Tuesday, June 2, 2009

All-or-Nothing Judaism

I know I haven't posted in a while. Things have been crazy here in Katrina-land, what with finishing my dissertation (yes, I am now Dr. Katrina), becoming more involved in wedding planning, and preparing to move to where TF lives.

One thing I have been doing since Pesach is reading a new (for me) category of blogs: OTD blogs. OTD is a TLA (three-letter acronym) for "off the derech (path)," an adjective referring to frum, i.e., Orthodox (and sometimes ultra-Orthodox) Jews who decide they don't want to be Orthodox anymore and actually act on it. Young people, especially those in their early twenties, are most represented on the OTD blogs I have seen. I am not saying that these blogs represent a statistically significant sample of anything, but it makes sense that frum people in their late teens and early twenties would be the most likely to leave the community. By then, some of their peers are already getting married, and once one is married and has children, it is harder to leave.

I have noticed a few traits that seem common among OTD'ers with blogs. These are not meant to be exhaustive, and of course they do not apply to everyone:

-- a feeling, from an early age according to the OTD'er, that something was not right or did not "fit"
-- a skeptical personality (not surprising, I suppose)
-- feelings of isolation, arising from the above two traits, because he or she thinks that he or she is alone in his/her feelings
-- parents who are either Ba'alei Teshuvah (BTs, Jews who became more Orthodox when adults, rather than being raised as such) or who went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox/Chareidi
-- difficulty with academics, especially Gemara (this especially applies to guys)

The above four, other than the BT thing, are probably causing you all to say "duh," but it is the fifth that really threw me for a loop:

-- rather than going from being ultra-Orthodox/Charedi to modern Orthodox, or from modern Orthodox to Conservative (the latter being exemplified by Tikkun Olam of Dov Bear fame), many of the OTD'ers totally abandon Judaism as a religion. They stop wearing yarmulkes or skirts, stop keeping kosher, stop praying, stop believing in God, and even marry non-Jews. I know it's strange to put the "even" before the marrying non-Jews and not before the agnosticism/atheism, but the intermarriage thing surprised me the most. (And don't get me started on the ex-Bais-Yaakov-girl from Brooklyn who converted to Catholicism; Catholic women, you see, can be faithful servants of God and still shake hands with men. No such option exists in Judaism, of course).

To be honest, the whole situation makes me very sad.

I think that it makes me sad at least in part because I spend so much time banging my head against the wall (metaphorically) trying to figure out how to reconcile Judaism and modernity. I can't figure out why they don't try. Those who go OTD after being Chareidi sometimes try modern Orthodoxy for a while, but then they quit.


This is the crux of my post.

Many of the bloggers were raised in a type of Chareidi Judaism that was so narrow, chumra-filled, and distrustful of the outside world that they only see two alternatives: continuing in that lifestyle or eating ham. That is all-or-nothing Judaism folks.

It is so unnecessary. Why are Jewish children being raised to think that eating chalav stam rather than chalav Yisrael (or a mainstream hechsher rather than a Chareidi hechsher)is like eating pork? Why are they being raised to believe that all non-Jews and non-frum Jews are evil? Why are they being taught that believing in evolution is tantamount to atheism? Why are young men told that learning Gemara full-time is the only acceptable way of life?

This is a recipe for disaster. The OTD bloggers write things like, "When I turned on a light on Shabbat and did not get immediately punished by God, I realized this whole Judaism thing was a farce." Or, "Once I started to question biblical chronology (e.g. of a 6,00-year-old world), I just lost my faith." Or, "I couldn't get up the courage to go to college until I left frumkeit altogether."

What a waste. In the community in which I live, there are educated Jews who observe Shabbat, keep kosher, and have advanced secular educations. Yes, many of the women wear pants and don't cover their hair, but that hardly seems like the worst outcome, given the above. We are people who want to observe mitzvot, marry Jews and build Jewish families, and study Torah. It sickens me to think that Chareidi rabbis would rather run the risk of their children eating pork with their non-Jewish spouses than expose them to the type of community where Jewish culture and modernity exist (albeit somewhat uneasily) side-by-side. I know that they do not think of things in those terms, but their actions are leading down this path.

That's all-or-nothing Judaism, folks. To borrow a word from the Chareidim, feh.