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September 20, 2012 by

Down the Rabbit Hole: Gifts from a Religious Crisis

“I love Shabbos. I know I’m struggling with the details, but I love the way time spreads like a picnic blanket. I like the meals, I like going to shul, I like having time to nap, to take a walk, to see a friend. I like the community and the camaraderie. I worry about my new habits. I worry that Shabbos will be lost to me.”

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A little over a year ago, much of my life was shifting wildly or was already shattered: my relationship, my living situation, my health—and my religious observance. I had been secretly breaking Shabbos for a while, and finally acknowledged to myself that I was no longer committed to halakha, traditional Jewish law.

And so I gave up halakha, and fell down the rabbit hole.

1.  Secret Shabbos Superpowers – It felt, at first, like I had entered a secret society of superheroes. Want to be in New Jersey for Shabbos dinner and the Upper West Side for Shabbos lunch? With the magic of public transportation I can travel easily from one place to the next! Waiting a long time for a Shabbos guest who is mysteriously missing? Not to fear—the Shabbos guest has secret Shabbos superpowers too, and with the use of text messaging I can find out that she is sick and staying at home!

2. Crying on the Subway – One Friday night, I was on the train coming back from seeing my family. I had recently returned from traveling and my father was about to travel himself; that one evening was my only chance to see him for weeks. I didn’t regret my choice, exactly, but the feeling of not observing Shabbos was as palpable and painful as the feeling of struggling to keep it. I cried on the subway as I realized that there would be no escape from figuring it all out, and finding peace.

3. This is what it means to be an Off-the-Derech Baal-Teshuvah: it means you grew up less observant—or in my case, completely secular—became traditionally observant later in life, and then walked away from observance. For me this year, it has meant carefully constructing a childhood that I love dearly, then suddenly growing up and leaving my childhood behind. Yet I didn’t want everyone to make the choices I was making; I wanted the Shabbos world to keep going whenever I stepped away. How else could I come back to visit?

4. No Breaks – I thought that I was on a break from choosing and continuing on a religious path. I became, meanwhile, very involved in a start-up shul, and promptly began berating myself: I couldn’t explore different options when I was investing so much time and energy in one community (and a Modern Orthodox one, at that)! Until it dawned on me: there are no breaks. The path continues. Every moment is meaningful, and I am in a particular community because I want to be.

5. Shabbos vs. Saturday – For me, Shabbos isn’t exactly a day of the week—that’s Saturday. Shabbos is instead a choice to put myself in a certain environment. Though I spent many happy Saturdays this year skipping Shabbos, especially when traveling, sometimes the day was difficult because I wanted to observe Shabbos somehow and couldn’t; I had made a choice in advance to put myself in a Saturday situation. These days, I usually opt to make Shabbos plans, just in case I want them once I get there.

6. Between All and Nothing I wrote a whole post about this one. Right before the holiday of Shavuos, I stopped freaking out so much about an observance end-game, and attempted to embrace a Jewish life of ambiguity and doubt. Since then I really have let go of a lot of angst.

Except….

7. Anger –  “I’m straight up mad at halakha,” I recently said to my rabbi, who’s known me for almost ten years now. I had realized that, underneath it all, I was angry—at halakha, and also at Orthodox Judaism, at Conservative Judaism, at religion in general, at human nature, at God. I’ve been thinking lately about becoming halakhic again, but keep stopping myself because I’m so damn mad.

I ranted at my rabbi for a while. I ranted about the issues of women’s and LGBTQ inclusion in Orthodoxy, about value systems and how halakha is only one of a few of mine, and often contradicts the others. He couldn’t answer everything, of course, but the conversation was nevertheless both helpful and humbling. Regarding my anger, he said, “If you’re mad, it means you’re in it—mazal tov.”

When I was at the door and about to leave, he grinned and said, “You’re doing great.” Strangely enough, I still don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going… but I think he’s right.

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  • Sarah

    “Yet I didn’t want everyone to make the choices I was making; I wanted the Shabbos world to keep going whenever I stepped away. How else could I come back to visit?”

    Frankly, this strikes me as a remarkably selfish and immature thing to say. If you want something to happen, you have to be willing to be there and make it happen. If you aren’t willing to make it happen for yourself and for others, then you have no right to make demands on it happening.

  • Janet

    Judaism is all about struggle (as in the origin of the word “Israel”). With Judaism, and maybe religion in general, it’s not like you get to a certain point and you’re done. People often find themselves in the same stage as they had been. The maturity is in realizing that nothing is static; this stage is fleeting, and the next stage will be new, but it will probably be familiar too. (Slightly tangentially, how many times have I lost 10 or 20 pounds in a healthy, slow, and sustainable way, and thought that I was forever done with weight loss?)

  • Yulia

    I heard the following story from my rabbi on birthright:

    A Jewish man comes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi! I’m in so much agony! I’m not sure if I believe in God or not.”

    The rabbi says, “You’re a Jew, you’re not sure if you believe, and you’re in agony about that? You’ll be fine!”

    I don’t think I’m telling this right, hah, but you get the idea. The struggle is normal. It would be strange if you didn’t struggle and if it didn’t affect you emotionally.

    Also, re: Sarah, I think the author is taking an ironic distance towards herself there. She realizes that her expectations are problematic and is judging herself for having them.

  • Sarah 2

    I disagree. She’s acknowledging that it is beautiful and important to her, and that she still thinks about and values it–even if she’s not observing it right now. I don’t think that’s selfish.

  • http://nehamashira@blogspot.com Nehamashira

    Thanks for your comments- I appreciate knowing that there are others who share the same struggles.

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  • Elissa

    “Yet I didn’t want everyone to make the choices I was making; I wanted the Shabbos world to keep going whenever I stepped away. How else could I come back to visit?”

    This is true for so many things in life, not just Shabbos. Beautifully articulated.

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  • Sarah L

    I relate so much to your story and your posts are so moving to me. I am also an “off the derech Baal teshuva”. I spent many years being newly observant… Then after a bad relationship that challenged my views about Judaism and the way I observed our tradition, I stopped. I stopped everything. I’ve also had moments where I’ve cried on Shabbat but still couldn’t seem to get myself to commit. Your post on Shavuot moved me to tears – that was the first time I broke Chag and I haven’t been able to keep it since. It’s as if the magic and beauty is lost. Sometimes I feel like Hashem has pulled the rug out from under me. Why did i bother working so hard to be faithful to Hashem only to disappear… But your story gives me hope. We are not alone. The world is not a binary place. It doesn’t matter whether others think we are on or off the derech. What matters is that our own derech is one of truth and struggle and longing, just like Yacov’s wrestling with G-d, our wrestling is holy. It is not one of contempt or unfaithfulness or condescension. On this simchat Torah (as I write on my computer) I pray for both of us to B”H, have a journey full of discovery, lack of judgment, and love of Hashem. Because that is what is most important to remember, that Hashem truly loves us no matter what derech we are on. Hashem will be there when we are ready receive. We will get there.