Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rise Up!

I don't mean to keep posting songs, but the words to this one just seem so relevant.

Rise Up! Rise up!

dear preacher, thanks for making time for me today
hope you don't mind if i hide behind the curtain
it's been fifteen years since my last confession
by your good book's standards, I've sinned like a champion
but that book seems a tad bit out-dated

please forgive me, for questioning divinity
it's an ugly job, but i think I'm up for it
I'm not saying who's right
I'm just saying there's more than one way
to skin a religion
there's more than one way
to explain our existence

reverend, sir, i don't want to seem malevolent
my teenage angst is far behind me
but father, certainly it's troubling to see
all these people kneeling, instead of dealing
with the fact that we are all we have

so, rise up! rise up!
there's no one to worship!
but plenty of life to lose!
I'm not saying "let's burn down the church"
but do you want to hear my confession?
it's my greatest sin..

okay, here it is:
i wasted half my life on the thought that I'd live forever!
i wasn't raised, to seize the day, but to work and worship
'cause "he that liveth and believeth" supposedly never dies

rise up! rise up!
and live a full life!
'cause when it's over, it's done
so rise up! rise up!
dance and scream and love!

[barely audible outro]
you're not the chosen one
and I'm not the chosen one

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Blank Generation - Shavuos post

I belong to the Blank generation...
We were given no real goals or objectives. Told that nothing was real. Hevel havalim. That's all everything was. There was no value outside of the torah, and if it seemed like something did have value, it really only came from the torah. Knowledge, charity, mercy, justice, kindness, forgiveness, altruism, honesty and empathy, all had no inherent value. The only things that were really and truly real, were god and the torah, and everything else stemmed from them. Any feelings, thoughts, opinions or ideas we might have had were irrelevant.

אמר רבי אלעזר, כל שנעשה רחמן על האכזרי, לסוף נעשה אכזר על הרחמנים.
"Whoever is kind to a cruel person, will end up being cruel to kind people."

This isn't saying that showing kindness to a cruel person will allow that person the continue their cruelty and is therefore cruel, but that you yourself will turn cruel. Wouldn't it be a good thing to show someone kindness? To prove that cruelty is not necessary, and to rise above it? The example given after the quoted statement, is of Saul disregarding the commands of a prophet and showing mercy to an amaleki, and later in his life killing innocent people for a perceived wrongdoing. At its core, what r' elazar is saying is that real kindness can only come from the torah and if you try to rely on your own judgement you will end up being cruel.

Tonight begins the holiday of shavuos, marking the time when the jewish people accepted the torah. A big part of that story is in the acceptance itself when the jews said 'naaseh ve'nishma', 'we will do and we will listen'. The accepted reason for 'naaseh' the doing, coming before 'nishma' the listening, is that first and foremost, the obligation of a jew is to accept the yolk of torah.

Follow and accept. Do what you're told. Everything is in the torah. Feel what it tells you to feel. And if you can't find it, ask a rabbi; If he say's it, it's true too. If we are told to love, we love; And when we are told to hate, we hate. We follow what we are told, and we are hollow. We act kindly to some, but to some we are only cruel. There is blood in our past, and rape and pillage and torture, but we don't feel bad because we weren't told to. We have seen the light that is torah, and we have accepted it. We let it fill us up, but it left us hollow. Blank. We will do as we are told. We are the blank generation.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Be honest.

I wrote this as a sort of response to something that someone on another blog wrote in relation to my blog name. I'm not sure if I should post it here, if this is the right place for it. But I figure I'll see what the response is, so please be brutally honest and tell me if you think I should try and post more stuff like this...

My Lost God.

Have you seen my lost god?

I was always able to find him before

in the crisp dry pages of some old book

of lore. Or in the subtle manipulations of movements,

the bended knee and the bowed head.

He used to linger on my lips

long after I spoke his name. And move

down my throat, all sharp and sweet

leaving me sated, needing

to say his name yet again.

Have you seen him?

He once marked me as his own

with his cut and my blood.

His blood.

Binding me to him.

We were bound with leather cords

cold and black and tied to my heart.

Two sided straps, sleek and shiny

on top, rough and earthy against my skin,

wrapped tightly, engraving their tight circles around my arm.

Have you found him?

He left signs for me to follow.

Signs for me, and on me, and in me.

And for so long I followed that winding path

of repeated rituals and rites and prayers .

Until I followed that circle back to its start

and found the heart of what my god had always been,

only a part of the mind of men.

And at that moment I got lost,

and found that I was my lost god.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The downside of skepticism.

This is the downside to skepticism, but I'll take it over the downsides of religion any day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


After deciding to commit to going OTD, I found myself between a rock and, well, nothing. Because I had spent all of my life really involved in learning, all of my old friends were super-shtark bochurim that wanted to have nothing to do with me. It hurt, but I honestly don't know what I would have done if the tables were turned. While I was frum, I had no room in my life for people who weren't, unless of course, to be mekarev them; They were wasting their lives, and to spend time with them would be a waste of mine. So while I didn't blame them, I was left feeling rather alone.
One of the main hurdles I felt I had to overcome, was figuring out where I stood in society. People don't realize how hard it is to go OTD, from being so frum. I had always define myself with my religion, and now I felt like I didn't even know who I was. Looking around at the world for the first time, it seemed like everyone had a place, a niche that they fit into. I remember taking drivers ed classes and being so jealous of everyone. Even if they didn't know each other they could find something to talk about, but I had nothing to say. I hadn't read any books, gone to any movies or watched any tv. I didn't even know how to dress. All I owned were white shirts and black pants.
One day I went to the local mall and went a little crazy. I went into a bunch of stores, and asked for random things. Into the book store, asked for some best sellers. Into the music store and asked for whatever was popular. Into Eddie Bauer and literally bought the clothes off of a few mannequins. I came out looking like a preppy Ken doll, listening to madonna and janet jackson and reading some crappy mystery/romance novels. Something just didn't feel right. For so long I had been part of a very tight-knit group, centered around learning, and while it was hard being without it, just trying to fit in to some random group wasn't the right thing either. So, I spent time trying to figure out who it was I was, and who I wanted to be. Reading voraciously, listening to music all the time and always trying new things. Nine years later, I have a much better idea of who I am but it's still an ongoing process. I still like to find new things, always feeling like I may have missed out on something. But finding friends and people that I felt comfortable hanging out with, that's a whole separate story...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Introduction Finale

So I was in Ner, scheduled to start beis medrash at Philly in the fall. My absolute faith was shaken, but I still believed. Or rather, I still didn't not believe. I started investing more time and energy into trying to figure everything out. I graduated high school and went to spend my summer at Agudah Masmidim with Yisroel Belsky. While I was in camp I focused on my learning, but when I had free time I would sneak off and read all the 'kiruv' books that a shtark yeshiva bochur like me wasn't supposed to be reading. But they didn't really do anything for me. They never really held up to strong questioning and logic. I also read a lot of Avigdor Miller and though he seemed to come at things with a more scientific edge, he still came back to a lot of ideas that were clearly based on flawed logic or a deliberate misinterpretation of scientific facts. (I think I'll come back to these in later posts and address them, one by one.) Nothing really seemed to satisfy me, but there wasn't any real way for me to get my hands on secular information to compare things to.

I had one week at home in Monsey in between camp and Philly, and I was determined to try and use that time to try and get real answers. But it was 2000 and the Internet, while already popular, wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now, and coming from a frum home, I didn't have easy access to it. I would leave early in the morning, say I was going off to the beis medrash to learn, and walk half hour to the library in my black hat and jacket. I began to research alternate ideas and I was shocked out how straightforward things were. Instead of obtuse and roundabout explanations, clear facts were presented and clear conclusions drawn. It turns out that the Mabul couldn't age fossils millions of years! The paths of evolution could indeed be followed and understood. Things had rational explanations that didn't rely on god to make them happen. During that week, for the first time since I turned Bar Mitzvah, I skipped a day of tefillin. It felt weird, but also liberating. Until that point most of my questions were god-centric, how could god do this or how can we know this about god, but at that point I started looking deeper and asking why I even believed there was a god.

After that everything progressed rather quickly. I went off to Philly, but my heart wasn't in it. I didn't feel right spending hours of my day learning random tracts of gemarrah that didnt mean anything to me anymore. One day I packed up my stuff, called a cab and went home. But of course, it's never as easy as that. While I cut off my big payos, stopped wearing tzitzis, and put on a (gasp) blue shirt, I couldn't change my life so radically in just one day. I spent some time in a small yeshiva in Monsey that was based out of Ohr Samayach. While the yeshiva itself wasn't part of OS, I got to meet people who weren't quite religious yet. They were on their way in and I was on my way out, but we met in the middle. I remember watching the 2000 elections with someone who just enrolled in OS. He was telling about the fast food that he had eaten a few days earlier as his last meal, and I was thinking to myself when I would have my first fast food meal. I went out to Wendys the next day and got a burger. It didn't taste as good as I thought it would, but the act of eating it deeply satisfied me. I was beginning to make my own choices.

And so ends the Introduction. It's now nine years later, I'm twenty six and living in NYC. A lot happened in those years. I went to aish for a bit, to hear what they had to say. (nothing really worthwhile, it turns out.) I've dated several non-jewish women and lived with one for a while. I spoke to a lot of rabbis, at my families request. I got my first tattoo before I had my first piece of bacon. I dated frum girls who knew I wasn't. I learnt a lot about Judaism, in terms of both, the religion and the tribe. My frum friends still ask me halacha questions. But to hear all of those stories, you're just going to have to come back and read them soon...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Reverse Kiruv

Shtreimel deals with an interesting question in his latest post. Since we think that frum people are wrong in what they believe, should we actively try to be 'merachek' them? This was my comment to him.

My take on the original question, and on the post is that ultimately it's the thought that counts. Not of the proselytizer, but of the person being proselytized. I don't think it's important to actively try to make people stop being frum, even though I don't there is any inherent value to being frum. What is important is making people think about what they believe in and why they believe in it. Most of the people who have the negative traits associated with being frum, are the people who never really thought about why they're frum or what it means to them to be frum. They will always just follow the pack, usually with negative results. But in my experience, the frum people who really thought about it, and struggled with it and decided that it had meaning and value to them, are the people who I consider to be 'good frum Jews'. Because ultimately, to quote someone smarter than me, "the unexamined life is not worth living."
So while I don't think it's important for us OTD'ers to try to actively make people not frum, I think it's important for us to try to make people question their beliefs and question the status quo, regardless of whether this makes them go OTD or not. In the end I'm fine with being a חוטא ומחטיא. It actually sounds kind of cool.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Musical interlude

The Thermals. One of my favorite bands, and I saw them live this week. They were amazing.

Here's your Future.

Introduction Part II

Okay, so here we are. Yeshiva, learning, shteiging, and enter Mark Twain. In my last year of high school I was very shtark, but also very naive. When I started researching my essay assignment on Mark Twain, I thought it would be a typical assignment that I could blow through with minimal time and research. But I was wrong. As I was going through the material, I came across a book of essays and unfinished work. Now, theoretically I'm sure that everything in the yeshiva library was supposed to have been combed through, to make sure there was nothing chas veshalom inappropriate for a yeshiva bochur. Mark Twain however, probably received a free pass. After all what could he possibly have written that could be considered offensive or misguided by frum people? He writes about kids painting fences right? Wrong. In his story 'The Mysterious Stranger', he tells of a seemingly omnipotent child, a mysterious stranger named Satan who meets and interacts with normal children. The part of the story that really struck me was when at on point, Satan makes little clay figurines for all the children to play with and brings them to life. They can walk, talk and make their own decisions; they’re basically tiny, mini-people. After their playtime is up, Satan begins to mush all of the little people back into clay. The other children protest, asking how he can kill the living beings, and Satan does not even comprehend the question. He created them, and so he can do as he likes. The children ask Satan how that can be, arguing that those people were alive and had intellect, and in light of that, he did not have the right to end their lives. To which he responds

"[Intellect?] Nothing that resembles it. At a future time I will examine what man calls his mind and give you the details of that chaos, then you will see and understand. Men have nothing in common with me - there is no point of contact; they have foolish little feelings and foolish little vanities and impertinences and ambitions: their foolish little life is but a laugh, a sigh, and extinction; and they have no sense. Only the Moral Sense. I will show you what I mean. Here is a red spider, not so big as a pin's head. Can you imagine an elephant being interested in him - caring whether he is happy or isn't, or whether he is wealthy or poor, or whether his sweetheart returns his love or not, or whether his mother is sick or well, or whether he is looked up to in society or not, or whether his enemies will smite him or his friends desert him, or whether his hopes will suffer blight or his political ambitions fail, or whether he shall die in the bosom of his family or neglected and despised in a foreign land? These things can never be important to the elephant; they are nothing to him; he cannot shrink his sympathies to the microscopic size of them. Man is to me as the red spider is to the elephant. The elephant has nothing against the spider - he cannot get down to that remote level; I have nothing against man. The elephant is indifferent; I am indifferent. The elephant would not take the trouble to do the spider an ill turn; if he took the notion he might do him a good turn, if it came in his way and cost nothing. I have done men good service, but no ill turns.

"The elephant lives a century, the red spider a day; in power, intellect, and dignity the one creature is separated from the other by a distance which is simply astronomical. Yet in these, as in all qualities, man is immeasurably further below me than is the wee spider below the elephant.

"Man's mind clumsily and tediously and laboriously patches little trivialities together and gets a result - such as it is. My mind creates! Do you get the force of that? Creates anything it desires - and in a moment. Creates without material. Creates fluids, solids, colors - anything, everything - out of the airy nothing which is called Thought. A man imagines a silk thread, imagines a machine to make it, imagines a picture, then by weeks of labor embroiders it on canvas with the thread. I think the whole thing, and in a moment it is before you - created.

"I think a poem, music, the record of a game of chess - anything - and it is there. This is the immortal mind - nothing is beyond its reach. Nothing can obstruct my vision: the rocks are transparent to me, and darkness is daylight. I do not need to open a book; I take the whole of its contents into my mind at a single glance, through the cover; and in a million years I could not forget a single word of it, or its place in the volume. Nothing goes on in the skull of man, bird, fish, insect, or other creature which can be hidden from me. I pierce the learned man's brain with a single glance, and the treasures which cost him threescore years to accumulate are mine; he can forget, and he does forget, but I retain.

"Now, then, I perceive by your thoughts that you are understanding me fairly well. Let us proceed. Circumstances might so fall out that the elephant could like the spider - supposing he can see it - but he could not love it. His love is for his own kind - for his equals. An angel's love is sublime, adorable, divine, beyond the imagination of man - infinitely beyond it! But it is limited to his own august order. If it fell upon one of your race for only an instant, it would consume its object to ashes. No, we cannot love men, but we can be harmlessly indifferent to them; we can also like them, sometimes. I like you and the boys,[...]and for your sakes I am doing all these things."

My mind reeled. I had never experienced such biting and incisive sarcasm before. It had never occurred to me to think beyond the areas of might and power and will, (which was how most of the ideas of god were framed in my mind), to the areas of rights and perspective and circumstance. Does might make right? Can power and perspective be so subjective as to be irrelevant? Should particular circumstances be able to override a specific will? The allegory became clear to me. While we may be nothing in the eyes of something more powerful, we are still something. Our value is inherent. Our lives and the meaning of our lives should not and more importantly, could not, come from anything but ourselves. The idea that someone or something else could define the value in our lives was ridiculous, because the fact that we find meaning in ourselves is meaning enough. No one can stand behind Satan’s view, because we understand that while the figures mean nothing to him, they mean something to themselves, and that means they can no longer be considered as nothing. To say that he has the right to decide our fate, would be to say that our own value and ideas and thoughts mean nothing and are worthless. And yet somehow we seem to have no problem accepting god as the arbiter of value and meaning in our lives. How can we accept that, without negating all value in ourselves as rational thinking people? At best, according to this, god was indifferent to us. At worse, enraged. But love? It was never a possibility.

I remember clearly, sitting in the library all shocked and stone still. My world was turned upside down, my whole paradigm shifted. Instead of ‘How can I prove to others that my god is the true god’, it became, ‘How can I even know there is a god, and even if there is, who says there’s a way to know anything about him.’ I didn’t move for well over an hour. I couldn’t. My certainty in my god and my religion had been what defined the last four years of my life. How could I go on?

One more part left! Coming soon!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Introduction Part I

So, I decided to start this blog, inspired by some of the other ex-frum blogs out there, to talk about my experiences going off the derech and becoming an atheist. I recently moved to NYC (astoria), and in trying to find other people like me, people who went through the same hardships in going OTD, I found some really cool blogs on which I've lurked for some time now. I figured that I would join the fray.

I grew up in Monsey, in a family that was a wierd mix of chasidish, yeshivish, shephardi and modern. I went to Sqvere every Yom Kippur, but wore sephardi tefilin. Went to YSV, a typical kid just doing the basics. In eighth grade I realised that some of the more shtark kids, started wearing only white shirts after they became Bar Mitzvah and keeping their tzitzis out. Because being shtark was equated with being good, I decided to follow suit. I had always enjoyed learning, and I found that wearing the outfit of a 'learner' helped me become just that. Fueled by what I thought people would expect of a real bochur, I buckled down and began earnestly shteiging away.

After finishing eighth grade at YSV, I went off to learn at Ner in Baltimore. Honestly, I wanted to go to a more yeshivish place like Riverdale, where my cousins went, but the more modern elements of my family prevailed and off to Baltimore it was. When I got there, I immediately threw myself into my learning. I really enjoyed the give and take of gemarra, and I excelled. But I found something new there as well - Mussar. Looking back now, I think something I Loved about mussar was that it eliminated the guesswork. 'These things are wrong, these things are right - the end.' It made me feel good to know that I was doing the Right thing. By the end of ninth grade, I had full Brisker payos, thick tzitzis out, and wore my jacket and hat whenever I went outside. By the end of eleventh grade I felt like my path was set on becoming a real Rav, and that was exactly what I wanted. I was waking up between four and five in the morning to be the first one in the Beis Medrash and take the chairs down. I would spend some time with another bochur, just us, learning mussar for an hour before other people would start filtering in, when we would switch to halacha and gemarra. During seder throughout the day, I was one of the people that other bochurim would come to when they had questions on a shvere sug'ya. After night seder and maariv, I stayed learning until at least midnight, usually closer to one or two. My rabeim all loved me.

At some point during all of this, I got into the idea of kiruv. It occurred to me that we spent all of our time learning gemarra and halacha, but not about why we believed what we did. Now, it was obvious to me that what we believed in was true, but I wanted to know how I could prove it to other people - frei people. And so I jumped into that, learning all I could about proving god and yidishkeit to people who didn't believe, without ever questioning my beliefs for myself. I even started learning the first part of chovas halevavos which I was told explicitly not to. My rabeim warned me that it would just confuse me. In that first part, the chovas halevavos deals with the idea of first cause. And while it readily became clear to me that the proofs made no sense, my faith was still unshaken. I knew that while I may not understand the proofs, my god was still god.

Now, during all of this I was also subjected to an english education. But being as frum and shtark as I was, I never took it seriously. When I was younger I had a voracious appetite for reading, often I was so lost in a book that I couldn't hear people calling my name a few feet away. Once I got to yeshiva, I channeled all of that into learning. At Ner I did the bare minimum to satisfy my english requirements. I even took the rare option to take on extra gemarra seder in exchange for english credits. But Ner does take its secular studies program more seriously than other yeshivas, so there was a decent library for goyish books. Not that I ever challila used it. Feh.

In twelfth grade, I was at the top of my game. I was learning non-stop. Unlike many of my classmates who were going to Israel for a year, I was going to Philly, a top yeshivish yeshiva. I had people calling ahead to ask if I would be their chavrusa for seder. My rabeim were asking me to grade other students' bechinos when they didn't have time. During this I had an english project that needed to be taken care of. I had to write a paper on a writer of my choosing. Going into the library (for maybe the second time in my almost four years there), I scanned the books for a well-represented author, who would present no real challenge, so I could get back to my learning. I chose Mark Twain, remembering that I had heard he had good things to say about jews and thinking that it was a quick, easy and painless choice. I was wrong. Mark Twain changed my life. He let the mysterious stranger in.

To be continued...