The Day I Left Orthodox Judaism

The Day I Left Orthodox Judaism

[Today – the 12th of July – I celebrate my fourth anniversary of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. I have never written before about my story in detail. If I ever decide to publish a memoir of my journey, this is what a first draft of some chapters might look like.

Image: my last day in yeshiva]

 

1

It was motzei shabbos (Saturday evening) the 24th of Tamuz, 5775 years to what I now knew was not the creation of the universe. Sahbbos had just gone out and the narrow yeshiva dormitory corridors were abustle with boys readying themselves for the new weak of study to come. I was also getting ready, but for something of an entirely different nature – for something far more consequential.

The long shabbos afternoons of the summer always gave me plenty of time to think. And when I thought I introspected and when I introspected I discovered uncomfortable truths. It had been over three months now since I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe that Orthodox Judaism was true, but since then I’ve been hanging in limbo. I was no longer a believer in any meaningful sense of the word, but I was still a fully practising orthodox Jew and, by appearance, even a chassidic Jew – although I had given up any internal adherence to chassidism two years earlier.

It is one thing to lose your faith intellectually – not that that was easy: it took years and years of torturous and guilt-ridden thoughts to seriously question the religion of my upbringing. It took further time to explicitly admit to myself that I am not a believer. But even after that confession nothing changed in my outward practice. Practising orthodox Judaism, I discovered, was not really a matter of faith or conviction, but of deeply ingrained habit. It was a way of life – an exclusive way of life. What would it even mean to not make a blessing before eating? How does one even go about putting non-kosher food in their mouth? These were things that I could not comprehend even after losing my faith. All my life I lived a specific lifestyle with a specific set of rules and norms. I didn’t know of any other way to live. I have never seen anyone living differently. Even the thought induced a shudder through my body.

But this is the blessing of shabbos: not being able to do any work or to get anything done, you are forced to reckon with yourself and confront those personal inconsistencies that you’d rather leave undug. And so I thought. I thought about my future and about my prospects. They looked grim. I could not see myself living my life as an Orthodox Jew in an Orthodox Jewish community. It was not the personal practice that bothered me, but the idea of living a closeted life, not being able to be open about my beliefs. I knew that the instance that my heresies became known would be the end of my social life. No one would want to be seen talking with me, I would have no marriage prospects and the yeshiva would most definitely kick me out. 

Even as things were, my social and marital prospects were very dire. No one knew yet at that point that I am not a believer. But people suspected that something fishy was going on. Rumours were flying around in yeshiva and people would quote me saying things bad enough to classify me as someone with heretical leanings, if not as an outright heretic. The chassidic boys in yeshiva attached to me the title “oifgeklerte”. To be ‘oifgeklert’ is to be enlightened, but not in a good way.

The word ‘oifgeklert’ entered the Yiddish lexicon from the German ‘aufklärung’, which, in chassidic communities – still traumatised from the haskalah and the havoc it wrought on traditional orthodox Jewry – came to symbolise everything that is bad with freethinking and rationalism. The questions that I asked and my sceptical freethinking – even though I was careful not to be outright heretical publicly – were enough to give me the reputation of an oifegeklerte. Consequently, the pious boys would keep away from me. Being oifegeklert also meant that I was radioactive from a shidduch (match-making) perspective, as no respectable parents would risk giving me their daughter in marriage. How could they rely on me to give them pious and chassidic grandchildren?

The option of continuing on as I had done over the last three months was therefore unsustainable. But what was the other option? By then I had already been in contact with people outside of the community to discuss the possibility of leaving. Until not much earlier I didn’t know anyone who was not an ultra-orthodox Jew. I had discovered the internet in March of that year and immediately started searching for outside connections. I entered into Google every combination of the terms “Jewish heretic”,“ex-Orthodox Jew”, etc. and followed whatever results I got. At the time the ex-Ortohdox community in the UK was not yet well established and I got no local results. But I did get in touch with a New York based organisation called Footsteps and asked them for help.

Footsteps said that they have no overseas services. But I was desperate. I said that I would fly over to NY so that they can help me leave the orthodox world. When they asked if I had money to pay for the ticket, I said that I didn’t: as is the case with most chassidic bachelors, I was completely dependent on my parents, without any belongings of my own. The person on the other side of the phone apologised and was about to discontinue the call. But then she remembered something. She had heard of a new organisation in the UK called Mavar who were trying to do the same thing that they were doing in NY, but in the UK. They were quite new, she said, so they didn’t have a strong online presence, but that it is worth giving them a call.

 

2

By the time I was having this conversation with myself on this afternoon of shabbos parshas Pinchos (the specific weekly portion of the Torah read that week), I had already gotten in touch with Mavar. They had laid out for me all the options. We assumed that I’d be homeless once I left, so they were looking at finding temporary accommodation for me until I could find work and start renting my own place. I would also have to somehow catch up on high-school education, since I told them that I wanted to go to university. It all sounded very alien and foreign to me and I was scared.

Up until this point I had been waiting for a catalyst to bring about my breakaway. I now realised that I need to make it happen. I still had no clue how I was just going to get up and leave yeshiva. How was I going to inform my parents? My mentors? My friends? But on this shabbos afternoon I decided that the time is up and that I am going to start taking practical steps towards leaving. The first thing I was going to do was to stop observing Orthodox Judaism in my personal life.

The thought was frightening, in fact, terrifying. This was going to be the most consequential decision I have ever made in my life. I was going to take all my hypothetical, theoretical and intellectual heresies and actualise them in the real, practical world. Thoughts can always be reversed and one can just have a change of heart about things. But actions, we were taught, are permanent. They leave a permanent stain on one’s soul, a stain that cannot be removed even through repentance.

Of course I no longer believed in souls and sin. But that was all theoretical. Twenty years of indoctrination have left me trembling and shivering of the thought of deliberately sinning. I had never done this before. To be sure, I wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Of course I had occasionally been late to prayer, made a blessing without intention, recounted a juicy item of gossip; but never before had I sinned because I wanted to. Never before had I sinned for the sake of sinning, for the sake of rebelling. 

But this terror that I now felt confirmed to me the importance of my decision. Why was I so scared? It had been months since I believed. I knew that there was no God out there who was going to care about my transgressions. So whom was I so afraid of? This fear was purely psychological and irrational. It was a result of brainwashing and I knew that no amount of theorising would get rid of it. The only way to get rid of it was to negate it by acting against it. I needed to go out there and transgress, or I would forever be held back by fear.

There was also another reason for my fear – a more rational one. This decision was going to confirm my breakaway once and for all. This was the first practical step towards physically leaving the community. I knew that by doing this I am stepping out onto an unknown and treacherous journey, the destination of which was utterly unknown and mysterious. From my recent online research I had learned that the suicide rate in the “off the derech” (orthodox apostate) community is really high, which is unsurprising given the shunning, the shame and the struggle with making it in a world that has been consciously alienated and otherised in all of our years of upbringing and education. There was no guarantee that my journey will be any more successful. I too was going to have to make it in a world that I have never been allowed so much as a peak into; where I have no relatives, friends, or even acquaintances; that has been vilified and portrayed in the darkest and most morally corrupt colours throughout my life; that functions by radically different norms, values and rules, which I have never learnt to make sense of. A terrifying prospect indeed. But I had made up my mind.

That night – it was well past midnight – I lay down to sleep. I did not say the Krishma (bed-time prayer). For all my life – ever since I could utter my earliest words – saying the Krishma was part of going to bed. No matter how tired I was, no matter how drunk I was (if it was the evening of Purim), there was no going to bed before saying it. It is the prayer in which one asserts the oneness of God as the last thought of the day. You are not meant to talk afterwards, so as to fall asleep with thoughts of the Almighty in your mind. In it you also ask for God’s protection for when your soul is gone and your dreams take over.

Nighttime is scary and mystical time. Your soul leaves your body and there is no guarantee that it will be returned to you in the morning. The angel of death and his demons roam about freely and the impure powers rule. In the Krishma you pray that God and his good angels protect you from them. That night I had made a pact with the impure powers. I no longer needed the good angels to protect me from them. I peacefully slept through the night.

3

The sun was shining through the thin curtains of my room in the yeshiva dormitory. It was the morning of Sunday the 12th of July 2015. That day probably also had a Hebrew date associated with it. But not for me. From that day on it would be the Gregorian calendar that dictated my dates.

I woke up unusually peacefully. A “normal” morning would involve quickly checking the clock to see how much time is left until the deadline for the morning Krishma. One needs to wake up to God, just like one goes to sleep with God. In the morning there’s a deadline – a certain number of hours after sunrise –  by when one needs to have said the morning Krishma. Usually, this requirement would give me stress in the mornings, especially after a sleep-in. But this morning I was free from that. 

Although I could’ve rolled back into bed today, not having to get up and prepare myself for the Krishma, I chose to get up. I didn’t want to oversleep the deadline – which has happened to me several times in the past and after which I would always carry the guilt and repent – I wanted to miss it. I was going to stand there ready, looking at the clock as the deadline approaches and not say the Krishma. It felt naughty. It felt good.

I have never said the Krishma since.  

The life of an Orthodox Jew is dictated by endless rules and laws. These affect the most minute and intimate parts of your body and life. There are rules for everything: how you get dressed, how you eat, even how you go to the toilet. During millennia of isolation and prevention of taking part in worldly affairs, the Jewish community had created its own fantasy world, which ran according to its own rules; where none of the injustices of the world existed and where things made sense. 

Every morning I would get dressed according to a prescribed halachic-kabbalistic formula: shirt first – right sleeve then left sleeve – buttoned up right upon left. Then came the yellow tzitzit on top of my shirt. Next up the trousers – right leg before the left. Right sock, left sock. Right foot slipped into the right shoe, followed by the left. Left shoelaces tied, followed by the right. 

This order is intentional and specific. Hundreds of pages and books are written about this topic alone and every part of it has a reason. You see, had I been right-handed, then I would tie my right shoelaces before the left. Being left-handed changed that, although it didn’t change the order of sleeves and trouser-legs: those were still right first, then left. 

This pattern had been so entrenched in my dress routine, that it was now just habit. I wanted to unlearn this habit. Not that there is anything wrong with tying one’s shoes one way rather than another, but I knew that if I do not consciously uproot this habit then I will forever be a slave to my past. I was going to retrain myself and my habits back to neutrality and then let nature dictate my behaviour. That morning I followed the formula exactly in reverse.

The tefillin are a pair of leather boxes and straps that the Orthodox Jewish male fastens on his forehead and arms daily. Failing to put them on is not just the passive failure to fulfil a commandment; it also affects you on a physiological level. The Talmud says that “a scalp that does not wear tefillin is amongst those who sin with their body”. Failing to put on the daily tefillin is akin to committing an active sin with your body. Consequently, the daily laying of tefillin has become a hallmark of observance. You know that one is a serious sinner when one no longer puts on tefillin. That was me that day and from that day on. 

But I had to be careful. Following the rumours and suspicions about me that were making the rounds in yeshiva, boys would occasionally go into my cupboard and sift through my private belongings to see if they can find any evidence of contraband. For instance, there was a rumour going around that I was reading heretical books (think, say, a book about evolution). After going through my belongings all that was found was a book on the history of British monarchs – I was trying to familiarise myself with British history that I had never learnt in cheider (Jewish primary school). It wasn’t quite what they were looking for. But it was bad enough. After all, why is a chassidic boy reading about goyishe (non-Jewish) rulers in yeshiva? Moreover, it had pictures of women in it, God forbid!

There is a story that was told about this boy in the Volozhin yeshiva of pre-war Lithuania. Rumours had been going around that he had fallen prey to the secularising currents of the haskalah and that he was no longer observant. His friends came up with a way to verify this. They stuffed tissues into his tefillin case and waited. A couple of days passed and they checked the case. The tissues were still there untouched. This was proof that the boy had not been laying his tefilling and he was expelled from yeshiva. 

Knowing that people were going through my personal belongings I feared that they would subject me to a similar test. I therefore checked my tefillin case everyday, ready to remove any tissues that would be put there. I never found any, but I had to be cautious.

4

As the days passed by I started looking for more active opportunities to transgress. Yes, I haven’t been saying the Krishma, praying, or laying tefillin, but I wanted something more. I wanted to commit as many sins as possible to get rid of the aversion, fear and disgust associated with these acts. I wanted to liberate myself from any psychological barriers and phobias. But how many opportunities for sin are there in yeshiva? I had to get creative.

One morning whilst eating my cereal at breakfast I had an idea. I poured some milk into a plastic cup and took it back to my room. That day, meat was served for lunch. Immediately after eating, with some meat still stuck between my teeth, I hurried back to my room and gulped down the cup of milk. This was a sin, since eating meat and milk is forbidden. In fact, our custom was to wait six full hours after eating meat before consuming any milky products. And here I washed out my meaty mouth with milk!

During this week I also started exploring my sexuality. But before I could get about doing that I had to learn what that was. You see, sex and sexuality does not exist in the chassidic community – not in any acknowledged form anyway. Chassidic Yiddish doesn’t even have words for sex, intimacy, or the sexual organs. All of these concepts are referred to in euphemistic Hebrew terms, intended for scholarly and Talmudic use. The penis is referred to as “the limb”, or “the covenant”; the vagina is “that place”, or “the nakedness”; the act of sex is “activity of the bed” – no specifications were ever given for us bachelors as to what this “activity” consists of.

The chassidic boy is required to keep his thoughts pure at all hours of the day. From immediately after our barmitzvahs at the age of thirteen, we kept on being reminded of this. It was never quite specified what exactly “impure thoughts” were, but we knew that it had something to do with looking at, or thinking of, women. My prepubescent self did not quite understand why women were impure, but it made sense. After all, women are second-class members of the community, being denied any community leadership roles and being placed behind partitions in the synagogue. Perhaps there was something inherently impure about them?

Then odd things would start happening to me. I would walk to yeshiva, eyes down as instructed, and from the corner of my eye something would catch my attention. I would try ignoring it and diverting my thoughts to the Talmudic topic that we had been covering that week. But this mysterious pull was stronger than my will to keep my eyes pure. I would eventually give in and lift my head just to be confronted with a huge scantily-clad female model on a billboard. Nothing else on the street interested me, only the source of impurity. 

Why? What is wrong with me that out of everything that I can look at, it is exactly the impure woman that I am attracted to? 

And then I felt it in my pants. 

I had long made the connection between impurity, women and my penis. The earliest memories that I have of my granddad is him catching me itching  my crotch through my trousers. With a stern look and a serious voice he told me, “Yitzchok, a Jewish boy does not touch himself there”. 

“Why?” I asked naively. 

“A Jewish boy doesn’t ask why. A Jewish boy listens and obeys.”

Never since did I touch my penis. Not until this week – my week of sin. 

Finally now was the time to explore that part of my body too. But where to begin? 

Next time I went online I brought up the Wikipedia entry on “penis”. From there I was led to “masturbation”. And so it was one afternoon that I found myself heading to one of the public toilets in yeshiva to put my hands to the test for the first time. I was twenty years old.

I had not yet had the chance to learn about the abundance of digital stimulants online, nor did I have anything stored in my imagination to fall back on. It was just my two hands and I. The effort was arduous and did not immediately yield the desired results. It would be some time before I perfected the craft. I will spare you the details.       

5

It was Friday evening of the 17th of July. The sun was about to set. Everywhere there is rushing and hurrying. Chassidic boys are running, their wet peyos (side locks), fresh out of the mikve (ritual bath), dripping over their shiny silk bekitches. Non-chassidic boys, freshly clean-shaven, are helping each other secure their colourful ties around their necks. Freshness and purity is in the air.

As far back as I can remember, Friday evening was my favourite time of the week by far. The radical transition between hectic Friday and serene shabbos that occurs as the sun sets, always had a magical climactic effect on me. As soon as shabbos arrived everything came to a sudden standstill. Whatever has been done was done, and what was still unfinished would have to wait until tomorrow evening to be continued with. For now, everything was as if it was completed. “When shabbos arrives,” the Talmud says, “rest as if all your work had been done”. And that’s exactly how it felt every single week.

Shabbos was even more beautiful in yeshiva . At the time designated for the evening prayer to begin, the beis midrash (study hall) was packed wall-to-wall with boys dressed in their finest, ready to welcome in the shabbos with prayer and song. At no time during the week was the beis midrash so full and at no time during the week was everyone so bright, cheerful and fresh. 

The Friday evening prayer is the most beautiful of all prayer sessions: it is concise, collaborative and full of songs. The pinnacle is reached just before the silent Amidah (standing prayer), when the whole community erupts in the melodious tune to the words of “Veshomru” (“they shall observe [the Sabbath]”). The minute or so during which the whole community sings this melody in unison was without a doubt my weekly highlight. I never got tired from participating in it. It gave me goosebumps every single week. Even when my prayer attendance was lax, I never missed a veshomru. If I was late to the Friday evening prayer, I was never late enough to miss it. That is, never until now.

This week was different. 

This week was going to be the first shabbos of my life that I would not observe. Shabbos is a covenant between God and His people and I was eager to break this covenant. This week, instead of rushing to the beis midrash to catch the veshomru, I headed to the toilet and pulled out a smartphone.

Smartphones are strictly forbidden in yeshiva, but I had been using one for the last three months. What made this time different is that I was using it on shabbos. Use of any electrical devices on shabbos is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. This was never cumbersome or a bother. To the contrary, I cherished the rest and isolation of shabbos. But in this, my week of sin, shabbos had to be desecrated. In later years I would learn to synthesise shabbos observance with my new secular lifestyle. But for now it had to be destroyed before any thought of rebuilding could be considered.

And so there I was locked up and hidden. I was writing an email to JM – an individual who had left the community several years previously. I shared with him my situation and asked him for advice. As I am sitting there and writing I can hear the sound of harmonious prayer emanating from the prayer hall. At that point I knew that there is something that the whole community is having right now that I no longer have. Suddenly I was alone, left behind in the mundaneness of the week. My friends and the whole community are in a different metaphysical plane – the plane of shabbos – and I have chosen to stay behind.

The Torah already warns of those desecrating the shabbos, “Their soul will be cut off from their people.”

I had no way of knowing how lonely and isolating being cut off from my people would be.

 

6

Saturday morning, the 18th of July. My roommates have just left the room to join the long shabbos morning prayer. I put on my bekitche and fasten the gartel (belt). After locking the door to make sure that nobody comes in unexpectedly, I grab my wallet and push it deep inside one of my pockets. I check to make sure that no bulge is visible and make my way out of the yeshiva building. 

The streets of the Jewish neighbourhood are deserted. The men are in the synagogues and the women are looking after the children at home. After a ten minute walk the quiet Jewish streets fade away and I can start to feel the noise and pollution of the city centre. I head directly to the big Tesco at the centre of the shopping mall. 

There are no Jews around, as shopping on the shabbos is strictly forbidden. I can ease my tension; no further precautions are needed here. I head directly to the food section and pick out a ham sandwich.

It didn’t have to be ham, but it had to be made of pork. Pork is a food item that any good Jew would not only refuse to eat, but be disgusted even by the thought of it. I was going to try it. Not wanting to call attention to the odd sight of a chassidic Jew – peyos, beard and all – buying a ham sandwich, I used the self-checkout and paid for my purchase.

The Jewish mind, we were taught, is pure and clear. The reason that only the Jew acknowledges the truth and glory of the Jewish faith is because he keeps his mind and thoughts clean. A goy’s (non-Jew’s) mind is farshtopped (blocked) because he fills his belly with impure and non-kosher food. Jews are obsessively careful when it comes to the kosher status of their food consumption because they know that even a microscopic particle of non-kosher food can contaminate their mind and stop them from thinking straight.

I no longer bought in to that. The ham looked healthy. I was going to eat it.

And so I locked myself, once again, in the toilet of Tesco. I opened up the packaging and took a bite. It felt strange and tasted odd. But it is not good taste that I was after now. I finished the sandwich, letting it dull my feelings of disgust. I needed every bit of desensitisation, for there were many more ham sandwiches to be consumed in the days and years to come. 

Perhaps the pork was numbing me from experiencing the severity of the sin; from letting my inner holy spark cry out in protest? Perhaps it was just cognitive-behavioural therapy, getting rid of irrational disgust and phobia? 

It didn’t really matter. 

I headed back to yeshiva. My week of sin had concluded. I had left Orthodox Judaism. I never looked back.     

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Honour and Love

“Mmmm, this is some good meat!” Jasmine remarked as she returned her fork to her plate ready to dig in again as soon as her mouth makes some space.

Her lover, Chris, was sat across the small, round table, his knees enveloping hers. “He was a good man,” he said with a nostalgic look in his eyes, staring at the two flesh-covered ribs lying just in front of him.

“So lovable,” she responded after swallowing a particularly chewy piece of the smoked meal. “I miss him already. I don’t know how I’ll manage to cope once he’s completely gone!”

“Well, let’s not worry about that now. We have good memories and tasty meat. Let’s make the most of him while he’s still with us.”

He grabbed one of the ribs and broke off a chunky piece. Wrapped in lettuce he dipped it into the small bowl of BBQ sauce situated halfway between him and her.

“You know,” he said after several minutes of silent eating, “a friend of mine told me today something really shocking. Apparently in the West they leave their dead to rot in the ground. Eww!”

“God forbid! That’s so depraved!” She pushed away her plate and looked angrily towards Chris. “Did you have to tell me this whilst I’m eating? I lost my appetite now, thank you very much!”

He regretted bringing it up. She was right; that is a fairly revolting thought. All day it had been bothering him and he hasn’t been able to take it off his mind. The picture of placing someone to disintegrate in mud would have disturbed him at any time. But it especially sickened him now, given his own recent loss.

Chris’s dad, David, had just passed away a couple of weeks earlier. He and Jasmine found it very difficult to deal with it, but they found solace in the honour that they could give to his body. They tenderly cleaned him and decorated him and lovingly stored him away. Of course they miss his smile, his positivity, his energy. But at least they would still see him daily – at least for the near future. They calculated that he’d last for at least 5 months if they were sparing.

Jasmine was visibly shook by what she had just heard. “That’s disgusting!” she kept on repeating. “Why would anyone do this to a human being, let alone a loved one?”

“I always knew that they were morally depraved in the West. If that’s how they treat their dead, they probably don’t treat their living ones much better.” He had lost his appetite too. But he wouldn’t leave any meat uneaten – not his dad’s meat.

He finished and put the remainder of her portion back in the freezer, next to where the head, arms, one leg and some remaining ribs of the corpse were stored.

They retired to their room for the night.

After exchanging some anecdotes of their respective days at work, they managed to distract themselves from the thoughts that had so disgusted them earlier. she put her arm around him and lovingly kissed him on the lips. With soft, tender strokes his fingers fondled her left nipple, lightly stimulating them as he goes back and forth, up and down, round and round.

“You know what,” he said, groping her breast as he talked. “I am so lucky that we do not live in the West.”

She opened her eyes, as if emerging from a pleasant nap. “What do you mean?”

“I wouldn’t be as lucky to have you if we lived there.”

“Why not?”

“They disapprove of romantic father-daughter relationships there.”

Conversations with Malaysian Cabbies

I’m spending the weekend in Malaysia and, from speaking with locals, I’ve learnt very interesting things about the country.

Malaysia is constitutionally a democracy. But since the British have left, the ruling Malay racial group, who are all Muslim, have done whatever they could to make sure that Malaysia is officially a Muslim country.

Whilst its legal framework is based in the secular Common Law, Shariah courts run alongside it with full legal power. That is, if you are Muslim you are legally under Shariah law. You will be prosecuted if caught drinking, or having extra-marital sex. If you are a woman you cannt marry a non-Muslim.

On the political level, only Muslim parties can choose the PM. In education, only Muslim schools get governmental funding, only Muslims get educational grants and 85% of university places are reserved for the Muslim population who comprise around 60% of the total population. Likewise, housing projects, welfare, governmental positions and more are mostly reserved for the Muslim Malay.

In spite of these restrictions, the ethnic Chinese and Indians comprise most of the wealthy in the country. The Chinese are the business people and the Indians are the professionals and intellectuals. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Malay are devoting ever more educational time and resources on conservative religious activity, rather than on developing good secular education. However, this disparity in wealth is what the government uses as justification for their policies of discrimination – although the true reason is due to Islamic supremacism.

The ethnic minorities miss the British times and, according to my taxi driver, would choose to be a British colony again. The British with all their shortcomings, did not allow for racial and religious discrimination and kept church and state seperated. This is all gone now.

I just happen to be reading Howard Sachar’s excellent The Course of Modern Jewish History. I couldn’t help noticing parallels between the situation of the ethnic minorities in Malaysia to the situation of 18th and 19th century Jews in Europe and Russia. Being restricted in the kind of professions that they can enter, Jews entered niches which made them very successful. The disproportionate wealth of some Jews then further justified discriminatory measures against them to “even out” the inequalities. Likewise, Jews were being accused of disloyalty and unpatriotism which led to persecution. This in turn led to Jews not feeling comfortable in their country and looking elsewhere for refuge, which just proved how disloyal they were!

From the little that I’ve been here in Malaysia, it seems that the ruling Malay have created an exclusionary nationalism that causes some of the ethnic minorities to miss the British. This in turn reinforces the idea that the non-Malay are not nationalistic.

Malaysia comes across as a country which is deeply divided on racial and religious lines. Taxi drivers who are from minority groups are eager to rant against the ruling Malay, seeing them as a group that is becoming ever more conservative and islamically fundamentalist (this happened to me twice today alone. First a mixed race Portuguese Christian told me about the ethnic repression. Later, an ethnic Indian had a similarly unprovoked rant to me against the Malay). The government, far from doing anything to reassure the religious minorities, is actively engaging in thoroughly islamising the country. Even in the National Museum you can’t miss a full wall of dawah leaflets urging conversion to Islam, explaining the “beauty” of head covering and preaching Islamist exclusivism and superiority.

The British worked hard to ensure that Malaysia would be a democracy once they left. I’m not convinced that they succeeded.

Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy

As a joint honours student of physics and philosophy, I find an interesting asymmetry when explaining to others what it is that I do in my respective fields of interest. Describing what I do in physics is usually fairly straightforward. Even those without an intimate understanding of physics know that it is – roughly speaking – the study of motion, forces and energy, that it deals with the universe on its smallest scale of fundamental particles and on its largest scale of galaxies and the universe. I might get asked what my favourite topic in physics is, or in what area I specialise and then I might answer that I like theoretical physics and quantum mechanics but that we don’t specialise in undergraduate studies.

But when I talk about my discipline of philosophy things get complicated. I try to describe what I do in philosophy, but that just brings up even more questions. People don’t have a clear understanding of what philosophy is and often in order to explain what I mean by philosophy I find myself having to do engage in some fairly advanced philosophy. To be sure, unlike in physics where the question “what is physics?” is not itself a question of physics, in philosophy the question “what is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question and a deep and complicated one at that.

Not only do philosophers within a given tradition of philosophy argue what philosophy is, but each philosophical tradition will have its own, often incompatible, definition of its discipline. In physics it wouldn’t make sense to ask whether one is studying ancient Greek physics, medieval physics, or Chinese physics. But in philosophy this is a perfectly legitimate question. What is often misunderstood, however, is that the distinction between the different philosophical traditions is less analogous to the distinction between the different branches of physics and more analogous to the distinction between the different disciplines of the humanities, or even to the distinction between the humanities and the sciences. It would not make sense for a physicist to be familiar with only one area of physics to the exclusion of others. One may specialise in a specific branch of physics, but one cannot ignore the findings in the rest of physics, since all physical branches rely on the same techniques and grounded in the same physical laws. In contrast, an analytic philosopher lacks nothing by not engaging with medieval or Indian philosophy, since they are different disciplines altogether.

I will go as far as to say that it is regrettable that all of these separate disciplines share the same name of philosophy, as they lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Nobody studies “philosophy”. You either study analytic philosophy, or continental philosophy, or Chinese philosophy, or the history of philosophy. Confusing these as part of the same discipline is like confusing the historian of science for the physicist. I often want to say that I don’t study philosophy; I study analytic philosophy. But even when I don’t say that, that’s what I mean when I talk about philosophy. I will explain why this is so and why it is important presently.

Analytic philosophers usually have a narrow and specific goal in their enquiries. Defining exactly what this goal is is a bit of a challenge. But I think that its essence can be captured by contrasting it to other philosophical traditions in the following three measures:
1) Descriptivism vs prescriptivism
2) Scientific vs humanitistic
3) Analytic vs empirical

1) Descriptive: analytic philosophy aims to describe the world, not to change it. Its goal is never to guide, admonish, or critique. Instead it tries to understand and analyse. Moreover, analytic philosophy is neutral from a moral point of view. It does not judge, it only describes. This contrasts with other philosophical traditions, such as the Frankfurt School (Critical Theory) and many in the continental tradition. They see themselves as social critiques and theorists and see their work not as aiming at impartial and objective observation, but at active and involved agents, who change their subject as they study it.

2) Scientific: analytic philosophy aims at a science-like description of the world, attempting to make universal statements that are objectively true. This contrasts with the notion of philosophy as an activity akin to art, where one explores elements of society as well as of themselves as they engage in literary and cultural expressions. Analytics, however, don’t care whether or not their theories are pleasing, aesthetic, or meaningful. Their only concern is with whether or not it fits the facts and describes the world in a coherent manner.

3)Analytic: this is the most controversial out of the characteristics of analytic philosophy and is an ongoing debate. Early analytic philosophers, influenced by the Vienna circle, vut a strict distinction between philosophy and the empirical sciences. Philosophy was not meant to have any say with regards to any empirical matters. Its sole purpose was to analyse statements and find the meanings of terms. This view has eased a little since. However, I still think that it is right to say that, broadly speaking, analytic philosophers still try to avoid dealing with any empirical questions, at least not directly. Questions about matters of fact are best left to the special sciences and philosophers should occupy themselves mostly with the analysis of, and the relationship between, ideas. This contrasts with most other philosophical traditions in which this distinction is almost non-existent. Continental philosophers roam freely between sociology, psychology, politics, economics and philosophy. In analytic philosophy this liberalism is almost unheard of.

With these contrasts one can see why analytic philosophy is not the same discipline as other philosophical traditions and that that is important. Analytics aim at a science-like (that is, universal and objective) description of the meaning of concepts; of the wider, extra-empirical, apriori laws of thought and inference; of the limits of reasoning and discovery. It does not try to offer guidance, or meaning. It does not study society or history (as those are empirical matters). It does not even particularly care about its own history.

It is useful here to draw an analogy between physics as a scientific discipline and analytic philosophy as a science-like discipline. For example, in physics we understand that, whilst different discoveries and patterns of thought came about in, and due to, specific historical and political contexts, that has zero bearing on their truthfulness. If Hitler were to discover a good scientific law, we would not reject it due to his personality. Likewise we do not accept a view just because a respected and famous scientist came up with it. In physics, ideas are meant to be accepted or rejected based on their own internal merit alone. Analytic philosophy is similar in this regard. Who came up with something and for what reasons has no bearing on the truthfulness of the idea itself. What matters is its explanatory power. This contrasts with some practices in the arts where the creator, or composer is not separable from their creation in this same way.

Another example is that we understand that it would be absurd to ask that a good physicist be familiar with, say, Aristotelian physics. We understand that in physics it is not the history of ideas that matters, but the ideas that have stood the test of time due to them being found to be consistent with the the facts. Even the recent history of physics is not of primary importance. What is important is the equations that work and the theories that make accurate predictions. In a like manner, analytic philosophy is not about the history of ideas. We don’t care much how an idea came to be and for what reason. What we care about is what works according to our best understanding. As soon as a better theory comes about we do not hesitate to discard of our old theories and never look back. This is why it is absurd that people think it closed-minded to engage with only one tradition of philosophy. If there is anything useful to a current and ongoing debate in philosophy in whatever tradition out there, then it no longer matters whether it is medieval, Chinese, or continental philosophy. What matters is that it is a useful and potentially truthful solution to a problem. It’s like when an Indian physicist (say Bose) comes up with a scientific law; this doesn’t become Indian as opposed to Western science. It is just science! In philosophy too, if something is currently relevant, then it is philosophy, regardless of its origin. That is not to say that there is no use in studying the history of philosophy and reading the material of other traditions. However, this is not philosophy in the analytic sense.

And this is why the distinction between the different disciplines of philosophy is important. I study analytic philosophy for one reason: because I want to uncover whatever general and universal statements we can make about our structures of understanding and thought. I want to understand what kind of statements are meaningful and how we can get to know them. I want to understand what we can say about the extra-empirical nature of things (if we can at all). Studying the history of ideas and trying to understand and critique culture and society may be a worthy pursuit, but it is not what I am interested about. And this is why it is so difficult to articulate what I study. When I say that I study philosophy I get asked about the ideas of people whom I do not consider philosophers (in the analytic sense) and about questions that I do not consider philosophic. That’s why I say that I do not study philosophy; I study analytic philosophy.

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.

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.