Against Perfectionist Judaism

When I started writing, I used to be terrified of every piece I put out.  I’d be so scared that I would call my wife after every article got published and I’d ask her to talk me down from my intense anxiety verging on panic.

What would people think?  Was I going to hurt someone with this piece?  What if I got something wrong?

What’s interesting about these questions is that, while they are valid, the fact that they caused me such panic meant that they weren’t questions I felt were worth exploring: I thought they were determinants of my worth.  If I hurt somebody with my writing, then I was a bad person.  If people didn’t like it, I wasn’t a good writer.  If I made a mistake, it meant I was an irredeemable failure.

In other words, I was a perfectionist.  Not just because I expected myself to be perfect, but because if I wasn’t perfect, I thought it meant that I was completely broken.  This is often also referred to as a fear of failure, where any failure is not just a mistake, it is an epic tragedy since it means that you are the failure.  In other parlance, it’s referred to as a “fixed mindset,” where every moment is not an opportunity to grow and evolve, but a test.  If you pass, you’re perfect; if you fail, you’re nothing.

And that’s how I looked at myself as a writer.  I was a failure or I was perfect, and so every moment became a test of my worth, every article’s response determined whether I would live or whether I would die, whether I was good, or whether I was evil.

Imagine that feeling.  Imagine thinking every single thing we do will determine the essence of who we are.

If you’re anything like the average person, you probably know that feeling quite well.  Most of us are perfectionist in at least one area of our lives, and often in many others.  Perfectionism, fear of failure, and “fixed mindsets” are woven into our cultural fabric, part of how we speak about each other, and part of how we look at ourselves.

Think of how we talk about those we disagree with (I am a perpetrator of this myself, which is perhaps why it is on my mind).  We don’t just disagree: we think the “other” is irredeemable.  And as the stakes are raised, the more this becomes believable.

But it also creates a mindset in which there is no escape except for destroying the other side.

This is also, sadly, how we often relate to ourselves.  If we are in the wrong, we are worthy of destruction, of eternal damnation.

Recently, I started to notice the language of perfectionism in another world.  One where it had been floating around me all along, affecting my every thought and emotion and action, without me being aware of it.  When something is so culturally normal, it is hard to see it.  We must work deeply, work hard, to extricate ourselves from it.  That is what I did with writing: I worked with a therapist for years on my perfectionism (I still am), read books about how creatives can overcome perfectionism, and practiced meditation. 

Still, I struggle.  Because a mindset is not something easily broken: it must be replaced.  It is how we view every single aspect of reality.  It is, in other words, a narrative.  The way we make a story out of the seemingly random things we do and experience.

And so it took me ten years before I realized that I was hearing it in the Jewish world.  The very same words I uttered to myself as a writer, and which others utter to creatives constantly.

“Don’t blame other Jews for your difficulties.  Just focus on yourself.”

“If you don’t have a community, you should still be able to believe.”

“Any time you ‘fail’ as a Jew, it’s because there is something wrong with you.  Don’t attribute it to your environment, or to leaders, or to our society.  You are responsible for your own actions.”

Just as with the words I’d utter to myself as a writer, all of these ideas have validity.  Blaming others for our difficulties is a mistake.  Belief is beyond community.  And we are responsible for our actions.

But wrapped up in all of these ideas is something else: a belief that a person should be able to persist in Jewish belief and practice no matter what we go through or experience.  Being ostracized, or attacked, by our communities shouldn’t affect our emunah.  And if we slip up, it means we’re not just fallible people, it means there is something wrong with us.

These sorts of viewpoints surround us.  They come from well-meaning rabbis and communal leaders, on comments on articles about difficulties surrounding Jewish life, on social media, in our homes, and our schools.  The difficulties of being Jewish, we are told, may be real, but they cannot, must not, distract us from our mission as Jews.

And so the result is something similar to what most writers experience when they suffer from perfectionism: people grit their teeth and hold on.  They attack themselves for the moments they slip, and attack others, increasing the spread and power of the culture of perfectionism.  And they stay quiet about their pain.

Now, one of the hallmarks of adopting a non-perfectionist ideology (often referred to as an “objectively compassionate perspective” or a “growth mindset”), is that people learn that they are rarely to blame for their suffering: rather, there is something in the outside world that is making their lives difficult.

For example, writers will often expect that they should be able to write in any setting. So, they’ll sit in a messy room, wondering why they can’t get anything out, even as there is a part of them that is so distracted by the mess that it finds it hard to focus.  A non-perfectionist would simply clean the room or find another place to work.  A perfectionist would sit there and beat themselves up for failing to produce work.

Imagine this but for a Jew who is deeply unhappy in their community.  There are, sadly, many such people.  And, sadly, many feel it is their duty to stay in the communities that cause them extreme suffering.  And they will encourage others to do the same, with powerful but unhealthy arguments like, “How will this community improve if people like you don’t stay?”

Recently, a Chabad woman in Crown Heights had me over to her home.  She listened sympathetically and empathetically as I told her the story of why I had chosen to stop calling myself Chabad.  But after she listened, she repeated this line.  Because she shared so much of what upset me about the community.  She understood a lot of my frustrations.  But she thought I should stay.  I tried to explain how unhealthy this had been for me, and ultimately for my family.  I could see this was hard for to accept, as much as she sympathized.

And while I understood her perspective, and was sympathetic to her pain in seeing people like myself leave, I left her home thinking that it is sad that we live in a world where this idea persists.  A messy room is nothing compared to feeling like we don’t belong in our communities.  To feel like an outsider, or worse, in a community is horrifically unhealthy.  Loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In other words, Jews are killing themselves by staying in communities in which they feel unhappy.

This, then, is an example of a sort of semi-pikuach nefesh, where we must do everything we can to live healthy, full lives.  Not sacrificing ourselves and our families based on perfectionist myths, but creating a Jewish life for ourselves that is alive, vibrant, and, most importantly, where we don’t feel alone.

It may sound extreme, but if we feel lonely in our communities, it is quite possible that we should move (or at least go to different communities in the area if that is possible).

The irony will be that doing such a thing, which many would consider an admission of failure, would actually lead us to love our Jewish lives rather than just live them. 

The point, in other words, is that we will live out our best selves, our best souls, and our most empowered Judaism, when we learn not to just hold in our pain, refuse to acknowledge what makes us unhappy, and pretend that we are perfect angels whose emunah is uncorrupted by the world around us.

Emunah, faith, like so many other things in our lives, is affected by the world around us.  By our environment.  And if we are not choosing an environment that’s best for us, we’re not allowing our emunah to truly flourish.

To imagine we must stay within our boundaries is, in the philosophy of Chassidus, galus (exile).  To break outside of boundaries, and to see what is possible beyond what we see in front of our eyes: that is geula (redemption).

We must embrace our inner geula. And often, that means knowing when to escape the galus that surrounds us.