Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts by my Friend's Siyum

I had a very emotional experience last night.

I was by a Siyum Hashas made by a friend of mine.

He is the the only person in the frum world who I’ve told about my loss of faith.  Throughout all the years of struggling with my doubting, he was the only person who I confided with.

We know each other since we were together in the same yeshivah. I was in 9th grade and he was in tenth.  Then, we were each considered in our respective grade to be the best bachur in the grade.  

A year later, my friend had gone to a new yeshivah, which he was soon suspended from for expressing skeptical thoughts.  The story goes that he had approached the Rosh Yeshiva and asked him to prove to him the existence of God.

During his suspension, my friend came back to our old yeshiva for shabbos.  We spent many hours shmuzing together over that Shabbos, about where he had come from, where he was, where he might end up.  I remember being devastated that he was falling away from yiddishkeit, from his belief in Hashem and the truth of Torah.  I remember thinking then how his questions sounded ridiculous to me.
Motzoei Shabbos, I wrote him a letter. A letter written with tears.  A letter in which I begged him to reconsider his emunah, and to come back to Yiddishkeit.  I wrote to him how much I believed in him, how much potential I believed he had.  I’ll get back to that letter a little later.

I handed him the letter, and he read through it.  He told me that I had no idea how far he was.  The letter was irrelevant.

Flash forward a few years, and my friend had somehow discovered Kiruv Rabbanim who were able to convince him of the Torah’s truth. We were back together in the Mir, and we spent hours every day discussing Hashkafa and Avodas Hashem.

After we married, my friend decided that he was going to start taking learning seriously.  He started learning through Nach, Midrash, etc.  He developed a system for himself to cover tremendous amounts of ground.  And last night he made his siyum Hashas.

I also learned a lot over the years.  Not all of shas, but a considerable portion of it.  I was never able to get my act together with keeping systematic schedules for covering ground,  I was more of a thinker, able to contemplate and discuss a single idea from many sides for hours on end.

But more importantly for me, around five years ago I started losing my faith that Shas is even a work worth investing in.  Midrashim, etc.  I became more interested in works of philosophy, even Jewish philosophy.  I started my degree which required reading up on psychology and sociology.

For reasons that I may talk about in a different post, even after all our discussions about skepticism and kefira, he still remains a strong believer.

Last night by the Siyum, during his drasha, my friend took out the letter I had written him 19 years ago.  He read a passage which he had once reminded me of.  I don't remember the exact wording, but the idea was that I was daring him which once of us would finish first or come closest to finishing by our 36th birthday, Tanach, Shas, Midrashim, Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Rambam, and the major mephorshim.

He of course didn’t mention my name, but he called out in his drasha, that as far as he knows, the writer of the letter hasn’t finished anything - A biting statement, not entirely true - and he basically dared me to join him.  He doesn't like racing alone.

I appreciated that he made that statement, even though he knows were I’m holding. I felt obliged to take him up on it. For the accomplishment, for the challenge.  To show him!

But also to remember who I once was.
I was once a fifteen year old bachur who sincerely believed with all his heart and soul that there is a God, who gave the Torah to Klal Yisroel, and we the Charedim, have it.

I was once a fifteen year old bachur who cried for his friend who had lost his emunah.

I was once a bachur who thought that the greatest accomplishment a human being can achieve is to finish the entire Torah literature. 

I am not unhappy about who I’ve become.  That’s not my point.  It’s something much more nostalgic, maybe.  Maybe it’s something I can get back to later.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Torah Claims and Science Claims

What was it that caused me to lose my faith? It wouldn't necessarily be that I was exposed to new information which I didn't know about earlier.  I think it was more that I acquired a new way of looking at and processing the information which I already had. A new paradigm, if you will.
It didn't happen in one blow either.  It took small steps, with what I call eureka moments every now and then.

Looking back at my first eureka moment, I think it was a realization that the claims of science are fundamentally different from the way ideas are claimed to be true in a Charedi context.  Today I believe that this mistake is what causes many otherwise highly intelligent and knowledgeable people to continue to cling to irrational religious ideas.

By Charedim (and probably other religious groups too), an idea is accepted to be true either because someone of authority is the one who made the claim, or because it makes sense according to Charedi-logic (more on that later).    At the time that I started corresponding with my OTD blogger friends, I didn't think that scientists were any different.  I thought that they came to their conclusions by means of their own logic.  If that were the case, I felt that one could easily claim that their logic was flawed or that they were lacking information since they didn't have the traditions which we had.

If you've ever been in a Yeshiva or Shtiebel coffee room (or sometimes even Facebook comments), you can appreciate the level of the discussions which take place in those places. I was somehow under the impression that a group of scientists debating an issue were not too different from yeshiva bachurim having a serious argument over something which they knew nothing about anyways.

So I was in a situation in which I had an answer and explanation for every problem supposedly presented by science and modernity. Some of them I had heard from Rabbis and some of them I had thought of myself. 

Today I can’t believe I ever went for those explanations. Looking back, I'm downright embarrassed of myself that I bought into their answers and explanations. But at that point I had all sorts of "explanations" that I accepted so strongly that nothing that I had known from the outside really bothered me at all. 

I didn't grow up very sheltered by Charedi standards.  When we were growing up, my mother encouraged the family to read, and even took us to the public library.  By the time I was 11 not only did I already know about astronomy, evolution and dinosaurs, I also knew about Bible Criticism and that the encyclopedias had an alternate version of our history.  My father brought home the local tabloids every day, so I had a good idea of current events and what cultural and political issues were being discussed.

As a kid, I had also read some books which claimed to be quoting scientists or philosophers and arguing with them from a Torah perspective.  One of them was a book by Meyer Shiller, a Rabbi in YU's high school.  The way he presented the great renaissance philosophers made them seem downright silly. 

I thought that as long as we could come up with some sort of way to explain away a scientific finding, that finding doesn't mean anything anymore.  It's like a Gemara, in which as long as you have a different explanation,   

So although I knew that for example, historians or Bible critics had a different story than us, I thought it was obvious that our story was more reliable, because, after all, we had an unbroken chain of tradition of the story being told, so of course we got it right.  I knew that scientists believed in dinosaurs, but at the same time I was able to tell myself all sorts of things, such as they were creatures that were around before the mabul (the great flood), or that many things had been planted by God in order to test us.

The first time someone asked me to back up a claim with "empirical, controlled, peer-reviewed studies", I was floored.  I had never even considered such a concept as to back up a claim with a controlled study.  It took me a little time afterwards until the idea started to sink in.  After I found an article by Naftali Zeligman that really got me to start thinking about the idea, as well as the introduction to the book Why Evolution is True I started looking online for explanations of the idea of empiricism and scientific research methods.

That's when I started realizing that science is not something which can be ignored so easily.  Their claims are based on observation, controlled testing, and an openness to accept whatever results may come about.  Frum answers are nothing more than plapling.

These days, when I discuss science and Torah with frum people, they always assume that the only intellectual reason why I would accept science is because I haven't heard the Charedi apologetics and explanations for everything.  It's not true at all.  I know all of their usual answers quite well.  I just realize how they are not real answers.

I'll continue this thought in another post.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Begininngs of Doubt

Today, I'm more or less and agnostic.  I don't believe that the Torah is true.  I know that most of it can't be true. I know that there is no intellectual basis for belief in a God.  I understand the gross lack of morals and ethics within religion in general and Charedism in particular. beginnings 

But at age 29, I was a Kollel Yungerman.  In fact, I was considered from the top guys in my Kollel.  Friends of mine regularly asked me to say shiurim for them, especially shmuessen in Avodas Hashem and chizuk.

Around November time, I had to do some work on the computer which I needed to email afterwards to someone.  A nice, quiet place to work was my Kollel's office, which had an unfiltered internet connection (of course, blame the internet ;) ).

I remember checking out the Coffee Room forum on Yeshiva World News.  There was a discussion about going off the derech and coming back.  Guys who had come back were writing their experiences.

There was one woman who wrote something which shocked me.  She wrote something to the effect that although everyone always says that frum people are the happiest and one can't possibly be happy if you're not frum, she is today not frum anymore and has never been happier.

I was surprised.  I believed, at that point, exactly as she said:  Only frum people can possibly be happy.  I couldn't imagine how someone could possibly be happy if he wasn't living for an eternal purpose.  How can she be happy?

Of course, there's that knee-jerk reaction that frum people have, who says that she's being honest, maybe she's fooling herself.  Does she even know what it means to be happy?  Maybe she's happier now because she wasn't frum in the proper way, but if she were to be frum the right way....

But I have an interesting characteristic.  I take people at face value.  I assume that, at least on some level, people mean what they say.  Subjectively, this woman claims that she is happier today. At least on some level, she must be. 

A couple days later, out of curiosity and boredom, I typed in "Off the Derech" into Google. Up popped a few of the infamous OTD blogs.  I skimmed through one or two.  I don't remember being very impressed with its contents.

But I decided to write an email to its author.

Here is what I wrote to him, with editing out some details which would give me away: 

Hi. I saw your off the derech blog. Let me introduce myself. I'm not here to "argue" etc., just I'm looking for a friend with which to discuss this topic openly, but not in the comments of an everyone-sees blog.

I'm an FFB, 29, married, officially in Kollel, with 3.5 kids. But in between there's a long story.

I was convinced growing up that Yiddishkeit was true, and I've discovered hashkafa seforim,  that presented me with a world view which put all my "struggles" into somewhat of a perspective. 

I didn't really have the patience to read all the way through your blog, but I understand that the perception of God which you were taught is a rather negative, menacing one. I learnt of a loving, understanding God. I'd be curious to discuss that with you.

I'm looking for a friend. Someone who won't be afraid to seriously consider all sides of the issue with me, and with whom I won't be embarrassed to discuss the issues with. I don't really care who it is, and how religious you are etc.,or any one else you might know who might be interested in writing or talking. I just care that you should be open minded to discuss even the pro- side of the matter in different ways also, not just an argument trying to convince each other etc.

I'd appreciate if you'd get back to me. 

Looking back, I can't believe I wrote that. It looks like a trolling Kiruv worker wrote that!

Well, he responded, and we ended up writing back and forth for a few months.  I'll get to that in my next posts.


I guess the first thing I should do is to tell a little bit about myself.

I was born into a frum family, and grew up in the regular yeshiva system.  Today I'm in my 30s, married with children, and I guess you can call me an "undercover" skeptic, or orthoprax, אנוס. or one of the other names which are floating around these days.

One of the things I set out to do in this blog is to share the story of how I got from point A to point B.

What's driven me to start blogging?  Most of all, it's a sense of loneliness.  I consider myself a very sensitive person.  Over the past few years I have gotten to know a few chevra who are or who have been in my situation.  But a Facebook chat here and there, or meeting up once in a blue moon hasn't helped me to break out of this feeling of being alone in this situation of mine.

I hope by sharing my story, I might find other people who share my feelings or who can appreciate them.

I invite my readers to post comments.  I don't think that I'll have time to reply to each one, but I will certainly enjoy reading them.

I don't know where to begin my story from.

Frum people who I've spoken to about Emunah and Kefira very often try to steer away the conversation away from intellectual arguments, towards discussions to whether or not I was happy at the time I started doubting, or if I felt pressured by Yiddishkeit.  Of course, it's impossible to have any serious discussion once those doors are open.

Therefore, I'm afraid that if I discuss my childhood, there might be a frummie who will start looking for that candy I ate without a hechsher, or that Rebbe in cheder who mistreated me.

But then, you might ask, who cares?  The world is full of people who don't care to understand another human being.  Just say your story, and whoever is ready to put aside his preconceptions and biases will hear you out.  Whoever doesn't you don't want to be their friend anyways ;)

So let's start.  I think that it's best if I don't follow a chronological order, just to write as it comes.