There and Back Again: My Journey Into and Out of Orthodox Judaism and the Religious Right (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on conservatism in Orthodox Judaism. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

By Kristin Fleetwood

In this, the third part of this series, I’d like to talk about one of the potentially tougher and more painful subjects associated with joining and then leaving a social, religious, cultural, and/or political community: The decision to leave and its aftermath. While the varying Orthodox Jewish communities that I left behind are unique within the American social and cultural fabric, I believe that there are some common features to the act of leaving and “reintegrating” into so-called mainstream society that are pertinent to anyone who has joined and then left any political, sociocultural, and/or religious group. It has not been an easy road and I don’t think it can be an easy road for anyone who finds themselves in such a situation, whatever the name of the group they had joined.

To begin, the experiences and personal, spiritual, and intellectual introspection that eventually led to my decision to leave the Orthodox Jewish fold were years in the making. There is a principle in Judaism going back to the rabbis of the Talmudic period, that one should never denigrate the Jewish community to non-Jewish people. In historical times, this was for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community, which was often a precarious minority within the surrounding majority Christian or Muslim culture. In modern times, I think that old fear still haunts some of the more insular communities, such as the Hasidim, who have done their best to wall themselves off from the surrounding mainstream society that they live within. In more modern Orthodox circles, it is not so prevalent, but the taboo still remains. I am not here to lambast or to criticize the Orthodox Jewish community, its leaders or members, or its practices. I will not be engaging in any of that. I am writing this piece in an effort to contribute an account of my own experiences that I think may resonate with others, no matter how different our own personal experiences in life.

With all of that said, my decision to leave was based on many factors. My own intellect had been nagging at me in the corners of my mind, questioning my acceptance at face value the Divine authenticity of the Torah, rabbinic decrees and decisions that affected my relationship with my non-Jewish family, and my own shutting away of my intellectual, secular background in which the scientific method and scientific research had been highly valued, but now offered an uncomfortable alternative narrative to the religious one I had adopted. Was the Earth created in six days and did God rest on the seventh, giving Jews the holy Shabbat to rest on, or did it come to be billions upon billions of years ago in the fiery aftermath of the big bang? Modern Orthodox Judaism does not reject the theory of evolution, but rather has found ways to meld it into the stories of God’s creation of the world in Genesis, i.e. asserting that the word “day” is not defined as the 24-hour period that we know it to be, but rather could have stretched over eons. More right-wing Orthodox Jewish communities, on the other hand, utterly reject the theory of evolution. For myself, I never stopped “believing” in the theory of evolution, but I found myself in circles where this was not acceptable. I kept my views to myself, save with what few like-minded modern Orthodox individuals I met along the way (you must remember I spent most of my time living in more right-wing Orthodox Jewish communities. the only ones I could afford to live in at the time). But the cracks were there and they gradually got wider until I could no longer seriously profess belief in the Divine authenticity of the Torah and returned to my more scientific intellectual roots.

The loss of what had previously been a sincere, devout, and tenacious belief in the Torah as truth was utterly devastating at first. After leaving the Orthodox Jewish community I had been living in and relocating to a city that has no Orthodox Jewish population, I tried to keep Shabbat alone (which I had done many times when I was still a devout Orthodox Jew whenever I visited my family or non-Jewish friends), to keep kosher, to pray, etc, and felt a great deal of anxiety whenever I committed an act or omission that desecrated Shabbat or eaten non-kosher food or dressed in a way not considered modest by right-wing Orthodox standards. Eventually, however, as I ceased to live as an Orthodox Jew, my anxiety gradually wore off. I now eat non-kosher food (except pork, which I still avoid) without batting an eye, wear whatever I like without a care in the world, and get together with family and friends on Saturdays just like anyone in the mainstream American culture. In some ways, I feel freed. I have freed myself from all the anxiety and worry and pressure that I placed upon myself to be a good, devout Orthodox Jew. At the same time, I still feel the loss of all the good things I engaged in and encountered while I was still a believer. There is nothing in mainstream American society that can even come close to a Shabbat or holiday meal with an Orthodox Jewish family. There is singing, good conversation, delicious food, playing outside with the kids, going on walks with friends, and just a general, beautiful relaxation from all the daily stresses of work and of making a living. The tunes of some of the prayers are indescribably moving. Some of the friends that I made who are of the modern Orthodox persuasion are friends for life and I will cherish them always. While I struggle with how to relate to them as a secular person now, they don’t seem to care whether I am on the Orthodox path or not. Our friendship is more important.


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