Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Journeys

On one cold winter evening in 2003, I sat in a small living room in Crown Heights. I was there talking to some young non-frum teenagers who had come from the Midwest to spend a weekend in New York, including a shabbos in Crown Heights.

After havdala, a young bochur from Hadar HaTorah entered the room carrying a large bag full of musical instruments, including a number of drums. We all sat in a circle, introduced ourselves, and listened as the bochur explained his very unique style of Jewish music and taught us a few songs.

Little did I know that within a year or two this young musician, Matisyahu, would transition from playing music in small living rooms to performing on large stages. His music, controversial yet refreshingly different, inspired thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. While I was too "frum" at the time to listen to his music, I have always been curious about the progress of the bochur who I met in that living room.

Several years ago when he left Chabad to explore another way of being chassidish, I heard plenty of talk and controversy. Given that I had doubts about Chabad from long before that time, I could totally relate to his decision. Now with the latest "scandal", his decision to shave his beard, I feel that I can relate to him once again.

The one thing that I can definitely relate to his all of the comments that people are saying about him and all of the assumptions that people are making. People tend to assume that those who "leave", whether they are leaving a particular derech or yiddishkiet as a whole, must not have been sincere to start with, not have learned enough, or been dragged away by outside influences. While for some people that certainly is the case, for many others, myself included, it most definitely is not.

Based on responses that I have received from people both in real life and on this blog, it seems that many people make those assumptions about me. So, just to clear the air and make room for more productive discussions, let me respond to each of those points.

My decision to become fully frum at fourteen was my decision and mine alone. I approached the local Chabad shliach, he did not look for me. I decided to switch to a frum high school and take on every chumrah that I took on throughout the years--no one imposed them on me. I was very sincere in my motivations, as those who know me well in person can verify, and sincerely wanted to serve Hashem in the best way possible.

In terms of my level of knowledge, some of the comments made by certain Modern Orthodox readers of this blog have been downright insulting. The fact that I was a charedi female, and a baalas teshuva at that, does not mean that I am ignorant of halacha. I can learn original sources "inside" and for years spent my free time reading both Hebrew and English halachic sefarim. My current knowledge of halacha surpasses that of most females who I have met, yes including Modern Orthodox ones, and quite a number of the males who I know. To this day, my husband still asks me questions about halacha, despite having semicha (admittedly Chabad semicha) himself and my not being frum. And, for the record, I always answer him honestly.

Similarly, I did not come to the point that I am at because I was swayed by outside sources. The college courses that I was taking before I stopped believing included no form of kefira, and that was by design. I deliberately avoided any course that would involve a violation of "lo sasuru" from learning kefira.

Rather than being pulled in from the outside, I felt pushed out from within. I could no longer live within the strict confines of the life that I was supposed to live, and started to question why I was doing so. This line of questioning has led me on a search for the best way to live an honest and meaningful life. Because I see little reason to believe that the Torah is true, this search has led me away from frumkiet. While I certainly cannot claim that my motivations are entirely intellectual, I am trying my best to be honest with myself and make the right decisions.

And that is exactly the mindset that I see in Matisyahu. The Matisyahu who I saw on the interview yesterday is the same Matisyahu that I saw in that living room years ago. He spoke with the same feeling and sincerity, and seems to be on the same search. I do not believe, as some others do, that this was a publicity stunt. I believe that he is on a journey that, much like mine, is quite unconventional.

I hope that he manages to get the most out of his journey.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Your Own Utopia

There is a famous chassidic story of a Chabad Chossid that went to the Tzemach Tzedek to ask for permission to move to Israel. The Rebbe replied that rather than moving to Israel, he should "מאך דא ארץ ישראל", make the place where he was living at the time, presumable Russia, into Israel.

This story has been on my mind quite a lot lately.

As the regular readers of my blog know, my current life-situation is somewhat unusual and difficult. Walking tenuously along the fence separating the charedi and secular worlds requires tremendous effort and results in many falls.

When I share my story with others, I often get asked why I stay. In other words, why don't I just jump off on the secular side of the fence and make a run for it? Why do I insist on staying in such a difficult scenario?

They are asking a good question. In fact, I often ask myself the exact same question. I look into the future and wonder how much longer I can  live a double life, how much longer can I remain on this fence without getting worn out? I am not a person who is comfortable with lying, nor am I a good liar, so this scenario is quite difficult for me.

However, at the same time as these thoughts enter my head, I can't help but think:

"מאך דא ארץ ישראל"

While the Tzemach Tzedek obviously did not intend for this phrase to be interpreted in the way that I am about to interpret it, it seems that this concept has a lot of merit for those of us living undercover in the frum world.

It is the tendency of human beings to search for utopia. To sit an imagine that if only one could live somewhere else, live with someone else, live in a different time, or live in a different way, one would be happy. This search for an elusive place where happiness and fulfillment can be achieved have led people on physical and spiritual journeys for centuries.

 Whether the utopia that one imagines is a messianic redemption, retirement on a tropical island, or an escape from a restrictive community, it often has the same effect. Focusing on the thought that life could be better "if only..." prevents one from living life to the fullest now.

Of course, the desire to move away from harmful surroundings can be beneficial. If one actually has the opportunity to improve ones life in a way that the benefits to oneself and others outweighs the cost, then it is self-evident that one should take advantage of the opportunity.

When this is not the case, however, the search for an elusive utopia that cannot be obtained, or at least cannot be obtained without causing significant harm, can be detrimental. While part of me feels ready to jump off the fence, it seems that doing so may well cause more harm than good.

Therefore, I need to find a way to "מאך דא ארץ ישראל".

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Chabad Aseres Hadibros

Now for the sequel. Those who dislike leitzanus my want to skip this post

Presenting the Chabad Aseres Hadibros:

1. I am the Rebbe who will take you to Eretz Yisrael. Thou shalt be mekushar to me.

2. Do not ask for brachos or eitzos from other rebbeim.

3. You should have images of all of the rebbeim in your home, in as many rooms as possible

4. You should observe Yud-Tes Kislev, keep it holy, and farbreng

5. You should honor the rebbe, your mashpia, and your parents--in that order

6. You should not say that the Rebbe died. If you must, say he was nistalek. Otherwise, just use the term "hidden"

7. You should not interact with the opposite gender, unless it is shlichus, in which case almost anything goes.

8. You should not steal another shliach's territory.

9. You should not lie. Just evade the question if someone asks your opinion on whether the Rebbe is Moshiach

10. You should not be jealous of any other group in klal Yisrael. Remember, Chabad is the best!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Charedi Aseres Hadibros

Despite the generally very serious and reflective tone of this blog, I actually do have a sense of humor.

Therefore, for a little variety, I present the Charedi version of the Aseres Hadibros:

1. I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt. You must therefore believe in me, the authority of the Torah, and all rabbinic law that came after. 
2. Do not have any other gods before me. Therefore, one must not engage in any secular  activities that are not absolutely required. The rabbonim who have never worked get to decide what is absolutely required. 
3. Don't make any images of females, graven or otherwise 
4. Keep the shabbos holy by not doing any melacha, eating all of the shabbos foods in the correct order, and learning Torah at every spare second of the day. 
5. Honor your rabbis and teachers. This includes your parents if they teach you Torah, therefore you may not deviate from the minhagim of your parents even if the reasons for the minhagim no longer apply, unless it is to keep a more stringent minhag 
6. Do not murder, however beating-up dissenters is permitted 
7. Don't do anything "not tznius"
8. Do not steal anything from anyone who isn't the government or a large corporation 
9. Do not lie when speaking to the rabbonim, only when doing kiruv or for the purposes of a shidduch. 
10. Do not covet your neighbor's freedom, because it will lead him to gehenom anyway.
 Coming soon, the Chabad Aseres Hadibros

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

One night, almost ten years ago, I sat down with a purple pen and a sheet of lined paper and made a list.

I wrote a sincere and heartfelt list of the qualities that I was looking for in a chosson. I wrote on that list that I wanted my husband to be a sincere person, with true yiras shomayim, who was truly dedicated to yiddishkiet. I wanted someone intelligent who loved learning Torah. I wanted him to be srupulously honest. I wanted him to have smicha or be in the process of getting it, and ulitmately work in klei kodesh. I wanted him to focus on ruchnius rather than gashmiyus.

I davened to Hashem that I should find a chosson with these qualities. Whenever I davened shmoneh esrei, I focused my requests on finding a good chosson and building a Jewish home.

I got everything that I wanted. I got married at 18, on my first shidduch, to a chosson with every quality on my list. I had won the shidduch lottery. I had succeeded, by background had not prevented me from getting married, as I had feared that it would. My husband was even a FFB. I succeeded.

Or not.

What I needed was the exact opposite of what I had asked for. I needed more time and more life experience. I needed time to "find myself", despite my confidence that I had already done so.

Perhaps if I had done so, my list would have been different.

What I needed, or at least need now, is the freedom to grow and explore. What I need now is a partner who will view life as a journey, a person who is willing to question and search.

My husband recently showed me my purple list again. He explained that he has every quality on the list. He is right, he does.

But the list changed because I changed. Of course, I cannot expect him to change because I changed, but I can't refrain from changing because of him.

So I remain, tenuously perched on the fence.

For now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"If only you wouldn't be Chabad/Charedi/Non-Modern Orthodox, you would be fine"

After practically every post I have written, someone has commented that the problems that I am bringing up are charedi-specific and that I should just become Modern Orthodox. Such comments are not limited to the internet, however. I have heard plenty of offline comments of a similar nature.

For the last few months, I have been considering writing a post on why I did not simply become Modern Orthodox. I could definitely think of a few good reasons to list, including:

1. The fact that I would be just about as unacceptable to my husband for me to live an openly Modern-Orthodox lifestyle as a non-frum one. He would never be okay with me openly talking to the kids about Modern Orthodox hashkafos or dressing to Modern Orthodox standards.
2. I have issues with accepting the concept of Torah M'sinai without some kind of proof because some of the things that are written in Torah are quite unbelievable, and others are very difficult to live with. No, the Kuzari mass-revelation argument is flawed and does not qualify as proof.
3. Despite my current fence-sitting, I am a big believer in consistency. Despite all of its flaws, the one thing that Chareidism has going for it is that it is internally consistent, which is precisely what drew to me towards Chareidism in the first place. Chareidism has a consistent way of interpreting halacha, and is not afraid to stand for beliefs and practices that contradict modern sensibilities if they are more consistent with the most straightforward interpretation of the Torah and Rabbinical texts. 
 Modern Orthodoxy, however, seems to lack this consistency. They bend-over backwards to find loopholes for halachos that they don't like, yet insist on strict interpretations of less-objectionable ones. Anything that seems philosophically-objectionable is deemed non-literal while everything else is literal. Why couldn't God have just said what he meant?
However, on further reflection, there are aspects of Modern Orthodoxy that I like such as the emphasis on morality, the high-regard for tradition combined with an openness towards modernity, and the sense of community.

Therefore, I would like to give my Modern-Orthodox readers a chance. Please, tell me, why are you Modern Orthodox? What appeals to you out being Modern Orthodox over being not frum, or alternatively, Charedi? How do you deal with the "difficult" sections of Torah, including sections that are historically highly improbably, such as the mabul or things that are morally-concerning, such as the laws that are discriminatory towards women. How do you reconcile halachos that seem outdated with modernity? And, most importantly, why should I join you?

I look forward to reading your responses.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Daughter and I

I sat in the hospital room, late at night, holding my newborn. She was the only girl, born third in an every-second year sequence. My boys were born in 2004 and 2006, followed by my little girl in 2008. She was healthy and cute, but I was scared. I was scared not at the massive responsibility that awaited me, nor in awe of heaven. 

I was scared with myself. After both of my boys, I immediately felt, "I want another one". This time, for some reason, my thoughts were very different. This time I thought, "This is it. She is my youngest and I don't want any more".

"But it can't be!", I thought, "I'm only 23! A frum woman cannot stop having kids at 23! What's wrong with me?"

"I'm probably just thinking that way because I am temporarily overwhelmed", I thought. "I'm sure that I just need to adjust, then everything will return to normal".

This thought continued to haunt me over the next few weeks, despite my repeated attempts to push such "machshavos zaros" out of my mind. As the weeks went on, and the pressure from dealing with the children (and pretty severe post-partum depression) increased--I reached the point where I really couldn't function at all. I was unable to properly care for my children much of the time, so I did the unthinkable...

I asked for a heter. And after a thirty-minute interview by the rabbi asking every personal question imaginable (and repeatedly asking me if I had both a boy and a girl), I was deemed in need of a two-year heter. I shudder to think what would have happened if this child had been a boy. Apparently in such a case, my legitimate medical issues would have been irrelevant.

Why was I so hesitant to ask for a heter? It wasn't because I was unaware of their existence or afraid the rav would reject my claim. Rather, because a "normal" frum woman is supposed to have as many children as possible unless she "can't handle it", asking for a heter was tantamount to saying that I was an abnormal failure who couldn't handle life. Eventually, the situation got desperate enough that I had to do just that--admit that by frum standards I was a failure and not normal.

However, this realization crushed more than just my fragile self-image--it crushed my entire worldview. 

Unlike many others, I had no problem with Judaism's concept of the role of women. If the Torah (or for that matter, "da'as Torah"), viewed women as having a different role than men, then it must be for the best. Equality, or lack thereof, didn't enter into the equation at all. I saw nothing inherently wrong with the idea that a woman's primarily role should be to raise a frum family, with her doing other things only when needed to fulfill that primarily. Although I have always been more of the intellectual type and had severe ADD, if God put me in this position it must be that I had the capabilities to overcome it and fulfill my God-given role, and only through doing this could I achieve happiness.

Well, I did try, and I couldn't "handle it". Not only that, trying for so many years to be someone that I am not, took away my ability to focus on what I am good at. Rather than struggling for many years to be a mediocre homemaker, I should have put my energy and focus towards working at what I am good at.

I ultimately realized that the problem was not that I failed to fulfill my Torah-ordained destiny, but rather that the Torah failed to take my destiny into account. Not everyone can be boxed into predefined gender roles, nor should they. It is illogical to assume that an all-powerful and all-good God would create everyone differently, yet expect them to fulfill the same general role with minor variations.

This began the journey that led me to where I am today.

However, the great irony is that my daughter, the little girl that started me down this path, is the stereotypical female that I never was. She has consistently, since birth, fulfilled practically every female stereotype in existence. It is almost as if someone gave her a book of instructions on how to act like a girl, and she followed it to the letter. At 15 months she would cry if I gave her pants rather than a skirt. My little girl who has never seen a Disney movie wants everything to be "pretty" and preferably pink. She loves playing with dolls, hates getting her clothes dirty, and attempts to take care of her brothers and the house.

Maybe there is something to those gender stereotypes after all.