When I had more time for posting and commenting on the Beyond BT, I was very busy with the topic of former BT’s, many of whom not only gave up Jewish observance but, for whatever reason you may want to posit, did it with a vengeance. Those days were a lot of fun, positively heady. I got to make very good and stimulating use of my God-given talent for polemics and usually found that critics and ankle-biters preferred to slink away than engage with me, though of course they might not agree with my characterization. To some extent, this post is dependent on some familiarity with the back-and-forth of those days.
Despite whatever points I may scored and whatever lurkers I may have encouraged in these debates, I have always had two nagging question about those days and those arguments: One is, was I right when it seemed that I was right, or was I just a better debater? And the other one is, how much of the vigor of my efforts was motivated not by a sincere belief in the truth at all, but rather an insistence on rationalizing my own choices — choices which are irreversible now, for all practical purposes?
The first question, I decided, shouldn’t nag me so much, because I’m good, but so are a lot of other people who disagree with me. And I didn’t, after all, “win” every point. As I remember it, in the course of the great battles we fought in those days I made concessions and admitted to problems or gaps with the overall worldview I argued for. I will say, thought, that my interlocutors (not only mine, but of the many who basically agreed with me) could or would not answer this question: Separate and apart from your point about Issue X or Issue Y, or the way kiruv professionals or amateurs do or don’t deal with it, what alternative, systematic and internally consistent approach to Judaism do you offer that could possibly be recognized as Judaism? For the premise of the discussion was and is that if your point of view is that this is all a fantastic fakeout, that nothing means anything, then we really have nothing to discuss. We share no common ground.
My experience was, in fact, is that few of the most vigorous debaters are the complete nihilists they perhaps think of themselves as being; after all, if they were, they shouldn’t care about anything at all anyway. Generally people will admit that they aren’t that — that they (a) want to be Jewish; that they (b) want being Jewish to matter; and even that (c) past attempts to redefine or dilute Judaism to the point of eviscerating it of any meaning with respect to how it governs our conduct or our identities have not met the criteria of (a) and (b).
I think I can say, being intellectually honest to myself, that the above “works.” I think I believe that this addresses the first question: We may not have it all figured out, but it seems that we — observant Jews, born that way or otherwise — are probably on the right track.
How about the second question — whether despite that conclusion, is it still all just rationalizing motivated by the fact that the implications of realizing you’re wrong are just too frightening? After all, the fact that no one has a better or answer or even a close tie doesn’t mean your answer is correct. That’s true no matter how “true” it feels emotionally, or what people call “spiritually” (I don’t really know what that means) or even intellectually. How can we separate rational from rationale?
And do we have to?
A very well-respected, very intellectual rosh yeshiva once told me: There comes a point where you can chase your own tail or, perhaps, disappear down your own navel in contemplating your own contemplation. And you’ve simply got to trust yourself to know when you think that’s happening. So let’s have no more of that here than necessary.
But I am going to ask that second question from a point of view that I can articulate today in a way I could not ten or even five years ago: If all this is true, if all this is good, how can so much in our community be so false? How can so much be so bad? How can so many questions be so unanswerable?
The disclaimers must be interjected here, not because it is protocol to do so but because they are appropriate and right. There are so many merits, so many marvelous and unique and extraordinary things to say about the Jewish people, and especially shomrei mitzvos, that my question should vanish before them. I promise you, I’m not just saying this: I could list them for six posts, not a paragraph in one post. They would make BT’s, especially newcomers, feel warm and fuzzy inside.
But my question does not vanish, because so much that is so painful refuses to recede from view and memory. I am thinking not of just individual outrages, but communal ones. Not just trends and phenomena in our community that are hard to understand, but ones which, instead, are all too easy to understand. And these I will not list here, because I am not going to act, even rhetorically, as a prosecutor against the Jewish people, G-d forbid — much less in Elul.
How do these things affect the second question, i.e., “Are you rationalizing?” After all, we all learn early on the aphorism that we “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Fair enough; let’s don’t.
But these things we see, we hear, we experience sometimes cannot but bring us down if we’ve retained our critical faculties, and shouldn’t we?
I also have my own pet issue, which is the flip side of the coin: The role models and the idealized life of the haredi [strictly orthodox] subculture and indeed a great many of what are accepted as authoritative rabbinical sources of earlier times could not, based on their words, respect the way most of us live and indeed what most of us are — no matter how well we dish it out and take it on Beyond BT or host Shabbatons or whatever other super things we do.
I readily understand that view that to aim for compromise is to guarantee mediocrity, but I cannot figure out how it is better to pretend to aim for levels of scholarship, moral rectitude and detachment from physical pleasure that as an empirical matter can be achieved and are achieved by only a sliver of the population — and that are held out for us routinely as the ideal Jewish existence. Could all the cynicism and dysfunction we do encounter, all those unmentioned negatives alluded to above, be the fruit of this cognitive dissonance?
So how can we defend this without rationalizing, when we know we are falling so short of the ideals we espouse? Is it enough to say that it works because pretty much every other way of life can be shown (I posit) to implicate even more untenable compromises? Is it enough to have faith in greater and holier minds than mine that say “yes, do strive for this truth; the striving is the thing”? Is it that by almost any measure the good outweighs the bad? Is it the fact that part of growing up is living with paradox, and realizing that only God has a comprehensive understanding of the whole?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
And if I am, still, rationalizing?
Well, no one’s proved it to me yet. And every day, you see, I think today is going to be the day that it works a little better, and maybe it will. And if it doesn’t, I will know that I fought the good fight.
That works for me.