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Michael Zoosman

Why the Spirit of the Law Should Prevail: A Cautionary Personal Tale

Lady Justice Statue (Source: William Cho/Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/justice-statue-lady-justice-2060093/) No copyright.
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor E. Frankl

Content warning: This essay briefly describes a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know are/is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call or text 988 (US) or your local crisis hotline. Help is available 24/7;  you are not alone.

 

Whenever I encounter extremist ideologies or zealous adherence to any form of law, I am immediately reminded of my own tormented personal history of toxic religiosity. Ritual scrupulosity insidiously plagued me decades ago as a teenager, leading me to the precipice of suicide. I choose to share the details of this dark chapter of my life publicly not only to counter the potentially fatal mental illness stigma that abounds, but also as a cautionary tale in light of the fundamentalism and collective insanity of the contemporary global geopolitical scene. My hope is that it will give pause to others who are restricted — whether by their own will or by force — from free thought and balance.

From a very young age, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My underlying brain chemistry — compounded by irrefutable intergenerational trauma as the sole grandchild of Holocaust survivors — enshrouded me in a cloud of irrational guilt and shame. The particular form of OCD with which I was tasked manifested as a penchant for crippling excesses in the pursuit of a warped religious hypervigilance and moral perfectionism. Consequently, not long after celebrating the Jewish rite of passage of becoming a bar mitzvahat 13 years old, I started to maintain an unhealthy, inordinately uncompromising kosher diet and excessively frum (Yiddish: “pious”) religious lifestyle.

My mother’s diagnosis with terminal stage-four colon cancer at age forty-four — when I was 14 — activated my genetic proclivities like no other trigger before or since. I illogically blamed myself for her condition and subconsciously believed that my perceived spiritual failings were the cause of her illness. Her cancer, in my mind, was a Divine punishment for my inherent inadequacies. My mortal fear of God’s retribution led me to become militantly machmir (rigorous in matters of Jewish law).

The puritanical nature of my Jewish observance went beyond the pale of any accepted level of practice, even according to the most rigid rabbinic authorities. Jewish tradition metaphorically advocates for  “building a fence around the Torah” through conscientious religious observance in order to ensure its laws and practices are honored. My version of this fence was an impenetrable barrier. My practices included repeating prayers ad nauseam when I felt I was reciting them incorrectly, incompletely, or — heaven forbid — insincerely. Painstaking morning and bedtime litanies lasted hours. So, too did mealtime prayers, which I could never recite pristinely enough to satisfy the Divinity I envisioned menacingly keeping tabs. I became so exhausted by this soul-crushing cycle that I started to limit my eating so as not to have to endure these debilitating routines. As I began to fast with increasing frequency, I developed a surging obsession with ensuring that any food I did take in complied with kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) as strictly as possible. Such scrupulousness led me to lose well over twenty pounds when I was 15. I was practically emaciated.

At the same time, I began to hold myself to an impossibly high general standard of behavior and thinking. Whenever a “sinful” thought or impulse violated any of my unattainably rigid rules, I responded with the meticulous system of penance I had secretly developed. This initially involved repeating traditional and invented prayers for forgiveness. But it soon gave way to corporal self-punishment, which in turn fed into a self-perpetuating cycle of guilt for having succumbed to the sin of self-harm. I felt increasingly enveloped by the black hole that I had created for myself. My notion of a jealous and punishing God who despised me only hastened my downward spiral. I became overwhelmed, ensnared by this onslaught of self-blame, austere restrictions, and self-flagellation.

The nadir of this experience came about a year before my mother’s death from cancer, when she was forty-six, and I, 16. One day while standing alone in the kitchen of my childhood home, racked with guilt and debating yet again what I was permitted to eat and how many prayers it would entail, I snapped under the relentless pressure. I impulsively pulled a sharp knife out of a drawer, pointed it to my chest, and said to the God I envisioned: “I can’t take it anymore. If You’re going to be putting me through this hell, I would rather die!” Mercifully, this was followed by a pause that was as momentary as it was momentous. In that brief space, the flash of a new thought entered my mind. “This can’t be right,” proposed this quiet, inner voice. “Why would any god do this? There must be a better way. … I need help.” That split-second pause — my subconscious’s version perhaps of the Biblical prophet Elijah’s so-called “still, small voice” — quite likely delivered me from the brink of suicide. I dropped the knife and backed away, equally ashamed and horrified by my actions. I made the decision to tell my loving and deeply concerned parents that I would be willing to undergo the psychiatric treatment for which they had long been clamoring.

With the help of years of extensive treatment and therapy, I eventually reined in my scrupulosity, obsessions, and compulsions, and regained a deep-rooted sense of stability, all anchored by newfound self-compassion. Over time, I was even able to forge ahead on a new path as an ordained Jewish cantor and multifaith spiritual health practitioner for individuals living with — among other conditions — severe mental health-related issues. No longer was my approach to spirituality born of feelings of shame and guilt in the service of a harsh, disciplinary deity. Rather, it was driven by the model of HaShechinah (the unifying Divine Feminine Presence) and the universal value of lovingkindness (i.e chessed in Judaism, luṭf in Islam, or metta in Buddhism) for others and for myself. I have since been serving as a clergy person who has learned the hard way of the treacherous pitfalls that can materialize from constantly striving to fulfill the most excruciating letter of the law. This warning has proven invaluable — both in my livui ruchani (“spiritual accompaniment”) with others, and in my own journey through life.

I apply this lesson broadly, both personally and professionally. This includes confronting any harmful rigid observance of religious law (e.g., certain aspects of Halacha for Jews, Sharia for Muslims, canon law for Catholics) and literalist readings of secular law (e.g., hardline interpretations of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution). I am reminded of my past strict adherence to laws whenever I see individuals rigidly following any nation’s legal practices that violate basic human rights (e.g., the death penalty) and internationally recognized ethical norms (e.g., the prosecution of the Israel-Hamas War). This understanding has led me to believe that the spirit of the law should generally take precedence over its letter. Fundamentalist interpretations of such canonized texts as an “eye for an eye,” the divine assignment of a “promised land” and permission to destroy “infidels,” not to mention the “right to bear arms” – like many other similarly enshrined verses and virtues – can and do promote lethal ends when taken to the extreme. The inbuilt discomfort with uncertainty that contributed to my perfectionism also reflects what recent studies have demonstrated: that ambivalent attitudes can drive support for extreme political actions.

This does not mean that I promote anarchy; rather, this chaplain has become a proverbial skeptic when it comes to rigidity of any kind. My harrowing experience as a teenager highlights the age-old adage that “too much of any good thing” becomes a problem — a potentially fatal one. The balancing scales of the world-renowned Lady Justice statue come to mind as the ideal for which any society should strive when juxtaposing justice with mercy or any other counterbalancing ethic. Within Judaism, a similar wisdom applies to the impulse toward chumra (“stringency”) and moral rectitude, no less than it does to the drive toward too much or too little food, drink, sex, or other pleasure. Much of rabbinic (and previously, Levitical) tradition already leans in obsessive and compulsive directions. While such piety can be a beautiful thing to a point, too much ipso facto is unhealthy.

Fortunately, various streams of thought and practice that Judaism developed over the millennia acknowledge this danger. There is the well-known reverence for balance between keva(“routine”) and kavanah (“intention”), the juxtaposed sefirot (“emanations”) of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life in Jewish mysticism, and the ideal complimentary middot (soul-traits) found in the mussar (ethics) movement, to name but a few. Like the vast majority of faiths, mainstream Judaism today strives to cultivate within its adherents a version of what Aristotle identified as the opposing virtues of the golden mean, albeit one that affirms the wisdom in Ecclesiastes that “there is a season for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.”(3: 1)Such open approaches to life’s mysteries reflect the time-tested virtue of embracing uncertainty, as well as the permitted presence of agnosticism, including in Judaism.

The jury still is out for many individuals regarding the ultimate value of organized religion. Even someone like myself who lives with the so-called “Doubter’s Disease” of OCD can say — doubtlessly — that innate perils of ritual observance played a significant role in enabling my awful experience. My particular cautionary tale certainly originated from a perfect storm of detrimental religious coping, anticipatory grief, and raw, unprocessed shock over my mother’s diagnosis. This activated underlying psychological propensities that sparked an acute mental health crisis.

And yet, I maintain there are incredibly worthwhile qualities about Jewish practice, as with all traditions. Arguably first among these is their assistance in navigating the existential mysteries of human mortality and suffering. Spirituality can prove invaluable in the search for transcendental levels of meaning. It can similarly aid in the transformation of “oy” to “joy,” whether through culture, shared community, music, art, prayer, or otherwise. In balance, I feel these benefits outweigh the risks that I have experienced and witnessed, hence my decision — even after all I have endured — to serve as a Jewish clergy person in the field of spiritual care. Crucially, I also have every reason to honor and appreciate those who conclude otherwise about the merits of spirituality.

If any readers relate to the feelings I have shared regarding self-harm and suicide, I beseech them to immediately seek out the same kind of psychological support and resources that helped to heal me. Others may empathize with my story in ways that have nothing to do with pathology, and everything to do with the current zeitgeistthat invites fanatical beliefs and practices. For them, I pray that my narrative might serve as an instructive example of the possible hazards that accompany any form of zealotry. May my tale give others pause — not unlike the split-second pause that helped to save my young life. And may that space leave room for the opening of a healthier approach toward a more balanced, freethinking existence.

Victor Frankl famously wrote that in such a space as this lay the potential “for our growth and our freedom.” For individuals like me, in that same space lay the very choice between life and a self-imposed death penalty. It is my hope that, when faced with such a reckoning, humanity will echo the sentiments of those who travel in this cantor’s circles, resoundingly chanting “L’chaim – To Life!

(This article first appeared in the Jurist on July 25, 2024.)

The author, a Jewish cantor, argues that rigid adherence to any form of law—whether religious or secular—can lead to extreme and harmful outcomes, and therefore, the spirit of the law should generally take precedence over its literal interpretation…

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM, is a board-certified Chaplain (Canadian Association of Spiritual Care), co-founder of “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” and a member of the advisory committee of Death Penalty Action.

*This article is the opinion of its author and does not reflect any specific policy position of Death Penalty Action with regard to candidates for political office.

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care (CASC) and received his cantorial ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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