Thursday, June 02, 2005

What's Good About Leaving Orthodoxy

In this post, I'd like to focus on the positive aspects of leaving Orthodoxy. In my experience, Orthodox people often assume that you've left religion for the bacon cheeseburgers and guilt-free promiscuity, and while there is pleasure to be found in such temptations, many of us have left for deeper reasons.

The big one for me is the freedom to be myself. Such freedom lies along at least three lines: intellectual, moral, and personal.

Intellectually, I can be fearless. I no longer have to struggle to reconcile scientific truths which are becoming more and more evident with teachings from a flawed, 3000-year-old book*. If I'm interested in anthropology or history or paleontology or biology, I can go charging off in pursuit of truth without hesitation or fear of undermining my narrow worldview. If I'm studying Torah, I don't have to bend over backwards to explain an apparent contradiction or avoid thinking about the Tanach in certain ways. If a respected Rabbi, from this generation or a thousand years ago, says something stupid or offensive, I can say that it's stupid or offensive.

Morally, I am free to believe that men who love men and women who love women are no better and no worse than men who love women or women who love men. I don't have to do logical somersaults to prove that the Torah doesn't really mean what it clearly states in order to justify my moral beliefs. I am free to support and be happy for Jews who want to marry non-Jews and to be horrified at parents who guilt-trip or go so far as to sit shiva for intermarried children. I am free to check the organ donor box on my driver's license, knowing that if something awful happens to me, God doesn't want me to selfishly hoard my organs or find a way to ensure that only Jews receive them. I can be a feminist without holding back. I don't have to consult my Rabbi to see how I feel about stem cell research.

Personally, I am free to create my own traditions and to ignore the ones which are meaningless to me. If I want to have a Friday night Shabbat meal, I am welcome to, and if I want to follow it up by seeing Star Wars or driving to a friend's house, I can do that, too. I'm not restricted to living in a few big cities or Israel. I can eat at non-Orthodox and non-Jewish homes and non-kosher restaurants. I can date (or marry!) someone of any or no religion, or I can choose to date only Jews. My friends aren't all white, middle-class, and Jewish.

As a member of the human race, as a citizen of the U.S.A., as an employee, and as a friend and family member, I will always have some external restrictions. None of us is entirely free as long as we care about anything. It is my belief that we must take our restrictions carefully based on our own reason and our personal morality. After a lot of thought, I ultimately found that a lot of my beliefs and feelings were antithetical to those of Orthodox Judaism and so I am better off without it.

* Orthodox scholars with curious minds often reconcile the truths with the traditions, as is always possible with ambiguous texts and a certain amount of artistic license, but the reconciliation becomes so unwieldy and so implausible that one must really restrict himself or herself from thinking about it too carefully. Or such was my experience, anyway. If you don't believe me, try reading something like Genesis and the Big Bang with a critical eye. Or try to sit through a Discovery(TM) seminar without laughing. The least ridiculous attempted reconciliations usually take the form of "Well, we don't know for sure that this isn't what the Torah/Ramban/Rambam meant..."


Sultan Knish said...

freedom without structure is anarchy. there is freedom in throwing away structure but the ultimate outcome is a lack of content just as if we give up painting with any kind of structure or purpose, the outcome will be nothing coherent or of value

without a purpose beyond the self, freedom simply becomes incoherence

Jewish Atheist said...

freedom without structure is anarchy

Perhaps. However, it's not like my life has no structure. It's just that I can't depend on some external source to provide that structure. I choose to create my structure dynamically rather than using one which was a poor fit.

Enigma4U said...


If structure is what makes you happy, Orthodox Judaism seems a bit too relaxed to be fulfilling your needs. Perhaps living in a really structured and restrictive society, say, Saudi Arabia, would give your life the content you crave. What's that you are hearing in the background? Oh, that's the mouezzin calling you for the fifth prayer of the day. Don't forget to take your prayer mat.

mushroomjew said...

Very good post, Jewish Atheist.
You clearly delineated the problems that come with being Orthodox.
I completely agree. My problem is how to reconcile that with my wife and kids (or not to reconcile at all?).
Thanks for putting my thoughts into words.

-Mushroom Jew

rh said...

My opposition to some aspects of orthodox Judaism are similar to my opposition to a lot of Christianity. Like I dislike their stance on homosexuality and the fact that in some circles eating non-kosher food, is considered a worse of a sin than lashon harah - gossiping - and other things that one should not do, especially when non-Jews are concerned.

My rabbi said that once he worked as a chaplain in a prison, and one day he got a call from one of the prison officers there. "We've got a very religious Jew in," he said. "He wears all black, doesn't use electricity on the sabbath, he wears one of those hats". It turned out that this Jew was in for fraud...he couldn't have been that religious, could he?!

Your post made me laugh. Being a reform Jew I haven't experienced it first hand very much other than what I've heard from other people.

Chana said...

I agree with your idea of intellectual freedom, and the ability to choose. I personally see Judaism as a balance, as I formerly expressed, and therefore these ideas do not seem cruel to me. So while I commend you for finding a path that you believe allows you to be yourself, I hope you will not forget those of us who are Orthodox and have found our own way towards curiousity/ intellectual freedom. There does exist such a methodology, as I'm certain you are aware.

Pinchus said...

I am really glad that I am not alone. Your post really spoke to me. I am suffocating under the guise of being an obediant bocher amidst a family and community that could never fathom me being anything else but what I was born into. If you know Who does exist, and I am not saying He does, I really think He is steadily pushing me to become an atheist. I wish I had an atheist rav to learn from. Please keep posting to your blog. It's helpful.

Jewish Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jewish Atheist said...

(I deleted my own comment because of messed up formatting.)

Pinchus, thanks for your nice words. You might also be interested in The Frum Skeptics Group mailing list. I don't personally write much there, but others do.

Rachel said...

Thought-provoking post, JA. Thanks for this.

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