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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