By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?
I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.
As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.
The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.
I was 14.
To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my confusion, and no examples of people who had abandoned Jewish beliefs and observance and written best-sellers about the fact. I had no opportunity at the time to capitalize on my doubts and gripes with a memoir that would garner me the media spotlight, interviews and royalties. Though I had what to tell, like how my second grade rebbe would rap my fingers hard with a ruler when I misbehaved. I would have had to have been truthful and admit that he didn’t do it in anger, and that I felt he loved me dearly throughout. But I could have racked that up to Stockholm Syndrome.
Lacking the commercial incentives, though, allowed me to take my time, do some critical thinking and research, and give Judaism a chance. I engaged my doubts with information, and was blessed to have parents who gave me space, who didn’t try to overly control my reading, dress or activities; and with rabbaim who didn’t consider any question off-limits.
And so I found answers to all the questions I had. As a result, even though I was raised in an Orthodox home, I consider myself “Orthodox-by-choice,” someone who made a conscious decision to accept the Torah, and the mission it bequeaths all Jews.
What reminds me of my intellectually tumultuous days is the spate of “I Escaped Orthodoxy and Lived!” memoirs that have appeared in recent years, practically a cottage industry. The autobiographies are celebrated and hyped for their anger and outrage, and an “enlightened” world considers their authors to be heroes.
Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean to disparage the true experiences of others, or to discount the special challenges some may have faced, especially in very insular and rigid communities. But there is much that is deeply suspect in some of the literary accounts. In one case, a writer was revealed to have entirely fabricated a terrible crime, a murder-mutilation of which there is no police record. Needless to say, that employment of creativity calls the rest of the writer’s impossible-to-confirm personal experiences into some doubt.
More recently, another writer has been making the rounds and has not only contradicted herself about a formative period in her life but admitted to having been mentally unstable and self-destructive since childhood. Her intelligence and eloquence at present is obvious. But her description of her far-from-New York, non-chassidic community is at wild odds with reality. Whether her personal memories are real or delusional thus remains unclear. Her publisher and the media, of course, don’t seem to care much either way.
Although I can rightly wax suspicious about some of the assertions in some of these ostensibly true stories, I have no right to deem their writers intentional fabulists. Perhaps their once-Orthodox environments, or some other life-experience, so damaged them that they became confused as a result. Or perhaps they suffer from some congenital emotional problem beyond their control.
But what I can do is reflect on the fact that adolescence brings all sorts of psychological and intellectual challenges, including to Orthodox adolescents. And recognize that a particularly powerful challenge is presented to young people these days by the Internet and social media, which provide easy misinformation, precarious camaraderie and false solace; and by publishers anxious to sell books – the more outlandish and prurient, the better.
Of little interest to blogs or editors, tellingly, are the vast numbers of intelligent, sensitive Orthodox youth, including many in the most insular communities, who stand up to the special, myriad challenges of our time as they forge their personal paths through life.
Those young Orthodox Jews are the true, if unpublished, heroes, for ignoring the contemporary, technology-empowered sirens of cynicism. They are heroes for having the courage to pursue resolutions for any doubts or confusion they may harbor, for realizing that there is balm for the wounds they may have suffered, and fulfillment in the religious heritage bequeathed them by their parents, and their parents before them.
© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran