Out of Orthodoxy – From Orthodox Rabbi to Secular Humanist
Many people reading this will not be happy. I suppose this article will be seen as somewhat analogous to a person everybody thought of as really, really straight coming out of the closet and proudly proclaiming him or herself as gay. No, it’s probably worse; as most Americans would sooner elect a gay person as President, than elect a secular humanist. In fact, a mere few years ago, the head of school of a prominent Orthodox Jewish day school left his job, came out of the closet as a homosexual, and checked out of Orthodox Jewish observance. Many of his students were angrier at the latter, rather than the former, even though (male) homosexual activity is a capital offense under Jewish Law. Go figure.
Well, here goes. (Deep breath.) Having grown up an Orthodox Jew since the age of eight, having gone to prominent Israeli high school and post high school yeshivas, having been ordained by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, having served as the rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, as the head of one Jewish educational organization, and in the professional leadership of two Jewish day schools, having taught formally and informally people of all ages about Judaism, basically, since the age of sixteen, I am checking out. I am no longer Orthodox, and beyond that, no longer a theist. That’s it, it’s over. I am a secular humanist.
What happened? Looking back I see things differently than I did at the time, but I have always been a skeptic. I never accepted things at face value, and consequently gradually there were more and more things in my religious philosophy and belief system that didn’t really fit. There were more and more square pegs that really needed to be forced into round holes.
The change of heart and mind itself though really kind of happened all at once. It was as if it had always been clear to me. I just couldn’t understand why I didn’t pick up on it before. Orthodox Judaism and everything it was based on was wrong. It wasn’t just factually wrong, it was at times immoral, and it had robbed me of my individuality. It felt like a jail, which I couldn’t wait to get out of.
When I spell out my problems with Orthodox Judaism it really starts, first, with the fact that I really just don’t connect to it anymore emotionally or cognitively. It really seems rather alien to me. The financial, emotional and social sacrifices one must make within the framework of Orthodox Judaism are substantial, and if one does not connect to it, find meaning in it, and believe it to be absolutely true, I cannot see how one can continue to live according to its multiple and minute precepts.
One might object and protest that if Orthodox Judaism’s claims are valid, the fact that you don’t connect to it should not be a factor. Here lies the rub. There is absolutely no proof that Orthodox Judaism’s claims are valid. There is no proof that there is a God. In previous centuries at the primitive level of their scientific knowledge (even though there was never proof) there might have been reasons to posit a designer for the world. Our knowledge today of cosmology and biology no longer necessitates this. Not only that, there is no proof that a God dictated the Torah to Moses, if such a person ever existed, and no proof that any of the things we are told in the Torah ever happened. Even in books in the Hebrew Bible that might have some truth to them such as the Former Prophets, proof is available only for a select number of persons and events, which even in those cases usually does not back up the account of the Hebrew Bible. There is certainly no proof that the Oral Law existed much time before the Common Era. Again, perhaps in past generations, in the absence of the knowledge we now have about the development of these writings and ideas, there were reasons to accept these claims as true. Our knowledge today no longer necessitates this. In short, even before analyzing the points against belief in the Torah, you need to take quite a leap of faith, one that I see as entirely unwarranted. Occam’s razor and simple logic dictate therefore that these claims be seen as not only not provable, but also false.
Second, I am convinced that significant parts of the Torah (and the rest of the Hebrew Bible) and the corpus of Halacha are immoral, intolerant, backward, racist, sexist and homophobic. Definitely the argument can be made that the Torah has much beauty to it, and that (at least in certain parts of it) it was beyond its time, but judging by today’s standards it is extremely lacking. Hence I find it impossible that it was written by God.
Third, Orthodox Judaism is very much dependent on Moses’ receiving of the Torah from God, and that just does not fit with the evidence. Anyone who takes a serious and detailed look at the Torah and modern biblical research with an objective eye cannot fail to see that the theory of monoauthorism, namely that the Torah was written by a single author, especially in the 13th Century B.C.E. (and certainly earlier), is a fantasy. At that time Hebrew script and writing did not yet exist. The Canaanite alphabet had barely been standardized, after the change from 27 consonants to 22 consonants, and it was still written right to left, left to right and vertically too. Archeology clearly shows that Israelite society, when it emerged, was not a literate society, while the Torah takes this as a given. This is only one of numerous anachronisms in the Torah that make it clear that it is not a 13th Century B.C.E. document. In the 13th Century B.C.E., for example, contrary to what is imagined by the biblical authors, there were no domesticated camels, no Philistines living on the Coast, no Chaldeans in Ur, no widespread use of iron and coinage, no kingdoms in Edom, Moab and Amon, and the cities of Dan (with that name), Nineveh, Beer-Sheva, Gerar and many others mentioned were not founded yet.
Beyond that, the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the Torah is the product of a 6th-5th Century B.C.E. redaction of four (main and a few other minor) sources written during the 9th-6th Centuries B.C.E., is pretty much iron clad. The only serious opposition, very unconvincing in my eyes, is from those scholars on the left who accept polyauthorism, the existence of a number of authors, but maintain that the Torah is a product of late post exilic writings. There is simply no serious opposition from the Orthodox camp, which can deal with, and explain away the hundreds of points of data in six or seven different categories converging together that back up the Documentary Hypothesis.
Indeed, for the last half century, at least, no serious and comprehensive case has been mounted by the Orthodox to prove monoauthorism, and disprove polyauthorism on any serious level, and certainly not to prove monoauthorism from the 13th Century B.C.E. Some of the Orthodox are fond of citing differences of opinion in the biblical research community, regarding the details of polyauthorism, as some dubious proof that polyauthorism is wrong, and by default monoauthorism is right. This defies logic. Disagreement about details of an accepted construct with adequate support in honest research does not imply that the whole construct is invalid, and presto, the opposing unproved and irreparably flawed construct is right. Tired repetition of a few critical comments written by polyauthorists many years ago within the context of the above discussions, and usually quoted out of context, with no regard for evidence that has surfaced since the time of the comments, does no one any good either. Giving isolated case by case explanations (excuses?) how blatant contradictions aren’t really contradictions, or how anachronisms can be twisted to somehow fit the supposed time period they were written in, or how certain linguistic, thematic or terminological phenomena may have alternative explanations, while ignoring the overall patterns, that again cut across hundreds of points of data in six or seven different categories converging together, is just not serious.
Fourth, an honest look at today’s mainstream Syro-Palestinian archeology can lead only to one understanding, namely, that the Exodus from Egypt, including the subsequent journey through the Sinai and Transjordan, and the Conquest of Canaan, never happened in any way remotely related to the account in the Torah, and for all practical purposes never happened at all. In fact, the consensus of archeologists today is that the Israelites and Judahites emerged out of the Canaanites of the Central Highlands of Ancient Palestine in the 12th-11th Century B.C.E. Without the foundational events of the Exodus and Conquest, the entire edifice of Orthodox Judaism crumbles. Add to that that most of what we are told in the Hebrew Bible before the 9th-8th Century B.C.E. is extremely questionable, certainly as far as scope and details are concerned. Even after that we are told a story that is a very specific version of the historical events, the version adopted by the minority Yahweh Alone party, the small group of priests who left their legacy and ideology embedded in the Deuteronomistic History (the composition which originally included the nine books of Deuteronomy – Kings).
This is probably the strongest proof out there, and no one in the Orthodox community, to my knowledge, has dealt with this at all (and saying that the archeologists don’t know what they are talking about doesn’t count). More than that, some will still cite the now easily debunked and heavily biased “biblical archeology” of the past, which seemed to back up some of the accounts of the Hebrew Bible (conveniently leaving out the fact that it never really backed up others, and even went against some of them). It is as if nothing has happened in this field of research in the last half century, while in reality the revolution and systemization of this field over the course of those years has been phenomenal, turning this science into a much more exact one.
With the above in mind, it makes much more sense that religion in general, with Judaism being no different, is the human product of people’s efforts to understand the world around them, especially before the advent of modern science, find meaning in their lives, and strive for connection with the transcendental. I remain fascinated by these cultural human phenomena, but convinced that they are just that. Again, there are many reasons to support such a conclusion, and absolutely no reason I should believe otherwise.
The more I read and research, the more I realize the truth and beauty of secular humanism. I do not wish to base my life on fables, wishful thinking while ignoring the facts, and an imaginary friend that supposedly rules the universe, to whom we owe allegiance and obedient worship. Nor do I seek, as some Jewish movements to the left of Orthodoxy do, to continue in the footsteps of traditional Judaism, just in a watered down fashion. Rather I wish to base my life on a non-theistic world outlook that recognizes the supremacy of reason, and the dignity of the human being, who can and must stand alone in this world, and whose accomplishments and perseverance in an incredible and beautiful, while hostile and indifferent universe can and should be celebrated.
After I wrote most of this, I saw that Christopher Hitchens summed up most of my thoughts so perfectly, “A moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more [then the wisest of previous generations – DSG] – through no merit of my own – and to see that the final ripping of the disguise is overdue. Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archeology, physics and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations. The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders we have before us…” (God is Not Great, 2007, p. 151)
I do not expect anyone to fully understand, just based on reading this. The above is based on much contemplation and much research, which cannot be adequately conveyed in a few paragraphs. Frankly, I am not really that interested in convincing anyone. I simply cannot live as an Orthodox Jew anymore, and I need to state that clearly. I look forward with excitement to a new and different life, as a secular humanist.
One last note to my friends who remain within the Orthodox community, where those who leave the community are derided as being off the derech or (proper) “way”: Please do not refer to me as someone who is off the derech. I am on my own derech with as much legitimacy as yours, and frankly in light of all the above facts, a truer one and more realistic one too.
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