A Judaism of One’s Own

For better or for worse, I have spent a lot of time over the years, on Facebook. Naturally, I am a member of a number of Facebook groups.

One of the more engaging Facebook groups of which I am a member is for non-Orthodox Orthodox day school graduates and their enablers and cheerleaders. And while I would not be classified as any of those, I find the discussions of how people frame their lives and reframe their past fascinating. Additionally, there is the perpetual appeal in seeing how people are still psychologically and emotionally engaged by a community they abandoned over a decade prior.

Over time, thanks to this Facebook group, I came to recognize the obvious truth that at some point in our lives, the religion of our youth will no longer be intellectually, psychologically, spiritually or morally compelling. On some level this observation is trivial, given that most people are not the same people they were at 15, let along 8 and what they learned in elementary, junior High School or even High School cannot satisfy their religious needs decades later. No matter how hard a school tries to educate their students religiously for their later lives, it is virtually impossible to create a curriculum for a single person for where they will be (and where the world will be) in 20 years, let alone for a class of 30 with their myriad diverse paths that they will travel.

At some point, every person in their lives with be confronted by the fact that the Judaism that they learned in their youth is no longer personally compelling and true. At that point in their lives, they have a choice: they could either abandon a religion that makes no sense to them and to how they now live their lives. Or alternatively, look for sources, texts and teachers who teach a Judaism that makes sense to them personally.

Some people continually refine and revise their relationship with God and with the Jewish tradition so that there are no major breaks or discontinuities between their Judaism and the rest of their lives.

However, for many people, this is not the case. They continued being propelled by a Judaism fueled by the education of their youths, until one day, week or month, they wake up and realize the gaping chasm between their personal beliefs and those of their childhood religion. Usually, though, this is not a sudden realization, but rather a growing disconnect, a gnawing feelings of dissatisfaction.

The break can also be sudden or within a relatively short period of time, but usually it is a gradual falling away, the slow dropping of practices, the occasional lapse that slowly becomes the norm and then the rule. At what point did they break with Orthodox Judaism? For many it is hard to pinpoint; for others there is a decisive action, decision or realization that is their personal watershed moment.

But there are those who choose to seek the answers to their questions. These are often quiet struggles, fought in one’s mind. Or in long intense conversations with one’s teachers, rabbis or friends. In seeking out and finding an article, essay or book that frames an idea, a practice or a situation in a compelling narrative.

In the end, the answers may not be revolutionary, the resolutions not noteworthy. And yet they help reshape and reframe the texts that they have been studying their whole lives, the prayers they can recite by heart, the commandments they fulfill by muscle memory so that they are now in sync with their values, beliefs and lives.

Of course, there are numerous extrinsic reasons for staying put, such as inertia and the comfort the familiar, spouse and children or parents and siblings or even friends and communities.

However, a formal religious life lived for extrinsic reasons without any source of internal motivation is emotionally deadening, slowly draining one’s spiritual life, leaving a desiccated soul.

In today’s cultural climate, few celebrate the individual or couple who choose the “conventional life”, the “frum from birth” who find an understanding of Judaism that is personally compelling enough to continue their received religion, who chooses to humbly accept his traditions with humility and sacrifice, rather than assert that Judaism must make sense to him personally and that all of his questions must be answered to his personal satisfaction.

On the contrary, one is far more likely to find an audience when blogging about how you have rebelled against your community or posting on Facebook about your latest transgression.

I have occasionally remarked that someone who is extremely discontented with their religion or with their religious life should see a therapist. Many find this suggestion offensive, with its implication that something is wrong with the individual and not that they are undergoing a normal and healthy maturation process.

On the contrary, I am implying no such thing. Rather one needs a functional healthy religious and spiritual life in which their religion is consistent with their values and their lifestyle and fulfills their needs. If one finds their religion radically out of sync with their lives, their beliefs or their values, or if their emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs go unfulfilled, they need toexamine both and decide what needs to change.  My suggestion is that at such times, one needs to find the humility to change their lives to find meaning and fulfillment within Judaism rather than abandon a Judaism that they find no longer meaningful, true or fulfilling.

Rabbi Yoseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, as paraphrased in Rav Herschel Schachter’s Nefesh ha-Rav quotes the formulation, “Eloheinu ve-Elohei Avosainu; Our God & the God of our forefathers” the preface to many Jewish prayers, as teaching that we each have both a personal relationship with God and a relationship with God as mediated through the Jewish tradition. However,priority must be given to our personal relationship with God and we must actively cultivate such a relationship before we can have a relationship with the God of our forefathers, taught to us first as children.

About the Author
Yonatan Kaganoff lives with his family in Passaic, New Jersey.
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