My friend struggles with Judaism. He grew up in a very frum — let’s say, stifling — environment in a major frum metropolitan community. He had a learning disability, never diagnosed when he was in school. This not only preventing him from succeeding in yeshiva, despite receiving a generous endowment of creativity and intelligence, but the offbeat view of the world it provided to him caused him to focus on the flaws in contemporary orthodox society… maybe in his family and school too… and he was, and is, Off the Derech. Way off.
It’s painful to see. I really love the guy. He reads this blog — the Derech remains stubbornly stuck in his head, though he swears contempt for it. It comes through in the oddest of ways, though. Twice a year he tells me he’s working his way back.
But Hashem gave him some other gifts of which he has made dubious value. He is charming. Too charming. Women flock to him. He’s handsome, yes, if not perhaps for the cover of GQ (too Jewish?); but he has a magnetism that enables him to talk women into almost anything; talk employers into giving him jobs; talk the world into giving him an infinite number of chances. I’m not that charismatic, myself, but I cannot but see an aspect of my own underachieving life in his adventures — I’ve probably talked my way in and out of more trouble than the average bear.
But I have a wall full of degrees hanging on a wall that I pay the rent for, and my disappointment is relative to my ambition. His underachievement is pretty absolute. He must live on that charm, and oxygen and light, perhaps; he’s resolutely going nowhere. Frankly he lives a non-frum lifestyle, largely nocturnal, that is far beyond the pretty square existence I experienced in the first 22 years of my life. Maybe some BT who’s been there and done that can explain to me how bright people don’t get tired of endless “parties” and hanging around in clubs? Or maybe he couldn’t. To my way of thinking, as informed by Jewish sensibility, and my own limited exposure to that lifestyle during my high school and college years, it’s mostly about crowding out the the thoughts in your head that are hurting your mind.
In any event, that’s not my topic.
In any event, he’s not the person in the title of this essay.
The persons in the title are the ones — it could be any number of them — who write the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs.
See, I think my friend has a chance. A chance at life in a black-hat community, a wife with a sheitel, a two-hour-a-day learning seder? Well, we are taught not to ever give up hope, but not to rely on miracles. That would require a miracle. But could he have a healthy, positive, open-minded relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam, with Klal Yisroel, with the Torah, even? I think he could. I think he wants to. He’ll stamp up and down and insist I’m wrong, but the Nile’s big enough for both of us to be monarchs over it — I’m going to stick stubbornly to this belief.
But there’s something in his life now that may be worse for him than everything else that came before. Because he can’t pull himself away from the talented, glib, well-written, sometimes right Bitter Ex-BT Blogs, nor the virtual and real social world they promise him. He absorbs their complaints, their bitterness, their gall, and they put into words for him what he cannot quite express himself. No, more than that. They give him words to express complaints he didn’t even know he had. They feed his pain at the losing hand he feels — this talented, attractive, and thank God healthy person — God has dealt him.
Before, my friend ignored his Jewish side while living this dissolute lifestyle of his. He knew the contradiction. There was “being good,” and being not so good. But now he has a new “support group” who tell him what he’s doing is really a kind of “mitzvah” that has its own blog community, its alternative media, its Christmas parties and club dates. And this is something I have no idea how to counter.
We know that the Torah reserves harsh punishment, and even withdraws some of the usual judicial protections, for a meisis — someone who is not satisfied to worship avodah zarah, but who induces others to do so as well. Writing a blog is not avodah zarah, but then, we don’t have avodah zarah any more. In fact R’ Moshe Feinstein, in a responsum, says that anyone who encourages people to move away from doing the will of Hashem is comparable to a meisis ; the Chofetz Chaim compared the anti-religious Jews of his time to such people as well. In the Chofetz Chaim’s time, such people offered an alternative ideology — socialism, the brotherhood of man, an escape from the ghetto — that resonated with thoughtful, idealistic Jews on whom the weight of galus had become unbearable. What today’s anti-frum ideology offers is nihilism and hedonism, but in a time and place dominated by cynicism and narcissism it is enough to demonstrate that these can be found in ample supply on both sides of the frum / non-frum line, so why not enjoy the ride in the handbasket? And what can be more enjoyable than mocking those who don’t get the joke?
But it’s time for that car-and-driver metaphor again. Because ultimately my rather mundane point, of course, is that it is a special bitterness — I cannot say wickedness; we all are tinokos shenishbu (compared to “captured children”) — that makes a talented former BT, man or woman, do this. They do not just walk away from what they think is a car wreck of a spiritual journey but flag everyone else tooling happily along the road and swear that the bridge is out, there are monsters waiting on the next exit and that it was actually much better where they were coming from and you can’t U-turn fast enough to get back there.
What motivates them? My armchair psychology tells me that they would rather believe the journey is an eight-lane disaster than consider whether they themselves forgot to check the oil under their own hoods before setting out. But, you know, “who am I to say”?
A talented rabbinic friend came to me once and told me that after half a century or so of trying, he resolved that there are some cases — and far more of them come across his desk than mine — that he has come to realize he cannot solve, some lives that he cannot make the investment in trying to fix. His words haunt me regarding my friend. He is not asking me to solve anything; far from it. He tolerates my company because, well, maybe I am a little bit of fun myself. But whereas I once thought I offered enough gravity, mixed in with the comedy, to contribute to keeping him in orbit, I can’t compete with the Bitter Ex-BT Blogs. Well, I could; but I can’t. I’m as good an Internet polemicist as anyone; I know enough about frum life, about the Torah, and about life in the BT yeshivas to make quite a good debate of it.
But there’s no natural place for that debate — it won’t be on their blogs, and it won’t be here; and frankly, my anger and hurt cloud my judgment when I make some attempt at it. I fought in the early Internet wars for orthodoxy (largely in the ancient and venerable “Moment Magazine message board debates”) and, frankly, I’m not sure anyone’s listening.
Okay, I know one person.