I used to want a box to live in. One with a clear indication of which side was “Up,” and which side wasn’t. One with two separate sinks and a yellow sponge for the pareve dishes. I wanted an instruction book; one that had no problem helping me distinguish right from wrong. I wanted someone to answer my questions, I wanted a tour guide with a flashlight and a reputation for carrying extra batteries.
I operated on the assumption that living in a box with a unique, handwritten instruction book would be so wonderful that I wouldn’t care if I needed to adjust my lifestyle to accommodate it in return. I’d invite others to come over and see said box. I’d speak in great detail about the roots of my box, how I had chosen it, and how happy I’d been since I found it. I’d serve mezonot bread and hand out source sheets about why that’s a thing at all (it probably isn’t), and I’d make sure to print them double sided.
I would experience life from my box with confidence, ambition, and hope. I would embrace the type of clarity we’ve all been praying for for ages. I’d frame it and hang it up on the walls of my box for only the attentive to notice. Of course, it’s quite difficult to do any of these things, to host moments of revelation like this one, without a box, or rather, without a sense of direction and a clear and consistent view of life — a hashkafa.
I did not go to Israel for the year without a plethora of goals, but what I wanted most was to discover my own sense of direction. With a limited Jewish background and a few years of day school education under my belt, I certainly had a lot of questions. It didn’t take me long to realize how many different ways there were to partake in Jewish life. The same book of laws could be interpreted a million different ways, and I quickly intuited how important it was to find my role in it all. One role; a solid and reliable way to go about keeping Halacha. I wanted a place to hang my hat at the end of the day; a label, a direction, a category. While these are things we often resist — I couldn’t help but crave it. I wanted a rabbi to follow, a consistent way of dressing, a nusach. I wanted standardized and unwavering beliefs — I wanted consistency.
However, this was not what I found in Israel, and to this day, it’s something I’ve yet to find altogether. In my seminary I was faced with all kinds of Jewish educators from a variety of unique backgrounds. It was enlightening to be surrounded by all 70 faces of the Torah.
While initially I was thrilled by the options that were presented to me, I later became extremely overwhelmed. Many people are (easily) categorized. We use the familiarity of the cliches we’ve come to love to help ourselves place people in their respective boxes. We rely on these boxes much more than we’d like to admit. When we’re unable to place someone, we freeze up and get lost. We’re quick to label people as “out-of-towners,” “foreigners,” “not-from-here.” We rely on our boxes for security, but when the walls cave in, where does that leave us?
Initially, I was discouraged by my lack of ability to choose a hashkafa. I craved the stability offered by one — the paint-by-numbers, carved out prospect of following in the footsteps of someone else.
Isn’t that why people select lives dictated by religious law? We want to feel safe and secure. We crave rituals and community. We wish to stand in a room full of other Jewish people all practicing the same rituals, chanting the same words, wearing similar garb, on the same day of the week for the same reason — we want the familiarity of the stories we’ve been etched into. We’re hopeful, willing, and able. And all we ask for is a teacher, a leader, someone to tell us what it’s all supposed to look like.
Who will answer our questions?
Who will make Torah accessible?
Who will tell us how to live our lives?
However I’d surely be lying if I said I’ve tried my absolute hardest to choose a hashkafa. I’d be lying if I claimed that my boxy daydreams have utterly dissolved from my subconscious mind. Yet, my ego tells me not to conform. You don’t need to fit into a box, you don’t need to explain yourself using someone else’s words. Of course not.
Yet sometimes I feel as if there isn’t quite a space for me, even in orthodoxy. Can I be an orthodox Jewish girl who sings in front of “mixed” audiences? Can I be an orthodox Jew who’s loving and accepting of all kinds? Can I be an orthodox Jew who struggles with shmirat negiah and can actually speak about it? Can I love everyone, every Jew, every creature, every friend on any path they may be on?
When it comes to religious practice, we all cherry pick. Some are just a little more honest about it than others. All of our boxes are a little warped, and if they’re not, then perhaps it’s because we never tried poking any air holes.