Storytime – The Implant Ward

Akiva woke up, his mind fuzzy from anesthesia.  He swiveled his head blearily.  Something was wrong.  He was still in his medical chair, with a row of patients in identical chairs on either side of him.  Apparently he was still in the implant ward.  But patients were not supposed to wake up in the implant ward.  They were supposed to wake up outside, with no memory of the operation.

He sat upright, struggling to regain focus.  A captioned picture frame swam in front of him.  Gradually, its words came into detail:  “Faith is the basis of faith.”

A door opened and he heard footsteps approaching from the side.  A bald man with soft blue eyes and a trim silver beard came briskly into view.  What was his name?  Berlinsky… Dr. Berlinsky.

“What’s going on?” said Akiva, his mind quickening as he spoke.  “Has something gone wrong?”

Dr. Berlinsky bowed his head.  “Mr. Schwartz, I am truly sorry.  We were unable to perform the operation on you.”  He paused.  “You see, we discovered in our records that you were already implanted as a toddler with your parents’ Jewish beliefs.”

Akiva stared at him, his heart beginning to beat rapidly.  “How is that possible?  If I had received the implant, how could I possibly have lost my faith?  Doesn’t the implant… set your beliefs?  You said – you said to challenge it would be like punching a brick wall.”

Dr. Berlinsky sighed and looked away, his eyes running over the other patients lying motionless in their medical chairs.  Akiva glanced at them too.  Red and blue wires attached to their skulls and spinal cords were connected to networks of computer chips.  The sight made him feel queasy.

“The brain is the ultimate master of its domain,” Dr. Berlinsky murmured, as if to himself.  “What can I, a mere tinkerer, do that cannot be reversed by the brain itself?”

His eyes returned to squarely meet Akiva’s, and his tone sharpened slightly.  “A person who is determined to question and to reason is always capable, with enough time and effort, of rejecting the beliefs I give to him or her.  That being said, most people never reject the implanted faith.  For them, it can in fact be described as a brick wall.  But not for all.”

Akiva tried to digest what he was hearing.  So his parents had long ago given him the implant.  He didn’t know how he felt about that; he’d have to deal with the issue later.  But, regardless, the doctor was telling him that the implant had eventually failed on him.  He eyed Dr. Berlinsky, who stood there patiently before him, solemn and professional, and he renewed his resolve to obtain that which he had come for.

“Do it again,” said Akiva.

“I’m sorry?”

“Do it again.  The first implant worked for over a decade before it failed, didn’t it?  Well, just do it again.”

Dr. Berlinsky grimaced.  “I can’t.  The mind… develops resistance to an implanted faith it has rejected.  There haven’t been too many cases like yours, but the results of the operations that we have done – have not been good.  Patients experience excruciating pain in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Soon enough, they either reject the implanted beliefs or go mad.  I am afraid that we simply cannot operate on you.”

A stone was sinking horribly into Akiva’s gut.  There was no answer, then.  He had saved up a year’s salary to pay for this operation.  He had slowly built up the courage to return to his religion by way of literally brainwashing himself, only to waver at the threshold for months, unable to make the decision and commit himself.  Then, finally, he had somehow made it to the implant ward, lying surreally in his medical chair next to the eerie line of anesthetized patients as Dr. Berlinsky had methodically explained to him how the implant procedure would work.  All, it turned out, for nothing.

“Then I am doomed to believe… what I believe,” Akiva muttered.  Could there be a worse fate?

“Yes,” said Dr. Berlinsky, breathing calmly in and out of his nose.  “Treatment, unfortunately, is out of the question.”

*****

Thoughts?  Feelings???

Plans Raboisai

So, fellow kofrim and pals, here’s where I lay out a bit of the vision for this blog enterprise.  As I mentioned in my first post, my goal is not just to facilitate discussions over the web, but also to eventually create actual real-life meeting groups like mine, Freethinking Yidden.  I can’t overemphasize how much FY has helped me and some of my friends, so yeah I really stand behind this group thing idea.

FY is based in a neighborhood in NYC and is currently composed of mostly YU students and recent graduates.  I’d like to eventually have sister groups in Brooklyn and Queens, along with a group for older adults maybe in Midtown Manhattan.  And if there’s enough demand for other groups in frum centers like LA, Baltimore, Chicago, etc. I would support that as well.

Then there could be an overarching Facebook group (secret) linking everyone together.  I know there already exist OTD FB groups, but an additional one more narrowly tailored to “Orthodox nonbelievers” I think would be a powerful and awesome thing.

Do you have ideas, comments, criticisms?  Please do share.

(also guys please refrain from the name-using; after all this site is public.  i don’t mind much about my first name, but my last name for those who know it should be off limits on here.  you can call me Jewboy)

Letter to the Frum World – On Closeted Nonbelievers

The following letter contains what I would like to say to the frum world, though I have no intention of saying it.  So you get to read it instead!  But don’t worry, the frum world won’t be left out.  I have an OTD novel in store for them.  Actually, stories are often my preferred method of communication.

*****

To my fellow Orthodox Jews:

I would like to share with you a scene from one of the hidden corners of Orthodox Jewish life.

Nine young men and women sit in a circle in a New York City apartment.  Three of them, wearing looks of suspense, are newcomers.  Then, one after another, all of the nine speak of what brought them there: how they came to stop believing in Judaism and how they have been dealing with the ensuing challenges.

I founded this group, Freethinking Yidden, in the spring of 2015.  At the time, I had been a nonbeliever for over two years, and I did not know a single person like myself.  I was very closeted.  The number of people who both knew my secret and had been raised with my kind of frumkeit, the kind that makes apostasy taboo, was two: my mother and my father.  I felt isolated from the only world I knew, the frum world, on account of my beliefs.

During that period, I grappled with what seemed like an impossible choice between leaving the frum world and staying.  If I stayed, I was condemning myself to a dishonest life, a life practicing a religion I did not believe in.  I would have to find a wife to marry me despite my beliefs; I would have to raise my children as believers of a religion I intellectually rejected.  And the emotional security of my future family would be forever at risk, dependent on the Orthodox identity I clung to and thus reliant on a flimsy secrecy as its teetering foundation.  On the other hand, if I left the frum world, I would be plunging into a world that I had been brought up to see as other and putting my most important relationships at great risk.  I would be leaving behind my Orthodox identity, a piece of my very self.

Such were my alternatives as they appeared to me back then.  However, life continued to roll forward, and I slowly adapted to the situation.  I came out to many close friends and family members, and received affirmations of acceptance and love.  I traveled back and forth between the frum world and the world outside it, building new relationships in both realms.  I gradually shed much of my insecurity at moving about as a heretic among frum society.  I built much-needed community with my fellows at Freethinking Yidden, who now number over a dozen.

Things look different now.  The choice I thought I faced between leaving the frum world and staying was an oversimplified one based on an artificial dichotomy I had absorbed growing up.  The reality is that while I can no longer lay claim to full Orthodox status, my maimed Orthodox identity still wages the war of survival just like all living things.

Unfortunately, however, many in the Ashkenazic community presume the existence of an invisible wall that stands between observant, believing Jews and everyone else.  For those who believe in that wall, Orthodox identity is black and white; a person is either within the wall or without.  By thinking this way, such community members threaten to make it so.

Closeted nonbelievers like the members of Freethinking Yidden are a threat to that simplistic dichotomy.  We grew up embraced by frum family, frum friends, frum culture, frum history, and frum religion.  Most of us fit well into the system up until the moment we no longer believed in its ideological foundations.  Most if not all of us love frum life despite its faults.  Many of us still observe Halacha out of fidelity to our Jewish identities.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more aidel, sincere, and intellectually honest group of people.

Closeted nonbelievers, among others, occupy the space of the invisible wall.  Because of this, we present a perplexity to the common frum understanding.  We do not fit the stereotype of off-the-derech youth.  We have not been substantially harmed by frum people or institutions.  We are not angry, we are not rebelling, we are not rejecting, we are not disrespecting.  But for an inconvenient belief we share, we would make ideal members of the frum society in which we grew up.

Yet we remain closeted.  We are afraid of being tossed outside the wall by those who believe in it, who by tossing us out will give it solidity.  We are afraid of pounding on that wall to the sound of silence and severed ties.  We are afraid of being treated within the wall as strangers from beyond it.

A person’s membership in a group necessarily relies, in part, on that group’s assent.  As frum Jews, your views affect the viability of the diminished Orthodox identities of closeted nonbelievers such as myself.  Do you give credence to the invisible wall I have described, or not?  Why?  I await your responses at freethinkingjewboy@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, I continue to heal with my small community of closeted nonbelievers as we share those beliefs and experiences which we feel inhibited from sharing openly in the frum world.    My heart goes out to those still going it alone.  They are an unknown number.  To them I say, reach out to us and you will no longer be as alone.

Respectfully,

Freethinking Jewboy

*****

What has been the story of your own Jewish identity?  And what, if anything, would you like to say to the frum world or to certain friends and loved ones?  Comment below, and don’t forget to sign up to the email list!