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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

To Your Own Self Be True--Or Maybe Not?

? אם אין אני לי, מי לי
? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני
? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי
"If I am not for myself, who is for me? 
And if I am only for myself, what am I? 
And if not now, when?" (Avos 1:14, translation from

These famous words of Rabbi Hillel have been going through my head quite frequently. They seem so wise and so obvious, yet so hard to fulfill in practice. 

If I am not for myself, who is for me? 

When I tell people my story, I often get the response "How can you live this way? You have to be true to yourself".

I see their point. Living a double life is hard--very hard. I feel awkward in the frum world, like I am pretending to be someone whom I am not. I feel like a hypocrite when I tell my children that they may not play with a muktzah toy on shabbos--then go into my room, lock the door, and use the internet. I hate having to lie to my children to hide my aveiros, and having to explain everything to the rest of the world.

I can't help but wonder what it would be like to live life honestly--on my terms. I could be myself without needing to hide anything. Avoid the hassles of observance, the fights with my husband over religious issues, and the lies.


And if I am only for myself, what am I?

My decisions affect others. 

Throughout my life, I have consistently been labeled as selfish. While I try to be a good person, I have never been the type to go out of my way to do chessed projects. I am terrible at cleaning and am therefore constantly called selfish for not doing my "fair share". (This is despite of the fact that I do far more than my fair share of things that I am good at. When I work on group projects at the school, the other people often end up being the group while I do the project).  

To an extent they are right. When describing myself, "selfless" is not the word that would come to mind. Especially in the midst of this crisis, I find that I spend way too much time considering my own needs over those of my children and husband.

As I know that I have this fault, I realize that I need to try to rectify it by focusing on the needs of others. And I just can't justify breaking up my family in order to avoid feeling like a hypocrite. What kind of person would that make me?

On the other hand, I wonder if staying in this environment is in fact hurting my children. When the very act of telling my children that the petrified log in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is 200 million years old sparks a huge argument, maybe staying in this environment isn't the best thing for the kids. 

Or maybe I can find a balance, a way to live my life, educate my children, and maintain shalom bayis. How? I don't know.

And if not now, when?

Who knows?

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book of Life

One of the most well-known--and most fundamental--teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the Chassidic movement as a whole, is that everything that one experiences happens because of hashgacha pratis (divine providence), and happens for the purpose of teaching a lesson in avodas Hashem (divine service). Therefore, one should constantly think of which lessons can be learned from every day life events.

This thought, and its opposite, ran through my head as I sat and listened to a Rosh Hashana speech given by a Reconstructionist rabbi. He discussed the traditional concept of Rosh Hashana as a day on which God sits in judgment and determines who will be written in the "Book of Life" and merit to live for the rest of the year. (Apparently God has an extensive library as other such books include the "Book of Sustenance" and the "Book of Health", etc.)
While nobody over the age of ten, even amongst the most Orthodox, believes that God sits there with a physical pen and writes in a physical book, even the concept that God selects a day to make judgments about the whole world, and that are prayers affect those judgments, seems quite illogical.

Even if one can accept the concept that one can actually change God's mind through prayer, which is quite a philosophically difficult position to accept, it still seems illogical to believe that God would choose one day of the human calendar upon which to make an essentially irrevocable decision. Why would a prayer said in the middle of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan matter less than one in Tishrei? And more fundamentally, why would God punish someone for not praying? The prayers on Rosh Hashana are primarily praises of God, and a perfect God shouldn't need praise. Of course, traditional sources do explain that God desires prayer in order to benefit the one doing the praying, but if that is true it seems illogical to harm or kill someone for the sin of not trying to improve oneself.

So, for someone who does not believe that God is sitting in judgment determining our future, or who does not believe in the traditional concept of God at all, what is the point of Rosh Hashana?

According to the Rabbi's speech, which seems quite consistent with the little that I know about Reconstructionism, on Rosh Hashana we are written in the book of life not by a heavenly decree but by our actions. When we make a conscious effort to do teshuva (change our actions) and improve ourselves, then we can consciously write a better future for ourselves. Through setting aside a day (or two) to reflect, we can write a future of life, health, and prosperity. No divine intervention needed.

Of course, this is easier said than done. An Orthodox, yet open-minded, friend of mine told me recently that the main problem with my fence-sitting is not my lack of religion, rather my lack of decision making. She believes that I am not taking enough control of my life and am instead letting life happen to me. I believe that is definitely a valid criticism and perhaps something that I ought to focus on during this Aseres Yemei Teshuva.

Regarding the belief of chassidus that one should take everyday events as a lesson for avodas Hashem, perhaps the opposite is true. The Reconstructionist approach of taking the concepts of avodas Hashem as a lesson for everyday life seems to have a lot of merit--and fits in quite nicely with the "Repurposing" concept that I wrote about a few months ago.

On that note...

G'mar chasima tova!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Greatest Challenge is from Within
It was a cold December day.

I had just taken the bold step of enrolling in a community college. After handing in my forms at the registrar's office, I was instructed to meet with an advisor.

This was taking longer than I had expected, so I called my mother to ask her to pick up my kids from school. She agreed, so I found a chair and waited for my appointment.

I was ushered into the adviser's office a few minutes later. She was not ready to meet with me yet so I glanced at the newspaper clippings that hung from the office in her room.

One in particular caught my eye. It was the story of a girl who grew up homeless in Los Angeles. She was born to a teenage single mother and spent her nights traveling from homeless shelter to homeless shelter with her mother. However, this girl loved to read and spent every day in the library learning whatever she could get her hands on. This tendency continued as she got older. She enrolled in the highest-level classes available at her inner-city high school, got straight-A's, and ultimately went to Harvard with a full scholarship.

A nice story, but for some reason I was not particularly impressed. I thought to myself, "How could I not be impressed by this story? Isn't it the classic tale of overcoming adversity?"

Then it hit me. I was sitting in the office of a local community college--not Harvard.

While I'm sure that the article left out a few details, the girl in the article didn't seem to have an internal struggle. Her nature was to be studious, and therefore as soon as she was old enough to read she spent all of her time reading and studying. Given that she was a naturally intelligent girl who spent hours reading each day, it is hardly surprising that she got the Harvard scholarship. Intelligence and diligence are to a large extent genetic, and her genetic combination was strong enough that it could withstand being born into bad circumstances.

But how is any of this relevant to us, the community college students in this office?

I was not at Harvard, and neither were the other students who would sat in this office before me and would sit in this office after me, because we were not like the girl in the article. We did not make all of the right choices--we made mistakes. Whether the mistake involved joining an extreme religious group, having unprotected sex at 15, dropping out of high school, or simply not caring about school, most of us were here for a similar reason--to get a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) chance.

During the year that I spent at community college, I met many other students who were working hard at overcoming their pasts. I met a student who worked her way up from remedial elementary-school math all the way to calculus in order to fulfill her dream of studying environmental science. I met a woman who was at college together with her daughter, working her way towards a better job. I met a man who had just spent many years in jail and now wanted to turn his life around.

While I am happy that I am able to take more advanced courses now that I am at a regular college, I can't help but miss all of the inspiring students back at the community college, the students who had made mistakes.

I went to a research conference last week that featured the research of Undergraduate students who were considered "disadvantaged" by being from certain minority groups or from being first-generation college students. This is not a group that I am eligible for. My father is a university professor and my mother has a master's degree. My SAT score as good enough that I could have gotten into almost any college that I wanted to, but I didn't go to college because I thought that it was wrong to do so. I was "advantaged" and I blew it.

Yet here I am in school again, aiming for a doctorate someday.

My disadvantage did not come from my background but from myself. But perhaps beating oneself really is the greatest challenge.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Former Fanatic Revisits Tznius

Hi, my name is Fence, and I used to be a tznius fanatic.

Yes, you read that right, the author of this OTD blog who now wears pants and short sleeves whenever she can get away with it, used to be really into tznius--for years. I practically had Oz V'hadar Levusha memorized and was makpid on everything from covering my head (I kept my hair covered at all times except when showering) to covering my toes (opaque tights, "aidel" shoes, etc). I also learned the mekoros from tznius inside halachic sefarim, and would readily debate and defend my tznius standards whenever asked.

Despite what many people who know me speculate, I did not go off the derech because of frustration from keeping such a high standard of tznius. This was not a case of taking on too much and then confusing chumra and minhag. As I said, I learned mekoros and knew full well that many of the things that I kept were in fact chumros.

So, what happened?

I believe very strongly in acting in a way that is consistent with the way that one believes. I decided to become frum as a young teenager because I believed that the Torah was true and therefore felt that it was wrong not to keep it. Despite the tremendous difficulties that it involved, I took on one mitzvah at a time until I was fully shomer mitzvos, or since of course no one can keep all the taryag mitzvos, as observant as possible.

As tznius--or to a lesser extent, the equivalent for men, yiddishe levush--is the ultimate external representation of ones beliefs to the world, I viewed this mitzvah as particularly important. Therefore, I was extremely bothered by frum people who did not keep tznius properly. I viewed frum people who believed in the halachic system, including the principle of "minhag yisrael Torah hee", yet dressed in a manner totally inconsistent with halacha, as the ultimate hypocrites. How could I have respected someone who believes that there is a God-given objective truth, yet chooses to openly violate it to fulfill a taavah to follow fashion? So, yes, not only was I makpid on tznius, I was also intolerant of those who were not.

However, as I grew older and circumstances led me to start questioning Judaism, I ran into a problem. At first I held steadfastly to tznius even while breaking shabbos, because tznius had become so important to me that I could not bear to deviate from it. Yet as time went on and the dichotomy between my beliefs and the way I dressed grew wider, I could not bear it any longer. My way of dress had to change. But, as I was and still am living in the frum community, it could not change completely without harming my family. So, I joined the ranks of the not-quite-tznius frummies whom I had once despised. But I have started dressing in a truly secular manner at college and wherever else I can get away with it, in order to minimize the need to live a double life.

As I walk down the street in questionably-tznius, yet frum-looking clothing, I can't help but wonder if there is a young woman out there looking at me with the same disdain that I once felt towards others. If there is, then she is somewhat right. I am a hypocrite, but not in the way that she thinks.

What goes around, comes around.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Fence

The fence upon which I am sitting sits between two fields of opportunity, one secular and one religious. Each field belongs to a seperate nation, one a democracy and one a theocracy. Each nation has its own set of laws and customs, as well as its own set of strengths and weaknesses. While guards do stand at the border, those who are determined enough can survive the journey from one side to the other.

I first encountered this fence many years ago, while still a child. I was born on the secular side of the fence. This side of the fence offered me a life full of choices, yet lacking in meaning. In school, while other children were primarily interested in movies and sports, I read a lot and thought about different topics. I searched desperately for a direction and a purpose in life. I tried to fit in throughout school and discovered that the rigid popularity structure did not leave room for those like me.

I sought a purpose in life, and I found it on the other side of the fence. The pull towards the other side was so strong that I did not delay. I ran towards the fence without looking back. With tremendous effort I scaled the fence, landed on the other side, and began a journey deeper into the frum land. I went to schools with those born there, learned the local languages, and managed to fit in.

Yet I have suffered here. The lack of choices on the frum side are stifiling, and underneath the utopian facade corruption runs rampant. On this side of the fence, there is a singular focus that leaves little room for individuality and exploration. I feel stuck in a world where the home is expected to be the focus of a woman's life, and it cannot be the focus of mine.

As an adult, I see a different society on the secular side of the fence. Secular society is large enough for everyone to find a place, even those like me. I feel the need to explore, and therefore I long for the choices of my youth.

So I have inched my way back towards the fence, and stared at it with trepedation. I have climbed up that fence one aveira at a time, until I reached its peak. I stare at the secular side of the fence, longing for its freedom, yet unable to jump. I look back at the frum side of the fence, and see my husband and children below. I see a rope and think "Should I bring my children with me to the other side?" I cannot bring my husband with me, he will never come. Some days I think that I will throw the rope, get my children, jump, and run for dear life. But yet something is stopping me. I feel an inexplicable pull towards the frum side that has hurt me so much. Frumkiet has become part of me somehow. I can't just leave. Yet I cannot stay.

So I remain here on the fence, exposed to the elements. I attempt to straddle the fence and live in both worlds, yet the fence serves as a barrier between the two.

Is it possible to cross from one side to another as needed? Perhaps it is, but it requires so much effort that it will likely wear me down.

So it seems that for now I will remain right here. I may as well enjoy the view.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


 Despite my lack of homemaking skills and artistic ability, I have recently developed an interest in home decorating. Hopefully I will manage to make my home at least somewhat more inviting and livable. To get decorating ideas, I have started to spend some time watching decorating shows on HGTV.

One common theme that I have noticed on many of the shows is that of "repurposing". Repurposing is essentially a fancy name for taking old furniture or household fixtures and modifying them to meet the homeowner's current tastes. If one is willing to put in the effort, repurposing is clearly and excellent way for people to decorate their homes in a way that is stylish, yet cost-effective and environmentally-friendly.

However, the process of repurposing does not always go as planned. I once tried to restain some porch chairs, which worked fine until I gave up in the middle due to the exhaustion of being nine-months pregnant. My youngest is now three and I never finished the job because I did not take the effort to finish what I had started. Another way that repurposing can fail is when due to the nature of the item, it cannot be repurposed as intended. My mother once began a project of covering the old upholstry on her dining room chairs with new upholstry, only to find that the backs of the chairs would no longer fit into the frame. Therefore, she ended up with pretty but useless dining-room chairs.

While the term "repurposing" was likely coined by home decorators, the concept is hardly unique to interior design. In many aspects of life, people take ideas and experiences from the past and attempt to modify them to fit in with our times. Jews in particular have a tendency to try to repurpose Judaism in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. The early secular Zionists celebrated Shavuos as a harvest festival representing the importance of cultivating the land of Israel, and many of today's Reform Jews create human rights sedarim for Pesach.

If Judaism is repurposed, is it still Judaism?
Can Judaism be repurposed effectively?

The answer to these questions seems to be found in our interior-design example. One can repurpose an object in such a way that it maintains its essential characteristics, or one can repurpose it in a way that it becomes an entirely different object. If one paints a table, it is still a table. However, if one cuts off the legs to the table and sticks it on the wall behind a bed, it is no longer a table but a headboard. Both the painted table and the headboard may be much more beautiful than the old table, but one has been changed to the point that it is no longer a table. Therefore, it seems that certain innovations can in fact enhance Judaism and make it relevant even to those who have difficulty with traditional Judaism, while others change the religion so radically that it is hardly recognizable. The effectiveness of the repurposing depends on whether the repurposing made that table look better or worse, which is to an extent in the eyes of the beholder, but still somewhat objective. Similarly, if an individual wants to repurpose Judaism, he or she needs to ensure that it is done in a way that enhances his or her life rather than detracting from it.

Should one repurpose Judaism?

For many people who are Orthoprax or OTD, the answer seems to be yes. Just as repurposing furniture has the benefit of saving money and the environment, repurposing Judaism has the potential to save relationships and improve ones state of mind. By finding new ways of or reasons for keeping mitzvos, one can help keep ones family together. Additionally, people typically find comfort in the rituals of their youth, so finding a way to incorporate these rituals into a new lifestyle can increase ones peace-of-mind and even help one focus on the positive memories of the past.

So perhaps there is an advantage to partial observance?


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

For the Sake of Heaven

While I have not studied other religions, one thing that has struck me as unique about Orthodox Judaism is its concept of "Kol maasecha yihiyu l'shem shomayim", that all of deeds should be done for the sake of heaven. This concept creates a belief system where there are no neutral actions. Many areas of daily life are codified into law, which means that as one goes about his or her day, there are countless opportunities to do a mitzvah or an aveira. There are mitzvos governing almost every aspect of daily life. Additionally, every choice that one makes, even in things that are not expressly required or prohibited by Torah law, are either meritorious or sinful based on their intent.

It is easy to see the appeal of this belief system. This concept essentially means that every action that every ordinary person does has great cosmic significance. A person who believes this feels that at any given moment, his or her actions can help determine the fate of the universe. It is the nature of people to want to feel important, and this belief clearly nurtures the feeling that each individual is in fact important. Additionally, this belief gives one a ready-made sense of purpose and a goal that one can strive towards.

However it seems to me that this aspect of Orthodoxy, which arguably is the religion's greatest appeal, is also its greatest flaw. Having one central goal as the basis of everything creates a system where nothing can be done or enjoyed for its own sake. Everything must be done for an ulterior motive, that of serving God. One can never truly relax when one must keep in mind that the only purpose of the relaxation is to serve Hashem.

This is particularly troubling with regard to personal relationships. It is written in Pirkei Avos, "Ahavah shetaluyah b'davar, sofo l'hisbatel", that love that is dependent on an external reason will ultimately end. In Orthodox Judaism, relationships, just like everything else, are meant solely as a means of serving Hashem. This can be seen quite clearly by the brachos that are given to a new couple, that they should build a "bayis neeman b'yisrael", a faithful Jewish home, which is in stark contrast to the references to the focus on love at a secular wedding. The shidduch system is consistent with this line of thought, in that people marry based on a list of desirable qualities rather than love, which is not supposed to develop until after the wedding. If one views marriage as a means to an end, such a business-like system is ideal. However, if marriage is meant to based on love and acceptance, this arrangement is clearly lacking.

On a more global level, this concept of a singular life purpose effectively replaces normal human thoughts and emotions. Can one really experience love, empathy, desire, or joy if it must constantly be done for an external motive? If halacha mandates what one should think and feel, does one ever really experience those thoughts and feelings to their fullest?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Marrying Young and Financial Responsibility

On the first day of my college's summer session, I walked into my statistics class a little early and started speaking to the only other student in the room. I asked him what he was majoring in, and he replied that he had a double major--music (cello, I think) and mechanical engineering. An interesting combination, I thought, and certainly more practical than just majoring in music. So I said, "That makes a lot of sense, because it is probably easier to find a job in engineering than in music".

The student suddenly looked offended and horrified. He replied, "No, I don't care about money. I just love engineering."

Okay then. All I can say is that later on he will be thankful that his interests are music and engineering rather than music and classical French literature, because regardless of his motivations now at least he will be employable. I then realized, however, that I had this reaction because I have been in the "real world" for years and suffered the devastating effects of poverty brought on by lack of ability to earn a living.

When I married at eighteen, I was no different from this student. While I knew that I needed to get a job and work, the thought of going to college and/or delaying marriage for the sake of marriage was abhorrent to me. I didn't care about money or want to be rich. I was young and idealistic and felt that if I was willing to work hard then we would be fine. I was definitely wrong about that.

The problem is that both that student and I shared an attitude that is common among older teenagers and young twenty-somethings today. I would venture to say that for most middle or upper-class students, college is viewed as an expected rite-of-passage rather than a means of preparation for the future. Among frum people of the same age, the attitude is that marriage is a rite-of-passage and that finances will work themselves out afterwards.

Both of these attitudes reflect a lack of maturity. The problem within the frum world is that people typically get married while still in that immature state, which often leads to disastrous consequences.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"You Can Be Anything that You Want to Be, If You Try Hard Enough"

...Or maybe not.

When I was in ninth and tenth grades, my family lived in a small town far from any substantial frum community. I spent those years in a public school that had only five Jewish students, of which I was the only frum one.

In tenth grade I made friends with the girl who sat next to me in math class. Leila, a Muslim immigrant who came from Pakistan at the age of five, was one of the few students in the school who could relate to my religious observance, and I was one of the few students who understood her. We discussed topics such as modesty and dietary laws, and I was there to support her when her father caught her with a picture of a boy with his arm on her shoulder. The other students would not have been able to understand why her father cared.

One day Leila was quite upset. She described to me how she had spent hours writing and rewriting an essay for her honors' English class. She was distressed because she felt that no matter how many times she would try to rewrite it, the essay would still be terrible. Leila was an intelligent girl so I was sure that she was exaggerating, but I offered to look over her essay and help her rewrite it.

After our math class we went to the library to look at the essay. I was shocked. Using the word terrible to describe the essay would be an understatement. The essay was so bad that I could not understand what she was attempting to write. It was clear to me that she really had tried, but that for some reason she had no grasp of grammar. So I sat with her and helped her rewrite her essay, and then did the same at least once a week at lunch for the rest of the year.

One day I asked her, "Why are you in honors' English if writing is so difficult for you?" To me it seemed that remedial English would have been a more appropriate placement. She explained to me that her immigrant parents wanted her to fulfill the American dream of going to an ivy-league university, so that she could get into a top medical school and become a doctor, so her parents insisted that she stay in the honors'-level English track. She told me that she wished that her parents would let her take courses that were more appropriate for her.

Her parents had absorbed one of the most common beliefs of modern American society, that a person can be anything that he or she wants to be by trying hard. This belief seems to transcend religious and cultural boundaries, and Leila's parents simply could not understand that their daughter could not do well in honor's English, no matter how hard she tried. Leila was quite good at math and may well have done fine at a middle-of-the-road state college, and then possibly have gone to medical school, by taking an appropriate English class that would have taught her the skills that she needed to succeed. Alternatively, if she really could not learn how to write well enough to graduate college, she may have been able to find a trade that suited her. If Leila had been my daughter, I would also have had her evaluated for learning disabilities. By pushing their daughter to go in a direction that was not appropriate for her, her parents were setting her up for failure.

This attitude is seen particularly strongly in the frum world. The frum world defines success quite narrowly, yet argues that everyone can achieve that measure of success if they try hard enough. While some "elite" sectors of the secular world are guilty of having the same attitude, in most secular households success is defined broadly enough that everyone can succeed at something. When success for a man is defined as being able to learn gemara for hours per day, is it any surprise that many people end up feeling like failures? Many people simply cannot do that, even if they "try hard". If success for a girl is defined as being a good mother to a large family, is it any surprise that many people fail?

People are different by nature. Everyone is unique, and effort is often not enough to compensate for having inherent difficulties in a particular area. No matter how hard I try, I will never be a good baalebusta. Hopefully one day I will achieve the level of "mediocre". So why should I spend my life working towards something that I will always be bad at, rather than working towards a goal that will enable me to excel?

I unfortunately lost touch with Leila and do not know what happened to her. I, however, am determined to do what Leila would have done if she had the choice. I am going to follow the direction of my innate abilities and find a way to succeed at something.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

My university has a message board where every student is allowed to post, and all posts are listed under the person's legal name. Of all the topics discussed, the perennial favorite is religion. Typically religious topics spiral into a debate between a few evangelical Christians and a few Atheists.

The current topic of choice is "Why God Chooses not to Answer Some Prayers". In the course of the debate, one Atheist student responded, "You know man invented G-d right?". A Christian noticed the inconsistency of claiming that God does not really exist while writing his name with the "-", which is done as a form of reverence. The Christian assumed that the Atheist must have thought that writing God's name this way was a form of degradation rather than reverence, so he responded by "informing" his opponent that Orthodox Jews write God's name this way as a form of reverence.

Given the Atheist poster's highly Jewish-sounding name, I assume that he wrote "G-d" for an entirely different reason. Both frum and traditional kids are instructed from an early age not to spell God's name as a form of respect and old habits die hard. Therefore, the Atheist student feels the need to treat God's name with reverence even as he claims that God does not exist, due to the education that he received during childhood.

I assume that most people who have gone OTD have done something similar to this. Have you said a bracha on treif food? Sat in the dark while using the computer on shabbos? Said something like, "I went to the movies last shabbos and baruch Hashem it went well".

Do you think that this is inherently negative? It occurred to me that perhaps there is something to be said for treating God with reverence even if one believes that He exists only in ones mind, due to the benefits that religion has provided humanity or simply due to tradition. Or perhaps the Atheist student still believes in God in his heart but not in his mind?

As an aside, I have learned that it is not a halachic problem to write or erase shem Hashem on a computer anyway as computer pixels have no mamashus and are not halachicly considered writing. For the same reason, typing on a computer is allowed on chol hamoed even when real writing isn't.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Clothing and Identity Among the Orthoprax and OTD

Image Source:
Over the last few days I have been thinking about my last post, the one that I typed on yom tov while having my hair covered, and Undercover Kofer's response that he has also used the computer on shabbos while covering his head (except that he was weraing a yarmulke, of course). So here I am posting again on shabbos, reflecting on the significance of clothing to the Orthopraxer.

While clothing does not define a person, people throughout society use clothing as a manner of expressing their identities. Making a dramatic change in dress is usually associated with the individual making a dramatic change in personality or role in life.

This is even more true in the Orthodox community, where people are routinely identified and even referred to by the clothing they wear. A Litvish man is often called "black hat" and it is not uncommon to hear statements such as "Sara is marrying a streimel", when she is actually getting married to its wearer. For this reason, when an Orthodox person changes his or her way of dress it makes an even bigger statement than it does in the secular world.

Therefore, when a person does not feel comfortable identifying as non-religious he or she makes a point of keeping to the same standard of dress as before. Conversely, if a person wants to show that he or she is more modern and/or not frum altogether, the message is often intentionally broadcast through clothing choices.

In my case, as I imagine in many others, this even applies in private. I still often dress tznius at home even as I am committing aveiros. The only explanation that I have for this is that I am simply not comfortable (yet) with identifying as non-frum. I still identify as a member of the frum community despite not wanting to be part of it.

This probably also explains why some people who have recently gone off-the-derech dress in a manner that is more provocotive than that of general society. By dressing in a manner that is the direct opposite of tznius, it expresses that one wants to be sure that she is not identified with a community that she despises. Even among those who are still frum, those who simply wish to be more modern typically change their dress more than anything else, such as kashrus standards.

So, readers, what do you think? At which stage of your departure from obervance did you change your manner of dress partially or totally? Were you keeping shabbos while dressed in a non-frum (by anyone's standard) manner, or did you break shabbos while dressed as before?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Hypocrisy, Inconsistency, and Fear

I began this post, erased it, then started it again. I hesitated in posting this out of fear that my identity would be discovered someday and my chillul Yom Tov would become public knowledge. What a perfectly ironic example of the points that I am about to make.

I am sitting here, in private, typing this post on Shavuous, "Zman Matan Toraseinu", with only the light of the shabbos lamp illuminating the room as I type. Not only that--my hair is covered.

Why? Why do I feel the need to cover my hair while being mechallel shabbos? If I am willing to use the computer on shabbos, why am I not turning on the light?

It seems that an inevitable part of being Orthoprax, or at least "prax" in public, is living with an endless stream of hypocrisy, lies, and fear. How can or should one deal with feeling like a hypocrite? Is it possible to live a happy and fulfilled Orthoprax life to avoid destroying ones family? How can I avoid feeling like a hypocrite when telling my children to keep things that I do not keep?


Monday, May 30, 2011

Objective Morality?

The idea of objective morality is one of the most appealing things about Orthodox Judaism. The concept of morality being subjective and therefore at least somewhat determined at the discretion of individuals is quite disturbing, especially as history has shown that people can create moral arguments to justify just about anything. Therefore, one could argue that for morality to exist at all in any meaningful form, it must be objective. Because only a truly objective source can determine objective morality, it logically follows that any objective moral system must be given by an omnipotent being, God. This God-given system would then be the objectively-correct way to live, and the moral value of any action would be determined based on its consistency with this moral code.

A typical response given to this claim is that the Torah endorses behavior that society considers immoral and therefore cannot be objectively moral. The fallacy of this response is that it assumes that the current societal definition of morality is in fact moral, and that therefore killing off nations, slavery, and permitting a father to marry of his minor daughter are in fact immoral. If there is such a thing as objective morality, and the Torah is the source of that morality, then those actions would in fact be moral and there would be no contradiction.

There is, however, a fundamental flaw with the objective morality argument. The argument assumes that if moral instructions are given by an objective source, the result will be objective morality. The difficulty with this argument is that the users of this moral code are fallible human beings. People do not generally think objectively and any intellectually-honest person will admit that his or her intellectual opinions are affected by emotions. Therefore we see that even those who claim to have a God-given moral code can and do modify the code as needed to satisfy their own, subjective, ideas of right and wrong.

The examples of this are too numerous to mention. Catholics believe in the unchanging divinity of the entire bible, yet today's Catholics would be horrified to see the church burn a heretic at the stake. How is it logical to believe that 500-years ago God supported the burning of heretics yet today he is opposed? There are no shortage of such instances within our Jewish tradition as well. Today rabbinic loopholes are found to allow things that are considered morally praiseworthy and prohibitions are created against otherwise-permissible things that are morally objectionable. Not only that, we routinely see people use Torah-sources to justify their personal moral opinions. Does the Torah support the prosecution of Jews accused of crimes? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Okay, so one may ask that if everyone makes subjective moral judgments, what harm is there in believing in objective morality? If a person believes in objective morality it may well lead one to attempt to consider opinions more carefully to try to determine if they are "objectively" right or wrong, which would seem to be a positive act.

The problem is that if one is convinced that there is a source of objective morality, one can therefore be more easily convinced by others that his moral instincts are incorrect as they oppose the objective moral source, or at least the speaker's interpretation of it. In its extreme form, this can lead an otherwise sane person to totally push aside his natural compassion and blow-up a building full of civilians. Even in more moderate forms, this line of thinking can lead people to discriminate against others, commit minor crimes,or oppose positive ideas.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Does Orthodox Judaism Provide a Healthier Lifestyle?

Recently, XGH wrote about the advantages of being orthoprax over becoming not frum. He wrote that these advantages include an increased focus on spirituality, morality, and community.

This resonates with me because recently I have been thinking about the question of whether it is worth it to be frum even if the Torah is not from Sinai. I once read something written by a woman whose husband told her, before they got married, that despite being an atheist he chose to stay frum because he believed that Orthodox Judaism was the best lifestyle yet discovered. He felt that in order to have the benefits of the lifestyle it is necessary to keep halacha completely in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the law. Therefore, despite his lack of belief, he davened three times a day and asked a rav whenever any questions arose.

So, the question is, does following Orthodox Judaism enable one to have a better life than one could without it?

My inclination is to say that the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, at least in its charedi form, is a better lifestyle for children and a worse one for adults.

As someone who grew up in both the secular and frum worlds, and is now raising children in the frum world, I can confidently state the advantages of raising children frum. Children who grow up in the secular world are exposed to a barrage of bad middos emanating from much of the media, and even if the parents themselves limit or forbid any inappropriate programs, it is quite likely that their classmates' parents have not. Therefore, it is quite common for children to look up to and try to emulate the behaviors of superficial and morally-bankrupt movie stars and sports heros. Additionally, there is very little emphasis on middos in general presented to little kids in secular society. Frum schools and parents, at least in theory, teach children the importance of concepts such as not gossiping, respecting elders, and self-control in a way that is not taught in the public school system. As the Rambam states, even the act of keeping mitzvos themselves can help improve middos. A kid who grows up keeping kosher learns self-control better than one who does not. Frum children also typically have more siblings than their secular counterparts and thus gain the benefits of learning to consider others needs before their own.

Another huge advantage to kids that the frum world offers is the emphasis on learning. In most public schools, any child who is actually interested in learning is regarded as nerdy. The children consider learning to be a necessary evil and place greater value on those who are good at sports than those who are good at learning. Unfortunately even some of the parents feel this way too. Frum kids, however, recognize the value that both the Torah and society places on learning and therefore regard it highly.

So why, then, is the lifestyle not better overall?

To me it seems that in spite of the advantages that the frum lifestyle offers for children, it has significant drawbacks for adults. The frum lifestyle, as I discussed in previous posts, expects everyone to fit into a mold and thus removes much of the freedom of choice from its adherents. In many circles, one must marry young, not go to college, and have many children. Women are supposed to place family first and therefore face a very restricted list of potential careers. Men, who are expected to place learning first, also face a limited variety of career options and often end up getting to spend little time with their families. The limited career opportunities, combined with the high expenses of living an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, force many frum families to live under unbearable financial hardship and stress. These factors combined leave many people feeling stressed, trapped, and miserable, and prevent people from finding fulfillment in areas outside of the home and/or bais medrash. This is particularly true for people who do not fit the mold.

While it is true that people who are "atypical" struggle in secular society as well, they are likely to struggle less. Secular society, being as large as it is, has many subgroups in which everyone can find his or her place. Frum society is so small and so rigid that many people simply do not have a place within its confines.

Okay, so if frum society is better for children and worse for adults, what is the answer? Modern Orthodoxy may work as a compromise, but the problem with MO is that it provides fewer of the benefits for children while still having some of the problems for adults, such as monetary stress and a lack of time for family.

Is it worth it to sacrifice our children's childhood so that they can have a better adulthood, or vice versa? What if the children have the personalities that make them likely to succeed in the frum world?

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Individuality and Education

Yesterday I completed a computerized practice test for the GRE. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the GRE is a standardized test that prospective graduate students take so that graduate schools can have an objective standard against which to measure all potential applicants. The test consists of three sections, one of which is an analytical writing section which requires the test-takers to write two essays on the topics given.

The particular practice test that I took required me to write an essay, in thirty minutes or less, either supporting or opposing implementing a mandated national curriculum for all students in the United States from kindergarten to college. Here was my response:

Quality education is fundamental to the success of society. Therefore, the national government should do everything within its power to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education. While one may think that a set national curriculum is the appropriate means of achieving this goal, having a national curriculum would like do more harm than good. Requiring a national curriculum would reduce innovation within education, limit the ability of educators to individualize the educational process, and restrict some of the freedoms that are part of the foundation of a free country.

Human knowledge and discovery develops over time, and this is certainly true in the field of education. Researchers in the field of education, which is part science and part art, regularly develop new theories which enhance or even transform the way that educators view the educational process. In order for a new hypothesis to be accepted as a theory, it must be empirically tested in an educational setting. If schools are required to follow a national curriculum, the opportunities to develop and test new theories, as well as the motivation to do so, will be greatly decreased.

No two students are alike, and it therefore follows that it would be ineffective to teach all students in the same manner. Some students are more talented at certain subjects than other students and therefore students should be given the opportunity to take advanced or remedial courses as needed. There is also a wide discrepancy amongst students and even among regions of the country in terms of student preparation and motivation. Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds would likely need more educational support than a standard curriculum would provide, while students from other backgrounds may find the additional support redundant.

Additionally, imposing a federally-mandated curriculum limits the rights of parents to control the upbringing of their children. In a free society, parents are given the ability, within reason, to educate their children according to their values. Therefore, parents who prefer one type of education over another, regardless of whether the preference is based on educational reasons, religious reasons, or philosophical reasons, should be given the right to educate their children according to their beliefs, provided that a minimum standard of competence is met.

Therefore, in the interest of providing a solid education for all children within a free society, a national curriculum should not be implemented. The federal government should instead actively encourage educational innovation within school systems and provide for a diversity of educational options for the public. Allowing for a wide variety of educational approaches is the best way to implement unique and appropriate educational techniques for every child.
Since taking the practice test I have spent a bit of time thinking about my twenty-minute essay response. My immediate negative reaction to the proposed idea demonstrates what I view to be a fundamental flaw in many restrictive social systems--the emphasis on conformity. While the pressure to conform has the essential benefit of maintaining a structured society, it also has the potential, when taken to its extreme, to hamper innovation, limit individuality, and restrict the rights and freedoms of the members of that society.

It seems clear that the best, although by virtue of its subjectivity somewhat flawed, approach is to strike an appropriate balance between the two extremes. This can be achieved by having some degree of structure and rules that all members of society need to follow, while allowing for individuality and alternative approaches whenever possible. Regarding the topic of the essay, the best approach would be to have some general minimal educational guidelines that all schools, public or private (Ohalei Torah, are you listening?), are required to meet while allowing flexibility in all other areas of the curriculum.

Orthodoxy, by its very name (k'shmo kein hu), suggests that it requires a higher level of conformity than average. To me, this seems to be both its advantage and one of its biggest faults. Many ba'alei teshuva are attracted to Orthodox Judaism precisely because of its orthodoxy. Many people feel that the secular world as a whole is too permissive and long for a return to a structured lifestyle with set social norms, and this structure can be found within Orthodox Judaism. However, that same structure and social norms serve to strangle those who cannot fit into the prescribed box permitted for them. As the box continues to get smaller, those who desire conformity will feel more comfortable, while more people on the other end of the spectrum will be pushed out of the box.

To those who are left inside, I would like to ask a simple question. Is it worth it to have a smaller box with more structure and more exclusivity? Do you understand that not everyone can fit into such a small box? The answer is not that we should try harder or have more bitul. No amount of bitul in the world can make one box work for everyone. Every individual is unique so why can't we build our own boxes, or better yet, a box big enough to fit everyone's little boxes?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Challenge of Changing Expectations - Part Two

I was determined to start married life correctly and quickly set out to find a job. I definitely understood the concept of histadlus and realized that since my husband was learning in kollel, I would need to work. However, I assumed that we would manage to make it even living in New York while working at minimum wage because everyone else seemed to do so.

I accepted my first job working at a business that engaged in so many dishonest practices that I needed to quit after three weeks in order to be able to live with myself. Over the next several years, my husband and I moved several times and I worked at various odd jobs doing everything from teaching to telemarketing. While the fact that we are alive proves that we actually did survive those few years, the term survival is relative. We lived on a small income, legally-obtained government assistance, boxes of spaghetti, and desperate middle-of-the-night calls to my mother for assistance. I would routinely be unable to sleep at night due to my dispair over the financial situation. Despite the constantly-repeated mantra that parnassa comes from Hashem and that one can make it without college, the income was not coming and we were not making it by anyone's definition.

Where was my husband in all of this? Well, the last word that one would use to describe my husband is practical. For years I would ask him to find parnassa, but to him finding parnassa meant doing a quick job for someone and earning $100 a week at most. No matter how many times I tried to talk to him, he just could not get that we weren't managing and he just continued to learn--for years. When I would ask him to get a full-time job, he would refuse to do so because he would only take a job in klei kodesh and no klei kodesh jobs were available. He said that he couldn't take a secular job because he would need to be around women and would not have enough time to go to the mikvah, daven, and learn.

However, the most difficult part of this stage of life for me were the traditionally-female responsibilities of housework and child care. My house was always a mess. Yes, I know many women with neat homes make that claim but mine was bad enough that I feared a visit from the department of health. It was really bad and I just didn't have the orginizational skills needed to fix it.

Even after my first child I realized that I was not a good stay-at-home parent and that I did not have the patience to deal with little kids. For some reason, probably denial, I still wanted to have a large family and figured that I would learn how to manage. Immediately after giving birth to my first and second child I wanted to have another one. However, after my third child's birth I remember feeling that "this is it" and that I did not want any more. Still being frum, that thought scared me as I felt that meant I was a selfish person.

Over the next few months I began to realize how correct I was. I simply am not good with little kids and could not handle watching them. I began taking college courses online and often arranged for others such as my mother or my husband to watch the kids. At this point in my life I felt like a total failure. I felt that I wasn't good at anything worthwhile and that the world would be a better place without me there. My husband would try to help me by reminding me that I was smart and good at learning, and I would explain to him that those things are useless for a frum married women.

Starting college full-time literally saved my life. I did better in college than I had in high school and it gave me at least one area of my life that I could excel in. I then began to realize how odd it is that the expectations of frum girls and frum women differ so drastically. Frum girls are expected to do well at school, at least in limudei kodesh classes, daven regularly, and organize extra-curricular activities, etc. After marriage, however, a woman's focus is supposed to shift to taking care of the home and the children. If the woman works, the work should be viewed as secondary to family life as it is considered wrong for a woman to focus on a career.

The expectations of frum single girls and frum married women are so different that it seems almost impossible for many people to transition successfully. In addition to meeting people with my problem, I have also met plenty of women who had the opposite problem from the one that I had. These women suffered for years in school because they were not academically-inclined, but they are happy as homemakers. Many people in the frum world have also noticed this problem and therefore suggest that girls' schools should solve the problem by not focusing on academics and instead focus on preparing the girls for family life by not assigning homework on Thursday nights so that girls will help their mothers prepare for shabbos, etc.

The main problem with this solution is that it ignores the root problem, which is that not all girls (or boys, for that matter) are the same. Different people have different difficulties and talents, and just like not every girl can do well in school, not every girl can do well as a homemaker and successfully manage a large family. Those who cannot do so well are not doing anyone any favors by attempting to do so. Some women really do function better in the workplace. The problem with Orthodox Judaism is that it takes typical gender roles and codifies them as law, which works for those who fit into those roles and not for those who don't.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Challenge of Changing Expectations - Part One

One of the biggest challenges that I have had throughout my life is fitting in. Back in my public elementary school days, I had a lot of trouble fitting in with my fellow classmates because I couldn't understand the subtle social rules that they seemed to follow and I wasn't interested in the things that interested them. I was the nerdy kid who read the encyclopedia for fun and I liked discussing deep topics with my one close childhood friend.

During my later middle school years I became somewhat more socially aware and made a few more friends, although I still had difficulty relating to their interests and found the topics of conversation to be quite boring, to say the least. While I finally was able to fit in, I still really felt out of place.

As I became frum, however, things changed drastically. At NCSY, then later at school, I found teenage girls who I could become friends with who were interested in topics that were deeper than the latest Backstreet Boys song. While I did not become close friends with the "popular girls" at my Jewish school either, I found a group of friends that not only didn't look down on me for my intellectual interests, they respected me. People were inspired by my dedication to learning and the few people who knew my background, which I tried hard to keep secret in order to fit in, were amazed at how quickly I caught up to grade level in limudei kodesh.

This was particulalrly true when I came to my Chabad seminary. One thing that I do have to give Chabad credit for is that they are very into girls learning. During my seminary year I was constantly learning a variety of things, from mefarshim on Chumash to Yiddish Sichos. Halacha was my favorite topic. I was fascinated by the logic behind the halachic process and its implementation in the modern world. The other girls looked up to me as a sincere, dedicated frum girl and I would routinely council young baalos teshuva to try to help them succeed in the frum system.

Being the good frum girl that I was, I wanted to get married as soon as possible in order to have as many children as possible. I only wanted to marry someone in klei kodesh who was as interested in learning as I was. I figured that everyone managed somehow and that we would find a way to manage financially as well. I mangaged to find my husband, who fits that description perfectly, and a minimum-wage job for myself to complement his kollel stipend. We then got married and I started trying to excel at the next stage of my frum life just as I had at the first.

Then reality came.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Welcome to my blog!

As this is the first post on my blog, I would like to begin by introducing myself and the purpose of my blog.

I am a married mother-of-three in her twenties who has recently begun having serious doubts about the validity of Orthodox Judaism and has thus joined the ranks of the orthoprax, the despised subculture of secret heretics who remain within the Orthodox community for various reasons.

I entered the frum community as a young teenager when I, together with my mother, decided to become more religious. My mother was always religiously-inclined and would have likely become frum earlier if it were not for her living in a southern town with only a tiny Orthodox community. I became interested in Orthodox Judaism as a young teenager when I realized that since I believed in Torah min Hashomayim, it was hypocritical for me not to keep the mitzvos. My mother followed me, at a slower pace, and ultimately became mostly-Modern-Orthodox. She would, and still does, break shabbos when her elderly mother calls and in other such situations.

I, on the other hand, became charedi--very charedi. I orginially became frum at the only Orthodox shul in our town, a Chabad shul. Then my mother remarried and we moved to a big city and I went to a "modern-Yeshivish" girls high school. I ended up deciding to go back to Chabad, went to a Chabad seminary, and married shortly thereafter. I took yiddishkiet very seriously and was very machmir in many areas. I kept a very strict standard of tznius, was very machmir about hilchos shabbos, and I davened and learned a substantial amount every day. I did not go to college because I thought that it was assur to do so and then I had three kids by age 23.

At that point my world began to crash down on me. I had grown up in the self-esteem generation, believing that I could be whatever I wanted to be if I tried hard enough. Therefore, despite being the intellectual type who also has severe ADD, I figured that if the Rebbe said that women should primarily be wives and mothers of large families that I could do so if I tried hard enough. After having a breakdown after the birth of my third child, I realized that is definitely not the case. Parenting is not my strong point, to put it mildly, and housekeeping is even less so. I found that I had little in common with other frum women who primarily wanted to discuss child-rearing and recipes, and I felt like the proverbial fish-out-of-water. I began to hate myself and feel like a worthless human being as I couldn't do even the minimum expected of me.

Starting college literally changed my life. I originally decided to go back to college in order to get a decent job, because I was fed up with the "bitachon method" of earning income. However, going back to college saved my self-image by allowing me to do something that I was good at--really good at. I quickly made my way to the top of my class and excelled at every class that I took (except for one class this semester, which will likely be my first college "B"). The fact that charedi Judaism tries to fit everyone into a mold, along with the economic problems inherent in the system, made me question the charedi system as a whole (I had already decided way earlier that I did not agree with Chabad), and once the questioning began, it made me realize that Orthodox Judaism as a whole is built on a very shaky foundation.

Now I feel trapped. I am married to a super-frum husband and have kids in the Chabad system. I want to be able to focus all of my energies on college because it is the only thing that I am living for these days, but I can't totally neglect my kids and my husband. I do not want to be frum at all, but attempting to leave a frum lifestyle would cause emotional and financial chaos for all involved. However, as a person who hates hypocrisy, living a lie is killing me psychologically. I also worry that if I stay then my kids will be stuck in the system and forced to fit into a mold into which they may or may not fit.

So here I am, sitting on the fence.