THE WANDERING CONVERT, LOOKING FOR COMMUNITY Part 2: Individualism and philosophy 

By Johan (Yoel) Schaper 

In Part 1, I recounted my post-conversion search for the ideal Chassidic group. I tried Breslov and Satmar, but the cracks were already there, waiting for that final push away from Chassidus. Now in Part 2, I will discuss how I left the Chassidic path, and eventually the idea of groups in general.

The years I spend in Tzfat are filled with crazy stories. A brief overview includes a Breslov friend who swore he would not leave the forest until he had forced God to bring the Messiah, only to return three days later with pneumonia. Or the crazy old Karaite who thought God instructed him and tried to stab my Lubavitcher friend in his sleep. Or how during the second Lebanon war, after a Katyusha rocket exploded right next to me, I left Tzfat and worked as a body guard in Jerusalem. To this day when recounting the many bizarre stories with my old Tzfat friends, we shake our heads in disbelief. 

But Tzfat was also great. I made many friends and was even semi-adopted by a wonderful family who eventually walked me down the chuppah. But all this is for another time. The person most relevant to my hashkafic journey was Rabbi Eshel. 

Rabbi Eshel was and remains an interesting individual. Born in the USA and moving to Israel as an adult, he is a shtickl contrarian: a staunch critic of the Jewish religious establishment and a lover of Zion. After having spent his student years at the rationalistic yeshiva of Rabbi Yisrael Chait in Far Rockaway, New York, he was then studying the words of mystics like the Ramchal and Ramak in Tzfat. This made him an interesting mixture of several schools of thought, soaked with a whole lot of personality. Perhaps most importantly, he did not identify with any group. 

In our yeshiva, while every non-Talmudic class was entertaining the ideas of one acharon or another, Rabbi Eshel gave an evening class on Tehillim and other Biblical texts. He would often speak about the medieval Jewish philosophers and the importance of using reason to shape our religious worldview. These were the ideas that had originally brought me to Judaism. We quickly became friends. 

Rabbi Eshel did not hide his skepticism of the Chassidic lifestyle. Combined with my own disenchantment, it didn’t take me long to get rid of my Chassidic garb. Subsequently, Rabbi Eshel became my main teacher. We even opened a short-lived yeshiva together a few years later. This period began a slow deconstruction of my worldview that would last for years, even into my marriage and move to the United States. 

After abandoning Chassidus, the next to go was Kabbalah. Here is not the place to share my evolving view on Kabbalah other than the facts that at the time I was (1.) Becoming familiar with arguments that brought into question the purported ancient origins of Kabbalah, and with that, its authority, (2.) Being exposed to more eloquent Rabbinic thought, both old and new, that did not take Kabbalistic metaphysics into account. There was a period where I deligitimized what I saw as more irrational forms of Judaism, a childish habit that took a while to die.

Most crucial to the topic at hand, I started to develop a stronger notion of the importance of the individual rather than the group. I was part of the Jewish people and belonged in Orthodoxy, but no longer cared about particular groups, gedolim, or minhagim. After I lost the Satmar attire and identity I decided that since I was Dutch, I would take on the minhagei Amsterdam, the customs of the traditional Amsterdam community. I never looked back at customs again.

Five years after my conversion and four years after moving to Tzfat, I found and married my American wife. Marrying this wonderful person is undoubtedly the best decision I ever made. The irony is that she is from a Chassidic rabbinic dynasty on both sides and the granddaughter of a Brooklyn Chassidic Rebbe. This was something that would have been very impressive had I met her as a chosid, yet at this point, it was merely cute trivia. She herself was no longer a chassidiste, and like me, interested in the more philosophical side of Judaism. It was a match made in heaven.

After several months of living as a married couple in Tzfat, we went to the United States for the wedding of her brother in Brooklyn and then to Memphis, Tennessee for a “quick summer job.” We stayed there for five years. It did not take long for me to appreciate the United States and I quickly felt at home. It was in Memphis where I was exposed, for the first time, to American Modern Orthodoxy. 

American Modern Orthodoxy is hard to put your finger on. They seem to reinvent themselves in every generation. As is typical of Western religion and ideologies, they use abstract and descriptive labels to describe their particular movements and ideas: Centrist Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Torah u’Mada, Orthoprax, Religious Zionism, or Modern Yeshivish. This is unlike the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox who name their movements and institutions after their European towns of origin. 

The Modern Orthodox spend much time justifying why not being ultra-Orthodox is valid. To me, Modern Orthodoxy is simply American Orthodoxy. They are cultural Americans who practice Orthodox Judaism, just as the traditional Dutch Orthodox Jewish community has always been culturally Dutch, valued college, held regular jobs, and had university educated Rabbis. No further abstract labels or ideological justifications were needed. 

All that aside, this American style Orthodoxy is where I have found my home, first in Memphis, Tennessee and today in Linden, New Jersey. I don’t always relate to it, but I do share their Western lifestyle and approach to religion. 

In Memphis, we joined the ASBEE synagogue, whose Rabbi is Rabbi Joel Finkelstein, a man of great learning and warmth. He is the kind of Rabbi who gives as much time to the low income Dutch convert as he does to the wealthiest donor.

After receiving my green card, I started my first full-time job in a long time. It didn’t take long before my daughter was born. A year later, my son was born. One would think that now that so much time was spent on making a living and raising children, the period of exploration would have ended, that I would settle down, pay the bills, go to Daf Yomi, and call it a day. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. It was in Memphis where my worldview was most rigorous shaped. I put effort into understanding the historical method. I began seriously engaging with secular academic literature on Judaism. And perhaps most importantly, I discovered analytic philosophy of religion. I no longer cared about belonging to this group or the other, but completely deconstructed Judaism down to its epistemological level and built it back up from there.

I asked questions such as: Is there an objective reality that can be understood by human reason? Is there a God? Are we justified in believing in revelation? To what extent, if any, is the Bible historically reliable? Is Rabbinic Judaism a legitimate continuation of Biblical Judaism? 

All the questions I once approached as a young man, I now approached as an adult. I now acknowledged my own limitations and was more patient and willing to listen to the ideas and arguments of others. I developed a great interest into philosophical naturalism, secular humanism, and Christianity. While continuing to observe Judaism, I took a fresh look at these worldviews, fully aware that if any would seem more plausible, I would eventually have to make some difficult life decisions. In the end, Judaism came out on top. Involving myself in such a challenging and massive project is by far the most enjoyable thing I have ever done. 

Right at the beginning of this new quest, a Chassidic couple moved from upstate New York to the Memphis area. In order to be within walking distance from a shul on Shabbos, we arranged to co-rent an apartment, where they would join us nearly every Shabbos and Yom Tov. As it turns out the husband, Eliezer, was not only a scholar, having spent many years in Kollel, but also was in law school and also university-educated in medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy, and to my great joy, was familiar with modern philosophy of religion. Needless to say, this was a very fruitful relationship for me. In Eliezer, I found guidance and someone with whom to discuss my ideas.

After I established the foundations of Judaism to be reasonable, or at least more plausible than opposing worldviews, I reconstructed Judaism from the bottom up.  The Judaism that emerged and still is emerging is much simpler than the one I started with. It takes a minimalist approach to ikkarim and a nuanced approach to the mesorah. It is a much more individualistic approach to religion in general. 

Now more than ever, I have a desire to seek a relationship with my newly rediscovered Creator. Clearly this involves following halacha, something I always have done since my conversion. Beyond law, I am not fully sure what else this actually entails. This is the question that occupies me now. Certainly the last thing on my mind is joining a particular group or Jewish subculture.

We have come to the end of this two part series.
I know this is incomplete and leaves many questions unanswered. What happened to the anti-Zionism? What are the actual arguments for the reasonableness of Judaism? What about Biblical criticism? What about the Oral Torah? How did I find Judaism in the first place? How do I deal with my own cognitive bias? 

Stay tuned—all this and more will be addressed in upcoming blog posts. Y


2 thoughts on “THE WANDERING CONVERT, LOOKING FOR COMMUNITY Part 2: Individualism and philosophy 

  1. Tzippy Friedlander says:

    Nice article. A long journey…
    בכל דרכך דעהו.” incorporate God in all venues of your life. And you will feel his presence.


  2. ER says:

    I am glad to have found your site and appreciate your insights and writing. I can very much relate to your journeys and how your insights have progressed over time regardless of how different our experiences or conclusions may have been to this point. Your impressions, even if based on a ‘letdown,’ nevertheless come across positive and from a place of strength. Looking forward to seeing more from you.


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