Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Repost: How I Left Orthodoxy

(A reader emailed to ask me how I left Orthodoxy and I wrote back an abbreviated version of the following before I remembered that I posted the following. I think there's a new crowd here now than there was when this was posted originally in 2005, so I thought it might be good to repost it. Originally posted here.)


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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

First timer (and probably last, no offense) but i would like to pose a question to you:

I believe in God, although I cannot rationally prove it. Nevertheless, I truly believe. Am I doing something wrong?

Critical Question said...

Anonymous, which god?

Jewish Atheist said...

I believe in God, although I cannot rationally prove it. Nevertheless, I truly believe. Am I doing something wrong?

You can't choose your beliefs. You can, if you're interested in figuring out what's true, do your best to get the correct information and attempt to compensate for your innate biases.

beepbeepitsme said...

That was very interesting. Thank you for sharing that with us. It is always interesting to me how and why people decide that they no longer believe in the religious faith in which they were schooled.

You had a much more difficult row to hoe than I did. My upbringing was religiously liberal (dirty word in many places), and not jewish but christian.

I suffered no noticeable parental disapproval when I decided that religion wasn't for me. The more important thing for my parents and extended family was the type of person you were and your subsequent actions.

But then, Australia is a distinctly different place when it comes to religious beliefs. It has never been, according to my observation, as "fervent" as it is in many other countries.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Interesting post. It certain does cover the how of you leaving Orthodoxy-- what about the why?

Jewish Atheist said...

NJG:

See How I Became an Atheist.

Anonymous said...

Jewish Atheist, thank you for this great post. Can you expand on the social aspect of how you made new close secular friendships (at work & etc). I'm an atheist too but still at the stage where I feel either a bit distant or unable to connect. What did you do that helped you form new relationships?
Thanks

Sidesurf said...

JA,
I have come to your website all too late, and lament having missed out on so many wonderful conversations. I have spent much of the last few days catching up.

First, a yasher koach to you for sharing such wonderful insights. I, and others it seems, truly appreciate the content as well as the tone of your posts - logical, but not arrogant; intellectual, but without the elitism.

I suppose what I appreciate the most is your ability to articulate what so many of us think, but cannot quite express so coherently or eloquently. Instead of conducting my usual religious debates, perhaps I would be wise to just pass them along to your writings...

Of course, there are areas where I disagree. For example, I would love to open up a conversation about spirituality (I am not an atheist - I just don't buy into the organized religion thing. Any relevant posts?).
For now, though, just a public thanks. As they say, may you go from strength to strength.

Jewish Atheist said...

Anonymous:

Can you expand on the social aspect of how you made new close secular friendships (at work & etc).

I'll try to post about that soon.

Sidesurf:

First, a yasher koach to you for sharing such wonderful insights. I, and others it seems, truly appreciate the content as well as the tone of your posts - logical, but not arrogant; intellectual, but without the elitism.

Wow, thanks!

For example, I would love to open up a conversation about spirituality (I am not an atheist - I just don't buy into the organized religion thing. Any relevant posts?).

I touch on it a few times. I wrote about Buddhism here and touched on some of the issues here.

Baal Habos said...

Hey, JA. Someone Emailed this to me. I see you somehow are off my bloglines, I don't know how that happened.

nice post! I love to hear this kind of stuff

Jewish Atheist said...

BH:

That's happened to me too with bloglines! Bastards.