I never was really "on the derech" so it is not the best to say about me as being "off the derech". But I did believe in Judaism. I went to an Orthodox school. My family was just not religious. My mother, though a theist, was one of those theists who believed that God is just and merciful and that he does not care what religion a person has as long as they are good. My father is probably best described as an apatheist. He just could not care one way or another. Maybe he was an atheist or not, I do not know, nor did I ever even care. My family never concentrated on religious aspects of our lives. I, however, did go to an Orthodox school because my family is Jewish after all and my parents decided for me when I was a little boy that it is best for me to go to a private school than a public school.
I was never afraid of ask questions in school. I always had my own way of thinking. I remember I used to ask a lot of questions concerning God, for example, "is God able to destroy himself?". In fact, I was so happy when I realized how to solve this riddle. I also was not afraid to make comments that one is never expected to hear from a student in Orthodox Jewish school. For example, when Rabbis and classmates of mine kept on telling me how smart and wise the Rabbanan were if we read the Gemara that it must be that they had divine inspiration. I replied to this by saying, that Euclid from ancient Greece which lived a thousand years before these Rabbanan did not only knew what they knew but was able to unify his ideas into a masterpiece of mathematics. Nonetheless, even though I had my own way of thinking and not afraid to point out what I saw I still maintained a belief in Judaism.
Of course, I had a lot of questions about Judaism that I never understood. They were not even scientific issues. There were other issues that bothered me a lot more. The older I got in high-school I began to have a moral conflict with Judaism. I imagined God to be just and good, but when I looked into the Torah, Tanach, and Gemara I was surprised by some of the things it said. I always loved, and still love, my favorite verse in the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18, "love your fellow as you love yourself". However, two verses before it says to kill homosexuals. I also always had a very individualistic way of looking at the world ever since I was a kid. Nobody ever taught me racism was a bad thing, I figured that out by myself, even as a kid I was bothered by racist ideas that I heard from people because I realized how unjust they were. Judaism is a collective, it has an 'us' and 'them' mentality. If someone is part of the Jewish people then I had to treat him one way and if he is part of the non-Jewish people then I had to treat them differently. Take for example this: I was required, as a Jew, to save a life of a Jew before that of a non-Jew. While this never actually happened in my life, the idea of a halacha that says that I must go towards Jewish people before non-Jewish people distressed me. I reasoned to myself that a person needs to be judged individually for what he did. There are bad Jews (Bernie Madoff) and great non-Jews (Bill Gates). If I ever had to choose who to save first it would be the better person, not who is part of the Jewish people. I also did not like the Orthodox view on women. It always seemed (and it is) a lowly way to look at women. The davening (prayer) portion of every day by Orthodox Jewish men has this phrase in it, "blessed be you God who did not make us a woman". And again I had this individualistic conflict. How can God be just and good if he rather us concentrate to what group a person belongs to rather on the goodness of the person himself?
I tried to solve these issues, but they were never great resolutions. Take my moral conflict of Torah's requirement to kill homosexuals. I resolved this conflict by saying that the Torah never uses "homosexual" anywhere, just like it never uses "straight" anywhere. It only talks about sins that are committed by a person. The Torah is not anti-straight just because it says we need to kill straight people who have adultery. So too the Torah is not anti-gay just because it says we need to kill two men who have sex. This view is certainly a more humane view than just being anti-gay, and this is the view which is adopted by the Modern Orthodox when they try to be reach out to gay Jews. But there is just a minor problem. It still says we need to kill other human beings! (I do not support the death penalty at all, but if there was to be a death penalty it should be for something like murdering, not something so insignificant as sleeping with another guy). Yes, of course, killing homosexuals who have sex is more moral than killing all homosexuals but it still is a repulsive idea. It is like saying "Hitler was more moral than Stalin because Hitler killed less people". Yes, maybe, Hitler was more moral but he was still a terrible person. Changing the perspective on this passage regarding gay sex does not make it much better.
After I graduated high-school I still accepted Judaism. I thought to myself that perhaps in the future my moral conflicts would be resolved. This was also the point in time when I started to become very liberal. Just a few years before that back in high-school I was very conservative. I changed because I realized my moral conflict with Judaism. I did think of Judaism as moral but I also thought that a very conservative way of thinking towards Judaism is not the correct way to proceed.
I did not go to Yeshiva after high-school (for which I am very grateful for), I went directly to college (oh no!) (I am also still in college), I was the only one in my class who did that. I got very interested at this time to study other religions. My goal was to examine my Jewish beliefs again. I started by examing the beliefs of other religions. I was skeptical to them and recognized them as all being false. But now I needed to be intellectually honest and re-examine Judaism. I listened to various atheists (in 2008) and their arguments made a lot of sense. Of course, I did not abandon Judaism immediately, I tried long and hard to justify it. But the complications I had were just too much. Not only did I have a big moral problem, I started to develop a big scientific problem. Modern science is so opposed to Judaism (and all religion for that matter). I accepted modern science because it could have been demonstrated. But now I needed a way to incorporated these scientific ideas within Judaism. I struggled and could not find it. It was not until I read Thomas Paine's, "Age of Reason", that I fully abandoned my religious beliefs. Before, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) I basically started to accept modern science and now needed ways to keep Judaism. What Paine did so well is to show how moral conflict that is present in Judaism and Christianity (they both rely on the Bible) cannot be explained because as Paine said, "it is not a God, just and good, but a Devil under a name of God that the Bible describes". I realized just how immoral the Tanach was. Ironically, it was not the Origin of Species that made me leave Judaism but it was the Tanach itself! Just do this experiment. Open a page randomly in the Tanach, can you find the word "murder", "kill", "smite" on that page? If God of the Bible could be summarized by one word that would be "smite". At that point I realized that the Torah itself is a very immoral book and one cannot expect to learn any goodness from it. I actually still remember the day when I deconverted. It was in the middle when I read Age of Reason. I remember I took up a Torah in my hands, though a little nervous at first, I said, "this book is false".
I got more interested in learning about Judaism from a skeptical point of view. I went to skeptic sites and read anything regarding religion. I also brought for myself, "Theological-Political Treatise", by Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza became the biggest philosophical impact on my life, and his book on the Tanach was excellent. He did a systematic study of the Tanach in a rational way to show how it is a book written by men and how it cannot have anything to do with God. He even wrote his own theory about how the Tanach was a collection of writings compiled together at around 200 BC by Ezra. I even think that Spinoza was the first person in history to do something like this (even Thomas Paine in his book when referring to contradictions in the Tanach mentions Spinoza for his influence). I find it funny how the big atheists of today, like Dawkins and Hitchens, did not make me leave Judaism, it were rather the philosophers of the past 300 and 200 years. (Though to be fair I love Hitchens.)
So this is where I am today. No flashy fireworks or Hollywood stunts. My story is not as interesting as the story of others, but I just thought that I need to share it. I am still not fully out of the closet. Some people already know. I still have a way to go, scared, but I hope I can find a good way to come out.