Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Unchosen : The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, by Hella Winston

I got an email from a reader who has recently written a book which looks amazing.

Here's a quote from Amazon:

When Hella Winston began talking with Hasidic Jews for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, she was excited to be meeting with members of the highly insular Brooklyn Satmar sect... She never could have guessed what would happen next—that she would be introduced, slowly and covertly, to Hasidim deeply unhappy with their highly restrictive way of life and sometimes desperately struggling to leave their communities.

Unchosen : The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, by Hella Winston

Why I Am Not A Christian, by Bertrand Russell

I mentioned in my previous post that I'd read Russell's book Why I Am Not A Christian.

Kottke links to a lecture Russell gave with the same title. Pull yourselves away from the blogging amateurs for a minute and read what a professional philosopher had to say about religion.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

What Kind of Atheist am I?

Zookeeper-Benjamin asks, "What kind of Atheist are you? What are the foundations for your beliefs?"

Technically, I am a strong atheist, which means I hold "the philosophical position that God or gods do not exist. It is contrasted with weak atheism, which is the lack or absence of belief in God or gods, without the claim that God or gods do not exist." Make no mistake: I do not claim that I can prove that there is no God; it is simply my belief. However, please don't write and tell me that I have "faith" that there is no God, since "faith" has implications which don't make sense for atheists. One can't have "faith" in nothingness.

So if I can't prove it, why do I believe it, especially since I was raised an Orthodox Jew? Well, I can describe how I arrived at atheism and perhaps that will do. As early as I can remember, I believed in God, since that's what I was taught by my parents. I was a curious child, though, and I always had questions. I was also cocky and didn't believe anything just because somebody said it. My first doubts probably started when some of my early rebbeim said things which I knew to be untrue or believed to be immoral. Being curious, if a Rabbi contradicted a science book, I did more research. In the end, I found the science books to be more credible than my Rabbis, who, while intelligent and learned in one particular field, were demonstrably ignorant in other matters. Once I realized that it was possible for Rabbis (and secular teachers, too, of course) to be incorrect, I became a skeptic. If I was taught something which seemed wrong and was testable, I would test it. If it weren't testable, I would do research and find the most credible sources I could come up with.

Eventually, I realized that if Rabbis could be wrong, perhaps the Torah could be wrong. After all, what made me believe it was the word of God other than the claims of Rabbis I knew to be fallible? I started thinking about Breishit (Genesis) since it makes many claims which are relatively testable as compared to stories about people who supposedly lived 3000 years ago. The six days' account of creation seemed to contradict Evolution, which I had come to believe in through my readings, but I could reconcile the two if I sort of squinted and told myself, "Well at least the Genesis story is presented in mostly the right order."

The first thing that really tripped me up was the idea of the firmament:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. (Genesis 1:6-7.)

What was this? First of all, this seems to imply that the Earth is the center of the Universe. But more imporantly, it clearly states that some firmament actually exists and there's water on top of it. To my understanding, no such thing exists. I was troubled. I went to one of the smartest Rabbis I knew and I asked him what the firmament was. He said, "I always thought of it as the stratosphere." Huh?? That didn't make any sense at all. Combined with the other curious parts of the Genesis story like the fact that it took place in 6 days, that there was no mention of dinosaurs or of mass extinctions (pre-Flood), that it doesn't appear to agree with evolution, that it doesn't seem to realize that the Moon is a satellite nor that the Earth is a planet, I decided it must not be literally true.

Well, so, maybe it was metaphorical. Maybe it was just a pretty story. But then what about the rest of the Torah? Was the Flood just a story? How about Abraham? I was a big reader of fiction as well as science books and the stories in the Torah certainly read like fiction. Don't Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Esau sound like fiction? Aren't they a little too pat to be historical record? Joseph and the multicolored coat? Come on, now. What about Egypt? How do I know that even happened?

I read about other religions, past and present. I wondered, did the Greeks and Romans literally believe in their mythologies? How were my Rabbis so sure that the Torah is true but the New Testament is false? Why were the Muslims as confident that they're right as we were that we were? Wasn't it unlikely that I was just born into the right denomination of the one true religion? Didn't Muslims and Baptists and Catholics all think the same thing? Why hadn't all the smartest, best, and most learned people in the world converted to Orthodox Judaism if it's so obvious that we were right?

I was going to have to look at it objectively. I couldn't directly test whether a given religion was correct, since religions are so slippery. You disprove one thing, and the apologists say, "Oh no, that doesn't mean what you think it means. It means [this entirely different thing.]" I started to think about that phenomenon a little bit more. It was interesting that as scientific knowledge grew, religious claims seemed to get milder and milder. Long ago before videorecorders and Richter scales, Moses supposedly split a sea. Before we knew that the Earth rotates, the Greeks believed a god pulled the sun around the earth each day. The Egyptians thought the sun was God. Jesus supposedly walked on water. But it was fascinating that whenever we figured out how something works, religion simply accepted our explanations and shifted their claims to less impressive events. We started understanding weather better, and religions stopped claiming that the gods made it thunder and rain, at least directly. God Himself (or Herself or Theirselves) became less specific. God became abstract.

Okay, so maybe God was this abstract Thing which didn't directly cause thunder or give people leprosy for lying anymore. Maybe the Torah stories were just for the people who lived back then, so that they would understand. But if God wrote the Torah, or if God even talked to Moses, or talked to anyone, why didn't He take some easy steps to alleviate suffering? Couldn't he have just explained about tiny, invisible bugs that cause illness? If God exists at all, why does He allow such misery in the world? Why the earthquakes and the holocaust and child slavery? Why does the Torah hate gay people so much? Why does it allow slavery and condone genocide (e.g. of the Midionites and Amalek?) Even if it's not literal, even if the Torah is just allegory, and even if God inspired it rather than dictated it, shouldn't it be a better book? Shouldn't it be more moral?

I stopped believing the Torah wasn't written by people living thousands of years ago. I mean, what would it look like if it had been written by people who lived in Israel thousands of years ago? Wouldn't it reflect their ignorance and their knowledge and their hangups and prejudices? Doesn't it?

I started thinking about whether the Universe could exist in the absence of God. I read Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time. I noticed that although he went out of his way to deny being an atheist, his book presents a good case for a Universe that runs by itself according to a bunch of math and physics and randomness. Hawking didn't know what caused the Big Bang, but it sure looked like the Universe has been taking care of itself since then. I read Carl Sagan. I realized how incomprehensibly huge the Universe is. I decided there's no reason for such an enormous Universe if the whole point of creation was humanity. I read Dawkins. Obviously, he was a fanatic atheist with a chip on his shoulder. But he made a lot more sense than most of the religious apologists I'd read.

Then I started reading philosophy. I read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian and a whole bunch of stuff online. I found that Russell's and others' arguments made a lot of sense to me.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I no longer believed in God. I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but as John McCarthy wrote, "An atheist doesn't have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can't be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

JewZoo and "Deducing" God's Existence

The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike. --Delos McKown

JewZoo believes that, although "proving God's existence cannot be done," we can use our human ability to "deduce God's presence." He then quickly outlines the Ontological Argument, the Cosmological Argument (see my take), Pascal's Wager, and the Teleological Argument. He also refers to "many more proofs besides the few I've outlined here."

If deduction is what he's after, he's going about it the wrong way. Deductive reasoning is the process of reaching a conclusion that is guaranteed to follow, if the evidence provided is true and the reasoning used to reach the conclusion is correct (from the wikipedia.)

None of the deductive "proofs" he mentioned meet these criteria. As JewZoo himself writes, the Ontological Argument "does not use any evidence." The Cosmological Argument contains an unsupported assertion. Pascal's Wager isn't even an argument. And the Teleological Argument is inductive. None of these "proofs" is deductive or remotely convincing to a non-believer. Some have been discredited for centuries. They are sophistry, not honest logical argument.

So why do religious people keep bringing up the same tired, discredited arguments? I think that they believe that if they throw enough arguments at you, you'll think, "Well if even one of those arguments is right, they're right. So they must be right." But none of them is! And yet they keep using them. Don't trust people who make disingenuous arguments; they're trying to convince by trickery.

Monday, June 20, 2005

What Responsibilities Have Frum Skeptics and the Ex-Orthodox?

Ben Avuyah gets to the core of the matter in the comments of my previous post.

The only thing that gets to me is what responsibility for [the outdated ethical standards of many Rabbis] lays in our hands…I mean here we are sneaking around on the web cloaked in anonymity snipping away at our religion; doesn’t change come from those courageous few who stand up and are heard, consequences be damned.

Do I, as someone who left Orthodoxy because of moral and historical differences, have a responsibility to stand up with my real name and shout that Orthodoxy harbors too many people with iron-age ethics? When I decided once and for all to stop wearing my kippah, I did it because I could no longer grant my silent support of ideas I believed outdated and immoral, nor of the community which shuns people I respect. Is it enough to just withdraw my support or do I have an obligation to voice my opposition? What is my responsibility towards those people who are still stuck in Orthodoxy because the social costs of speaking out are too great?

What about some of my readers who are Orthodox in appearence and lifestyle but who have grave misgivings about the Rabbis and extremists who claim to represent them? What is their responsibility to voice their dissent and take Orthodoxy back from the Right? Or to criticize Orthodoxy from within, to make it evolve or die? Should they stand up publicly and say, "This is what I believe, and I'm not ashamed?" If enough people did that, where would Orthodoxy be?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Orthodox Judaism is Harmful: The Rabbis

Orthodox Judaism as an institution supports Rabbis who are ignorant and bigoted simply because they are Rabbis. If you're frum enough, you get a free pass. Yes, OJs may roll their eyes and complain to each other about such Rabbis, but they keep them employed and in positions of authority nonetheless. Here are some quotes I've heard from actual Orthodox Rabbis employed by respected Orthodox institutions with my own two ears. None of them were joking. All were addressing their classes:

Various overtly racist "jokes" using the n-word which I will not repeat.
"If you are friends with a non-Jew, he will eventually turn on you."
"If you leave uncontaminated meat in a sealed ziploc bag, it will spontaneously generate maggots."
"Can you believe that some people think we actually came from monkeys?!?!"

To my knowledge, none of these Rabbis were ever fired or even spoken to by the administration. And these were in mostly "Modern" Orthodox schools.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Leading Scientists Still Disbelieve in God

"Einstein believed in God!" I've heard that from at least five different Orthodox Jews. Einstein did NOT believe in a personal God, as he said:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly

Also, a majority of American scientists do not believe in God. Biologists, physicists, and astronomers, who should have the best tools for deciding such a question, believe even less frequently than do other scientists. In 1998, Nature published a study, in which it looked at scientists overall and scientists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences. Mirroring a 1914 study which showed similar results, they picked the NAS scientists as being the "greater" scientists and surveyed them to see how they believed.

7% believed in a personal God. 72.2% disbelieved in God. 20.8% had "doubt or agnosticism."

Of the group of all scientists (not just "greater" ones) 60.7% expressed disbelief or doubt. Even if you don't buy the "greater" scientist methodology, you're still left with a definite majority of scientists who disbelieve.

So, please don't quote me scientists as justification for your belief in God. Also, unless you're an accomplished scientist, please don't talk about how the Universe (or homo sapiens) is so complex that there must be a Designer, since the people who actually know what they're talking about disagree with you.

The Right Wing Media Knows its Listeners are Suckers

Did you ever notice how Right Wing radio shows advertise things only suckers would buy? G. Gordan Liddy advertises for "Natural" Human Growth Hormone, Michael Savage calls himself an expert on herbal remedies, and it seems like half the commercials during Hannity and Limbaugh are for some other "alternative medicine" garbage. My question is the following: do the radio hosts believe in that stuff because they're gullible, or do they just know that their audience is gullible and they're willing to expand their exploitation of them?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Orthodox Jews and the GOP (or OJs and Obedience)

According to Republican pollster/analyst Frank Luntz:

69% of Orthodox Jews voted for Bush, compared with just
23% of Conservative Jews and 15% of Reform Jews.

(Direct link to pdf.)

According to Luntz, Jews who voted for Bush mostly did so because of his "strong leadership after 9/11" (24%) and "his strong national security and anti-terrorist efforts." (23%) Only 20% of Jewish voters mentioned Bush's relationship to Israel.

This is all old news. However, I think it's indicative of a deeper and widening schism between Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

Fighting terrorism isn't a religious issue! Why then did Orthodox Jews believe that Bush was better on terrorism than did non-Orthodox Jews? I'm not aware of any halakhic or hashkakhic issues which would favor Bush in this arena. I don't think that Reform or Conservative Jews are in favor of international terrorism.

I think the answer lies in the difference between the methods that the disparate Jews gather information about the world and make decisions.

Orthodox Jews typically base their beliefs and decisions on authority, while non-Orthodox Jews believe more strongly in personal autonomy. This is indisputable. Orthodox Judaism is intensely concerned with aligning actions and behaviors with the Torah, the Talmud, and the opinions of respected Rabbis. As you move toward Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, people believe that "tradition gets a vote, not a veto" and that ultimately, decisions are up to the layperson. An Orthodox person is likely to go to a Rabbi to see what he must do; a Reform one might go to his Rabbi for advice. Reform Rabbis are permitted to decide for themselves whether they wish to perform intermarriages; Orthodox Rabbis aren't permitted to decide anything of consequence for themselves.

Bush provides "moral clarity." He speaks in certain terms. His administration is possibly the most tightly-on-message ever. He says, "this is right, and that is wrong, and that's all there is to it." Non-Orthodox Jews, being less authoritarian, gathered as much information as they could before deciding that Bush's certainty didn't make him correct. They saw that the argument for going to Iraq was a sham. Orthodox Jews, instead of searching for facts, went to Rabbis who decreed that they should vote for Bush or else listened to authority figures like Hannity and Limbaugh who decreed that they should vote for Bush. These Orthodox Jews wanted a president who seems Omniscient or is at least as infallible as a gadol. Non-Orthodox Jews wanted a president who carefully thought things through and made pragmatic, reasoned decisions.

(Disclaimer: Of course reasonable people can disagree. I'm not saying that there aren't intelligent people who made informed decisions and voted for Bush. I'm speaking in generalities, which is the only way to discuss broad groups of people, especially Jews, who, as the saying goes, have three opinions for every two people.)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Great "This American Life" Episode about God

Last week, NPR's "This American Life," was titled "Godless America." (Free online, scroll down to "Godless America.") The whole show is worth listening to, but the final act is brilliant. It's an excerpt from Julia Sweeney's one-woman show "Letting Go of God," and it tells the story of how she began to question her faith when she actually sat down and read the Bible. She hadn't really read it before and she was troubled by the contradictions (like the two stories of Genesis) and immorality (e.g. Lot offering his daughters to an angry mob; God telling Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham agreeing; a bunch of Jesus stuff my readers probably won't be interested in.) It's a touching story about how she questioned her faith, wanting sincerely to believe, before finally coming to terms with the idea that she can no longer believe in God. I highly recommend it.

If you've been brought up with Jewish schooling, try to read the Torah with a fresh eye. Don't see Rashi and your seventh grade Rabbi; see the cruelty and absurdity of text itself. If your education was anything like mine, the bad or crazy parts of the Torah were glossed over when you were young because "you aren't old enough" and later on, you were too busy studying Talmud to notice how downright crazy some of the Torah is. I'll include a short list of troubling parts of the Torah. Please don't respond with a pat answer from some Rabbi or from the Talmud about how the Torah doesn't mean what it says. No logical somersaults, no saying that the letter 'hay' negates the meaning of the sentence. If God wrote the Torah it should be able to stand on its own without seeming totally insane. I don't mind a little scholarly clarification, but don't try to tell me a verse means something totally different than it flat-out says.

1) Genesis 1:6-8. The firmament. "Heaven." It's between the waters below and the waters above. Genesis 1:14-18. The sun, the moon, and the stars (God doesn't know that the sun is a star) are created IN the firmament. In other words, the whole universe outside of earth is embedded in some sort of sphere, which has water below (okay, the atmosphere) and water above (huh?) If you want to read Genesis as a metaphor or a pretty story, I don't have a problem with it.

2) God commits the biggest multi-genocide (not to mention the killing of billions of innocent animals) in the history of the world. Promises not to do it again.

3) God asks Abraham to kill his son. Okay, it was just a test. But Abraham agrees! Doesn't that mean he failed the test? Obviously, the correct answer is, "No, voice from the sky, I will not murder my son to please you!"

4) Lot and his daughters. (Gen. 19)

5) An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. (It doesn't say and doesn't imply that an "eye" is "the amount of money an eye is worth.")

6) Slavery, fine with God. Seriously. Slavery.

7) Fathers selling young daughters into marriage or servitude. Also fine with God.

For hundreds more, please see The Skeptic's Annotated Bible. Please don't point out the weakest argument from the whole series and say, "Look, the SAB is just being nitpicky."

The Truth is just staring you in the face. It's a book written by a mostly preliterate people who lived thousands of years ago full of legends explaining how the world began, how their people began, how their enemies began, why the land of Israel is rightfully theirs, and why their Kings and laws are Divinely justified. Do you really believe that Arabs and Jews each come from a son of Abraham? How could that possibly not be a myth? And then Jacob and Esau the next generation?! Wow! What a coincidence! And then Jacob/Israel had 12 sons and each became its own tribe which remained distinct tens and hundreds of generations later? Get out.

Finally, think about this: if the Torah is true, is God someone you'd want to worship? How do you know He's good? To my eye, He does a lot of evil stuff.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

How I Left Orthodoxy

Several people have written me to thank me for my blog and to tell me that they hold beliefs like mine, but haven't been able to leave Orthodoxy for various reasons. Although I know my story won't make the trip easy for those who decide to leave, perhaps it will be of some help.

I'll begin after my year at a yeshiva in Israel*, which is where my journey away from Orthodoxy began to gather steam. I was about twenty years old, having known no institution or community beyond the Orthodox ones. Growing up, virtually all of my friends, classmates, and potential adult role models had been Orthodox, so I didn't really know what I was doing. I was scared, but it was becoming more and more clear that I had no choice. I no longer believed in God or the mitzvot and hadn't enjoyed going to shul in years, so I had to either swallow my fear and get moving or live my life knowing I'd never be completely true to myself.

The first thing I did was enroll in a secular University, which might be the perfect place to make a new beginning. I fell in with a mostly Conservadox group, whose Judaism made me feel instinctively at home and whose open-mindedness allowed me some freedom. I dated a few women ranging from semi-Orthodox to almost Orthodox who weren't put off by my atheism.

I gradually began to engage in those behaviors forbidden in Orthodoxy but which didn't conflict with my morals.** I started playing sports on Shabbat and "graduated" to watching them on television. I began to eat dairy out*** with my Conservadox friends. I stopped wearing a kippah, but put it on whenever I went home to my old neighborhood or to a kosher restaurant. (Since Orthodox people are often most likely to violate their stated beliefs for sexual behavior, my sex life didn't start to be, but rather continued to be, non-kosher.)

After college, I moved to an area with a sizeable Orthodox population and half-heartedly participated socially in the community. I had a lot of trouble, because I hated going to shul, but social life revolved around it there. Eventually, my last semi-Orthodox girlfriend and I broke up (for mostly unrelated reasons) and I realized I had to make my break. Somewhere around this time, I began eating non-kosher meat, and a few months later, started sampling pork, shrimp, cheeseburgers, and everything else. I kept kosher at home until I moved out of that apartment.

One day, I gathered up my courage and sat down to have The Big Scary Talk with my father. I told him that I was no longer religious**** and that I was moving to a less Orthodox area. He was very upset. First, he seemed to be in simple denial and then he tried to talk me out of it. I told him that I had to follow what I believed in and he said he understood, although he remained obviously disappointed. I said goodbye and went home, leaving him to break the news to my mom, who I sensed would be less upset.

Over the next few months, I spent some time with my parents, including a Yom Tov, when we had a lot of time to talk. I tried to explain how I felt and why I had made the choice I had, although I didn't spell out my atheism. They didn't disown me, but they continued to be disappointed, telling me that they wished they'd been better parents and that if they had it to do over again, they would raise me differently. They didn't explain how, although I think they meant they would have been stricter with me and sent me to a more right-wing school. I tried to convince them that it wasn't their fault, but without much success.

It made me sad to know that my parents were disappointed in me. They showed it not just by telling me so outright, but also by obfuscating when religious friends and family innocently asked them how I was doing. They didn't say so, but it was somehow implied that I continue to act religious in their presence. Of course I was willing to not watch t.v. at their house on Shabbat, but having to park my car around the block to come to Yom Tov meals which they invited me to made me feel that they were ashamed of me. Which, of course, they were.

Eventually, I came to the realization that even though my parents were clearly embarrassed by me, it was not my fault. I was being true to myself and I had gone out of my way not to hurt anyone unnecessarily. If my parents couldn't learn to accept me as I was, it was their failing, not mine. It still hurt, but it didn't make me feel guilty anymore.

It took me a couple of years to build any sort of real social life, since I no longer fit into my old community and still felt like an outsider in the secular world. Eventually, I started making good friends at work, and then friends through those friends, and finally I didn't feel so alone. I began dating, choosing to date only Jewish women, at least for a while, to prevent my parents from exploding. (I don't think my father would forgive me if I married a non-Jew. If I were already in love with a non-Jewish woman, I wouldn't break up with her because of his wishes, but although I find his attitude bigoted and immoral, I'd rather not fight that battle with him if I can avoid it.) Eventually, I found a great non-Orthodox Jewish woman whom I love.

I remain relatively close with all of my Orthodox family and some of my Orthodox friends. As I've become more comfortable with who I am, it's become easier for me to deal with them. I refrain from arguing religion with them (which is why this blog serves as a good outlet for me) while not allowing them to guilt me into religious activities I don't wish to participate in. I don't rub my lack of religiosity in their faces, but I don't deny who I am, either. I think my confidence shines through and most Orthodox people I know from my former life seem to respect me.

* It's common for Orthodox Jews to spend a year at a yeshiva in Israel following high school.
** My morals essentially consist of The Golden Rule, which means I have no ben adam l'makom rules (i.e. rules which govern Man's relationship with God, e.g. Shabbat or not wearing wool and linen), but several extra ben adam l'chaveiro ones (those which govern Man's behavior towards Man, e.g. helping the needy and not stealing.) I may expand on this subject in a future post.
*** That's Orthodox vernacular for eating anything but meat products at non-kosher restaurants.
**** Orthodox people generally use "religious" and "Orthodox" interchangeably.

Edited to add: Here are some resources for people going through this experience:
The Frum Skeptics Group mailing list.
Hillel, an Israeli organization which helps haredim who are trying to get out. (Not affiliated with the more well-known Hillel organization.)
Internet Infidel's Discussion Board. A discussion board for atheists, many of whom are formerly religious.

Monday, June 06, 2005

"Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style."

The above quote is from a brilliant essay by George Orwell called Politics and the English Language. He's not referring to Orthodox Judaism specifically, but I think the quote is nevertheless apt. He continues:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

I frequently see Orthodox people mindlessly re-using phrases which are nearly bereft of meaning. Here is one example which has lately been driving me nuts:

Wolfish Musings has a quote in the "About" section of his blog which I've heard from many Orthodox folks or people on the political Right:
They should be open-minded; but not so open-minded that their brains fall out.

Now, I think Wolfish Musings runs a good blog. I read it and recommend it. However, I wish he were more careful with such a prominently displayed but unthoughtful sentence.

Does it mean anything? What is being referred to by the image of "brains falling out?" What, precisely, is the dangerous result of being "too" open-minded which is being alluded to? Having no values? No logic? No reason? Aren't those lackings completely unrelated failings?

I ask because I've never met someone whom I believed "too" open-minded, and I have trouble imagining one. To me, being open-minded means being open to experience and truth, being ready to constantly re-evaluate your cherished beliefs under the light of new evidence. I'm calling Wolfish Musings out on this phrase, because
a) what I think he really means by "brains falling out" is: "being so courageous in chasing the Truth that it leads you astray from what you previously believed (i.e. Orthodoxy)" and
b) if he realized the meaning inherent in the phrase he was mindlessly repeating, he'd re-think his position on the subject.

If he wants to be more clear without changing his position, his advice to his children should read: "Be open-minded, but not so much that you let Truth lead you away from Tradition." I don't agree with that advice, but I suspect that is what he means, even if he doesn't yet know it. I challenge him to come up with more precise, original wording to express himself. I suspect that in the process of crafting more precise language, his thinking itself might become more precise. As Orwell writes, "[bad] language can also corrupt thought." Presumably, good, or precise, language purifies thought.

These are the rules which Orwell lays out to avoid bad language:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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..."

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Good Stuff I - Community

It's easy for an ex-Orthodox person to focus on the negative aspects of Orthodoxy, since those are the reasons we leave. However, there are of course many positive aspects as well. Most of these qualities may be found elsewhere as well, but perhaps not in exactly the same way.

One of the best parts of Orthodox Judaism which I have not yet been able to replicate outside of it is the community itself. Prohibited from driving on Shabbat, yet required to attend synagogue with a minyan*, Orthodox Jews cluster together in neighborhoods where they can each walk to the other's house. Restricted by the laws of kashrut, they are prevented from freely socializing with the non-Orthodox and are forced to eat at home, in each other's homes, or in one of the few kosher restaurants in a given neighborhood. Their children generally attend schools exclusively with other Orthodox children. Almost every Shabbat, each family eats with at least one other for the Shabbat meal. Television is forbidden on Shabbat, so children congregate in the afternoons for old-fashioned, unstructured fun.

The result, at least in my experience, was a social community far richer and more tight-knit than available elsewhere in an America which seems to be losing all sense of community due to sprawling suburbs, busy lives, and modern conveniences like cable TV and air-conditioned homes. People like to talk about how the Orthodox community pulls together in times of needs, helping the sick, comforting the mourners, and supporting the poor, and these statements are true, but it's the every day, familial closeness of the community which I find myself missing most.

Being such a tight-knit community has its downsides, of course. It can be difficult for children who cannot or will not conform to the norms. People are practically if not literally excommunicated for being gay, and as many readers of this blog can attest, God help you if you ask too many difficult questions in the classroom. If you wear the "wrong" clothes or yarmulka or hat, or if you have "wrong" ideas or beliefs, some large segment of the population may shun you. If you grow up and decide you can't be frum anymore, you can never go home again and feel a part of the community in the same way.

*quorum of ten men.