Wednesday, April 13, 2022

From the Wicked son to the Clueless Father

This is a stream-of-consciousness line-by-line response to a “letter” that appeared here and has been floating around the frum/ex-frum internet for the last day or two.

The letter is in italics.

Credit for the post title goes to someone on facebook (whose name I’m not including because it was in the private OTD group.)

 

An Open Letter to the Wicked Son

Dear Son,

 

Your mother and I are so glad that you’ll be with us for Seder again. I know that you don’t believe the same as we do and I know you don’t typically observe the way that we do, but every year you come home for Seder. I want you to know that Mommy and I notice that, and so do your brothers, and we’re all very grateful. We know that it takes a lot for you to be here, and that this whole service isn’t really your thing, but here you are every year and we appreciate it so much.

 

I don’t know if I ever told you this, son, but your voice is really a critical one at the Seder. Without you, our Pesach night would be incomplete! I can’t even imagine if your voice were missing from our conversation. I know that your questions sometimes come off a little sharp, but If I’m going to be honest, sometimes my responses are a little sharp too. But you manage to see the love I have for you, even within my critical retorts. And you deserve no less. I know that beneath your biting comments is love. (And if it’s not yet a love for Hashem or Torah or Jewish practice, it is at least love for your family.)

 

1.       Yet? Because of course eventually we’ll see the that frumkeit is the truth after all? This is in the same vein (and probably lifted from) the kiruv shtick of calling the 90% of Jews who aren’t Orthodox “not yet frum.” As though that’s inevitable. Or as if that’s the value of people who aren’t frum: that they might become frum. Worst of all, it’s a way of humanizing non-Orthodox people. They’re not like “us” – yet. They’re not frei, that’s not their identity, they’re “not yet frum.” With just a little work, they can be just like “us.” The corollary is that if someone is not like “us,” and isn’t potentially going to become like us, then they’re not really a person. (Sorry for the tangent.)

2.       “At least?!" Because love for your family isn’t really important compared to love for Hashem? I’m going to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this is an artifact of awkward wording. That he meant to say something like, “It would make me happy if you loved Hashem and the Torah and, and it makes me happy that [at least] you love our family.” But I can’t be sure that’s what he meant, and the article says what it says.

 

In the past you have come to Seder always ready to jump on the same question, “What is this work for you?” You know, in different years your questions have echoed different accusations. Sometimes I assumed that you meant that you found no meaning in our most cherished and holy traditions because you called it all just “work.”

This is wonderfully pedantic.

I don’t think even the frummest person would argue that Pesach isn’t work. They might enjoy the work, they might find profound meaning in it, but cleaning and cooking are still work.

Sometimes, I figured that you meant that you didn’t feel yourself part of our faith community at all because you said, “for you,” and that means you were excluding yourself from your heritage.

There is something to this. In the mishnah, the rasha says “you” and the chacham says “we,” though their questions are otherwise similar. The implication is that the rasha is a rasha because he’s othering the rest of the Jewish people, and removing himself from the group. The response, though excessively violent, is to tell him, essentially, “You don’t want to be part of us? Fine. Had you been there during yetzias Mitzrayim, and separated yourself from our ancestors, from the group that left Mitzrayim, you wouldn’t have been part of the group that left Mitzrayim.” This is a tautology.

In the Hagadah, though, the chacham and rasha both say “you,” so focusing on it here in the context of the arbeh banim of the Hagadah is less meaningful.

 

I’ve spent a lot of years and a lot of discussions with my rabbinic colleagues trying to understand what your problem is.

 

Why assume there’s a problem? Because everyone who  leaves frumkeit is broken? That’s the frum narrative, but it’s not true. Lots of people leave because it’s not for them: they don’t find it meaningful, or it doesn’t work for them, or they conclude that the costs are not worth the benefits, or that the underlying structure of frumkeit isn’t true. I suppose one could read “problem” here as “reason you left,” as in, “my problem with frumkeit is that its tenets are not true.” But I don’t think that’s what it means here. The implication, and the wider context of frum beliefs about those who go OTD, makes it more likely it means “trying to understand what’s wrong with you that caused you to leave what is obviously the most true and best way to live.”

 

But it’s possible I never took a chance to ask you directly. What do you mean? What’s bothering you?

 

Why is treating his child like a person an epiphany? Talking to his son about what’s “bothering” him should have been the first step, not the last.  

 

The reason that I ask is because I realize now that none of my responses seem to have hit the mark.

 

 Or, you know, you could have been a good parent to begin with and had a conversation with your son about his feelings and beliefs instead of lecturing the kid with responses meant to “hit the mark” and convince him.

 

I admit that in the first years, I was really worried what impression your question would leave on your brothers. (Especially little Tom.) I was worried that your skepticism would infect them too.

 

“Infect,” like it’s a disease.

In my first ever post, I wrote about how when I was in high school, the principal told me to stop asking questions in class because he was worried the other boys would be bothered by my questions, and why should they be bothered by questions they would never think of themselves? The implication is that questions are bad. Better to have emunah peshutah, to suppress any curiosity about the underpinnings of the frum system. Just shut up and do as you’re told.

I was in high school in the late ‘90s. Twenty-five years, and nothing’s changed.

 

That’s why I felt the need to take the teeth out of your argument. I realize that I never really addressed your issues.

 

Because the system is more important than the person – or more precisely, keeping other people from questioning the system is more important than any pain you might cause a curious teenager.

 

Rather, I sidestepped them because I wanted to make sure that everyone else realized that the Jewish People as a Faith Community or as a Family or as an Existential Reality were all taken out and saved from Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that each of Jacob’s descendants were. Redemption meant connection to our Peoplehood, and those disconnected weren’t saved. And son, to be honest, I worry about that now too. Perhaps only Jewish people who feel connected to the rest of Jewish people in brotherhood will be saved on that Great and Awesome Day. That’s not the whole reason, or even the main reason, I’m glad you’ve stayed connected all these years. But it is a reason!

 

Huh? “Saved?” “Great and Awesome Day?” What are we, Evangelicals waiting for the Rapture? I know the frum community has been identifying more and more with Evangelicals in the last couple of years, but describing what I assume is the yemai hamoshiach in such blatantly Christian terms is odd.

 

Son, what’s really bothering you? I want to know.

 

Have you never listened before? Or is the “really” meant to imply that his son’s questions aren’t real questions, they’re teirutzim – and he wants to know the underlying reason for the questions. In other words, does he want to discuss theology and sociology, or does he want to know which of the usual culprits is “really” at the bottom of the questions: abuse, mental illness, or unbridled taivos?

 

I’m not asking because I want you to believe what I believe or practice the way the way that I do. (I wouldn’t mind obviously, but that’s not the reason.) I just want to know you better and I want to know what’s on your mind. If you feel comfortable talking about it with everyone, we certainly can discuss it at the Seder.

 

Because it’s been so many years that you have been asking the same question, and because I have so long worried that your question demonstrated a lack of faith, I feel like I have something I need to tell you. I would never talk about this with your brothers.

 

Didn’t you just say we could talk about it at the seder? And didn’t you say earlier “I want you to know that Mommy and I notice that [you come to the Seder], and so do your brothers, and we’re all very grateful.” Maybe expecting internal coherence in an article like this is too much. I get that this is a print version of a vort. But it would be nice.

 

I feel like they wouldn’t understand (but maybe for opposite reasons.) I also struggle with faith from time to time. I don’t know if that comes as a surprise or not. I know that I’m The Dad and I’m supposed to be the one with all the answers, but that’s not the way life is. Not really. Sometimes I have questions too.

 

Great! Let’s talk about those questions – and not take for granted that your beliefs are correct no matter how many questions one might have.

Unfortunately, given the following lines, when he says “questions,” I think he means things more along the lines of “Why would Hashem allow bad things to happen to good people like our friends,” and not, “how can we believe in a tri-omni God when such a Being is logically impossible given the evil we see in the world,” and certainly not, “how should we understand the story of yetzias Mitzrayim given all the evidence that it didn’t happen?”

 

Look, you’re our son. You grew up in this house and you’re not an idiot, so you knew when things were rough, when money was super tight. You knew when terrible tragedy struck our friends. You were always the most sensitive soul in our care, and maybe you were affected the most by those hard times.

 

Ah, there’s the “real” “problem!” You poor sensitive thing, you were traumatized by bad things that happened during your childhood. You don’t really have questions, you’re just overly emotional!

 

When you’re in the middle of all of that it’s not easy to say, “it’s all for the good,” and even if you can say it, it’s hard to feel it, really. In those moments, I didn’t understand what the Creator wanted from us.

 

See, I was right. These are safe, within-the-system questions: “How is this terrible thing I’m experiencing really be for the good?” and  “What does Hashem want of us?” Not about-the-system questions. I wonder if the writer gets that there’s a difference, and that his son has likely moved past questions that assume the system is true, and are just asking for clarification to questions about how the system itself is incoherent.

 

It felt like the sun would never shine on us again. Like we would never be able to take a full breath of air without the weight of stress and sadness making it hard to inhale. In those moments I felt really disconnected. I worry that maybe my actions at those times have impacted your thinking today. Maybe we’ll never really know that.

 

Again, blaming his son going OTD on trauma. Even including a mea culpa – maybe I inadvertently did or said something during a tough period that hurt you. Which is noble and all, but still missing the point. It really is possible for your son to really, truly and reasonably disagree with you. It’s possible that your wrong. It’s not true that people who go OTD are all broken. Which makes the mea culpa less noble. It’s less taking responsibility for a mistake than it is a defense against the possibility that his belief system is mistaken.

 

Son, it’s so clear from your question that you don’t find joy in our traditions. I agree with your essential observation – if something feels like a giant burden, why bother doing it? I agree! There are plenty of things at work that I “just have to do” and I hate them and push them off to the last minute. They bring me no joy and no job satisfaction. I just do them because I have a boss and I like being employed. If you were experiencing joy and satisfaction in mitzvot then you never would have asked that question.

 

That’s not necessarily true. I genuinely enjoy a lot of Jewish traditions. I enjoy the seder. And I love learning the real reasons why we do things – which are rarely “because God commanded it,” as the chacham’s question assumes. It’s usually more prosaic, pragmatic, and interesting than a belief that God ordered it ex nihilo from the sky.

A lot of the stuff we do is objectively weird (and not just the Jewish stuff). Asking why in the world we do it is a natural question, and the answer often involves an exploration of our history.

 

You’re an adult so this is really your responsibility now, but like any parent, I wonder if we could have or should have done something different. Was our Shabbos table fun enough? Did Shabbos feel like something we do or did it feel like a list of things we don’t do? Was school a good fit? Did it feel like a place you enjoyed being with people who understood you? We can’t go back, obviously, but I want you to know we tried our best. We always loved you. We still do. Our greatest nachas is having all four of our boys at the Seder.

 

Probably in a few years, son, you’ll be married and raising a family of your own. Your mom and I talk about this a lot. I don’t think this is the time or place to have the whole conversation, but let me just say, I hope that you and your special someone and your family will always feel welcome at our Seder. But realize you have a role in that too.

 

And that role is…?

I don’t know what the author intended, but too often, the answer is that the OTD person should “compromise” by behaving as the frum person thinks he should, while the frum person “compromises” by not kvetching too much when the OTD person does something the frum person thinks he shouldn’t.

 

Son, I want to end how I began. Mommy and I are so grateful that you will be at Seder. I just want to make sure you know that you are welcome home all the time. Come sit in our succah! Come for Shabbos dinner. (You always loved Mommy’s challah!) Come for a barbecue on Sunday. Whenever you want to come, we want to have you.

 

Love always,

Tatty

 

Dear Reader,

I want to make it clear that this is not about any of MY sons. Yes, I have 4 sons. But none of them are the Wicked Son of the Haggadah. My Chief Advisor and Most Trusted Editor thought I should clarify that. Because, the internet.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach.

R’M.S.

 

Ah. I understand. You wouldn’t want us to think that chas v’shalom one of your kids is an awful OTDer. Which kind of undermines the whole accepting tone you were going for.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Our Experience of Matzah

The following is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress, a book that examines the claims that Orthodoxy makes about itself. This is a section from a chapter about Orthodoxy’s claim to be essentially synonymous with the way that pious Jews have practiced in all times and places. I was proofreading it today, and decided to post it because it’s topical.

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The crisp matzah that Ashkenazim eat on Pesach is another example of a change to how we experience one of the shalosh regalim. Our ancestors from most times and places would not recognize as “matzah” the cracker-like food which we associate with that word. To them, matzah was a type of bread that was visibly indistinguishable from other types of bread. It wasn’t a cracker.

Thin crisp matzah is one of those things that more moderate frum people might acknowledge is different from the past, but will say is not a significant change. While the exact form that matzah takes has changed, the rules according to which it is prepared, the halacha which is its essence, is the same. They're right that from a halachic perspective this is an aesthetic rather than an essential change, but it is a change that illustrates two important points. The first is that those who take the more extreme position are incorrect, and it is not true that all pious Jews from all generations would recognize each other's practices. The second is that while our matzah may be halachically the same as the matzah our ancestors ate, our experience of eating matzah is very different. Just like with Shavuos, we would not recognize our ancestors' experience and they would not recognize ours.

The thin, crisp, cracker-like matzah that we know, with its perforations, its crunch, its often burnt edges, and its shelf-stability is a nineteenth-century invention.1 We ritualistically call this matzah “bread,” but it isn't really. If you didn't know what matzah was and someone handed you a piece, you would call it a cracker.

Typical bread that we think of as such, whether loaves like white or rye bread or flatbreads like pita and tortilla have a softer part inside, called the crumb, and a relatively harder crust on the outside. The matzah our ancestors knew was also like this. It really was bread.

If one were to mix flour and water, roll the dough into sheets, and pop it in the oven, all in less than eighteen minutes, the result is not the dry crackers that we call matzah. It's a soft bread similar to other flatbreads.2 This is the stuff our ancestors ate, right up until when matzah baking was industrialized a few generations ago.

The products of modern matzah factories are made by mixing flour with the least amount of water that will still make a dough, a recipe that is the result of historical trends that we will discuss momentarily. This creates a very dry dough that is then baked at very high temperatures. Where bread is typically baked between 350oF and 475oF,3 depending on type, matzah is baked between 600oF and 800oF.4 This dries out the matzah all the way through and produces a cracker-like product. The same historical trends that led to using very dry dough occurred among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and even the soft matzos that Sephardim use today are dryer than the matzos our ancestors ate.

References to matzah throughout traditional rabbinic sources support the contention that the matzah most Jews throughout history would recognize was indistinguishable from other breads:5

·         The gemara6 discusses a case where someone finds a moldy loaf in a bread bin and isn't sure if it’s chometz or matzah. Hard matzos both do not become moldy and would not be confused with chometz breads. We can infer that the matzos the amoraim were familiar with were indistinguishable from regular bread.

·         Historically, hagaddos have been the most commonly illustrated Jewish books. Some of the surviving hagaados are as much as seven hundred year old, and many of their illustrations realistically depict various Pesach activities. Hagaados from the 15th century show matzos that vary in thickness from a finger to a hand's breadth, much too thick to be the cracker-like matzo we know now, and too thick to chew were they hard. A soft matzah a hand's breadth thick would be indistinguishable from other types of bread, and completely unlike the matzos we are familiar with. Other illustrated hagaados from over the centuries show similar matzos.

·         The Maharshal, who lived in the 16th century, is quoted7 as saying that one should keep the afikoman under one’s pillow. If one did this with hard matzos, there would be nothing left but crumbs. With dense, unrisen, soft matzos, the matzah would be fine.

·         The Chayei Adam, written in the early nineteenth century, recommends8 that matzos be made thin, but notes that in some places the custom is to make thick matzos.

·         As recently as 1884, the Chofetz Chaim wrote that matzah should be “soft as a sponge.” This implies that the matzah that he knew was bread, not a cracker.9

The thin hard matzos that Ashkenazim use today developed over several centuries among people seeking to be more chumor. There are references to some people making very thin matzos as early as the 16th century,10 but as the above sources show, this was not typical. It is likely that cracker-like matzah became standard when industrialized production in the 19th century created the need among producers for shelf-stable matzos. This way of making matzah originated as a chumrah with people who wanted to bake all of the matzah they would need for the entire yom tov before Pesach started. They were concerned that during baking there might be some bits of unbaked flour that could later become chometz. They wanted to be sure that this would happen before yom tov, when chometz would be batul. If the matzah was baked during Pesach, when chometz is not batul, they would run the risk of eating chometz on Pesach, of which even a tiny bit is prohibited. The regular thick, soft matzos people were accustomed to making would, as bread does, go bad after a couple of days. To make the matzah shelf-stable, those who were baking all of it before Pesach would make their matzos thin and dry. These thin matzos existed alongside the soft, thick, bread-like matzah still being made daily by the majority of people who kept Pesach. As is often the case with chumros, as time passed the chumrah to bake all of one’s matzah before Pesach became more severe, mandating ever thinner and dryer matzos. With the advent in the 19th century of industrialized production and of machines that could mix very dry batter, cracker-like matzos reached the final stage in their evolution and became the matzos we're familiar with today.

Once the thin matzah was widely available, rabbonim moved to make it mandatory. We see here again the beginnings of the change from the mimetic tradition, passed on through experience from one generation to the next, to the textually based tradition that would become dominant by the mid-twentieth century. The Chasam Sofer, who was responsible for so much of the roots of that change, wrote that most Ashkenazi communities had banned thick matzos - but those bans were often ignored. In the mid-19th century, the mimetic tradition still ruled. A hundred years later, the textual tradition, and cracker-like matzos, became ascendant.

To us, the relatively new thin, hard version IS matzah, and most people are only dimly aware that matzah used to be recognizably bread. Our experience of matzah is very different than that of thousands of year’s worth of pious Jews, from the time Jewish people started eating matzah on Pesach right up until two centuries ago. The matzah that Ashkenazim eat on Pesach and which is widely available for sale in kosher stores has been the standard for only about 5% of the time Judaism has existed.

As we said, moderates might argue that technically matzah hasn’t changed: it is and always has been bread that has not been allowed to rise. And so, they can argue, Judaism hasn't changed. But this argument is itself something that only makes sense in the new textually-dominated Orthodoxy. To our ancestors, devotees of the mimetic tradition, the experience of Judaism was as or more important than the technicalities of halacha. How comfortable would they have been eating our matzah? Would someone from a thousand years ago have even recognized it as matzah? To them, matzah was bread, not a cracker that we ritualistically refer to as bread. Their experience was completely different than ours. It’s not true that what we do is the same as what our ancestors did, and it's not true that any pious Jew from any time would find Orthodoxy familiar and be comfortable in any frum community. The technicalities of what makes something hlachicallymatzah” matter much less than what it is like to sit at a seder and eat matzos.

More than just a difference in experience in that the texture of our matzah is different, the significant difference is that for our ancestors, Pesach was less at odds with the rest of their lives than our experience of it is today. Once upon a time, Hillel was eating what amounted to a wrap made with dryish pita, roasted lamb, and salad. We've gone from what was once a perfectly normal meal to, on the other end of the spectrum, those who chew up two kzaysim of matzah, (according to the biggest shiur, of course,) hold it in their cheek, and swallow it as quickly as possible in order to make sure that they eat it “kdei achilas pras.” Imagine the difference in experience between someone who does that and the experience of our ancestors in antiquity.

 When the tannaim and amoraim had their seder meal, they were experiencing a perfectly normal thing. Eating a wrap is dinner, not a ritual. Today, the mitzvah of achilas matzah is divorced from everyday experience. It has become strange and ritualized, an obligation to eat a prescribed amount of a food that is different from what we normally eat and to eat it within a prescribed amount of time. This isn't a dinner, it's a ritual.

In the comments under one of the articles I used as a source for this section someone pointed out that korech as Hillel ate it was essentially shawarma on pita with salad. Another commenter protested that this was “trivializ[ing] the holy and sacred.” This is a perfect illustration of what we've been talking about here. It shows the profundity of the changes to Judaism, the difference between the version of Judaism that is current Orthodoxy and versions of Judaism that have existed in the past. To many frum people to point out that Hillel ate a normal sandwich is to trivialize it, whereas the korech of the seder, with its patina of ritual, is holy and sacred.

The way our ancestors experienced eating matzah is analogous to the way that Americans experience eating turkey on Thanksgiving. Eating turkey is mundane, but eating it on Thanksgiving in the way that has become traditional in the United States imbues that mundane dinner with cultural meaning. Eating shawarma on pita with salad is mundane, but eating it on the seder night in fulfillment of the mitzvah as is traditional among Jews imbues that mundane dinner with cultural and religious meaning. Now that is no longer enough. Now frum people expect their experience of eating matzah to be mysterious and ritualized, and to point out that it was once experienced as a mundane thing, albeit used for a special purpose, is to trivialize it.

The change in what matzah is, from a bread to a cracker, is a change in Judaism, albeit a minor one. The change in the experience of eating matzah is significant. We do not experience Judaism the way our ancestors did. In fact it seems some people would dismiss our ancestors' experience of Judaism as trivial because it is not removed enough from everyday experience to seem mystical and sacred. Our experience is fundamentally different from that of our ancestors, and our ancestors would think that the way we fulfill the mitzvah of matzah, and more broadly, the way we relate to our Judaism, is strange. They would not be comfortable in our communities, nor would we be comfortable in theirs. The differences are too great, for all that we may share the technical halachic definition of “matzah.”

 



1 Most of the discussion in this section draws on Zamkanei, S. (2013, March 18). Why Your Ancestors Never Ate Matzos. The Times of Israel. Retrieved from http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-your-ancestors-never-ate-matzos/; and Otofsky, A.Z. & Greenspan, A. (2014). The Thick and Thin of the History of Matzah. Ḥakirah 17. Retrieved from https://hakirah.org/Vol17Zivotofsky.pdf

2 Rainbow Tallit Baby. (March 28, 2014.). Matzah And How Authoritarianism Is Crumby [Blog post]. Retireved from https://rainbowtallitbaby.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/matzah-and-how-authoritarianism-is-crumby

3 Amit. What is the Ideal Oven Temperature for Baking Bread? [Blog post]. The Bread Guide. Retrieved from https://thebreadguide.com/what-is-the-ideal-oven-temperature-for-baking-bread

4 Siegel, R., Matzah Baking, an 18-Minute Project. Myjewishlearning.com. Retrieved from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/recipe/matzah-baking-an-18-minute-project

5 An often cited proof is that the word “korech” memes “to wrap,” something that is impossible to do with cracker-like matzos. I do not cite it here because the word can be understood as “surround.” While it seems more likely that it meant “wrap” in the context of the seder, the possibility of an interpretation that would work with hard matzos means that this line of argument is not useful to use with the traditionalists who might insist that the way things are now are the way they have always been.

Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 7a

Be’ir Haitev (OḤ473:19)

Chayei Adam (128:25)

Mishna Berura, Orach Haim 486

10 Rema, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim, 460:4. “there are those who make the Matzot wafer-thin and not a thick loaf like other breads, for wafers do not leaven as quickly.” Translation from Sefaria.org

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Skeptic's D'var Torah

 I made a bas mitzvah for my daughter this past weekend - the same daughter whose birth I wrote about here. The following is the speech I gave at the event. I don't know if he was right, but a friend of mine told me afterwards that if my yeshivish family had any idea what I was talking about, they would have been upset. Which is, among other things, an indicator of how far I've come from where I was as a teen and young adult.


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Thank you everyone for being here to celebrate with us.

A bas mitzvah is, among other things, a celebration of the continuation of Judaism. It marks the transition from childhood to young adulthood, of another generation carrying on the mesorah. But what, exactly, makes something “Judaism?” Some things are clearly not Judaism. Birthday parties, for example. Most Jewish people celebrate their birthdays, but that celebration isn’t “Judaism.” It’s just a nice thing that people like to do. And some things clearly are Judaism. Celebrating bar and bas mitzvahs are “Judaism.” Why, though? Why are these particular birthday celebrations “Judaism,” while any other birthday celebration is not? What is the difference between something that is a part of Judaism and something that isn’t?

The easy answer is that everything that is purely Jewish without influence from outside sources is Judaism, while everything else is not. Bar and bas mitzvahs are “Judaism” because they come from Jewish sources, like Pirkei Avos, while birthday parties are not because they’re a  late 19th century product of Western culture. But this is simplistic, and ignores the historical reality that Judaism has always been syncretistic. Jewish people have never lived in a bubble, and we have always influenced and been influenced by the cultures we’ve found ourselves living among.

We find syncretism everywhere. Even the Torah uses stories that are also found in the mythological traditions of other peoples of the Ancient Near East. Perhaps the most well-known example of syncretism in the Torah is the story of the mabul. There were several near-identical flood stories in circulation, the oldest of which is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem that is at least 4,000 years old. In that version of the story, the survivor of the great flood, named Utnapishtim, is warned by a god of an upcoming a flood that will wipe out all life, is told to build a boat and gather all the animals, and rides out a flood that wipes out all life not on the boat. His boat stops on a mountaintop, and he sends out birds three times to see if it is safe to leave. When it’s safe to go outside, he brings a sacrifice to the god who warned him.

Lots of cultures from around the world have flood myths, because people tend to live near water, and that water tends to flood every now and then. Pittsburgh is here because this is what used to be called the “forks of the Ohio,” where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers meet. The first year the British spent here, in Fort Pitt, the river flooded. Water got into the storage rooms and ruined all of their food. The Flood myths from around the world tend to have little in common beyond revolving around a big flood, and share maybe one or two other points in common with the story of the mabul. But the stories of Utnapishtim and Noach are almost identical.

There is one notable difference between the stories: the reason for the flood. In Gilgamesh, it's because people were noisy and annoying the gods, so the gods decided to get rid of them. While I can sympathize with that – people can be noisy and annoying – this isn’t exactly edifying. In the Torah, the Flood happened for moral reasons, and the story teaches us a moral lesson. The people were doing bad things, and the mabul was their punishment.

Torah takes cultural elements that were common in the Ancient Near East, the stories that the Bnei Yisroel would have been familiar with as part of the sort of general cultural knowledge that everyone just kind of knows, and uses them for Jewish purposes. Where the stories were used in Mesopotamian or Egyptian mythology etiologically, to explain how those societies came to be the way they were and how they were supposed to function, in the Torah they carry the moral lessons that have shaped the Jewish people.

For anything we find in the Torah, the question “is this “Judaism” is easy to answer. Of course it is. But syncretism in Judaism is found also in later eras. That the Torah might have chosen to be syncretistic is one thing. The influences of the wider cultures in which they lived on Jewish people of later generations might be different. Are those influences foreign intrusions, or are they also “Judaism?”

There are midrashim that are adaptations of Greek legends. Greek or Greco-Roman Empires had been ruling Judea for 600 years when the gemara was written, and Hellenistic culture left an imprint on Judaism. For instance, in Plato’s Symposium, Plato has his characters discussing the nature of love. He puts a story in the mouth of a comedian about humanity having started as two sided creatures, one side male and one side female, which were then separated. He says that love is when the separated of one of these original two-sided people find each other again. Eight hundred years later the gemara repeats this story of the origin of humanity, and says that the word “rib” in the story of the creation of Chava should be understood as “side” - that Hashem separated off one side of the androgynous Adam, and in doing so, made men and women separate creatures.

 I learned about the two-sided Adam Harishon as a kid when I was learning Bereishis. Is this story, the earliest record of which is from Plato, “Judaism?”

I think it's safe to say that anything that's in the gemara is Judaism. Just like the Torah did, we find here that something that was also in circulation in the wider culture is being used for a specifically Jewish purpose. In the Symposium, this story is meant to silence the philosophers who were pontificating about love. The point was that all of their elaborate ideas weren't necessary. It was simply two halves coming together to form a whole. In the gemara, the same story is part of a discussion about how to understand the way the Torah describes the creation of humanity. It is an element of the wider culture in which the amoraim lived, filtered through a Jewish lens and adapted for a Jewish purpose.

This sort of adaptation has happened throughout Jewish history. It happens with small-scale, relatively inconsequential things. For instance, dreidel comes from a Christmas-time children’s game called T-totum. The game originated in England in the Middle Ages, where it was played with a top that had letters indicating the actions of the game written on it: T for take, N for nothing, H for half, and P for put in. It became popular in Germany, and then was picked up by Jewish children. The words indicating the game’s actions were the same in German and Yiddish, which made for an easy transition from German Christmastime game to Jewish Chanukah game, and the top acquired Hebrew letters and a Yiddish name. In time, it also acquired a Jewish interpretation. The story about Jews hiding from the Yevanim to learn Torah and pretending to be gambling with dreidels if they were discovered is first recorded in a sefer published at the very end of the 19th century.

This sort of adaptation also happens on a large scale, with entire approaches to Judaism. In the 1700s Chassidus, which is now an accepted part of Judaism, began as the Jewish version of Pietism. Pietism was a Christian movement that was reacting to the application of then-new scientific principles to religion, and was deliberately trying to bring back a more mystical and emotional version of religion. The movement started in Western Europe, was picked up by groups in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and became popular in the area around the Carpathian Mountains, where the Baal Shem Tov began his career.

Bar And Bas Mitzvah celebrations are also examples of influence and adaptation. Bar Mitzvah celebrations are relatively late. There's no reference to them in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, either in formal works or in records of day to day life like those discovered in the Cairo Geniza. The major life cycle event for boys between their bris and their wedding was a now defunct ceremony on their first day of school. The boy was carried in a procession from his home through the streets to the cheder, where he was given special foods and was ceremoniously read the alef beis forwards and backwards.

Ideas about childhood and personal responsibility were changing in late medieval Europe. People came to feel that one should voluntarily take on religious convictions as a conscious choice, and that young children are incapable of making such a choice. One consequence of that conceptual shift was that Christian monasteries stopped allowing parents to decide that their infant sons would be monks. A boy now had to be old enough to choose to become a monk before he could move into a monastery. Another consequence of the shift was the phasing out of the then nearly thousand-year-old first day of school ceremony in favor of a new importance given to and celebration of a boy becoming a bar mitzvah.

Bas Mitzvah is even later, and is a product of early 20th century feminism. The first Bas Mitzvah celebration on record was in 1922, only a year-and-a-half after women in the United States won the right to vote in federal elections. It was explicitly about recognizing that women are as important as men, and so girls’ life cycle events deserve the same recognition as boys’.

Are these celebrations “Judaism?” Despite being relatively late, and regardless of the influences that lead to their creation, they are, in a way that typical birthday parties are not.

So what is it that makes something a part of Judaism? It's not that it’s been considered a part of Judaism since the beginning of time, nor is it that it comes from purely Jewish sources, with no influence from other cultures.

I think the answer is that whether something is “Judaism” depends on its purpose, not its pedigree. Something that is shared by another culture or was influenced by another culture becomes “Judaism” when it disappears into its role. That the depiction of Adam as a two-sided creature or the importance of understanding to religious conviction didn’t have their origins in purely Jewish sources is irrelevant to the role they currently play. Today they play a role in our understanding of our mesorah and our experience of Jewish practice, and this makes them “Judaism.”

Judaism continues to change and grow, its mesorah shaped by the people who transmit it from generation to generation and the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is my hope that [redacted], too, will continue to grow, both personally and as a member of the Jewish people; that she will take the best from whatever circumstances she finds herself in and be enriched by it.

Thank you again to everyone for coming.


Friday, January 7, 2022

All About Me

The following is a lightly edited and updated version of a bio I first wrote in 2018. I’m posting it now because I thought it would be useful to have it to link to. It has a narrow focus, and is a narrative of my "OTDness." With the caveat that it probably wasn't as coherent a story as it looks in hindsight.

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I took Yiddishkeit very seriously, right up to the point that I stopped believing in it. That's not quite right. I take Judaism very seriously. Before I stopped believing in it, I thought it was an accurate description of the world. Now I don't.

I remember sitting at my desk in first grade, listening to the rebbe, who had a side job as a professional storyteller, tell us about Yaakov lifting the rock off the well. I imagined myself as the hero in the story, as I often did when daydreaming, and it struck me that there once was a real person named Yaakov who lifted a real rock off a real well. That sense of the reality of the things I learned about Yiddishkeit stayed with me.

In high school, I had a discussion with one of my rabbeim about the rocks that Yaakov used as a pillow. If each rock had a malach, and the malachim were fighting over whose rock the tzadik would rest his head on, what happened when the rocks fused together? Did the malachim also fuse? If I broke a rock in two, was I creating a malach? If I melted two distinct objects together, was I destroying a malach? How far down does the malach representation go? Dos every molecule have its own malach? Every atom? Every quark?

I wanted my Yiddishkeit to make sense in the everyday world I experienced. I wanted it to fit in with everything else I knew was true. Too often, it didn't. I got a reputation for asking "questions." One day, the principal called me into his office and told me that while Yiddishkeit encourages questions, I should stop asking my questions in class. Why should the other bochurim be bothered by my questions, he said, when they would probably never think of them on their own? The principle arranged for me to meet once a week with a rebbe from another yeshiva who specialized in hashkafa. Some of what the rebbe told me, like prophecies that had come true, seemed impressive. Others, like the unbroken chain of mesorah  from matan Torah to ourselves, seemed a little off. Wasn't there an incident in Navi when all of the Bnei Yisroel had forgotten the Torah? My questions didn't go away.

After high school I went to beis medrash, on my father's advice that if I didn't, I would never be able to find a girl to marry. I was yeshivish enough that I left the first beis medrash I tried after a week, when I overheard one of the guys talking about how he was going that evening to pick up his girlfriend from the airport. I found a place I was comfortable in around the corner from my parents' house, and I went there for three and a half years. As it turned out, I stopped going years before I met my wife, and she wouldn't have cared either way.

In beis medrash, at my job, in college, I was the guy whose favorite topic of conversation was religion and all of the problems with frumkeit. One of my rabbeim in beis medrash told me that of all of the bochurim, I was the one who believed in Yiddishkeit the most. I took it seriously as something that was as real as anything I experienced. And I was learning that most other people didn't. They would give theologically correct answers when asked directly, what a Christian woman I met on a message board around that time called "Sunday school answers." But their more instinctual reactions revealed their real beliefs.

This was driven home for me during a conversation I had in a college writing class. I went to Touro for college. The other guys in the class were all frum, and spanned the spectrum from Modern Orthodox to Chassidish. I forget exactly what sparked the conversation. I said that the world is a lousy place, and one of my classmates asked me, if the world is so bad, why don't I kill myself? I replied that my life in particular wasn't bad, it was the world in general. And besides, killing myself wouldn't accomplish anything. I'd just be dead, and in a lot of trouble.

The class laughed. They instinctually found it funny that a dead person could be in trouble.  I'd learned that suicide is a terrible averiah, and coming before the beis din shel maaleh with that on my record was way more trouble than I'd ever been in.

Despite all of my questions, I was frum. I didn't like everything about being frum, but I really believed in Yiddishkeit. Anyway, it wasn't really possible that I was right. Everyone around me agreed that Yiddishkeit was the truth. It seemed more likely that I was the crazy one than that everyone else was. I found answers, mostly based on the Cosmological Argument, to convince myself that it was more reasonable to be frum than not. Besides, I couldn't imagine living any other way. Going OTD was never a live option.

Then in 2008, I discovered the Jewish skeptic blogosphere. I stumbled on it purely by accident. I somehow came across Frum Satire. From his blogroll, I found frum-but-dissident bloggers like  Wolfish Musings and DovBear. And from them, the rest of the skeptic blogs. Baal Habos, Orthoprax, XGH, Daas Hedyot, Hasidic Rebel, On The Main Line, and many others. Here were sane, intelligent people who thought the same way I did, and who wrote about all the things I had been thinking for years. I discovered that all of things I had been thinking had been given formal names and exhaustively explored by people with impressive credentials.

I had been a history buff for years. I mostly stopped reading fiction after high school, and instead read history. Now I branched out into philosophy and theology, social psychology and the psychology of religion, Biblical Criticism, mythology, and the history of religion.

I had finished a masters in psychology in August of 2008, but the country had just entered the Great Recession, and jobs, especially school jobs, were hard to come by. My wife, who had also just graduated, found a job first, and by default, I became the stay-at-home parent. I had a lot of time for reading. And for writing. In 2009, I started my own blog, The Second Son. The title was a riff on the arbah banim of the Hagaddah. The rasha of the Hagaddah isn't an evil person. He's a skeptic. His crime is asking why everyone is doing these strange things without assuming, as the chacham does, that it's because God commanded it.

In early 2016, I came across an ad in a frum paper my parents had brought with them while visiting. It was for a book by Rabbi Sapirstein, the rebbe from the other yeshiva who had tried to convince me that Judaism was true two decades earlier. It promised to disprove the claims of the "evolutionists" and prove that Judaism is true. I said to my wife that I should write a book disproving frum claims and showing that it's reasonable to conclude that Judaism isn't true.

It started as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like something I should really do. I started gathering notes, going through all of the old blogs and books that I remembered as being influential. I sought out additional books on relevant subjects.

By then the blogosphere had nearly died. Blogs had always come and gone, but when one person had finished their blogging career, a new one would replace them. Now new blogs were rarer and rarer. I decided to become more active on Facebook, partly to replace the blogs it had killed, and partly to find an audience for my project. I joined a few groups, and I discovered where all of my old online "friends" had gone.

The original omnibus book I had planned grew too long, and I decided to split it up into a series. The first volume, a dissection of the Kuzari Argument titles “Breaking the Kuzari,” was finished in 2019. Sales have been modest, but, I like to think, not bad for a book on such a niche topic and which had no advertising budget. After its release, I worked for a while on one of the planned books in the series, then switched to another. It’s coming along, bit by bit.

That brings us to the present. I still take Judaism very seriously, but I no longer believe it's true. It's important to me as the heritage of my people, but the myths of the Torah are not history. There was no Yaakov, no stone, no well.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Taivos Canard Installment 3: The Taivos Canard in Practice

 

If to be frum is be normal and healthy, and conversely to go OTD is to be broken, then t follows that leaving frumkeit is not a reasoned, reasonable decision. People don't leave because they conclude that Judaism isn't true, because they don't find frum life fulfilling, or because of problems in the frum community. People leave because they are delinquents, weak-willed hedonistic cretins who wickedly throw off the ol haTorah so that they can wallow in their taivos, in all of the material pleasures the world outside the frum community has to offer.

Perhaps the most strident example of the Taivos Canard in an authoritative source is R' Elchonon Wasserman in Kovetz Maamarim. He says that anyone who isn't an idiot can see that God must have created the world, and so the only way one would come to deny God is if he is blinded by his desires.[1] In a comment thread on Yeshiva World News, a popular frum news site, community members echo this view of those who go OTD. One commenter writes:

 

It is NEVER an "informed" position to go "OFF THE DERECH" … they know in their hearts it IS THE BEST, it is just a reminder … Any reasoning person would not think leaving Torah and mitzvos to be in any way justifiable - therefore the one who does has not thought “reasoned” but has taken an emotional step.[2]

 

Another commenter tries to be understanding, but expresses the same conviction that something must have blinded those who go OTD to the truth and beauty of Orthodoxy. He also imagines that those who leave know they are wrong, and are rebelling. He cannot seem to wrap his head around the idea that someone might have come to the conclusion that being frum was not for them.

 

While I can't imagine the pain and suffering you must have gone through, and which must have helped drive you to make the decision you did, …I still do not understand how you can be "at peace" where you are if that involves any sort of intentional neglect of halacha.

How does one who was religious and understands laws of this system, even if deprived of its beauty, consider one's self to legitimately be "not religious any more" as if such a thing were possible?

I understand if a teen or even an adult rebels out of pain, CH"V, and I do sympathize even if I believe there has to be a better way than dropping one's faith practices. But even in this case they still understand that their abandonment of mitzvos is simply their rebellion, not an alternate valid path…[3]

 

The sentiment the second commenter expresses is the kinder version of the Canard. Rather than attributing leaving frumkeit to uncontrolled desire, he attributes it to trauma, to some pain which has blinded the person who has left to the truth and beauty of Orthodox Judaism. As we’ve seen, this is the dominant form of the Canard today.

In an unsolicited email sent to someone who had gone OTD, a want-to-be kiruv activist also assumes that the person left because of some trauma.

 

I heard your story, and I am intrigued. It seems that "something" happened to you that was so powerful, that it made you decide (or someone convinced you) that it is no longer possible for you to live your life as before. Now you need to change your lifestyle 180 degrees. I don't know everything, but there is a 90+percent chance that it is not as life altering as you think. The world is full of billions of people. Among them are many that experienced whatever you did, and for many the experience was much worse, but they continued living their lives, and prayed to G-d for forgiveness, or closure. I'm not saying it wasn't traumatic, but I am saying that from here it looks like you are being way too hard on yourself. I wonder why you passed judgment on yourself, and why you and decided to walk away from 3000 years of Judaism.[4]

 

Is the Canard true? Is it true that the only reason that people go OTD is because they are broken delinquents? We will briefly review the arguments here, and then explore each in detail in its own article.

The meaner version, the accusation that people convince themselves that Judaism isn't true so that they can wallow in their taivos, is at odds with reality. People don't leave frumkeit because they are enticed by the outside world. They leave because they find being frum intolerable.[5] 

For many people, especially teens, staying frum is easier than going OTD.[7] Would someone really give up the love of their family, their friends, their community, and in some cases, even their children in order to eat cheeseburgers and drive on Shabbos? For teens, going OTD can destroy their relationship with their parents, the people they are dependent on for everything. In the worst cases, it can mean being thrown out of their home. If anything, the ulterior motives that might blind people to the truth are on the side of staying frum.  

Perhaps the assumption is that those who go OTD are just terrible people who don't care about any of that. My experience interacting with people who have left Orthodoxy has not shown this to be the case. People agonize over the costs of leaving frumkeit. Losing relationships with family and friends is traumatic, and OTD parents who are denied a relationship with their children are devastated.

What about the softer version of the Canard? Perhaps the fleshpots of the outside world are not enough to offset the painful costs of going OTD, but might some trauma poison a person's perception of frumkeit? There is some truth to this. A traumatic experience can push someone to reevaluate whether being frum works for them. But trauma alone cannot account for people going OTD. There are many people who experience trauma, yet stay frum. Conversely, the number of people who go OTD is too large to be reasonably accounted for by traumatic experiences. Thirty-three percent of children who attend Orthodox schools are not Orthodox as adults.[8] Can a third of all Orthodox children be experiencing trauma severe enough to make them reject the only world they've known? This seems unlikely. And if it were true, what would that say about the frum world?

Even more unlikely is that the non-Orthodoxy of those Jews who were never frum can be explained by taivos or trauma. Ninety percent of all Jews aren't Orthodox.[9] While someone who was not raised Orthodox might be considered a tinok shenishba, and their non-Orthodoxy dismissed as them not knowing any better, all of today's non-Orthodox Jews are descended from people who were religious. It might be argued that the pervasive discrimination against Jews created traumatic associations with Judaism, but most Jews retained their identity as Jews, and a large portion retained Judaism as their religion. It was Orthodoxy that they rejected. Did ninety percent of our great-great-grandparents have traumatic experiences associated with Orthodoxy?  

Another, more dismissive variation of the Taivos Canard is the accusation that people leave frumkeit for solely emotional reasons. While this version doesn't accuse the person going OTD of being a weak-willed hedonist or suggest that trauma has pushed them to leave, it similarly tries to assert that people don't leave because they have a good reason, but because of some ulterior motive. But it is unreasonable to dismiss someone's intellectual reasons for not believing in Orthodoxy because he has emotions, because he is human and not an emotionless computer. It also misunderstands the relevance of emotion to the arguments of the disbeliever. While negative emotions towards Orthodox Judaism might motivate one person to find and examine its flaws, and positive emotions towards Orthodoxy might motivate another person to defend it, the respective motivations of either side have nothing to do with who is correct. The truth is impartial.

There is also the implication that only purely intellectual reasons are a good justification for leaving Orthodoxy. The corollary would be that only purely intellectual reasons are a good justification for becoming or staying frum. Yet people are religious for a host of emotional as well as intellectual reasons. Kiruv workers introduce potential baalei teshuva to Orthodoxy through Shabbos meals precisely because of their emotional impact. People stay frum as much because of the emotional attachment they have to Orthodoxy and to the Orthodox community as because of intellectual arguments. Religious experiences are themselves profoundly emotional. If positive emotional reasons can justifiably motivate people to become and to stay frum, then negative emotional reasons, or the lack of positive ones, can justifiably motivate people to leave.[10]

The Taivos Canard, and its softer siblings, are what allow people like the rav in the story that opened the first article in this series to dismiss questions as "excuses." They deflect arguments against religion not by addressing the arguments, but by attacking the character of the questioner: People who go OTD are swayed by their desires or "rebel" against religion for emotional reasons, and all of their intellectual arguments are just excuses. Their biases blind them to the truth. If they were honest and committed to intellectually exploring religion, as frum people are, they would come to the obvious conclusion that Yiddishkeit is true and being frum is the only proper way to live. It’s the person who left that’s broken and not, chas v’shalom, frumkeit.



[1] Wasserman, E. An Essay on Faith. In Kovetz Maamarim. Yeshivat Ohr Elchanan.

[2] http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/coffeeroom/topic/otd-phenomenom Ellipsis in original.

[3] http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/coffeeroom/topic/otd-phenomenom To be fair, there were commenters on the same thread who disputed those points, but it does show that this attitude is present in the frum world.

[4] Posted to Facebook by the recipient of the email, November 30, 2016. Used with the recipient's permission. The recipient assured me that he had never experienced any trauma, and had gone OTD for intellectual reasons. He suspected, due to the generic nature of the email and some portions that looked as though they had been sloppily edited, that this was a standard email that the sender sent to anyone he thought was a kiruv prospect.

[5] Margolese, F. (2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. P. 37.

[6] Ibid. P. 36.

[7] Ibid. P. 62.

[8] Ibid. P. 23.

[9] Ibid. P. 23.

[10] Ibid. P. 151.