Tonight’s theme is “transitioning to one’s authentic self”. I am not sure what an “authentic self” is and I definitely haven’t found mine yet. But I can tell you about my transition: a transition from chassidic yeshiva boy, to secular university student.
My name is Izzy Posen. I am a second year physics and philosophy student at the University of Bristol and the founder and president of the Bristol Free Speech Society. As you can probably tell from the fact that I am speaking at a Liberal synagogue, I am not a chassidic ultra-orthodox Jew. But that is exactly how I spent the first twenty years of my life. How did I get here? Following is the story of my transition.
I grew up in the chassidic ultra-orthodox community of Stamford Hill, East London in a family of rabbis and Torah-scholars. My parents raised me to be a God-fearing Jew and hoped that I would go in the paths of my dad, grandad and many of my uncles and cousins to be a Torah scholar.
My community led a life insulated from the outside world, trying to guard themselves and their children from outside influences, considered profane and immoral. We spoke only Yiddish and read only Yiddish books published by fellow ultra-orthodox Jews. The themes were all about the righteous and the God-fearing. Not much general knowledge, history, or science made it in there. We had no access to TV, films, radio, or newspapers. The world was corrupt and we preferred to know about it as little as possible.
Instead of primary school, we attended Cheider. Cheider was like school, except that there was no secular education and corporal punishment was used to discipline us kids – oh, and my cheider was also illegal.
I didn’t like cheider. Not the hours of sitting and studying texts and not the constant hitting and abuse. When I would come home crying, my dad would tell me that he went through the same. ‘It is normal,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is just what childhood is meant to look like.’ I couldn’t wait for the day that I would no longer be a child and the big adults would no longer be able to abuse me. But I knew that I wouldn’t let the same happen to my own children.
When I turned thirteen I had my barmitzvah. From then on I was considered an adult and was going to devote every second of my day to the service of God and to the study of His Torah. Indeed, I started yeshiva, where I spent fourteen hour days studying Talmud and Jewish Law. But that wasn’t enough for me.
I wanted to learn about some of the things that weren’t in the Talmud. I wanted to know why rainbows form, why birds fly, why the world goes round. I was told that the answers to all of these questions are contained in the Talmud and that if I study hard enough they’ll be revealed to me. I did. They weren’t.
I had other questions as well. Forbidden questions. Why does the rest of the world think differently to us? How do we know that our way of thinking is right and their’s wrong? These were scary questions. Heretical questions. I didn’t dare ask them. But they bothered me.
As I grew older I grew more bold in the questions that I’d ask and in my quest for forbidden knowledge. I got hold of a dictionary and some English books and started teaching myself the language. Seeing my quest and thirst, my mom bought me some science books to read. Before giving them to me she’d kosher them by censoring out all heretical words, such as, ‘evolution’, ‘the big bang’, or any number greater than 6000.
When I was 18 I left home for yeshiva up North in Gateshead. Away from the pressures of my parents and my community, I started frequenting the library to quench my thirst in philosophy, theology and science. In yeshiva I also discovered the internet, which opened up for me a world and wealth of information. My faith didn’t last long.
It soon became evident to me that the Torah was a man-made document and did not miraculously appear on a mountain, that the Talmud did most likely not contain all scientific truths and that Ultra-orthodox Jews do not have a unique claim to religious truth. I knew that I wanted to go to university and I started planning my next steps. I was still in yeshiva when I stopped practicing orthodox Judaism.
An organisation called Mavar helped me integrate in secular society and catch up on my education. Working during the day to support myself, I did my studies in the evening. I did some GCSEs in my first year after leaving and a foundation course in maths and physics in the second year. In the third year I was studying physics and philosophy at the University of Bristol.
My family and community had rejected me as soon as I left and three and a half years later I am still not in touch with my grandparents, my dozens of uncles and aunts, hundreds of cousins and eight of my siblings.
Transitioning to secular society is a little like being an immigrant in your own country. I had to learn the language and cultural norms. But in addition to that, I discovered fifty percent of the population whom I knew nothing about: women.
My journey has taught me never to leave societal views unquestioned. The thing about frameworks of knowledge is that when you are in it, it is very difficult to see whether it is right or wrong. Growing up there was nothing more certain to me than the truth and rightfulness of my way of life. This is still the case for my former community members. They cannot see that what they believe in may not be true and right because they are on the inside. It is only from the outside of a framework that one can see how well it does or does not fit in with reality.
We all have frameworks of knowledge and morality. It may be our belief in science, in democracy, in justice. There is nothing wrong with having a framework. But my experiences have taught me that every now and then it is worth dipping out of the framework for a brief moment to examine it from the outside. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat self-sceptical. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat irreverent, somewhat sacrilegious and to question our own sacred cows.
Each and every one of us has some mistaken beliefs and we can never hope to be right about everything. What we can do though, is try to be less wrong. We can try to have as few false beliefs as possible. How do we achieve that? One way is to broaden our horizons, by meeting different people with different beliefs and values. This helps us to put our own beliefs in perspective and to perhaps come across different and better alternatives.
To this end I have founded the Bristol Free Speech Society at my university. We come together weekly to discuss a wide range of topics and to question our frameworks and entrenched beliefs. This, for me, is the ultimate heresy. It is not about the rejection of God, or religion, but about a general openness to challenge one’s own beliefs and to be sceptical of one’s societal frameworks.
In my journeys I also discovered the Jewish people. This may sound paradoxical, given that I left a Jewish community to secularise. But the community of my upbringing didn’t see themselves as part of a larger community of Am Yisrael. They excluded based on practice, beliefs and lineage. For them being Jewish was synonymous with being ultra-orthodox. It is only after leaving that I have discovered my people. My lovely, diverse and vibrant people. Jews of all beliefs and practices, of all shapes and colours and of all walks of life. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. I am a Jew. A secular Jew.
(Note: I took minor artistic licences in the telling of my story. As it was intended as story sharing with moral lessons, I did not put emphasis on some of the nuances and complexities in charedi beliefs. All of the details are correct, but for a more objective picture some nuances need to be taken into consideration)