(No) Questions Allowed? My Quest to Find Balance Between Faith and Doubt
“I’m going to daven for you every night that you stay frum.”
After an hour of discussion of my plans post-high school, this loving administrator was begging me to reconsider. Looking at her worried eyes I pictured her lying in bed, taking out her well-worn siddur, with a list inside of her former students whose souls were also at risk. Without missing a beat, I started scribbling down my Hebrew name, and asked her if she would like my mother’s or father’s name for her future tefillot. I failed to amuse her, and she left me with this: “It’s not just me. All your teachers are very, very, concerned about you.”
All my teachers were very, very, concerned about me.”
This last statement echoed inside my conscience. It was with confidence that I opted not to apply to the same seminaries as my peers. I felt nourished by the four years of Torah study in my only girls high school, but it seemed obvious to me that my myriad of questions and passion for feminism would be best suited in a more left wing Modern Orthodox program in Israel. Never did it cross my mind that this path could endanger my fervent commitment to halakhic Judaism, or in any way challenge my frumkeit.
With her last statement, though, my self-confidence gave way to self-doubt. Was I being overly brash? I was only 17 at the time, and this would be my first foray into the halls of a female beit midrash, where Talmud was openly and unapologetically studied. Did I have something to fear? Did something happen inside these institutions that I had been lovingly shielded from? Was it simply the loving environment of my high school, filled with choirs, shabbatonim and teachers from the yeshivish world that was keeping me frum?
Was my commitment so ephemeral that it could be so easily undone?
These ruminations enveloped my thoughts over the next few days; I could barely think about anything else. As I sat in my classes in my senior year, I saw my teachers looking at me differently My inquisitive brain and attention to text, I thought, was an asset to the classroom. But now I was overly self-conscience; did they see me as a fraud? I felt close to so many of my teachers. I decided, I would ask them: why were they so worried?
“The problem isn’t that those schools are feminist. They just aren’t frum.” That was one teacher’s response.
The girls in that school go to the beach. And take pictures of themselves. On Shabbos.”
This explanation came from another young teacher.
“The learning in these schools is motivated by intellect, not a genuine desire to learn,” explained one rabbi. So I might get smart, just not frum, he explained.
Assuredly, other teachers had no clue what I was talking about, and encouraged me to find my way, despite pressures from the administration.
Choosing the administrator’s prayers over her blessings, I chose to spend two years learning in both of these “dangerous” seminaries. My post high school experience in many ways felt like a seamless transition from my high school; I was studying the same texts, keeping the same mitzvot, building skills, and gaining knowledge in order to enhance my service of God. And so I returned to America to attend college, more learned, more engaged, and still frum.
But then it happened. Maybe the administrator stopped davening. The world I had built of religious values and actions started to crumble around me. I wasn’t sure why I was frum anymore.
A family in my community lost children due to a house fire. I visited a friend of mine who was sitting shiva for her father who died suddenly on the tennis court. Questions of faith and the efficacy of our actions and prayers left the abstract of the beit midrash and became real concerns. As I sat in shul and watched adults and children alike rise in a solemn silence to hear the rabbi pray for the sick, I felt anxious: is this for real? Why do we think this works?
I started to question the rigid religious structures of my daily existence. I realized I knew nothing, not why we turned around during the lecha dodi prayers on Friday night, not why we pray in a quorum of ten men. I saw the religious people around me, seemingly performing actions by rote, and I realized: I used to be one of them. But I couldn’t, not anymore. Questions of faith, biblical scholarship and ethics began to bother me in a way that they didn’t before. Karl Marx’s description of religious communities as “the opiate of the masses” seemed more correct to me now than it did a few months prior.
I called up the director of the religious camp I was scheduled to work at that summer. I apologized to the camp director, but I didn’t feel that I could genuinely be a counselor in a religious Zionist camp with the constant questions and ruminations in my brain. He didn’t accept my resignation. “We need people like you,” he said. “Do your research and get back to me. The kids need you.” I though, was unsure.
You’ve worked for 18 years for your Judaism. Don’t give up because of a couple of months of questions.”
That was my (very wise) mom. The calculation made sense to me; the decision to uproot what I had worked my entire childhood for should not be let go because of a series of questions over the course of only half a college semester. My mother assured me that the inquisitive mind was not created first on my birthday. I was an individual, unique and special, but I was part of a long tradition of similarly unique minds. I could find people with the same questions, who found answers, comfort, and reasons to move forward.
“Welcome to your first religious crisis,” said my teacher, after I called her in Israel. First? My life, she explained to me, would be a series of periods of faith and doubt. But I needed to keep learning, asking, searching, and I would find what was right for me. I asked her my litany of questions; she sent me articles to read and people to talk to on my side of the ocean.
I wasn’t alone. I connected to alumna from both of my schools in Israel, and they all had similar questions, but also tools to find meaning. Leaders and laypeople alike were on this journey of faith, of giving, of understanding our rich tradition and confronting hard questions, both ethical and theological.
It was in this experience that I felt I had travelled a long distance from my high school years. Yes, I was studying the same texts and building on the same skills. But, unlike in my high school, no question was out of bounds. I didn’t fear being labelled “the class feminist” (in a derogatory sense), any time I had a concern about gender equality and the inclusion of women. Questions were no longer answered with other questions and obscure parables, but with an intellectual honesty and earnest discussion. I was astounded at the ability of the people around me to simultaneously care for the text, the tradition, their faith, and the individuals struggling to keep it all.
Ironically, the institutions that my teachers feared would pull me away from Orthodox Judaism are what kept me close to a tradition that I adore. Essential to my Judaism are places and spaces that allow questions and confront current ethical issues with respect, awe and confidence. I feel constant gratitude to have chosen and found these communities of faith for me and my family’s religious growth.
I jumped at the opportunity to join PORAT, because while I believe that my story is unique to me, I know that my experience is far from unusual. The spiritual survival of so many Orthodox Jews lies in these institutions and the people and discussions inside of them. PORAT is a crucial and necessary organization because we need safe spaces to ask, learn, support and discover. I joined PORAT because I want my children to feel like they have a place within Orthodoxy, no matter what questions or concerns they may have. These places are not endangering our religiosity, rather, they are insuring it for generations to come.
PORAT, People for the Orthodox Renaissance of Torah, is having a kickoff event May 15th at 7:00 PM at KJ in Manhattan, with a panel on the future of Modern Orthodoxy.
Panelists include: Rabbi Binny Lau, Ms. Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz and Ms. Ann Pava.
Click here to register for the event.
Committed to a tolerant and inclusive Modern Orthodox community, Porat brings together lay and religious leaders to advocate for thoughtful halachic observance and progressive education. PORAT supports organizations dedicated to these ideals and fosters open dialogue while advancing Torah values.