Friday, March 02, 2007

Walking Away From Orthodoxy

I came across this article on the BBC web site about young Israelis turning away from Orthodox Judaism.

While atheists and secularists in America tend to focus on Christianity simply by virtue of the fact that we live in a majority Christian nation, personally I have always found Orthodox Judaism to be very frustrating. While fundamentalist Christians take the Bible literally, Orthodox Jews not only believe it, they live it. They strictly adhere to all of the commandments and laws set down in the Torah. To me, it struck me as odd that in the 21st century these people were living in a mental prison constructed by Bronze Age mythology. I was and continue to be absolutely bewildered by it.

At my job, I worked alongside two Orthodox Jews. One of them, named Daniel, was a paralegal, and was about 20 years older than me and had converted to the Lubavitcher sect some time in the Seventies or Eighties. I got the sense that his conversion was for reasons similar to lax Christians who become born again because their lives are in turmoil and they look to religion to give them meaning and guidance in their lives. The other, Jeff, was an attorney and was about sox or seven years younger than me.

Daniel's orthodoxy was stricter than Jeff's. Daniel had a beard, wore his yarmulke at all times, and dressed in a manner similar to others of the Lubavitcher sect. I don't know what stripe of conservatism Jeff adhered to, but he did not have a beard and wore regular clothes. The only time I would see him wear a yarmulke was when he was eating lunch in his office. Daniel was also more forthright in injecting his personal views into a conversation. He believed that the story of Noah's Ark was literally true. One time I was talking with a co-worker who shared an office with him (before that, I shared the office with Daniel for a couple of years) about the ancient extinct shark Megalodon, and what a relief it was that such giant sharks did not exist today. Daniel questioned how they could know that such a creature ever existed, and I mentioned the teeth they found that were much larger than any shark's tooth today. "How do they know it's a shark's tooth?" he asked me with a thinly veiled tone of derision. "Because it resembles a shark's tooth," I replied.

"It resembles a shark's tooth," he said dismissively. I realized that I had erred in my choice of words. I should have said that it had the characteristics of a Great White Shark's tooth, only much larger. His point, of course, was that just because a Meg tooth looked like a shark's tooth does not mean that it was a shark's tooth. I asked him what else it could possibly be but I don't recall that he was inclined to answer. For the sake of civility, I rarely openly challenged him about matters related to his religious beliefs, though I did frequently ask him about the rules of his religion and whether there were ever exceptions. For example, I asked him that if he was stuck in a place where the only food available was non-kosher food, and to not eat it meant starvation, he told me that under such a circumstance it would be permissible to eat the non-kosher food. Regarding Megaladon, I printed out some information from a web site about how it is known that there was such a shark and left it on his desk, though we never spoke of it afterwards.

Sadly, Daniel had a spate of bad luck. A couple of summers ago, he tore a ligament in his right arm trying to open a window in his apartment and was out for five months undergoing therapy. Then several months after his return to the office, he fell off of a step ladder trying to reach a file and injured his back. He had to be taken out in a stretcher. He also had some heart trouble while in the hospital. I suspected he would never be well enough to return, and last summer his employment officially came to an end. While I had my differences with him on certain things, he was a good man and I was very saddened at the bad hand that fate had dealt him.

Jeff, on the other hand, often spoke of his religion, but in a different manner than Daniel. Jeff, unlike Daniel, was born into his religion, and it would probably be more accurate to say that his branch of Judaism was conservative rather than Orthodox. Jeff would talk about the various holidays and what he would be doing during them. He liked to travel abroad a lot and often complained about how difficult it was to find places to eat kosher food, and how his departure and arrival dates had to be worked around the Sabbath. One time when he was bitching (though in a lighthearted tone) about such things, he said how tough it was to follow his religion, and I said, "Well, either you believe there is a God up in the heavens that wants you to live such a way and you suck it up and take it, or you decide that there isn't and do what you want." I admitted to him that I was an atheist, and he seemed surprised, but we never had any tense conversations about the subject. He recently left the firm I work at for another place of employment. Though he could be frustratingly anal at times, he was also basically a good guy at heart and we eventually got used to each other.

4 comments:

Stardust said...

From the article you linked to:

When David's mother saw a letter from the army she instantly knew that her son had lost his faith.

His family moved quickly to ostracise him.

"My mother told me that I had to leave the family because I would be a bad influence on my brothers and sisters," he says, recalling the incident five years ago.

His father has not spoken to him since that day. And David has only sporadic contact with his mother and his siblings.


This is so incredibly sad, yet it happens all too often. Like my niece's pastor wannabe husband banning us from communicating with "HIS wife and children" for simply asking them to stop proseltyzing to me.

I have family members who are moderate to light christians and we never have problems and are very close with one another, yet my niece and husband have isolated themselves on an island off the coast of Alaska and have written off anyone who doesn't hold their fundie beliefs (or at least pretend to.)

So much for xian love. It is my opinion that they are so touchy and defensive, and that they isolate themselves because their faith is really very fragile. This is saying that human will is much stronger than a god's will...or that there is no god and they don't want to admit it.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Stardust, I saw a documentary about lesbians from a very orthodox home get the same treatment. Normally, these incidents are rare amongst Jews and only happen when the majority of the extended family are all ultra orthodox.

Tommy, it boggles my mind how many orthodox Jews deny evolution and many or them, an ancient earth as well. Because it is tradition to ask questions and seek answers in Judaism. Must be cognitive dissonance, that pushes them into a state of scientific ignorance.

Dave said...

Hey Tommy. I'm the guy who liked your suggestion on counter-acting Ann Coulter's commentary with laughter. Just wanted to say I like your blog.

Tommy said...

Thanks Dave.