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Monday, December 28, 2009


Monday, December 28, 2009


Eliav, Tamir and Nati have all abandoned Judaism. They're only three people, but when you have as few friends as I do three of them feels like a lot. Now the only friend I have around my age who's still acting like a Jew is Moshe. He and I aren't going anywhere.

I'd like to act outraged and tell them this is ridiculous, but I'd feel like a hypocrite for doing so. Their worldview is just too similar to mine. I see religion as a long string of obligations, most of which don't appeal to me. Reciting pre-written prayers from a book is repetitive and dull. The holidays are just meaningless things you do every now and then and then get back to your life. The fasts are just something to put up with. On an intellectual level I can tell myself there's symbolic value to all the Jews doing the same thing at the same time, but that only makes me less interested. I'd rather hoard the glory for myself, not share it with millions of others.

So how can I say to my friends that they're wrong? I know perfectly well that humans are emotional, not rational. And the correct emotional response to religion is to reject it. Am I really naïve enough to think that anyone would listen to a rational argument when they have no emotional reason to do so? No, I'm not.

But here's the argument anyway. When God tells you to do something, you do it. You don't do it because you're getting something out of it, you do it because the creator of the universe wants it. And why would he/it want that? Because when a large portion of the world is doing things in his name, they become like a puddle reflecting him, each individual person a drop of water in that puddle. And puddles are pretty.

I'm not entirely sure I'm convincing myself with this argument, actually.

Religion is just something you do. Or rather, breaking it is just something you don't. There are lots of laws I don't follow, like praying three times a day. But those are the things I'm supposed to do. The laws which say not to do something, those I have no problem with. Because they're just rules. I'm good with rules. So I wouldn't even consider using electricity on Shabbat (even though everyone knows that's a silly law), or eating dairy less than six hours before eating meat, or eating bread without washing my hands first, or eating food without thanking God for it first. Any Jewish law phrased as a rule -"always do this before that" or "never do this"- those I have no problem following.

Really, is it so hard to just accept the rules? Damn it, I really do sound like a hypocrite. I'm holding onto tradition because it's something you do, not because I connect to it. But I should connect to it. Why did my friends have to abandon all this and leave me alone here? It was easier before. Damn them.

Back when I was in Yeshivah, our rabbi Yisrael Ariel (who I have a great deal of respect for) said in a lecture once that it's best to stay away from dissenting modes of thought. He said that only a small fraction of those exposed to outside ideas stay Jewish, so it's better not to be exposed to outside ideas. (I'm not misrepresenting him here, this is actually what he said.) And I thought to myself, what's wrong with him? What a kharedi attitude. And now I wish that the world actually worked like that.

The kharedim are closing in around us in Beit Shemesh. They're multiplying faster than we are, they're coming in from all over the world, and soon they'll be moving into our neighborhood and we'll have to move out. At least, that's how I've always seen it. But my friends leaving Judaism changes things for me. How can I criticize the kharedim for being so strict when this is the alternative? I agree with them that the modern world has gone too far, so how can I criticize them for imposing the old way on people? I'd be a hypocrite!

Would it really be terrible to have kharedim everywhere? To have girls dress more modestly? To be surrounded by people with as much distaste for money as myself? To have Judaism as a whole way of life, rather than just something sprinkled on top? It would be so much easier to have a connection to God if he were in everything we did. I agree with their beliefs! Other belief systems getting pushed aside, that would just make life simpler. I want life to be simpler.

And yet, I do resent the kharedim. Their way stifles emotions. But am I really naïve enough to think they'd care about emotions?

I'm not one of them. I come from a secular culture. I watch TV and read comics and play games and make games and I doubt many kharedim would respect any of that. But my own friends, who come from the same culture- I'm not one of them anymore either. I believe in God and the Torah and all the Jewish laws.

I'm not going to be like my older brother, who threw everything away and ran off to America and has been dating a Christian girl for years. I can't ignore God. But I'm also not going to be like those Yeshivah boys I knew who sat and learned g'marah like it was the most interesting thing they'd ever seen. I can't ignore my frustrations.

I'm right on the fence between two sides, and I think everyone expects me to fall one way or the other. But what's wrong with the fence? Why are you all leaving me alone here?



Fascinating read. Sounds like your religious struggle is really an identity struggle - recognising yourself (or not) in an emerging culture or in an established one.

This probably deserves a more serious response than what I'm groggily capable of now, but I thought it was interesting that you're considering yourself on the fence, because I consider myself on the fence. I felt like I had to move away from where I was born to make it to the fence. Why are you assuming we are born on it? It seems to me we're born way on the religious side, even if not exactly haredi yet.

I also actually agree with you, though it's a kind of broad statement so possibly not on the specifics, that the modern world has gone too far, but this is a notion you can very easily hold as a secular person. Being secular just means you use a way to deal with the world that isn't religion, not that you give up on spiritual awareness and cultivation.

It's a very interesting point you make about the haredi way of life. I, too, (sometimes) admire this idea of living a life utterly immersed in spirituality. The flipside, of course, is, as you imply, a kind of scorn for fun and emotion, and as you strikingly don't, an intellectual absolutism that causes immense suffering.

It's always a balance, I think, between spirituality and morality (for me spirituality involves fun too). One tends to come at the expense of the other if you're not careful. My conclusion was that the Jewish balance wasn't a good one and that I needed to try and get my own. The question I think you need to ask yourself - and I'm only allowing myself to ask this because the answer was until recently yes for me - is is Judaism enough? Because if it isn't, you may be shutting yourself off from something that is.

By the way, I honestly don't think Judaism is a bad option. I just think it's important you genuinely choose it rather than just continue what you were born into. I myself didn't feel I'd ever done that, though it's perfectly possible that one day I will.

"Is Judaism enough?"

That's kind of a funny way of putting it. I hardly see how throwing away your only link to God is striving for more.

It isn't if it ends with throwing it out. Do you really think Judaism is the exclusive way of linking to God? Even when I was extremely relgious I never thought that. My point, which I understand you don't agree with, is that religion restricts your ability to connect to God by claiming to be so absolutely all-encompassing that it's pointless to even consider anything that ever happened anywhere outside of the Jewish arena. You even get the occasional fervently orthodox Jew who thinks this is misguided - Rambam and Rav Kook are the ones that spring immediately to mind. Gentiles and atheists have occasionally contributed things that weren't completely useless, and they didn't all lead a life of shallow licentousness.

I'm sorry, I just don't see how abandoning one form of spirituality is the first step to finding another. Looking for spirituality wherever it might be is laudable, but that has to be on top of the commandments which are addressed to you personally, as a member of the Jewish race. If you yourself can point to examples of religious Jews who accepted outside ideas, it means that being open-minded does not preclude holding on to Orthodox laws and traditions!

Regarding your earlier comments vis a vis the "fence" I consider myself on: When I was in Illinois my uncle said to me that all Jews consider themselves to be in the "middle". Everyone stricter than them is crazy, everyone less strict than them is a heretic. I told him that he's absolutely right, everyone more strict than me is crazy and everyone less strict than me is a heretic.

But regardless, I think it's fair to consider myself in the middle because I know I'd be very comfortable living either under kharedim or under khilonim (secular Israelis, for any non-Israelis reading). (I can say this with some certainty, having been in both religious and secular schools.) In both extremes of Jewish society I'd be just weird enough to be happy and get into interesting arguments, but not so weird that people might hate me. It's just this middle ground, with the two groups living side by side, that I'm uncomfortable with. I don't know which status quo I'm supposed to be rebelling from.

From my perspective you've already jumped off the fence on the khiloni side. If you're not keeping any Jewish laws then how is that still a part of your identity?

I think that Rambam and Rav Kook (I should probably qualify this by saying I actually know quite little about them) were going against the grain of Judaism, and, yes, that they might have gone on to bigger and better things if they tried to be a part of the world in general rather than just their insulated community. On the other hand, they did help to bring modern conventional Judaism closer to the themes I consider important, so maybe it's a good thing. But it's still kind of like improving the standards of a prison. Is the imprisonment even justified in the first place?

Also, I don't know about religious schools, but I think you're wrong in thinking you'd be accepted in haredi society. You'd be expected to spend your day learning and people would feel comfortable giving you a hard time about it. The tolerance you enjoy is a secular concept that's seeped into Modern Orthodox Judaism.

It's true, in retrospect, that I'm not really any longer on the fence. But I spent a few months there, deciding I don't accept Judaism as dogma but am holding it up for consideration, still keeping to its basic tenets while I make up my mind, which I then did, and now I think everybody should be free from religion, for reasons I'm not sure I fully understand myself and that I'm only trying to force down your throat because I get the impression you enjoy these arguments.

I still don't think I've explained where I think religion is harming you, but I've written too much to give up now. I guess if you're a pluralistic, scientific, completely free-minded observant Jew, then you're okay, but I just think that's no longer in the spirit of Judaism. I could carry on with all these commandments, but it just felt irrelevant to what I thought the world was about. I should probably have another go at this later. Thanks for tuning in.

"I'm sorry, I just don't see how abandoning one form of spirituality is the first step to finding another."

Strikes me as obvious, really.

Mory, a bit of advice, never, I repeat Never discuss religion in this manner, all you get is a lot of trouble.

as every one has their own level of belief for an example by my scale you're a 7 I'm a 9 and so and so is -613. while on so and so scale, I'm a crazy religious nut, your just crazy and he is enlightened. just like your argument that communication via music and regular speech doesn't fit, so the scales between Jews and the rest of the world have little in common.


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