I grew up in a frum home, the eldest son of two ba'alei teshuva. From the get go, I was the perfect off-the-derech child - I was very inquisitive of the natural world; the only thing more interesting to me than a wild plant or a rock I found was an episode of PBS's NOVA. Most of the time, my eyes were glued to the ground - there was something mysterious and enchanting about the world. While my peers were reading fiction such as The Magic Treehouse and Artscroll’s biographies, I was absorbed in the latest issue of National Geographic or Biblical Archaeology Review.
I went to a charedi-type school through first grade, but I hated it terribly. From a young age, I was a rationalist. I hated Judaic studies with a passion. I vividly remember how, "chumash class" was six-year-olds sitting in front of a purely Hebrew text (which few of us could understand) with the class Rebbe reading to the class with a poisonous dose of midrash. Midrash, in my opinion, is something that should NEVER be taught to children. To briefly quote an essay from Heshey Zelcer,
“Is Litchenstein privy to a study that analyzes how an educational approach that stresses a fairy tale version of Chumash affects modern Orthodox children? What percentage get turned off to Judaism, lose their faith, or leave orthodoxy? And what about the insult to Chazal that such a literal interpretation [of midrash] implies? Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid [hardly a rationalist] in Sefer Chassidim (page 239) gives sound advice regarding teaching midrash to children. “One does not reveal a strange Aggadah to children, lest they say, ‘This is nonsense’ and ‘If this is meaningless, so is all the rest (of the Torah)!’”.
Exactly as Zelcer describes, such a thing happened with me. Similarly, I was unable to justify how the creation narrative given in Bereshis could possibly have occurred, given the mountain of evidence for natural selection and evolution. I was disenchanted by my teacher’s inability to answer difficult questions, usually choosing to give a non-answer and then adding “Does that answer your question?” (my answer was always “no”). Often, it is better to say "I don't know" than not give a complete/real answer.
My burning questions, lack of access to answers (or Judaica, period), and heavy exposure to the rational discipline called science created someone who was destined to leave Orthodoxy. But further developments through a wrench in that machine.
When I was 8, my parents abandoned Orthodoxy. Ironically, I remained the most observant member of my family! I could not and would not eat food that wasn't kosher, if I could help it. I made a concerted effort not to ride in the car on Shabbos, and to walk to shul every week. I was still going to a Jewish, but now a modern Orthodox school, at this time. I have read about the “shift to the right” occurring in modern Orthodoxy these days. I can vouch for this. While I should have been exposed to a greater diversity of thought and ideas, I got the same unsatisfactory answers, yet masquerading as “moderate”.
When I was almost 13, my family moved to the middle of nowhere. I started going to public school on the weekdays, and a Chabad on Shabbos. Contrary to the horror stories I was indoctrinated with, switching to public school was probably the best thing that could have happen to me! I was exposed to other cultures, religions, and people. I got to see all the bad my parents had shielding me from, and I learned to appreciate what I had in private Jewish schools. I got to develop my own identity and understand of Judaism.
But now I was faced with new challenges. There were only a few fellow Jews at my new school and I had the misfortune of being the most knowledgeable about Judaism. Which meant I was the one who was faced with the challenge of the occasional evangelizer. In this instance, the internet was my friend. I watched Skobec and Singer debate Christian missionaries, and I learned what I needed to learn to stand up for the Jewish minority. Although I didn’t understand the implications of what I just did at the time, this was a very important development in my personal outlook. I gained proficiency in certain Torah concepts, absent of that “pesky” midrash or aggadah. Just plain, dry, rational Tanakh.
While at first I really fit in at Chabad (although it was very different from my more Litvish upbringing), as time went by I started to notice the ideological gap between Lubavitch and I. An annual visit to Crown Heights in Brooklyn (where Chabad-Lubavitch is headquartered) reminds me of that gap. Chassidim occupy the polar end of the rational-spiritual spectrum. Unfortunately, it so happens that they occupy the other end of the spectrum! I have come to expect “There’s spiritual reasons for it” as a catch-all answer, although I now have the chutzpah to ask “But what does the Talmud say?” as a follow up. Granted, this isn’t much different from my previous experiences, but at least now I have access to a set of English-Hebrew sefarim, so I can cross check whatever others say myself.
A few things further influenced me since I started at Chabad. First, I gained a mentor who hosted me at his lab for the summer, giving me a brief experience in genetic engineering. He also happens to be a ger. Second but unrelated, I went through a black-hat phase for two months. I don’t talk about that much. But the biggest change came last summer when a friend of mine recommended I go (קרי: coerced me into going) on an NCSY summer trip. I chose The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), an NCSY Israel summer trip for American public school teenagers. My mentor from the lab told me sternly before I went, “when you are in Teveria, visit the Rambam’s Kever.” I agreed, and had my councilors reroute our activities in Teveria, so I could visit it. Although Rambam did not mean anything to me at the time, those ten, short minutes were surprisingly meaningful both at the time and in hindsight. Near the end of the trip, we visited The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I was very surprised by the intellect level of Rabbi Slifkin (and his museum volunteers), who was unlike any rabbi I had ever met. At the time, I was not aware of the rationalist outlook, so in hindsight I regret not taking full advantage of the opportunity and striking up a conversation with the staff. Blowing the shofar collection just seemed less intimidating, I guess.
I came back from Israel wanting to learn about the places I had been and seen. I went online, and began learning about the archaeology of Israel, an interest of mine from when I was a young child. What began as a secular interest eventually resulted in me learning the mishna, tosefta and gemara for contextual understanding. As a side note, I still hate midrash, although I can now appreciate midrash the way it is supposed to be learned (not literally, but as a parable so that we can learn wisdom).
Biblical archaeology lead me to discover ben Sira. Which lead to Sa'adia Gaon. Which lead to Rambam, and eventually the whole breadth of rabbinic literature. I started catching up with my yeshiva learned friends in a few months. I learned to abandon the need to reconcile all opinions quickly. I abandon pointless Zoharic this and that, including all mysticism (probably to the distress of my Chabad Rabbi). I discovered rationalist Judaism on my own.
But at the end of the day, I learned to find my own נתיב - a road personally traveled - even if it meant abandoning the straight and narrow דרך. This blog was a great influence on me. I found a like-minded person to learn from. A few days ago, I read Rabbi Slifkin’s post about the yahrzeit for his mother-in-law, Anne Samson, and read his essay about mourning. I knew the name sounded familiar... The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey! This trip had a profound positive influence on my life, by inspiring me to learn about Israel (biblical archaeology), and leading to me learning Torah the way Torah I believe it is supposed to be taught.
So why is this story here? Since I started public school, but even more since the summer, I have wanted to go for a gap year to yeshiva. I now know I would like to go to Israel. But I wanted to reach out to the reader base to see which one(s) they could endorse. I want to spend most of my time learning - whether I'm in my yeshiva, or "in the field" (I have a passion for the natural world I mentioned), so ideally there will be a lot of learning, but also opportunities for me to go out on my own during the year. I would being interested in seeing which gap year yeshivos the reader-base could endorse (or not endorse) to help my decision along.If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments!