The World of the Orthopract, Part 2

In the previous segment, we defined just what Orthopraxy was. Now I will explain what led me to that state.

I was born in an Orthodox household, in a large Orthodox community in the New York area. My home life was quite stable, without any sort of stress outside of ordinary growing up, and my parents set a perfect example of meaningfully religious lives. It was a very middle class, suburban childhood. I attended Jewish schools since childhood, and I had very positive experiences on the whole, particularly with my Rebbeim. There were no indicators that I would would grow up to have problems with faith. Indeed, I was even considered unusually devoted to Judaic studies.

My problems began around 10th grade. It was at this point that better-read friends of mine began to highlight the intellectual challenges to Judaism posed by scientism. This was also a year in which I had a Rebbe who greatly encouraged thought and deliberation over one’s relationship to Judaism, which led to a lot of philosophizing on the nature of what exactly our religious beliefs were and why we held them. It may not have been an extremely advanced level of discourse, but all the same, a discourse was in progress. But the price of intellectual engagement is that it leaves stains. I was exposed to ideas and modes of thought which were new to me, which were making patterns of thought which had once been as firm as bedrock begin to shift and change. My problem was not that my faith had been abandoned or altered beyond recognition, but that it had been called into question. And once a worldview has been called into question, it no longer has the strength that comes from purity, from being immaculate. When a person conceives of a worldview perpendicular to the with which he identifies, it becomes that much harder to cling to one’s own beliefs.

This status quo lasted for about two years, during which my friends and I pored over the same hot-button issues related to Judaism over and over, fine-tuning our arguments until they became almost a sort of ritual. I thought I had hashed out my opinions and found a new balance for myself, perhaps more complicated than what I had believed when I was younger, but nonetheless stable and not so substantially changed. However, I didn’t realize that my conceptions had only been able to progress so far because although I was working with much more sophisticated critical faculties than those I had possessed before high school, I was not working with a knowledge base much expanded since middle school. I was analyzing the world as I’d known it at the age of 14, and had come to conclusions that I felt were fairly strong and workable. The only problem was that by this point I was 16, and there was much about religion in general and Judaism in particular that I simply did not yet know or understand.

At the end of my junior year of high school, I began to grow interested in folklore studies. I had always had an interest in fairy tales, but it was only then that I began to familiarize myself with the academic approaches to them in earnest. Concurrently, my senior year of high school started, and I was taking AP Psychology. This survey course gave me new insights into how human minds work  and dramatically altered and deepened my understanding of people. At the same time, my research into folkloristics began to give me an appreciation for how similar stories can spread through multiple cultures, and how the human mind shapes its reality and works through its needs via narrative.

Eventually, interest in folklore expanded into interest in mythology, and into Jewish mythology in particular (I mean “mythology” in the sociological sense). I was curious as to how the Bible connected to mythologies from the surrounding cultures, and I knew from conversations with friends that there was much discussion of this topic at the academic level. I was also intrigued by Biblical narratives that seemed to conform to folktale patterns, such as the story of Yaakov tricking his father into giving him a blessing by impersonating his older brother Eisav. And I had always been fond of diving into Wikipedia to expand my knowledge base and learn about new fields, often going on huge, all night binges, following link after link until the chain resolved itself.

I began to look up articles on the Bible. I was familiar by this point with the basics of the Documentary Hypothesis, but I had never looked into its claims with any sort of rigor. Now I began to familiarize myself with the lines of evidence for composite authorship of the Bible. At the same time, I was beginning to understand the human mind and its tendencies to form meaning out of chaos, and how stories are shaped and transmitted to reflect psychological and cultural needs. Doubts, real doubts, began to form in my mind. For the first time, a secular worldview in denial of Judaism’s foundational principles began to seem as valid to me as the religious one with which I had grown up.

This wavering between two sides continued through my senior year of high school and through my year in an Israeli Yeshiva. I did not go to any of my Rebbeim with my doubts and questions, because I didn’t want to be labeled a “problem student,” and I did not really think they could answer my questions. I had no faith in the Rabbinic establishment’s capacity to really understand my quandary and give me an honest answer that could reconcile my two mindsets. Perhaps my reluctance to put myself on the line and ask cost me years of mental anguish. Perhaps my Rebbeim had answers to give after all. I’ll never know.

Throughout these years, I kept reading more, building my knowledge of academic Bible, branching out even more into more philosophical critiques of religion, dabbling in every field and trying to form a coherent understanding of it all, in an effort to reconcile what I thought was true with what I was being told was true – what I wanted so dearly to find to be true. But slowly, the secular worldview began to seem more and more plausible, and the religious worldview began to seem more and more tenuous. Religion itself began to seem more like a desperate attempt on humanity’s part to bring order to the chaos of existence, a natural way of organizing a society, and less like a divine gift that gave truth and meaning to an otherwise confusing and bare existence. At the beginning of my first semester in college, I came to three linked realizations which sapped me of the last vestiges of my faith.

The first was that the Jews were not special. So many of Judaism’s arguments in favor of its own truth seemed to boil down to the exceptionalism of Jewish faith and Jewish history. We were the first monotheists, we had survived oppression in foreign lands as dispossessed wanderers, we had contributed disproportionately to the world in the sciences and in culture. Surely this was a people graced by God with wisdom and discernment? But the more I looked into these claims and the mindsets that seemed to give rise to them, the hollower they rang. The Jews were not the first monotheists, and they were not even monotheists until far later in their history than most religious Jews would ever admit. This was the inescapable conclusion of Biblical criticism and archaeology, and the sources could not honestly be stretched into any other meaning. Jewish history could be explained by sociological and historical mechanisms, because being unlikely and being impossible were not the same thing. A long shot did not prove G-d. It only proved the frailty of the human mind as it contemplated an apathetic universe that operated on random chance. There was no need for God to explain the existence of the Jews.

The second was that religion looked human, inescapably so. It served clearly human needs for meaning, societal coherence, and moral surety. The various religious stories and texts of the world seemed to fit similar underlying patterns, despite coming from cultures that had no contact with each other when their religions took shape. No one seemed to fit reality better than any other. They were all on equal footing, and I could see no divine spark in any faith, not even the one that maintained such a fundamental part of my mental space during my childhood. Judaism was just a collection of a particular group of Iron Age desert tribes’ stories built up and expanded into a fascinating and awe-inspiring culture which had survived even the most crushing pressures. But it was a human genius on display in the development and survival of Judaism. I could see no situation or cause which was put in place by clearly divine means. There was nobody in it with us but us.

The third and final reason was that there was no reason to make the leap of faith. If one were willing to assume the existence of a God, then the rest could follow. One could impute divinity into Judaism and into the world, but I could not see that mindset as anything but an imputation. I could find nothing within myself that was making me cling to my belief in God except for mental habit. I had always been told there was such a God, and it was hard to let my imaginary friend go and face reality alone, bereft of my illusions and comforts. As I came to this realization, I felt my faith in God and in Judaism dissipate. I was alone in the universe. But what was I to do with myself now? I was alienated from my friends and family, the very world with which I had grown up. I could not participate in it as wholeheartedly as they could. I was no longer religious. But religion and the Modern Orthodox Jewish world were all I had ever known, and I still loved religion. I just couldn’t believe in it any longer. And so having no reason to leave, I chose to stay, living a double life.