Thursday, March 3, 2016
Searching for Truth When Your Belief System has Fallen Apart- my talk at the upcoming Project Makom Shabbaton
Before I begin I want to say something, which as you will see, is actually very connected do what I will be discussing. Some, including Mindy and Allison, might think that I participate in these shabbatons because I have something to offer you. The truth is, however, that I attend these shabbatons to gain inspiration. As silly as it might sound, you, and all the members of Project Makom are my heroes. Your passion for truth, your refusal to simply go with the flow, your need to question, understand, and seek, inspires me. In a world that was not an olam hafuch, you would be honored by the velt for being true Mevak’shei Hashem.
To begin, allow me to share with you part of the reason that the mission of Project Makom speaks to me. I myself have gone on my own journey looking for my own place in the world, and in Judaism, in fact, I’ve never finished my journey, and hope I never will. I was raised in a pretty typical Modern Orthodox family of the 1970s and 80s. My father, a”h, did not attend a yeshivah. In fact, he did not grow up religious. Although he developed a love for many parts of yiddishkeit, he never learned Hebrew or Aramaic and couldn’t learn (he did grow up speaking Yiddish, and spoke with my mother a”h in Yiddish to discuss things they didn’t want us to understand). We kept Shabbos, at least as well as we could without really knowing Hilchos Shabbos, and kashrus, but fudged it on occasion, for example, relying on a sketchy rumor that the local Dunkin Donuts was kosher. It was only later in my late teens and early twenties when I began to take things more seriously. In 1997, when I was 26, I switched from a kippah seruga kollel to one that was yeshivish. I soon followed in their ways, and started wearing a hat, although only on Shabbos. That year, for the first time, I ran into a religious question which challenged my understanding of Judaism. I was too scared to ask anyone how to deal with my struggles, as we are not supposed to have doubts, or so I thought. Years later, I asked someone knowledgeable, who gave me an answer which gave me yishuv hada’as. About five years ago, I went through a much more serious crisis. I was not sure that I was still a ma’amin. I was in chinuch, was married to one of the most sincerely religious people I’ve ever met, and had seven children. I decided that no matter where my search led me, I would not change my outer behavior. It was more important for me to protect my family, than to be myself (although I understand those who make different decisions). I wasn’t scared. I was terrified. Which brings us to the practical part of this talk.
Using the process of how I rediscovered my faith, although in a very different way than before (which is why my blog is called “Pesach Sheini) I will attempt to give very practical suggestions, which I hope will be of help.
1. Your struggles and questions are okay
Don’t beat yourself up for struggling or having questions. You are not an apikores. You are not a bad person. In fact, you are doing what the founders of chassidus did. You are saying “I refuse to simply choose a derech that doesn’t fit me, just because I was born into it”. When the Kotzker was asked by his father why he had changed his derech, he pointed out that it says in Shemoneh Esrei אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו. First we have to make HaShem our God. Then we can connect to the God of our fathers. He was far from alone. I can literally share dozens and dozens of those who chose chassidus despite their misnagdish background, including Rav Leibele Eiger, whose grandfather, Rebbe Akiva Eiger you might have heard of. And it’s not just to chassidus. I can show you others who went the other direction, and even those who, gasp!, chose to become more “modern”.
2. There is no such thing as a bad question, although there are bad answers
Ask your questions. Do not think that any are bad, and must be hidden or ignored. They will bother you until you examine them. Don’t however accept “bad” answers. Some answers will simply be wrong or simplistic. Others might work for others, but not for you. Keep asking until you are satisfied by what you hear. Also, some questions can not be answered by an answer that will satisfy you. That’s okay. Better to be emes’dik, than to try and force yourself to believe something you know to be wrong. Which leads us to:
3. Know whom you should not ask
Some people are afraid of questions and doubts. Some are so scared that they attack those who ask these questions, so that they can avoid struggling themselves. I’m sure you’ve all met these people. Unfortunately some are teachers of Torah, or people who can have a lot of control over your community. Avoid discussing your questions with them. They can’t handle struggle, even though the Ribbono Shel Olam can.
4. There are many great resources out there
There are some brilliant talmidei chachamim and scholars who are very accessible and are happy to try and help you with your search. They can be reached in various ways, including in person, and by phone, email and social media. Yes, Facebook is a great resource for doing more than just posting pictures of what you had for lunch.
I reached out to many different people who were incredibly helpful (as well as some who were not). Some shared their own thoughts, others recommended books which were quite helpful.
5. Read, read, read
There are incredible seforim and books out there where many challenging questions are addressed. They are written by those they never told you about in cheder or Beis Yaakov; Rav Kook ztl, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik ztl, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits ztl, and Reb Hillel Zeitlin ztvkl, to name a few. Zeiltlin by the way, was born into a chassidic family, lost his emunah due to some serious questions, and found his way back to frumkeit and chassidus, before being tragically murdered in the Warsaw Ghtto.
6. Be patient with yourself
It took me more than 1 ½ years before I started to truly believe. It could have taken longer. These things take time. There is no deadline.
7. Be willing to be a cholent
You don’t have to find the perfect community. In fact, there is likely no community that will truly be a perfect fit for you. That’s okay. It’s why my more liberal friends think I’m a right-winger and my conservative friends think I’m a kofer (I’m joking….kind of). I love certain parts of chassidus, which are part of my Avodas haShem. Other parts don’t speak to me. I appreciate the commitment to serious Talmud Torah which I see in parts of the yeshivish world, even while other parts of that world trouble me. And yes, I love the ideas of Modern Orthodoxy, even as I find too few in the community who strive to live up to those lofty theories. As Rav Kook taught, there is no approach that doesn’t have some emes to teach us.
The Meiri, who was a Rishon, noted that the tefillin that any of us wear are pasul according to every Rishon. Our tefillin follow some shittos of one Rishon, and other shittos of other Rishonim. He then asks, how we can wear these tefillin if they are “pasul”. His answer is one you might expect from a Chassidic Rebbe, rather than a Rishon who was far from being a mystic. Rachmana Liba Ba’i, HaShem desire the heart. My beliefs and your beliefs might not be kosher according to, or perfectly fit in with, any one group, but they are most pleasing to HaShem, who desires our hearts.
8. Not everything you believe can be publicly shared
The Rambam wrote more than the Mishneh Torah, even if some pretend otherwise. He wrote a complicated work of philosophy called the Moreh Nevuchim. Everybody from secular to Satmar, and from Reform to Reb Chaim ztl, think they know the “real” Rambam. Some say his philosophy was the real him, while others say he didn’t believe any of it, and would fit in perfectly in the charedi world. I won’t share my personal opinion, but, no, he wouldn’t fit into the charedi world.
There’s a reason nobody knows what he truly believed. In his introduction to the Moreh, he makes clear that he is going to hide his true beliefs behind all sorts of seeming contradictions. He knew that many of his generation could not handle his belief system, and tried to keep it hidden. Of course, it didn’t quite work, as they burned his books anyway.
You would be shocked to know how many things which many today call kefirah, were believed by the Rishonim. While those ideas can not be publicly expressed in some communities, I’m pretty sure the Rambam, the Ralbag, and Ibn Ezra were good Jews, and I’m willing to risk my Olam HaBa on them. My beliefs are complex and I have to keep parts of them away from most people. Not because they are kefirah chas v’shalom, but because most frum people don’t seriously study philosophy and are not aware of how many “kefirah’dik ideas, are totally muttar. There is no pesak in hashkafa. I discuss my ideas with those who can handle them. With others I’m guarded. Sometimes it gets annoying, but there is always a price we pay for being part of groups which can never perfectly reflect who we are (we also gain various things from not living alone, much more than we lose).
In conclusion, be true to yourself and do not fear the challenging journey ahead. It won’t always be easy, but with siyata dishmaya, you will find your makom.