In some ways I think my life would be easier if I were a “bad” girl. Alas, I have had no such luck. Other than being a pretty bad student, I have caused relatively little trouble to those around me. Because of this it never really crossed my mind to rebel against my religious upbringing. Well, at least not until the age of 26.
I grew up in a loving and stable Modern Orthodox home where I was instilled with most of the values I carry with me today – the ideals of honesty, being a good person, caring about family and keeping Jewish traditions. I admit that there were some things I was taught that have caused the slightest bit of guilt in me, but I think my upbringing was for the most part quite idyllic.
Until it happened. At approximately the age of 19 I started going through the alarming and uninvited realization that I didn’t feel very comfortable in the Orthodox world – in my world.
I started noticing that things which seemed to be taken for granted in the Orthodox world were not a given for me. To name a few small ones: I was definitely not sold on the idea of God, the Torah’s Godly source or the written-in-stone approach to the 613 mitzvot. As these doubts slowly crept into my consciousness, the mitzvot that were particularly difficult for me became even more difficult to keep. What if I was subscribing to something that would turn out to be false?
I also started noticing how much it bothered me that so many people in the Orthodox community saw their lifestyles as the ultimate truth for all Jews — a truth they believed came above all other interpretations of the world or the Torah.
Naturally, the conclusion I came to, based on my religious upbringing and my good-girl personality, was that there was something very wrong with me. I consequently diagnosed myself with spiritual blindness.
The way I saw it, the Orthodox world was presenting me with diamonds that, because of a flaw within me, I was unable to recognize as such; I just saw plain glass. Glass can be pretty too but it isn’t as precious as diamonds. How frustrating it was to see everyone around me inspired by what they saw while I was left, to a large extent, untouched.
Based on this introspection, I did what made most sense to me. I started trying desperately to fix myself.
After my national service I decided to go learn in yeshiva, instead of going straight to university.
Of course, while working on fixing myself, it was clear to me that I’d continue to lead an Orthodox lifestyle. This was slightly unfortunate for me because it just so happens that one of the cornerstones of Judaism — Shabbat — was the practice I found most difficult to keep. Too much food and too much sleep for 25 hours straight did not feel very holy. On the contrary — it felt unhealthy and claustrophobic. But I was taught that Shabbat has been the backbone of Jewish preservation for thousands of years, so how could I be the one to break the chain? Throwing it away would be a huge failure on my part and a slap in the face to my ancestors and my family. Besides, once I fixed myself, everything would fall into place anyway.
And it was with all that baggage that I presented myself at my first day of yeshiva.
My intention was to delve into the depths of my soul, use the teachers as a tool to help resolve all of my outstanding issues regarding Judaism, and come out on the other side of my one-year spiritual journey enlightened and ready to take on the sinners.
So much for planning.
It is clear to me now what prevented me from getting anywhere close to the questions I really needed to ask:
- I was afraid that the answers I’d receive would be a Pandora’s box that I wasn’t yet ready to face.
- There were questions I was convinced were useless or wrong to ask because in Orthodox Judaism they only have one answer. So what would be the point in asking them?
- I did not feel safe asking questions that no one else seemed to be asking.
- I didn’t even really know yet what exactly I needed to ask.
What happened instead was that I spent my year in yeshiva going to classes and trying to convince myself that Orthodox Judaism was the truth.
It’s embarrassing when I think about it, but during my time in yeshiva, I often remember asking myself, “So? Do you feel it? Does this text/class touch you? Are you convinced?”
Invariably, the answer was “no,” but I forged on, hoping that eventually my spiritual density would make way for a “yes.”
I am disappointed in the teachers I had that year. In retrospect, I didn’t really feel noticed by them. I know that I was good at hiding the fact that I had serious issues with my religiosity, but a lot of what I was feeling was still largely subconscious, and I don’t remember any of my teachers trying to get a feel for who I was and potentially direct me toward true self-discovery.
There was one time I do remember going to speak to a rabbi. After I poured my heart out to him about how religiously frustrated I was (in a letter, by the way, which I wish I could find today), he was empathetic and then he recommended I read Esh Kodesh, a book of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s talks during the Holocaust.
Maybe I missed the point, but either way, it didn’t help. The book was heavy and boring, and surprisingly, reading about people going through horrible experiences did not inspire me — even if it showed that someone was able to speak inspirationally during the Holocaust. If anything, it only raised in me anew one of the major questions I had always asked myself: If God does exists, is He good or bad?
And that was how the first year of my spiritual journey panned out. I went to classes on the laws of Shabbat (woe is me) and Hassidut (deep) and Talmud (intellectually fun), which for the most part left me feeling empty. I kept waiting to be spiritually fixed but, not surprisingly, the fixes never came.
What I thought was going to be a one-part story, has turned out to be only one part of many.
Because intros at the beginning suck.
I wrote this piece because I assume that if I went through something like this, others have too. Am I right?
Also, please keep in mind that this piece has taken me many, many hours of introspection.
As for a part 2, I can’t promise but I’ll try.