Losing my religion

Losing my religion
Elon Moreh Yeshiva (photo: Menachem Brode/Wikimedia Commons)

Note: this text was written in 1994, at the request of Hofesh, a  leading Israeli freedom-from-religion site. This is a translation, modified by what I learned over the last 12 years.

In order to understand this story, you have to know a bit about the life of a boy coming from a national-religious family in Israel. Like all my classmates, I knew at the end of grade 6 that I would  continue my studies not in a high school, but in a yeshiva-school. There simply was no other option. Zevulun Hammer, the religious politician who was a long-serving Minister of Education and who made the domination of the yeshiva-schools his pet project, made sure that the average level of “regular” religious high-schools would be abysmally low. They would serve as places for those who couldn’t manage the exams of the yeshiva-schools, or were forced out of them. And doing either was enough to stamp a boy as a failure, even as a juvenile delinquent.

The yeshiva I joined was Nehalim (officially, “Nahal Yizhak – Nehalim”), managed by Yossef Ba-Gad, a self proclaimed rabbi, who became a caricature of a Knesset Member in the 1990s and was later convicted of electoral fraud. There were several reasons why my parents chose Nehalim: It was close to Petah Tikva, where we lived; one of my uncles used to serve as a rabbi there; my mother once worked as a secretary there; and they would take me, even though my grades were not precisely shining.

I studied for two years in the yeshiva’s junior high, and after two years, in the ninth grade, I started my studies in the yeshiva proper. It was a boarding school; I think the national-religious sector is the only sector in Israel which sends its children, at the about the age of 14, away from home. As a result, the parents lose any control over the education of their children. As a measure of increasing control of the students, vacations are limited to a minimum – during most of my years in the yeshiva I visited home once in three weeks. Things were actually better, vacation-wise, during my military service.

Our schedule needs some explaining. Wake-up was at about 6:30am, sometimes earlier and sometimes later, in accordance with the seasons. Morning prayer, presence in which was mandatory, began at 7:15. Afterward, we had breakfast and cleaned our rooms. Religious studies (or, to be precise, Talmud studies) began at 8:45, and lasted until 12:55. Then we prayed the mid-day prayer, had lunch, and a short break lasting until 1:55. Then we started regular studies, which lasted until 6:30pm or 7:30pm. At 7:30pm we had dinner, and from 8:10pm to 9:10pm we participated in a particular ritual called “seder erev,”or “evening studies,” in which we would be sorted into pairs, each pair studying together the text for next morning’s Talmud lesson. At 9:10pm came the evening prayer, and once this was finally over, we had some free time until lights out – which changed according to the students’ age, from 10:30pm to midnight.

I assume most people reading this did not have the misfortune of having to try and salvage some sense out of a Talmud page; I can assure you this is one of most arduous, pointless and senseless tasks imaginable. Being forced to do so for six hours a day was a torture which is hardly imaginable. I never excelled in it. After a while, I started feeling uneasy about it. The most annoying thing about studying the Talmud – aside from the fact it’s written in barely decipherable Aramaic – is that logic was never a part of the equation: the proper solution of a Talmudic problem, assuming there is one, must rely on the solutions of earlier problems or of bits and pieces of biblical verses, as a rule quoted wildly out of context. Any information coming outside the basic Jewish corps of ignorance – such as historical or archeological evidence – was obviously unacceptable. (One famous problem is the proper way of writing the text in the Tflilin; most Jews follow the system of Rashi, some follow his grandson Rabbi Tam, both from the high Middle Ages. Several decades ago archeologists dug up a set of Tfilin from the Classical era, which showed one of the two – can’t remember which – was right. The Orthodox world blithely ignored the discovery.)

When I was in grade 9, two events took place which started my process of leaving Judaism behind. The first was the Shabbath wars in Petah Tikva, specifically the battle around the opening of the Heichal movie theater on Saturdays. There were massive demonstrations, and the yeshiva organized all the students for walking to Petah Tikva and participating in them (which, by the way, is how the national-religious manage to have such a great crowd in their demonstrations – they bring out all their students en masse).

I didn’t understand why the fact that other people preferred spending their Saturday evening at a movie theater and not a yeshiva (as God, assuming he exists, knows, I despised the yeshiva) should be any concern of mine. I still considered myself an Orthodox Jew, but I didn’t see why I should force my opinion on a secular Jew. My unease grew as I received some clearly irrational replies: “Tavori (Dov Tavori, the mayor who allowed the opening of Heichal) is an antisemite,” “Tavori is the servant of the devil,” and such like. As it turned out, I was the only person in my class who didn’t join the demonstration.

That year, 1984, was also the year Rabbi Meir (Martin) Kahane managed to get himself elected to the Knesset. I was a right-winger at the time, even volunteered for the Likud in the elections of 1984, but Kahane’s ideas shocked me. Many members of my family were murdered in the Holocaust, and I couldn’t believe an ideological clone of Hitler manage to get himself elected in Israel (MK Michael Eithan, of the Likud, famously showed how one of Kahane’s bills, “The Bill for the Protection of Jewish Blood,” was a rip-off of the Nuremberg Laws).

Furthermore, Kahane kept claiming all of his ideas are derived from the Halacha, Jewish law. Checking out his quotes showed he had the truth on his side. At the time, Amos Kenan – famous writer and artist – challenged the Chief Rabbis of Israel to dispute Kahane’s claim. They did not, of course. This was the first major push out. During 1984, noticing how many of the students were enticed by Kahane, Ba-Gad pontificated to us about him, saying confusedly that “Kahane is right, but he is insane”. Not precisely a strong condemnation. Nowadays, I think what Ba-Gad meant by “insane,” is that Kahana exposed in public all the fetid vileness of Jewish Orthodoxy hatred of mankind, which was never meant to be so exposed, but whispered from rabbi to student.

On 28th October of that year, David Ben Shimol – an IDF soldier, related to Kach, Kahane’s party – fired LAW rockets at a Palestinian bus, killing Jamal Al Matur and wounding ten others. The evening seder, by which you could, until that evening, set your watch, had to be postponed by 30 minutes – so my fellow students could finish their victory dances. I looked at them from the side, shocked, not knowing what to do with myself.

At about the same time, some rabbi from some settlement showed up one Friday evening, to preach to us about Din Rodef – the Halachic law which says that in defense, it is allowed to take the life of your persecutor, or the persecutor of another innocent, if he is trying to kill you or the innocent – and by his lights, Din Rodef allows shooting terrorists after they’ve escaped or surrendered, and in general allows the killing of anyone acting against Israel or the IDF, even if his only sin was the writing of a slogan.

Our class rabbi, who was a Haredi and, therefore, saner in those issues, was shocked to the core. He summoned us to class immediately afterward, and explained to us – shouted at us, to be precise – that Din Rodef is intended for one purpose only: to prevent the murder of an innocent. Once a persecutor has committed murder, he is no longer considered dangerous and there is no right to slay him out of hand, especially if he threw away his weapon or surrendered.

As the tenth grade started, I therefore found myself confused and full of doubt. Two people put me on the right track: Ohad and Eyal. Ohad was a Canadian, and came to us straight from Toronto. He was flabbergasted by the regime of the yeshiva, and after becoming friends, I began hearing of all sorts of notions I had no inkling of earlier. For the first time, the terms “democracy,” “human rights” and “freedom” were mentioned positively, not out of scorn. I began understanding there’s also a non-Jewish way of seeing the world, and began a lifetime study of American history.

One of the customs of Nehalim was that older students – those in grades 11 and 12 – would spend some weeks during those years in “higher yeshiva” –  i.e. those that do not offer secular studies. Eyal was a roommate; as he neared the end of grade 10 his class rabbi decided he could go to a higher yeshiva even though he was a bit younger than usual. It should have been a week. Two weeks passed, without Eyal showing up. Finally, his worried parents went to seek him at the yeshiva he was sent to, Kiryat Malachi, a notorious yeshiva for “born again” (hozrim bitshuva) Jews. Eyal wouldn’t see his parents, cried they were “driving him into sin.” After the parents raised some hell, including threatening to sue, the Kiryat Malachi vultures set him loose, and he returned to Nehalim.

He was a different man. He was also messing up the lives of me and and Asher – my third roommate. He used to go to prayers, returning at 12:30am or later (90 minutes after lights out). Then he would start describing the torments of hell awaiting Asher and me, who did not trod the paths of righteousness, as he did. After a short while, I realized if I wanted to get any sleep at all, I had to shut him up. This meant getting some counter-arguments. I started devouring philosophy books.

And with each and every one of them – Nietzsche, alas, was a major influence, but I also read loads of Greek history, and if there is any good antidote to Judaism, this is it – I felt my religious beliefs vanish away. By the time I started grade 11, I was Orthodox in name only. Earlier, I rejected Jewish law as racist; now I could no longer believe in a deity which was managing the world and interested in our lives.

The last two years were awful. I could never keep my mouth shut, and as a result got into fights – physical ones – with other students. My rabbi didn’t know what to do with me; I was sent several times – much more than usual – to high yeshivas, many of them “born again” yeshivas. It actually worked once: after being closeted in one of those places for two weeks, Asher found me mumbling some Rabbi Kook nonsense. He slapped me, hard, and said: “Remember how you used to think.” He, too, went out. The search went on; I spent much of the 12th grade agonizing over Christianity (which, if Judaism is an ugly lie, is at least a beautiful one).

The next step in the life of a yeshiva-school student is the hesder yeshiva, which allows him to avoid much of the military service (they only serve 16 months, while others serve 36) and continue living with his mates for a couple of more years. It was well-known among us that if you told Nehalim you weren’t going to a hesder yeshiva or a higher yeshiva, your grades will take a mysterious hit. What many people did was register with a hesder yeshiva, inform Nehalim of it, pass their matriculation tests, and then, once they were out of Nehalim, cancel their registration. Out of either naivete or stupidity – take your pick – I refused to do register with a hesder yeshiva. I had enough Talmud studies to last me a life time. I even considered , stupidly, to burn my Talmud book. Eyal convinced me not to do so; I made do with writing “Jewish superstition” on each and every page.

Towards the end of the year, Ba-Gad summoned all the students of the 12th class to the auditorium, and went name by name. Each and every student named a yeshiva he enrolled with. Then came my name. “Yossi Gurvitz?” “IDF”. “See me afterwards.”

I soon had a one-on-one with the old hypocrite. He asked me why I wouldn’t go to a yeshiva; I told him this way of life is not for me. He insisted, crying “but what will be of the Torah?” I told him it will be fine. “I am told you joined RATZ” (one of the parties which would become Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party, in 1992). I denied the charge, truthfully; I only joined them a couple of weeks later, after leaving Nehalim. And that was it.

Two months later, I was drafted to the IDF. I made a point of not being mistaken for an Orthodox; prior to my basic training, the rabbi at the recruitment base (bakum), tried to send me to the military rabbinate; I had some choice words with him about that. Paradoxically, the military – normally a very oppressive organ – allowed me to complete my coming out.