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 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 had 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?
Dear D. A.,
Thank you for writing and opening up a “Pandora’s box” of issues that affect many people, yet is hardly discussed, at least in a Torah context. I for one firmly believe that as irreverent as your questions may be, it is absolutely critical to address them in a constructive and meaningful manner. Hopefully this can be a catalyst that will generate a wider discussion in the broader community.
As you accurately emphasize, the focus here should not be on criticizing the negative elements of the “system” and “establishment.” That deserves its own discussion – and much can be said about it. What I will then discuss is the actual spiritual/religious journey you describe – a journey that many have taken – and its challenges and hazards, and above all: how we are to navigate in face of all the shortcomings you describe and many more that you don’t.
You may be surprised to hear that your dilemma – troubling so many people today – is addressed in this week’s Torah portion.
The chapter describes a defining event in history: For the first time ever the Divine presence finds a home in the material universe – in the Mishkan, the holy Sanctuary. “Built me a Sanctuary and I will rest among you.” As the verse states: On this first momentous “opening” day of the Mishkan, “G-d’s glory was revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before G-d and consumed the burnt offering.”
You can imagine what kind of powerful reaction this must have caused amongst the people who witnessed this unprecedented revelation. What happened next? “When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise and threw themselves on their faces” in complete awe.
Then, in a moment of utter spiritual ecstasy, “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before G-d a strange fire, which He had not instructed them. Fire came forth from G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d.”
Aaron’s sons had a religious awakening, and in their sheer hunger and bliss, they were driven to enter the Holy of Holies, and got consumed by the very fire they were trying to contain.
What did they do wrong? They moved too fast and did so at their own volition, unprepared. The fire was Divine, but it was “strange” to them. They were not ready to contain it.
Though Nadav and Avihu were on a level loftier than any of us will ever attain, the lesson to us all is very clear:
True faith is a powerful force. Like a fire it has the power to warm and illuminate, but also the power to consume and destroy. When edging close to the fire great care has to be taken to ensure that you are able to take the heat and contain the light.
Do not lose yourself in the process of becoming Divine. You have to own your choices. Faith ought not be a “strange fire,” which is alien to you; it needs to be integrated into your being. If not, its intensity can burn you.
Does this then mean that we should not embrace Judaism until it is totally integrated? Absolutely not! An equally polarizing approach is to be so cautious of the fire that we never make a move.
Balance is the key: Knowing how to move forward at your own pace, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm and consume you. One mitzvah at a time. “Mitzvah goreres mitzvah,” our sagely wisely tell us. One mitzvah brings along another.
The outcome of the Nadav and Avihu story is not that no one shall ever enter the holy sanctuary; rather, G-d lays out an entire set of rules, a process, how one is to enter the holy place and remain intact.
This delicate dance is especially acute for sensitive souls, who sense the power of the fire. Aaron’s sons were the most spiritual of them all, as Moses makes it abundantly clear that their demise was a result of their greatness. It was their deep love and passion for the Divine that caused them to enter the Temple unprepared (as the Ohr haChaim explains). As Moses told Aaron that his sons experience fulfilled G-d’s words, “I will be sanctified among those close to Me, and I will thus be glorified.”
Deep souls hungry for spirituality and cognizant of its intimate power have to be especially careful when faced with a Divine experience.
Too often religion is presented in a didactic and dogmatic way. Peer and social pressure is applied demanding conformation. And you – the individual – are lost in the process. While there is value in inspiring someone with faith and there is a notion of joining a community, and not standing on a side (“al tifrosh min hatzibbur”), at the same time, however, the power of community is only possible once and after an individual has found his distinct place and unique voice, then he can join and actually help create a community, to which he is loyal. But the group is not meant to stunt or annihilate the individual, rather to enhance him. First, we must cultivate self-confidence, and then allow the individual to make and own his choices.
As important as a community may be, as welcoming as a religious group may be – what is even more important is that the individual entering the community be allowed and encouraged at his or her own pace. To ensure that new found spiritual truth be integrated into his or her being.
This is true even in the purest form of religious experience. How much more so when it is being presented by flawed human beings, who themselves are hardly role models and paragons of spiritual refinement.
Too often, certain teachers and guides and mentors see their role as one of prodding along, directing, even babysitting for a person who is just being initiated into Judaism. Even if their intentions are right, it is vital to gauge the needs of the individual, not the needs of the teacher, lest you end up burning the person who is not yet ready for such spiritual enlightenment.
How much more so when the teacher is far from perfect and may not be the best representative of the message. Then, it is of critical importance, that the teacher qualify his role and humbly acknowledge how he and all of us are in the same boat, and are available to help each other.
So while it’s true that children need to be directed in the path of faith, and we all, even adults, are in need of the support and guidance of teachers and mentors, yet, the ultimate goal is not to create dependencies but independence. Because after all is said and done, the path of faith is not about the teacher, nor is it about the community; it is about G-d and His personal relationship with each one of us. The spiritual path is not a superimposed one but one that allows and facilitates the true human personality to emerge – the Divine Image in which each of us individually was created.
The ultimate role of a teacher, a mentor and a Rabbi is to inspire, motivate and empower each of us in that direction. If an adult is unable to own his faith there is something seriously wrong.
Bureaucracy more than religion is the root of the attitude that religion is an elitist country club, with a few “gifted” authorities – blessed with being born religious and having received a solid education, achieved scholar status and authority – bestowing their benevolence on others and allow them into the inner club. Either we believe that all people were created equally in the Divine Image or we don’t. Religion is not an end in itself; it is not about a set of rituals and traditions. It is about allowing the soul free, and actualizing the potential within each one of us.
The spiritual journey is not about self-indulgence. Neither is it about scoring points. It is the sacred journey of discovering your life mission. It is a Divine journey about releasing your soul, and transforming your corner of the universe into a home for G-d. So though we need the support from communities and structure, yet above all it is a fiercely personal journey – that has little to do with other people’s expectations and pressures.
This is the profound and yet simple lesson each one of us today can glean from Nadav and Avihu: Own your faith; make it yours; integrate it. Don’t allow it to be strange to you. Or else…
Once it becomes yours then you will be less vulnerable to the predators, to the community and to the pressures around us. The fire, especially in the hands of those that don’t always appreciate it, can be a force that annihilates personalities and ends up being used as yet another weapon of control.
It is up to each of us to understand that we are adults and that we assume responsibility for our choices, with the full and complete ability to live up to them.
I empathize with your life story and cry for your disappointments, as well as for so many others who have lost their trust in the Jewish community. With that being said, please don’t suffice with joining yet another club – the ex-club, “ex-baal-teshuva,” ex-orthodox, or the other exes out there, who gather together and share horror stories of the religious world. I understand the tendency and even healing element in finding a support group; I do not dismiss the value that it offers (no different than any of the support programs that help many people heal from various addictions and abuses). But true healing comes when we don’t just complain but do something about it.
Like it is with healing from any form of abuse – religious abuse included – we cannot afford to just wallow in the grief and remain bitter. To sit around and complain about absentee fathers and neurotic mothers doesn’t allow you to grow. It keeps you trapped as a victim. And if Judaism and faith is anything it is not about victimization. It is about empowerment. We must mobilize ourselves and create a revolution.
Allow your disappointments inform you and others. Your disillusionment contains much more than a negative experience; it demonstrates that 1) you have/had great confidence and aspirations in the spiritual path, 2) you have experienced first hand the inadequacies and failures of the “system.” This places you in the unique position of doing something about it.
We can say that those who have personally experienced the limitations and shortcomings of the religious community are uniquely positioned to teach us all how we can create a spiritual revolution, and do so in fashion that allows us to bypass the petty and partisan forces of the system, and above all – allow the spirit within each of us to shine.
The key is that you care. You genuinely and sincerely are troubled about the situation. Don’t allow that concern to turn into resignation. It would be a terrible shame if you allowed some flawed people and underdeveloped communities to shatter your dreams and hopes; it would be a great loss if your experiences undermine everything you ever believed in, your confidence and your spirit.
Even Aaron’s sons, though consumed by the fire, were driven by their spiritual heights, by their love and passion for the Divine.
Now you are at a place where you can own your Judaism; where you can express your faith with your beautiful and unique voice.
Don’t be afraid of yourself. Don’t be afraid of those that want you to conform. The story of history is that the masses have always tried to intimidate the spirited few. It was our great father Abraham that pioneered the path of individuality. Defying the mainstream he forged a path toward G-d.
Today too we need you to be our Abraham. You, who have been burned by the fire, teach us how to walk slowly, but proudly.
It is vital that we create a network, a healthy and powerful synergy of like-minded individuals, who are on the spiritual journey and have yet to din their place. We must create grass-root connections (if not communities). So much good can grow out of that.
Please see me as a friend and kindred spirit, offering you any support I can in your journey. Hopefully we both can help each other and so many more in our mutual Divine odyssey.
Much success in your journey. May it be glorious.