Friday, February 10, 2006

Judaism, the Bible and our World: Part I

I have often heard it said that the reason we cannot read secular books, watch secular movies, or have close friends who are gentiles is because we will be corrupted, our Judaism will fail, we will suddenly see the lure of forbidden fruit, and lusting for it, we will no longer be believers or adherents to our religion. Can this be proven? Possibly. But why does it happen? That is what I will attempt to answer.

I would warrant that one of the main reasons this happens is because through sheltering your children, you raise them to be completely inept and incompetent when it comes to society and the "outside world." They cannot work in offices unless they are run by Orthodox Jews. They cannot survive college because there are members of the opposite sex there, and many times campuses run high with anti-Zionistic fervor. They can only speak in a dialectic that is curiously strewn with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases; these people who are born in this country cannot even articulate their thoughts in English. They do not know how to defend or discuss their own religion, and they are raised with certain prejudices that they have never concerned. In short, by refusing to allow children access to the world, you limit them immensely. But it is more than limitation. Sometimes, you utterly destroy them.

As an adult, you are given a task- to raise your children in the way you think best, and that conforms to state laws. My parents spent a lot of time simply learning how to raise children: what impacts a child, a child's emotional feelings, a child's self-expression, and a child's method of learning. They read stacks of books, took certain families as their role models, observed different people's parenting styles, and truly thought through their actions. I am amazed by the responsibility they felt, and the fact that they invested so much effort in figuring out what approach to take with each of us, which way to treat us, how to punish and reward us, and how to explain different ideas to us. Each of the four children in my family is different, and we all value different things and different concepts. I am more introverted, enjoy reading and writing over social activities. But I can also be spontaneous, happy and free, running through the snow and looking up at the twinkling lights. My everyday conversation focuses more on books I've read that have made an impression on me, or on ideas I've thought of, or opinions that I have than on what happened at school that day. I'm more analytical and creative than I am mathematical and scientific. I don't like to deconstruct everything, but I am detail-oriented. Hence, I am a mixture~ I like details but find it important to regard ideas in a holistic fashion, I adore fairytales and fantasies, fiction being my favorite genre, and dislike being limited by my surroundings or personal failings (whether these be classmates who do not understand me or my inability to understand math.)

My sister is different from me. Younger than I am, she is intelligent, clever and happy. She would prefer to spend the day with her friends (of whom she has many; she is constantly on the phone) at the mall, while I am perfectly happy sitting at Barnes and Noble reading an interesting book. Extremely extroverted, she is also more of a "doer" than I am, taking charge of different situations, organizing get-togethers and sleepovers, one of the popular children within her own set of friends. She likes animals (especially horses) and although she likes books, she is not as interested in classics or philosophy, opting to read a fun book over a difficult one. Her personality is grounded more in emotions than in ideas, unlike mine, and her fiery spirit contrasts with the water or earth that would describe me. She's also more skilled in actual upkeep and housekeeping abilities- she cooks dinner sometimes, she washes the dishes frequently, cleans the whole house, does the whole laundry, and instills the fear of God into anyone who has not done their part. She is more tempestous and headstrong than I am, her wavy auburn hair accentuates her personality. I am her opposite, but in my own way I am just as, if not more stubborn.

My parents raised us to be curious, to desire to learn about the world around us. One of the reasons I refer to myself as 'The Curious Jew,' is because I, the oldest child, was raised in exactly that fashion. My father decided not to teach me the alphabet or how to read; he didn't value accomplishments like that so much as a child's natural intelligence, curiousity and wonder. What most characterized my chidhood was my imagination. I was extremely imaginative; I made stories for myself and told them to both my parents, acted out plays in which I was a character picking blueberries in the woods, danced and sang frequently, would repeat over the Rabbi's derasha after pounding the lid of my garbage can (which was sloped like a shtender), and could not spell or write my own name. When I first went to kindergarten my teachers were horrified by this fact, thinking that I was "behind" when in truth I had just been raised in a creative fashion. I think that the fact that I was raised this way has really helped me, and is reflected by my talent for English, Chumash and literature, all of which involve both analytical and imaginative thinking.

I was never limited. My parents read me fairytales, especially Russian ones. I was raised on Baba Yaga, and my love for clever villains was instilled by her and her flying mortar and pestle. My favorite story was that of Vassilisa the Beautiful, specifically because of the brilliant dark images. I had my share of happy, colorful children's books, but I always the Russian illustrations, specifically this drawing:

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Because I was raised with so much variety in my life, and because my education took the form of everything from The Little Midrash Says to Baba Yaga to Corduroy Bear, because I was raised to be imaginative, I think that I am able to say that I am the one person (or one of the very few) at Templars who could have made the switch I did.

I don't say that to boast, but simply to state the obvious. How many other girls from Templars could have switched to a non-Jewish school and not gone dizzy because of the freedom that afforded them? Or have survived religiously? Or have continued to dress as they had always dressed, with the same standard of modesty? How many Jewish teenagers know who they truly are, and once being self-aware, know what they stand for? How many of them are curious, as opposed to being zombies, robots, programmed by their parents and schools to believe in certain things without ever hearing of the alternatives?

My parents raised me in a very open house (although there were some limitations, and in some ways they were very strict) but the synthesis allowed me a knowledge and freedom that allowed me to discover myself as I am as opposed to who I was forced to be.

Therefore, I want to make the following statement.

If your Judaism is strong enough and you live in America (or any country that permits freedom of religion) there is no way your Judaism can be destroyed by "exposure" to outside influences unless you yourself choose to destroy it. You are in charge. The influences cannot rule you, but you can rule them. And many times, they are not even evil- rather, they are good, and helpful, and what is more, they demonstrate Judaism.

This is actually one of the most fascinating things about our world- as far as I'm concerned. When I read, I cannot help but see God and Judaism in the subject matter. It isn't a conscious thought, it's not that I'm reading and thinking, "How can I make this Jewish?" but rather it's simply there. You can never be alone in the outside world, alienated and different...because the outside world oftentimes is not outside, but is simply an extension of the Bible that we learn.

Here we go!

From Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

    "We need more gold and I am asking you for it," the doctor continued. "I am asking a sacrifice but a sacrifice so small compared with the sacrifices our gallant men in gray are making that it will seem laughably small. Ladies, I want your jewelry. I want your jewelry? No, the Confederacy wants your jewelry, the Confederacy calls for it and I know no one will hold back. How fair a gem gleams on a lovely wrist! How beautifully gold brooches glitter on the bosoms of our patriotic women! But how much more beautiful is sacrifice than all the gold and gems of the Ind. The gold will be melted and the stones sold and the money used to buy drugs and other medical supplies. Ladies, there will pass among you two of our gallant wounded, with baskets and-" But the rest of his speech was lost in the storm and tumult of clapping hands and cheering voices.

    Scarlett's first thought was one of deep thankfulness that mourning forbade her wearing her precious earbobs and the heavy gold chain that had been Grandma Robilard's and the gold and black enameled bracelets and the garnet brooch. She saw the little Zouave, a split-oak basket over his unwounded arm, making the rounds of the crowd on her side of the hall and saw women, old and young, laughing, eager, tugging at bracelets, squealing in pretended pain as earrings came from pierced flesh, helping each other undo stiff necklace clasps, unpinning brooches from bosoms. There was a steady little clink-clink of metal on metal and cries of "Wait-wait! I've got it unfastened now. There!" Maybelle Merriwether was pulling off her lovely twin bracelets from above and below her elbows. Fanny Elsing, crying, "Mamma, may I?" was tearing from her curls the seed-pearl ornmanet set in heavy gold which had been in the family for generations. As each offering went into the basket, there was applause and cheering..."

    Page 185

Does this remind you of anything? I was in the middle of the book, and as soon as I came upon this passage, I was struck by its resemblance to:

Exodus 32

Judges 8:24

Secular books and the outside world are not always bad. And this is certainly a quasi-classic secular book, at that. It is one's outlook that influences the way you see something rather than the work itself. You could think of Gone With the Wind and worry about immoral love stories. Or you could think of Gone with the Wind, appreciate the romance...and also learn something that is found in the Torah and Bible.

One's outlook, and being raised with options. Not behind a veil, but free and dancing, coveting knowledge in all its various forms.


Halfnutcase said...

you know, your quite right, and i can't help but think that some of my friends who are now frei would still be frum if they actualy taught people to survive in the outside world, and to consider the value in our having multiple oppinions

Goshia said...

Hi! Your post about the fairytales was quite nostalgic to me. I used to own this book with old Russian tales.Your post reminded me about my childhood. Warm greetings!

Jewish Atheist said...


Beautiful post. I'm continually amazed by the parenting you describe, but I'm not sure that most parents would be capable of raising their children in the same way even if they agreed that it was the best way.

As for the risks of being "corrupted" by the secular world, I agree that sheltering makes it much more likely that a person being exposed to the first time to the "real" (a.k.a. secular) world will be lost. Lost to Orthodox Judaism maybe, but lost in other ways as well. One only has to read a few pages of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels to see that.

However, I think you might be underestimating the "risks" of sending even an unsheltered child into the secular world. While I can't say my parenting was as great as yours, it was pretty good. I was raised to think and be open-minded and I wasn't nearly as sheltered as some of our more right-wing relatives. I had some non-Jewish friends and acquaintences and I read hundreds of secular books -- mostly fiction, but science as well.

I believe that both the novels I read, which told of lives, worldviews, and moral philosophies alien to Orthodox Judaism but which resonated with me as fundamentally true; and the science books, which explained the physical world much more convincingly than could the Torah, the commentators, or my Rabbis, let me know that I had other choices in life and that Orthodox Judaism might not have been the best fit for me.

Perhaps the problem was that the Orthodox community I grew up in was too sheltered, although it was one of the more modern ones around. Certainly, people have read alien novels and books about physics and biology while remaining Orthodox, but in the community I grew up in, the religious leaders had less sophisticated views of these matters than the intelligent layperson. Perhaps a community which embraced rather than ignored, downplayed, or picked-and-chose from the secular world could have kept someone like me. But, (1) it might have lost many others to keep the few and (2) it's possible I would have left anyway. Honestly, I don't know if I can ever be sure of why I left or what would have kept me.

I think strict religions like Orthodox Judaism have basically two choices. They can struggle to be true to themselves and to the world and risk losing people who take the road less travelled (for OJs) or they can shelter themselves and their children, retaining more people but (1) having a weaker, less true religion and (2) failing to prepare the ones who do leave for the outside world.

Chana, if you (hypothetically) knew for a fact that exposing children to the secular world would cause more Jews to leave Orthodox Judaism, would you still advocate it? Or (and these are not the only two choices) do you believe that some should be sheltered and some should not?

David_on_the_Lake said...

Orthodox is confronted with the difficult task of incubating the cream of the crop..those that will be the future Tzaddikim and Gedolim..and who usualy become that way by being sheltered and knowing only the four walls of the Bais Hamidrash well as creating a viable culture for the rest of us.
I think the majority of Orthodoxy is coping quite well. I can speak for myself I had very strict ..yet fulfilling upbringing without ever hearing a bad or suspicious word about the outside world from my parents.

There are segments of Orthodoxy that are sorely lacking in this regard..

e-kvetcher said...

For other "curious jews" that may not be familiar with Baba Yaga, etc..., you can read the stories and check out the cool pix here.

Ezzie said...

Excellent post. I recently had an argument with a very good - and smart - friend on a portion of this subject: What's the best way of educating modern-day Jews? (Short summation...) He felt that sheltering was especially important, with all the ideas and dangers that exist; no matter what you can explain or answer, there will always be that which is more difficult to do so about; and there will always be the draw of certain aspects of the secular world, even when explained why it is better to avoid those dangers. I felt the opposite: Especially today, when truth and information are just seconds away, it is impossible to lead a sheltered lifestyle. Better to try and educate - honesty will win out more than sheltering ever could. The deceit does far more damage than good, as the sheltering cannot possibly last forever anymore.

But neither way is perfect. He's right: Just as many are drawn to anything enticing, such as drinking or drugs, however bad for them, how much more so away from Judaism to a good, healthy, secular lifestyle? It is impossible - and foolish - to expect anyone to have all the answers at all, let alone at their fingertips. OTOH, dishonesty and this deceitful shelter from the secular world do little to promote Judaism either - and are flat-out wrong.

The way your parents raised you clearly worked for you, and is likely similar to the way I will iyH raise my own children. But it sadly cannot - and would not - work for everyone. JA's choices are not that far from the truth. For many, that veil is necessary to allow them to see things the same way you do.

Ezzie said...

Sorry, I thought it made sense to seperate my comments...

JA: I've often wondered about your hypothetical at the end. Those aren't the only choices, but they are the predominant ones. The former [and I assume you meant secular world in 2 ways; lifestyle and knowledge of science/history] has the strength of truth - and I wouldn't be surprised if a very high percentage remained frum with the exposure, which is why I don't think it's such a bad idea. That OJ could withstand such a "shock" would be a nice show of its strength.

The latter is more practical, in a way, and is somewhat done already. A charedi relative who knows quite a bit argued to me that [loose quote] "Those who need to know, already know this stuff (referring to science etc) - the rest cannot understand it properly." I don't like it, because it smacks of dishonesty; and I don't buy the argument that "otherwise too many people would go 'off'". It's an 'ends justify the means' argument, and it's weak.

However, to only teach certain things to those who can 'handle' it would avoid the dishonesty factor while keeping Judaism strong. Is it 'wrong' to only teach certain students certain materials? I'd have quite a struggle with that one... but in the end, I can give numerous arguments (that all boil down to the same one) why it isn't a problem.

Orthoprax said...


Isn't "sheltering" just a nice way of saying "deceiving"? Granted, there can be preferred times to tell children things (i.e. you don't tell a three year old about the birds and the bees) but to permanently shut people out of basic scholarly knowledge of the world is nothing short of deception.

If Orthodoxy cannot survive in the free market of ideas then it ought not to survive.

Chana said...

Something I need to clarify:

My parents did "shelter" me when I was younger, but I don't consider this to be sheltering so much as protection. What I mean by this is that they did not allow me to watch primetime TV shows (for that matter, there was no TV on schoolnights, period.) They didn't feel that violence and sex were good intake for their three-to-fifteen year old daughter. So I didn't grow up watching 'Everwood' or 'One Tree Hill' or 'Desperate Housewives' and so on and so forth.

My parents also were careful about the books I read. I wasn't allowed to read romance novels (by the likes of Danielle Steel, Judith McNaught, and so on) in sixth grade, for instance. There is a proper time for everything, a time for protection from influences and attitudes I could not truly comprehend but would have soaked up through osmosis, and a time for understanding.

Now I can watch Grey's Anatomy and find a lot of beauty and sadness in the interaction of the characters (similar to reading a book.) As a child, however, I would not have comprehended the show, but seeing Izzie and Alex groping one another and/or the (relatively friendly, although I would not have comprehended it then) anger/disrespect with which the interns treat one another would not have been a good influence.

In fact, my father did not even want me to watch Sesame Street because it told you what to think as opposed to allowing you to creatively imagine and think for yourself.

What I meant (and what I hope you understood I meant) was sheltering with regard to ideas, specifically religious ideas. My father and mother did not bring me up to think there was only one religion and no others, or that everything made absolute sense and there were no questions.

I think this attitude has been demonstrated across Judaic history. The Jews were told not to serve idols. But they knew what idols were. They knew what God meant when he talked about the Ba'al, the Asheirah, Ashtaroth and so on and so forth.

This is the type of thing that people in Orthodox Jewish society do not seem to practice today. They tell their children they can't face the outside world because they'll fall prey to it. But their children don't even know what the outside world is.

dbs said...

You are very fortunate to have such parents.

I think that isolationism does work, if the primary goal is to minimize people who leave orthodoxy. Look at it this way, if the orthodox community could move to a different planet (let’s call it “Lakewood”) and control all communication with the rest of the universe, very few people would be leaving. In practice, the general technique is to just get people married (and with children) as early in life as possible. This is almost as effective.

In my opinion, it’s not the ideas in the outside world which pose the most ‘danger’. It’s connecting with people who hold those ideas. It’s one thing to know that there are people out there who don’t believe in god (or whatever they believe). It is a completely different experience to find that they are intelligent, searching and moral individuals, and that they have the same passion about their convictions as jews do about our own.

Ezzie said...

Orthoprax - that's exactly my point (read both comments).

OTOH, I can understand the argument that many people are not mature enough or are mature enough but will still make the wrong decisions. I think we see that throughout life. You can't just throw out the argument completely.

I was responding to JA that perhaps the balanced idea isn't so crazy. Am I going to do so with my own kids? No. I'll raise them (hopefully) more similar to the way Chana was raised.

I fought with my charedi cousins about this in Israel. Will I raise my kids that way? No. Do I agree with them? No. Do I understand their point of view? Yes.

B. Spinoza said...

>while I am perfectly happy sitting at Barnes and Noble reading an interesting book.

heh. You sound just like me.

I wasn't sheltered at all either. Growing up I watched all kinds of movies and read all kinds of books and I never doubted anything. It wasn't until learning a few years full time in Beit Medrash sheltered from the world that I lost my faith. Go figure

Ezzie said...

It wasn't until learning a few years full time in Beit Medrash sheltered from the world that I lost my faith. Go figure

Interestingly, I too was most turned off in the place that probably had the best level of learning. I left.

Jewish Atheist said...

At 6:12 PM, B. Spinoza said...

>while I am perfectly happy sitting at Barnes and Noble reading an interesting book.

>> heh. You sound just like me.

Me too! :) At one point in my life I spent an hour or so there almost every day.

e-kvetcher said...

Someone should teach you guys the difference between a bookstore and a library :)

Jewish Atheist said...

But I already know the difference! Bookstores have food, caffeine, and comfy chairs. :)

Seth Chalmer said...

Chana, what a fantastic post! I'm very glad to have stumbled across your blog. I don't have any well-formed theories about parenting, but I'm sure yours must have done an incredible job.

Irina Tsukerman said...

My goodness, your family is so similar to my own (except I was growing up alone). I agree with your completely, having apparently very similar personality and upbringing, though not Jewish education.

inkstainedhands said...

I'm reading through some of your old posts now (they're fascinating, especially considering you were probably around my age when you wrote this), and I cannot help commenting on this one.

My parents are from Russia, so when I was growing up, my mother always read Russian story books to me. She had a few different compilations, your mention of Baba Yiga brings back memories. And then there was Karlson (which was probably one of my favorite Russian stories), and even some of Pushkin's poetry.

Your mention of Gone With the Wind was also very interesting. To this day, it remains one of my favorite books, and I think I must have read it at least a dozen times in the same number of years, but I never looked at it the way you did. I was focusing on the historical aspect of the book, the romance, the personalities of the individual characters and their behaviors, but I never thought of it in a Torah context. So thank you for giving me this new look on it.