Sunday, 6 May 2012

Why Be Orthoprax? Interview with Undercover Kofer

As promised last week, my interview with Undercover Kofer whose blog very much contributed to the inspiration for me to begin this one. 

For those new to the blog, interested in reading OP perspectives, here some previous interviews that address similar themes:
Cali Girl Although this didn't start out as "Why Be Orthoprax?" interview, Cali Girl provides her answer to the question.   
Shilton Hasechel The first official "Why be Orthoprax?" interview from another blogger whose writing I found inspiring. 
Atheodox Jew speaks about his way of "owning" one's Orthodoxy. 

In the meantime, enjoy! And thank you so much UK for participating in the blog!! It's an honour to have you here, and very much appreciated!

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What type of Jewish upbringing/education did you have?

I hope you don't mind me obfuscating the name my country of origin, but since the communities are very small, it would be immediately obvious to people that grew up in the same place. So I was born and bred somewhere in Western-Europe where I received a more or less Modern Orthodox education. I went to a moderately religious school and had extra Jewish hours at school and in the evenings. We went to shul (synagogue) every day although not always twice. I was furthermore involved with Bnei Akiva, a orthodox-zionist youth group.

2. What were some of the general perceptions/attitudes in your community towards a) non-Orthodox  Jews and Judaism b) BTs/converts and c) non Jews?

I grew up in a tolerant community, which was inclusive of the non-religious but the official organization was orthodox. A kind of United Synagogue ('Einheitsgemeinde' for insiders). BTs were often thought of as strange as they were different and tried to be 'more pious than the pope', but we were supportive of them. Same counts for converts, although the attitude was more negative, especially as many converts looked really non-Jewish and just converted for purposes of marriage. Non-Jews were a reality in our open society. Of course, the last thing you would do would be to get romantically involved with them, we called them goyim and it was a derogatory word. But we had a good relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors. Still, as a result of WWII, we knew that only few goyim tried to save Jews and then often just in order to 'save our souls' for Christianity, or they were childless couples who wanted to adopt a baby. My father was adopted in the war and his Christian parents were disappointed to see his mother return after the war.

3. For people who are not familiar with Orthodox  terminology, can you please talk about the term "Kofer" that you use in you blog, and what the implications of being a Kofer were/are in your community?

A kofer is someone who denies one or more basic tenets of faith. Often, people like these still keep up appearances in order to avoid possible social consequences. In my case, this could lead to a divorce, severe emotional turmoil with my parents and many unpleasant confrontations within the community. I live inside an area where I bump into many people on an almost daily basis. For me, at the moment, it is better to stay 'undercover' but it goes also at a cost, my general well-being. I hope that therapy will help me to be stronger from the inside and to be able to live the life I wish to live.

4. What led you to begin questioning Orthodox Judaism?

Since my teens, I always had questions that I pushed away. One thing I clearly remember is being asked about the morality of slaughtering innocent people with the conquest of Canaan. Also, the role of women always seemed to be unfair to me, despite the party line that says that women are equal but different. I also was aware that all of the Torah basically stands or falls with the Kuzari Principle. I wanted to research that. Only after my chevrusah (learning partner) quit learning with me (he wanted to go to a daily class), did I find time to read and investigate. And, boy, was I in for a surprise...

5. What prompted you to start blogging?

I had no other outlet for my kofer thoughts. And I guess I love attention. ;)

6. You spoke on your blog about "coming out" as a kofer to your wife. Do you still feel that you are living undercover?  Do you consider "Orthoprax" an accurate or useful term?

I did come out to my wife as an unbeliever but she doesn't know yet I eat treife out and sometimes break the Shabbat. 

I think Orthoprax strictly speaking does not apply to me as I eat treife and don't go to shul (except for Shabbat and Yom Tov). I like the term 'Undercover Kofer' ;)

7. What is the most difficult aspect of being undercover? How do you deal with/cope with these difficulties?

It is difficult in many aspects:

- I always have to hide eating treife
- Having to spend so many hours in shul on Shabbos and at the table, just wasting time and stuffing myself
- I can't openly talk about it with almost anyone, not even close family
- Having to answer my kid's questions (such as 'when the mashiach comes, this or that person will come back to life again, right daddy'?)
- Walking around with a kippah. Somehow I feel like I am announcing to everyone I am an idiot by just wearing one.
- Having to cope with people asking me where I davven
- Etc.

8. As an Undercover kofer + father, are you conflicted in terms of how to present Judaism to your children? 

Yes, see above. However, I try to be as honest as possible in answering tham along the lines of "this is what the Rabbis teach" instead of "this is what I think". But kids are not stupid and they will have to find out one day. I teach them to think for themselves, this may help.

9. How has your identifying yourself as a kofer affected your relationship with your family and frum peers?

Well my wife was quite accepting in the sense that she did not break off the relationship because of that. But there are strings attached: she wants me to keep things like kashrut, taharat hamishpacha, shabbat, etc.

I have taken a more skeptical stance with my frum peers and I actually feel better like that.

10. Have you ever "slipped" (i.e. break an Orthodox rule by mistake) in public?  If so, how have the people with you reacted?

Not really, although I am sure some people must've seen me buying treife.

11. Is there a different denomination of Judaism that you philosophically identify with?

Secular Judaism? :)

12. Is there anything you miss about your "pre-kofer" days? 

Yes, the emotions during praying and learning. The security about life and the afterlife. I needed to redefine my beliefs in a major way and it forces me to be a more responsible and realistic person.

13. What are your feelings now toward frumkeit, in general? (i.e. Do you resent having been raised frum?  Are there aspects of frumkeit that are important for you to preserve/impart to your children?)

In general, I would like to respect people that are frum, especially the moderates. The problem is that these are the 'enablers' of a more fundamentalist orthodoxy. It perpetuates the problem, as it were.

Still, emotionally, I would have a problem with it if Judaism would die out.

I don't resent growing up frum because that was just what life brought in my path. However, I wished sometimes I was able to live a normal life, rebel during my teenage years, study at a university, etc.

I do wish my children to grow up as responsible, well-adjusted people with a strong bond to their ethnic heritage. There are definitely values within Judaism that I would like to pass on to them very consciously, such as respect for people, tzedakah, visiting the sick, tikun olam, etc.

14. Do you mean all of Judaism in general, or Orthodoxy in particular? Do you feel non-Orthodox forms of Judaism hinge on Orthodox Judaism? (i.e. without Orthodox Judaism, the others won't really survive/exist)? 

Whole of Judaism but even more conservative forms of Judaism. Not sure if that has to do with the war or not, but it's definitely an emotional thing.

15.What do you enjoy most about not being frum (in belief, anyway)?

Feeling more empowered and eating treife.

16.What aspects of secular life do you think are most difficult for a formerly-frum (or someone in undercover/ in transition) to adapt to?

A lack of reference in many areas, especially culturally. Also, a different outlook on life, how to deal with the other sex, etc.

17 Would you mind elaborating, e.g do you have an example. (People who are secular wouldn't necessarily understand what would be "foreign" from a formerly OJ perspective.) 

Culturally: Movies, language (esp. slang), fashion, etc.

Different outlook of life: You grow up with this idea that life must have a meaning and everything turns around being subservient to God and the tribe. Putting yourself first gives you a total guilt trip, especially in the beginning.

Male-female relationships: You haven't got a half a clue how to approach women, you think that non-frum women are 'easy', etc.

18. Are there treif foods you still can't bring yourself to eat?

I would eat everything, just don't feel compelled to eat certain food like pork, lobster, octopus, etc. But I did already eat some of those ;)

19.What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that you have encountered from non-frum people about frum people?

I encountered few misconceptions, probably because I still look frum. Some misconceptions I found other people confronted with: people think that frum people are necessarily more honest in their dealings, the more 'traditional' you get dressed, the more religious you are, etc.

20.In your opinion, is it possible to give children a robust Jewish education without the expectation or assumption of belief and expectation of practice? i.e. is it possible to teach children to be Jewish literate, without being Jewish indoctrinate?  Is it worthwhile?

Yes, I would like my children to be knowledgeable in many aspects but at the same time to think critical. It will never be like a haredi education but broader in other ways.

21. How do you think living in a non-Orthodox community would impact your lifestyle? Is it something you would ever consider?

I am seriously considering it, but it may cost my marriage and I may have to completely redefine my daily life. Also, it has a major financial impact. I am not anxious to get there anytime soon.

22. What are your feelings towards kiruv organizations?

Mostly negative: They do fill in a need for some, but they usually teach these innocent souls a fundamentalist lifestyle and make it look like the most ethical thing they could do with their lives. I resent that very much.

23. What resources are available for people who are also undercover as you were/are? 

I started a website but I hope that one day we can have a proper, well-funded multimedia site going. I have linked to some other valuable resources there. have a look ;) 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Interview with Atheodox Jew: Imagining an Atheist Orthodox Community

Continued from here.

CL:  After reading your bio, I'm really glad you hit on an aspect of Orthodoxy that my previous posts re: the appeal of Orthodoxy have neglected: the potential for intellectual development inherent in Orthodoxy as a result of the focus on Torah study. As an atheist, I could never fully engage, but it's interesting whether a community of "Atheodox Jews"  could offer an intellectually stimulating and honest Orthodox context that  does not currently exist elsewhere . . . i.e. an untapped religious niche/market :). 

Many atheists will dismiss this by pointing to intellectual stimulation via reading books/career etc., but those interests/activities are generally very compartmentalized in practice, and are not geared towards community building. By creating a community around Torah and its offshoots, the whole community has a unified text to discuss  - not so far off from the role of sports or TV in secular culture, but arguably more meaningful for many since it informs individual's lifestyle/decisions and links them to their heritage and each other. 

In any case, thank you very much for answering the questions  below. Much appreciate the dialogue!

AJ: Thank YOU so much. I appreciate your sincerity, depth and good-natured way. Before I get to the questions, let me put my responses in context. Part of what I say comes from a purely experiential place, sharing how I manage to adapt to Orthodoxy as a non-believer. I've found that it's entirely possible to be a religious Jew - to be observant, learn Torah, work on one's middot, do chesed, etc. - without living in a "God reality", without having to subscribe to a set of beliefs in supernatural entities, metaphysical realities, without believing that the Torah is literally or historically true. I know that puts me at odds with the system, and I can live with that. 

But there is a side of me that says no - I'm not at odds with the system. The refusal to accept unreasonable beliefs is not a "sin" - adaraba (just the opposite), it's an idealistic position in Torah, something to be proud of, to esteem to, a sign of the quintessentially Jewish anti-idolatry "bug" we've been blessed with. It is a statement that Torah ultimately strives for truth - which means that not only is non-belief "excusable", but in fact it's a "mitzvah" to cleanse Torah of superstitious or otherwise unreasonable beliefs. It's a framework that says Torah is not afraid of rejecting a part of itself, for the sake of truth. That is "Torat Emet".

So some of my responses may be in the more experiential spirit, and some may reflect the more idealistic position.

1.  How would you envision halacha to be reframed in an Atheodox context? Does it shift from law to suggestion? 

As soon as we start with the premise of atheism, the concept of mitzvah as "Divine Command" ceases to be. There is no "revelation", no "contract with God". There is something else however: an unwritten contract by/among the Jewish people - a commitment to remain a people, and to strive for a high level of conduct and contribution (to be a "Goy Kadosh" and "Or LeGoyim"). And on that count, halacha has much to contribute, both in terms of helping us to maintain our identity (laying out a system of rules/norms unique to the Jewish people), and in the detailed attention given toward refining one's personal conduct/character (especially in developing greater interpersonal sensitivity, expressed in laws "Ben Adam LeChavero" and other places).

Halacha also contributes by offering a world of intellectual and creative discourse. Engaging in the study of halacha (specifically how it develops through Mishna, Gemara, Rishonim, Achronim) is the "meat and potatoes" of yeshiva-style Torah learning. This learning is the foundation of a Talmid Chacham, a "Lamdan" (with all due respect to the idea of "Reshit Chochma Yirat Hashem"). And beyond being a fascinating, engaging, dynamic and highly intellectually stimulating activity, beyond the "lishma" enjoyment it provides, the study of halacha no doubt enriches and adds depth to our observance. Also, as opposed to discussions of "hashkafa", halacha is naturally quite "atheistic" in nature, meaning it is primarily the study of logical/conceptual interrelations, not metaphysics and theology.

All that said, in terms of actual practice, I see no way around the fact that some areas of halacha either have to be reworked or simply abandoned. What is the criteria for deciding which halachot are problematic? I don't have a hard and fast rule to offer, and the reality is that such criteria will probably emerge spontaneously out of popular sentiment, but here is one possible approach:

The Torah tells us not to put a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf, because "you should fear your God". Likewise, Sodom was known as having no "fear of God". What do these instances of "fearing God" have in common? Simply, to curse a deaf person or sodomize your guests is below the level of what is minimally acceptable for civil society (or at least according to Bronze Age Near Eastern criteria). That is what the Torah means by having no "fear of God" - it refers to a lack of the most basic civility.

I use this as the basis for a guideline. In order to determine whether a halacha should be revisited/changed/abandoned, we need to look at the norms of modern, civil, free, enlightened society. Whatever halacha (rule or practice) falls "below" what such a society can allow (rendering it "uncivil", as contravening the goals of free society or basic human rights) - that halacha needs to be changed, repudiated or eliminated. Any practice which is beneath the dignity of the wider society is in effect a "Chilul HaShem" (if not halachically, then in spirit), and a Torah community cannot, and should not, conduct itself in that manner. And since the rules of halacha represent a human contract, not something etched into the heavens, we can change it as we see fit. (Though rather than simply bypassing halacha, we may opt instead to creatively reformulate halacha so as to reflect and support such change.)

2. In my post “The Country Club” I listed four groups that I think are marginalized in Orthodox Judiasm (in no particular order): Women, Homosexuals, Atheists, and People who marry non-Jews (and I have since learned that people considered Mamzerim would also be marginalized).  Would a Humanistic Model of Modern Orthodoxy demarginalize all groups, or are some taboos (e.g. on intermarriage) too ingrained for the Orthodox community to overlook/revise?

 Excellent question. In the "Country Club" post, you spoke about official club rules vs. member sentiment. That would be one way to frame this discussion, since some of the marginalization you mentioned is halachically sanctioned, and some has nothing whatsoever to do with halacha and instead is a function of community sentiment (norms & taboos). So for instance, to my knowledge being gay or marrying a non-Jew should have no impact in any way on a person's halachic standing (they can be given an aliyah, give testimony, etc.). Of course in reality, they do face potential rejection by their communities. Being an atheist may affect one's halachic status, depending on the extent of the non-belief, how that person expresses it, and whether that puts the person into the category of "kofer", "apikores", etc. But again, even if one's non-belief is deemed not to affect their halachic standing, it no doubt presents a formidable social/communal challenge. "Mamzer" is of course a halachic category and has its implications. (Same with blindness, deafness, mental retardation, deformity, and other factors beyond a person's control.) 

And yes, women are certainly treated differently in halacha, and I would agree it's not all in the spirit of "vive la différence!" - some of it is indeed experienced as marginalization. Since free societies have essentially rejected inequality of women before the law and in terms of opportunity, a Torah community can do no less than afford women equal status, e.g., in terms of divorce, testimony, counting as part of a minyan, functioning as a Rabbi, a Dayan, etc. The same goes for homosexuality - if it is illegal and immoral in a free society to discriminate against gays, a Torah society can be no worse in that regard. (Yes, Torah should ideally strive to be "better", but at the very least it shouldn't be worse.) As far as belief in God, there is absolutely nothing "uncivil" about being an atheist in modern, free, predominantly secular society. Besides, how could Atheodoxy marginalize atheists! 

As for the question of marrying a non-Jew, a couple of points. Again, there is nothing "uncivil" about interfaith marriage, and if anything it would be uncivil to marginalize such a person. However, in many cases intermarriage is a decision to remove oneself from observance, and in effect to "leave" the Jewish people by virtue of one's children having less (if any) identification as Jews. Is it "wrong" to do so in any absolute or "spiritual" sense? No. Do we, as autonomous, free people have every right to decide how to conduct our lives? Absolutely. But nonetheless it's a decision to break a very basic social contract, one which sees maintaining a Jewish people and being a part of it as something with inherent value. And that, I believe, is not something to be done lightly.

Now, what about someone who marries a non-Jew, yet the non-Jewish partner (or child) "identifies" as Jewish? Do they need to convert? What about the larger "who's a Jew" question? I'll give you my personal view on this. I see as the most decent, civil and reasonable approach (and counter to normative halacha, at least as it's currently understood) to say that anyone who either practices and lives as a Jew, or who counts themselves as a Jew, puts themselves in the same "boat" as the Jewish people (for better or for worse) and is dedicated to their well-being - that is a person I'd like to count as a Jew. If they want to immerse in a mikvah, because that is an act which Jewish tradition associates with starting one's identity as a Jew, great. If not, it's certainly not a deal-breaker.

So to answer the question, is Halacha "law" or "suggestion"? I'm not sure it's either one. It has a social contract aspect. It has a self-identity aspect, an idealism/"higher conduct" aspect, an intellectual-engagement aspect. And then there are parts of halacha which don't hold up to contemporary standards of civil and free society and have to change.

3. Since the "social contract" in the atheist context is really a cultural one - i.e. behavior that indicates one is participating in a  a culture - how is intermarriage breaking a "social contract" any more than marrying a completely non-observant Jew? (The wording of your answer suggests that intermarriage would continue to be strongly discouraged, but I don't really see how intermarriage is that different from marrying secular - except that it is  hugely stigmatized in the community.) 

Yes, I was actually thinking about this question as I wrote but somehow didn't address it. Here goes...

Very true, marrying a non-observant Jew (or becoming non-observant) can likewise result in one's (or one's children's) dissociation/dis-identification from the Jewish people. However, marrying a non-Jew is typically a compounding factor, as the person is coming in with a different religious identity, different set of cultural norms, potentially different beliefs. Granted, the same could be said for a person who is halachically "Jewish" but grew up in a Christian home, and the opposite could be said of one who is halachically "non-Jewish" but who grew up Jewish - who again I would like to call Jewish by virtue of the person's identifying as such.

My main point is that self-perpetuation of a people is a reasonable goal, which means that discouraging attrition is a significant value (part of the "contract"), and one way of doing that is to discourage intermarriage as a general rule. That said, I agree that other factors which would result in attrition/dis-identification should also be discouraged, and I recognize that not everyone fits the "general rule". If one can marry a non-Jew and pass on a robust Jewish identity, all the power to them. Lastly, I want to emphasize that personal autonomy is key, and if Jewish identity is not something a person wants to embrace, that is entirely their prerogative.

4: To stay “Orthodox”, it would seem some forms of halacha would have to remain binding to a certain extent. Are there any halachot that you see as non-negotiable  - shabbos/kashrut for instance?

AJ: Once there's no "mitzvah", all halacha technically becomes a "rishut" (a matter of personal preference) - nothing is "binding" per se. The question then becomes what do we value, what do we enjoy, what do we feel is so integral a part of Jewish observance and identity that we simply "have to" maintain it in order to keep the culture intact? Brit Milah falls into that category for most Jews. So does having a Passover Seder. For Orthodox culture, Shabbat and Kashrut definitely fall into that category, and in fact so do most observances. There is a certain rhythm, a "gestalt", to Orthodox life, which all the various observances together help to create. That said, I think there is a certain amount of change, including lapses in observance, which could be absorbed in the system, and it would still retain the feel of "Orthodox life" - or if not exactly "Orthodox" then a robust, vibrant, distinctively Jewish life which is capable of sustaining itself.

5. What would the role of the tradition of Torah literature and thought be? How could it be reframed in a non-theistic Orthodoxy? (I'm imagining as a "historic chain" that links us to our ancestors . . .but the reverence might shift in currency. Jewish art/literature etc., are also chains - would they be elevated in stature?)

Yes, there is an appeal to linking back through history and feeling connected to something that spans not only our lifetime but the lifetime of our people. But that's just one aspect. Like halacha, Torah on the whole has a strong moral/pedagogical component, a self-identity component, an intellectual engagement component, etc. Somehow, we are who we are as Jews, by virtue of our continued involvement with Torah - and often times by our very opposition to Torah. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a shiur (Torah lecture) and come away with a feeling of great clarity, understanding, and sense of mission - precisely because I completely disagreed with it! So whether we're inspired by, and in full agreement with, a particular piece of Torah, or whether we find it terribly wrong-headed and hard to stomach, Torah learning is a win-win proposition. 

As far as "reverence", the sheer magnitude of all the careful thought, the endless tomes of material that have been output by Torah scholars throughout the centuries on almost every subject imaginable, is something which stands on its own as something to be revered. Jewish art and literature may be no less depthful or worthy of study, as are science and other fields of knowledge. And yes, by virtue of Torah being strictly human, it is not inherently "higher" than other areas of study. Yet there is something unique about Torah learning which fuels our identity and vitality as Jews in a way that perhaps nothing else can.

6. How would this model of Modern Orthodoxy be distinct from Reconstructionist Judaism (aside from the possible omission of references to God)? (The question could also be posed as: What would need to happen for this model of Orthodoxy to remain distinct from other more liberal Jewish movements e.g. Reconstructionist etc.)

First off, in theory Atheodoxy is not limited to the Modern Orthodox sector. In fact I could see there being a very robust "yeshivish" Atheodoxy. Imagine combining the intellectual acumen, attention to middot, and in-depth knowledge of Torah of the yeshivish persona, with a fully rational, non-superstitious, "no-intellectual-shtus" approach. I know people like this, and it's a powerful combination! So it already exists - but as I mentioned before I'm not naive enough to think the Haredi/Yeshivish world would embrace the "Godlus of Godlessness" (to coin a phrase) anytime soon. They will most certainly fight tooth and nail against it. So will right-wing MO for that matter, since it seeks to prove itself as worthy in the eyes of the Haredi world. Left-wing MO to a certain extent also wants to prove itself as "serious" about Torah/observance to right-wing MO, but the fact that the left-wing prides itself on being tolerant, accepting and open-minded means that this is where Atheodoxy has a fighting chance to coalesce, build a community, and start to gain a degree of legitimacy. But this process will be ever... so... slow. We're talking decades.

To answer your question though, what sets Atheodoxy apart from non-Orthodox movements is the same thing which separates Orthdoxy from those movements - things like learning Gemara, keeping Shabbat, being immersed in Torah and mitzvot as part of one's daily life and identity.

7. Would you see this community as having stronger allies among liberal movements or other Orthodox groups?

That's tough to gauge. Initially, Orthodox groups will not want to touch Atheodoxy with a ten-foot-pole, let alone count it as an "ally". Atheodoxy will be likened to the pig that displays its split hooves to appear kosher, but is really 100% treif. It will be likened to Lavan, which as the Haggadah says, "sought to uproot everything". Only non-Orthodox movements would dare have anything to do with a group which calls itself Atheodox. But culturally, Atheodox individuals will no doubt do exactly what they do now - live in mainstream Orthodox society. That is their cultural base, their home.

8. How would educational models approach this form of Orthodoxy? i.e. How much needs to be taught so that the next generation can carry the torch once the theistic foundation is removed? Or, in what detail would the theistic roots be taught. i.e. if the community adopts Tzemah Yoreh’s model/philosophy of davening, would children still need to be fluent in the antecedents? 

I would say as follows - the same classical Torah texts would be taught which have always been taught. However, they will be taught with a rational overlay. For instance, if we read, "Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to do X, Y and Z", it might be discussed as: "X, Y and Z are understood to be important. Can anyone explain why? Does anyone disagree?" In addition, there is value in being exposed to the traditional theological model if only to gain clarity as to why we reject such belief. That being said, I would imagine that texts with a predominantly theological emphasis, which focus on "Devekut", love and fear of God, etc., will probably generate less interest. But that still leaves considerably more Torah to learn than most people can possibly digest in their lifetime. I also hold out the possibility that Atheodoxy could spawn a new creative renaissance in Torah literature - original works, commentaries, treatises on halacha and machshava (thought/philosophy), entirely new genres for all I know.

As much as I admire the work of Tzemah Yoreh, my hunch (as I mentioned in response to the "Question for Orthopraxers" post) is that Atheodoxers would probably prefer traditional davening (or to stop davening altogether) over davening from an "Atheist's Siddur". The reason is that davening per se is not an activity that interests most people - its appeal is in taking part in a familiar, shared communal experience, something whose details are discussed in halacha, an activity people already have a "rhythm" with - and that includes the words and tunes used in traditional davening. Could Atheodox davening have a different "spin" to it? (Maybe not being so long, for starters?) Absolutely. Like I said about Orthodoxy in general, there's a certain amount of change that can be absorbed, whereby davening is still davening. At a certain point though, it becomes something else. And that is also ok, don't get me wrong. If the "consumer demand" is there, that will determine what people do. If davening gets dropped altogether, or is replaced by learning or another communal activity, that could work as well. I for one would welcome it!

9. Do you know many people who are Orthoprax? Is your impression that people are Orthoprax by choice - i.e. they really like Orthodox culture? Or by circumstance: because they lost faith after starting families etc., and do not want to disappoint their loved ones/lose their social support system? If most are from the second group - i.e. they are disenchanted with Orthodoxy, do you think this model of Orthodoxy makes being Orthodox more palatable, or do you think given the choice, most Orthopraxers-by-circumstance would sooner just drop being Orthodox all together?

I don't know any Jewish atheists who have taken on Orthodox observance simply because they like the culture. Invariably, it's people who start off Orthodox and then realize they can't abide by the beliefs. So I'm not expecting Atheodoxy to be a "kiruv" vehicle. It is primarily intended to serve those within Orthodoxy who see the value, depth, and vitality in being a Torah-observant Jew and living in a Torah-observant community, but who value truth, who feel it is neither appropriate nor "holy" to contaminate their minds or their children's minds with irrational or harmful dogma, and who - like Avraham Avinu - would like to "cross over the river" and leave the idolatry of false beliefs behind. At least that is how I feel, at any rate. So yes, if there is no "Eye in the Sky", there are many who would sooner leave Orthodoxy altogether. But others may see Atheodoxy as offering the best of both worlds - a rich, idealistic Jewish life, where that idealism very much includes respect for reason and the mind.

10. A more personal question: What do you tell your children? Are you open with them about being atheist?

What I tell my children depends on their age. Younger children can indulge in fantasy, and I believe that's perfectly okay. Once they reach the neighborhood of Bar/Bat Mitzvah age however, I try to introduce a more "rationalist" approach so as to minimize irrational or superstitious beliefs. I have not yet declared myself an "atheist" to any of my children, but I speak about Torah and Judaism in reasoned, human terms, and in that sense I am transmitting Judaism as an atheist - i.e. "without God".

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Interview with Michael Carin!

Many thanks to Michael Carin for his participation in the blog this week! I have enjoyed our correspondence very much. Below are my questions and Michael's responses. I have also attached a You Tube video of an interview Michael did about the Future Jew. 

1.                 What inspired you to write The Future Jew?

As a writer, and as a Jew born just six years after the Holocaust ended, how could I not write about that earthquake in the history of my people? I started reading Holocaust memoirs at an early age. The result was that at Passover seders, during the telling of our primordial myth, I found myself thinking about the much more recent reality of Auschwitz. Even an adolescent mind can grasp the extent of the disconnect. We were celebrating a three thousand year-old liberation of our people by the Almighty, a liberation for which we have no evidence, while ignoring an extermination of six million of our people that had taken place only decades earlier – an extermination that the Almighty, if he exists, had conspicuously refused to prevent. The contradiction highlighted the hypocrisy of religious faith for me. That was my first motivation for writing the book. 

The second: Holocaust denial had become an integral part of the justification for the eradication of Israel.  Israel-haters don’t have to rely only on the lie: “The Jews stole our land.”  They can get help from the Holocaust deniers, who say, “Israel was built on a gigantic deception.” Accordingly, the book took on a dual mission: (i) to demonstrate to Jews that in wake of the Shoah intellectual integrity requires them to replace their Bronze Age idea of monotheism with a modern and uniquely Jewish take on monohumanism, and (ii) to persuade Jews that by making this wrenching, extraordinary, historic gesture they can affirm, demonstrate, and help perpetuate memory of the Holocaust, which in turn can help prevent such atrocities in the future.

2.                 What kind of research did the book involve?

I had already read scores of Holocaust memoirs and histories, which is what primed me for the book. During the writing itself, I read still more memoirs and histories. There are no more powerfully truthful lines in my book than these: “. . . when we journey into Holocaust remembrance and stay there for an extended time, we cannot come out the same persons we went in. We are more likely to come out and ask, in angry incredulity, V ken es zine?” The research was effectively a five-year journey of answering that question,  How can it be?

3.                 Can you tell us about your personal relationship with Judaism growing up (i.e. were your raised religious/secular etc.)?

I had a typical Canadian middle-class Jewish upbringing; my three brothers and I all had bar-mitzvahs; we went to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; my mom made the world’s best hamantaschen; and we held seders even when the Canadiens were winning the Stanley Cup. We were not religious, but we were unmistakably, unambiguously Jewish.

4.                 What is your relationship with Judaism today?

I consider myself a member of a very special tribe. I’m proud to be part of the tribe which was the first to specifically indict slavery as a crime against humanity. I do not refer here to the Exodus story, for which not a single scrap of archeological evidence exists, but to increasing recognition of the role of the Habiru in shaping Jewish destiny. We Jews are most likely descendants of the Habiru. 

Who were the Habiru? They were, in biblical times, slaves who became fugitives. They established their own community in ancient Palestine and based their culture on a primal motivation: the desire to live as free people. Most of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Jewish history can be traced back to that moral and political origination. There’s little doubt that the myth of Exodus was built on the truth of the Habiru.  I urge you to read Robert Wolfe’s book, From Habiru to Hebrews, which tells us, in contrast to the fables in the Torah, where we Jews came from and how we developed our fundamental views of how to live a civilized life.

 I should add that this book sits on my shelf next to Sherwin Wine’s Judaism Beyond God, which is the seminal work of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement, a guide to history in the form of a narrative, and a superb prescription for human reflection and Jewish action which I’m sure will always act as the keystone of our literature.  I relate to Judaism through the ideas expressed in these two pivotal books.

5.                 How is “The Future Jew” distinct from the “Secular Humanist Jew”?

The future Jew is a secular humanist, so there is no distinction, only a differing emphasis. The future Jew in The Future Jew happens to consider  Holocaust remembrance as central to Jewish identity going forward. Many secular Jews are uncomfortable with the emphasis on the Holocaust, but my future Jew says: It must be emphasized to be remembered, and it must be remembered to motivate positive action. Besides, it would take a sustained, superhuman effort of will to remove the cloud of the Holocaust from the Jewish sky. It is permanently there, it is indisputably real, and it is overwhelmingly meaningful. So let’s use it to rain down lessons on the earth. My fundamental point in the book is this: Remembering the Holocaust will help teach Jews how to act for humanity – how to act as the Habiru of modernity.

6.                 What would you change about the book were you to write it today (i.e. following the success of the so-called “New Atheist movement”) vs. ten years ago?

I wouldn’t change anything except the title, because the title limits the audience. Had the title been aimed overtly at all people instead of (seemingly) exclusively at Jews, it might have played more of a role in what you call ‘the New Atheist movement’, considering its publication in 2001 predated Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins et al.

7.                 The book’s tone is quite angry. Do you still feel the same way towards theistic Judaism? Why?

I frankly don’t understand why people complain to me about the book’s angry tone. Why shouldn’t it have an angry tone? For thousands of years, while we Jews suffered persecution after persecution, the intellectual leaders of our tribe bought into and embellished and promoted a fantasy about an almighty supernatural protector. For the last seventy years, since the Holocaust hammered six million additional nails into the coffin of that fantasy, the same leaders have exhibited a willful blindness to evidence as obvious as the noses on their faces. I’m angry at the willful blindness! 

And there’s another reason to be angry. Return to what I said about swimming out into the ocean of blood of Holocaust history.  How does one return to shore anything but angry? And how does one remain calm when some theistic Jews, the Taliban of our tribe, claim that the six million died to atone for misdeeds, that they were all reincarnated souls of sinners? (That would be the spiritual leader of Israel's orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.) How do you remain equanimous when one of the most honoured rabbis in the history of the Jewish people explains the Holocaust as God’s way of amputating a diseased limb? (That would be the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneersohn, contributing vile nonsense to our discourse; see Yehudah Bauer’s book, Rethinking the Holocaust.) Other theistic rationalizations are only marginally less medieval – and marginally less obscene. Surely these are valid reasons to be angry, n’est-ce pas?

8.                 What aspects of theistic Judaism do you feel are valuable for “The Future Jew” to retain?

None! Many aspects of Judaism inform the culture of the future Jew, but when you preface Judaism with ‘theistic’ you are pointing to its superstitious and irrational dimensions which, with time, will go, should go, must go if we are ever to graduate fully from the intellectual infancy of humanity.

9.     Prior to the Holocaust, Jewish history is littered with attempts at eradication of Jews. Why do you emphasize the Holocaust specifically as a turning point?

Because it was so profoundly conceived and gigantically executed. Because it was all-encompassing and potentially definitive in the sense of total extermination of the Jewish people. You can (if you’re a believer) ignore predations that happened in remote history. You can (if you’re a believer) discount massacres that did not wipe out whole communities. You can (if you’re a believer) close your eyes to centuries of scapegoating and persecution while holding on to your faith that it’s all a test, a gauntlet, a preparation for reward – all an intricate working out of God’s plan which we cannot possibly understand since he is VAST and we are less than mere puny dots. But I submit that you cannot, even if you’re a believer, continue to believe that an almighty protector exists after you have seen a modern state bring to bear all its power in order to murder, en masse, Jewish infants and grandmothers – and while aiming with concentrated will at nothing less than the eradication, everywhere in the world, of all Jewish infants and grandmothers. Accordingly, the Holocaust should act as a turning point for faithful Jews; the Holocaust demonstrates the futility and emptiness of their faith; in the name of six million innocents it demands, it ordains, that they renounce their faith.

10. Your chapter “Holocaust Haggadah” suggests that Jews hold a Holocaust seder. Do you think this should become a new ritual?

I think holding a Holocaust seder on a regular basis would be critical for moving forward the agenda of Jewish humanists. Holding a Holocaust seder in place of a Passover seder would represent a major reformation of Jewish custom.  (Try selling the idea to theistic Jews, and you’ll find out just how major a reformation it would be!) And that’s precisely the point. The world, of course, is not going to come into our homes to hear what we’re saying when we tell the Holocaust story. But if we let the world know that we have transformed a fundamental component of our culture (with the express intent of reminding both ourselves and everybody else that the Holocaust happened, and that it happened because Reason is yet to fully supplant Superstition in the world) then we will have effectively announced something that will cause people to sit up, take notice, and be very curious indeed. (Sort as if Christians had decided to retire the cross as their symbol; the world would be curious!) In short, I’m suggesting the Holocaust seder idea to Jewish humanists as a means of advancing their motive and cause, and as a means of differentiating themselves from the other streams of Judaism.

11. Have you participated in a Holocaust seder?

Yes, shortly after the book was published, a secular Jewish woman in Montreal called and offered to hold a Holocaust seder in her home. We had twenty-two participants. We sat on a bare floor in ragged clothes and we read the Holocaust Haggadah from beginning to end (it took about two hours). Among us was a survivor (we allowed her a chair!), and several members of the Unitarian Church. We followed quite a few of the directions laid down in the Holocaust Haggadah (the room was lit only by stubs of candles; no one wore make-up or jewelry; we drank only water; the host’s daughter had put some of the vile Nazi slogans on large banners; I arrived with a flag of Denmark!). Everyone present participated by reading a portion aloud. The reading took about two hours. I have to say: it was one of the most fulfilling events of my life. And, yes, at the end, we devoured icy bread.

Michael Carin

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Why be Orthoprax? Interview with Shilton Hasechel

The term Orthoprax describes people who practice Orthodox Judaism without believing in the underlying tenets of the faith (e.g. God, or that the Torah was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai).  For non-Orthodox people, the reasons for remaining Orthodox are usually not self-evident, and when I tell people of how I started blogging/learned the term, the inevitable question is always: Why would someone who does not believe, practice? I'm sure there are as many reasons for why someone would practice without belief as there are individuals who do. But I'm going to pry, anyway ;). I asked Shilton Hasechel, one of the J-blogosphere skeptics whose work inspired me to start writing, if I could interview him on the subject for this blog. He very kindly agreed, and below is the interview.

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What type of Jewish upbringing did you have?*
I love Judaism, I learn Torah a lot, but don't keep everything strictly. I grew up in the States and until high school had a Modern Orthodox upbringing. We weren't do whatever you want sort of people, no my family was way too serious for that, but we were Zionists, talked to girls, watched TV and had internet but also kept Cholov Yisroel and put a huge value on Torah learning.
Of course that was up till high school. I went to a Yeshivish High School yeshiva and there there was no internet, no girls, no tv and no Zionism. Just Talmud day in and day out. The difference between these two worlds was so vast that I don’t think I could say I was raised "Modern Orthodox".
I spent my childhood in Modern Orthodoxy and my high school in the "Yeshivishe Velt" (Yeshivish World) (with occasional trips back to the Modern Orthodox world during holidays). These two time periods both contributed to who I am right now. Throughout the rest of this interview I will make clear whether I'm referring to my Modern Orthodox childhood or my yeshivish highschool.
2. Why didn't your parents send you to a high school that was more in line with your elementary education and home life?
 Because my parents believed that to quote the Talmud "Learning Torah is Worth Everything". Even if you're MO you have to admit that Chareidim are the most diligent Talmud learners. It's also part of the American problem of not realizing that Charedim are not different than MO in just degree but also in essence. A lot of Americans, myself included at the time, think of Orthodoxy as one monolithic thing and don't realize that Chareidism has a completely different philosophy from MO.

3. a. What were some of the general perceptions/attitudes towards non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism in your community?
Non-Orthodox Jews were not religious. They were fakers or compromisers and it was a disaster that they existed at all. Let me stress this was the attitude I learned in the Modern Orthodox world.
b. What about BTs?
Never really talked about 'em much to be honest.  I guess we all kind of had a "good for you" sort of attitude.
c. And non-Jews?
Erm well in Yeshiva we indiscriminately used racial slurs. Otherwise I don't remember non-Jews being a big issue. They were just around. I guess looked down upon a bit but not in a significant way.
4. How would being a skeptic/non-believer impact the dating scene and marriage for someone in the Modern Orthodox community?
From experience I can tell you that it impacts a lot. If you're a skeptic and you're dating a believing girl you have to either break it to her or hide it from her, both of which are not the best options. If you break it to her she'll probably leave you. It's sad but true. Most MO girls aren't interested in dating a heretic. They not only don't understand it but think of it as a deal breaker. The other option is a great way to build a dishonest relationship and stops you from opening up to your partner. In short if you're a skeptic or a non-believer you gotta date someone like minded or at least someone with a sense of pluralism - something that most MO people are unfortunately not trained in. Orthodoxy is decidedly un-pluralistic.
5. In your blog, you spoke about Max Dimont's Jews God and History opening the “Pandora’s box” that got you to start questioning Judaism. Do you think had you not read that book, the Pandora’s Box would be inevitable later on with introduction to other secular-influenced texts?
Probably, I wouldn't have been sheltered forever. But again its possible that I would have built up better defense mechanisms. The reason it hit me so hard was because it was such a surprise. I was actually blown away that such theories such as the Documentary Hypothesis existed. I think the surprise was an important factor. If someone had said to me "Hey Shilton, there's a thing called the DH and its rubbish" or "Hey Shilton there's a thing called the DH and it doesn't contradict Judaism (a la Louis Jacobs) its possible it might not have had so much of an affect on me.
Let me take this opportunity to point out that I learned tons of ways to justify faith and even blind faith (Romanticism, Heschelian Awe etc. ) only later in my life but at that point it was too late because I had already lost my belief. You can only defend belief effectively if you still have that feeling of something. But once you've lost it you can theoretically defend it all you want but its just not in your heart anymore.
6. Do you consider yourself secular now, or is there a different denomination of Judaism you identify with?
I like to think of myself as a student of the Zionist writer Achad Ha'am and people in his spirit such as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem who preached a cultural Judaism with a heavy connection to the texts. I don't know if that makes me secular or not.

7. How long was the process for you to transition out of frumkeit?
Well there's no real answer to that because I still wear a kippa and nominally keep Shabbat. I'm out of frumkeit in the sense that I don't keep anything that inconveniences me or that I object to. For example I'll eat non-Kosher and flick lights on and off on Shabbat. But on the other hand I do Kiddush and Havdala and put on Tefillin. So you could say I'm still sortav in frumkeit. If you want to get technical the transition between my first pang of skepticism (when I was 13 years old) and my first intentional BIG aveira (switching a light off on Shabbat when I was 17 years old) took 4 years.

8a. Was there a period where you considered yourself Orthoprax?
I'm still sortav Orthoprax in that I fake it. Like I don't go switching on lights on Shabbat in front of my frum friends. Let me stress I live in an Orthodox community and most of my friends are Orthodox or Orthoprax. So yeah I don't do anything overtly offensive in front of those folks.  But on the other hand in private or with non-religious friends I do whatever I want.
Honestly Orthoprax is a very misleading term. What does it mean? You don't believe but you keep everything? Who the Hell does that? Are you telling me that if you're a closet Atheist you're gonna not turn on a light on Shabbat when NO ONE is around just because that's what you're used to. What if its dark and you want your favorite pair of socks? I'd rather define things as follows. There is Orthodoxy which is the beliefs and practices and then there is Orthodox Culture. Certain people, myself included, belong to Orthodox communities and have Orthodox friends and a lotta people would call me Orthodox because I don't stand up on soapboxes and announce that God doesn't exist. Am I orthoprax? Not in the slightest because I'm not keeping everything. I only keep things either to be polite/not-blow my cover OR cuz I like doing it. (e.g. I really like shaking lulav and etrog and enjoy doing havdalah...)
Let me discuss a little further what it means to blow your cover. Unfortunately the Orthodox community doesn't take to kindly to dissenters and if you decide one day that Shabbat is not for you they will look down on you. However I like my Orthodox comrades and would rather not complicate things by displaying my "deviances" publicly so I sometimes "fake it" in order to keep them on my good side. Is this hypocritical? Probably, but on the other hand let's say you're completely secular. Are you gonna go to a business meeting and start talking about some girl you hooked up with last night and brag about all the weed you smoked? I sure hope not. What if people are coming over to your house? Will you leave your porn lying out on the coffee table for the world to see. Again I sure hope note. But why not!? You're being hypocritical, you're hiding your true self from people blah blah blah. And the answer is because we all do certain things, and we all know that we do certain things, but they're not necessarily acceptable for public. In the Orthodox world eating non-Kosher is sometimes equivalent to leaving porn on your coffee table. It makes people uncomfortable. Is it reasonable? Probably not? But that's what THAT society, i.e. Orthodox society thinks. And its not my job to start breaking those norms. I live in this community, I like it, and I'm going to behave in a way that's polite

b. If so, how was the experience of being Orthoprax  (i.e. some people express a love of the OJ lifestyle, others express feeling like they are living a “double life”)
It occasionally bothers me sometimes the whole hypocrisy thing. But I'm too busy to worry about such lofty values as consistency and being true to oneself.

9. How do you think living in a non-Orthodox community would impact your lifestyle? Is it something you would ever consider?
It would probably make me less religious. I would consider it though might be nice to meet more open minded people.
10. Do you ever "slip" (i.e. break an Orthodox rule by mistake) in public?  If so, how have the people with you reacted?
Lol no I don't.  But that would be an interesting scenario.
11. How has your transition out of frumkeit affected your relationship with your family and frum peers?
Well again I'm still in the semi-not-so-prax-Orthoprax category so most people don't really know the extent of my non-Frumkeit.
I had a few fights here and there with my parents about frumkeit and they almost disowned me when I admitted to not praying for a week (oh the horror). After a few years of fighting over stupid things I realized that some people, even (or especially) parents, will not accept that you're different than them and I find the best thing is to just hide from them as much as possible. It's not worth all the fighting in order to tell your parents about the "true you", I'm more pragmatic than that. I want to keep a relationship with my family so I simply avoid telling them about nice restaurants without Hechsers. This doesn't make me sad or anything in fact it makes me very happy that I can maintain a relationship with my family while still leading the lifestyle I want. Of course I'm lucky that I can do this because I live far far away from them.

12. What do you miss about being frum? What are your feelings now toward frumkeit, in general?
I guess I miss the belief in God and afterlife and all that. The feeling of exultation when the gates of heaven close during Neilah on Yom Kippur, the God you can always turn to when things get rough. The hope that humanity has some deep purpose more significant than that of ants.

13. What do you enjoy most about not being frum?
No guilt. Eating interesting food... Freedom to do what you want. And not having to worry about reading heretical literature.

14. Are there elements of  the new lifestyle that you have had difficulty adapting to? Do you still keep kosher? If not, are there treif foods you still can't bring yourself to eat?
I don't keep kosher but I still have not eaten pig or seafood. I once had a like minded friend who listed a bunchav non-kosher stuff we should try and I sortav freaked out. I don't know why but Kashrut is really strong stuff imprinted in your psyche and it stays long after you've given up everything else.
 15. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that you have encountered from non-frum people about frum people?
That Modern Orthodox people are a bunchav of super religious sanctimonious pricks who just study all day and all become Rabbis. When in fact they have fun, have girlfriends, have a drink or a smoke here and there and generally lead normal lives.

16. In your opinion, is it possible to give children a robust religious education without the expectation or assumption of belief and expectation of practice? i.e. is it possible to teach children to be Jewish literate, without being Jewish indoctrinate?  Is the study of the theology a worthwhile if it is not “The Truth”, or should Jewish education focus on historical/cultural elements instead?
I mean that's what I want for my kids but I don’t think it’s practical. If I were to set up a Jewish secular High School I would teach (time allowing) the following subjects Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah and Zohar, Maimonides and Medieval Philosophy and Modern Jewish Thought (Spinoza, Mendelson, Rozenzweig, Buber, Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, Zionist thinkers etc.)
That's the Jewish past and the Jewish spirit.
That's what I think a jewish education requires. However this is all only relevant to me (and people like me) because I create meaning in my secular head using these sources because of my upbringing. Essentially i seek to create an eclectic mix of religious upbringing and secular belief but I hardly see how such an eclectic mix could be imparted to someone who grows up secular. It simply wouldn't be relevant to them.
17. You wrote quite a bit on your blog about your disappointing interactions with kiruv. Do you feel kiruv reps misrepresent Judaism to BTs? i.e. As an FFB, do you think BTs truly know what they are getting into?  
I can't stress this enough YES YES YES. Kiruv reps (not all mind you but a large amount of them) terribly misrepresent Judaism. I've written about this extensively on my blog but I'll reiterate here. Kiruv folks commit the following two sins: 1. they use terribly fallacious arguments to try proving Judaism. When people try pointing out to them the flaws in these arguments and "proofs" (which include Bible Codes...) they simply ignore them. 2. They don't share the less palatable bits of Judaism with the "MeKarevd". They are very selective with the information they feed the BTs and make sure to sugar coat everything to make it sound appealing. This is almost as bad a actually lying.  

*Original questions in purple/ follow up in blue.
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