My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.

Epissedoffmology.

How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Bar Mitzvah Lesson: A Tragedy

Shaul’s father misunderstands why I’m here and apologizes for his son’s stop-and-go Hebrew and ignorance of Judaism while Shaul himself listens politely in his baseball uniform. They don’t know that I have no expectations of prior observance or tradition. In my personal life, I am in a position to notice flaws. Here, it wouldn’t help.

And just as I plan to ignore his shortcomings, I’m not going to track his growth, not precisely. It would be a miracle if, consequent to these sessions, his Hebrew improved or he could recall a word I say. A boy from a family like his could theoretically grow in observance in his teen years, but then, Sancherev’s army could theoretically be struck by a debilitating plague at the walls of Jerusalem.

At least the father is honest; I’m not. I can’t tell him that Bar Mitzvah lessons are triage, that his priorities, a respectable Maftir and a decent Mussaf, are not what his family needs if they hope to preserve the future of the Jewish people. I can’t tell him that while I hear his son repeat his memorized aliyah my mind scrambles for options. How can I fill our time with more Mitzvot? What questions about Judaism does Shaul have that he does not want to ask, and how can I find an excuse to preempt them in our remaining fifty minutes? Is there a way to breach intermarriage? Should I bring up the history of Judaism?

One week, I decide to ask Shaul if he knows about Moses. He doesn’t, not really. But then, on a different occasion, when I have used Mussaf as an excuse to talk about prayer in general, he floors me when he says the soul is compared to a candle. In my capacity as a private citizen, I sneer at the bumper stickers and boilerplate of the popularizers of Judaism that at this moment I want to embrace, to kiss, to fall to my knees to worship. Somehow, he learned this! I can’t spare the time to wonder how this small scrap of mysticism has made it through the raging cataracts of his teenage mind, past the sports trivia and phone apps, to be remembered in a place where news of the Jews’ greatest prophet has yet to reach. The Chabad House Bar Mitzvah lesson, like life, is too short; these miracles must be ignored, for the mission. There are only forty minutes left.

I’m still not sure how I ended up as Shaul’s teacher. I don’t even know how to read from the Torah myself; if the Rabbi hadn’t made Shaul a tape to memorize, I’d have been lost. But I am not cynical and jaded and ignorant, not in Shaul’s eyes. I am, to him, a representative of the collective wisdom and heritage of the Jewish people, even though he doesn’t know what that means, and if I was chosen mostly because I have patience and spare time and a beard, he’s unaware.

Dad is into Holocaust remembrance, so we talk about putting it into Shaul’s speech. Some families choose Israel, some the Holocaust. Either way, this is what constitutes American Judaism circa the apocalypse, and I dare not squander any passion I can find. Mortality and calamity are on the menu, and if no thirteen-year-olds wish to partake, at least the parents will be satisfied with the graduation from Jewish life that the Bar Mitzvah too often signifies. I don’t argue, though. There is no time to convince him off the holocaust in the next twenty minutes, and besides, his father’s right. Shaul should know about the Holocaust.

In addition to the tragedy, we work sports into the speech as well. Jackie Robinson is a hero of his, and of course Sandy Koufax. “There are a couple of stories about the Rebbe and baseball,” I say. It is a statement of faith. If I speak about Judaism and baseball to Shaul’s father it would just sound like salesmanship, and bad salesmanship, because I’m not a salesman and Judaism is not about baseball. But when the Rebbe speaks about baseball, Judaism is about baseball. Just like when I’m trying to teach this kid something, I am the right man for the job. This is one of those Rebbe things. I can’t explain it. I tell him to search for baseball on Chabad.org.

Even with only fifteen minutes left this week, I try to weigh my responsibilities to the mission. “Perhaps these words will…help,” I think, and try not to think, “Like a bug helps slow down a car as it hits the windshield.” That is a trap. I must never fall into the trap of, “These people care only what the neighbors think of the nice party they’re throwing.” If I think it, they might think it, and that will not happen. I try to acclimate to the impossible.

And it is impossible, a thousand ways. At thirteen, we expect this to work? He is already gone; his mind is in athletics when it is fully anywhere at all; he skips two whole lines of Maftir when one of the Bat Mitzvah Club members wanders into the office looking for something. Though he’s from a traditional family, he doesn’t know who Abraham is or what a gabbai does. He’s mostly worried about his public speaking, and I don’t blame him. His knowledge is actually, all told, above average. Nowadays, circa Götterdämmerung, who has the chutzpah to hope for more?

But he is the one who happens to be in front of me, twice a week, for the blink of an eye, and that “happens to be” is part of the mission and what miracles are made of.

Hurrying, in ten minutes I teach him to wrap his Tefillin, over and over. They won’t be worn every day, but I speak to him as if they will. I don’t expect him to be religious. I expect him to be Jewish, and to be Jewish is to know how to do this.

He follows my instructions obediently. “Shaul is a good kid,” I tell myself. “Polite, disciplined, happy.” It’s what I always tell myself. It’s what I told myself about my students in summer Yeshiva and my campers in upstate New York. He has a good family life. His parents care about Judaism, in their way. I can see the seeds of it, the exact spot where the miracle will take root.

I do not, in my mind, compare Shaul to Mottel, whom I used to drive home from cheder. I do not consider how Mottel at eleven spoke fluent Yiddish, knew dozens and dozens of niggunim and a thousand Chassidic stories, memorized Tanya and Mishnayos. How at eleven, Mottel had a wit sharper than a razor and studied the Rebbe’s talks after Shabbos dinner. I do not spend time, in the last five minutes this week, on the small thought dawning like a winter morning in the back of my mind, that nowadays, circa The End, even Mottels sometimes leave Judaism behind. What hope could there possibly be for…

It is not for me to understand. I am just a messenger. I have no expectations. It is not my place to despair or rejoice. I am not myself. I am here for the miracles. I am here for the impossible and the nonexistent, and then I will be gone from him, and he will move on.

G-d, the Rebbe, Shaul’s soul –

Your move.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Wisdom, By Accident

Like many curious kids, I considered the metaphor of the inkwell with both passion and suspicion.

Passion, because in the fresh dawn of my young mind’s awakening, proof, and even better, proof of big things, captured my imagination. Suspicion, because with a mind comes the awareness that big claims demand big proof, and that our fathers can be our indoctrinators, and maybe the people from the Internet are right.

Like many curious kids, I felt I was in a position to judge the inkwell, to weigh the truth of it with the tools I owned and decide what to believe.

In deciding, the course of my life philosophy would be set.

I would never have to wander.

***

Confession of a recovering debater: In the surety of my youth, when I could still answer questions, I was deaf to nearly all the inkwell had to offer.

I can still remember one of the first arguments I ever had on the Internet, when small, homey forums were the norm, before Reddit or persistent identity or the rule of the common denominator. I could not yet have been fourteen years old. Middle school was garbage, the Internet more interesting. But these strange people with their foreign gods came and dented with their adolescent antagonisms the words of the work that remains the foundation to my entire life, The Little Midrash Says. So I looked to argue with their teenaged Darwinism, seeking to settle the matter forever, for the entire Internet, once and for all. I would never so glibly produce the metaphor in argument again. I learned it only in order to teach, studied only to break my enemies’ hubris. This was unwise. But looking back on my younger self, I cannot stop him; he did what he thought was right.

I slapped the inkwell down upon the proverbial table.

The inkwell can be summed up in one sentence: “If a letter or a poem cannot be created by an inkwell spilling, how can the world come about with G-d?”

If there is one thing that characterizes the cruel hopes of our youth, it is the assumption that the world, so used to crushing others with indifference, will yield to us. I was taken with this hope, and therefore nothing appealed to my thinking quite like science. And it was by science that I thought I’d won the argument.

***

Here is how a voracious reader of children’s encyclopedias understood the inkwell: It is a statistical argument stemming from the nature of structure and design. What are the chances that ink spills and forms words on a page? Astronomically low. How do we then look at the massive complexity of the world and arrive at the conclusion it likely has no designer?

The first of my Internet interlocutors demanded I produce the credentials of a scientist who found this argument to be valid – a clear win for me, as any rookie Facebook scrapper knows. But the second guy told me if one rolls the dice a trillion trillion times, it shouldn’t surprise us that they come up correctly once. I had no response to this; it makes sense.

In the years since, I’ve realized this is the argument of the multiverse theory, and that it gained popularity largely because it’s good at answering this question. Licking my wounds, turning his response over and over, I’ve composed my perfect riposte, wherein I first get him to concede the importance of evidence and then press hard for evidence of this alleged vast cosmic lottery which violates not just Occam’s Razor but, in its unsurpassed inelegance, Occam’s blunt club as well. In bedrooms, dorm rooms, and classrooms I worked out how to save the inkwell from his attack, but never until adulthood did I once consider it was my perspective that needed rescuing.

***

The god of the probability inkwell has all the metaphysical weight of the purported planet Vulcan that was once assumed to intervene between Mercury and the sun. Vulcan was never observed, but Mercury moved strangely, and so scientists proposed, in order to rescue their own understanding, the existence of an extra planet we happened to not yet have seen.[i]

So, too, did I, a curious boy, march proudly onto the world stage with my adolescent intellect and declare, arms akimbo, that G-d must exist because if He doesn’t, I don’t understand the universe.

And that, make no mistake, is the nature of the probable god. He is the conclusion to a thought process that begins with materialistic axioms. He is the “god of the gaps,” who exists only to explain holes in my understanding that may tomorrow be plugged, rendering him irrelevant.

Therefore, it’s only natural for his worshippers to turn from theists to deists, who believe that G-d if he exists, is irrelevant. They say G-d gave the universe over to nature[ii], a comforting position different from atheism but not to the extent that G-d can actually do anything, change the world, or disrupt our enlightened conquest of nature.

And if deism is functionally atheism, its only god is a once-upon-a-time watchmaker who introduced order and design and naught else. Why blame the actual atheist for calling everyone’s bluff and declaring he has no use for a statistically probably deity? Who can blame him for finding likely scientific explanations, such as Darwinian evolution, for design, and thereby stop up the gaps?

If the process that arrives at the creator absolutely assumes and uses empiricism and statistics, who is my highest deity, really? With gods like these, who needs gods?

***

It was only later, walking near the elegant curve of Jerusalem’s white bridge, mind split between the sidewalk and my headphones, that I first heard the goal of knowledge is to not know.

My life was then steeped in transformation. The official Deeper Mysteries of the Universe seemed to pour from mouths and inky pages in my Yeshiva, my Hebrew quickly improving with my thirst to grasp the next class, the next page, something with an answer. And slowly, not all-at-once, but with the sometimes-painful rearrangement of my inner architecture, it began to occur to me that the search for questions should precede the search for answers.

It seemed implicit in the order of the intellectual sefiros, for example. Chachma precedes Binah; the rigorous analysis is birthed and informed by the ineffable flash of insight; it is only through knowing what the thing is that we can understand anything true about it. It was also hidden in the structure of the Chassidic discourses, which used their questions precisely, like spiking a spigot into a barrel, to break through to deeper comprehension. Most of all, the question’s advantage over the answer cried out to me when I reviewed something I first learned months or years earlier, when my initial understanding blew away like chaff, because I did not in the first round understand the question the information came to answer.

A boy seeks a better teacher, flashier arguments, new information. A man, I learned, seeks to listen to the first teacher properly, revels in “boring” technicality, and learns the old discourse again. A man puts deeper before further. It is a pleasant thing for one to grasp in one’s early twenties, because trying to go further has its limits and they are our limits, the ones we are just beginning to learn. As a sage once said, nothing is going to hit harder than life. The cult of further, of which I was an initiate when I first met the inkwell, is an attempt to launch a counterattack on life. All you get for it is bruised knuckles and a bruised ego.  The way of depth is the way of accepting the blow and changing oneself.

***

The inkwell, it turns out, is not about the statistical likelihood of a designer god. Such an interpretation would probably have sounded heretical to Rabbeinu Bachya, who deploys it in Chovos HaLevavos. Again: To say the world has no creator is to accept that a knocked-over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter. However, this, I assure you, has nothing to do with statistics, and only a little to do with design. This is about meaning, purpose, and unity.

My mistake as a boy lay in not considering what makes a letter or poem significant. It is not the chances of ink landing in the shape of words or sentences. It is the fact that we can distinguish them from a random spill at all. What is the poem, that my heart leaps up when I behold those words upon a page? Why are they meaningful? How can marks of ink on dead-tree membrane cohere into “The Tiger”? Only, a good philosopher would tell you, through telos, the final cause, tachlis. What makes the poem is not merely its matter, which is only ink and paper, nor its form, which is its arrangement, nor even the hand that writes it, which brings the arrangement to the ink and paper. What makes the poem the poem is purpose. Matter is incoherent, form does not alone provide a discrete existence; a hand bereft of purpose produces nothing. Give each of them an ordering purpose, a unifying cause, and the stanzas flow like wine.[iii]

When the inkwell is overturned and the ink forms a poem (and not merely ink in the shape of a poem), we are observing unity and purpose without an intelligence to make it so, order and directedness simply arising on its own, and this is impossible. It is not impossible that knocked-over ink could form something in the shape of a poem without an ordering intelligence, merely highly improbable. But it is impossible for knocked-over ink to form a poem, because a poem is inherently purposive.

If things which have an effect exist, they are not mindless accidents, for if they were, what precise effect could they be said to have? Don’t believe the rumors; vodka makes you drunker rather than more handsome, every time. There is an inherent, consistent order to it. And what is order if not intelligence?[iv]

In other words, a poem, by nature, being a thing directed toward an end (say, making your girlfriend cry), must be created that way by the presence of a unifying and purposive mind. The very notion that we recognize the running ink of the accidentally overturned well as a poem, rather than stationery, or a Rorschach test, or a handwriting test for children to trace, indicates that we are judging it not merely by its matter or form but by its purpose as well. What is preposterous is not that ink should coincidentally attain the form of what is materially indistinguishable from a poem, but that the coincidence could cause a poem.[v]

So, too, the universe, which coheres in an orderly fashion. This coherence is explicable only in terms of intelligence – and we know where that leads. The matter and its form are in a sense created by the question that they answer.

***

I realized in Yeshiva that the question is more important than the answer, that our purposes define the information they try to teach us.

But it was not enough.

The devotion to going deeper rather than further alleviates some of our coarsest problems, but raises new questions of its own.

The world is, it seems, not as logical as even the wisest sage can possibly understand it to be. The highest knowledge, to not know, is a call to further learning draped in a shroud; it has an air of tragedy about it. Philosophy only goes so far. It, too, begins with axioms. For example: We can know the truth; we do not live in an illusion. This seems true, but limits us, ultimately, to the world as it appears and our minds as they seem to work. There is no way to prove it, no other solid thing on which to base itself.

As many Yeshiva students have learned, the world of appearance is not enough. One does not break free from exile by affirming with absolute certainty the reality of the pharaoh as he appears. The exodus does not begin with believing only our eyes. One only escapes Egypt with a little wilderness at the edges of one’s brow, with a dream, with openness to seeming-stupid sentiment, like a child. “The way everything is,” said the one in five Hebrews who followed Moses across the sea, “is not how it must be. Water can be blood. The waves can be dry land. A slave can be free.”

It’s possible, if G-d wills it. Anything is.

***

If the world has no creator, a knocked over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter.

I came to wonder, later, driving down a wintry road, radically divorced from all assumptions, from all I thought I knew:

Who knocked over the bottle?

 

[i] It turned out that Newton’s physics was wrong and therefore predicted the motions of Mercury incorrectly. Once Einstein’s General Relativity was accepted, there was no longer any need to stipulate an unobserved planet between Mercury and the sun. It should be emphasized that the existence of Vulcan was not an illogical stipulation, given that Newtonian physics was thought at the time to explain everything and was not going to be abandoned as untrue without a better alternative. The Vulcan affair does, however, provide an example of how empirical data can contradict a theory and yet not falsify the theory – making Karl Popper sad.
[ii] Almost certainly a form of idol worship in the Jewish tradition.
[iii] A Yeshiva student has the same causal needs. His matter is flesh and bone, derived from bad food and too much caffeine. His form is either a pleasant plumpness or a drawn, gaunt skinniness. Flesh and bones without that form could just as easily be a banker. But the form of a Yeshiva student only attaches itself to him because something else puts it there, say, the Rosh Yeshiva. But when the Rosh Yeshiva sits down and teaches Torah to someone, he strangely does not create a Torah scroll, though he might be a scribe in his spare time. He makes people into Yeshiva students, and parchment into a Torah scroll, and he knows which one he’s doing because he is intelligent and acts with purpose. It is only the end-goal of creating a gezunte bocher’l that allows him to connect matter with form and create the guy you see walking on the street with his towel in the morning. And it is only G-d who, even once the Rosh Yeshiva is long gone, lends the whole package unity.
[iv] Related question: Where does this property of a bottle of vodka, that it will make people drunk, reside if no one ever comes along and drinks it? We seem to know that it would nevertheless make someone drunk if they come along; this is part of what we mean that there’s an inherent order to these matters. But doesn’t this imply that in some sense making someone drunk (which might never actually happen with this bottle) causes the vodka to be vodka? Isn’t this nothing causing something, which is impossible? This led some intelligent people to conclude that rather than being nowhere, the final effect of the vodka is present in the mind that understands the vodka to be vodka, and thus makes it what it is. Call the mind the vodka maker. This is all well-and-good when the Vodka maker is some well-paid Muscovite (although of course, we’d have to explain where the Muscovite’s effects hang out before they’re actualized). Now do it with a seed producing a tree, and figure out where the tree is hiding the whole time – making David Hume sad. (You — hey, you! — if you made it to the end of this footnote, you should probably know the kabbalists probably say the tree is ‘hiding’ in Atzilus. This is not a reason to panic.)
[v] Or, to declare what is materially indistinguishable from a poem to be a poem is to refuse to explain the inherent telos, or ends, of reality – essentially to deny true cause and effect, as Hume did.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Even Though Judaism Broke My Heart

As the day of my Bar Mitzvah drew near, my father impressed three things upon me:

1. Never to fool myself.
2. Never to fool somebody else.
3. Never to allow myself to be fooled.

~ Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson

He ostensibly came around to the yeshiva to visit old friends but actually, I think, to make sure the place was safely receding into the distance like a police car in the rearview mirror. My room would be his last stop and we’d shoot the breeze about everything except why he left and why he still hadn’t left, why he was still coming around, still paying attention. Our conversation danced around landmines like Israeli politics and his shaved face and the latest frum contretemps, and he’d return home with another brick in our friendship layed slipshod so the cold wind of the world came through the chinks in its walls.

It got better when I started buying books. I had a big windowsill back then, broad enough to be a shelf. From its left side extended my holy books in Hebrew and Yiddish. So it was for five years. Then, one week, with no great fanfare and no mouth of hell splitting my floor tiles, the English books began to sprout from the right side. Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Elements of Style. A History of the Jews. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Yom Kippur a Go Go. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Code. A History of Western Philosophy. Fear and Trembling.

He’d pick them up and leaf through them and we’d talk about what I’d read and how I felt about it. I always felt he respected my intelligence, and in secular interests we found common ground. (My mini-collection on atheism drew a spontaneous “Are you going to a convention or something?”)

I felt uncomfortable.

I felt uncomfortable because one week, with no great fanfare, I made a decision to revisit the pursuit of worldly intellect that enriched my youth, and I no longer knew what separated me from the beardless man who stood next to me, a well-dressed and well-coiffed law school applicant so far from my brother whose first day of Yeshiva was my first day of Yeshiva all those years ago in Jerusalem.

We came to Yeshiva with more or less the same goal: To find The Truth and pursue it the way only teenagers could. We learned together, we attended the same classes and farbrengens and trips. We swung chickens over our heads and wrapped tefillin on strangers and talked about G-d and His designs late into the night. I went home for Passover and let my parents know I wouldn’t be attending Georgia Tech in the fall. I had tasted life and had no use for  computer science.

Our studies continued. Together, we left Jerusalem for New Jersey, to learn in a “regular” (that is, frum-from-birth) Yeshiva. Exposed was the face of the beast: teachers who could barely speak English, hordes of jaded students compelled by their parents to continue their religious studies, a cheder full of feral kids, every conversation pervaded with gossip and scandal, sons speaking of their fathers with detached analysis, a culture of frugality bordering on the deceptive and the larcenous, rabbis who either convinced themselves the majority of their students were interested in spiritual pursuits or who otherwise gave in to despair and avenged their idealism by confiscating phones, books, laptops.

I devoted myself to finding the silver lining, and I did, for a while. I know too well that love of someone who doesn’t love you can only go so far. My appreciation for this life began to crumble. So did his, I found out later.

It only got worse. After a disillusioned summer in upstate New York, I went away as a student emissary/teacher to Tel Aviv. I had the toughest year of my life trying to relate to unrelatable people and to stay motivated. He remained in Jersey.  He watched the faculty of his Yeshiva (including one of his heroes) spin out of control with fatwa after fatwa meant to bring the students in line.

I came back to the States and he was gone.

***

I pressed forward – another year of Yeshiva, this time for my rabbinical ordination, my smicha. It was the natural next step after shlichus, and I’d convinced myself all the problems I saw were Israeli problems (many of them were, but not most of them, not exclusively). It was another tough year. The learning was beyond me and the rest of my life loomed on the horizon, begging the constant question, was it all a mistake? Where will you be going next year? What are you going to do with yourself? Do you even like anyone in the community you’re a part of? Do you relate to them in any way?

In a measured voice and with a slight but insistent angling of the head I learned from my Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, I would insist to myself, “I do relate to them in some way. G-d is real. Chassidus is real. It’s all true. This was not a mistake. I will not give up.”

I gradually read the books on the left side of the shelf for pleasure less and less, and the right side sat empty.

The crisis came halfway through that year. The long night when I got off the phone with my rabbi and lay weeping in bed, trying to figure out if my investment had been for nothing, if I had made a terrible mistake that only led me away from normalcy and happiness.

Almost two years later, I’m still here. I’m also back in Jerusalem spending a lot of my day trying to help others taking this same path.

What conclusion did I come to that night? Why did I remain? How can I encourage others toward disillusionment and heartbreak?

The first thing I realized: everybody is looking for something. We have vacuums we must fill one way or another, and we find that there are things in Judaism that satisfy us, be it the peace and warmth of its Shabbos, the  elegance of its theology, its salvation from the nihilistic void of existence. We become attached to these things; they become to us like a lover’s face, a memory of the first walk we took in the rain together, huddled under the umbrella, one.

Then times become tough; there is always more than we bargained for; the parts we love cannot be cut out from the undesirable whole that does nothing for us, and that we begin to resent. The things we once loved become the lies we tell to convince ourselves our love continues.

(Even now I still have these moments. I was in Beitar last Shabbos, walking to shul at ten in the morning, the sun warming my face, the sweet breeze blowing off the patchwork farms of the valley, apartment buildings thrust into the blue sky like white sails, so bright you almost had to look away, and a little boy ran in front of me, crossing the calm road with a bottle of wine for kiddush to his father who stood erect like a prince, wrapped in his pure tallis and waiting for his son and the sanctification of the day, their world held gyroscopically still in reality’s storm, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart that carried me to Shacharis and beyond. It shook me. And then it faded into pale memory, and I became once again unconvinced about my choices, and the question ate at me more: Was it all a mistake?)

But it was not for nothing we walked this road. We have merely outgrown our initial impressions, and what we initially loved has been left behind. True, it does not feel like growth. It feels like pain. The little problems with Judaism accrue and become big problems; what you used to overlook is now all you can see. But the problem here is not Judaism changing. It is the way it no longer fits in the box we initially imposed.

And then comes the pivotal moment with its cleaving question: Were you merely blind before? Were you a fool? Is it true that only fools fall in love?

***

If you think you were only a fool, then you must cut your losses and move on. This was never meant to be, and the entire endeavor was merely an expression of your own frailty.

If you were not a fool, then you can come to love it as you loved it before. You were willing to ignore the faults of your beloved because her face was so beautiful. It is now time to do it again, to find the beauty. But it will not happen on its own; that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a child’s thing, the serendipitous interlocking of need and fulfillment. The difference between adults and children is that adults cannot rely on serendipity. We must work to find congruence.

We start by shedding our preconceptions. What we used to love about her was a projection of our own needs, and we can’t pretend it’s who she is any longer. We must take her on her own terms, pimples and all.

It’s all in the words. When we start out we say “Shabbos” and feel a rush of joy. But the word wears out, for what is a word but dead letters, sounds forced into an uneasy partnership and bound with imposed meaning. After enough time, it starts to sound like nothing at all, and after more time we start resenting it – “I have a soul; stop mouthing at me! I need to comprehend; the word means nothing to me.” Shabbos has become a parroted cliché. It has become death. Not death by terrorist, 7 o’ clock news; death deep in the Amazon where no one’s around to film it, death as a force of nature, a mute wall, a brute fact.

We have two options. We can either get rid of the word and go searching for some other sounds we hope will not eventually rot in our mouths, or we must find some way to reinvigorate this one. We must find a new definition of “Shabbos.” And what, I thought on my bed that night, is Chassidus, if not a long series of redefinitions, an insistent angling of the head that says, “No, it means this.” And those definitions by nature of their divine origin are of infinite depth.

The upswing: What we hate about it is not it, it’s what we had to call it when we were small. It is not foolish; we were foolish when we met it. Shabbos does not mean what we thought it did. It means something deeper, something G-dly, and in that G-dly reality there is room, say, to not feel bad about your hasty prayers and do feel great about the wonderful food you look forward to all week. From a deeper perspective, that too is Shabbos.

Romance lives, to the extent that the child is the father of the man. As long as there is still some room to expand the definition of our terms, there will always be a reason to stay.

So I teach Baalei Teshuva. I’m not selling a flawed product; I’m selling a deeper and truer place within themselves. I am selling them true love. The job is not to protect them from disillusionment and heartbreak. The job is to give them the intellectual and theological tools to deal with it when it comes. The bumps in the road are part of the journey, the feeling of their own skin too tight on their bodies. We cannot split the sea for them, but we will give them a staff.

When I asked my friend if he was okay with my writing a piece about us, he asked if he had anything to worry about. I told him no. I think we see things from similar perspectives, now. Though in some external ways we come down on opposite sides of the table, we are at least both sitting at it. We have each, in our own way, shucked our childish pursuits, and taken steps to becoming men in this world, men who aren’t fools, men who live according to their convictions. Are we really so different, after all?

My definitions have stretched so I no longer feel distant from my friend in law school. Every day, we seem ever more two sides of the same coin; in fact, every day, everything seems like a side of it. When your definitions are robust, all of a sudden G-d can get in everywhere. On both sides of the shelf, in both friends, and in that mysterious interstitial space that separates all matter and unites it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.