Every individual feels the tension between what we “want” to do, and what we “should” do. In Jewish thought, this constant state of flux is a cornerstone of practice and belief often referred to as “Obligation”.
When I first came to Israel 9 years ago, it was an idea that I only knew in the abstract way we all experience it; I had never grappled with it in any real, practical sense. Today, it is the cornerstone of my deepening Jewish observant (though not “religious”) identity.
The light of this latent value, buried deep in a Jewish soul I had no awareness of at the time, found its first flicker in the stairwell of a random Tel Aviv hotel as the first Shabbat I ever celebrated came in on a regular April evening in 2011.
I couldn’t tell you what changed as I walked up to the roof, the song of my Birthright group all around me, to experience Shabbat for the first time. But I do know that this past Shabbat, eyes closed yet tearing up as I sang the Shabbat liturgy in a Jerusalem synagogue, I returned to that stairwell in my mind’s eye. I do so nearly every Friday night that I make it to Synagogue to live my Jewish birthright of welcoming Shabbat, as my family has done for millennia.
That I am blessed enough to even have this experience is a kind of miracle in and of itself. The son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, I grew up in a loving, tolerant home where secular rational humanism in the Judeo-Christian tradition, taught by example, was the only religion I ever knew. And for 25 years of my life, it had never occurred to me that you could you could need anything more in a value system.
My parents taught me it’s wrong to steal; they taught me it’s wrong to lie; they taught me to always strive to treat others as I would want to be treated. They did right by me in the morality department, and I’m forever grateful to them for it.
And yet, experiencing Shabbat for the first time pierced me so deeply that it found Jewish bedrock beneath a lifetime of secular and enlightenment training and conviction. When I felt the joy and the beauty of welcoming Shabbat for the first time, I knew there was something resonating in me.
But at the same time, I couldn’t have told you what it was — even less why it was, or what it meant. Nor was it a transcendental experience where the clouds opened up and everything changed in an instant. I didn’t have a religious awakening, much less a revelation. I still haven’t. Looking back on it today, the best way I can describe it is as an inchoate sense of fulfillment and meaning that I never expected to find.
I went back to America after two weeks in Israel. But I was never the same. The next Friday was the first one I ever celebrated Shabbat in my own home. Less than two years later, I would be doing the same thing from my new home in Jerusalem.
A look behind the curtain at the cult of self
I’ve given a lot of thought to what I felt in that stairwell seven years ago.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what value could be so powerful that it resonated through a lifetime of Jewish ignorance, yet so amorphous that I couldn’t understand what it was even as it was kindling the light of generations inside of me.
My answer is Obligation.
Everywhere you look in modern culture and society, the individual is center and supreme. And in a certain sense, the individual has never been more free. Every day, the abundance of the modern world calls us more and more to the banner of the cult of self.
Popular culture packages this idea in many forms. You should always accomplish evermore for yourself; you must consume more for yourself. This is the immutable law of the modern world — never take on any responsibility except for one laid upon you by your own impulses for self-gratification.
This lie, like a drug, is as intoxicating as it is destructive. Taken to its logical conclusion, it only produces a uniquely toxic blend of mania, nihilism, and misery. I know this because, in my time competing for Israel as a Skeleton athlete, I learned the uniquely empowering liberation of practicing purposeful, targeted, self-abnegation.
If I had to sum up everything I learned in a decade of preparing myself to compete in international athletics, it would be this: In every moment, the soul should absolutely have the freedom to choose, but it does not follow that the soul should choose absolute freedom in every moment.
That the above statement is provocative in 2019 goes without saying. Freedom is the supreme virtue of our time. But where freedom has no self-imposed constraints, where our desires become our only moral compass, freedom actually cannibalizes itself and loses all meaning. The concept requires negative space — times when we voluntarily choose to NOT follow our every impulsive desire — to bring meaning and joy into our lives. Where no constraint exists, freedom cannot contrast against it, and so itself cannot exist.
Paradoxically, the freedom of the cult of self actually turns us into slaves of our impulses.
Letting go of the big lie
Experiencing this truth of the human soul viscerally via my secular athletic life, combined with my deepening relationship and understanding of Shabbat, caused a revolution in my thinking.
Despite my secular upbringing, I couldn’t keep believing the big lie of modern consumer culture. Eventually, I stopped being afraid to admit that the lived truth of my emotional, mental, and physical life would by definition have to be true for my spiritual life.
I stopped believing external Obligation was, by definition, oppressive and evil. I stopped believing that the only virtue there is to aspire to in this life is for everything to be about me, in all places, and at all times.
Against a meaningful and just objective standard, there is value in doing something that is hard; there is value in doing something that challenges the will; there is value in doing something that we do not necessarily “want to do” in the moment. And the reason is because, just like muscle and bone, the mind and the soul must flex against resistance or languish into atrophy.
It is this concept of choosing to act not on impulse but rather against a virtuous objective standard, and its central role in Jewish spirituality and faith, that served as the stepping off point for me to experience Jewishness not just as an identity but as an exercise of my soul.
Shabbat, the weekly Obligation of the Jewish people to remember God’s act of Creation, kindled the lived spiritual practice of this idea inside of me.
Every Friday night, I am mindful that it is Shabbat. I do not work on my day job or various side projects; I stay off of social media and news sites; I say the blessings over candles and wine whenever possible; I go to Synagogue for Kabalat Shabbat whenever I am home in Israel, and sometimes when I am visiting my family in New Jersey.
To this day, Shabbat remains the most visceral expression of Obligation that I experience. It is my weekly rebellion against the selfishness and nihilism of the modern world.
Yearning to lead a life well lived
If you are expecting to now read that I now keep all the Halacha, pray three times a day, and never watch a movie on Shabbat, I am afraid I will have to disappoint you. To be fair, I had already admitted I am not what anyone would mistake for an observant Jew, in the common understanding of that term.
My working definition of free will remains 100% in the secular Enlightenment tradition. One of the parts of Jewish observance, tradition, and faith I struggle with the most is the idea of external punishment for transgressing Obligation that does not cause harm to others. I believe that failing to follow an Obligation is harmful to myself — a punishment by definition — and that there is no place (or need) for human hands to dole it out.
My journey into Jewish Obligation has already been a long and fulfilling one, and it is without a doubt far from complete. In reality, my lived Jewish Obligation is, as of today, cherry-picked and I readily admit it. I am not perfect. Some will call me a hypocrite, and that’s fine. But this is an honest assessment of where I am at this point in my life.
Like all of us and in spite of my best intentions, I do not always live up to the standard I would like to see myself living up to. But I am trying. Most importantly, I have reversed my blind and fundamental attachment to the decadent thinking that infects our modern life and sadly causes so much needless pain. I am now open and aware of the benefits of accepting Obligation into my spiritual life, and see the impossible wisdom of that great Jewish theological belief that a life lived entirely free of the uplifting power of Obligation cannot be a life well lived.
And even in just that change — and the yearning to be better that it brings — the awakening of my Jewish soul has already enriched my life more than I could have ever imagined.