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 ;) 


  1. > - Having to spend so many hours in shul on Shabbos and at the table, just wasting time and stuffing myself

    For me, these are things that I enjoy. Not the hours in shul per se, but the socializing that comes with going to shul on Shabbos. And Shabbos meals are great family/social time. Sure, it’s time consuming, but what else would I be doing that’s more worthwhile? Watch TV? Work? Mow the lawn? That’s what I do all week. Somehow, even though I value spending time with my family far more than, say, painting one more room, during the week I spend more time painting and less time playing with my kids. Shabbos forces me to engage with family and friends, and I think that’s a good thing.

    > - 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'?)

    I find that the hardest thing. When my five-year-old talks about Hashem, I’m torn between awing over the cuteness of her childish conception of Him and cringing at her indoctrination.

    > Walking around with a kippah. Somehow I feel like I am announcing to everyone I am an idiot by just wearing one.

    Maybe it’s different in Europe, but here in the US people give an inordinate amount of respect to people who are obviously religious. Only the most shallow and militant atheists would think you’re an idiot simply because they see you wear a yarmulkah. And I don’t think there are very many such people.

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

    Are you talking about yourself? You describe your upbringing as MO. I grew up in a liberal yeshivish family, and I watched the same movies as anyone in the general culture, spoke the same way (“yeshivish” aside), etc. Is the MO community where you grew up very insular?

  2. Great interview UK!
    G*3 - I agree with every word you wrote, I do indeed thoroughly enjoy Shabbos meals with the family, and shul for me is actually enjoyable even without the social aspects! - I guess I just like the liturgy and the time with my own thoughts.
    I also grew up in a MO home and I'm probably as well versed in popular culture as 95% of the American public (including much of the worthless junk I've absorbed from it). I think I still have problems associating with secular/non-Jewish people, mostly because I am a very private and reserved person, but no doubt the insular attitude of the Yeshivish society I decided to switch to has much to do with that too.
    And then there is the issue of what to tell the kids... this is indeed a particular thorny problem - especially considering that we live in a Chareidi community in Jerusalem, not a place known for it's acceptance of "other" views. And considering that we CHOSE this place because of our beliefs (at the time) that this would be best conducive to raising the children with "truth". But what do you do when you discover the "truth" is a moving target? People who are certain about what they teach have it very easy. The educator with the most difficult job of all is the one who is utterly unsure about the truth of what he's teaching.

    1. And when you become unsure about the truth of what you teach, /a/ how do you still have the right to teach it as truth? /b/ and how do you still have the right to accept the social rewards (the approval from the community, the approval/pleasure from your children, etc.) of teaching it as truth?

  3. #16-17

    Maybe it's different in Western Europe, but most adult MO Jews in the US are tuned into the mainstream culture and interact normally with the opposite sex. By normally, I mean as well as non-frum and non-Jewish people, most of whom operate far less smoothly than movies and TV might have you think. I would say that the majority of non-Jewish men also don't have "a half a clue how to approach women."

  4. UK,
    I also have a hard time with Shabbos meals and socializing all the time in the frum community simply because the whole time I'm holding in thoughts I have about the topic being discussed. It's sooooo draining.....and thinking about a lifetime of it is so depressing.

  5. This was an insightful and fascinating interview. Thank you!


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