Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Roller Coaster of Religiosity, Part I: The Lows (long post)

[In the next two posts, I sometimes use the terms “Orthodox Jew” and “Jew” and “committed Jew” as if they are interchangable. I realize that they are not. I know that there are many Jews who are not Orthodox who are proud of their Jewishness, and committed to whatever Jewish ideology they espouse. But in my internal life, being a Jew and being Orthodox and being committed to other Jews and to God are almost inextricably bound up with each other. Trying to separate them would involve a whole other long post, and may be impossible for me. For now, please accept my apologies for lumping them together.]

Sometimes I feel more “religious” than other times.

Sometimes, I’m simply thinking about things that have absolutely no connection to God, such as how to decrease my electricity bill, or whether I’d rather meet my friends at Cafe Hillel or at Norman’s Steak ‘n’ Burger. (I’m sure there are some people who are now tempted to comment with ways that all things are connected to God and Torah, somehow, but . . . come on, you know what I mean! And anyway, usually I make those connections on my own. There is little in my life that I don’t see or experience through the prism of being a Jew.) In those moments, the reason I’m not being actively religious is simply that I’m thinking about something else. Sometimes, being Orthodox is passive. That’s life.

Sometimes, I’m thinking about religion but don’t feel very religious, because I’m faced with a commandment or a halacha (Jewish law) that is super hard for me, and by some trick of rationalization I fail to bring myself to keep the law. Like any other Orthodox person, I’ve become accustomed to doing things that are sometimes a pain in the neck, and I’ve become accustomed to living without many things that maybe I would have liked. Usually it either doesn’t bother me much because I'm used to it, or I manage to feel some holiness in the struggle. But some Jewish laws restrict me in ways that I really, really, really dislike being restricted, or they obligate me to do something that I really, really, really do not want to do. During these moments, I do (unfortunately) break halachot. (Which ones? That’s between me and God.)

In those moments, I am not being a hypocrite, because I have never in my life claimed to believe that each of us is cosmically bound to keep all the halachot. What I always say is that each Jew has a responsibility to do their utmost, to put in every effort, to do their very best. Everyone fails sometimes. As the Talmud says, when I get to heaven, no one is going to ask me whether I was as holy as Abraham, or as pious as some great rabbi. I’ll be asked “Were you the best Sarah you could be?” Sometimes I’m afraid of how I’d answer that.

There are some interesting mental gymnastics that go on when a person who otherwise cares about Jewish law is about to break one. I’ve been thinking lately about what goes on in that moment, when I have to choose.

In a few instances, the internal conflict does not reflect any sort of grand theological doubting, it’s just a matter of my being lazy, or too tempted by whatever fun or satisfying thing it is that I’m not supposed to have. I might say, in that moment, “God will understand,” or, if I’m very tempted by the forbidden fruit, “God will just have to understand.” It’s a cop-out, yes, one of which I’m not proud. But often, there’s something deeper going on.

Being an intellectually engaged, self-aware Orthodox Jew with one foot in the non-Orthodox world is a lot of hard work. As I’ve indicated before, I do a lot of thinking and evaluating and re-evaluating. In many ways I sit on philosophical fences, but the fence keeps shifting under me and so I can’t stop paying attention, or I’ll fall off. If I fall asleep on the job, events and trends and habits will overtake me, and I’ll get lost.

Sometimes, my butt hurts from sitting on fences. Sometimes, I’m just tired. Tired of always worrying about my actions and my words. Tired of “representing” Jews and Torah and God, and having to worry about what kind of impression I’m making on others, whether I’m being a kiddush or a chillul Hashem, whether I or others in my community are giving us a bad name. Tired of redefining myself, over and over, against the people to the “right” or the “left” of me. I’m tired, sometimes, of worrying about Jewish continuity, and replacing the people we lost in the Holocaust, and passing Torah to the next generation. I’m sick, sometimes, of being part of the “grand sweep of Jewish history.” I’m tired of wondering about God’s plan for me and for Jews and for the world, and what is my purpose in life, and am I fulfilling it?

And then, on top off all those things . . . is there a bloodspot in my breakfast egg? Is this shirt too low-cut? Can I finish this project before Shabbat begins? Does this restaurant have kashrut certification?

In short, sometimes, being a committed Jew is just too exhausting. And so, sometimes, I dissociate. It’s like an out-of-body experience, almost. I can see myself in my body, making a choice, living with all the trappings of religious belief, knowing what I’m supposed to do. And yet I’m also standing on the side, not caring anymore.

This “not caring” sometimes manifests itself in the thought that “I just can’t believe that God really concerns himself with whether I do such-and-such or not.” It’s a handy way of displacing the indifference, to say “I do care about God’s instructions and his plan for me, but I don’t think, right now, that this law is really what He wants. So I’m going to ignore it.” Later, I might feel guilty. Or not.

But what’s worse, so much worse, is when I stop caring even about God. When I’m so tired and so removed and so unspiritual and empty that the only thought filling the emptiness is "futility, futility, all is futility.” This is not an intellectual thought, nor is it a belief. It’s a state of being. It’s what happens when I’ve been caring so much about my Jewishness that I’ve blown a spiritual fuse and my brain rebels, screaming “Enough. It’s too much responsibility. I cannot carry this yoke anymore.”

Those are the lows.

[Coming up soon: The Highs]

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