. And I remember thinking it would never get better, that I would never quite fit in. And perhaps that’s true, bc I still feel a bit odd, like the home-schooled kid on the playground. That said, things have gotten a LOT better. I can hardly relate to the fearful angst and concern. I feel fairly settled, and I can enjoy a normal life to a great extent - and I’m thankful for that. And it’s a point for others just beginning their journey: Don’t worry. It gets better. You’ll be OK.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 2

      If T.V. were the sole sphere of my life affected, my story of post-israel consequences would be interesting, but not that important. Unfortunately, that’s not at all the case. Most notably, after returning from Israel, my social skills had transmogrified almost beyond repair. I remember one instance where a store-keeper offered me a complimentary accessory to something I was buying. A small token; just something to say, We hope you’ll come back again. As he offered it, however, my mind was fixated on the verse, “a hater of gifts will live” (Proverbs 15:27), and so I refused the gift. (I’m not arguing the validity of this interpretation, merely repeating what happened.) The ensuing five minutes were like an intense tennis volley, with the clerk insisting, “Please, enjoy” and I rebounding, “Thank you, but no.” It was nothing short of a surreal comedy. In the end, my friend grabbed the gift and practically dragged me out of the store as I yelled “Thank you” over my shoulder.

Yes, that was certainly one of the stupider episodes in my post-Israel adjustment period, perhaps only outdone by my awkwardness with women, itself a problem compounded by my religious and sheltered upbringing. In one particularly amusing instance, I went out on a date with a girl I had met at a social function (itself quite a leap from where I was religiously). The date had gone really well; we visited a museum, strolled in a park, and drank at a coffee shop, while engaging in great conversation the whole time. She was as fun and intelligent as she was beautiful.  She was practically all one could wish for in a girl (with the sole drawback being her general lack of observance). At the close of the evening, as I walked her to the train, she was already planning our next day together, and as we stood on the platform, I could sense she was waiting for something. I told her I had a great time, was looking forward to seeing her again, and then I leaned in… and shook her hand! A big ol’ How-do-you-do-there! handshake. As I turned to walk away, quite pleased with myself, I noticed a peculiar look on her face, but didn’t think much of it. She never called back. Later my friends would inform me that the proper way to end such an encounter is with a kiss on the cheek. I asked them if they were sure. After all, a handshake was already a bold enough move – was I actually supposed to kiss a girl I had just met? I was honestly skeptical, and on my future dates, half expected to get slapped. I wasn’t. 

      That treasured memory, however, is far ahead in the acclimation tale. Backtracking a bit, I remember returning from my years in Israel feeling exhilarated – intoxicated – by simply speaking with a girl. The thrill of it seems so extraordinarily juvenile now, but at the time it was like an 8th grader getting to third base. Of course, after the encounters I would berate myself on listening to my yetzer hara, and then, typically, steep myself in religious studies until eventually falling prey to my humanity, once again, a few days later. The viduys and personal confessions and nightly re-re-re-affirmations that “Tomorrow, I’ll be better; tomorrow I won’t indulge in gashmius, became themselves an established ritual, words which I could recite by heart accompanied by emotions and displays of guilt, seemingly churned out by rote. The words become meaningless, hollow, and then the echo I heard inside those words was the echo of my former convictions, ever fainter and less precise. I realized that perhaps I don’t really care all that much. And I ask myself, What about the Torah? What about G-d? What about Hell!? I sincerely don’t know. To this day I don’t have a single answer to those perfectly simple, logical, and inescapable questions. Only the facts: I’m ignoring my religious beliefs to pursue my lusts. I suppose that makes me a hypocrite, to avow my belief in halacha and then unhesitatingly (well, almost unhesitatingly) ignore it, but I’d rather own up to my sins than try to rationalize them away.

Speaking of which, this reminds me of a story: 

      There was a rebbe that lived around a hundred years ago in a small village in Europe (which is the “rebbe story” equivalent of “once upon a time”). This rebbe had a particular student who one day left the yeshiva and went off the derech. Many years went by until that student, now much older, was once again in the small village, passing through on a business trip. He decided to visit his old rebbe, despite his irreligiosity, out of the respect and admiration he still had for him. During their conversation, the student felt compelled to make a confession, or perhaps confront a fact: “Rebbe, you know I’m not religious anymore.” “Yes, I know,” the rebbe said, “May I ask what happened, why did you leave the ways of the Torah?” “Well Rebbe, I found that I had a lot of questions with Judaism,” the former student replied. The sagely rabbi paused for a moment and then asked, “At the time that these questions started to occur, were you by chance involved in any disreputable behavior?” The student thought for a moment and then replied, “As a matter of fact, there was one thing: It was around that time that I first started dating a non-Jewish woman whom I met.” The rebbe slowly nodded, acknowledging the reply. They continued to speak for a short while and then they bid each-other farewell. Later, some of the rebbe’s students who had overheard the conversation asked him why he didn’t try to answer the man’s questions, the ones which led him to apostasy. The rebbe responded, “What he found weren’t questions, but answers – and one can’t answer an answer.”    

      This story taught me to own up to my vices, and I think I do a fairly good job of it. The rancid stench of my mendacity and self-deception is all too recognizable and it’s simply unbearable. I know when I’m doing something wrong, when I’m skipping a prayer or eating something I shouldn’t. One day I hope to find that reservoir of resolve which, like a fountain of youth, will rejuvenate my moral vigor, but that expedition will have to wait for now. The rebbe story also demonstrates a very typical yeshiva mentality, which is that people “go off” in pursuit of lusts – seldom for intellectual reasons. This is rather insulting, and many people I’ve spoken with have said as much, but truth be told, from my experience it does seem to have a lot of truth to it. Not always, but often. In many cases, like my own, the intellectual reasons may be real, but ancillary to the sybaritic driving force. Perhaps because so many people are steeped in their rationalizations it’s difficult for them to see that. Honesty with oneself, though, should never be sacrificed in the name of vanity. Especially for those of us who are steadily losing claim to so many other virtues; it’s one of the few we can still manage to keep intact, and will certainly prove beneficial in the long-run.  

      Though another phenomenon which has always fascinated me is that everyone has their own pekele [baggage~], as my rebbi would say. Everyone has their own issues and areas of conflict. The pekeles that some manage to find, and guardedly carry around with them honestly amazes me. I understand when people latch onto issues such as “age of the world” or “treatment of women,” because they seem like legitimate and universal topics (about which to be concerned. Quite frankly, they bother me too. Some manage to find such obscure and ridiculous reasons to question their faith that I’m often left speechless (though I suppose those reasons are just as varied and unusual as the reasons many adopt for affirm their religious beliefs in the first place). I remember one person – a rabbi, no less – confessed to me that he always found the prophecies of Nostradamus very troubling. Every ounce of my willpower was spent to hold back from laughing, since he was gravely serious when he divulged that fact. This person, nevertheless, managed to put his issue aside and become, in my opinion, a great rabbi. I suppose it’s a certain mentality which one fosters, to view questions as shaylas versus kashas, to consider one’s questions as being fundamentally answerable even if the solution is currently elusive. How one cultivates such a mentality is still unclear to me, but I know it’s important in maintaining one’s faith. It’s probably part of the reason why I still believe.  

      Not to imply that putting questions aside is a simple task. Like others, I’ve agonized over my questions. I’ve gone to my rebbi, with tears in my bloodshot eyes, and asked in desperation if I needed to “sacrifice my brain to be religious.” That’s one of the more difficult and prominent elements of the backsliding epidemic: the wondering mind. Many wonderful people are able to live peaceful lives, never troubled too deeply by philosophical, theological, or different sorts of uncomfortable questions. Others can’t. For those of us who are driven – no, compelled – to ponder these questions, it is very disconcerting speaking about them with fellow yeshiva students, only to find that many (if not most) simply don’t care. They typically don’t think about it, or have exceptionally shallow and often mistaken answers for whatever issue is being discussed. That many rabbis are equally unequipped to address these types of questions further exacerbates the problem. It’s very disheartening, not just because one can’t find the answer, but because it alienates the questioner from his peers. One becomes afraid to ask – because of perceived social repercussions, fear of the answer, or confronting dangerous truths. Begging the question, again, “must I sacrifice my brain?” since, at times, it seems to be an effective solution for many of my co-religionists. I honestly considered the possibility of solving my dilemma (once and for all) by sacrificing my brain; I actually entertained the possibility of just shutting my mind and following like a sheep. I think I may have even tried it for a while, but the transplant didn’t take. Eventually, my mind rebelled against the sheep’s existence and I was forced to confront my issues, thus my teary-eyed pleas to my rebbi. (His answer: “Of course not!” I exhaled.) 

~~~

P.s. My own reaction to reading this now:

1) Wow, I wrote really dramatically and must have gotten a new thesaurus!

2) I’ve gotten a whole lot better, but I’m still a bit awkward with women. And believe me, that story is only one of many, many incredibly awkward and idiotic tales in my quest for intimacy.

3) “What he found weren’t questions, but answers – and one can’t answer an answer.” Honestly, I still think this a great story, though I’m not entirely sure how much I’d agree with my assessment of it’s accuracy. I think that many people do “go off the path” bc of purely intellectual reasons. And I’d like to think that’s true of myself as well. But I think that for most people - myself included - it’s not only intellectual reasons. It can be simply unhappiness - as I clearly was. It can be the appeal of secular pleasures - which was true for me as well. I think that for most OTDers {off the derech} it’s probably a mix. And that’s true for me as well.

Quick story: When I was last in NY my mom suggested - many times, as she still is! - that I speak with a rabbi. “He can answer your questions!” she insists. At one point I told her, “Mom, I don’t have questions. I have answers.” Slightly different meaning from the story - as I do mean intellectual reasons - but just as powerful, imo.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 3

      There certainly are legitimate questions and issues, particularly for the post-Israel college student. College presents a brave new world, a universe spilling over with novel, subjective, and relative truths. Whether it be the captivating views of professors and their uncanny ability to persuade new students into changing long-held beliefs in a matter of hours (and then having next-semester’s professor change it again to an altogether new view), or whether it’s the eye-opening experience of exposure to different cultures and religions, the bewildered student soon finds out more than ever bargained for. Absorbing enough of these new relative and subjective truths, one becomes “cultured,” “educated,” and eventually even “intellectual,” finally understanding that perhaps there is no real truth at all. What follows is the late night Nietzsche, the casual discussions of Plato and Aristotle, the fascination with the Beatles, Freud, and all the other modern artists and philosophers. Suddenly existentialism isn’t just a great Scrabble word. This path traversed by so many is studded with pitfalls; it’s a trap into which I certainly fell, and fell hard.  

      I studied philosophy, theology, psychology, and all manner of science-ologies too, in my attempt to address these new questions. Soon, I was spending time teaching others what I had learned, though I now wonder if it wasn’t perhaps an attempt to convince myself as well. Of course, this was a futile endeavor and a stupid plan, which was thankfully abandoned once I began to backslide. Someone once told me that when one’s cup is full and overflowing with Torah, it’s that spillage which one can share with others. [It’s a pun, since “cup” is yiddish for head or mind.] My cup, though, has gone dry. Dusty. Like my massive collection of apologetic books. I’m glad I moved away from the Torah soapbox since I’m not in any position to preach. Now I walk the halls of school, work, and shul, occasionally overhearing a question of the sort with which I used to trouble myself– “Can G-d make a rock…” or “If the universe is 15 billion…” – and nowadays generally I’ll ignore it. Just keep on walking. This development doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve discussed and read too much on these topics, vacillating between decidedly absolute truths with such frequency, that I just don’t care anymore. Yet sometimes my ears still perk up. Once in a blue moon, if a person asks just right, the question will be like a quick, wet, venomous snake bite into my soul. On those rare occasions I’ll pipe up and share the bits of wisdom I’ve amassed. Usually, though, I just ignore it. The questions, resolved or not, simply don’t matter. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

      Undoubtedly, the most influential of forces one encounters when leaving yeshiva, even more-so than the intellectual questions, are the bacchanalian pleasures the secular life offers: bars, girls, parties, you name it. Being exposed to this pleasure, to the smiling, hedonistic faces which accompany it, can erode even the strongest of wills. (And, as I quoted earlier, the desires can often breed, incubate, and hatch the “questions.”) It is because, ultimately, everyone wants to be happy; everyone wants to be content, sated, and satisfied. It’s of paramount importance. (Maslow, for one, has certainly professed that happiness trumps ethics.) And so what to do with someone who’s living a “good, ethical, Jewish life,” but is simply unhappy? That was my dilemma. It’s not that I thought Judaism was wrong or that yeshiva was useless. I was simply unhappy.  

      Not only wasn’t I happy, I was depressed. Perhaps many will argue that my diagnosis was premature and naïve, but it seemed to me that the lifestyle I was trying to lead was killing me inside. It was squelching my free spirit, my creativity, my dreams, and whatever unique role I had wanted to chisel out for myself in this world. That stifling lifestyle had to be left behind, at least for awhile. Predictably, my sabbatical from yeshiva was only the beginning of the strain on my religiosity. The mental anguish and the cognitive dissonance was unbearable: to knowingly stop doing what one knows to be true, good, and proper – Ouch. It would take a really shallow soul not to feel the sting. And I’m not that shallow. It hurt badly. Desensitizing myself to spurning some of my jewish duties took a long time. For many mitzvos, the process hasn’t finished. I have not yet completely recreated myself, perhaps because I’m not sure what I’m trying to become; less religious, apparently, but to what extent? And is this a change I want to keep forever? Unclear. I’m still very emotional about my religion, that’s for certain. While I know I’m at the cusp of major religious regressions, I still respect Judaism and follow it to a large extent (depending on your perspective). I still pray every day, even if only for a minute. I still try to keep Shabbos, though I’m not nearly as careful about it as I once was. And I still get upset when I hear people disparaging rabbis or religious Jews in general, but that’s just me. Everyone devolves in their own way and everyone ends up their own unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and disbeliefs.  

      Some of that original depression emerged when I realized I wasn’t Superman. For many people, I believe, a major motivation in becoming religious is the sense that we can all be little Supermen, saving the planet in our own humble way – but doing so as Clark Kent, with no-one realizing our disguised greatness. So we wear our kipas and modest clothing, study Tanach and Talmud, all the while feeling we’re saving the world (and perhaps we are, I’m not posing any theological arguments). That is, until the fateful day arrives when Clark looks around at the sefarim, the bochurim, the clock, and the world just beyond the window and its blinders, and is hit with the thought, like a ton of bricks, “Why?” He begins to comprehend his insignificance, how many learned and more intelligent minds are out there studying the same daf, and how completely futile the hope is of achieving a true chiddush of any real noteworthiness. In short, he grasps the impossibility of his affecting the world in a unique and tangible way.

Maintaining a sense of purpose and personal importance is, in my opinion, vital to a healthy psyche. When one begins to see his destiny being drawn and inked in front of him, a life as just another face in the crowd, another yarmulke in a sea of black velvet, it scares the hell out of even the most pious of hearts. For someone as obviously narcissistic as me, that destiny is unacceptable. Suddenly, the stressful effort of frumkiet and learning comes into focus, like white noise that is pointed-out. And it’s agonizing. Some still manage to continue performing their religious duties despite this epiphany. I guess that for them learning is simply something to do; a way to kill time, and perhaps an enjoyable way at that. Others can even go from the beis to their debaucheries without flinching. I can’t. I soon abandoned the penguin outfit and lost reason to visit the beis, except to see friends and for the occasional intellectual stimulation. But honestly, one can study the legalities of being gored by an ox for only so long before wondering,”Why the hell am I studying this?” 

~~

P.s. My reactions to reading this now:

The process is still not finished! I still put on tefilin, haven’t tried pork, and I’d feel very, very weird about treating a Torah as just another book.

When I wrote, “I’m trying to keep shabbos,” don’t think that I meant I was driving around and smoking weed in the city. No, I meant something like, “I’m not as careful about borer {a rather minute detail of shabbos law}.” And that’s true for most of comments about being irreligious. I was in my mid-twenties and still felt that kissing a girl was a huge deal.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 4

      When I confide in my religious friends that I’m beginning to indulge in gashmius [worldliness~], one of the first replies is, “Well, it’s fleeting pleasure. Don’t you want real, eternal, lasting pleasure?” Yes, of course I do, but the afterlife seems a far ways away. I’m reminded of Shlomo HaMelech’s words in Ecclesiastes, “Who knows what happens to the soul of a man, that it ascends upwards?… therefore I understood that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works, for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what will be after him?Quite frankly, I don’t even know that I’m looking forward to olam haba [messianic times/heaven]. It seems that the vices I enjoy in life will be non-existent in the after-life, and at least as many of my kosher pleasures will be taboo. (“Nintendo? But there are sacrifices to bring! Learning to be done!”) And as for heaven, my understanding is that the soul, not the personality, survives death; and seeing as how I define an individual’s being by his personality, not the soul, the after-life doesn’t seem like it’s going to live up to its name. Or maybe that’s just me being naïve again. However, aside from the issue of eternal reward and its merits, there is the more practical and pressing concern of the here and now. I need something for now too. I need happiness here, in 2008. And the yeshiva lifestyle, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t cutting it and hadn’t been for quite some time.

The Psalms testify that “The statutes of G-d are straight, gladdening the heart.” (19:9) This verse preoccupied me for some time. It may be the only verse in all of Tanach [Old Testament] with which I really take issue. Reluctantly, I’ve concluded that Judaism cannot promise happiness to its adherents (and shouldn’t), as many understand that verse to mean. It can’t mean that. I’m proof. I threw myself into Judaism like Grandpa threw me into the deep-end of the pool when I was eight. No-one can say that I didn’t try as hard as anyone else. Nonetheless, I wasn’t zocheh [deserving~] to that happiness, to the contentment which I thought I’d find. Sure, I was happy at first, thrilled by my newly found religiosity, but it wore off. Learning Torah may provide some joy, but honest– it doesn’t last. Soon one is trolling the beis looking for his next Talmudic fix. In a sense it’s not all that different from food, sex, drugs, or any of the other mass consumed opiates, the gashmius which many frum Jews denounce for being short-lived highs. 

      Having broken the chain which binds one to the yeshiva world, it provided me with the freedom to come and go as I pleased, which resulted in an important question: Where do I want to go from here? The answer, in my experience, wasn’t so forthcoming. There was definitely a long period of simply feeling lost. It’s ironic that the same sense of duty and obligation from which I was running was the element most sorely missed once I had escaped. That very structure to one’s daily life, the sense and knowledge of purpose – at least in an immediate and general sense – is among the greatest gifts of religiosity. However, as I veered from the derech, that structure collapsed, the effects of which cannot be overstated. That’s because, for the frum person, especially for those who “flipped” in Israel (a term I’m reticent of using), everything in life is understood in the framework of Judaism. Once one begins to venture outside of that framework, it’s like suddenly waking up in the middle of a desert with no sign of civilization in sight. This is especially difficult in terms of morality. Euthyphro aside, religion, for the religious, is the basis of morality, and without the laws and outlook of religion, it’s only a few short hops to nihilism. So I, for one, go along with my life, nursing a perpetual state of uncertainty, never quite sure what I believe, what sort of situations I’ll find myself in, or how I’ll respond to them. It’s like treading lightly through a minefield. Before long, one overhears the news, that he’s become that-bochur-dating-the-shiksa and wonders, “How did I end up here?” Without clear values, anything is possible. (Or, as said by Malcom X: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”) My moral fog is easily illustrated when I catch myself in the midst of a ritual and then pause to consider whether it’s worth it to finish, whether I care enough, and whether it’s even appropriate. (Like all those times I start making a bracha without clean hands or a kipa.)  

      This issue of uncertainty, combined with the surprise of just-how-low-I’ve-sunk, truly comes to the light when I run into old friends from yeshiva, or those who stayed in Israel, or those who are married, or otherwise magically managed to insulate themselves from the pressures of secularization. It’s like meeting an alien: it’s difficult to communicate and relate to them. One is always weighing his words, judging what can be and should be confided. How much will they understand? How much do they even care? Worst of all, are they going to go into a little mussar shmooz to show me the light and set me straight? Argh! Kill me now. It wouldn’t be half as bad were all the speeches not so trite and pseudo-profound, the same boring pep-talk one hears time and again. On a few occasions, I’ve even found myself correcting fine points in the person’s presentation, explaining how they can better craft their words and get across their point. It is laughable, when not eye-roll worthy in one’s annoyance. These days, I think I’d prefer someone to just cut to the chase and say, “enjoy your stay in Hell.” I’ll thank them for their concern, and then we can continue our conversation. That’d be nice. I try to be patient; although I know that though the shpiel is directed at me, it often serves a dual purpose, functioning also as a shield for the speech-giver himself so that he does not become enticed by my lifestyle. And it’s not one I encourage. So I tell myself, “deep breaths, nod your head.”

~~

Ps. My reactions to reading this now:

1) Amazing to me that there was a time when I had a real issue with only one verse in the bible.

2) I still get annoyed when people say, “oh, you mustn’t have really tried to be religious, otherwise you wouldn’t have gone off the derech!” It’s very insulting as it belittles one’s true effort, struggle, and solution. And yeah, it’s also another shield for the speaker to avoid considering that perhaps religion doesn’t work for everyone and doesn’t quite make sense.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 5

      Aside from simply acknowledging my sins and of retaining that hope of finding solutions to my issues, I also came to a new and stunning realization: I believe. I just do. In those quiet moments when one can hear his soul whispering, I can just make out the words, “ani ma’amin.” The voice may be faint, but it’s there. Eventually I accepted that whether it’s logical or not, whether it’s justified or not, whether I like it or not, I really believe. As a result, G-d and I  have an interesting relationship. Like lovers in a tiff, we’re not exactly on speaking terms. Occasionally we’ll kiss and make up, give our apologies, and express our love and need for the other. For the most part, though, it hurts me to think about G-d, to remember that we’re separated. Every occasion where I partake in a religious ritual is like running into an ex-girlfriend. Seeing others who have remained steadily religious – that’s like seeing them date that ex-girlfriend! And it hurts. It hurts to see them together and happy, to know that they found happiness where I found none. Still, I can’t live as I once did, that life didn’t work for me. So G-d and I, we’re separated. 

      I sometimes think that of all of the Jews who go to Israel for that post-high school year, it only clicks for about half. And of that half who “flip,” only half of those hold onto it. (I recognize that I’m still rather young and the future may well further modify this view.) That leaves only a fourth of the students actually becoming “frum” [religious] in a genuine way. From this perspective, it may seem like a waste; all the money spent, time spent, and even the emotional, psychological, and intellectual investment. I still wouldn’t call it a waste. Maybe a gamble, but considering the stakes, I’d still say it’s worth it. And for the 75% who backslide like myself, or for whom it just didn’t take, there is still the gain of knowledge, the experience of yeshiva and Israel, friendships gained, and deep relationships formed. I tell myself this when I think about my high school friends, the ones who went off the derech long ago; those friends who all along told me that religion is a hoax and that I was wasting my time. I always harbor a silent trepidation of running into them at a bar or a concert. I can already see the whole affair play out, can already hear their thoughts yelling “told you so” or “hypocrite!” Blood rushes to my cheeks and a surge of hormones pulse through my veins at the thought of it. I can already hear my insistent explanation that they’re wrong, that it wasn’t a waste, that it isn’t a hoax. I can already hear it coming out all wrong and sounding painfully pathetic. And I can hear my dragging footsteps as I walk away, ashamed, thinking “damnant quod non intelligunt.”  

      There are those who do understand and empathize; namely, one’s fellow compatriots, the others among ‘the fallen’ who are going through the same sort of spiritual decline. It’s interesting how we find each-other, slowly testing the waters to gauge whether the other person is an accomplice. However once that confidence and trust is established, it’s a relief. Finally, someone in whom I can confide. Someone who won’t judge, or worse, plunge into a mussar lecture. At first, we confide in each-other. Then, we struggle with each-other. After that, once the hope of return is mutually lost, we go out on escapades together. It’s been interesting watching the development in me and others I know. I’m hoping there’s a fourth stage, where we somehow reverse the trend. I’m hoping the pendulum will quietly swing back, at least a bit. So far there has been no sign of that.   

      It’s funny though, the airs and facades that so many of us put on. We see it in each-other and laugh. Laugh at our predicament. We’re like Marranos, trying to keep our lesser level of observance a secret – hiding underground from those more religious and less religious than us. After all, we don’t want to alienate either group. I know that when I’m confronted with pure religiosity, like seeing a few young yeshiva bochurs walking nearby, I feel rather awkward. It’s an unusual mix of emotions, of feeling embarrassed, upset, resentful, and proud. Suddenly I want to be recognized as a Jew, as an Orthodox Jew, even though I spend so much of my time trying to actively extinguish such an association. I’m walking a tight-rope of religiosity; straddling the fence with observance on one side and apostasy on the other. I am not willing to commit to either side, and desperately hope to reach a compromise between my two worlds, olam haze and olam haba, the beis medrash and the bar off of Bleeker, and between my conscience and my lusts.  

      I wish I could believe, like many of my friends do, that I’m not back-sliding but evolving, broadening my outlook on religion and modifying my behavior accordingly. I wish I could believe that, and maybe on some minor points I do, but overall it’s certainly not the case. Perhaps it could explain how I could possibly find myself walking around without a head covering – something which, as a child, I would see some adults doing and which completely boggled and mystified my young Jewish mind. My evolution, as it were, can’t explain why I slowly removed all the photos of rebbis from my walls, why my prayers became stale, or why I’ve forgotten so much so quickly. No, there are other factors at work. There was a process of burning out, like a gluttonous light bulb which gobbled up too many watts at once, and then a process of running away. Hiding from G-d, like Adam in the Garden. No doubt about it: Definitely devolving.

~~~

Ps. My reactions to reading this now:

Glad I’m finally able to say, “no, I don’t believe!”

Interesting that I used the analogy of “marranos” since that’s now a common term for non-religious jews ‘in the closet’. See my post about it here.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 6

It used to be that I only thought of backsliding in terms of post-Israel Jews, but speaking with my non-Jewish friends and coworkers, I quickly re-fashioned that view. It’s interesting talking with them, to hear their take on religion, seeing as how they come from very different backgrounds and don’t really have anything akin to our “yeshiva experience.” For one, it’s refreshing to see their expressions after explaining which mitzvos I do perform and realizing that to them I’m practically a Chassidic Rebbi! It helps keep things in perspective and stave off the impending despair over my current religious shortcomings. Speaking with them is also thought provoking, since they too, in general, have discarded much of their religious upbringing and so I compare notes with them on shared experiences and thoughts. 

      I’ve noticed that my Muslim friends tend to be more religious than my Christian friends, and they also express more guilt for forsaking their religious laws. At least that’s how it seems to me, though I recognize the difficulty in trying to gauge these relative perspectives. I once read that Christianity adopted Judaism’s “spirit of the law,” while Islam its “letter of the law,” an assessment which seems to be on the mark. My Christian friends have told me that religiosity essentially translates into church attendance and belief in Jesus – with a much greater emphasis on the latter. There isn’t necessarily all that much else. Not so with Islam, and in that sense, a bit ironically, it’s much easier for me to relate with Muslims: the guilt I feel over my neglected duties – they can relate to that. What do my Christian friends know of multiple, mandatory daily prayers? Or dietary restrictions? Or of fast days? (Do Christians even have fast days?) Or of religious garb? Perhaps Catholics can empathize more so a bit more than their Christian cousins, but relating with Muslims is still much easier. 

      I wonder if all the rituals, which are so prevalent in Judaism and Islam, are what keep such a strong hold on their members’ psyche.

Throughout my day, from my first waking blinks to my overtired stumbling into bed at night, my day is replete with ritual obligations – many of which I perform, many of which I don’t, but they’re there, and I know it. I almost wish I was a bit more Christian-like in that they have definitely mastered the art of faith. Speaking with my Christian friends, they’d often tell me, “I don’t follow religion… but of course I believe in Jesus.” That pure, simple faith is certainly important and something to which I can also relate, because try as I might to dismiss Judaism and G-d, I can’t. Religion permeates my existence, be it from deep within me, from that spark of belief which refuses to die, or be it from without, as a result of the multitudinous actions and routines which characterized my life for years, and still do to a lesser extent.  

      One truth which I’ve personally felt and have heard from everyone – religious Jews, irreligious Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else I’ve encountered, whether they fit another grouping or none at all – is the unbelievable potency of environment. A friend told me that while his family lived in Pakistan they were all very devout Muslims. Soon after moving to the United States, their religiosity started to wane. Not necessarily consciously, but it did. Things came up, details were ignored, and observance dwindled. He said that the main reason for this is because in Pakistan they had a community dedicated to observance. One couldn’t dismiss it or forget it. It was there, and so of course his family did what they were supposed to. Conversely, in the States, not everyone is doing it, not everyone believes in it, and not everyone cares about it. His story could’ve been mine or that of almost any bochur after leaving yeshiva. It’s the painful tale of so many struggling to remain religious, particularly those (re-)introduced to a Western culture. It’s incredibly cliché to point out, but with the rampant vulgarity – on the billboards, TVs, music, the way people dress and talk – how can anything holy survive? I really don’t know. (Again, I can’t help but think of all the imams, rabbis, and priests who would find common ground in their concurrent opinions about the dangers of, and problems with, Western society.)

 ~~

P.s. My reactions to reading this now:

I still think my points about environment and ritual are spot-on. Both definitely affect one’s mentality and are, frankly, ingredients for blind obedience.

~~~

Confessions of a Would-Be Apathetic Backslider - Part 7

     Most of my grandparents are dead and, I confess, a part of me is glad. It’s that part that is afraid to imagine their reaction were they to find out about the real me, their adel kinder. I shudder to think of my parents’ reaction, and am definitely more than a bit paranoid that they’ll gain access to my email account. If I was ever to truly go off the derech, I think I would have to wait till they passed-on because I don’t know if I could see them again were I not religious. After all, they’ve invested everything to ensure I grow up to be a religious Jew. No, I couldn’t do that to them. At the very least, I’d have to make very certain to hide my true identity, which would be no easy feat.

Regarding the changes thus far, my parents already see that I’m not as religious as I once was. I often don’t go to prayers when I’m home, but then again, sometimes they don’t themselves. They’re your typical modern-Orthodox baal habaas types. They probably assume I’ll end up that way too, which would be ironic. Growing up, I hadn’t intended on being all-that religious, and after returning from Israel, I had every intention of staying a right-wing, ultra-orthodox, frumma yid. Baal Habaas? Me? But I’m shocked to find that at my age, my parents’ peers – those who were the “adults” and baal habaasim when I was a child – are suddenly treating me quite differently, often sharing details of their lives which I surely would not divulge to others, including their, at times, lax Jewish behavior. And so my picture of the modern Orthodox baal ha’baas world is changing. I see the same people who, when I was child, confused me with their bare heads, and slowly I’m beginning to see the image of my future self in them. Is that where I’ll end up? Is that my fate and those of my peers? It may just end up as that.  

      All facets having been considered, I now ask myself what has been gained. Am I happier now than I was when I was religious? Yes, to be honest. I’m a bit happier, though it’s certainly not a sensual bliss. Yet I also wonder if I wasn’t perhaps simply going through a tough time when I had burned out, and that my mental association of frumkeit with depression is undeserved. Was I too harsh on Judaism? Should I give G-d a call and ask Him if He wants to go out for a coffee sometime? Rekindle that old flame? After all, my questions don’t really trouble me like they used to, and I could definitely benefit from some more time in the beis, and the gashmius hasn’t been all that’s it’s cracked up to be either. It would certainly relieve much stress and guilt to do tshuva. What then, I ask myself, is holding me back? Maybe it’ll take another burning out, this time from the other side, before I can return. But I can’t be sure, as I’m not sure of all that much these days. I do know that I’m glad to be Jewish, glad that I was given a Jewish upbringing, and glad I had the opportunity to study in Israel. Even though these things are at times a double-edged sword, then again, significant things usually are. And who knows, perhaps one day I will do some tshuva.  

      For now, though, I feel very much like Adam: spiritually naked, stuck in the mire of the meaningless work cycle, resentful of women (or, more precisely, of their allure), and, most importantly, lost, wondering and wandering outside of the Garden, reaping the repercussions of the knowledge I acquired in my college years – the knowledge of good and evil.   
 

~~~ 
 
 
 

GLOSSARY:

Adel Kinder – A gentle and pure child.

Amidah – a.k.a. Shemoneh Esreh. A holy prayer recited at each of the three fixed prayer services.

Ani Ma’amin – “I Believe”; the basic formula used in Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish Faith.

Avos – Ethics of our Fathers, a Mishnaic Jewish text.

Ayecha – “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9, asked of Adam by G-d.)

Ba’al Haba’as – Lit. Man of the house. Often used to refer to an average Jew.

Beis (Medrash) – Jewish study hall.

Bochur – Boy. Student.

Bracha – Blessing.

Chiddush – Novel idea, usually regarding torah.

Daf – Page. Generally used to refer to pages in the Talmud.

Derech – Path. (“Off the derech” – No longer religious.)

Frum (2 - Frumkeit) (3 - Frumma Yid) – Religious (generally Orthodox). It has many connotations, such as being religious with strong, right-wing leanings. (2 - Religiosity.) (3 - A religious Jew.)

Gashmius – Materialism and worldly pleasures.

Gemara – Talmud.

Halachos – Laws.

Kashas – Lit. “Difficulty”. Question. Has a connation of resulting from a logical contradiction. (See Shaylas.)

Kipa – Skullcap.

Mitzvos – Commandments; religious obligations; good deeds.

Mussar – The study of ethics and improving one’s morality; generally involves critically analyzing one’s behavior.

Off the derech – No longer religious.

Olam Ha’ba – The world to come: Referring to a spiritual heaven or an earthly utopia during the time of the Messiah.

Olam Ha’ze – This world, right now.

Pekele – Goody bag.

Rebbe – Variant form of Rabbi; generally has a connation of being well known and respected, as well as having a connation of being a personal mentor and rabbi.

Sefarim – Books. Outside of Hebrew speaking environments, the term is generally exclusively to refer to holy, Jewish books.

Shaylas – Question. Has a connation of resulting from a lack of knowledge. (See Kashas.)

Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon. According to Jewish tradition, he is the author of Ecclesiastes.

Shmooze – An informal conversation. 

Shpiel – Monologue; has a connation of being trite, unimpressive, or silly.

Shul – Synagogue or temple.

Tanach – A Hebrew acronym for the Torah, Prophets, and Writings (roughly, the Old Testament), it refers to all of Judaism’s “written scripture”, and thus does not include the Talmud and other “oral scriptures”.

Tshuva – Repentance. Lit. Returning.

Tzitzit – Religious fringes (See Numbers 15).

Viduy – Religious confession.

Vort / Vortlach – Mini-sermon/s.

Yarmulka – Skullcap.

Yeshiva – Institute for higher Jewish education.

Yetzer Ha’ra – Evil inclination.

Zemiros – Jewish songs.

Zocheh – Merit (verb).

~~~

P.s. My reactions to reading this now:

Really glad I finally “came out” to my parents - and they didn’t react nearly as hysterically as I feared. Sadly, my last grandparents have died since 2008. In particular, I wish I had a chance to speak with my maternal grandmother who wasn’t religious. In retrospect, she was actually very cool. I’m quite sad that I never got a chance to talk with her while basically sharing our religious perspective.

  1. jewishatheist posted this