I am very angry right now.
My frustration with Judaism lies in its lack inability to transform you as a person, no matter how much Torah you supposedly study. The recently exposed scandal of Rabbi Pogrow’s behavior, and dozens like it, are shining examples of learned men and practitioners of the faith who remain untouched — or even corrupted — by the religion they follow.
We all know many unhappy or evil religious people. We all know very happy and moral non-religious people. What I’m arguing is that there is no correlation.
First off, let me say that I consider myself knowledgeable enough in Jewish thought to tell the difference between Jews and Judaism, and all my issues are with Judaism itself, even if they are sparked by a Jew’s behavior.
Yes, there are many refined Jews. And the Torah has its share of best practices that can add to your well-being. But it’s not systematic, it’s not readily available, and it packaged with a huge amount of outdated BS. Ideas that inflate your ego, inspire you to judge, and entice you to kill, if you could get away with it.
The trigger, not the source
In the Pogrow case, there are two very important nuances about what’s bothering me:
1. I’m much more bothered by the fact that others around him tolerated him as a person than with his own behavior. Aish is supposedly an institution that guides you to become a better human being and yet the highest level of leadership bring in someone who is clearly an asshole (this was apparent way before the current news item) — stating unequivocally that rote study and knowledge is more important than the supposedly essential character development.
2. Judaism has the capacity to disable one’s internal sense of right and wrong in place of an external source. Thus, if you’re not knowledgeable enough, you’re afraid to criticize a Rabbi’s douchy behavior because “maybe there’s something you don’t know about”. Similarly, a brand new ba’al teshuva can go and judge people whose lifestyle he had no problem with only a few months before.
Some people cite Judaism’s contribution to morality, life guidance, relationship advice and happiness. My personal experience has been different: I see a morality that is flawed on many aspects such as the value of (non-Jewish) life, democracy, or women’s rights. I see very little guidance as far as relationships or happiness. I see a deferment of many of life’s biggest challenges – current events, suffering – to a future time after we die or the messiah shows up.
And it has been my own personal experience that because of the expectation that I do get guidance in these very areas, that I am so bitterly disappointed today.
Everything important is missing
When examining my own emotions regarding the Pogrow case, I realized what really was bothering me: it was the Judaism itself that he was supposedly an expert on.
My criticism of Judaism’s capacity to transform you into a better person is twofold:
1. The information that is genuinely helpful is hard to find or implement, which is the last thing someone needs when they’re seeking direction or growth in life.
2. That helpful information is few and far between and drowned in a huge amount of at best irrelevant or at worst harmful information.
What’s the point of following the Torah if you’re trying not to be an asshole? Just go to the self-help section of the library. At least there it’s condensed.
It’s Torah that’s supposed to teach you how to be a good person — in preparation for being the good person that you need to be to study Torah. That alone is an impossible cycle.
(I have met Jews whose religiousness is a much more trivial part of their lives, and who therefore have fewer expectations. It is the respect I afforded Judaism and the central role I expected it to play in my life that paradoxically made me so frustrated)
Let it be noted that I don’t admire much of the secular world either. The educational system, for example is screwed up pretty much everywhere and leaves people with little preparedness for the real world. The entertainment industry and much of technology as well, merely serves to destroy or waste people’s lives.
But I think for me the biggest issue is that they never claim to be anything more than that. They don’t give themselves grandiose claims or titles – and if they did, I would have the same issues with them as well.
It’s all about how
Here’s my point: everyone, in every religion, and every part of the world, will emphasize how important it is to be a good person, a nice person, before anything else.
Derech eretz kadma latorah, etc. etc. ad nausem.
But where, practically, do you learn how to do that? How much of the Torah is devoted to your person growth? Where do you learn to be that good person that you’re supposed to become before you learn Torah?
My issue is that the Torah spends much more time telling you what not to do than how to transform into the person who is capable to not do it.
You’re taught Torah from the moment you learn to speak, so that doesn’t leave much room for before. And you’re taught that anything but Torah is neutral at most and probably has some flaw mixed in somewhere.
So really it’s Torah that’s supposed to teach you how to be a good person – in preparation for being the good person that you need to be to study Torah. That alone is an impossible cycle.
The proof is in the priorities
And then, like I mentioned above – proportionally, how much of the Torah is devoted to telling you how to be a refined person: pirkey avos, a few constantly quoted psukim, and the mussar movment, invented 200 years ago?
Contrast that with endless lists of people you can’t sleep with, punishments you’re eligible to receive for screwing up, numbers of Jews in the desert, what colors of sheep Jacob owned, and who should be killed for doing what, and you’ll find an anthology that seems to have its priorities in a very different place.
The Torah doesn’t really tell you how to work on your middos. And working on your middos is a very trivial value if you look at the daily life outlined by the 613 mitzvos. People say things like “without mussar and cheshbon hanefesh, it is nearly impossible for the Torah alone to change a person.” So how come so little of it is devoted to that?
I understand that anyone can fail. I am not even judging Orthodox Jews who do bad things. My issue is that the Torah spends much more time telling you what not to do than how to transform into the person who is capable to not do it. It is one thing to tell people what not to do, it’s another to guide them in how to avoid doing it. This guidance exists in the world, and it bothers me that it doesn’t seem to be in Torah.
I’ll give you a specific example.
Meditation has changed my life. And I learned it from Buddhism. For a long time I used to apologetically explain that Judaism has certain references to meditation as well. But now I say no – something this important needs to be spelled out clearly, repeatedly, in a practical way. If it is not, it’s as if it isn’t there, and the Torah has failed as a “guidebook for living”. I believe that if it is truly timeless and written by God, then it is fully capable as being a relevant and easy to comprehend as Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits.
What I take from my own experience is to not believe in any system, or any person. But rather look only inward to find my own truth.
We all know many unhappy or evil religious people. We all know very happy and moral non-religious people. What I’m arguing is that there is no correlation. If you want to follow Judaism because you believe it’s correct, that’s a debate for another time. But if you call it “wisdom for living” or the “tree of life,” then I will have to disagree.