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April 1, 2012 12:20 pm

Dr. Phil, Shauli Grossman, Ex-Hassidim, and the True Path to Enlightenment

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Hassidim in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn

Writers and pundits of all ideological stripes have weighed in on the controversy surrounding the best-selling “expose” of the Hassidic world by Deborah Feldman and the custody battle of another former Hassidic-community member, Pearl Reich. Ms. Reich recently appeared on the Dr. Phil show with Mr. Shauli Grossman (another ex-Hassid) and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. I have chosen not to comment on either of these real-life dramas for a number of different reasons.

I was raised in a liberal Modern-Orthodox community on the south side of Chicago, growing up a half-block from St Phillip-Nehri Church. The neighborhood of South Shore was predominantly Catholic and I was involved in regular physical confrontations with local anti-Semites. Most of the people in the neighborhood belonged to the posh South Shore Country Club, which represented a world where “we” did not have any place.

I was bussed daily to the north side of the city (the main Jewish area) where I attended a co-ed Orthodox high school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy. This was from 1969-1973, a time when American society was in the throes of a cultural/spiritual upheaval. The first 18 years of my life were spent within what might be termed a “living paradox.” On the one hand I was part of a rather insular self-contained Orthodox Jewish community, while on the other hand absorbing through TV, movies, books, music, and my physical surroundings all aspects of American “gentile” culture. In many ways I was indistinguishable from any other American kid growing up at the time and in others I was completely different. Unbeknownst to me the opposing tugs of these two worlds were creating a steadily building tension in my soul and psyche; a tension that I was not fully aware of until I began attending the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1974.

For the first time in my life, I was spending the greater part of my day surrounded by people who were not Jews, who did not believe the things that I believed, and did not live the way I was used to living. The inertia and routine that until now, were provided by family, school, and community were no longer going to be the decisive factors in determining how I lived my life. It was quite a shock to my system to realize, that ultimately, I was going to have to decide for myself what I believed and why.

There followed, a long, winding, and sometimes rather tortuous spiritual journey. To make a long story short, over the past 38 years I have become familiar – as an insider – to both the secular-American and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish worlds. The conflicts that arise when these two universes collide – emotional, psychological, and spiritual – are not, to me, theoretical or melodramatic constructs with which to entertain an audience on daytime television. They are immediately and palpably real. Unfortunately, I have also been through a painful and contentious divorce. The attempt to compress both of these life-experiences into a one hour talk show, including commercial breaks, or into a column on an internet news site, could only trivialize the matter. Apropos here (at least for me), a quote attributed to the German theologian Meister Eckhart: In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.

Dr. Phil, popular talk show host.

Be that as it may, there is one impression about Pearl Reich and Shauli Grossman that I would like to share. As I watched some of the footage of Dr. Phil on YouTube, it seemed – again, only an impression and I certainly could be wrong – that Ms. Reich was animated mostly by whatever unfortunate experiences she had in her life; Shauli Grossman seemed to have, besides his personal experiences, an ideological agenda fueling his particular point of view. I found Mr. Grossman’s Facebook page and although I don’t know him on a personal level at all, discovered at least some prima facie evidence that there was some truth to my initial impression.

Under “religious views” he wrote: “shul [synagogue] of the flying spaghetti monster.” For those who are unaware, “the flying spaghetti monster” has become a standard atheistic metaphor used to mock religious beliefs as in “you believe in something as ridiculous as angels, I believe in the flying spaghetti monster.” While the “shul of the flying spaghetti monster” might not be conclusive, the following does not leave much to the imagination: In “People Who Inspire Shauli” he has listed three of the most prominent “new atheist” ideologues: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. It would seem reasonable to assume then that Mr. Gross is a committed ideological atheist himself. He also described himself as “A puS**Ter yid” – poking fun in a vulgar sort of way at the common Yiddish expression “A Poshitah yid” which means “A simple Jew.”  Interestingly enough, I recently posted a song on YouTube that I wrote and recorded in Jerusalem called “Just A Simple Jew.” (It hasn’t gone viral yet, but I’m still hoping)

As I explained earlier, I have no intention of expressing any opinion on Shauli Grossman’s personal experiences or the particular lifestyle he has chosen to lead. However, the ideology of atheism as expressed by writers like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris interests me very much. All three are discussed in my book (whose title does not leave much to the imagination as to where I stand on these issues), Nonsense of High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is one thing to make personal choices; it is another to mislead people with ideas and ideologies which are utterly false. If Mr. Grossman is inspired by these people and is prepared to go on national TV to express his opinions, perhaps the following challenge will be of interest to him:

Dear Mr. Grossman (R. Shauli): As we both know, Talmudic literature is filled with metaphors comparing the arguments that took place between the sages regarding Jewish law and thought, with the idea of warriors battling one against the other. I respectfully invite/challenge you – from one “simple Jew” to another –  to articulate and defend your new-chosen atheistic ideology in the arena of the intellect. Let us meet and debate the issue in a proper forum. I think the best place to start would be at the very beginning (always a very good place to start). I suggest “Does the Origin of Life require the existence of a Creator?” I look forward to hearing from you.  May the truth win out.

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a  regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website.

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