The Heroism of Megan Phelps-Roper

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Westboro Baptist Church members protest at Arlington National Cemetery in VirginiaWe’ve all heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are the guys who protest at the funerals of U.S. soldiers blaming their deaths on gays in the military. They also hate Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Lady Gaga, obviously President Obama, and they love using the word fag.

But the church is not really a church and their worldview is not limited to making public protests. The church is more like a family. Almost everyone is related to the head of the church, Fred Phelps. Their theology is a very chaste brand of Baptist style Christianity and is consistently conservative. Check out this great documentary on the WBC: The Most Hated Family in America. (Another previous documentary filmmaker wound up joining the church!)

Megan Phelps-Roper was considered the future of the church. A few weeks ago she left the church and won’t be going back. I learned that one of the keys to her successfully leaving the church was David Abitbol, otherwise known at @Jewlicious on Twitter. Abitbol used theological arguments to diffuse much of what Megan had been taught. She didn’t leave right away. She kept trying to revive her faith and believe as she always had. But she simply could not. So she left.

As an aside, how cool is that? Amazing work by Abitbol. He was outraged by the WBC so he did something about it. Very impressive. The rest of us were just outraged. The best I could muster was a 25 page paper trying to figure out a way they could be sued without protection from the 1st Amendment.

I found Megan on Facebook and requested to be her friend. She accepted and I thanked her for accepting the request and in the process called her a hero.

To me, she is a hero because she is “one who shows great courage” and also because she is “an object of extreme admiration.” Obviously it takes great courage to leave one’s family and entire life behind. But what about Megan is worthy of “extreme admiration?”

More to the point, should, as a religious orthodox Jew, be admiring someone who has forsaken their religion? Is there something hypocritical about admiring her for leaving her group and me sticking to mine?

I have two responses.

First, there is no comparison between the beliefs of the WBC and orthodox Judaism. The WBC puts the focus of their religion on hate. While orthodox Judaism does have some abhorrent beliefs, these are not core beliefs, nor are they central to observance today. If a person didn’t believe in the abhorrent parts of Judaism, no one would even know. Whereas in the WBC, those beliefs are the cornerstone of their religious observance. You can’t possibly avoid it.

More importantly, I think everyone should challenge their beliefs. It’s not easy to challenge one’s own beliefs and subject one’s views to scrutiny. Many of our great rabbis prohibited us from doing that. They felt it is too dangerous. We are strongly urged not to read books that are contradictory to our faith. They might be dangerous. But it’s also dangerous not to analyze one’s beliefs at all. It’s also dangerous if one expects every answer to be perfect. There are not always good answers. We need to be able to be comfortable without all the answers. But as our great rabbis taught us, we must know what to answer. Sometimes, the answer is “I don’t know.” Other times, the answer is “A is better than B, but A is not perfect.” Clearly, we are supposed to subjugate our beliefs to some testing so that we will have some answers.

Questions without any answers led Megan away from the WBC but Megan has not left religion. She simply left a hateful, hurtful, twisted brand of religion.

Megan challenged her beliefs and her beliefs failed to stand up to the most basic of questions. Walking away from one’s entire family because one is fairly certain their beliefs are false and harmful takes great bravery. It is admirable to do what one feels is right against the odds. If I was as convinced that what I was doing is wrong as Megan was convinced about her beliefs, I would hope to have as much courage as Megan. So yes, what she did was admirable. Challenging conventional wisdom and changing one’s beliefs is admirable. Doing it and acting on it is heroic.

The world would be a far greater place if more of us challenged conventional wisdom.

I hope we will hear more from Megan in the future. Hers is an important voice in the religious discourse of the 21st century.

Link: Medium

  • Albert

    Nice posting. However, I questioned by Jewish beliefs and then totally lost them. I am now an atheist…

  • tesyaa

    There are not always good answers. We need to be able to be comfortable without all the answers.

    Why? If you went to a surgeon and the surgeon didn’t have good answers, you’d find another surgeon. Obviously, not all questions can be answered easily, but we should seek the best, most likely to be true, answers.

    If one doesn’t really want to hear the answer, one should NOT ask the question.

    • milhouse trabajo

      i disagree. people can live with tough questions (and sometimes no or weak answers) as long as they have a pre-existing strong relationship, but if u don’t think about things (leading to uncomfortable questions) u won’t understand, and will be worse off.

      • tesyaa

        Is the goal to maintain the status quo, even in the face of tough questions? Or is the goal to get closer to understanding what’s really true and what isn’t?

        • milhouse trabajo

          goal is of course to get to what is true, and only way is to ask questions, even though sometimes u may not have an answer, in general u will get a better understanding even grappling with possible fixes/answers. i thought your point was its better not to ask questions since answers may not be good enough.

          my point is so what, as long as yuo come in truly seeking a better understanding while realizing that your relationship with God is already solid (hopefully you have had a good enough life to reach that point), i don’t think issues or big questions will shake you in the long term, and if they do, it’s prob because you found the better truth!

  • MarkSoFla

    Next, she’s gonna convert to Judaism, then we will all call David A, kiruv-worker-extraordinaire 🙂

  • anon

    What’s worse – abhorrent beliefs or abhorrent practices?

    We live in a system where a man can and occasionally does extort unfair concessions from his wife to grant a divorce. Sometimes, that divorce never comes, leaving her a “agunah” or chained woman. We believe the system is broken, we believe that’s not supposed to happen and there’s supposed to be a fix for this. Yet, it happens and a substantial amount of the rabbinical community sits on their hands, both in terms of doing something about current problems and working to reduce the likelihood of it happening in the future (with a pre-nup).

    You can choose to ignore this because the divorce rate among Orthodox Jews is still relatively low, and most men give a get without “persuasion”. However, it’s there, it’s not going away, and most rabbis when approached just shrug their shoulders as if to say “What do you want from me?”

    For years and years, all flavors of rabbis in Orthodox Judaism believed it was better to keep sexual abuse under the rug, than out someone and have them prosecuted, and in turn be labeled a “moser.” The fact that whole concept of mesirah was allowed to carry over from Europe to America for 60 years post WWII and only recently are we seeing this concept being challenged and beliefs changing has been abhorrent.

    I can go on. but what’s the point. Don’t blind yourself to what’s abhorrent today just because you can discount the notorious biblical ones, like genocide, infanticide, slavery, etc. as not being relevant today.

    You can say you take the good with the bad, and we offer more good. You can’t deny that there are huge problems that can be labeled abhorrent that still plague us today.

    • milhouse trabajo

      that’s not the religion or our beliefs, just bad practitioners/failing leaders. get up and try to make a change.

      • anon

        Deut. 24:1 is not part of our belief? “And HE shall write for HER a writ of divorce”. The Torah gives the man complete control of divorce with that verse, (Only later rabbinic law required that a woman also voluntarily accept it.)

        While we “believe” a man should act like a “mentcsh” and give the get when the marriage is effectively over, there’s no biblical imperative for the man to give it, the Torah doesn’t even address, yet less chastise the recalcitrant husband. The best the rabbis can do is opine about the “good ole days” when they can send some thugs to force the guy, that with some remarkable logic we don’t call forcing the guy. Yeah, the system’s not the problem, people who use the system to their advantage is the problem.

        The only people who can effect any real change here are a select group of rabbis regarded as “gedolim” the upper echelon of chareidi rabbis. Everyone else in the Orthodox umbrella sooner or later usually capitulates to their demands or is labeled as a troublemaker and an outcast. However, those rabbis have failed the community. I have no ability to affect change, but a new generation of Centrist/MO rabbis like Rabbi Fink might be able to by openly rejecting the chareidi leadership and charting new course. That’s the motivation for my comments.

        • milhouse trabajo

          Love your last para, but i would note that the drasha of the gemara is not pashut pshat, i.e. a simple reading would not lead one to say that only if he writes a get and gives it willingly is she permitted to another, the whole idea of what constitutes marriage vs divorce seems to be a rabbinic interpretation as there is no clear proof text as to what is the moment when a woman is no longer an eishes ish (and thus not under the arayos prohibition). one could also have been doresh the pesukim so many different ways, as the crux and basic intent here was to note the prohibition of getting back together after a guy initially kicks her out because he hated her (and perhaps the extra stuff is to show how much he hated her, he wrote a document of official separation!).

          Per the Rambam, today’s beis din (if it had the gahonges) could be doresh differently and change the law, but as you note today’s rabbis prefer to just follow our angelic ancestors without regard for the poor and suffering, since we all assume that those rabbis were divinely inspired (maybe starry decisis, get it?).

          • anon

            Holy Hyrax: I wasn’t complaining in so much I was pointing out that we have relevant abhorrent practices still today. (R. Fink seemed to suggest otherwise – that all the abhorrent stuff was a thing of the past.)

            Milhouse & MarkSoFla: It seems we’re on the same page. We have a problem (IMHO it is abhorrent) and we can see potential solutions that our current rabbinic leadership refuses to lift a finger to work towards. A few, like Rabbi Rackman, have tried, but did not get much support from any part of the Orthodox world. (This would seem to relate to Centrist/MO rabbis capitulating to the failed chareidi leadership.)

            • Holy Hyrax

              I understand. I’m just saying it seems the system is working perfectly well, for what it was designed to do, which is to give sole authority in divorce to the husband

        • MarkSoFla

          I didn’t check, but if I recall correctly, it says “if he comes to hate her, he shall write her a writ of divorce”. It doesn’t say anything about the case in which she comes to hate him. Therefore the Rabbis can create a rule for that [different] case.

          No doubt, this type of logic has been applied in other areas of Jewish law, and I think it could provide a handy solution to the problem.

        • Holy Hyrax

          >Yeah, the system’s not the problem, people who use the system to their advantage is the problem.

          If you are going to quote Deut 24:1, then the system is working just fine, correct? The system is built from the get go to only give the man power over divorce. You can’t complain the system is broken. What you need is another system.

  • milhouse trabajo

    “Clearly, we are supposed to subjugate our beliefs to some testing so that we will have some answers.”

    Da ma lehashiv leapikorus. if u can’t defend your beliefs and practice against rigorous attack, sooner or later it will fall apart.

  • Mo

    “They also hate Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, lady Gaga, obviously president Obama” at least they are doing a good job uniting us all.

  • vladimir

    “It is admirable to do what one feels is right against the odds”. Among all other thoughts – this one fits the theme the best.