The Roller Coaster of Religiosity, Part II: The Highs (long post)
[Click here for Part I and the disclaimer.]
Let's start with an analogy.
Do you remember the intensity of feelings involved in being a teenager? There was no sadness, only despair; no anger, only hopeless rage; no gladness, only fly-from-rooftops joy. And there is no love like the way you love someone in high school.
I never really had a boyfriend in high school, but I had two serious crushes. Do you remember those? The way there was no one else in the room if that person was there? The way you felt like either shaking or dying every time the person walked by? The way, if they smiled at you, you’d practically spasm from the agony and the ecstasy? The way that person was perfect?
Do you remember the first time you were in love? For me it happened when I was 18. Do you remember being in love at 18? There was a purity to the feeling that can’t be repeated, ever, because once you aren’t a teenager anymore, it’s hard to feel anything with teenage passion. I did love someone in my twenties, and because I was older and wiser and knew the person better, the experience was richer and deeper and in many ways more
important. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as pure.
As David Foster wrote in the theme song to St. Elmo’s Fire, “we’ll never love again like we did then.” That song always reminds me of high school, seminary, and freshman year of college; it awakens, a little, the passion. “We laughed until we had to cry/ and we loved right down to our last goodbye/ we were the best we’ll ever be/ just you and me/ for just a moment.” Fly-from-rooftops joy.
That was the joy I felt, in high school and seminary and freshman year, about Judaism. I felt it most keenly at NCSY Shabbatons. For havdala we would congregate in the darkened social hall of the synagogue, and the band would play rousing songs about Jewish unity and mashiach and Jewish pride. We teens would stand in front of the stage, in rows, arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying and singing and smiling and feeling the Jewish unity. Some older kids, the student leaders, would be on the stage holding candles. The regional director would share an inspiring story and we’d feel how special it is to be an observant, knowledgable, strong Jew. Sometimes the stories were about us, about how important we were, having been created in the image of God.
Now, with the cynicism of the years, I can understand how cliched and carefully calibrated those havdala services were. But from my first Shabbaton I felt very strongly the symbolism of the candles, the idea that each of us has a soul that is unique and alive and has the power to light up the world.
I felt, in those moments, brimming love for Torah and for the Jewish people. My love started with the teens and college-aged counselors around me, and extended to all Jews: the ones around the world who were being oppressed; the ones who came before me and had kept the flame alive; the ones in future generations who, maybe, would have moments like this one because people like me would pass along what we had learned. It was not unusual for me (and lots of other kids) to cry during havdalah, because we couldn’t bear the exquisiteness of our joyful longing for God.
My seminary year felt like one long havdala service, and then I went to college and listened obsessively in my dorm room to songs like Destiny's "Lornero Family" and Avraham Fried’s "The Time is Now," tears streaming down my face and my heart bursting with pride and love for myself, for Jews, for God, for Torah. I loved being Jewish so much I couldn’t sit still. I had to dance, to sing.
“We’ll never love again like we did then.” When it came to dating, everything got more complicated, eventually. Now, it’s not enough for a man to light up a room, though of course that is a prerequisite; now, no matter how brilliant his smile may be, my passion is tempered by realism and practicality, by questions like Do we communicate well? Is he mature enough to make a real commitment? Between us do we earn enough to raise a family? If not, what could we do about that? Would he be a good roommate? Would his mother live next door to us and drive me crazy? The experience, when it goes well, is deeper, richer, more important. But not the same.
Similarly, my pure love for Orthodoxy ended when I was 20 years old. I had a religious crisis and almost left it all behind, the religion, the observance, the community. I decided to stay and to believe, but it was different now. I didn’t automatically trust my community as I had before, and my commitment to Jewish law has a more intellectual, cerebral feeling to it. It’s not usually a passionate love anymore. It’s more complicated, more measured, more adult. More nuanced, perhaps, and therefore richer and more important. But not the same.
And so for me, the highs are the moments when I love again as I did then. In dating it’s the times I meet a man whose smile makes me feel, all over again, warm and melty and like there’s no one else in the room. In Judaism
it’s the times I feel, all over again, that being a Jew is so exquisitely beautiful and important and special that I can hardly bear the joy of it.
The highs come when a Hebrew song awakens my heart, or when I talk with other Orthodox Jews – friends, rabbis I like, new faces—who are compassionate and smart and sincere, and I feel proud to share a religion with such people.
I feel the highs when I see that I’m not alone in my vision of what Judaism is or could be; when I attend large conferences for like-minded Jews or hang around at Bar Ilan University or find sites like this one or this one. I feel the high when I go to events where Jews of all flavors are getting along with each other, focused on something positive and productive.
I felt a high when my grandmother told me stories about my great-grandfather, who was a respected Chassidic rabbi in Poland, and when my nephew said last Passover “I want to go with Sabba to burn chametz! Please can I go, Imma?” I feel a high when I’m learning a complicated bit of Talmud and suddenly the lightbulb goes on and I understand it and feel satisfied, like I’ve just eaten a delicious meal.
I feel the highs when my struggles with certain Jewish laws somehow lead me to a holier place. I feel the high when I’m talking to God and know, somehow, that despite all the times I feel far from him, he’s still listening to me. I’m still important. My soul is unique and alive and has the power to light up the world. I’ll always be a creature in His image.
How do you get your religious highs?