Thursday, November 03, 2005

The 20th Letter

Hat tip to Mis-nagid for suggesting turning my long-winded comment in response to a Rabbi's concerns about frumkeit into an actual post. I won't edit it much for the time being:

Here is Inni?'s post:

Inni? said...
BTA,Thank you very much for setting this forum up.I have only just discovered the wonderful world of blogs. (and what a bittul z'man they are!)I myself became BT at school I never actually attended a BT yeshiva. I did, however, spend many years in a well known MO Yeshiva.I'm not sure if this is wise, but I am going to admit that I also took semicha. But after all this time i find myself in a very difficult place. I'm not sure I believe any of it any more. So here it is - I'm a Rav who thinks the whole thing, potentially, is a very clever, man made,intellectual edifice designed to chain us to a guilt ridden, patriarchal boys club!I'm married with kids and to be honest I feel quite trapped. Any suggestions?
9:56 AM

BTA said...
Inni, Welcome, and I commend you for being open.

Before I reply, I will say this disclaimer: my opinion is just that, an opinion. I have no training or experience helping others in our situation, I only know that once I opened the door to doubt, the whole process took a certain trajectory.As I said in the first post, it can be pretty disconcerting to doubt OJ, because it is just so all-consuming. And, sure, it's easy to find tons of information and writings to support sceptical views, but where do you go from there?

Nevertheless, the more honest I became with myself, the better I felt, because at least I knew what challenges I had to deal with. Also, you absolutely did the right thing by telling the details you did. However, that being said, you are new to blogs and must follow a few guidelines. Don't disclose where you live or hint at it. Don't name anything in terms of yeshivas, etc. Right now, you could live in NY, London, Baltimore, Israel, who knows? So that's number one. Don't say how long you've been married, how old your kids are, how many you have, how old the oldest is, etc. And you'll be fine.

Now, with that huge blog piece of advice out of the way, here is my take, and I really hope others out there will think through their responses and respond as well. It's easy to say "go for it, go off, since it's all bull anyway!" or "just find another Rav/daven for emunah" etc. Guys, please take what has been given factually and speak from there.

Ok. First, you are not the first Rav to feel as you do. Have you ever read the 19 Letters by Rav Hirsch? If you read the student's first letter, which is a critique of OJ from the perspective of a thoroughly enlightened German Jew in Rav Hirsch's time, it will strike you as amazing. It says it just about all on the money.And it was written by Rav Hirsch! He wrote both the Naftali side and the Ben Uziel side. He could perfectly enunciate why one wouldn't want to be frum. It is so thorough and devastating. Some kiruv rabbi gave me that book to read and it had the opposite effect on me- because the first letter was so much stronger than any of the responses in the rest of the book.

Take your initial comments. They are expressed the following way by Hirsch: "The religion turns all of life into a continuous monastic service, where even the minutest details are referred directly to God." The hundreds of daily brachas such as asher yotzer come to mind. I remember asking a rabbi, where does it say that god commands us to do nitilas yadayim? Isn't that a false statement? Same for hallel. The same reply always follows: in the mitzvah of "listening to the rabbis." Well, the miztvah is actually to listen to the sanhedrin! They lose all credibility with answers like those.

There are also some interesting things I read in Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's books, Judaism on Trial and Thoughts to Ponder. Of course he is an OJ rabbi, but also a Phd from Oxford in philosophy. So, it was interesting that in one of the books (I could look it up for you) he says he was surprised by a very established chareidi Rav in Israel asking him "how can you believe all of this with all your training? It's all I know and I'm finding I believe it less and less." I'm paraphrasing.

Something tells me, Inni, that you aren't the first Rav to have doubts! One more note. It is historical fact that the super-choshuv Lithuanian yeshivas prior to the holocaust were filled with atheists. The reason given was that this was the only place they could go to train their minds, since college was not an option for them at the time. But, it goes to show that you are not "a sign of the times" or an anomoly.

Even in the gemara, there is the famous story of the sage who went off the derech when he saw a boy die falling out of a tree. The boy was fetching eggs at his father's behest and was first shooing the mother bird away. Both kevod av and shooing the mother were associated with long life. The gemara says he was a fool for going OTD for various uncompelling reasons, but again, we are talking about someone from the holiest generations walking away.Now, all that is just to let you know you are not crazy and there is a ton of information out there. I do think that there are a lot of very sceptical Rabbeim out there who have learned to stay with it and their questions because of the other beneficial aspects of yiddishkeit. Look at Rebel Jew's post from the other day. It sums up the "stick with it" mindset of a sceptic who stays on the derech.

But you are a BT, a truth seeker. You may lose all interest, if you are black and white like a lot of us, if you lose the illusion of it all being true. In fact, you may become quite embarassed for believing it at all. I did at first. I really beat myself up, "how could I have fallen for this, it's so obviously full of holes?!"

I liken it to the Wizard of Oz. Once you see it's just some feeble old guy behind the curtain, you realize how much so-called emunah was really just superstition, with its concommitant hopes for good fortune in life as a reward for being a good boy.

Now, that aside, you have a lot at stake here. You are married with kids and unlike me, you are a talmud chacham. You didn't specify if this is your career or not. But you are quite invested in this. I think the time has come to ask some difficult questions as well. How much of your questioning is due to or triggered by unhappiness in you marriage or with other aspects of your life?I know my doubts were not triggered by the desire for lobster, but rather for simply hating davening from day one and not finding it getting any easier. Having davened in english for the first few years, I know what these prayer are supposed to be saying. I would look around the minyan during Kedusha and say, "look at these guys," going up on their tippy toes and supposedly quoted angels- this is insane! And the fact that it is standard to daven at lightning speed, that also was bizarre. Doesn't it matter to know what you are saying? I realized most folks turn off their minds and just press on, after all that's what a mensch does, right? Be a team player.Of course, the 39 melachas are pretty hard to swallow as well.

Learning is emphasized because when you learn, you read in between the lines as well as the lines themselves. You get all kinds of subliminal messages from the gemara or the commentators about just how important it is to get it right. The Wizard,er...Hashem is watching, and he'll be verrrrry angry with you. Or worse, whatever your doing won't "count" and you'll lose out on "points." Just look at the chofetz chaim's halachic writings for example. Written in the last century, they are nevertheless imbued with fire and brimstone fear of god's wrath. That's pretty hard to have these days.

I'm here to say there has been no wrath, and if you want to talk about divine retribution somewhere in the afterlife, fine, but that isn't what the torah says in the shema for example or in any of the curses in dvarim. I, like many non-believers like me, am "blessed" financially and with a happy life. In fact, I look at my circumstance and realize that, the more constrained I would have been, the more I would not have had the luxury of doubting. There are a lot of rich Jews who do kiruv and show off their fancy houses to potential converts. These prospects think "hmm, maybe god will bless me, too." Yes, it is quite common I assure you.

Now all I've said may have set you back to your Rav training "these are all klutz kashas, I know the answers for this stuff." So my question is, why aren't the answers working any more? It is to do with a midlife crisis (desiring new women or experiences) or is it to do with the religion itself?Have you spoken to rabbeim who specialize not in halacha alone, but also in all the questions of judaism? Of course don't say which ones.

I know I spoke with some very smart and also respected rabbeim in israel. They would be perhaps one tier below american gedolim and thus one or two tiers below the gedolei torah in israel. But they spoke english and they knew secular subjects. And they weren't kiruv clowns.And, the interesting thing is- unlike the kiruv clowns who knew so little, these rabbeim validated all of my doubts! They didn't threaten how hashem would give my whole family cancer and the like. They understood. They are nevertheless passionate about learning and frumkeit. I think they find it incredibly stimulating, and being scholarly, that does it for them. They feel you can come to believe it is true through learning, but they acknowledge you can also come to the conclusion it is not true through learning.

In other words, they are circumspect and don't lay claims to proof like the lightweight Akiva Tatz's and Kelemen's of the world who thrive on sophistry.I think given your situation, you owe it to yourself to try to find a way to have it work, perhaps less frum. You can't just shake up everyone's lives overnight. And, if you have already made that effort, then let's talk further. But it sounds like you've only recently begun to have serious doubts.Your relationship with your wife is the guiding factor here. If you feel the relationship is going nowhere, it could just be the religious doubting and frustration. If you can work it out at all, you should, for your kids sake and hers. Divorce is a devastating thing, but sometimes it is the right thing. Anyway, I hope I did your post some justice with this reply. I hope others will chime in.

And no- this is not bittul z'man- this is life. You can get back to learning for learning's sake when this is a little more clear.
4:18 PM


Blogger Ezzie said...

So much to say, so hard to put into words... I think I'll wait until more BT's have put up their histories anyway.

11/04/2005 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Inni? said...


All I can say is thank you so much for your kind, thoughtful and considered response to my post.
I think it deserves a longer repsonse than I can give now. ( It being erev shabbat - yes I still keep that!)
I do know why I became frum and later why I did semicha and how, consequently, I have grown and changed and become more able to acknowledge my scepticism.
More about that after Shabbat.

Thanks again.

11/04/2005 9:30 AM  
Blogger mushroomjew said...

"It is historical fact that the super-choshuv Lithuanian yeshivas prior to the holocaust were filled with atheists"
This is an amazing statement, if true. Can you give me a source where you learned this.

11/18/2005 3:21 AM  
Blogger BTA said...

MJ- I can't find the original source for this, but I believe it was Berel Wein. I was also told by 2 very scholarly rabbis in Israel all about the atheists in Lithuania.

There's a famous story of R. Chaim Volozhiner talking to a talmid who had gone OTD. The student said, "Rabbi, I have questions for you if you have time to discuss them with me." The Rabbi said "are these questions from before you went of the path, or after? If after, I will not respond, becase what you have are teretzes not kashas."

Here is a long article by Berel Wein about this period in Lithuania.

If you scroll down, you will see his reference to the large amount of atheists who sprang from the yeshiva, many of them leaders of the early zionist movement:

"The yeshiva was a place of idealism and idealists. It was a place where young people strove to create a better and fairer world for them and for all mankind. Because of this idealistic goal and atmosphere-almost utopian in scope and direction-the yeshiva was a natural breeding ground for all sorts of world-saving schemes and political movements and beliefs. Though the overwhelming majority of yeshiva students remained religious, observant, traditional Jews, there was a small and vocal number that became secularized and radicalized. Many of these young people then became leaders of the Bund (the Jewish labor union federation), the Zionist movement and also of the general Socialist and Communist parties. All of the early Eastern European Zionist leaders, Weizman, Ben Zvi, Shazar, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, etc., had kind things to say about the yeshiva since they were either themselves former students or their most intimate colleagues in the Zionist movement were former yeshiva students. The yeshiva produced many more leaders of the Jewish people in all fields and differing political spheres than did the secularly oriented Jewish schools and Russian schools that Jews attended in Eastern Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,"

11/18/2005 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can I order the 19 Letters by Rav HIRSCH ? I can't seem to find it.

11/23/2005 8:44 AM  
Blogger BTA said...

search using nineteen, not 19. and get the feldheim translation. it's the best.

here's the best price I found:

11/24/2005 12:29 AM  

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