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.