Thursday, January 30, 2014

What's in a name? (Part I) - Losing and rediscovering my religion

From time to time, I will be writing about my reasons for choosing "Pesach Sheini" as the name for my blog. The more I have thought about the name, the more I have felt that it chose me and not the other way around. What follows is the first installation.

I remember the moment when I felt the first crack in the foundation of my beliefs. We were living in Israel, I was learning in the Aish HaTorah kollel, and I had bought my first Borsalino (ever the outsider, I mistakenly bought the one with a band with the “wrong” height). Although I had already received semicha, I was learning Torah ten hours per day, had seforim I learned on each leg of my bus trip to the old city, and wished I had more time to learn. I had, for the most part, rejected most of my modern orthodox upbringing, and I knew that, more often than not, the good guys wore black hats. I davened with the confidence and seriousness of a believer. My brilliant chavrusa Rafi was from England, where he had studied at Oxford. Rafi's brother was troubled by Rafi's decision to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle, which had happened, he thought, because Rafi had been brainwashed. He would send Rafi long and well researched annotated letters “proving” that the Torah couldn't be true. Rafi and I usually laughed at such a crazy notion. Which rational person could doubt the truth of our religion? Clearly, Rafi's brother was blind to the truth. One day, out of curiosity and amusement, I asked to see the latest letter. I read it and was shocked. I held in my hands excellent arguments against my understanding of one part of the Torah. Of course, I didn't let on that I found the points to be salient . Doubts were for heretics. For the believer, there are no questions, and for the heretic, no answers. Troubled by this question, I kept my thoughts inside my head for many years, until I asked someone who I could trust, and he showed me an answer from Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman. I would later learn that other well known rabbis, shared this understanding as well.

Several years later, we had moved to Baltimore. I was teaching Torah to high school students, and one boy was struggling with some doubts. He would come to me to discuss them. I did my best to answer the questions, and explain why I believed. Several times, my student asked me why I wasn't bothered by some of these questions. I responded, in truth, that they just didn't bother me. I had no way of knowing that, years later, I would be troubled by many of the same questions.

At my last teaching job, I had a close relationship with many of my brighter students, who knew that I would take their questions seriously, admit when I didn't have answers, and stick to a rational approach towards explaining Torah. Having thrown myself into Jewish philosophy and Torah and science, I enjoyed this reputation, and even encouraged it (without belittling other approaches). I don't remember the precise moment it started, but little by little, I started to wonder whether Judaism was true. Had you paid close attention to my words, during my last year of teaching, you would have sensed my struggles as I no longer spoke of my beliefs, speaking instead of what Chazal believed.

At first, I tried to find the answer to the questions which troubled me, certain that some genius from our tradition could set it all straight. I read whatever I could, spoke to roshei yeshiva, rabbis, professors, and learned laymen. Nothing I heard put my mind at rest. I went through a stage where I raged at the brilliant minds of the Modern Orthodox world, such as Rav Soloveitchik ZT”L, Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (may they quickly have a full recovery). How, I wondered, could they not have dealt with these important issues? I searched far afield for answers, but much of what I came across just led to more questions, struggles and doubts. I knew I could not return to the classroom unless I could resolve my doubts. Outwardly, I kept up my observance, and even started learning daf yomi. Davening, on the other hand, was nothing but painful. We were struggling financially and with some other stresses that come with having a large family, and I was quite unsure whether my prayers had any effect or value. I started learning Torah during davening, not out of piety, but as an attempt to drown out my thoughts.

I figured out which friends I could trust with the secret of my struggles, and tried to keep my wife from finding out. Sadly, in that regard, I failed. I knew that, no matter which conclusion I reached, I would never stop living an outwardly observant lifestyle. I had “signed on the dotted line” by getting married and having children, and I refused to let my struggles send my family into crisis.

I headed into this past Yom Kippur numb, as if in a trance, for the first time ever, feeling nothing as the day approached. How could I do teshuva when I was struggling with so many of the premises on which teshuva is based? My one attempt at not giving up was a commitment to not read every article which raised questions, and to distance myself from some online connections who were helping fan the flames of my doubts.

Little by little, I started to find an approach that worked for me, and here, I get to one of my key conclusions. My answer did not need to be the answer. It didn't have to work for anyone else. As long as I found it convincing, that was all I needed. Brick by brick I examined each of my previous beliefs. Some I held onto and used them to reconstruct my new approach. Others, however painful it was to do so, were cast aside. Thinking back to my student from Baltimore, I understood why his questions did not bother me at the time. For me at least, even the most serious intellectual questions only become earth shattering at times when my life feels out of control, or, at the very least, uncomfortable, leading me to not feel God's presence in my life. Finally, I accepted that as much as I had tried to look for a purely intellectual/rational answer, that many (most? all?) of our beliefs are based on some other things as well, from the emotional, to the experiential, to the personal. All of these things contributed to my reaching an answer that works for me.

Although I sometimes miss the person I was back then, with my certainty that I knew how the world operated, where my davening was less complicated, and my sense of comfort, I have no interest in going back. Indeed, I can not go back. The man who I was, is a stranger to me today. As I hope to get back in the classroom, I believe that I will be a stronger mechanech than before. I will still be the one who students can approach with serious questions, even, as I now know, I can not give them the answer to their questions. I can, however, guide them on their quest to find the answers that will ring true to themselves.


  1. Beautiful post. I could say more, but I'll leave it to your fan base on FB. :)

  2. When a man of your stature can be so open and honest about something so personal, it can only make us admire you more. The post makes a layman like me feel more normal about my own questions. Thanks for writing this!!

  3. Honest, moving, and profound. Thank you.

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you all, for the kind and thoughtful comments.

    2. Shalom Pessach. Just stumbled here. I'm impressed. Especially by your lack of concern for using your full name while staying in your community. I'm going through a similar phase and don't yet feel so open...

      Tell me, if you don't mind: has your marriage survived this?

    3. YY,

      As I mentioned, I made it through this.

      I'd love to speak off line. Please email me at

  5. I know I'm a few months late, but just started poking around your blog now and found this post. Very well written and poignant. I'm looking forward to reading parts 2, 3, and 4.

    1. Thank you. Feedback is always appreciated.