David S. Gruber – From Orthodox Rabbi To Secular Humanist

I call David in Texas Thursday morning.

David: "I was born in Evanston, Illinois. My family made aliyah when I was eight. We were back in the Chicago area for my dad’s sabbatical year when I was 13. Aside from that, I grew up in Israel. My parents had always dreamed of living in Israel. We lived in Beersheva. My dad [Meir Gruber] is currently traveling the world after spending two years as the chairman of the Bible, Archeology and Near Eastern Studies department at Ben Gurion University. He’s also an ordained Conservative rabbi."

"I went through the Orthodox school system. My parents, for a variety of reasons, decided to raise us Orthodox.

"For high school, I went to the flagship Religious Zionist yeshiva Netiv Meir. Modern Orthodox is the wrong term in Israel. Then I went to Yeshivat Sha’alvim for hesder (a split program between yeshiva and army service). I was a tank gunner (1991-1994)."

Luke: "Why did you become an Orthodox rabbi?"

David: "That’s a fascinating question. I thought I was going to be an academic like my dad. Two years into the hesder program, I was very involved in the International Bible Contest. I took second place in eleventh grade. Once you win, you get involved helping with the planning. I was the head of a youth organization called Nachat. I was giving classes. I remember I went up to Haifa to give a class. We were trying to start a new branch there and a friend had strong-armed a bunch of teenagers to come to listen to a class. They were sitting there like, we’re doing our friend a favor. As I’m teaching the class, their facial expression goes from disinterest to whoa, this is interesting. When I finish giving the class, there’s two minutes of quiet.

"On the way back to yeshiva, a two hour bus ride, I’m like, whoa, what just happened here? Am I good at this teaching thing? Perhaps instead of going into an academic career where three people read an article you write (says my dad), if I could be a high school teacher in Israel? Forty kids in a class, a 35-year career, I’d influence a lot of people.

"So that’s why I changed course and decided to become a rabbi.

"I finished my rabbinic studies in two-and-a-half years, which is pretty quick.

"Why Orthodox? Because I was brought up as Orthodox. My parents made the decision based on social reasons. The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel were tiny. My mom explicitly said, ‘I grew up in the gulat (exile) and I was always different. I made aliyah because I don’t want us to be different any more.’"

"In my final year in yeshiva, my wife and I were looking for adventure. We were looking at the fact that kollel students don’t really earn much. We found this program at the Rothchild Foundation where they take a tiny group, six to ten rabbis every year, and they train them in practical rabbinics. When you do smicha in Israel, you’re passing a series of four tests. Each test takes a year to study for. You could have the personality of an eggplant and still become a rabbi. You don’t learn about how to treat people, how to counsel, how to give a sermon, nothing to do with theology.

"The provide you with a fellowship. The tradeoff is that you obligate yourself to go to a far-flung community, anywhere but North America. My choice was either to go to South America and learn how to speak Spanish or go to Wellington, New Zealand. I thought, ‘They speak English there? How different can it be?’

"I became rabbi of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, which is the Orthodox congregation in Wellington. In the British commonwealth, the Orthodox are the establishment. It’s the opposite of the United States. Eighty five percent of people belong to Orthodox congregations, even if they are not observant.

"It was fascinating. When I lived in Sha’alvim, you have to be careful opening your door in case you hit a rabbi. You’ve got one more Orthodox rabbi in the whole country. If you’re going to count Reform, you’ve got three more rabbis in the whole country. You’re basically jack of all trades and master of none."

Luke: "What was so fascinating? Tell me more."

David: "The diplomatic answer is that it was very challenging. It’s a community that’s been around for 160 years. The Kiwis are more British than the British. They’re set in their ways."

Luke: "What was the most difficult thing about it?"

David: "I don’t want to open up another whole can of worms… I had to deal with the fact that a prominent leader of the congregation was engaging in some behavior he should not have engaged in. As my father puts it, are you talking about the cookie jar or the honey pot? We’re talking about the honey pot. That’s difficult when you’re 24 and you’ve just come off the boat and the vice president of the congregation comes to you and says, ‘This prominent leader has been caught doing something clearly immoral, probably not criminal.’

"I made the right decision but I suffered for it. It was an ongoing battle that took up a lot of my time.

"It’s a very different culture… It goes back to anthropology. The people who came to New Zealand in the 19th Century, they were mainly from England, people who’d moved into the cities who’d worked as hired help in the manor houses. They had an ethos of not confronting authority, the lord of the manor was always right, you never confront, but you talk about him behind his back. Kiwi society is entrenched in not challenging authority figures but you constantly criticize them behind their back. That happens with rabbis anyway.

"Israeli culture is the exact opposite. In Israel, people say what they think and think what they say. In Israel one time when I asked for change, the lady yelled at me."

Luke: "Did you learn cricket?"

David: "I attempted many times but never succeeded. Too complicated. I could never figure it out."

"After New Zealand, we decided to return to civilization. We went to Kansas City. There was a religious zionist kollel. It came into existence because the chareidi wing of orthodoxy has been putting together these successful kollels that went out and taught and influenced the community. So we thought we could give the counterpunch and get people to become Modern Orthodox.

"I headed a kollel in Kansas City. It was fresh ground. The people on the board told me to do my thing. I got to teach in the day school and to teach classes in the community and to shape the kollel in a way I thought would be meaningful.

"I liked that I got to work with Jews from all denominations. The kollel would have only Orthodox members but the mission of the kollel was not to promote orthodoxy but to promote Torah study.

"My desire was to get into school administration. I went out into the sticks. I took a position as the number two person at a Jewish day school in Toledo. I had two different principals in two years. I had a lot of free reign about how to do things in the school."

"In my second year there, my friend, though he probably wouldn’t call me a friend now, said he needed a stronger Jewish presence in the Jewish High School in Dallas. Head of Judaic Studies. I got that position.

"My wife and I thought, this is going to be it. We’re done with moving around. We’ll stay in Dallas.

"A year and a half into my three year contract, I’d always been very liberal and skeptical. I’d always asked questions that other people didn’t ask and troubled by stuff that maybe didn’t trouble other people. I was pretty comfortable knocking those square pegs into round holes from time to time.

"Then something clicked. It was The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Dr. Marc Shapiro. He’d probably be devastated but what are you going to do?

[Marc Shapiro replies to my inquiry: “One never knows how people will be affected by what you write. But I
would think that the book would show him that you can still be Torah
observant and not have to be so strongly bound to dogma.”]

"I’d gotten a grant to buy $350 worth of books for the teachers. I got Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on the Torah and some slightly more edgy ones. I read this one. I can’t say what it was specifically in the book but something clicked. I was like, wait a minute.

"I’ve always been interested in how does Torah treat the other — women, non-Jews, homosexuals…

"Do you know the blog Jewish Atheist? It’s fascinating. He talks about double loop learning and single loop learning. That most of what we do in life is single loop learning. Most of what we do in life is single loop learning. We get a piece of data and incorporate it into our paradigm."

"You mean if the Torah wasn’t written by God, you have one answer for everything. You don’t have to force 10,000 square pegs into 10,000 round holes."

"At first it was scary. Whoa, I’m an Orthodox rabbi. I just started thinking about stuff. I started taking out books. My grandfather put his [Reform] congregation in the red in the 1950s as they had to haul the largest private Judaica library in the South from Virginia to South Carolina. He died with 10,000 books in his house.

"I’ll read five or six books at the same time. I’ve always been that way.

"I started reading Biblical Criticism books and books about Biblical Archeology and books about physics… One of the big secrets that everybody knows and doesn’t want to talk about is that in the Orthodox world, we say, ‘That Biblical Criticism, nobody believes in that stuff anymore. Archeology, come on. It’s more of an art than a science. It’s not really serious. We don’t have to delve into it. We don’t have to research it. We don’t have to think about it. It’s like my tenth grade biology teacher who was charedi said, ‘Evolution? Nobody really believes in that stuff anymore.’ Meanwhile, back on the ranch at the university, that’s what everybody believes in. It doesn’t have to do with belief. They look at the facts.

"The more and more that I read, I thought, ‘Wow, this makes a whole lot more sense.’

"Gradually I came to, ‘Wow, the Torah’s actually more beautiful when you look at it this way.’ I see tremendous beauty in the Torah with the realization that it was written by human beings 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Some of the stuff they believed in was pretty shocking and abhorrent. But in terms of an intellectual tradition and a culture, it’s a beautiful book. And when you understand how it was put together, I think its beauty just grows.

"I was always troubled by Joshua marches into the land and they kill man, woman and child. I heard all the excuses and I gave them too. ‘Here’s how you need to interpret it.’ But come on, that’s what it said, and up till the 20th Century, nobody said it meant anything else. When you read the stuff in the public view, that that didn’t happen, you go, ‘Wait a minute. You in the Orthodox world say there’s something wrong with me for not believing that happened. You’re so insistent that ‘We’re adament that our forefathers committed genocide.’

"No, they didn’t. We’re descended from the Canaanites. The story was written much later.

"I’m much more comfortable with that than that my ancestors marched into the land and committed the first known act of genocide.

"The more I read, the more I formed a new paradigm of thinking. At first, I was like, where do I go now? Reform Judaism sounds attractive. So I read a whole lot of books on Reform Judaism. One of the problems with Orthodox Judaism is that we say, ‘Reform and Conservative Jews, they don’t know anything.’ And we choose anecdotes from our life to strengthen it. The Reform or Conservative rabbi who didn’t graduate with full honors.

"Of course the training is a little different. But we say, ‘Oh, they don’t know anything.’

"We never treat it with any seriousness.

"I’m reading Eugene Borowitz and some Reform responsa. Wow. This is serious stuff. This might be where I go.

"Then I came across the book, ‘Letters to a Christian Nation‘ by Sam Harris. I read it. I’m like, wow. This guy knows what he’s talking about. He makes total sense.

"I thought, maybe I don’t need that [liberal Judaism].

"I read ‘God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. Victor Stenger’s books. The more I read, the more [atheism] made more sense. Why would you think that in this vast universe, there’s a dude up there in control, when there are clean, scientific explanations. All the philosophical medieval first-cause arguments were relevant then, but now we have clean explanations for everything."

Luke: "Let me stop you there. How did your wife feel about this journey of yours?"

David: "I’ve been pontificating for a while, right? You can take the rabbi out of the shul but you can’t take the shul out of the rabbi. About a month after I started on this journey, that was one of the first things… ‘What do I say to her? She married an Orthodox rabbi.’

"She was teaching in the same school. She was teaching Chumash, Bamidbar. She’s probably a better teacher than I am but my level of knowledge is higher. She said, ‘My students ask me, what’s the deal with women, if they make a vow, the husband can annul it. My students who are not Orthodox said, ‘Why is that so? Why can’t a woman annul her husband’s vows?’ The kind of questions you would not get in an Orthodox day school because they’re pre-conditioned.

"She expected me to help her hammer the square peg into a round hole like I usually did. I just said, ‘That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because the Torah was written by a male chauvinist.’ She’s like, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t written by God.’ ‘What?’

"We just started having a discussion. I said, ‘I can’t keep it to myself anymore. Let me tell you about where I am.’ We started having deep discussions. She’d been having the same kind of thoughts, maybe not on the same level. She’s not one to go read 150 books. She’s Israeli. Very straight and to the point.

"We kept having discussions. We made separate but intertwined journeys. For a whole variety of reasons, she decided to not continue teaching. I had another year to go.

"She said, ‘I’m not covering my head any more. I don’t think I believe in this.’ Then it was, ‘I think I’m buying my first pair of pants.’

"Gradually, she made her journey, which was parallel to mine. She could be more open about it than I could. I was still running an Orthodox day school."

Luke: "Your children?"

David: "I have a 14 year old, a seven year old and a five year old. Subtract a year and a half from each one of them. The little boys were little boys. ‘This is what we’re doing now. We’re going to change things a bit.’

"My daughter was a different story. She was going to an Orthodox day school.

"I said to my wife, ‘This is our fault. We raised her. If she decides to continue being Orthodox, we’re going to have to accommodate that.’

"I said to my daughter, ‘Let’s have some discussions. We’ve been doing gemorra (Talmud) until now. Let’s figure this out together. Here’s a book. Read it. Come back and tell me what you think. Here’s another book. Read it. Come back and tell me what you think.

"We just had some discussions. She said, ‘This makes a lot of sense. I never really thought about this.’

"I said, ‘I want you to write an essay about what you think.’

"She wrote an essay saying yeah, I think I want to be where mom is right now.

"I hadn’t really told her where I was going. I said, OK, cool."

Luke: "Didn’t you know all this stuff about the Documentary Hypothesis from your father?"

David: "Yes and no. That is a fascinating question.

"I’ve given the answers and the excuses. Remember that cheesy movie 48 Hours when Eddie Murphy walks into a bar and says, ‘I’m your worst nightmare. I’m a nigger with a badge.’"

David doesn’t use the word "nigger" but Eddie Murphy did.

David: "I’m your worst nighmare. I’m a secular humanist with an Orthodox semicha (rabbinic ordination).

"What they Orthodox do is set up a straw man. They describe things out of context. They quote a few people who believed in the Documentary Hypothesis out of context. Then say that nobody really believes in that anymore. There’s a really horrific article like that by Nathan Lopez Cardozo. A good example of shoddy scholarship."

Luke: "What did your dad teach you about the Documentary Hypothesis?"

David: "I don’t think my dad ever sat me down and said, ‘Here’s the Documentary Hypothesis.’

"My mom passed away in 1993. My dad thinks she was orthoprax. She lived Orthodox but may not have believed Orthodox. Two years later was Baruch Goldstein. My dad picked up the phone and said, ‘This is it. I’ve been a good little boy for the last 13 years. I made believe I was Orthodox. I made believe I wasn’t a [Conservative] rabbi anymore. I raised you kids as Orthodox. I never went to a Conservative shul. But this is it. If this is what this society produces, I’m getting off the train.

"There are many like him at your average shul in Israel. They live as Orthodox. They may have Conservative semicha and you wouldn’t even know it. They’ve moved to Israel and they want their kids to go to regular school like everyone else. ‘I don’t want to go to a shul that nobody understands. I’m going to live my life as Orthodox.’"

Luke: "Did you read any books on the Documentary Hypothesis when you were a kid?"

David: "No."

"I remember a few years ago reading an interesting posting on the Lookstein website where a friend of mine from my high school days, he’s now an educator, wrote the most honest posting. He said, I’m Orthodox and I’m staying Orthodox but we don’t have any good answers to the Documentary Hypothesis."

"After I left Jewish education, I got a job in the finance industry. I still wanted to do something with my training. I do interfaith weddings. My wife does some PR for me."

"Somehow somebody took the picture from my website, the article I posted last November on littlefoxling (which I only reference on my website), and the description of who I am from the website and posted it on skynewswire.com. I have no idea how it got there. And then it got referenced by the JTA and I’ve been getting all… I don’t see myself as a proselytizer for secular humanism.

"I had an article about me in the Texas Jewish Post and 50 Orthodox rabbis signed a letter condemning the fact that they would even cover this. I haven’t seen 50 Orthodox rabbis here sign anything. When there was a long standing rabbi here who was molesting children, it didn’t cause 50 Orthodox rabbis to sign a letter. When the head of the HUC got thrown out of his job because of sexual misconduct, you didn’t have 50 rabbis writing a letter."

"I think interfaith weddings should be celebrated. I concentrate on helping couples. I don’t ask couples when they come to me if they believe in God. That’s personal. I’m clear about where I am."

Luke: "How do you feel about Orthodox Judaism?"

David: "What a loaded question. It’s here to stay, but it’s running into more and more problems. Remaining Orthodox entails having to ignore some basic facts. Either you say that scientists and researchers don’t know what they’re talking about or you say, ‘You can’t challenge faith on the basis of science because science and faith are two entirely different things.’ That was invented in the 20th Century. Nobody ever said that before. Until the 20th Century, it was held that Judaism was based on a certain number of facts, just like Christian and Islam were… If you take those facts away, it crumbles. You can’t have Orthodox Judaism in tact once you face the facts that there probably wasn’t an Exodus and a conquering of Canaan. Just like you can’t say Jesus didn’t exist or do the things he said and still have a Christianity."

Luke: "Right, right, right, but I’m interested in how do you feel about Orthodoxy."

David: "One of my best friends at work is an African-American female Messianic Jew. We’ll just kid around. I’ll be like, ‘How’s your imaginary friend doing?’ I don’t begrudge her the way she lives her life."

Luke: "Do you keep kosher?"

David: "No. I don’t eat pork and creepy crawlies. I think that’s a cultural thing. Going back in archeology, the first thing that differentiates those Canaanites who we later called Israelites is that we found no pork bones. That became a cultural marker. I don’t eat pig to pay homage to my cultural tradition."

Luke: "How does your dad feel about your move?"

David: "I’m surprised. I didn’t know how they were going to take it. He was very open to it. My dad’s a very liberal guy. My brother’s reaction at age 13 was to become Chabad. He’s now a Chabad rabbi outside London. My mom probably would not have been totally cool with that. My dad was like, ‘Knock yourself out!’ At one point, he was even a moshiachist (believed that Menahem Schneerson was the messiah). My other brother, after yeshiva and hesder, decided he was secular. Now he’s at HUC studying to become a rabbi. He was totally cool. He remarked with a smile, ‘Now I’m going to be the frum (religious) one in the family.’

"When I did put my website up and started doing interfaith weddings, I was like, ‘OK, this one I’m uncomfortable telling him about.’

"I get an email from him. He says, ‘When I’m bored at night, I Google people I know. I came across your website. Let me tell you why I didn’t do interfaith weddings… I’m totally cool with the fact that you are.’"

Luke: "How many friends have you kept from Orthodoxy?"

David: "We had to make a conscious break. We’ll still email from time to time… We were living in the eruv. People were still calling me up and asking for religious advice while I’m sitting in my office munching on whatever, no yarmulke on."

"We didn’t go out with guns blazing. We did a lot to build up that school [the community day school in Dallas]. I like that school.

"We picked up. We moved from Dallas to Frisco, a northern suburb. Takes half an hour on the tollway to get back into town."

"Does that make sense my friend?"

Luke: "Absolutely."

Afterwards, I emailed David some questions.

Luke: "How would you feel about living in Israel now? Is Israel a good place to be a secular humanist?"

David: "I have no real desire to live there right now. I am happy here in the US. It is eaiser on the one hand to live there as the Chiloni (secular) presence is so strong. On the other hand the Chareidim are so strong, so it is a toss up."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been chronicled by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, 60 Minutes and Entertainment Tonight. I teach Alexander Technique in Los Angeles (see Alexander90210.com).
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One Response to David S. Gruber – From Orthodox Rabbi To Secular Humanist

  1. kishke says:

    Why Orthodox? Because I was brought up as Orthodox. My parents made the decision based on social reasons.

    This says so much about where this guy’s coming from, and about why he found it so easy to cast off the yoke.

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