Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Assumptions We Make

One of my best friends went to yeshiva in Israel for two years after high school and came back looking and talking like a rabbi. It was interesting how people responded to him. He told me that a lot of the more "modern" modern Orthodox people he knew as well as some non-Orthodox Jews would out of nowhere act defensive around him or even launch what he took to be a preemptive strike. "Why do you need to wear a black hat? What's the matter with the way you were raised?"

In a way, his very appearance and demeanor was of course an implicit critique of their religiosity, just as my leaving Orthodoxy is an implicit critique of Orthodoxy. I think, though, that a lot of their reactions were due to assumptions they were making about his beliefs that may not have been quite fair to him, or actually true.

I know this because I'm now one of those non-Orthodox people who gets instinctively defensive around some Orthodox folks. I went to an Orthodox wedding recently and although I wore a kippah out of respect, my non-Orthodoxy was obvious in my answers to the most mundane questions. (e.g. Where are you living? Not near an Orthodox shul.) I winced inwardly every time I answered such a question, sure that they were judging me negatively.

But every single one of them was nothing but kind and friendly and completely non-judgmental, at least outwardly. This was as true for the ultra-Orthodox people from Monsey as it was for the most modern Orthodox.

I just realized today that maybe they weren't all judging me negatively internally. I have no evidence that they were. Maybe they were just regular people trying to catch up. They happen to be Orthodox, and the probably think that's the best way to be, but they don't necessarily judge me negatively for choosing a different path.

I once told that same friend, who was now a rabbi in fact as well as appearance, that I was moving in with my girlfriend. Preemptively, I told him, "I'm sure you don't approve." He kind of laughed and said, "You didn't ask me." At the time, I took that as an implicit criticism, but I think I have to reinterpret it now. Now I think he really wasn't judging. If I had asked, he probably would have told me that (obviously) he wouldn't live with a woman before marriage, but that's not the same thing as judging me negatively for doing that same thing.

So now I'm going to be more careful about my assumptions.

17 comments:

GoingGoingGone said...

Interesting post. I recently had someone find out about my "skepticism" (I hate that word these days) and I was surprised that along with his urging me to speak to someone knowledgeable who might be able to answer my questions and steer me back, he also made a point of saying that he thinks very highly of me, still. I was surprised, but pleasantly so.

Anonymous said...

This is a really mature and good blog post.

Baal Habos said...

>But every single one of them was nothing but kind and friendly and completely non-judgmental, at least outwardly.

So that was you I was speaking with? ;)

littlefoxling said...

You shouldn't jump to conclusions. For example, externally, I seem and act frum. I've had many conversations with non frum people where they just assume I would take the religious view because of the way I act.

In reality, I am deeply anti religious and am actually very jealous of the non religious. I don't know how many times I've made non frum people fall off their chair by making a very anti religious comment that shocked them (that it would come from me)

You can't jump to conclusions.

Baal Habos said...

LF, exactly my point at 8:43 PM.

Jewish Atheist said...

So that was you I was speaking with? ;)

That would be awesome.

The Hedyot said...

I totally relate to how you're feeling. I also get all defensive and suspect that everyone frum is judging me harshly, even if they're tactful enough to not actually articulate the criticism. But I actually don't think it's so far-fetched. We used to live in that world, and we know that that is very typical behavior of orthodox people (at least I do). When I was a frummie, that's how I viewed people less frum than I (and certainly those who abandoned Orthodoxy). When I'm around people who feel they are close enough to butt into my life, they do make statements that indicate judgments. And when I was still frum, I was criticized for not being frum enough as they wanted me to be then. It's part of their thinking to expect and demand a certain high standard.

The only exception to this that I would consider is that there are really many secretively sympathetic people who wish they could be in our place, so of course they aren't judging us negatively. So I shouldn't jump to conclusions because maybe the Orthodox fellow I'm talking to is one of those secret sympathizers. But if someone is still a true card-carrying Ortho believer, I would expect him to be judging me negatively, even if he is smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

> I just realized today that maybe they weren't all judging me negatively internally. I have no evidence that they were.

I think it's good of you to give them the benefit of the doubt, but at least in my mind, I have plenty of evidence that they are judging me negatively. Just put on a yarmulka, act frum enough to be admitted into the inner sanctum of their closed circles, and you'll hear more than enough evidence to show you how kindly they are thinking of you.

That's one of the reasons I love the commenter Ed (AKA Lakewood Yid). He is almost always very polite and outwardly respectful, and I give him credit for that, but when he talks, it's quite clear that he has a totally dismissive and condescending view of those who are not up to his frum standards (kal v'chomr people who gave it up entirely). Ed shows us the real face of how frum people (well, at least the Ultra-O's that I come from) view people who are no longer frum.

Ezzie said...

I think this is one of your best posts, if only because it was so completely nonjudgmental. Good job. :)

AJ said...

I have two, almost contradictory comments:

(before I continue - I recently graduated college, to give you an small understanding of my general place in life)

(1) As a Modern Orthodox guy who attempts to be open-minded and nonjudgemental and tolerant and etc... I can tell you that I fail often. Maybe I'm only speaking for myself, but my guess is that I'm not. Although I try to have an attitude of 'live and let live', I know that sometimes (or even often) when I talk to friends (I'm thinking of one in particular as I type this) who have gone 'off the derech' I end up subconsciously thinking -- too bad they are not like me/too bad they are not like they used to be. At some level, in the Orthodox community, when our lifestyle is an ideal, anything that willfully and knowledgably does not follow the ideal is 'problematic'. Unfortunately, I end up judging people, or at least looking down upon them

(2) On the other hand, (and I know I am contradicting my previous point) I do think that I and others often do a moderately good job at creating a dichotomy between how we see religion as an ideal, and how we judge others. Especially for one who did not grow up religious, very few people I know 'judge' them (not because of a religious tinok shenishba (bad translation: someone who doesnt know any better) issue, but because we categorize them as living a different life system. I can even think of a different friend, who hs been 'off the derech' since i knew him in high school, who i can now (as opposed to then) think of as simply "not religious" and won't judge, as opposed to 'no longer religious', which I unfortunately do.

How do I choose which bullet point to use -- i don't choose, but i think i subconsciously define based on my relationship to them, how much they are still in the rebellious mode, etc...

Lubab No More said...

Great post!

I have a number of non-Orthodox Jewish co-workers and they often act defensively around me. I hope more people take on your new approach.

Anonymous said...

I actually think you have judged the frumies too favorably here. I think inside they see you as a sheigitz and a nebach and as having some fundamental character flaws like baal taivah or gaava that lead you astray in the first place. Also there is always that possibility that they are simply pity you.

Jewish Atheist said...

It's certainly possible and even likely that at least some of the people I spoke with were judging me negatively. The point is, though, that I can't know who is and who isn't, and I shouldn't just assume that everybody is.

Noph angel, son of Georgiel said...

We are forced to use heuristics in our daily lives which are rules of thumb tat let us make pragmatic choices. They are not foolproof but you can't live your life without making inductive assumptions based on prior probabilities. So your philosophy of not making assumptions is good but it is not practical in this case. You can tell frum yidden that you're not making any assumptions about their attitude towards you for the sake of making friendly conversation; but in your own mind the practical thing to do is to make the pragmatic assumption that they treat you with suspicion, except the ones you know for certain that don't: like ezzie here.
Such hypocrisy is one of the greatest altruisms and virtues that man is capable of because one derives so little benefit from it. Also it's a great chance to practice one's powers of lying for lying's sake. Take it from a humble professional although one not as accomplished as an Orthodox Rabbi.

jewish philosopher said...

JA, believe me, I am judgmental.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

I would posit the opposite theory as you, JA, at least an an alternate. I would suggest that perhaps those who keep quiet about your leaving Orthodoxy, and refrain from any judgmentalism, are the ones who are more secure in their level and committment of observance-- while the ones who rebuke yo are the ones who feel most insecure about their own place in observant Judaism. Kind of like the people with closeted homosexual tendencies being the most vocal and virulent homophobes (Lehavdil).

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting point, Nice.

Anonymous said...

I once had a frum guy sit next to me on the train to New York. We started talking, and he asked me where i went to shul. I sort of winced as I named one of the Conservative shuls in town, but he was very friendly, and even knew our rabbi, and spoke highly of her to me.

Once reason I get uncomfortable talking about Judaism with many frummers is because some of them will start asking me questions about Conservative Judaism, and then put me in a position of having to defend my views. And they come on pretty strong wanting to have a debate. I tend to dislike this, for one thing, I don't feel fully qualified to defend Conservative Judaism in a debate with some Orthodox rabbi who has the advantage on me in Judaic learning. Secondly, I'm not sure I'm 100% on board with Conservative Judaism, which makes me a less than enthusiastic debater, and finally, I just don't like to debate stuff in general, especially in a casual social context. I really don't mind if the Orthodox have their views which I consider nonsense, but I wish they would just agree to disagree with us non-Os and stop trying to make a debate every time we interact. For that, I was greateful to that frum guy on the train.