first post, I asked her a bunch of questions, and eventually asked her to write a bit about what brought her to Ultra Orthodoxy. I'm posting this in the reverse order - story first questions after, but if you want to read it in the way I originally did, you can scroll down.
Why I became UO
In terms of the circumstances I was born into, you could pretty much say I won the lottery. My parents are wealthy and really good, generous, wholesome people. They are not religious by any means but are very dedicated to Jewish charities that help all people from any religion. Aside from money and a good family, I was blessed with an above average intellect and way above average good looks.
Unfortunately, money, looks, and opportunity got me into a lot of trouble as a teenager growing up in
You could say my life was a lot like Paris Hilton, minus the sex tape. By the time I got to college, I was so jaded and unhappy. There had been so many hangovers, come downs from cocaine, and terrible memories from all the guys who used me when I wasn't in a sober state of mind. I never got addicted to anything, but my recreational life was one long empty and hedonistic party. L.A.
It was in college that I first met Orthodox people through an on campus outreach organization. I thought they were brainwashed and actually started hanging out with them out of curiosity. But what happened was that I was completely taken by the wholesomeness of their world. It was such a breath of fresh air. When they talked about the emptiness of secular life, it really resonated with me. I, however, did not have the maturity to see that the whole secular world wasn't empty and seedy, it was just that the specific group that I spent my time with was. I guess my parents should have been proof of that, but I figured they were from a different generation and that they were just a rare exception to the rule.
I agreed to go on a summer trip to
with these outreach people, after all, I had never been there. Two things were presented to me there that changed the course of my life. Firstly, they presented a utopian vision of Orthodox life. Secondly, they sent us to seminars at Aish Hatorah where it was scientifically "proven" that the Torah and the Oral Torah were divine and binding. A religion that was objectively true and produced the best life possible? I was in, and I jumped with two feet. Israel
I eventually dropped out of college and went to a BT seminary in
. Truth be told, those were some of the best years of my life. Almost everyone there was so good and moral and genuine. It was, as they call it, a Baal Teshuvah bubble. Israel
I did have some resistance to things I didn't understand, like not wearing denim because it was "goyish," but I wanted so badly to fit in and I soon realized that the more extreme and subservient one became, the more praise one received from rabbis, the more one got set up on dates with better guys, and the more people wanted to be around you. Eventually, I gave in completely to the point that I was good enough for my husband, an FFB guy from a big family in
Brooklyn, to marry.
This was my exit out of the "bubble." What I learned during the next 9 years was that there was no more goodness and wholesomeness than in the secular world. It was exactly the same, just hidden. But I kept repeating my the rabbis' words in my head, " Don't judge Judaism by the Jews."
I also realized that the utopian vision wasn't real. Niddah didn't make your marriage more exiting and women didn't work hard all week to have a day of rest. Rather, they worked all week to prepare for the hardest and most draining day of the week. Also, the FFB world didn't respect my reconciliation of Torah and science that I learned at Aish Hatorah. In fact, most FFB people considered it heresy! But I just chalked all this up to challenges I had to overcome.
It wasn't until my husband's affair and the revelation about adultery from my friend that it occurred to me that maybe everything had been spun in a way to sell Orthodoxy to me. How many marriage classes did I sit in in which I was told that Niddah creates marital bliss, I can't even count. But it wasn't the personal experiences of mine and of my friends that proved this wrong for me. After all, we could have just been doing it wrong or maybe our marriages were sub-par. What shattered my world was finding out that during the time of the temple, otherwise known to be the real way Judaism should be, women were banished from their homes while husbands went with other wives or concubines. Throw in all the other Halachas that are nearly endless about women, like this one that only men are generally aware of, and disillusionment is an extreme understatement.
So here I am, with all this knowlege. Knowlege that in a way I wish I wouldn't have had come my way. That's why I generally don't share anything with Orthodox Jews. Ignorance is bliss. I get it. If they are happy, who am I to suck the joy out of their faith, even if what I have to say is 100% true?
These were exchanged over a few e-mails.
CL: What is sexist about halachic adultery law?
Quickly, the sixth of the ten commandments only applies to married women and their lovers. For example, if a married woman is abused by her husband for years, can't leave for whatever reason, and has an
affair, halachically, she deserves death. But if a married man who has a wonderful wife has an affair with a single woman, it's considered a minor offense and a violation of rabbinical decree only.
CL: Did you remain with your husband?
Yes. I didn't want the pain of losing my kids half the time on top of the pain I already had and my husband was willing to do whatever it took to rebuild trust, go to therapy, etc. It's been 1 year and it's going better than I ever would have thought. Although, I still have PTSD, still need anti-depressants, and still have emotional pain on a daily basis, but it's usually only for a few minutes. If he ever did it again after seeing how much pain he's caused me and our children for life, I'd be done.
CL: Are Orthodox girls not taught these halachot in school?
The answer to this is no way. Everything in Orthodox schools is censored. Girls are usually not even taught Halacha at all. Tanach is censored too. Even for boys. For example, my husband grew up in
Brooklyn, went to the best black hat yeshivas his whole life, and never knew that King David committed adultery and murder. When I first confronted him about the Gemara where the rabbis contemplate whether the hymen of a girl under three can regenerate after intercourse, he yelled at me for lying about the great rabbis of the Talmud. I showed him the page, he apologized, and even himself started to realize that a lot in the Talmud could not have been taught by God to Moses and that maybe the interpretations of those rabbis were good for their time and place but should not be binding forever.
CL: You said you are Orthoprax. Why do you remain Orthoprax? Why not go OTD completely?
My husband could never not be Orthodox. So, to keep peace in the home we have compromised and become modern Orthodox. Basically, I've agreed to keep shabbos and kosher but that's it. Even that feels like a lot when you don't believe in it.
CL: Do the other Orthodox women around you have similar concerns re: halacha and its positioning of women, or does the discussion of women's role with regards to halacha only surface in extreme instances
like abuse, adultery or when trying to obtain get?
I wouldn't say it even comes out in extreme cases. In those cases, usually the perpetrator is blamed, not Halacha. Orthodox Jews don't even realize they like to have it both ways. For example, when Orthodox Jews act immorally, rabbis say, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews. After all, people are flawed." But if you point to an immoral Halacha, they will say, "Its not the Halacha's fault, it's the fault of the person who did the immoral act." I have to shamefully admit, I was guilty of this myself for many years.
CL: I'm assuming your family was Ultra Orthodox - were you at a typical
Lol. Totally not. I grew up Reform. . . Women with pink kipas and talits, gay rabbis who brought their boyfriends to prom, the whole Reform thing all the way. Having said that, I was lucky to go to a very academic Jewish school and I learned Hebrew, how to read Gemara, Mishnah, and Rashi script. This has been invaluable to me which I will explain in the next answer.
. . . I was recruited by orthodox outreach when I was a student at UCLA 11 years ago. But I did spend two years in a seminary after that and married into a big well known black hat
Brooklyn family so I know both sides in and out.
CL: The context really changes how your story reads. Do you think girls who go through the system from the start of their education (i.e. FFB) are similarly censored from the halachas that a secular person would view as unfavorable for women?
Absolutely! I have four sisters-in-law that went to various FFB Brooklyn schools and they don't even know non-controversial Halacha. This is because Orthodox schools for girls do not teach Halacha at all! Shocking, I know. When I met my husband and left the BT bubble I couldn't believe it. This is because different families follow different laws, levels of stringency, and customs. In the FFB system, it's the family's responsibility to teach necessary laws, like kashrut, at home. If a girl has a halachic question, she asks her father or brother, not a teacher at the school. So what do they teach? They teach the stories in the Tanach, in a very censored way of course.
My background as non-observant top private school student, my ability to read and understand primary texts, my spending two years in seminary, marrying into the main-stream FFB world, and the Internet, which gives me access to documents to almost an unlimited degree, has put me in a rather unique position. Rabbis can no longer put troubling Gemaras about women in whatever nice context they can think up. I know the ugly context because I can read it myself. This is a very unusual skill for an Orthodox woman. I also have a very good memory which allows me to see the bigger picture.