Monday, May 18, 2015

Orthodoxy and the Search for Truth

One of the more enlightening posts I have written of late was the one last week where I briefly speculated why people change their beliefs. Either to become observant or non observant. (As in the post referenced - I define observance as Orthodox Jewry defines it.)

It wasn’t anything I said that was all that enlightening. It was the comments of some of the people who had undergone that process of change. The greatest move in the direction of becoming observant comes from someone that converts to Judaism. That is the greatest gap that is leaped over from non observance to observance.

Not only is such a person not observant, they are not even Jewish. If they are Christian, which is most often the case with converts in America - their belief in the divinity of Jesus was about as far removed from Judaism as one can get. And considering the strongly held belief by Christianity that there is no salvation without believing that – it’s a pretty strong change. So as much as I am in awe of a secular non observant Jew that becomes observant, I am far more in awe of a Christian that does it. It is also interesting to note the reaction of friends and family to such conversions. We Jews are not tolerant at all when the reverse God forbid happens. (Of course in Judaism a person born a Jew  remains a Jew even if they convert. But that is an entirely different subject.)

With that in mind I am posting two of the more fascinating comments from that post. Both started out as non Jews. Both adopted Orthodox Judaism. One converted and one did not. What makes these comments so enlightening is what brought them to observance; the proccess; the trials and tribulations; the beauty they both found in observant Judaism; and  the fact that in the end each of them turned out so radically different.

As might be expected of a believer like myself, I am disappointed in the end result of one and am inspired by the end result of the other. The two comments follow - slightly edited for style, grammar, spelling errors and readability.

I came to Judaism at the age of 17, and was initially attracted by the closeness of the Jewish community and the way that religion and spirituality were interwoven with the fabric of daily life. It was a time in my life in which I was looking for purpose, authenticity and community. I saw Judaism as a very life-affirming religion which sanctified ordinary life instead of demeaning it in pursuit of lofty and transcendent spirituality. 
I explored the various heterodox denominations but found the claim of orthodoxy's 'authenticity' to be compelling, especially that of haredi orthodoxy, and once I had reconciled, in my own mind at least, halacha and my homosexuality I was able to fully throw myself into observance.
For 14 years I lived a completely observant life, not easy considering I lived in a small town with no Jewish community. Despite wishing to, I never formally converted (for several reasons, including my relationship with my now husband, who I met just as I was becoming interested in Judaism. I realised (it) would not be accepted despite what had become our fealty to the relevant halachos. Which incidentally fills me with awe for him, as he made this considerable sacrifice out of love for me, despite not being a believer in Judaism himself!!). 
I taught myself Hebrew and Yiddish and learned several hours a day and found Judaism to be intellectually and spiritually satisfying. That said I did have some significant doubts about elements of Jewish belief, but these I successfully suppressed because I very much feared that examining them would overturn my belief and as such my only real connection to the Jewish people.
Ultimately despite how happy I was living a Jewish life, I was made uncomfortable by a growing sense of my increasing intolerance and dogmatism which I saw reflected in elements of the haredi society that I felt part of. This combined with no longer being able to hide from my doubts, led me to re-examining my beliefs fully in the light of scholarship both Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular. 
The conclusions of this examination led to my eventual letting go of orthodoxy. For a while I held on to much observance as a way of maintaining my Jewish self-identity, but slowly my diminishing observance allowed me to rejoin fully the non-Jewish society around me, and for the first time I actually felt a sense that I had 'come home', of genuine belonging, which in time gave me the confidence to drop my observances completely.
I now live a very warm, purposeful, spiritual and religious life without Judaism, (indeed my religious beliefs are as far from Judaism as it is possible to get) but I still hold the Jewish people in huge affection and regard the Jewish religion as a valuable source of wisdom and beauty even though I no longer believe in it. My years since leaving Jewish observance have been the happiest, satisfying and productive of my life, but I retain much gratitude for all that I enjoyed and all that I learned when Judaism was my faith.

As a convert, I find this post very interesting, and the discussion is even more fascinating.
My conversion was mainly based on intellectual reasons. It would be foolish to think that it was solely based on intellect, and the emotional factors were excluded, as there is no intellectual reasoning that is not influenced by emotions, except maybe for formal logic, but the latter also can be understood as an expression of certain implicit beliefs about the nature of the reality.

By the way in this thread someone quoted a research on decision making examined with the use of fMRI. (Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow - HM.I would like to point out that it's not really relevant to discussion, as the decision about conversion or becoming religious is not a fast one. Most of the people spend at least some time trying to think about pros and cons, and so one would rather assume that there is a lot of slow (frontal cortex) thinking involved.

I consider myself Modern Orthodox, and I didn't experience any ostracism from my friends or family after my decision to convert. It was a life-changing decision, but I think that more life-changing was a consequence of this decision: the fact that I had to leave my country to find a Jewish community, as I lived in a place where Jewish communities were almost non-existent.

I decided to share my experience, as I don't find Judaism more restrictive than my previous life. Reading this thread made me wonder, if I live in some delusions to think so. For me, there is no conflict between being Orthodox and studying science. Otherwise, how could there be any Orthodox doctors? Similarly, I live in a relatively RW area, and nobody ever suggested that I should get rid of my computer. There is only a suggestion of using an Internet filter. Of course, I can't marry a non-Jew, but why would I want to marry a non-Jew? I find the tznius clothing more stylish than current fashion. I don't want to bore you with more examples. :)

I converted almost 8 years ago, and went through an unhappy marriage. I had a bad luck to marry an Orthoprax, who was secretly enamored with a secular life-style. This didn't change my attitude towards religion. It just made me wonder how many outwardly religious people are not really religious. For them being religious might be really hard and all about restrictions. I would even venture to say, that they are so deeply insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to impose chumros on themselves and others as a way to overcompensate for their lack of emunah.

I don't think it's fair to assume that any person deciding to go through a major life-change is not well-adjusted (=has some emotional issues). I think it's very dangerous to define the emotional well-being by the level of adjustment to one's milieu. What if the milieu is decidedly not healthy? We live in a world where we are privileged to experience unprecedented level of personal freedom. We are free to choose whatever path we want to follow. Personally, I think it's more healthy to live according to one's deepest nature and convictions, than pretend that one is someone else to conform.

Once again - please do not consider this post an opportunity to argue for your beliefs. Those comments will be deleted. Thank you.