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Posts Tagged ‘personal search’

Looking for my Judaism

Posted by rabbiart on April 23, 2008

My dear friend Chauncey Bell forwarded me this note from an email list he reads and asks how I would have responded.

Dear Rabbi J.,

You are perhaps the only Rabbi that I feel I can write to about the following painful subject.

I grew up in a very secular home, with no faith and no G-d. My parents were both highly intelligent, cultured individuals. My father amassed a fortune as a shrewd and successful businessman, while my mother was a professional in her own right. But despite my family’s stature, we grew up in a loveless home. Our parents were not there for us, nor were they there for each other. My parents were not loyal to each other and ultimately divorced, leaving my siblings and me adrift.

I was always conscious of being Jewish, though I knew nothing about it. As I suffered through my un-nurturing home life, I began a spiritual search that ultimately led me to the Jewish community. There I found a warmth and love that I had never before experienced. The power of Jewish tradition – Shabbat, prayer, even kosher – resonated with me. Not that commitment came easily to me. But I appreciated the power of commitment – something I had never really experienced. My life was all about shifting loyalties, broken promises, dashed dreams – all creating profound distrust and insecurity. But now I discovered something new: Committed people to each other, to family, to community and to a higher calling. It was quite compelling. I also sensed a simplicity and even rejection of the high culture I grew up in. Most of the religious Jews I met were not open to other ideas and to a free-spirited perspective. But I reckoned that perhaps the trade-off was worth it: Sacrificing some of the beauty of art and literature, but without a rudder, for a life of trust, love and commitment, with very strong sense of purpose.

I was seduced by the observant lifestyle, and I slowly but surely became totally observant myself. At some point I couldn’t do enough. I made friends quickly and was welcomed into the community with open arms. For every friend and family I came to know another set of traditions became part of my regimen. I began using my Hebrew name in place of my secular one. I was kissing mezuzahs, reciting Tehillim, running to synagogue, praying at holy places, tying red strings on every one of my joints. I even took an extended leave from work to go study in a Yeshiva in Israel. And I met many others on a similar journey. As I look back at it now, it all was a blurring whiz – I was completely taken and consumed by the euphoria, like a marathon runner whose legs can’t stop moving, being pulled along on the adrenalin generated by the cheers of all the bystanders and the momentum of my fellow runners.

Pretty soon I was one of those “baalei teshuvah,” with various Rabbis and Rebbetzin’s taking credit for my miraculous “return” to my roots. Adding a feather to many caps, I was then deluged with “shidduchim,” potential marriage mates, whom I began to date. At that point, I began to feel my own self re-emerging and wasn’t really sure what I wanted outside of the demands and pressures of those around me. Truth be told, their intentions were for the most part pure, but they simply did not allow me to be myself. With the argument that they – or as they would put it, the “Torah” – knows better. I realized that my great hunger for spirit and meaning totally overwhelmed my senses and my sense of self, and I was being carried on the waves of enthusiasm. I seriously couldn’t distinguish between who I was as opposed to who others thought I was; between my individual needs and the expectations of me. The boundaries became blurred: where did others end and where did I begin?

And then the ax fell. The honeymoon was over. As I began to land and returned to my daily routines, I also began to see many of the flaws of the communities that embraced me. Frankly, that did not disturb me at all. I was not a child nor naïve; I understood that every social circle has its strengths and its weaknesses. People are people. What drew me to the religious community was not a fantastic expectation that I found perfect people; rather that I had found a perfect Judaism – a way that G-d wants us to live. What ended up truly troubling me was that so many of the religious community were simply mindless and mechanical – and callous. That too is forgivable; the secular world is not much different. What was not forgivable, however, was that in their mindlessness (masked in blind faith) many were cruel and selfish. And to top it off, when “dressed” in religious garb, the self-righteousness is simply unbearable. From condescension to outright arrogance, anything that did not neatly fit into the “comfortable” zone of the initiated was simply dismissed or criticized. Religion was much more about appearances and mechanics than it was about inner spiritual development. Except for a rare few, I did not witness introspection, an effort in personal refinement and growth, deepening love and relationships. That’s fine, as long as you don’t spend your time your time criticizing others and convincing yourself that you are better than others just because you are wearing a sheitel.

My questions, for example, became the irritating voice of the malcontent. From “she’s too independent” to the profoundly psychological “what can you do, she comes from a dysfunctional family,” people seemed to need to explain me away some way, instead of just having an intelligent conversation that perhaps would enlighten us all.

Especially destructive were those Rabbis and teachers who always knew “what was best for me.” I appreciate their scholarship, but many are quite unevolved when it comes to human emotions and personal refinement. They hide behind texts and quote chapters, verses and halachot. But some simply are clueless of the “fifth” shulchan aruch – common sense. Some of these “authorities” felt that they have to baby-sit for the “nebech” me and others who unfortunately did not grow up “frum.” Their guidance, I understand today, was anything but empowering. It was not driven by confidence in our souls, but by fear that we would wander off. Their intentions may have been fine, but they fundamentally believe that in Judaism there is an “us” and a “them,” “haves” and “have-nots,” and that they were superior to the less informed and educated. If you rejected their advice, on whatever grounds, you were turned on, blacklisted and cast out of the “inner circle.”

Today I am alienated and angry. Lonely and disturbed. And yes, I have regressed in my observance. I deeply love the spiritual path of Judaism. [Not all is lost, Rabbi. I still kiss mezuzahs and wear my red string… Among other things that I cherish and embrace, including Shabbat]. Yet I cannot find a community where I can belong. Equally sad are the other lonely souls that I meet with similar stories.

Many have completely rejected the Jewish tradition that they once embraced. Some are livid when it comes to this topic. I am not in that category. Please understand: I am not writing to you to vent my grievances or to just criticize the “system.” I see much of its beauty and am eternally grateful to those that took me in, taught me and in many ways transformed my life.

I am writing on a personal level: How should I view my experience? What should I be doing? Is there hope?

D. A.

__________

In answer to my friend’s question, here is how I would have responded.

Dear D.A.

My heart goes out to you for your experiences, positive and negative, in your family and with your search for a significant and loving spiritual path with the Jewish tradition. I hope that you will find your way to a community that you will experience as sensitive, loving, and spiritual. And rabbis who will help you find – in your own way – what is best for you.

We know that when a person has been deprived of food and water for a long period of time she will have a tendency to want to drink and eat too much too quickly. The body is then overwhelmed and can be further damaged. It is better to give such a person only a little food and drink at first and then to gradually feed her until her body returns to a more normal state.

So it is with love and with religious observance. There is a danger in trying to go too fast and too quickly. Perhaps this will resonate with you as descriptive of your experience. In my rabbinic practice I often encounter people who come from a place of little or no Jewish knowledge and experience. They then seek to immediately immerse themselves in what they perceive to be the most authentic Jewish community, which can be mistaken for the most traditional or Orthodox community they can find. Because each human spirit is different, this can be a good and proper path to Jewish meaning. But for some, it is the equivalent of too much food and drink. When, as you write, “normal” returns, then the flaws (which all individuals and all communities have, because we are all imperfect human beings) become apparent, and at times, overwhelming.

I encourage you to continue your search for a spiritual path to Judaism and a community to locate yourself in. We are fortunate in our day to have many, many varieties of Jewish experience, and certainly there is a community that you will find a home in. This is what you should be doing, and yes, there is great hope. And if I can help you further with your search, my telephone number is below. Call me.

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