I tried to stay religious. I don’t know many times I tried to reign in my individuality, to present myself as a nice, Orthodox girl, in the hopes that my external appearance could somehow influence my belief system. I returned to Shabbat, kashrut, tzniut, to everything that I’d been taught was right. But it always felt wrong.
I don’t know exactly when I started to question the binary world in which I’d been raised. It was a world of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. Behaviors were permitted or prohibited. People were Jews or gentiles. Food was kosher or treif.
There were so many things that were presented as facts of life, when in reality, they were often arbitrary and more nuanced that people were willing to admit. Israel was always good. Palestinians were always bad. Earrings were okay, but multiple piercing and nose rings were inappropriate. Pencil skirts were okay for women, but baggy pants were not. Kashrut symbols were based on strict observance of the laws of kashrut, (except when they were based on political or monetary factors). Rabbis were good. Kiruv was good. Jewish music was good. Radio, television, and magazines were bad.
God was good. Always good. Even when we couldn’t understand it.
Maybe that was why things started to break down.
At age ten in summer camp, my best friend and I would link arms every morning and complain about how annoying our older siblings had been the previous evenings. My sister would always hog the bathroom and my brother would always take my seat at the dinner table. Her brother would come into her room at night and make her touch him. Ugh. Older siblings. So annoying.
At eleven, I read everything I could get my hands on. When I finished all the novels in the house, I read my father’s abnormal psychology textbooks. I was stunned. There were that many things that could go wrong with the human mind? What did God think about this?
At twelve. I watched the at-risk kids in my town be failed by the community that was supposed to be their safe-haven. Although I didn’t know it, I was watching what happens when kiruv trumps common sense and the children of those doing the kiruv become human sacrifices.
At thirteen, I read a dozen books on the holocaust and my blood ran cold. In school, I watched fellow students shamed for their clothing and banned from school activities because their behavior fell outside the parameters of what had been deemed “acceptable”.
At fourteen, I read about the Rwandan genocide and child soldiers in the Sudan and starving children in Somalia. That was the same year I was braced for scoliosis. My brace caused bruising and welts on my hips and spine, but that was nothing compared to what people around the world were experiencing. I cinched my brace tighter until my hips bled.
At fifteen, I starved myself down to 80-something pounds because I was tired of feeling everything. I had already realized that the world was an ugly place and that, “God has a master plan”, was not an adequate answer; It was an insult to those who were suffering.
At sixteen, I bounced in and out of eating disorder treatment, tired of religious dogma, tired of Hebrew classes, tired of rabbis making bad decisions about my life, and tired of everyone’s refusal to acknowledge these decisions as inappropriate. I have no patience for a Rabbi who doesn’t know his own limitations.
At seventeen, I learned that women can be rapists and that a horrifying number of my schoolmates had been sexually abused. I learned about human trafficking and no longer wanted to be a part of the human race. I stopped talking to God.
At eighteen, I spent the year in Israel and made a valiant attempt to become the young woman I was supposed to be. I willed myself to be brainwashed. It didn’t happen.
And so it went. Everywhere I looked, I saw pain and suffering. Everywhere I looked, there was pure evil staring back at me. I would talk about this to religious people and they’d shake their heads and say, “You read too much.” They’d say, “In this world, there are no answers. In the next world, there are no questions.” They’d say, “Gam zu l’tovah.”
But it wasn’t. It isn’t. Evil isn’t good. If God created everything, then he must have created the evil in this world. And any answer to the question of “why bad things happen to good people?” works off the premise that evil has to exist. But why create evil? Why create pain? If he could have created anything, why didn’t he create a universe of happiness and joy?
Maybe I could have processed the blackness of this world if I hadn’t been told that it was really for the best. Again, there was that binary. God was good. End of story. If you didn’t believe that, you were basically a heretic.
Show me a religious person who is willing to look at the world with their eyes wide open – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and I’ll show you a person who has doubt in their heart. They may still believe that living a religious lifestyle is the best option for this life, but that’s not the point.
People going “off the derech” haven’t lost their minds. We’re not confused. We’re not rebellious. We’re waking up. We are allowing our questions to fully percolate instead of suffocating them with platitudes. We are thinking in shades of gray, rejecting a black and white mentality. We are opening our eyes to the suffering around us, refusing to stay quiet for the sake of presenting a united front or a pretty picture. We won’t tolerate secrets.
If we could have stayed, we probably would have. But again, there was that binary. You’re either on the derech or you’re off it. We couldn’t live with ourselves if we stayed on, so we let ourselves be tossed off a bridge, let ourselves be lumped into a category that is usually miscategorized and misunderstood, because being OTD was better than the alternative.
We’ve learned that grey is a beautiful color. We’ve learned that we don’t have all the answers, and we have the right to ask all the questions. We’ve learned that we can accept whatever and whoever we want, as long as it sits right with out spirit. We’ve learned that we can be part of a community without sacrificing our own individuality. We’ve learned that what we chose to do was hard, but staying would have been harder.
Necessary disclaimer before I get slaughtered for my opinions: If you are religious and/or living a religious lifestyle, I am not implying that you are lacking individuality, incapable of deviating from black/white thinking, or lacking in any intellectual capacity. I know… it sounds like I am. I’ve personally met many religious people who are brilliant, thoughtful, and highly aware, (my family, for starters). If religiosity works for you, bless your heart. I only ask that you make space for those who cannot – for whatever reason – make the sacrifices that being part of an insular community requires.