Response: In Which I Begin to Explain This

If you’re looking for another titillating story of drunken Stern girls throwing off bras, sexily drunk, you can stop right here. This is no confessional and none of you are sex-starved priests. Let’s elevate this discussion a little, shall we?

I am a well-off-the-derech young woman, who came from the collection of yeshivas in the tri-state area. I go to a secular college out of state. My family is still devoutly religious and it is for their sake, and no sense of shame on my part, that I remain anonymous here. Many of my friends attend YU – it is through their Facebooks that I found the original article: “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This.” Yes, they are still my friends, and yes, I still have a very good relationship with my family.

I wear my skirts short and my necklines low, I eat whatever I want, and I go to clubs on Friday nights. I have sex, as much or as little as I want, with both men and women. I don’t pray. I don’t believe in God – I simply never could make the leap so many of my friends and loved ones have. Starting from about ten years old (I was a precocious pre-adolescent), I couldn’t seem to form a mature, healthy relationship with any all-powerful spiritual entity. I do not begrudge them their faith – I try to challenge that as little as I possibly can when in discussions with them, but I do not hide my beliefs or how I conduct myself in my life as a free-thinking adult. Everyone who knows me well knows this about me.

When I read the anonymous author’s account of her double life, my heart aches for her. I remember having those feelings when I was in high school, that horrible agony of having to hide, of being split, of faking it for everyone. What I fail to understand is how she could have let this go on as long as she has. I understand that her actions likely do not have the same source as mine – they are likely not so extreme. She probably believes in God, probably even the Jewish God. She’s confused.

When I started college, I knew I was going to have a lot more freedom than I was used to. It was immensely exciting, but definitely terrifying. I set myself up for the culture shock, gave myself limits and parameters. Shirking religion, contrary to popular belief does not mean one must shirk morality. I wouldn’t drink or otherwise intoxicate myself, would steer clear of frat parties, would introspect and communicate before making any decisions about sex. I would find what I love and pursue it whole-heartedly. I would be open to learning and to new experiences – I would be careful, because I knew all of this was possible without being unhealthy.

I was right. My freshman year was the happiest of my life and I learned so much about myself, the world around me, and how the rest of humanity experiences life. Reading that article, I realize how lucky I was. This girl is woefully unprepared to make those kinds of choices for herself. All we see here is this one encounter with sex and alcohol, so I will stick with analyzing that.

Her views about sex are incredibly immature. You don’t have to be any kind of sexual liberal to know that if you can’t go through sex without getting drunk, you need to reexamine your life and your choices. (Do you guys have Sassy Gay Friend over there in the Yeshiva world?) There are healthy ways to explore the experiences normally off-limits in the Yeshiva world. Hiding, masquerading, berating yourself with guilt and shame is not the healthy way to do so.

I can’t know her motives for making the choices she’s made, but I can tell you that they are putting her in a dangerous position – drunken hook-ups and double lives leave young women extremely vulnerable to predators. If she could examine them in a logical, intellectual way, sit down and talk with friends, family, people she trusts about what’s bothering her about the parameters Orthodoxy sets up for her behavior, maybe she wouldn’t have to hide. That’s what I understand growing up to be about – learning, weighing options, making choices, and owning up to the consequences of those choices. Here she is trying to live with her good name in the Orthodox world, while still having those experiences which would exclude her from that. And what are we to do with this regular Reverend Dimmesdale? You can either let her wither in her guilt or we can stop being such puritans about it, that’s what. Do I really have to answer that for you?

And here I begin to feel irrationally angry with her. I believe YU is a vital organ of the Orthodox Jewish community and to publish such a guilt-ridden, neurotic article in one of their publications perpetuates a toxic culture for the whole of it. It’s irresponsible. When she writes about her shame and YU students respond in kind, I see it becoming that much harder for me, and others who have chosen a path other than that of Orthodox Judaism, to be taken seriously in our choices, to be thought of as mature adults making decisions based on well-thought out ideological differences, and thus, it makes it harder for us to maintain healthy relationships with our families and friends, because they think we’re on some kind of Rumspringa-style bender and need to be brought back into the fold.

So I want to make this clear to you, brothers and sisters (in the college-student-camaraderie sense, at the very least) – this is not what it means to leave Orthodox Judaism. This is what happens when we perpetually shut down discussions about alternative paths and alternative lifestyles. We are forced to communicate in these tragic half-truths in anonymous posts. I have lost friends because of my choices and I don’t believe that had to happen. It leaves a terrible taste in my mouth about the Orthodox world that I do not want to be there. Though I experienced some closed mindedness in my Orthodox upbringing, I have no illusions that those kinds of people are exclusive to Orthodox Jewry. I do believe they are not the majority there. I believe that the people who showed me friendship, love, and acceptance all my life did so not because I was a Jew, but because they were good people, good friends, and so was I.

I am no Shalom Auslander. I have so much respect and hope for Orthodoxy – I’ve entrusted some of the best people I know to its care. I want to maintain contact with the world in which I grew up. This is the danger of creating false dichotomies about the world outside Orthodoxy – that it is one of shameful trysts and hungover regrets – and that which is good and proper about an Orthodox girl – that she cannot drink or want to have sex or speak openly about her problems with the expectations set out for her. This endangers those who want to experiment, because it means they have to do it in secret or fear excommunication. I’m not saying I ever would return to Orthodoxy, but I’m saying that if your ultimate goal is to keep the Jewish Nation more observant or even at all unified, you need to make sure that fear is dispelled, and quickly. That even one girl should have to live the way this girl seems to be is completely unacceptable.