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.

3 comments:

  1. I really miss the Jewish Skeptiblogosphere. Ironically, it made me more passionate about my Judaism. Understanding how Judaism evolved made it so much more meaningful than just "Hashem gave this set of rules, ready made".

    I even planned a new blog a few months ago, intending to jump-start discussion. I figured I would link to an archived version of a post on one of the skeptiblogs and see if people wanted to discuss. But I never even finished my first post. Kids keep me too busy. This is as far as I got with my first post:

    "When I discovered the Jewish Skeptic blogs around 2005, I was relatively young, (in my 30's), and devoured those blogs and became a frequent commenter. The bloggers and commenters became a community - we were mostly people who had been raised with an unquestioning emunah in Hashem and that every word of the Torah was given by God. We passionately (and mostly anonymously) discussed our emerging understanding of a human-written Torah, the realization that there was likely no Yetziat Mitzrayim (among many other events), and how our new knowledge fit into our religious lives."

    Glad to see you posting - I look forward to more.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Since you mentioned your book 'Breaking the Kuzari', I was just wondering how much longer we'll have to wait for your response to R' Gottlieb's point by point refutation of its contents back in Oct. 2020.

    My apologies if in fact you did respond.


    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xiM_rXbEj00FQSOrv9dOqOC-WQphDvyplvIiMgZc7WQ/edit

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've said what I have to say, and I'm not interested in getting into a long debate. People can read each of our work, and decide for themselves which is more convincing.

      Delete