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.


  1. I assume SH eventually wants to get married, and the chance of finding a compatible, orthoprax girl is infinitesimal. Will you "come out of the closet", so to speak, when you're ready to find your life partner?

  2. tesyaa, it sounds like SH wants to raise his kids in some sort of modern orthodox (at least) community. granted, he is not thrilled with the ciriculum, but still. SH, is that right? you want your kids to have shabbat, to have tefillah, to have yuntif, the seder, etc.


    1. ksil, even in MO you scold your children (gently or not so gently) when they turn on a light on Shabbos. How can a decent parent do that when he is turning on lights surreptitiously so he can look for his socks?

  3. Regarding Kiruv, I am someone that became frum from it, and am still angry regarding his first complaint, but how would you resolve the second? What do you do, sit people in a circle and start telling people what exactly? I go to AISH LA sometimes, and they are very into the experiential stuff to get people involved. So what should they do next?

    1. There must be informed consent. Being that people are committing to a Frum life, they have a right to know what they are getting themselves into.

  4. Right. But what what do you want a session like that to look like? I mean, they ARE taught what they are getting themselves into when they explain to them that mitzvah X is like this and mitzvah Y is like that and it means you can no longer do Z anymore. What exactly are they getting themselves into ?

  5. Well, if they wouldnt lie and omit important details and history, that would at least be a start. Recruiting under false pretensese is horrible.


  6. HH- I don't think the first reason is all that different from the second. Both are ways kiruv orgs misrepresent information. Sugar coating means omitting important details (i.e. in keeping niddah you may miss an ovulation cycle and miss an opportunity to get pregnant.) They tell you all about how keeping apart will bring you closer together when the niddah period is over, but not that technically - by the same law - your husband is not meant to touch you after you give birth. Just like with the bible proofs, the arguments against are ignored.

    1. "your husband is not meant to touch you after you give birth" - I'm not married yet. Could you explain what you mean by this halacha?

      "in keeping niddah you may miss an ovulation cycle and miss an opportunity to get pregnant." - Again, could you explain. And how much of an issue is missing one opportunity to get pregnant?

      I really don't think these are the issues with kiruv organizations though. There are much bigger problems to worry about. People would probably fall asleep if you started telling them about the minute details of niddah. People don't care.

    2. > Could you explain what you mean by this halacha?

      Let me preface by saying I am not/never have been frum, nor have I had formal religious education (minus a brief stint in elementary). Much of what I've learned comes from the "modern Gadol" Wikipedia/internet etc.

      In Orthodox Judaism a husband is forbidden from touching his wife when she is "niddah" - bleeding from the womb, be it from menstruation, childbirth, or STD. After women give birth they bleed for several weeks, and, according to halacha - from what I understand - a man would not be permitted to touch/console his wife with a hug etc. during this time.

      "how much of an issue is missing one opportunity to get pregnant?"

      In Orthodox Judaism, women need to count "seven clean days" after their period ends before they are permitted to go to the mikvah/resume sexual relations with their husbands. Some women ovulate during this time. That means at the point they try to get pregnant they may have missed the window of opportunity. From what i understand, they are able to get a "heter" from a rabbi which excuses them or allows them to count fewer days following their period if this is the case. To my frum readers - did I get it right???

      >People would probably fall asleep if you started telling them about the minute details of niddah. People don't care.

      I'm not talking so much about boring details with the minutia, but about painting an honest picture. Kiruv organizations often glorify the rituals, without discussing their possible downsides.

      I'm linking to articles below. The one discusses niddah and family purity laws from the perspective of a formerly frum woman. The other from a rabbi of Aish ha Torah - a popular kiruv org.

      What kiruv tells the "customer":

      "when there is no physical outlet available for a couple, they are compelled to deal with each other on an intellectual and emotional level. They communicate only through words and body language which engenders another -- perhaps deeper -- level of intimacy. In addition, many couples describe the conclusion of this period of separation as a monthly honeymoon . . . If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it does wonders for other anatomical regions."

      An excerpt of the formerly frum woman's perspective:
      "I was insulted by this attitude toward me as a niddah, a forbidden woman. . . But there wasn’t a single female friend with whom I felt I could talk . . . Am I the only one bothered by the fact that nothing will be put into my hands [by a man] because I’m impure − that the baby won’t be taken from my hands when I’m ‘forbidden’? Was I the only one who felt hurt when my husband separated the beds on the wedding night immediately after the act?”

    3. >And how much of an issue is missing one opportunity to get pregnant?

      I struggled to get pregnant with my daughter - without the added complications of niddah. Thankfully we were ultimately able to conceive, but when you desperately want to get pregnant every one missed opportunity can be extraordinarily stressful. It's not as easy as it seems to just shrug and tell yourself "Oh well, we'll just try again this cycle."

  7. So niddah is the issue? As long as they tell people that NIddah MIGHT be a challenge depending on individual couples, than you're ok?

  8. I gave that as an example. It's not the only issue like that. It was just an example of something with pretty significant implications is swept under the rug by kiruv.

  9. Tuition is a big one - very few people, when becoming baalei tshuva, have any idea how much tuition will cost them.

    But I think anyone who becomes a baal tshuva should do due diligence and is ultimately responsible for his or her decision.

    1. I don't see how you even get into a topic of tuition in a kiruv seminar. Kiruv is supposed to be an introduction toward Judaism. To experience the actual things you do in Judaism. Tuition has nothing to do with it. You can be frum (especially older couples with grown children) and not deal with Tuition.

      Ultimately, I am asking because I went through this entire system, yet I am not looking back and realizing Arachim (or whatever) hid something from me that only now I am slapping my forward and finding out. I mean, people aren't morons. We get that it is a 180 degree life change. I talked to my then girlfriend (now wife) about how we would deal with niddah rules. If problems arise, (like missing an ovulation cycle) rabbis deal with it. There IS such a thing as a heter. Again, people aren't morons. They aren't going to go through their whole lives not having children and only then realizing they could have gone to their rabbi and discuss the situation. Please give us BT's some credit here.

    2. >But I think anyone who becomes a baal tshuva should do due diligence and is ultimately responsible for his or her decision.

      I agree. There is a certain amount of responsibility the BT-in-training needs to take upon him/herself when considering such a drastic lifestyle change. And, no, HH, I certainly don't think BTs are morons. I'm just not willing to let kiruv off the hook for tactics which are purposefully misleading.

      HH - You make it sound like kiruv is just educational seminars – imparting knowledge to knowledge seekers. Like a Jewish TED. But Kiruv has an agenda, and isn't just seminars. In my case, kiruv was coming into high schools and using the "Hebrew Culture Club" as a front for the "Let me teach you about Orthodox Judaism club". Kiruv was my brother's bar mitzvah classes that spent quite a bit of time deriding non-Jews. (When my brother asked why, he was told, "It's because I only get to teach you for a short time. I need to make sure you understand the dangers that you won't be shown elsewhere"). I washed my hands of the whole thing by uni, so I don't know what campus kiruv looks like. In any case, I find targeting high school students particularly manipulative. Teenagers often desperately want an "in group", and they are emotionally driven. They're ripe for the picking, and no, not necessarily equipped to properly judge the implications of their becoming frum down the road.

  10. tessya, good point. the frum "lifestyle" is not really discussed. its not that they are viewed as stupid BTs or whatever, but the rabbis only seem to hone in on having faith in god, god does everything for a reason, and you dont need to worry - just have thousands of kids and cover your eyeborws, ankles and wrists.

    it would be nice, if during this process they would say that this lifestyle may not be for everyone...imagine that!

    tuition, is an important topic, given that a typical BT family would have 6+ kids - over $70 grand per year at some point....


    1. > it would be nice, if during this process they would say that this lifestyle may not be for everyone

      Why would they say that? They believe that this lifestyle IS for everyone (everyone who’s Jewish, anyway).

    2. Who is "They"?

      Are "They" better at Foulsteps who strongly encourage living fulfilling lives in the warm and fuzzy modern society, where all is good and perfect and individuals have the freedom to smoke whatever, drink whatever, take drugs recreationally, party and lust on, bed-hop on, birth control on, abort on, experience STD's on and on, etc, as they please, all or some of the above, with foul language as dessert, with the everthing goes in the name of enlightenment mentality, away from the horrors of religion.

      If youre a Foulsteps member, you believe theyre better. Thats the case with most Foulsteps members who werent accepted elsewhere. Then they propagandize that religious people do more of the above.

      They know theyre lieing.

    3. Where do you get this stuff? Is that what you think all secular people do?

  11. Tuition fees is so not kiruv organizations' problem. They do a lot wrong and not telling people about tuition is not one of them.
    People are more interested in knowing whether the Judaism is true or not. How much they have to pay for their kids tuition is not an issue.
    I'm pretty sure I could walk into Aish tomorrow and tell everyone on their programs what the tuition fees are for schools and nobody would blink an eye and they'd have forgotten about it completely within 2 weeks.
    You don't have to send your kids to these schools with high tuition fees you know? In England, Israel and probably another million places the fees aren't that high.
    It's actually ridiculous that you think kiruv organizations are even hiding this info. They're not hiding it. It's just not something people care about.
    When's the last time someone thought to him or herself": "Should I keep the Torah? Hmm... let me think. How much are the tuition fees?"

    The issue with kiruv organizations is giving over false info. eg. Bible codes. Not many people can tell the first time they hear about Bible codes that it's complete nonsense. Even if you have questions about it, you may assume the person telling you about them is somewhat trustworthy and you may even believe them as to the truth of the Bible codes if you don't read up or speak to someone else about it.
    And even beyond Bible codes. Things like Torah and science. How much nonsense is spouted by these kiruv organizations. Here, it would be nice if they mentioned the blatant scientific/archeological issues with Noach's flood. If a question ever came up they'd probably tell you that the archeologists can't prove anything. I agree that archeology isn't an exact science, but something like whether the flood happened or not is basically clear. There was no world-wide flood. A local flood? Possibly. But even teaching someone this, they should be made aware that this doesn't fit well with the pshat.
    Another example would be Bereishit vs science. etc. etc.

    The issue with kiruv organizations is them not telling the whole truth. (Or even telling outright lies due to their intellectual dishonesty and non-thorough investigations into the matters).

  12. The issue is, they pretend to be speaking in secular language and logic, but they are a completely different sort of logic logic internally -- therein lies the deceit. Some kiruv workers use scientific and mathematical methods as if they believed in them; however, those who do "believe" in such methods would be much more scrupulous, in the ways that some commentators above mentioned -- they would watch out not to be caught in fallacies ( ).

    The Aish style is actually anti-rational, anti-science, anti-modern...It's Sophism. They turn every conversation into a high-school-style debate, as if, if you can wiggle your way out of an issue rhetorically, you *actually win the point.

    I'm trying to imagine what it would look like if kiruv people started off with sincer religious language and logic...

    ...I do know some kiruv people who I really respect. They are not Aish types -- not public speakers, but rather really intelligent, sincerely pious people who try to make a detente with others. Their ends are not to *necessarily* convert the other ...Though they would be very happy with that result.


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