What Would You Say?

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What would you say if you got an email like this?

Dear Tzvi,

It was so nice to catch up with you after so many years. As you clearly saw, I’m not as into Judaism anymore as I was when we grew up together. I appreciated your asking what happened, and wanted to put my feelings into words. Basically, it’s like this.

After starting college, I started asking myself what Judaism added to my life. It pretty clearly wasn’t making me happy; it was an additional set of rules that just made me crazy. As much as I was committed to following them, I didn’t feel like they added anything to my life. Anything which I might’ve enjoyed, suddenly there was another law, whether from the Torah, the Rabbis, or just “Jewish practice,” telling me I wasn’t allowed. I felt uncomfortable joining clubs on campus as a Jew; job interviews seemed to go so much smoother when I didn’t wear my Kippa. It didn’t help when friends I spoke to reminded me that this has been part of our heritage for thousands of years – why is hatred something to be proud of?! Why stay connected to a religion that seems designed to isolate us?

While I attempted to hang on to my Torah learning, often staying up late into the night working on Daf Yomi, my classmates were enjoying extracurriculars and exploring new passions. I listened jealously as they described deep dives into philosophy and art, told stories of weekends backpacking in exotic locations, and developed relationships that transcended classes and projects.

And what did I have to show for my nights alone in my room or the campus Beis Medrish? I can tell you a little bit more about how to build an Eruv, something I’ll likely never do at all, ever, in my entire life? And explain why a line in the Rambam about a topic no one cares about doesn’t really contradict another line in the Rambam that also no one cares about? I’ve dedicated 8 years of my life to studying texts that don’t interest me and don’t tell me anything about how to live my life, beyond things everyone already knows – be kind to others, respect your parents, live with purpose instead of descending into hedonism. I never had the opportunity to really dedicate time to something like music, which I really would have enjoyed and might even have contributed something new to.

I would have loved to become friendly with the people in my classes, but Halacha made sure that wouldn’t happen. Just deciding on a place to go hang out is so awkward. As many times as I try to explain, Kashrus doesn’t make any sense to them. Weekends are out because of Shabbos. Every other week is another Yuntif, which means more missed classes and time spent making up assignments. Why should they struggle to develop a relationship with me if my rules don’t make sense and I’m never able to do the things they like to do?

Reading the news over the past few months has only made things worse. Over and over again, I read articles calling out Jews for crimes of all kinds and for demonstrating brazen selfishness and disregard for anyone but themselves. Israel’s cruel treatment of the Palestinians flies in the face of every virtue Judaism theoretically teaches, although they’re honestly usually talked about more than they’re exemplified in real life. This is a people I should be proud to be part of, God’s chosen race? Fakhert – while we’re all caught up trying to solve our own problems, there are people out there who dedicate lives towards helping the underprivileged and making a real difference to the world. Maybe they should be the ones God’s so proud of – what do we do that makes us so special? We fear God. We learn His Torah. Maybe some of us dance, sing, and drink a l’chaim. But I don’t see any real impact, anything inspiring in this religion of old texts and archaic laws that should keep me connected.

I know about the others forms of Judaism, too. I looked into them for a bit, thinking that I’d appreciate their looser rules and focus on social justice. But to be honest, I didn’t really get it. Once you take the commitment to Torah and Halacha out of Judaism, what’s left? A patchwork of ideas cobbled together in a take-what-you-want, leave-what-you-don’t quilt feels like a waste of time to me; it’s definitely not what God wants, so why bother? I appreciate the idea of trying to preserve some remnant of Jewish faith and practice, but it just didn’t work for me.

So that’s my story. I hope this wasn’t too honest; I know this stuff really means a lot to you. You asked what happened, and I wanted to be real with you.  Really, I wish I saw meaning in Judaism, a point to all the laws and restrictions. I wish I could see value in continuing to learn Torah. But I just don’t. Please let me know what you think; of course, don’t let your job as a rabbi override your perspective as a friend.

Your friend,

Josh (not his real name)

What would you respond?

About the Author
Tzvi grew up in Chicago and made Aliya in 2019. He has taught/teaches in a number of formal and informal contexts, including Har Sinai NCSY, Shul Youth Director, and Yeshivat HaKotel. He credits his years of experience in Camp Yagilu, a unique Orthodox wilderness summer program, for his leadership style, teambuilding experience, and unbelievable stories.
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