Emunah Fialkoff

Is emotional realness the solution to abuse?

While reading about the Chaim Walder suicide, I was struck by conversations about what to do with his books. Burn them? Throw them away? Keep them?

I scanned my book collection, and realized that I don’t own any Chaim Walder books, and therefore have no moral quandaries about how to dispose of them.

“What kind of Jewish family doesn’t own a Chaim Walder book?” you might ask. Well, here’s the thing.

When I was a young adult, I spent enormous energy trying to gain what you might call “emotional realness.” I was deeply confused, and for years, I worked day and night to crawl out of the fog. Thank God, I succeeded.

In that process, one of the things that I changed was how I wrote. When I was young, I wrote using very dramatic language. I’d described intense emotions and experiences. I’d make my life seem much more exciting than it was.

As I pursued “realness” with myself, I began doing reality checks. If I was writing about something like I lived in the high heavens, I’d stop and rewrite—no, wait, what really happened? How do I actually feel? I moved away from drama and into reality. Emotions became more measured and so did my description of them.

An interesting result of this was that I started to feel pretty not-at-home in much of the writing of the ultra-religious community. The stories were sometimes uplifting, but the writing! It was so sensationalized, so dramatized, so…false. I hated it. I stopped buying books with any hint of this dishonesty. I couldn’t get through them.

Why does this matter? Many people are wondering how we can stand up as a community against abuse. I think one answer to this question relates to our level of emotional realness.

A problem in extreme religious communities is that emotional realness is often very low. People pretend to feel things they do not feel, exaggerate feelings, especially when connected with spiritual matters, or quite frankly—are completely emotionally dissociated, such that all their actions stem from a place of artificiality.

Why do we have this problem?

I think one source is our idealism. The ultra-Orthodox world sets a very high spiritual standard for its followers—total devotion to God, absolute adherence to Halacha, and impeccable behavior toward one’s fellow man. Many emotions are taboo—like anger, doubt, and pride. Which leads people to feel uncomfortable admitting that they have them. It becomes easier to deny what we feel and to instead play a part, rather than to own where we are and try to grow from there.

And so, we cast ourselves in the image of what we want to be and not what we are. We project ourselves as devout daveners, as dedicated chesed practioners, as loving friends. In reality, our internal lives are a bundle of confusion. Some of what we project may be real. But we can’t decipher the lines.

This emotional dishonesty is damaging on a personal level. Anyone playing a part senses the internal lie, but may not know how to break free. Some break free by abandoning the community entirely. Others overcome it through careful inner work, while staying in the fold. Others live out their entire lives within it—never experiencing true relationships with others or true connection to the self.

But the community also suffers when emotional dishonesty becomes the norm. Secrecy follows. A person out of touch with his own experience has a hard time defending victims of abuse. He is more concerned with defending the image of what is—a devout community—than what actually is—a community with high levels of devotion, but nonetheless containing corruption and abuse.

The writing of the orthodox world betrays this tendency that is one of the roots of its problems—it is too dramatic to ring true. And it’s a shame—because finding authentic ways to talk about miracles and religious inspiration could be incredibly valuable.

So, if I may add this voice to those speaking up, I say that emotional honesty is a necessity, not a luxury in the religious world. We neglect it at our peril.

About the Author
Emunah Fialkoff is a ghostwriter and writing trainer. She is keenly interested in the intersection between religious life and mental health.
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