Sunday, December 10, 2006

On my Future as a Jewish Atheist

When I was a child, it was easy to picture what my life would be like as an adult. My community was warm and vibrant and the rhythms of life were stable and comforting. It was so easy to picture living a life like that as an adult, stepping into my father's role in a similar family, living on a similar street, participating in a similar community. Marry a woman after college, have a few kids, go to a nice shul, have Shabbos lunch every week with one or two of the dozens of families we're friends with who live within ten minute's walk, gorge on food and nap away the Yom Tov afternoons...

Everything was so simple there. Life was waiting for you. You go to YU or one of the other schools with high Orthodox populations, and you find your wife. You move your family into a neighborhood and -- BAM -- instant community. You've got family, friends, community, a support system, forced downtime. Beautiful.

I can see why even people with serious theological questions stay. I couldn't. I couldn't sit in shul and pretend or keep quiet when I felt Orthodoxy was wrong. Seems kind of like a dumb reason to give up all that, but I needed to be somewhere were I could be proud of who I am instead of pretending to be someone else. I felt like a hypocrite wearing a kippah to work already believing most of the things I now write on this blog. Christian Morganstern wrote, "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you," and the frum community did not understand me.

So I left, and now I'm out here, figuring things out on my own. I'm not trying to act like I'm some kind of hero -- this is probably how most middle/upper-middle class Americans live their lives. But compared to how I grew up, it's a lot harder. I still want to get married someday, but I couldn't have done it right after college. I'm pretty sure I want to have kids, but how can I provide them the community I grew up in? I had probably 20 friends whose houses I could walk to on Shabbos afternoon without even an invitation. I went to school with most of them practically from the time I could walk.

It seems that people "out here" form much smaller communities with extended families, a couple of neighbors, and a few random friends picked up here and there. These communities are not just small but loose, often dispersed geographically across a region or even the country. In some important ways, it's not a community at all.

So it's hard to picture my future. I'm trying to figure it out as I go, but I don't know if I'll ever find something like where I grew up. I think I understand now why so many of my real-life friends who slacked in their practice in their early twenties went back to Orthodoxy when they married. I'm not them, though. I don't fit there.

40 comments:

RebPropagandist said...

Boy would I love to talk with you. This situation hits "home" hard. I'm sure that most people that left feel the same. I'm sure you've heard of Footsteps already. Well anyway if you can contact me I'd really appreciate it.
Thank you
Ben

BTA said...

Orthodoxy is about indocrination from day one. From the kippah to the tzitis and school with the pretend shabbos in class, kids are taught that this is life. The sole aim of chinuch is the removal of one's bechira.

How hard it must be for you to leave it all behind growing up indoctrinated. But you did it for your psychological health. There are many BT's, probably most, who flee secular life taking the fast ticket to community life, rhythm of life, etc.

Godol Hador is just more entrenched than you and just can't leave. He also probably doesn't have the cajones to leave. It's not like attaining nirvana, it's just the relief of shedding a false skin. I totally commend you in that department and feel we're simpatico.

LT said...

BTA,

the relief of shedding a false skin.

This is where I disagree with you and think you're not being entirely fair to XGH. You say "false" with a sense of absolute certainty. But we know absolute certainty is an impossibility. It is in that small gap of uncertainty that XGH (and countless others who live Orthoprax lives but lack blogs) find room to harmonize their thoughts and their actions.

He thinks OJ is probably wrong. But he humbly acknowledges that he could be wrong and OJ could be right. Thus, he lacks a compelling reason to leave a community and lifestyle that enhances his life.

JA, you said:

the frum community did not understand me.

They didn't. And BTA is right that indoctrination is a major focus of the OJ movement as it stands. But awareness is growing. LW MO is still in its infancy - it is still developing. Perhaps I'm being a naive optimist, but I think that within a few decades there will be enclaves - LW MO communities and shuls in which people who are orthoprax can feel more comfortable and find others who feel the same way they do. Perhaps if such communities were around already, you would have been able to find places where you would feel understood. And perhaps in that, you would have had an easier time harmonizing your beliefs and actions... and dare I say, an easier time finding happiness.

Baal Habos said...

JA, find yourself and nice Jewish Athiestess (is that a word?) and settle down and in a nice JA community where everyone in shul has the same non-beliefs. Send the kids to a JA yeshiva. Have lunch on Shabbos with JA friends. The Jewish lifestyle is not so bad, once you she dthe restrictions. I had the opportunity recently to daven in a shul much more modern than my own shul. It was great. I felt like everyone there was a skeptic like me even though, I have no idea. Davening was way too long, but I still enjoyed Going to shul and listening to the Chazzan (for around 10 minutes). Shabbos lunch, even zmiros is fine. Believe it or not *sometimes* I still think Shelo Asani Goy. Then again, I must admit that I've got shackles on, and I know that my mind is helping me make the best of it.

IT, you state that part of it is the uncertainty that GH and others go through that keeps us in place. I don't think so, I think it's more the social constraints such as family and social ties. Sure there's always this teeny weency uncertainty but then maybe Christianity with it's new testament as an improved Judaism is the way to go. If you asked XGH for odds on the truth behind OJ what do you think you'd get 5 to 1? Or A million to 1.

Jewish Atheist said...

rebpropagandist/ben:

I don't know how to contact you. :-) Feel free to email me, though.


BTA:

But you did it for your psychological health.

I think you nailed it.


LT:

LW MO is still in its infancy - it is still developing. Perhaps I'm being a naive optimist, but I think that within a few decades there will be enclaves - LW MO communities and shuls in which people who are orthoprax can feel more comfortable and find others who feel the same way they do.

I think there already are places like that, at least for young singles. We'll see how sustainable it is for communities of families.


BH:

JA, find yourself and nice Jewish Athiestess (is that a word?) and settle down and in a nice JA community where everyone in shul has the same non-beliefs. Send the kids to a JA yeshiva. Have lunch on Shabbos with JA friends.

I think that's basically what the Reconstructionists tried. Doesn't seem to have worked too well.

XGH said...

JA, I think you are making a HUGE mistake here. You are presumably younger, not married yet, no kids yet. Life will seem very different when you have kids and you get older, believe me. Community, family and roots are all very important. So you don't believe a word of it, so what? My shul is full of comfortably Orthoprax people. You don't need to believe in anything. And you think the outside world is so much better? There's just as much nonsense there as well. Your kids are likely to gravitate to Christianity eventually, and then you will have just exchanged one set of crazy beliefs for another. I'm not arguing from a religious standpoint here, just common sense. I don't think you will gain anything from cutting yourself off from your roots. Stay involved.

XGH said...

Also, read 'Respecting the Wicked Child', if you haven't done so already. And join a LW MO shul, like mine. There are plenty of Orthoprax in LW MO. Come for shabbos! You can stay by me. email me for the address!

Orthoprax said...

I know people who have left and then came back. I spoke to one once about it. He still has all of the same questions that he had before but he realized that almost all of the same kinds of issues that you find within Orthodoxy exist outside of it as well.

People are people.

littlefoxling said...

I couldn't sit in shul and pretend or keep quiet when I felt Orthodoxy was wrong. .

Try talking during davening. It makes a world of difference. :) Seriously, though, I have to agree with baal habos. There are enough JA's out there. Why not be part of their community. It doesn't have to be hypocritical. You don't have to say you are doing it because you believe in it. You can say you are doing it for cultural, traditional, communal reasons. That's the real motivator for most religious people and I think you'd be surprised how many people would admit to that. There's no other way to justify that most religious people follow the religion of their parents.

Stephen said...

Community is built around having things in common (obviously). One of the great advantages of belonging to an orthodox religion is the easy access to a community that is part of the package.

I suppose it would be possible to build a community around the common experience of being former Jews, or former Christians, or whatever. I see some of this in the blogosphere: people whose lives are now oriented to attacking religion, which gives them entry into a virtual community of like-minded antagonists of religion.

But how pathetic to build your identity around something so negative!

Since I've drifted into an unorthodox, reduced sort of Christianity, I have been unable to find a community. It has taken me years to give up on that ideal, but I think I'm pretty much there now. It occurs to me I could join a theatre group or a tennis club or something: but I feel no compulsion to go that route.

Orthoprax said...

Stephen,

"I suppose it would be possible to build a community around the common experience of being former Jews"

The unique thing about Judaism as compared to other religions is that being Jewish is also a national/ethnic/cultural heritage as well. That's why it's not a contradiction, as is often perceived in the wider world, for such a thing as a Jewish Atheist to exist.

In a large part, the State of Israel is itself a kind of experiment to test the longevity of the Jewish people outside of a strictly religious construct.

Most of the early zionists were essentially producing a new Jewish community based on common secular nationalistic ideals.

RebPropagandist said...

Community can make the world of difference in our pursuit of happiness in life. But why suffer through a community that perpetuates falsehoods onto a new generation? If you go to a shul even if you're open with your heresies you're still helping the cause of Religious Superstition. Would you hang out with a gang just for the sense of brotherhood?

I say we need to isolate the positive factors that evolved to make the Orthodox community such a warm and benevolent (in-group only of course) society; Then we should strive to emulate those characteristics in the Real World, only this time we do it right.
Similar to what Richard Dawkins(give him another chance ;) ) says regarding western morals [he points out that they developed despite religion not because of it.] I'd say the same towards human happiness and community. The difference is that we have not reached the level of happiness that the primitive imaginary friend impulse has provided. We need to strive to get there and further.
We already have sciences in place that can help us understand the phenomenon better: psychology (for individual happiness), sociology and
anthropology among a host of other sciences that can provide us with the necessary information we need to move forward.
But for now, why not just enjoy a nice shabbos style meal with some people you enjoy? If you do that on a fairly regular basis I don't think you'll feel the pinch of areligionsim (new word) as much.

I have a dream said...

JA wrote:
I think that's basically what the Reconstructionists tried. Doesn't seem to have worked too well.

Can you please expand on this? Do reconstructionists not have a close-knit community?

What about secular humanist Jews?

http://www.citycongregation.org/index.php

Have you (or a/o here) actually joined or know any member/s of these congregations?
How do you define workability?

BH wrote: JA, find yourself and nice Jewish Athiestess (is that a word?) and settle down and in a nice JA community...

Any ideas on how to go about finding a nice Jewish Athiestess (dunno if that's a word, but I like it :)) or Jewish Atheist?

Billie Jean said...

I think I'm channeling you, JA... I just posted about going it alone... I was talking about philosophically but have still linked you.

This is hard but I do think there are close knit communities that aren't Orthodox. Especially in Israel. I am hoping to get the best of both worlds, but then we're still praxing so it's different.

I live in a small(ish) town so things are a little different here, but for all intents and purposes our crowd is pretty much LW MO, and some people are leaning towards Conservative. People do what they like and don't get put into cherem for it. We're secretly skeptical, others of our friends are more openly so and not ostracized for it.

I hope we find our place and I hope you find yours too.

RebPropagandist said...

It reminds me of this guy I knew in Telse Stone a super yeshivish town in Israel. The one chassidishe guy that ran a shul was also the only guy that openly admitted to owning a t.v set. He would hold tisshin, and daven for the amud. He would stop the minyan to read off jokes from the Yediot Achronot (strictly contraband in frum circles). In more private settings he would scoff at the claims of yiddishkeit. ("you really think the Egyptians went through that and left no record?!" etc.)
He would always say that he couldn't understand why chassidim had to have the tish and the heimishkeit only with the "mofsim".
He actually showed that it's possible to have all the benifits of a tight nit community of friends that are even hassidic without all the bullshit.

jewish philosopher said...

JA, just in a nutshell, what turned you off so much?

Jewish Atheist said...

I have a dream:

Can you please expand on this? Do reconstructionists not have a close-knit community?

It doesn't seem like there are a whole lot of them out there. I attended a couple services, admittedly in a smaller city, and it was basically 8 old people and a couple of teenagers.

What about secular humanist Jews?

That's a possibility. We'll see.

Any ideas on how to go about finding a nice Jewish Athiestess (dunno if that's a word, but I like it :)) or Jewish Atheist?

You'll laugh, but I use Jdate. :-) I'm just very clear up-front about my non-practice and non-belief.


JP:

JA, just in a nutshell, what turned you off so much?

That I had to keep my mouth shut and pretend I was religious.

jewish philosopher said...

OK, but I mean why didn't you want to be religious to begin with.

Jewish Atheist said...

Are you serious, JP? It's not like you're new to my blog. I didn't "want" to be religious because I don't believe in God or Torah m'Sinai. If you want to ask why I don't believe, I'll direct you to go read my last thousand posts.

XGH said...

JA, there's a lot more to religion than beliefs. If most/all religion is so obviously bull, how come it has such a strong hold on people? It speaks to something very basic about the human condition. People (for the most part) want organized spiritusality, ritual, lifecylce events ceremonies (bith, marriage, death ect), community etc, all the things religion gives. Giving up on Judaism will inveitably result in you or your descendants latching on to some other religion or quasi religion (new age, cult, TM whatever) which could quite possibly be a lot worse. You can't win. Better to saty within the fold and effect changes from within. Read Irwin Kula's new book on Yearnings. There are no absolute answers, only the quest for answers. Being in an inherently conflicted position (e.g. being atheist/agnostic within a fundamentalist community is a great opportunity to really search. People in secular land aren't searching for anything, except for the next fleeting moment of instant gratification. Their lives are empty. Don't waste your life.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm serious. Your posts seem to be mainly political. Did "The Blind Watchmaker" turn you off?

KiddushClubGuy said...

Athiest. I'm another guy who hears you loud and clear. I am 60 years old you have, in a nutshell, placed my entire life, up to this point. Other than one boyhood friend who thinks (like me) There aren't many folks, other than my wife, who I can reveal my true beliefs (which are none) Yet at the same time I live an OrthoFlex lifestyle. My kids have married (no need to worry about the shidduch crisis)spouses who are more relgious than anyone within 12 sq miles. The relationships are good. I have to say it's a good life but I disagree with XGH about other lives being empty. Believe me 85% of American Jews are not observant and they also have friends and children who love them and who are devasted when they die. So the next time your'e in shul on shabbat about 11:30 and you see a guy bullshitting with some other flex-doxJews waiting for the Glenlievit/McCallan 18 Year, tap me on the shoulder and say hi. DON'T LET YOUR KIDS GET FRUMMER THAN YOU

Jewish Atheist said...

XGH:

There may be something to your point about my descendants becoming Christian or joining a cult or something. I hope not.

I can't agree that everyone who's not a fundamentalist religious person (or acting as if) are all about instant gratification, though. There are plenty of deep, soulful (it's a metaphor) secular folks.


JP:

I'm serious. Your posts seem to be mainly political. Did "The Blind Watchmaker" turn you off?

There's a little search box at the right. Search for things. I've posted many times about atheism and why I am one.


KiddushClubGuy:

Very interesting perspective! Thank you. I'd love to check out your blog but it's giving me a 404.

Jewish Atheist said...

RebPropagandist:

But for now, why not just enjoy a nice shabbos style meal with some people you enjoy? If you do that on a fairly regular basis I don't think you'll feel the pinch of areligionsim (new word) as much.

That might be the best advice on this thread. :-)

XGH said...

> I can't agree that everyone who's not a fundamentalist religious person (or acting as if) are all about instant gratification, though. There are plenty of deep, soulful (it's a metaphor) secular folks.

Of course not everyone. But the general culture out there is pretty bad. Good luck finding a community with solid values.

Juggling Mother said...

The sad thing about the modern world is the loss of local communities.

the great thing about the modern world is that you get to make your own communities - out of the people you chose, not just those you grew up with/near.

work out what type of things you are looking for and join those groups!

I dropped any pretense of wanting any of the paraphanalia of Jewishness when I left home at 18, so no shabbos or shul. religion is mostly irrelevant to me, so it's not something i asked about or looked for. But I went to debating societies, political groups, activist groups and such like. I attended and threw dinner parties. I joined sports clubs and social clubs.

I found plenty of people to make into my community - without having to pretend about anything!

You will not find hundreds of people with exactly the same views as you on everything. But it would be boring if you did:-). Even the frum disagree about many things - it doesn't stop the community working. Just find enough local people to instigate your own traditions and you have a community!

Or go join the army;-)

Or have kids - once youre caught up in the whirlwind of school etc, you get a ready made community!

Anonymous said...

If someone leaves yiddishkeit, it's very doubtful that he/she will survive.

Especially if they are married and have grandchildren. JA is extremely lucky that he is not yet married (not having to deal with a wife,in-laws and kids). The frum skeptics have to deal with loss of family,loss of community, loss of jobs (many have businesses that cater to the frum olam, many skeptics work for frum people and would likely get fired if they decided to out themselves !!) Many frum people (especially charedeim) are living hand to mouth and barely can make ends meet.

People who don't leave a bad marriage and stay for the sake of the kids are responsibile. Sometimes that's more important then "the courage of your convicions".

By the way, leaving a bad marriage is easier then leaving yiddishkeit as a married adult with a family.

What i will never understand is how the skepics (like xgh and others) keep on having kids ??

It's tough enough putting on an act for your existing family. Why bring another child into the world and spend tens of thousands of dollars on teaching him/her a lie ????

When i lost my emunah i told my wife that she has to use birth control (without asking a rabbi) or i will get a vasectomy or will use a condom.

I'm sorry, but having a child after becoming a skeptic (and still being in a community even if it's LW MO) dosen't make any sense, whatsoever.

david said...

Great, honest, brave post. Never mind those who will judge. Just keep figuring it out as you go, and keep us all posted.

littlefoxling said...

XGH said
Their lives are empty. Don't waste your life.


Being secular doesn't mean you are wasting your life. Fighting cancer, aids, or poverty in the name of altruism is more meaningful then fighting science, liberty or progress in the name of God.

Jack's Shack said...

I couldn't sit in shul and pretend or keep quiet when I felt Orthodoxy was wrong. Seems kind of like a dumb reason to give up all that,

No that seems like intellectual honesty. No reason to live a lifestyle that you do not believe in.

snaars said...

I'm in a similar predicament. I've come to the conclusion that since I don't belong to a particular community, I will have to build one. Not sure what that entails yet; it might just mean bringing a few people wih similar interests together for friendship and support.

I can understand your not wanting to give up your Jewishness (were such a thing even possible)! I'll bet you don't have a lot of trouble finding a cohort of fellow atheist Jews.

It won't be the same thing you grew up with, but nothing will be. You have to move forward regardless.

Jewish Atheist said...

Juggling Mother:

the great thing about the modern world is that you get to make your own communities - out of the people you chose, not just those you grew up with/near.

Good point. :-)

Or have kids - once youre caught up in the whirlwind of school etc, you get a ready made community!

And another!


Anonymous:

If someone leaves yiddishkeit, it's very doubtful that he/she will survive.

Not sure what you mean by this.

What i will never understand is how the skepics (like xgh and others) keep on having kids ??

It's tough enough putting on an act for your existing family. Why bring another child into the world and spend tens of thousands of dollars on teaching him/her a lie ????


I don't know. I loved my childhood.


david:

Thanks!!


snaars:

It won't be the same thing you grew up with, but nothing will be. You have to move forward regardless.

Yep. That's exactly it.

jewish philosopher said...

If worse comes to worse, a lot of lonely people take up drinking. My dad did that.

jewish philosopher said...

Also, thank you; by using the search box I found this post which explains in detail why you became an atheist.

The only problem is, I can’t help but feel, it doesn’t explain the REAL reason.

Here’s what I mean.

You explain how the many apparent flaws and errors in Judaism turned you off, and you explain how the rabbinical explanations for these flaws and errors seemed unconvincing to you. OK, fair enough.

However what about the flaws and errors of atheism? Why don’t these disturb you? Why don’t the explanations for them seem flimsy to you?

For example, you are very disturbed that the Torah “condones genocide (e.g. of the Midionites and Amalek?)” Allegedly, ancient Israelites killed innocent Amaleki children several thousand years for religious reasons. However why doesn’t it disturb you that the atheistic North Korean government is right at this moment commiting mass murder of it’s own citizens? Why doesn’t it bother you that every atheistic government has a horrendous human rights record?

To give another example, the Torah teaches that world was created in six days and this contradicts the fossil record. Darwin, however, taught that life developed very gradually, which also contradicts the fossil record.

I would be happy to discuss this will you and I can guarantee you that, as a former atheist myself, I can ask you a question about atheism which will match every question you can ask about Judaism. All this is easily available through theistic and creationist books and websites. Why don’t you read them too? Why don’t they bother you too?

In any case, there is apparently some other reason behind the reasons; some reason why you chose to selectively study the evidence and ignore all the arguments against atheism. Seemingly something about Judaism bugged you or something about atheism attracted you before you did any research. That’s what I would like you to share with us.

Before complaining about being unhappy as an atheist, I would like to know why you are actually doing it to yourself.

swurgle said...

JA - I appreciate your post. Living in an MO stronghold I can see the personal benefits and the problems with a closed system like that. I also see many problems that develop when people in a self-created closed system are forced to to live in close proximity and interact with outsiders like me.

While the world outside of these self-created "shtetls" is not a dark and forbidding place of moral debasement and loneliness, finding and maintaining a community of likeminded souls takes a bit more effort than you would have to expend in the shtetl. It's worth the effort though if you refuse to live a lie.

Jewish Atheist said...

JP:

I don't think this post is the time to get into all that again. I've addressed all those points on this blog and in email.


swurgle:

It's worth the effort though if you refuse to live a lie.

Agreed!

jewish philosopher said...

Where can I find it in the blog?

Jewish Atheist said...

JP:

We've discussed what you perceive to be flaws and errors in atheism by email. Also the fact that Darwin wasn't exactly right about everything. I can't find right now a discussion about the difference between atheism and totalitarian governments which happen to be atheistic, but they're all over the 'net if you are curious. Finally, I'm not an unhappy atheist. I'm simply mourning the fact that I won't have such an easy time finding a community like the one I grew up in.

Please take other off-topic questions to email.

jewish philosopher said...

But Atheism is The Topic here!

I think somehow being anti-God means being anti-human too. I'm not quite sure why, but I get that feeling. Maybe buying a cat could help. My father did that towards the end.

TheAleph said...

Hello, a Jewish agosticette here,

It takes so much courage to do what you have done.
I came from a yeshivish home, and left it over many torturous years of doubt and fear. Its very frightening to imagine an identity and future that could be happy and meaningful outside of the prefab dreams and goals we were handed at childhood.

But its out there! There is community outside of fundamentalism! There are warm, healthy happy atheistic / agnostic families. I plan on having one of them.

Sometimes, I am scared shi*less by my future—its so blank, so unknown. But most of the time, particularly when I achieve new goals I once thought impossible, I become excited, elated, by the adventures and creative possibilities my life will have.
I wish for you strength. Being a pioneer is tough, but it means you get to discover new worlds.

Feel free to contact me: free7dom@hotmail.com