Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Deceptions and Derechs

I just read Baruch's blog post on Deluded and Manipulative People

I concur with the general message and would just like to add my own perspective.

For myself I don't blame the kiruv system for me buying into OJ. Although it began during my first year of college when I was still very impressionable, it was my own fault for not being skeptical of what I was being taught. I remember a good friend even telling me "Why do you just accept everything they are telling you? You seem to agree with all of their opinions simply because of who the person is and not what he/she is saying. Why don't you think for yourself?" I brushed it off, but it left me feeling uncomfortable. I "reasoned" because they wouldn't say it if it wasn't true, they are trustworthy and well educated, if their claims were disproved by a reasonable source they would not have been telling me the opposite. Wouldn't it make them look like fools.

The problem was that I was the fool for not thinking for myself. My father always tried to instill that value in me and it wasn't until I became frum fried that I understood it. Part of my transition from theism is when I began to notive that certain people were trying or were manipulating me, both Jews and non Jews. It is such a disgusting feeling, being purposefully deceived. Although generally I understood it was possible and it happens, I just never thought it would happen to me by the people I trusted. I guess those are the only people that could ever deceive you, the ones you trust. Once I started to grow out of my boyhood perceptions and gullibility I started my path towards honest skepticism.

When people tell you something you should always question it. I had always been very gullible and for most of my life I was always very hesitant to put forth or even develop my own opinions on subjects. I would rather just rely on authorities. People who have researched the subjects in depth and have already created paths for others to follow. I think it is important for people to create their own paths, their own derechs, and not to follow someone elses path. It reminds me of the Franz Kafka story "Before the Law":
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."
You must forge your way through, you have to make your own path and you can't expect others to guide you through your life. This is why I don't find the term Off the Derech in anyway offensive or demeaning. It is a good thing to be off the derech since every path is already paved by another who has been that way before. You shouldn't replace one derech with another one more palpable to you, you must make your own derech by going into uncharted territory.

I don't blame Chabad for my acceptance of its worldview, that is my own issue. It was up to me to be skeptical or not. In general I still don't think that most of the Rabbis I met were being deceptive either, just very ignorant for the same reason I was ignorant, a lack of healthy skepticism. There are those that deceive, are intellectually dishonest and are manipulative in order to impose their worldview on others. This should be condemned and combated, but there will always be people who will use evil tactics to deceive and manipulate people. This, however, does not relieve anyone from their obligation to use the mind they have to think for themselves.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Mysterious Stranger

I just found this clip from the stop-motion animated film The Adventures of Mark Twain. I remember watching this movie when I was a kid but at the time had no clue of what it was about. Read some of the actual story recently and plan on finishing it, but the impact the film has such a strong effect, more so than the the story itself in someways.

Two of the little workmen were quarreling, and in buzzing little bumblebee voices they were cursing and swearing at each other; now came blows and blood; then they locked themselves together in a life-and-death struggle. Satan reached out his hand and crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief, and went on talking where he had left off: "We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is."

It seemed a strange speech, in the circumstances, but we barely noticed that, we were so shocked and grieved at the wanton murder he had committed - for murder it was, that was its true name, and it was without palliation or excuse, for the men had not wronged him in any way. It made us miserable, for we loved him, and had thought him so noble and so beautiful and gracious, and had honestly believed he was an angel; and to have him do this cruel thing - ah, it lowered him so, and we had had such pride in him. He went right on talking, just as if nothing had happened, telling about his ravels, and the interesting things he had seen in the big worlds of our solar systems and of other solar systems far away in the remotenesses of space, and about the customs of the immortals that inhabit them, somehow fascinating us, enchanting us, charming us in spite of the pitiful scene that was now under our eyes, for the wives of the little dead men had found the crushed and shapeless bodies and were crying over them, and sobbing and lamenting, and a priest was kneeling there with his hands crossed upon his breast, praying; and crowds and crowds of pitying friends were massed about them, reverently uncovered, with their bare heads bowed, and many with the tears running down a scene which Satan paid no attention to until the small noise of the weeping and praying began to annoy him, then he reached out and took the heavy board seat out of our swing and brought it down and mashed all those people into the earth just as if they had been flies, and went on talking just the same.

An angel, and kill a priest! An angel who did not know how to do wrong, and yet destroys in cold blood hundreds of helpless poor men and women who had never done him any harm! It made us sick to see that awful deed, and to think that none of those poor creatures was prepared except the priest, for none of them had ever heard a mass or seen a church. And we were witnesses; we had seen these murders done and it was our duty to tell, and let the law take its course.

But he went on talking right along, and worked his enchantments upon us again with that fatal music of his voice. He made us forget everything; we could only listen to him, and love him, and be his slaves, to do with us as he would. He made us drunk with the joy of being with him, and of looking into the heaven of his eyes, and of feeling the ecstasy that thrilled along our veins from the touch of his hand.
A small storm-cloud began to settle down black over the castle, and the miniature lightning and thunder began to play, and the ground to quiver, and the wind to pipe and wheeze, and the rain to fall, and all the people flocked into the castle for shelter. The cloud settled down blacker and blacker, and one could see the castle only dimly through it; the lightning blazed out flash upon flash and pierced the castle and set it on fire, and the flames shone out red and fierce through the cloud, and the people came flying out, shrieking, but Satan brushed them back, paying no attention to our begging and crying and imploring; and in the midst of the howling of the wind and volleying of the thunder the magazine blew up, the earthquake rent the ground wide, and the castle's wreck and ruin tumbled into the chasm, which swallowed it from sight, and closed upon it, with all that innocent life, not one of the five hundred poor creatures escaping. Our hearts were broken; we could not keep from crying.

"Don't cry," Satan said; "they were of no value."
When I read this story I can't help but think of the flood story, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the killing of the first born, the story of Job, the Holocaust as well as all of the other terrible calamities that occur every day in this world. It is a depressing vision of a world with G-d but Twain reminds us that the insanity of it all only shows that it is only a dream.
Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane - like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell - mouths mercy and invented hell - mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! . . .
"You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks - in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.

Now this is a dream I would rather wake up from.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Five stages of Mourning Orthodoxy

I read a few things here and there about how there is some sort of grieving or mourning process when going OTD. Looking at the five stages of grief identified by the Kübler-Ross model:

  1. Denial: This is the first reaction and it shows. Pretty much any Orthodox Jew who learns about evidence that contradicts the Orthodox worldview begins with this stage and many stay in this stage, I would argue for a large part of their lives. When the evidence that denies the validity of the Torah presents itself to an Orthodox Jew the reaction is to deny that the evidence is really credible or that it can be applied to refute the Torah. These sort of rationalizations are all too common. I was in this stage from the moment I became Orthodox and would constantly fall back to this first stage until recently.   
  2. Anger: When I began to argue with the non Orthodox world in favor of the Lubavitch worldview, I would present our "beautiful" Torah and it's "perfect" message. I thought this surely would bring those Jews who were not connected with Yiddishkeit into the fold, how could it not. The only reason they didn't already accept it is because they never heard of it before, I reasoned. When my views were challenged I fell into stage one, denial, where I brought my rather "weak" rationalizations of the apparent problems but presented them as strong evidence (although it was nothing of the sort). This may have gone on for a while back and forth until my rationalizations and denials ran dry, at which point I became angry. "Why are they being so stubborn?!" I would think to myself "They are just trying to be jerks/trolling/are in denial/etc!" I would honestly get very frustrated and very angry and occasionally it would come out in my posts as insults, but I would try to hold off on that and was usually pretty successful in being polite, with my pent up emotions still inside. Later I would often scream my frustration out in the car when I was driving home alone. Usually cursing and then feeling guilty about it later. It seems really silly now that I think about it, it was so childish like a baby who didn't get his way. Is that really what having the truth feels like? Usually over time I would ignore the issue and then start all the way back at square one, denial. Other times I would move forward just a bit.
  3. Bargaining: Sometimes if the anger stage didn't revert me back to denial I would try a bit of bargaining in my approach. Sometimes I would bargain with G-d. I would ask G-d to give me the insight to show these lost Jews the beauty of Torah, the simcha of frumkeit, in return I would go out and help more Yidden become frum. Other times I would tell G-d I would learn more Chassidus, daven more, say tehillim, etc in order for Him to help me in my arguments. When this clearly failed to work I began bargaining in my arguments themselves. Well if only I became more open to their view points or if I said nice things about them or their posts in other more pareve topics I could win them over. I would compliment them, concede more often and go around and search for posts that I didn't disagree with and would praise their opinions. Maybe later they would do the same for me when I would argue a point as well. This also failed miserably and it was really stupid of me to think it would work. So what if someone was nice to you or whatever, non frum people being nice to me never moved my opinion about their views an iota so why should it do so for their opinions about my views. So when this failed I would either move backwards to anger or even denial. Rarely I moved forward.
  4. Depression: When all of my efforts of rationalizing would fail, and venting my anger didn't work the final form of bargaining I tried led me to become really depressed. This was because I bargained that if I were to view this problem from the atheistic perspective, perhaps I would find the flaw in their thinking, but lo and behold I would find no flaw. How could this denial of the "truth" have no flaws? What am I doing wrong? Why is G-d not helping me? Why would G-d let the atheists win? At some points I would give up all hope and maybe over time forget about it all. Three times I moved forward.
  5. Acceptance: What do I mean when I reached acceptance three times? Wouldn't the first acceptance be when I stopped believing? When I would reach this stage it was with different issues each time. First with the idea of Homosexuality. After much struggle I came to accept the fact that there was nothing wrong with Homosexuality. I accepted that people are just born differently and that there really is nothing wrong with being gay, and that to oppose it really is evil. How did this not break my faith in that the Torah which explicitly rejected this attitude, who knows. I mostly just put it out of my mind and didn't think about it. Later I came to accept that the creation story and the flood story were nonsense and totally incorrect. In a sort of Slifkinesque way I argued that this didn't affect the basic truth of the Torah and then went back to stage one. Finally I accepted that TMS didn't happen and that what I had been sold about the Torah was indeed false. Belief in TMS was always my foundation for believing in the truth of Yiddishkeit. Once that fell it all really fell. I have accepted that there is nothing divine about Yiddishkeit and that it was all man made.
Although I no longer grieve over my faith in Torah, I am still grieving over my reduction in practice. I currently consider myself Orthoprax but I have a creeping feeling that me trying to hold on to Jewish tradition is nothing more than denial and rationalizations. I am still trying to figure that part out. Who knows, maybe at some point I will be in total acceptance of an atheistic lifestyle. All I know is that its hard to let go.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Response to Tuvia: Rebbe Stories

Hi Skeptitcher Rebbe:

I am a sort of BT - enjoying your blog. I spend time with Chabad. I like the Chabad / Lubavitch distinction you draw. Never thought of it that way, but it is a good insight (your wife's I guess).

Anyway: stories of the Rebbe. What are your thoughts? There just seem to be some very amazing ones.

There is one on the Chabad site that kind of blew my mind, because I know the family somewhat. It is the one of Diane Abrams who naturally conceived a child at the age of 50 after visiting the Rebbe who knew (somehow) that she wanted another child.

How do you feel about Rebbe stories? I can never help but be respectful of him.




Thanks for visiting. I have heard plenty of stories about the Rebbe and the supposed miracles that occur. The Rebbe probably gave hundreds of blessings and had hundreds of interactions every day. Out of all of those interactions there are bound to be some who have had something positive happen to them after the encounter. It's like playing the lottery, someones got to win.

The stories that are told are only the positive ones about the blessings that come to fruition because those are the ones that are inspiring. There is no reason to tell a story about a person who went to the Rebbe and then nothing happened, there isn't any kick to that, no punchline. Similarly you wont ever read a news article about a person who played the lottery and didn't win anything (maybe you will on The Onion).

In addition to this you have all sorts of things that could happen. Sure you got a brachah from the Rebbe, but then you could get pregnant, get a bank refund, not get hit by a bus, have a smooth drive to work, find a job, etc. and there is no way to distinguish what the brachah was for so anything good at all that happens is attributed to the brachah and anything negative that happens is simply ignored and not spoken about. It's a cognitive bias called selective perception and it is really very common.

I have heard some stories where there are people who claimed that the Rebbe gave them specifics and things came to be just as the Rebbe claimed. One such story is about a person who comes to the Rebbe and says that a friend of his has some sort of disease and must have a very serious operation done. The Rebbe tells him that his friend will have the surgery and have a full recovery after 3 days and be home from the hospital after that. Not only this but the Rebbe informed the man that he should call his friend and tell him what will come to pass. The man did not want to call his friend and tell him the story. Maybe he didn't want to inform his friend so as not to get his hopes up only to be dashed when the event doesn't occur as described, thus making the Rebbe look bad, or maybe he was just being a good skeptic ;). Regardless the Rebbe's secretary calls the man the next day asking him why he didn't tell his friend what the Rebbe said and that he should call his friend right away. Now the man knew the Rebbe was some sort of mystic so he calls his friend, tells him the story, and lo and behold everything occurs as predicted.

Now to many Chassidim this is airtight proof that the Rebbe is magical. The problem is that this story is totally based on one persons account of the events. I haven't seen testimony from his friend attesting to the validity of this story. I haven't seen any video recording of the Rebbe actually saying this to him or any doctors saying that the patient healed quicker than expected, or anything like that. I wouldn't say that the man was lying (even though that is a possibility), I would rather say the events that took place were greatly exaggerated and if there were more testimonies of the story or any other evidence I have a feeling that the there may be plenty of things that were left out of the story that would explain the phenomena in a totally natural way. People tend to exaggerate stories and leave out important information in order to make the events seem all the more mystical than they really are.

Lastly there is the important point that since the Rebbe has interacted with hundreds of people everyday and thousands every year, it is likely that he may have picked up on queues that people give off that betray their inner thoughts. It is definitely possible that the Rebbe has trained himself to be in tune with the emotions that people constantly give off. This allows him to connect with certain issues they may be having and in the frum community there usually aren't a great many of different issues that people seek advice for, many of them are the same problems over and over again. Also I don't remember any video footage (and there is a lot of footage) of the Rebbe actually looking into the persons soul and telling them their issues before they themselves bringing it up. If there was I am sure I would have seen it, why wouldn't they want to propagate such clear evidence of the Rebbe's greatness. What I have seen is people retelling an experience they had with the Rebbe and when compared to the actual video of the event there were significant differences in the persons account of what the Rebbe said and what the Rebbe actually said.

You may ask, why am I being so skeptical. Here I have an account of supernatural forces at work, isn't it just my own biases that are directing me to throw out the "evidence" so that I don't have to deal with the implications of the Rebbe havinga strong supernatural connection. To this I would counter that this can hardly be called evidence, it is merely a claim not supported by any evidence which could have been made up entirely or altered greatly. Also I have nothing to gain from throwing out this story, if anything I wish it were true. I wish there was hard evidence for the claims about the Torah, Hashem and the Rebbe. It would make my life in the frum community so much more meaningful. Lastly had this story occurred with the Pope instead of the Rebbe, the Chassidim would be just as skeptical of it as I am now. It is just hypocritical in my opinion to apply one set of standards for supernatural claims outside of ones faith and another less critical set of standards for claims within ones faith.

I haven't read the precise story you mentioned, if you want to provide a link feel free, but I have a feeling that what I wrote above could easily apply to this situation as well.

Although I have never met the Rebbe I do have a lot of respect for him and not because he has some supernatural connection, but because he has such an amazing human connection. His love for his people, his constant devotion, his tolerance of many different types of Jews and non Jews all point to his greatness. Fairy tale stories about him only diminish this beautiful story, because his story is about the greatness a normal person can accomplish. What each and every one of us can accomplish.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chabadniks vs. Lubavitchers

Was speaking with my wife the other day and she said to me "I don't think I want to be a Lubavitcher anymore." My mouth dropped open and I was stunned. I found myself wondering if she was planning on joining me as my Skeptitcher Rebbitzen. I couldn't believe that this would happen so soon after my own shift in Yiddishkeit.

It turns out when I asked about what she meant that she just wants to be a Chabadnik, instead of a Lubavitcher. The difference being that in a Lubavitch community, where practically everyone is Lubavitch, there is very little individuality and divergence from the accepted communal norm. Lubavitchers go to shuls that are, for all intensive purposes, strictly Lubavitch and there is little to no diversity whatsoever. No diversity of thought or basic Yiddishkeit upbringing. All everyone can learn about is the Rebbes. All everyone talks about is Chabad Chassidus. All anyone can act like is according to the strict standards of Chabad-Lubavitch and any divergence really would be ostracized in one way or another. It is more of a communal setting where everyone must do their part and play their role.

A Chabadnik on the other hand is associated with, more or less, Chabad Houses. Places that seem to us to be very diverse. People come from all walks of life, have all sorts of different points of view and dress in all sorts of ways. They come and go all the time, always with fresh faces. Hardly anyone expects you to act a certain way and controversial questions, although hardly answered to ones liking, are not shunned or discouraged (they aren't really encouraged either for that matter.) Also it feels like you are at a home rather than a community. With a family rather than just a group of people. Its more haimish, welcoming, accepting and diverse. All things I loved about Chabad in the first place.

So naturally I agreed with her and we said that as soon as it is reasonable we would move to a smaller community with a Chabad House and just hang out there instead. I never really wanted to live in a big frum community anyways. The smaller ones are always more fun and welcoming. And the best thing about them is that they are so much less suffocating than big frum communities. I really enjoyed Orthodox life in those smaller communities, I could really see myself as enjoying Orthoprax life in a location like that as well, but we shall see.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


While trying to sort out my issues with Judaism and sort of reinvent myself I have been asking myself about how involved I should be with my community, how involved I want to be with my community, whether or not I want to raise my children with Jewish theology. My initial thoughts are that I do indeed love the communal aspects of Orthodox Judaism. I love being in a community that seems to be close with one another and looks after each other at times. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to be frum, that and get connected with my "ancestral roots" whatever that might mean. To learn about the culture of my more religious brothers and sisters and to build a system in my life that would perpetuate Jewish culture in my family for generations.

These are in my mind good attributes of a frum lifestyle but they are all aspects that require us to be separated from general society in some way or another. However, I know that when all is said and done, all I want is for my children to be happy and thoughtful, and if at all possible having a similar perspective like me. One thing that does end up bothering me is my children getting involved in Christian theology. To me I have a strong aversion to it and I honestly feel like if my children were to convert it would be very painful to me, same goes if they simply married a believing Christian, don't care so much if they just happen to be from a Christian family though. This may just be me returning to my tribal attitude which I feel might be a pretty vile attitude after all. I mean, why should I care what my children believe, as long as they are happy. I feel that way if they were to be believing Jews, why should I care if they became believing Christians? I don't know what it is about that idea, but it makes me almost want to throw up a bit.

I have such an aversion not only to Christian theology, but also to practices like Christmas and Easter. I couldn't imagine going to a Christmas party even. It just feels wrong for some reason. Maybe it has to do with the historical connotations that Christmas and Easter have, with the murder of Jews and so on. Maybe it has to do with how I was raised. I remember wanting to celebrate Christmas one year and my father, by no means frum, said that is out of the question "We are Jews. We don't celebrate Christmas." Not in an angry tone mind you, but a gentle one. I was still pretty upset though. Maybe this has something to do with it. Or maybe the kiruv brainwashing dug a little too deep with this one.

Anyone else feel the same or similar or am I just nuts?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How do Orthodox Jews explain the Exodus?

One of the first things I came across that began my path towards doubt was the population problem of the exodus. The Torah tells us that 600,000 fighting men left Egypt during the exodus, which would amount to about 2 to 3 million people in total. What is the problem with this scenario? Egypt at the time only had about 2 - 3 million people in total! This would have meant that all of Egypt was practically gone at the time of the exodus, yet with all of the well documented history we have from Egypt and the surrounding nations at that time, not one thing mentions this, nor does it indicate that anything changed at all.

But it gets even better, apparently our tradition tells us that it was only 1/5, others say 1/50 and others say 1/500 of the Israelites left Egypt. So conservatively using the 2 million estimation that right before the exodus there were 10,000,000 or 100,000,000 or even 1,000,000,000 Israelites living in Egypt. Now if that isn't totally absurd I don't know what is.

Has any Jewish scholar addressed this issue? Do frum Jews simply blind themselves to this glaring problem? I know that I did for a long time, before I finally came to terms with its implications.