Reflections on my Fifth Secular Anniversary

13th July 2020

This is a cross-post by Izzy Posen

Today, on the 12th of July, I celebrate my annual anniversary of leaving the charedi community. Over the past five years I have made it my custom to write and reflect on my journey and to share how far I’ve come. My tone over these years was triumphant and celebratory, but things have changed. Today’s anniversary will be one of sober reflection, rather than celebration. After five years, my secular honeymoon is over and I’m ready for a more mature conversation.

Just to be clear, I still do not believe in the charedi God, or in any God for that matter. I do not regret my decision to leave and I still feel immense liberation now that I am on the outside living a secular life. But my disillusionment comes from several factors – psychological and ideological.

I can identify two psychological factors. Firstly, as it has been several years now since I left the community, I am starting to forget what it felt like being trapped inside and how oppressed I was. My memory has never been great, particularly my memory of feelings. And as the years have passed I have forgotten how isolated and and imprisoned I felt. When I hear the stories of those who have just recently left, I find myself in shock that such things can take place in modern Britain, until I am reminded that that is exactly what I myself experienced not so long ago.

Secondly, after years of being away from my family and the culture and community of my upbringing, I increasingly feel a strong sense of nostalgia. Having forgotten the things that I loathed, my mind fixates on those communal aspects that I loved and I miss them dearly. I miss the smells, the tastes, the sights – even the stench of the bio-hazardous, hair-and-dandruff-infested mikvah, or of the body odours of a densely packed synagogue on a summer shabbos morning, evokes fond memories in some sort of subversive psychological manner that is beyond my comprehension.

I miss being part of a family and celebrating together. I miss welcoming in the shabbos on Friday evenings, the house sparkling-clean, the family fresh and dressed in their finest, knowing that “all our work is done”. But I know that I cannot have these – not without giving up on my secular lifestyle. But I wish that I could straddle both worlds; I wish I could dip in and out. I wish I could visit for a shabbos, immerse myself in the culture, willingly suspend my disbelief and then go back to my Godless life. But I can’t.

Ideologically, several things have changed over the last few years. Firstly, after studying normative- and meta-ethics, I have become less certain that we can see one society or culture as better than another. I no longer believe that we can say that secular culture is objectively better than the charedi culture. Yes, I was unhappy in the charedi community, but how many people are unhappy in our secular communities? Yes, people have fewer rights and freedoms in the charedi community, but what is so desirable about rights if they don’t make us happier? After five years of living in secular society, I am not convinced that people are happier and more content with more rights and freedoms. We are ungrateful, unappreciative, greedy, jealous and discontent. Our freedoms mean nothing if we don’t appreciate them. And we don’t. We live in the most free and prosperous society to have ever roamed this earth. We have unprecedented rights and social mobility. And yet we are continually led to believe that things are bad for us and that we are oppressed. We have the world’s riches and blessings, but we’re unhappy.

Secondly, I have become increasingly disillusioned with how secular “secular” society really is. My main reason for leaving the charedi community (at least on the conscious level accessible to me) was my loathing of their dogmatic beliefs in obvious falsehoods. Whilst paying lip-service to the truth and claiming to own the truth, the charedi belief-system is irredeemably riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies and distortions. A system of strict censorship and selective discourse keeps the community in the dark on all matters, whether it be history, science, philosophy, or even the development and interpretation of their own literature. (See Marc Shapiro’s Changing the Immutable for examples of charedi censorship of its own literature.) A sophisticated system of indoctrination, brainwashing, terror of hell and fear of social repercussions, enforces the orthodox dogma to the point that very few manage to ever question it. It took me many years of fighting against my own fear, accompanied by enormous guilt, before I could allow myself to question things even just in my own head.

I left the community an idealistic liberal on a search for truth. I hoped that a secular society would eschew dogma and censorship and would encourage a disinterested search for truth and enlightenment. But liberalism is dead and the enlightenment spirit is widely disparaged. Those few in academia who really do care for the truth, are ashamed to say so, as it is very unpopular. In paper after philosophic paper we read about how the disinterested search for truth must be abandoned as an ideal and must instead be replaced with a host of values, such as equality, liberation, etc.

Alongside the death of liberalism, we are wittnessing an unbearable rise of dogmatism and moral pruritanism in academic and student circles. I am watching how day by day our spaces get radicalised and taken over by a terrifying moral certainty and prescribed orthodoxies and dogmas that must not be questioned on pains of being ostracised as a bigot (the “secular” term for a heretic). On too many occasions to count have I recently felt very similar to how I felt when I questioned the charedi orthodoxy back in yeshiva. Perhaps the problem was me all along and not the charedi belief system? Or perhaps all human societies just come with orthodoxies and dogmas as part of the package? But even just in the last five years I have witnessed secular spaces become rapidly dogmatic and very religious-like in their moralism. It is only going to get worse.

Five years ago today I rejected the charedi God. Today I reject the God of Social-Justice too. I still want to be kind and empathetic. I want to increase happiness in the world and help the disadvantaged. I feel passionate about people like myself who have not been given the blessings of education. I want to encourage young people and tell them that everyone can move forward in life; that everyone can liberate themselves from the circumstances of their birth to progress and prosper. But I object to elevating social justice to God-status. Even good causes become tyrannical when they are worshiped like idols. As an atheist, I reject all gods and divinities, even so-called secular ones.

My thinking has changed a lot in the last five years. I am no longer as anti-charedi as I was when I left. But I am still just as secular and Godless – perhaps even more so. I’m sure that my thinking will further evolve over the coming five years. Perhaps I will strongly disagree with what I wrote here? Perhaps I will see things completely differently? But that is just part of life’s journey. I hope that throughout my life I will continually change my mind on all kinds of issues. Living is the constant process of gathering more evidence and reinterpreting old experiences in the light of new ones. I hope that my beliefs change as I experience more of the world and have the privilege to spend more time studying it.