Monday, November 21, 2011

My Problem with Orthodoxy

My previous post included a segment from a facebook message a haredi acquaintance sent to me. He was particularly upset that I had accepted that Documentary Hypothesis was a possibility, that I had recommended Marc Shapiro's Limits of Orthodox Theology to counter his assertion that anybody who ever believed in post-Mosaic authorship (outside of the last 12 pessukim) "doesn't believe in the same Judaism anymore," and that I have been a consistent critic of religious fundamentalism. My positions probably arise from an emotional problem (und sociologically, I'm sick!). The prescription for my problems: I should drop my friends and talk to unnamed haredi rabbis who could enlighten me as to "the truth" about...well, everything, I guess. Until then, he can't be my friend.

This sort of thinking well represents my problem with Orthodoxy. Think like us, or be considered a weirdo maskil and eventually, an enemy. Accept the Divine yoke of Torah and halacha as rational or be condemned as a kofer, an apikorus, a mumar, somebody who has gone off-the-derech. Don't buy into our proofs and ideas? "Haha, you're being silly," the rabbis explain.

In a way, this is a personal problem, an "emotional problem" I have with Orthodoxy; it is a problem which I came to understand through personal experience with the haredi yeshivas I attended. But forget me. I've been through a brainwashing hell a thousand times worse than the yeshivas (26 months!). I was even banned from pleasure reading for somewhere around a year. No yeshiva could touch that experience. But I am against purposely indoctrinating children to make them impervious to arguments against their faith. I'm against feeding them half-baked kiruv proofs (you'd be surprised, to many of my old friends, the simplified Cosmological Argument has held sway over them since they first heard it), I'm against discouraging kids from looking into Jewish history from a more critical and balanced perspective, I'm opposed to dismissing the very important concerns of academia regarding the Bible's apparently human authorship and the Talmud's interest in magical thinking.

This phenomenon of indoctrination/censorship is especially pronounced in Haredi Orthodoxy. When I was Orthodox, haredi society seemed to remind me of something, but I couldn't put my finger on it. There was something all-too-familiar about the concept of a society which didn't want people being confused by "outside thought", which had rabbis and kollel yungermen -- despite high college-level educations -- now discouraging people from getting secular educations.

Suddenly, it clicked. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. A description of antagonist Captain Beatty from the first match that came up on Google which I think well describes arguments for indoctrination/censorship and also well describes the book's point regarding such methods:

...He’s the most well-read book-burner we’ve ever encountered.

...He used to be curious about books, just like [the protagonist Guy] Montag is. He used to question the system, just like Montag. And just like Montag, he took action – he read, rules be damned. So what in the world makes him different from Guy?

Hold that thought for a paragraph or so. What makes Beatty such a powerful force in this novel is that, actually, he makes a decent point in his anti-book ravings. Literature is contradictory. It is confusing. It is treacherous, it will mix you up, it will force you to answer questions you never wanted to ask, and it will quite often pull the rug out from under your feet.

But that’s one of the lessons of Fahrenheit 451. It’s not about what books say, it’s about the process of reading them and thinking for yourself. It’s about questioning. This, of course, is the reason books were abolished in the first place – not for the information they held, but for the dissent they caused amongst their readers. So Beatty is right to argue that books are contradictory. But he misses the point. Contradictions are the whole idea behind literature.

That is what makes Beatty different from Guy. He’s not willing to do the thinking. He doesn’t want to question and think. He turned books down because they don’t hand him The Secret of the Universe all tied up with a bow. Montag, on the other hand, wants to work for his knowledge. He wants to understand what he reads, as he tells Faber, and then think for himself to decide in what he believes. That’s why he’s the hero, and Beatty is the villain.



  1. There's a fascinating point here that one observes in many areas where beliefs are particularly passionate or sacred. Whether it's a function of the French Revolution's guillotine, the Soviet Union's psychiatric hospitals for people who couldn't accept communism, the organized left's insistence that conservatives are "racists" or "clinging" to something, or merely some pious Jew's belief that your unwillingness to accept his truth is indicative of a mental illness on your part, the tendency to diagnose, rather than argue with, one's opponents should (I believe) generally be viewed as strong evidence of an opinion rooted in faith, rather than in reason. If you disagree with my views and you're a reasonable person, then my views might have to be defended. If you disagree with my views and you're a psychotic/racist/evildoer, then my views are secure and yours should be burned.

  2. As long as we're learning from science fiction, tell me if the following resonates.

    I suspect Asimov had his own bad experiences in cheder before coming to America.

  3. what does it mean when they said "they don’t hand him The Secret of the Universe all tied up with a bow."?

  4. A couple of thousand rabbis, given a couple of thousand years can make up a great deal of fantastic fictional stories. Better known as fantasy. Just read the Medrash.....Avi

  5. Hey Baruch, the first article that you wrote entitled " my problem with orthodoxy was a great article. Please continue writing more articles. Thanks