A Cautionary Note to the Reader.
This is Chapter 4 of my Contemplative Autobiography. It is the story of how I rediscovered—and continue to rediscover—what I believe to be authentic (Orthodox?) Judaism. It is the story of a search for deep religiosity and the re-engagement with Halacha, which I view as musical notes written by the Great Maestro to be played by each one of us on the strings of our souls.
I am taking the reader through all the different stages, the ups and downs, the agony and ecstasy, and the trials and travails as I experienced them throughout decades of study and contemplation. I hope that this will serve as an inspiration and guide for those who find themselves in similar positions. The purpose of describing my spiritual journey is not to relate how I arrived at a final destination, but to share vignettes of my odyssey on the “road less traveled.” I hope that this will inspire others to forge their unique spiritual path and embark on a journey to become a better and more authentic human being and Jew.
In order to get a better understanding of the nature and intention of this autobiography, I suggest that the reader should, at the very least, read through the two-part introduction to this series (Part 1 and Part 2)
As Though God Exists
Until now, I discussed the fact (See Chapter 3) that the kind of Judaism I practiced and believed in when I converted (at the age of 16 ) was very simplistic and one-dimensional. I realized many years later, that although I had studied in Yeshiva for many years, I had to start all over again and undertake a much more extensive study of Judaism before I could decide whether to stay religious or not. At the same time, it also raised the question of whether I knew enough about secular philosophy to make such a momentous decision. Only when I had a good grasp of both religious and secular philosophy would I be in a position to make an informed decision.
Meanwhile, the question, about what to do in the meantime was gnawing away at my soul. Should I stay religious or revert back to the secular lifestyle I was accustomed to before I thought about converting?
I first thought that the best solution was to be partially religious and partially secular. (i.e., to adopt a religious lifestyle during the first half of the week and lead a secular lifestyle during the remainder of the week). But, as I explained in Chapter 3, that did not make any sense to me.
Afterward, I considered making a decision based on “Pascal’s Wager,” which is based on the idea that it is better to side with those who live a life as though God exists because you have less to lose (see again Chapter 3). When a person lives a religious life, and God does in fact exist, one would receive infinite rewards in the Heavenly Spheres after death. And even if God does not exist, one would only lose the benefit of enjoying some worldly pleasures proscribed by religion. Compared with Eternity, that is a small price to pay.
I rejected this argument because I felt that determining such a weighty issue based on the potential gains and losses of Heavenly reward or the lack thereof was too “business-like”. I could not see how this approach would bring me to an encounter with the Divine (in case It actually existed).
The Joy and the Relevance of Living a Religious Life
There was however another vital factor to consider: And here I make poor showing! I love to live a religiously observant life, whether or not God actually exists. I had done so for years and thoroughly enjoyed it. True, I subsequently came to the realization that my religious commitment had been based on a superficial understanding of Judaism, and that it may not represent the (whole) truth. Nevertheless, I was sure that Judaism contained at least some truth. (Although I realized that this was probably true of other religions and philosophies as well). Thus, I argued, why should I give all this up?
Moreover, the secular lifestyle of my youth had never quenched my spiritual thirst, nor satisfied my quest for meaning. It left too many question concerning the meaning of life and questions about morality unanswered. Although I now realized that I had to revisit the basis of my religious commitment and also re-examine many arguments within secular philosophy I had previously overlooked, I greatly enjoyed my religious life and that was reason enoug to stay religiously observant, even when it was not based on compelling arguments.
I do have to admit, however, that I was biased. I realized that I was not able to stay neutral. Perhaps I was not completely honest, but there was no escape.
There were also additional issues at play:
As I explained in my booklet Lonely but Not Alone, I was convinced that the Jewish Tradition had much to offer to the world. Even if God does not exist, and the entire Tradition was invented by human beings, it still contains a lot of great wisdom which we should not reject or ignore. An institution such as Shabbat and its rituals is of universal value simply because humankind really needs a day of rest as described by the Jewish tradition. (See Eric Fromm, To Have or To Be? London and New York: Continuum, 2008, pp. 41-43 and Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The lesson of Shabbat that at least once a week, we need to relinquish our dominion over the world. Instead of wielding our power as creators and masters, we need to embrace our creaturely status and acknowledge our dependence upon a possible God and interdependence with nature. This is a great moral lesson and spiritual blessing for all humanity. I learned to appreciate this universal message of Judaism even during the “simplistic” phase of my understanding of Judaism.
The same is true of many other commandments, customs, and rituals which contain tremendous spiritual depth and psychological meaning. I could appreciate the value of some of the Kashrut (kosher) laws or those of Taharat Hamishpacha, (family purity). These laws mandate the exercise of restraint. They curb the overindulgence of human appetites, such as the obsession with food and sexuality. These laws are highly beneficial, even if they were not commanded directly by God.
Thus, to reject all this and throw out the baby with the bathwater did not make sense to me. Certain powerful aspects of Judaism had to stay alive even if it was all based on human invention. This however, does not mean that there are no aspects of Judaism, such as discrimination against women, that are highly disturbing and really made me question some of the basic underlying assumptions of Judaism.
There was still another reason why I was not prepared to terminate my religious observance:
Most of my thoughts concerning starting all over again, took place when I was already married and had children and even grandchildren. My wife and I had given them a deeply religious education. They all went to religious schools (including Yeshivot for the boys and Beit Ya’akov schools for the girls). The foundations of our home were deeply rooted in the Jewish Tradition. I would have wreaked havoc on my entire family had I suddenly walked out and become secular. The pain that such a move would have inflicted upon my family could not be morally justified.
Also, let us not forget that it was not at all sure I would decide to become secular. It was nothing more than a possibility. As I mentioned previously, I wanted to stay religious, but this time for the right reasons!
Thus, I decided not to tell my wife and children that I was contemplating living a secular life. And, again, I was enjoying it too much just to abandon it. Furthermore, imagine if I would have started to live a secular lifestyle while the rest of the family was deeply religious, only to change my mind after my philosophical investigation and return to being deeply religious again, how would I be perceived by my family? They would surely think that their father cannot make up his mind and they would probably send me to a mental asylum!
The scariest part of all this, however, was to consider what would happen if I should discover that Judaism is not the answer, (even if it contains some value). What if I should discover a radically different lifestyle and belief system that is superior to Judaism. In such a scenario, I would face an insoluble dilemma: on the one hand, I would be confronted with my intense love for my family and concern for their happiness; on the other hand, I would face the daunting prospect of living a life riddled with severe hypocrisy.
Undoubtedly, I would continue to live an observant life, for their sake; however, this would be meaningless to me. It would mean that for the rest of my life, I would live a life of spiritual dishonesty (even if I would be able to defend my decision to lead an observant lifestyle on moral grounds)! Would I be able to survive such an intense internal war? It would be akin to living a life of spiritual schizophrenia. It would also mean that I had wasted some 50 years of my life teaching something that was not true!
This problem would not have existed had I lived a life in search of meaning, without ever claiming to have found it. This would have provided some solace. However, I had lived my life as if I had reached the summit of Truth and there was nothing to discuss anymore! I considered this position to be extremely problematic, dangerous, and in fact scary.
To be continued.
With thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.