I Grew Up Orthodox, But I Just Can’t Stay.

Content warning for mentions of rape, discrimination, injustice.

We have Orthodoxy all wrong. A common perception among the Orthodox is that their way of life is the only moral way to do what Hashem wants of us. I grew up like that. I don’t believe it anymore.

Because here’s the funny thing about Orthodoxy. It should be defined as a group of people who strictly keep the mitzvos. All the mitzvos, or realistically, as many as possible as best as they can. But realistically, that’s not how it works it out.

See, some mitzvahs are more valued then others. We are not meant to value mitzvahs and their rewards, but in all honesty, we do. Tznius is over-emphasised for women to the point that it undermines itself. Instead of stam worrying about out looks, we’re obsessing over skirt lengths and belittling other, actual mitzvos. (Tznius as a dress code is not mentioned in Tanach whatsoever.)

Keeping kosher is extremely important. Keeping shabbos. Davening in shule. Not being LGBT. The cornerstones of Orthodox life. Drop any of those, wear pants, eat non-kosher, stop going to shule, fall in love with someone of the same gender, and you’ve gone Off the Derech. Those are the rules. You’ll notice, they are largely Bein Adam LaMakom, between humanity and Hashem.

And then there are the mitzvahs that are less valued. Speaking kindly of each other. Judging favourably. Not embarrassing people. They’re given a lot of lip service, sure, but they’re not valued the same. Eating non-kosher is BAD, while being rude to someone is just bad. Wearing pants is GOING OFF THE DERECH, but saying something racist can be totally accepted. Rapists and molesters are hidden away, their victims left to struggle in stifling silence, while the perpetrators are left, not only to roam free, but to remain Orthodox.

Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, fat shaming, it’s all there and acceptable. Engage in any of it and you might get a few funny looks, you might get told to cut it out, but you’re still Orthodox. We have our priorities all backwards.

I said before that we aren’t supposed to value mitzvos and their rewards. I’m going to contradict myself a bit. Because we are taught to seriously value some mitzvos. The generation of the flood were destroyed for stealing and murdering each other. The generation of the tower, trying to fight Hashem Themselves, were merely given different languages and dispersed. Our first exile as a people was 70 years, for the crime of idol worship and forbidden relationships (and murder; but largely Bein Adam LaMakom). Our current exile is over two thousand years for Sin’at Chinam. On top of that… just one more example, we know we are not supposed to lie or repeat falsehoods. Aharon HaCohen would lie to arguing people in order to bring peace between them. There is a very strong emphasis in our tradition of treating people well, at the expense of complete truth. That fighting Hashem, which is part of the territory of being Jewish, is far less serious than fighting between ourselves.

So while Orthodoxy should be defined as keeping as many mitzvos as best we can, that’s simply not what it is. Orthodoxy is an emphasis on certain mitzvos, and certain elements of lifestyle over others, all the while believing that this is the only way to be good and moral.
Orthodoxy is wrong.

And before you say ‘well the rapists aren’t really Orthodox then are they’ – they are hidden from police. Their victims are hushed and blamed. They are still called up to the Torah and they still run schools and they still get invited out for Shabbos lunch. They are Orthodox.

And before you say ‘don’t judge Judaism by the Jews’ – Judaism is built upon community and family. Judaism *is* the Jews.

So, I am no longer Orthodox. I can’t stay in a community in which going out for Shabbos means sitting at the table and listening to people say sexist, racist, homophobic, awful awful things. When I’m shouted down, ignored, made to sit in the dark (this happened once), because I am not a man. Where I’m never asked for a Dvar Torah, where other people who don’t fit the mold are mocked and belittled, I can’t stay. I can’t fight when I am not a straight man, when my voice is stripped away, when my rights are ignored. I wish I could make it better, but that’s beyond me. I cannot jail every rapist, I cannot teach every woman that we need to see each other and strangers as more than skirt lengths and kugel recipes because the other voices are too loud and too powerful.

I know there are other communities out there, I know this is not all of Judaism, and I cling to that with desperation. I don’t live in a metropolis of Jewish life, I don’t have many options. At least not everyone feels so alienated.

So yeah, I grew up Orthodox. I thought that would be my whole life forever. I’m heartbroken to walk away, but staying would mean belittling myself and my dignity and my mental health. And Pikuach Nefesh is supposed to come first. So I’m still religious. I’m still deeply connected to our heritage, to our ancestors, to Hashem. I still want to do good. I still have values. But I can’t be Orthodox anymore. And I’m sorry for that.

 

Photo credit: Raw Herring on Flickr

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11 Comments

  1. Rivka January 2, 2019 at 11:10 am

    Exactly how I feel.

    Reply
  2. Andrea January 2, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you. We also discount Jews of Color and gerim (converts) — and this is not okay.

    Reply
  3. Vicki Keyak January 2, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    I’m sorry you your loss & pain.

    Reply
  4. Bob Kosovsky January 2, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    I came to a point where I was close to chucking it all. I came out gay to myself, and dropped very subtle hints in what I was wearing. But I lived in a hostile community and I didn’t see a way out.

    Then a miracle happened: I moved to a different neighborhood.

    Where I used to live, everyone took joy in criticizing other people. In my new community everyone knows not to say anything except compliments. Everyday I’m amazed by the way my community “guards its tongue” against derogatory comments.

    And there was another change (shinnui makom, shinnui hatzlacha?) – that was in me. I did not disengage, but I held my community not nearly as close a family member, but somewhat at a distance – like coworkers or every further than that. I deliberately did not let myself get so close that I would make myself vulnerable to occasional insensitivities. But they have rarely occurred.

    It could be that Orthodox Judaism is not for you and that’s fine. But also know that, like therapists say, “you can’t change other people – you can only change yourself and how you react to them.”

    Reply
  5. Fellow Jew January 2, 2019 at 3:11 pm

    I have seen many Modern Orthodox communities up close, and I think you might be very happy there and feel much more valued and heard, and not have to restructure your whole identity, nor lose your ability to improve conditions in the Orthodox community. We need people like you. I can email you the names of some communities if you’d like, where the tragic realities that you speak about are B”H overwhelmingly absent and are considered totally unacceptable. Sending my love, respect, and empathy.

    Reply
  6. Ilana January 2, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    I’m so sorry you were hurt. I hope you find a way that keeps you happy and connected.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous January 3, 2019 at 1:28 am

    This struck a very deep chord with me. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  8. Hudi January 3, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Thank you for mentioning fat shaming. The idea of “pneimius”, the beauty of a woman is from within is drilled into frum girls/women from a young age. Until it’s time for shidduchim, then it’s Vogue model time. I once asked a chareidi rabbi in Israel, why the boys are taught not even to look at ads on bus shelters or covers of magazines, yet when it comes to shidduchim then it’s ok to be so judgmental on looks. He answered that there’s a concept whatever is in the secular world, it repeats itself in the frum world. It wasn’t an answer that was going to lead to change, rather a pass, a shoulder shrug. He agreed it was wrong, but “ayn mah laasot”! Just this week there was a question in a “shidduch” column in a frum magazine about the double standard of boys seeing the girl’s pic. but not vice versa before a shidduch.

    As for racism, I don’t allow derogatory terms in my home, as I tell my children, if you don’t want people to make derogatory remarks about you, set an example.

    I agree that maybe you should check out other options in the Orthodox/Traditional spectrum. I know a woman who left Chassidism (and a very right wing of it), and is now Centrist and glowingly happy and vibrant member of a community. https://projectmakom.org/

    Reply
  9. Anonymous January 4, 2019 at 7:48 am

    I feel like someone took a peek into my journal and posted this. I’ve been feeling this way for years!

    I now consider myself Modern Orthodox and have moved out of the community I grew up in I continue to keep shabbos, kosher and work the important mitzvos like being kind etc.

    Thank you for posting what needed to be said!

    Reply
  10. Anonymous January 4, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    YES. THIS. I’m a bisexual woman married to a lesbian woman and struggling to find my place. Why should I have to struggle and be lonely while rapists and shitty people get safety and community and acceptance? Why is casual bigotry so acceptable? Im so angry at this system. I still wish it would work for me but maybe I need to accept that it just wont. Its shit. Im a good person. I do my best to be kind and sensitive. And my thanks is to be ostracised because of how G-d made us. So now Im ‘Off The Derech” or something I guess. For something I cant help. Where’s the justice in that?

    Reply
  11. Jacques June 11, 2019 at 4:56 am

    From France:
    Thank you for your sensitive but neat post!
    I’ve come across some “mishaps” through my journey into judaism, too.
    I go to a Reform shul, which means belonging to the minority of the French Jews. Nevertheless, one can meet some problems there : lachon hara, antagonisms, and silencing the opponents.

    When I went to a chassid shul, there were guys who didn’t consider paedophilia and wife beating as so big deals. Since the culprits had an extensive talk with the rav, and families discouraged from going to court (not to stain the community, in the public eye…), all ended “well”.

    And yes, going to a religious shul means, more than often, hearing derogatory remarks towards humans, relating to gender, colour, orientation, …

    Some would say it’s only human to put up with that. But, since we are constantly reminded of the demands of religion, why don’t the “holier than thou” apply for a basic judaism course?

    Reply

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