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.


%Shocked% said...

Hmmm.. Fascinating blog post.

Couple of points. First off, the blogger who wrote "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." C'mon! I mean, what was this person's upbringing?? I come from a more chareidi background (Ugh, my yeshiva was insane lol), and not once was I told anything of the sort. On the contrary, I was told that it's highly unlikely that anything will happen instantaneously. So, that blogger clearly went OTD probably more for a lack of understanding Judaism, than understanding it and realizing that it's a farce.

Second point. Why do frum people go all the way OTD rather than sticking with some sort of Judaism? Personally I can tell you it makes no sense. For these people who have lived their entire lives as Orthodox Jews, they associate everything about it with Judaism. For example, I can tell you that, to me, a woman not covering her hair is, ummmm.. fill in harsh adjective. Tznius as well. There are countless more examples. The point being, every halacha is a fundamental statute in their eyes. Therefore, in order for them to break free from the chains called Judaism, they need to totally abandon it. Pretend (or believe) that Judaism is not the right religion. I know that if I were to go OTD I'd have to throw Judaism away completely. The guilt of doing this, but not doing that, and doing that but not this, would kill me. Every halacha is important and forsaking them all, in and of itself, is a terrible thing.

Another point along the same lines. Frum people who truly understood Judaism, all the halachos about it, etc, would never accept any other form of Judaism because they firmly believe it to be wrong. Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy (By no means am I comparing MO to the two formerly listed ones; I'm just writing a list), they've been taught that all of the above are, bluntly put, wrong. You can't expect someone to stop believing in their version of Judaism and subsist on what they believe to be wrong. It doesn't make any sense.

For your main point, agreed. The fanaticism expressed by rabbis is atrocious, and having been a part of that world for many years, nauseating in retrospect. They typify the word xenophobic (unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers). I have my fair share of stories but I'm not so big into bashing the chareidim, but they are definitely xenophobic when it comes to those who have a different view of Judaism then their own. Sometimes the fear is not 'unreasonable,' but more often than not it's totally unnecessary, and extreme to the sad degree of pathetic.

frum single female said...

you make a very good point. i couldnt agree with you more.

%Shocked% said...

FSF, that was about as much of an ambiguous statement as someone could make lol. Who was the one who made the good point? Just out of curiosity lol? :)

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Doc.

Having gone both directions (starting at something like conservadox initially) I'll post another idea.

"Modern" intellectual reasoning often attacks orthodox premises, leading to general rebellion, and so you go in whichever direction makes the most sense at the time. If you find one such premise satisfactory (after, say, properly learning about it), then it may be enough to stand upon for further observance.

(Another thing... probably worth a little research/reading to see how much has been written on it: abhorring loaded abstract labels, I prefer to distinguish observance and religiosity when I am asked to which sect I belong.)

frum single female said...

shocked- i meant that katrina made a good point...
alot of people are all or nothing about judaism and its quite a shame. i dont think that hashem thinks its all or nothing. i think that we all have to do our best even if our best may not be perfect or fit into a pat interpretaion of judaism.

Janet said...

As you say, these are only the adolescents --- adolescence goes to age 25 or so --- and it's a very adolescent thing to leave religion and write a blog about it, and to leave for those reasons. They're giving the common, most easily articulated narrative. Once they had that early emotional parting with the religion you describe, the leaving religion script becomes available to them as the way they explain their decision and perhaps they even believe that's their primary reason for leaving.

Or perhaps they do acknowledge their reasons to themselves, but they sound wrong to say, such as perhaps they just don't want to belong to a community, any kind of community, because they don't like that kind of tie.

Those emotional reasons are probably also why they aren't looking for a rational compromise. If something doesn't have the right ta'am, it doesn't matter whether it meets their rational goals. Personally I do all kinds of religious things that I believe to be stupid and extraneous because it doesn't feel right otherwise (e.g., much Pesach cleaning, wearing hats at synagogue once I get married (Gd willing)). Even if I opted out of these stupid extraneous things, it might feel wrong to join a community that doesn't do them.

katrina said...

I agree with many of your points, Janet. I do think that the accepted narrative is a convenient way for OTD's, and particularly recent OTD's, to express themselves. But for some(esp. the more experienced ones), I think it's a little more complicated than that. As they spend some time thinking things over, they tend to find their own voices more. I also think that stories that appear over and over can tell you something about problems in the community. For example, the disproportionate number of male OTD's who hated studying Talmud but felt forced into it indicates to me that offering an alternative to all Talmud, all the time, may lead to fewer male OTD's.

Anonymous said...

As a formerly Orthodox Jew, I can attest that many of the character traits you identify are indeed related to the abandonment of faith.

However, almost all abandonment is by default all-or-nothing.

Regardless of whether I am a Modern-Orthodox Jew, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, or anything in between, if I have lost faith, the inevitability is that I will abandon the religion completely.

A disillusioned Catholic does not usually become a Protestant, rather he will more likely than not abandon Christianity entirely (see Bill Maher).

Likewise, a transformation from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Modern-Orthodoxy is a dead end for it does not satisfy the natural skepticism of the OTD.

Orthodox Judaism is still the same old illogical, archaic, sexist, and regressive system no matter how you package it.

Off the Derech said...

I like how you place a lot of the blame on the society and the way it brings children up, and the often dysfunctional environment charedim can be in. You realize though, that this is just the tip of the iceberg; you have a minority going OTD, and even less blogging about it. Do you really think all who are unhappy leave, and all who stay, are therefore happy? Please. How about all those who never had questions, or start to question much later in life? How about all those kids who believed what they were taught because they didn't know what to ask, and they were terrified to ask, considering the stigma and ostracization that often comes from not toeing the party line? There's a lot more here than meets the eye.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should consider the possibility that they don't try because Judaism fundamentally doesn't make a lot of sense.