Destined to be Canine

Charlie was chasing his tail and was feeling pretty weird about it. He was chasing his tail because he is a dog. He was feeling weird about it because he is a clever dog. He was experiencing an existential crisis.

Charlie understands that dogs chase their tails. That’s why he keeps on doing it, being aware of his canine condition. But Charlie is not like other dogs who chase their tails in an attempt to reach it. Charlie knows that his tail is unreachable. He has even written a paper about the physics involved. But being a dog, he chases his tail anyway. And that is making him pretty uneasy.

For your lay-dog tail-chasing is actually a quite meaningful experience. Of course the sceptic mocks the effort, seeing it as futile. But the reward is proportional to the challenge. The more unobtainable the goal is, the more meaningful dogs all around the globe find its pursuit. It is too easy being a lazy critic from the outside. Anyone can try it for themselves to see how rewarding the endeavour is. Everyone, except for Charlie.

You see, Charlie is different. He understands all of this. He understands tail-chasing. He understands its evolutionary origins and benefits. He even understands the neurological and psychological processes featuring in the adventure. He can name the chemicals released in dogs’ brains when chasing their tails and how this results in a subjective experience referred to as “meaning”.

Charlie won’t stop chasing his tail – not so long as he is a dog. But his advanced understanding prevents him from extracting from it “meaning” to the same degree that his friends do. Whilst doghood is happy to carry on with its characteristic behaviour that it had been doing for eons, Charlie needs some rationalisation. So he came up with a philosophical argument. it goes something like this:

Tail-chasing is a characteristically dogly behaviour. Dogs, and only dogs, chase their tail. It is thus part of the essence of being a dog to also be a tail-chaser. In fact, ‘dog’ and ‘tail-chaser’ are interchangeable and semantically equivalent. To be a dog is to be a tail-chaser. However, this synonymity only holds if for every x that is a dog it is also the case that it is a tail-chaser. If you can find an x that is both a dog and a non-tail-chaser, then the two terms are no longer equivalent.

Now if Charlie were to stop chasing his tail, he would break the synonymity. Tail-chasing would therefore no longer be said to be part of the essence of dooghood. Charlie would therefore single-pawedly be responsible for the abolition of the essence of doghood. Conversely, by his continuing tail-chasing he is maintaining doghood in its true essence.

This was Charlie’s argument. It is a terrible argument, but it worked. That is, it helped him rationalise his actions. What was actually taking place – something that Charlie is bound to realise in due time – is that Charlie was chasing his tail. Why? Because he is a dog and dogs chase their tails.

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The Haters

“You are hateful!” said the man accused of hate to the man accusing him of hate.

After a hasty unearthing of archaic tweets and a meticulous consultation with the IAODH (Internationally Accepted Official Definition of Hate), both men were swiftly removed from their positions and disgraced out of civil society.

“We operate on a zero-tolerance policy towards hate in this society,” said the Hatespeech Commissioner in charge of this case, “Words have consequences!”

She was later found to have expressed hate in the past and was removed from her position. There was no one left to replace her. The end.

Don’t Like Hate? Stop Hating!

We cannot stop others from hating. But we can eliminate hate coming from ourselves. The question is, do we want to?
 
It’s easy to point to rising levels of hate committed by others. It is easy to be an “anti-hate campaigner” and try to tackle the hate of others. But how much power do we really have to control the emotions and expressions of others? Does “anti-hate” campaigning reduce hate in the world? I think that at most it pushes it away from where we are. At most it protects our community from the influence of the haters. But have we diminished hate in the world?
 
I think that we can have the most impact in eliminating hate by eliminating hate coming from us and by ‘us’ I mean oneself. It is not hard, but many of us don’t want to. We are trapped in narratives that justify our own hateful expressions. We see our own hate as legitimate responses to the hate that we have experienced. Why shouldn’t I show hate towards the hateful?
 
I think that eliminating our own hate is very easy. But only if we want it. Perhaps before I try convincing you to want it, let me show you how easy it is. All you need is to meditate on the psychology, motivations and experiences of others. You just need to think a little about what it feels like to be in your opponent’s position. What are the possible experiences, upbringing and circumstances that have led them to the views that they have? What are the anxieties and worries that drive them? What does it feel to be them? What would your views be in their shoes? How is their expression of hate just a manifestation of their anxieties and worries?
 
Think of your opponent as a psychological being. Try comparing her to yourself as a psychological being. Aren’t they as righteous in their own eyes as you are in yours? Aren’t they as self-justified as you are? Don’t they want the best for themselves and their loved ones just like you want for you and yours? Leave behind any metaphysical notions of “good” and “evil”. People aren’t “good”, or “evil”. They are psychological beings, acting on their beliefs and interests. So are you.
 
Why should you eliminate your own hatred? Well, do you want to reduce hatred in the world? If not, scroll on: this isn’t for you. But I assume that you are someone who would like to see a world with less hatred in it, you just want to know what is the best way to achieve it. You may think that expressing hate towards the hateful will achieve this. Perhaps you think of the equal and opposite hatreds as cancelling out?
 
But I don’t believe that that is the case. Not only does your hate not cancel out the hate of the hateful, but it makes you a less kind and compassionate person! Hate is the kind of thing that consumes you and clouds your vision and judgement. Once you are angry you lose the ability to make clear judgements about who is deserving to be on the receiving end of your hate and anger. You may have started out being angry at the “right” people, but your angry has distorted your judgement of who is a legitimate target of your hate.
 
I am always incredibly saddened looking around and seeing that some of the most hateful people around me are “anti-hate campaigners”. These people are self-righteous, but incredibly hateful towards those who do not see eye to eye to them. They think themselves as fighting against hate, when in fact they are its source. They think themselves fighting hate, when in fact they are fighting people. This is so bad on campus, that I am genuinely convinced that campus would be a far less hateful place if “anti-hate” campaigning and activism were eliminated.
 
Let’s extol the virtues of kindness, compassion, empathy and respect and not heed those who want to frame these values as if they are expressions of privilege and power (yes, the view that kindness and respect are “Western” and “colonial” values to be rejected is sadly a popular one in some activist circles). People can choose to be hateful if they want to. But let’s be clear with our objectives. And I say that if it is less hate that we want, then we should start with ourselves.

Gender Identity and Transgenderism

I want to have a discussion about gender, gender identity and transgender. This is going to be a long post, for shortening it would risk losing the nuance – something that is missing from most of these discussions.
 
1) A preliminary point before I start, people talk of a requirement for “lived experience” before one talks about these issues, or claim that “you cannot understand unless you feel it”. This point is legitimate but only when applied within its limit of applicability. There are two domains in these discussions. One is about feelings and the other is about facts. The domain of feelings is how it feels like to experience x or to identify as x. In this domain it is indeed the case that, unless you have felt it you don’t really know what it’s like to feel it. Moreover, everyone’s experience is different, so really no one can talk for another person as to how it is to feel a certain way. In this domain, then, no one should really speaking for others to say what it’s like to feel x. This domain is therefore one in which we cannot really have constructive discussion. I’ll therefore say nothing more about this domain.
 
The second domain is about facts: What defines gender? What is or isn’t natural and healthy? Etc. In this domain it is not experience that matters but knowledge. In fact, the very premise behind the scientific method is objectivity, meaning that it is the data that decide, not how one feels about it. In this post I shall confine myself to talking only about this domain. I will not talk about how it feels like to be x. Hopefully this preempt responses of the form “you don’t have the lived experience” etc.
 
2) Another preliminary point, discussions around these issues are often constructed as a false dichotomy: “you either accept all my claims about who I am, or else you are denying my existence.” Let it then be clear from the start that no one’s existence is being denied and no one’s rights are being denied. This post takes for granted that all humans deserve respect, safety, etc. Discussing the validity of certain identities does not mean that those holding these identities should be discriminated against, disrespected, or harmed. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but the unfortunate reality of how these discussions have been framed means that you cannot take it for granted that people will understand it that way.
 
3) A final preliminary point, the importance of this discussion. People often say “This is not your issue; why talk about this?” Here’s why: we live in a society with norms that we interact with daily and that affect us all. It is not the case that paradigm shifts in the understanding of gender affect only the people with these non-traditional gender identities. It affects everyone who has a gender and it affects everyone interacting with people with non-traditional gender identities. It is also something that is being pushed on everyone with campaigns and repercussions to those who don’t conform. It is absolutely a societal matter and society has every right to discuss it.
 
OK, I’m ready to start. In no particular order, here are some observations, questions and discussion points:
 
4) IDENTITY: there’s this mistaken belief that identity is that which you say you are. If you “identify as x”, then you are x. This claim is philosophically extremely suspect. Firstly, it is easy to make a reductio ad absurdum argument to show that in most cases where someone will “identify” as something, we will reject it. Whether I “identify” as a different race, or as a different species, nobody thinks twice before rejecting it. If I genuinely believe that I am that, then most people would recommend psychiatric help.
 
Secondly, that is simply not how identity works. Identity is a complex relationship between oneself and their environment and how they see themself relating to the society around them. It is not something that is fully internal between one and oneself. In order to be valid it has to have some external manifestations and people around you have to see you as such as well. For example, if you are a transwoman and you make an effort to be seen as a woman, to pass as a woman and to associate with womanhood, then there’s a case for your identity as a woman to be legitimate. However, if you are by all appearances a man, you behave like a man and make no effort to relate to your surroundings as a woman, then your insistence that you are a woman means nothing. You can’t “identify your womanhood into existence”. Identity is not some metaphysical or magical act of pronouncement “I now pronounce myself a woman”. It is a complex relationship between one and their social environment.
 
5) BEING BORN IN THE WRONG BODY: I wouldn’t even devote writing to this if not that I hear this claim so often. And there I thought that scholastic metaphysics was dead! What does it even mean for your body to be “right” or “wrong”? The only thing that you can say about your body is that it is yours. Unless you are some kind of radical dualist, believing that you metaphysically exist independent of your body, then there is no “you” who really “belongs” to another body. This is such a dodgy claim that I doubt that anyone with an understanding of philosophy 101 takes this claim seriously.
 
Perhaps what people mean to say when they make this claim is that they feel uncomfortable with their body, or that they would have preferred to have a different body. Perhaps individuals even feel intense pain about how their body looks. Perhaps they’d do whatever they can to alter their body. I have the greatest of sympathies with people who feel such pain, but it is not their body that is “wrong”. What’s at fault here is the way they relate to their body.
 
At this point I want to bring up another thorny issue regarding transgender: is it a mental disorder? The WHO has very recently removed it from being a mental disorder. I understand that that they moved the “transgender” category from mental disorder to sexual health. This may be as much a political as well as a medical decision. But here I want to think about just the feeling I described in the above paragraph, not being transgender as a whole. The feeling of looking in the mirror and hating your body and wanting to mutilate it or change it – whether this is because you think you are too fat, too ugly, or don’t like your body’s sex – this feeling is almost by definition a mental disorder. There’s no other way to describe such a painful relationship between one and their body. This shouldn’t be controversial either. There should be no stigma in having a mental disorder. I have one. I suffer from anxiety and depression and take daily medication for it. I think that the first step in trying to help people who are suffering mentally is to recognise that they have a mental disorder.
 
So how to help people who are suffering like this mentally? This brings me to my next point of discussion:
 
6) TRANSGENDER: I want to make a conceptual distinction here which will help articulate what I am about to say about this. I do not mean to claim that this distinction actually exist in real life. As I said, this is a “conceptual” distinction. To help with the following, I’m going to give these two concepts different arbitrary names: trans* and trans^. Here is what these concepts mean:
 
A trans* individual is someone who believes that sex and gender are distinct. They were born male and continue to acknowledge that they are male in terms of biological sex. However, they really feel more comfortable interacting with society as a woman. They like to do traditionally feminine things and to wear traditionally feminine clothes. They also interact with society as a woman and relate to others as a woman. In turn, others also see them as a woman. They identify as a woman. They’re a trans*woman.
 
The trans^ individual was also born male, but they were never comfortable with that fact. From as young as they can remember they always wished they’d get rid of their male parts. Their male body gives them intense mental pain. They tried acting like a woman, wearing women’s clothes etc, but their male body still causing them a lot of pain. They fantasise about when they can be a “real” woman with female body parts. They are a trans^woman.
 
Now I’m ready to make an argument here to distinguish the two. The trans*woman is by all appearances a healthy adult. They want to express their gender in a specific, unconventional way. That makes them a maverick, not someone who is unhealthy. More strength to them for defying societal norms! I say, live on with your life and your identity in whatever way makes you happy. Good for you!
 
The trans^woman, however, is clearly suffering and unhealthy. We can try to pretend that they have no mental disorder, but the reality of their constant mental suffering contradicts that. So let’s help them! How do we do that? Well, I can think of two possible options: the most straightforward one to me is therapy and antipsychotics. Like any mental disorder, we can try to help them in the way that we treat mental disorders like anxiety, depression etc. This seems to me like the most straightforward way, since this individual is clearly suffering from a mental disorder. If after treatment they still want to identify with their non-traditional gender, good for them. But let them do so without internal suffering!
 
The other solution that seems to me less reasonable, but more popular, is sex-reassignment. Individuals might feel that if they alter their body to conform to their mental image of themself then that would get rid of the pain. Now, whether or not this is an effective treatment for their mental anguish is an empirical matter. I am not going to say that I’m convinced that it works, but if it does then so be it. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the individual’s suffering.
 
The point to remember, however, is that, unlike the trans*woman, the trans^woman is not in a healthy mental state. Their being trans is not a mere matter of identity choice. It is them dealing with their intense pain. If transitioning does not alleviate that pain, then it is a sad mistake. This is an upsetting point to talk about. Their is so much political pressure to present as if sex-reassignment is the only treatment for gender-dysmorphia. How many people could be saved from costly and painful operations and life-long dependence on mediation if they’d try the route of therapy and antipsychotics?
 
7) GENDER-NON-BINARY: People often claim that gender is non-binary, or that they “are non-binary”. I am not going to discuss here whether or not that it is a legitimate position to hold. I just want to analyse the idea to see its implications. From what I understand, gender-non-binary theorists claim that gender isn’t a binary between “man” and “woman”, but is instead more like a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum you have the archetypal man and on the other side the archetypal woman and every real human fits in somewhere on this spectrum in terms of their gender expression and identity.
 
Now let’s analyse what this theory is committed to in order to be consistent. It is committed to the idea that some behaviours are inherently more masculine and some more feminine. If has to accept this otherwise, what does the spectrum consist of? Accepting a spectrum means accepting that some behaviours are closer to one side of the spectrum than others – meaning that some behaviours are inherently more masculine or feminine than others. I am not necessarily arguing against this view, but note how this claim is incompatible with the view that gender can be separated from gender roles and performance.
 
According to this view you cannot be a very masculine and butch woman, for being masculine puts you closer to the male side of the spectrum, thus stripping you of womanhood. Likewise, an incredibly camp, gay man would according to this view not really be a man, as they are closer to the feminine side of the spectrum. Some gender-theorists disagree, of course, and claim that your gender performance has no impact on what gender you really are. According to them you can of course be an effeminate man or a butch woman. In fact your manhood and womanhood is not affected by how masculine or feminine you are because these are only social constructions. There is nothing inherently unwomanly about being masculine, or unmanly about being feminine. Again, I’m not going to disagree with this position. I’ll just point out that this position is incompatible with gender-non-binary theory.
 
So you cannot have it both ways: you either believe that gender is non-binary, but then you have to accept that people’s performance – feminine or masculine affects what gender they are, or, more precisely, where on the gender spectrum you belong. Alternatively, you can believe that no performance is inherently masculine or feminine and that your manhood or womanhood does not depend on your gender expression. But in that case you have to see gender as something essential to the individual – perhaps their sex?
 
8) LANGUAGE: We often hear slogans, such as, “transwomen are women”; “Woman: adult, human, female”. Well, in reality, “woman” is just a two syllable sound that we make with our moths. Just like any other linguistic term, it has no inherent meaning and just means what it communicates to people. If you want to know whether or not transwomen or women, all that you have to do is go out and say the word ‘woman’ and see if people understand that to signify the class of females excluding transwomen, or the class of females including transwomen. Ascribing essentialism to language is a common fallacy. There’s nothing in the word woman that would either include or exclude transwomen. It all depends on how people understand the term. I would go as far as saying that transwomen are women on most campuses and or not women in many places off campus. It really does depend on the linguistic community you are associated with.
 
Another linguistic issue is the insistence on “inclusive” language, such as “people who give birth”, instead of women and “people with penises” instead of men. On the surface you’d think that this follows naturally from the belief that sex and gender are separate. Surely, if you can have men giving birth, then surely it is no longer a woman issue, right? Wrong! This is another language issue. There’s a big difference between saying “some men can give birth” (which is, depending on your view on the matter, plausibly true) and saying “giving birth is not a woman’s issue, but an issue of people with wombs” (which is most certainly false). Here’s why:
 
Just because we say that gender can be separated from sex does not mean that there is no correlation between them. It may be true that some women are male and that some men are female, but womanhood is still the default of females and manhood of males. This is not some accident of our cisnormative society. There are strong evolutionary, psychological and biological reasons for a correlation between femaleness and femininity and maleness and masculinity. Note, I am not saying that gender is biologically determined or that gender is biologically essential. What I am saying is that the two are closely correlated. It is isn’t arbitrary that most females are women and that most males are men. Outliers aside, I believe that, generally speaking, males are men and females are women.
 
One reason for why I insist that that is the case is because we still haven’t figured out a healthy and “natural” way of transitioning. Unlike being gay, that does not require hormone replacement, medication and surgery, transitioning is definitely not an easy or natural procedure. It is therefore not the case that some women just happen to be male and vice versa. Those males who are women have done so at great cost to their health, mental and physical. It can therefore not be regarded as the “natural” gender of their sex. I’d be happy to regard it as natural if transition would not involve so much mental and physical pain. In the meantime, I will insist that men and women are “naturally” divided into males and females respectively, acknowledging some outliers.
 
As an illustration of what I mean, polydactyly is the condition of being born with more than 10 fingers. According to Wikipedia 1 in every 500 births have this condition. Again, according to Wikipedia, 3 in 500 Americans are transgender. That means that being transgender is only 3 times as likely as having more than 10 fingers. And yet, no one (I hope!) would say that the statement “humans have 10 fingers” is false or uninclusive. We understand that we are talking about how people usually are. I’d say that we similarly need to understand that despite transgender people existing, it is still the case that we can talk about “women health issues” and “men health issues” and do not have to twist our tongues to deny that giving birth is something that women do. Again, that doesn’t mean that no man can do it, just that by the natural way of things it is something that women do and not men.
 
I’ll finish here for now. This should not be seen as some well-researched, flawless academic paper, but rather as a discussion starter with some considerations for certain positions. I am sure that there are some mistakes in this and I am happy to be corrected on them. Ultimately, no one ever discovers the truth all at once. It is a process of coming nearer and nearer to it, where on every step one discards some falsehoods that were there on the previous step. So please see this as me trying to make a step forward towards the truth, but by no means the last and final step.
 
People also say, “these are real lives you are talking about”. I know. That’s exactly why it is so important to talk about this. “Real lives” are equally affected when we don’t talk about things as when we do. Silence on the issue isn’t going to help these real lives, neither is bullying everyone into accepting a certain orthodoxy. I hope that I have shown nuance in this post and I sure hope that it is not meant personally because it was sure not intended as such. I am sure you disagree with me: please do so charitably and respectfully.

Bread of Affliction

Every night, often after crying himself to sleep, he dreams a sweet dream. His eldest son, brutally torn away from him by the evil forces, finally returns to his outstretched arms.

It has been four years since that bitter day. His life would never be the same. His young beerd whitened by worry and his forehead creased by pain. On that day at least ten years were added to his appearance. Who could have been so cruel to rob a father of his precious son?! Who could be keeping them apart for all these years?!

Not far away a young man is lying. In his disturbed sleep sweet visions are forming. He sees himself running towards a bereaved father. Evil forces had torn them apart. Now what he wants more than ever is to reunite.

“Come to me my child,” the dad’s shaky voice calls out, “for I have missed you terribly. I cannot bear the thought of you being alone!”

“Papa I miss you too,” the child cries back, “why don’t you come here to me?”

“My dear son, I would if I could, but how can I leave what I believe?”

“Father dear! Come see what I see; be here and be free!”

“Yitzchok! My precious Yitzchok! Why won’t you see what it means for me? I believe cuz I know and I know cuz I see. You have gone away and fallen astray: save your soul. Don’t hesitate!”

“Dad, how I love you! It is sweet where I stand. The sun shines and the stars smile! If only you could join me and we’ll live out life together! Free yourself: your chains have long been broken! Throw off your yoke: your master is long dead!”

“Neath you the fires are burning! You’re going under! Is this how I taught you? Is this why I had you?”

“Papa dear! You taught me to seek and I sought. Remember when you told me that for the truth one must die? Well, for the truth I lost you and death is not worse. I heeded your words; now when will you?”

“Yitzchok my eldest, I’d die for my faith. But you have let go and that pains me so! Woe to my eyes who have seen you this way! Why must my ears be working this day? You’ve abandoned your God and you refuse to come back; now you want me to leave the right track?!”

“Sweet dad! You are stuck in old ways and they are holding you back. You are better than this. The old times have passed; new days are upon us. Let go of the superstitious; don’t believe in the fictitious! Your inquisitive mind could have advanced the world: why are you wasting your talent on old myths and old laws?”

“My son listen to me. The festival is upon us; please make your dad proud. Drink some wine eat some matza. It won’t harm you if it won’t help!”

“I’ll do that for you, papa; you exist unlike God. I know that this means everything to you. But how can I be festive when you are still enslaved? If only I can free you from your own Egypt: your religion!”

“Oh, and here’s more. Promise this to me, that no bread or any crumbs will enter your lips on these eight days. Here! Take some food that your mum has prepared. She’ll have you eat that lest your soul gets cut off!”

My eyes are wet, a cheeky tear rolls down. I’m angry and heartened. I feel loved and rejected. Won’t reason redeem us after so long in darkness? How much more ignorance and folly must we inherit before we are free at last?! Why won’t they see, they won’t listen? They won’t read, they won’t learn?

These shackles should have been removed long ago! No gods, no angels, no heaven no hell! Just people and nature, just love and family.

Oh how I dream! Dad won’t you join me? Make mum stop her cooking; please you stop your praying. Just try it! Liberate your mind! Discover the world! Have no fear!

And I am angry. Angry at those who kept this lie going for this long. Angry at those who refused to see, to change, to adapt, to learn. Angry at the senseless stubbornness that caused all this pain; that tore us apart; that brainwashed our minds. Angry at this heavy sack of food that I’ll be carrying home. Food, prepared with love and fear and pain. Food that need not be eaten. Food that need not be prepared. Special food; holy food; food of superstition. Food of slavery, of bondage: bread of austerity and pain.

And my dad prays for me and I hope for him. My mum cries for me and I cry for her. My siblings miss me and I miss them more. They mourn me, so do I them.

My dreams are still sweet, so are theirs: our incompatible dreams. 

 

Autobiographical Talk at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London – 20th of March 2019

(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) 

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. It took me a while to get the hang of modern dating culture. Last summer, three years after I left, I met my girlfriend. We’ve been together since.

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.

 

The Deaf and the Mute

Adam B. had some strongly held beliefs. He held them so strongly that he was convinced that he arrived at them by entirely rational means. Not that he thought a lot about how he arrived at these beliefs. But with every fibre of his body he knew that they were true.

Adam has a rival, Becca C. He knew that she disagrees with him strongly because he sees her get angry when he expresses his beliefs. But her views are irrational. They must be, since his are right. Becca would disagree, but Adam feels the rightness of his ideas in his body. He doesn’t feel Becca’s disagreement.

Adam knows that Becca has passions too. And he knows that when Becca seems angry, that’s because she is feeling something on the inside. But all of this is what Adam knows. He doesn’t feel it. His beliefs, however, he feels – with a burning passion.

Adam doesn’t just know that Becca is wrong. He experiences it. He cannot negate his own experiences. If Becca could talk, she would tell Adam about the experiences of her own. But Adam is deaf and Becca is mute.

Adam is angry at Becca, for she denies his own experiences. He is also scared of her, as her denial is contagious. With her very existence she makes him question his experiences. If his experienced truth is unreliable, then what is? It’s a scary thought. Adam therefore avoids Becca. Even just being reminded of her throws him into existential dread.

Adam doesn’t disagree with Becca; he lives a different kind of existence. And his existence denies hers and hers his. They cannot coexist.

Becca is not wrong. She is evil.