Sunday, August 20, 2023

Shulem Deen: Truthseeker who had too many unanswered questions or an apikorus skillful in deceptively leaving out most of the important details needed to understand who he is

Dovid Din
update - added video of Shulem expressing his anger at religion and the need to be free of it

Update - added comment of Midas HaDeen

"Shulem Deen has a fascinating story to tell, and he tells it with exquisite sensitivity. All Who Go Do Not Return gives us not only an insider's glimpse into a shrouded world few outsiders get to see, but also a movingly told narrative of one man's struggle toward intellectual integrity. The setting may be the world of Hasidic Judaism, but the drama and the insights are universal."
—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction  

I first need to state some facts up front. 

1) I have now read all of Shulem Deen's well written book about how he went from being a pious  chasid to an apikorus. My initial impression just got reinforced as he went into more detail later in the book 2) I knew his parents from Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv - in particular his father Dovid Din 3) This book is different than others written by formerly frum people. The author comes across as genuinely likable, upset that he lost his faith and so far not explicitly advocating that others follow him in his path. 4) The main reason why I am writing this post is because of the strange reaction I got from Prof. Shaul Magid a former student of Shulem's father - who wrote a review of the book in Tablet Magazine.

My concern is to understand why this book was written. What was Shuleem Deen's motivation in describing his loss of faith and describing in great detail the words and acts of his friends and family - even when they don't come across as very positive? It is presented as someone who asked questions in a world where questions are forbidden. While that contains some truth - you need to realize that is not where he comes from but where he deliberately placed himself. 

His parents are both baalei teshuva - former hippies - who were very good at dealing with questions. His father in particular was very well educated in the secular sense and was involved in kiruv of all sorts - in particular answering questions dealing with faith. In addition his parents had a large number of contacts with top notch kiruv experts who deal with all sorts of questions. So far there is no evidence in the book that Shulem took the trouble of going to these people to get answers. Why not? 

In short - Shulem Deen took it upon himself to move into the world of Square Chassidim who strongly believe in simple - non intellectual - faith. He wasn't born into that world and he clearly did not belong there. He says he did it because they didn't require an  entrance exam! And yet when boxed into a non-thinking world where he didn't belong - proclaims that he left because he couldn't get answers to his questions!

One other point - there is the underlying theme that in fact there are no answers for his questions. because they are so devastatingly powerful. Basically if one doesn't have simple faith - then there is no faith because there are no honest rational answers to his questions. This is simply not true. 

This is a reflection of my basic concern - he is setting up straw men, avoiding presenting the full story - because he in fact has an agenda. He is presenting himself as doing what any truly honest man would do when faced with the questions and the anemic answers - giving up a phony religion. In sum he implies that, only someone who accepts that faith means believing something that make no sense - can truly be religious.

My last point for now is how he depicts his relationship with his father. As noted before his father was very intelligent and involved in asking questions and kiruv of those who had questions. He was very articulate. However there is no indication that he ever engaged his father in a serious discussion - even when given the opportunity. While it is true that his father died when he 14 - there were ample opportunities because there were many people who his parents knew that are experts in dealing with questions. The book so far only indicates a single individual that he discussed his questions with - why? Why didn't his father prepare him to be able to deal with questions? It seems that in fact his path is a reaction against his father - though he doesn't spell it out. Is there more to the story than he is telling us? What in fact was his relationship with his father and is his heresy the result of his relationship with his father?

I remember learning the Maharal together with Dovid Din with Rabbi Yosef Rabinowitz. The Maharal strongly states the importance of asking questions and not silencing them. And yet Shulem Deen ended up with a type of chassidim who live very closed isolated lives - that think the opposite of many other frum Jews - including his father. His failure to be able to live a closed intellectually barren form of Yiddishkeit led him to reject Yiddishkeit - why?
This video indicates that Shulem Deen didn't regretfully leave the religious world but in fact is celebrating his freedom from a repressive religion and culture - which he hopes to save others from.


update by an commentator Midas HaDeen

I just read the post on Shulem Deen.  I did not read the book, and I know nothing personal of him or his parents.  But the subject is actually very relevant to all of us.  Questions about faith.  We are obligated to address this matter, as it is a pillar of our very existence.  We reaffirm this with recitation of kriyas shema daily.  We are the עם הנבחר, and have a special relationship with our Creator.

Our emunoh involves several aspects.  If we are conscious of them, we can pursue being “people of faith”.  If not, we are groping in the blind.  For starters, we are born into emunoh.  Dovid Hamelech A”H notes, מבטן אמי קלי אתה, drawing attention to the faith that existed at birth.  If we further recognize the drosho of Rav Simlai that the fetus studies the entire Torah in the womb prior to birth.  On top of that all, we enjoy our earliest years being exposed to values of Torah and kedusha.  This emunoh is labeled in sforim as אמונה מתוך קבלה.  It is that faith into which we were bred and born.

We then engage in exploration of our own, wondering, questioning, investigating, studying.  If we are fortunate to have the proper direction, rebbes, talmidei chachomim, healthy resources, we receive the guidance and direction to develop אמונה מתוך חקירה.  The sforim explain why neither of these two alone is adequate.  But both together can be quite powerful.  Either alone is balanced on a pointy base, and there is great risk that even minor breezes can topple it.

The best, the most frum, the most erudite and learned, of the holiest stock of yichus and upbringing require both of these foundations to achieve the level of an “עובד ה'”.  They bear the same obligation to recite the 13 Ani Maamins every day, and cannot point to their choice “frum” levush as the badge of faith.  It requires constant effort and maintenance.  Yes, questions, exploration, not completely taken for granted.  This is explained at great length in many great works that address hashkofoh, including Chovas Halevavos, Moreh Nevuchim, Tanya, Nefesh Hachayim, Maharal, etc.

The baal teshuvah begins the entry to a frum lifestyle with a handicap.  He/she starts with only אמונה מתוך חקירה, having missed the privilege of הורתו ולידתו בקדושה.  The complete faith of this individual is founded on only personal exploration, with the requisite limitations that result from this.  There is a very different basis for living as a Yid, with questions about the same basics that FFB’s take for granted.  The stereotypical baal teshuvah who asks questions about everything is seeking to compensate for the background that is lacking.

I don’t know Shulem Deen, nor his family, nor his life experience.  I can feel sorry for his missing out on a guiding light of mesorah which many of us are fortunate to have.  His efforts to seek truth are not missed by me, a mortal observer, and I do not question whether there is some reward in “yeneh velt” for that.  However, I do feel quite strongly that his failure to find the embracing warmth of קבלת עול מלכות שמים  in his pursuits is not a model for others.  Making this into a book to show others is not, in my opinion, wise or constructive.  It may be his defense to assuage his guilt, where he points to a system that failed to “answer his questions”.  I do not defend the “system” either.  It seems to have been ill equipped to provide answers that would meet the needs of the missing mesorah.  Perhaps far more serious is the observation that the present level of יראת שמים as should be expected from the average Yid, in which there is an appropriate level of דע מה למעלה ממך עין רואה ואוזן שומעת וכל מעשיך בספר נכתבים  is insufficient.  This is obvious when one examines the desperate need for filters on computers and phones, as well as the “history” discovered by computer technicians on the hard drives of the most observant of חסידים ואנשי מעשה.  As a community, we are not offering enough for the FFB.  This is apparent in the struggles of some mainstream FFB’s, and in the foibles and follies that occasionally get publicized of “frum baalei aveiroh”.  If it is not enough for those who are born into a completely “frum” lifestyle, it is inconceivable that it will suffice for the incoming baal teshuvah who is missing that background.

No, I will probably not write a book about deficiencies of the frum community.  Another dirt throwing book is neither needed, nor welcome.  The books to write and the direction change that we sorely need are about the abundance of wealth that exists in being close to HKB”H.  It is the אהבת תורה  that must be instilled in our children.  It is about the precious privilege of being able to daven and perform mitzvos.  It is about the all encompassing life of mitzvos that give us the ability to connect with HKB”H in every single facet of our lives.  It is about the enjoyment and gratitude that we can have in our everyday lives, knowing that HKB”H is the force behind every event, who granted us the greatest gift of all existence, מתן תורה.

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