Confessions Of A Neo-Something-Or-Other

Part 1: The Story

Two months ago, I walked into my shul without my usual chassidic getup.  No kapotah (a long suit that married dudes wear), no gartel (the belt that goes around the kapotah), no hat.  I was just wearing a simple suit, like the non-Hasidic folks wear.

This was a big deal.  I live in Crown Heights, and people in my community know me as a Lubavitcher.  I became religious through Chabad, and it always seemed like I was going in that direction, just becoming “more Chabad” as time went on, until one day I would be fully in it.

Walking in that day was the first public proclamation that I was going a different direction, that I was no longer going fully in that direction, that something had changed.

The people in my shul are holy souls, and so they didn’t hide their surprise, but didn’t judge me.  They asked why, asked my reasoning, asked what had happened, but they did not look down on me for my choice.  You could see an initial worry in some that I was starting down the “Matisyahu path” as I think many people see it: that of slowly trying out other things with an intention deep down to actually leave.  But they seemed to accept rather quickly that this was not the case with me.

One dude who does not come often to our shul but does know me well looked at me with some sort of evil eye.  It was disturbing, but I moved on.

This moment in my life, it was one of the biggest moves since I started to wear a kippah.  One of the few times a Jew must make a public change in order to reflect his inner truth.  And it was over.  And I breathed.  And I was happy that I had finally done it.

But it had been a long road to get here.

The Road

It happened because of science, if I am going to be honest with you.

Science was a huge part of my becoming religious.  I would spend a night at a Shabbat meal with my Chabad rabbi and then come home to watch a documentary about black holes that only further convinced me that the world was deeper than we could possibly imagine, that there was a G-d, a deep truth to it all.

But at some point, that love for science turned into fear.  I went to Chabad yeshiva, and I saw so much truth in the study of Chassidus.  More truth than I had seen anywhere, more truth than science for sure.

And the underpinnings of Chabad chassidus contradict much of modern science.  The overall assumption of chassidus is that the Torah contains all truth.  And thus, if modern science contradicts it, it is simply a matter of science not having caught up with truth.  Science is seen as the journey towards truth, and Torah as the destination.

More importantly, science’s role, and in truth, any secular knowledge, is seen as purely utilitarian.  It cannot inform our religion in a way that would affect the way we interpret the Torah or G-d.  Each has its role.

I saw so much truth in chassidus, that I found it untenable to believe in chassidus and also believe in some aspects of modern science.  But it was painful for me to see the contradictions in the two, since they both seemed to contain so much truth.  Even more painful was not seeing truths in science that could affect my opinion of religion and G-d.  Too often, I would feel heretical for having thoughts that seemed to contradict lessons I had learned.

And so I chose what seemed like the only viable option: ignore science.  Or the uncomfortable parts at least.

This seemed easy enough, and even logical.  I had accepted a certain framework upon myself that I found to be absolutely true, absolutely beautiful, one in which I also happened to not be completely educated in, and so needed to accept certain aspects of which may seem confusing or which make me uncomfortable.

But psychologically, I think, this eventually became absolutely devastating for me.  Some subconscious part of me was screaming.  Because (and maybe this is my failing, but I don’t think it is) science was something I couldn’t just let go of.  Not science as a discipline because I never really let go of that.  I always felt that science could be used as a how, but letting go of it as a why is what was eating me up inside.

For a year, I tried to keep my doubt stuffed deep down inside.  I tried to hide from the fact that I felt Chabad didn’t have all the answers.

I think, in retrospect, what scared me was the fear that if I opened myself up to science, I would have to let go of everything that contradicted it.  I would have to let go of Hasidus, and maybe even Judaism.

One of the things I always admired about the Lubavitcher Rebbe was his high-minded refusal to bow to what the world expected him or his Hasidim to think.  He was open to the world, and yet unswayed by it.

That influenced me greatly.  I wanted to be like that, I wanted to be like his Hasidim, internally grounded in G-d but able to deal with externality.

The unfortunate side effect of this desire, though, was that I had created a construct in my mind that could not see a world in which I could accept the value of Hasidus and the value of science as answers to deep philosophical questions at once.

I would say that the “symptoms” of this split inside of me started to manifest themselves about a year before I finally broke.

The symptoms included an inability to even read anything about science, lest thoughts of doubt creep in.  An absolute fear of thoughts different than the philosophy I was trying to live.  An anger at the people who thought differently than me.

The Breaking Point

Being bipolar, I cannot ignore my emotions for long.  I cannot live a life that isn’t true to me, because my emotional pain will overcome me to the point where I cannot ignore it.

That’s what happened in my attempt to become a fanatic.  A year after the “symptoms” showed up, I was a mess. I was depressed, scared, alone, sad, and I was literally getting sick over and over again.

I finally realized that I needed to do something.  I needed to say something.  To someone.

And so I told my wife.  I told her everything.  Told her I was afraid, told her I didn’t know what was going on with me, what I believed anymore, that I was afraid I was going off the derech (losing my religion), that I was lost and alone and scared.

She asked me what I had done to explore these thoughts.  Nothing, I told her.  She looked at me with raised eyebrows and asked why not?  I didn’t answer but inside I knew the answer: I was afraid of what I would find.  Afraid of where inquiry would lead me.

“Elad,” she said, “You need to explore.  You need to think for yourself and discover what you think.  You can’t make some grand decision without exploring this truth inside of you.”

It was a weird moment.  She wasn’t angry with me, she wasn’t even concerned.  She just wanted me to make informed decisions.  She wanted me to think for myself.  She wanted me to study Torah.

And so I did.

Studying

It just so happened that we had a book laying around our house called “Torah Umadda”. This book is pretty famous among the modern orthodox folks, but for me, a baal teshuva who had gone through a Hasidic system, it was practically unknown.  My wife owned it because she had borrowed it from her brother, who is modern orthodox, and hadn’t returned it.

We had had it for years, and I never looked at it.  The day after I spoke with my wife, I saw the book sitting in our bookshelf and asked her about it.

“You should read it!” she said. “It’s about science and Torah!”

And so I did.  And it changed my life.

Here was a man who was educated in Torah, someone who I couldn’t help but disagree with quite often, but who spoke about this attempt to see the why in science.  Who said that not only was it important for us to do that, it was essential.  That G-d had written more than one book of truth, and it happened to be that the universe was the other one.

He also spoke about how difficult of a reality this was.  How it would cause tension and pain as a religious follower.  But that it was essential.

It amazed me to hear so many of my thoughts written out in a book by someone so educated in Torah.  It reminded me of my early days exploring Hasidus, how this inner truth that I had held inside of myself was being spoken to me by someone else.

I wrote about my struggles briefly and one of my commenters recommended Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book The Great Partnership.

This book also changed my life.  Like Torah Umadda, science was just a starting point to an understanding of how Torah fit into the world on a grand level, and what the Jews had to contribute.  Unlike much of what I had learned up to this point, Rabbi Sacks didn’t portray Jews as the only possessors of truth, but rather the possessors of a unique, specific truth that the world needed to hear.  But the Jews also needed to hear from the world, he argued, and every civilization, every religion and philosophy and viewpoint, had its own contribution to make to the story of humanity.  One that could inform our own Judaism, could shape it and help it become richer and deeper.

This was what I had been dying to hear, what I knew in my heart was true, what was eating me up inside on the road to this destination.  I knew it because I could feel my heart unraveling to the calm, intelligent words of this insightful rabbi.

Not Letting Go Of Chabad

Most importantly, Rabbi Sacks, it was clear, saw the beauty in everything.  He spoke often in his book about the Rebbe, as he’s done throughout his tenure.  He spoke of the Rebbe’s role in him becoming Chief Rabbi of Britain.  He spoke of the power of Chabad in the world.

And this was the other thing I needed to hear, the other thing that had caused me so much pain on the road.  That Chabad was not to be dismissed just because I had found a truth that contradicted it in some ways.

Hasidus matters.  Hassidus will be the savior of Jews.  Hassidus has a life that matters to me.  And I will never let it go.

Rabbi Sacks showed me that this was possible.

After doing more studying, more thinking, and more meditating, I slowly came to a place wherein I felt comfortable changing who I was externally to match the change of thinking that was taking place inside of me.  The inner acceptance of both Hasidus and Modern Orthodoxy and the other forms of Judaism that were slowly opening themselves up to me.

And so… the kapotah had to go.  The gartel.  And something else emerged.  I’m still not sure what.

Part 2: The Destination

On Not Being A Neo-Hasid

As G-d would have it, a month or so ago, a month after I had decided to stop wearing my kapotah, I ran into an article about “Neo-Hasidus”.  On the cover of the magazine was a picture of my friend Shlomo Gaisin (who is the lead singer for Zusha, a simply beautiful new Jewish band). 

Shlomo!  He was like me.  A Neo-Hasid!  What a great word!  That was me too!  And so I figured that this article must be about me, about people like me.  The people who accepted Hasidus but within a larger framework of Jewish identity.

As it turned out, it was about a movement going on in the Modern Orthodox world: young men and women like Shlomo who were looking for something more in their Torah observance who were absorbing Hasidus into their daily lives.  Who didn’t accept every word from the Hasidic world as truth, but who nonetheless brought it into their lives.

What struck me about this article was how the road I took there was completely different.  As if we arrived at the same destination but started in different locales.

Whereas these “Neo-Hasidim” came from the modern orthodox world, I came from the secular world into the Hasidic world.  And it was only then that I started to look outward, to think differently, to start accepting what I suppose is now called the modern orthodox way of looking at things.

But I knew Shlomo.  And Shlomo was like me, more like me than the vast majority of the people in the community I physically inhabit, Crown Heights, the home of Chabad.

What was going on, then?  Did I belong in this article?  Was I a part of it in some way?  I felt that I must, I must be part of this story because I so identified with it, even if I came to it by way of a completely different journey.

Could there be something larger going on here?  Something more intricate than the writer had identified?

I thought about the reasons that Shlomo and the other “Neo-Hasidim” had made the changes in their lives.  What led them to the destination, and what we had in common that would lead us here.

A few things stood out to me:

Dissatisfaction: In both our cases, Shlomo and I had felt that the world we inhabited didn’t have all the answers.  Whether it was I as a secular college kid, dissatisfied and cynical about a world that loved to ask questions but never give answers, or as a Hasidic person missing out on the aspects of secularity that I found deep and true.  Or whether it was Shlomo feeling a lack of meaning in his own Modern Orthodox upbringing.  Something was missing, we felt.

An open world: Whereas in the past, a Jew (or any religious person) dissatisfied with his identity would feel the need to hide his dissatisfaction due to the fact that he would be disconnected from a world that might give hm the answers he craves, the world Shlomo and I inhabit is far more connected.  The internet was a great source of solace for me, and shaped my Jewish identity from the beginning.  It was how my Chabad rabbi was able to badger me into finally coming to a Shabbat meal.  It was how I reconnected with what would become my future wife.

And through my recent struggles, it was how I connected to the people to whom I could question about my views without feeling singled out by my community.  It was the way I discovered Jonathan Sacks’s book.  It was even the way in which Shlomo and I connected.

The internet, and our connected world, has been a G-dsend to the people in this world who are alone.  It provides a place for other lonely people to connect, talk, and then build communities.

Israel: Israel, and especially Jerusalem, has affected the eyes of every religious Jew in this age.  Anyone who has visited, and especially anyone who has lived for more than a year, in Israel has become aware of just how diverse the Jewish world can become.  We’ve been given a glimpse into a Jewish world that is not delineated by clear boundaries of communities, but which is made up of shades of grey.  From the hippie commune world of semi-Hasidic Nachlaot to settlements made up of warrior poets, Israel has made it beautifully clear just how diverse Jews are meant to be.  How the diaspora has given us an illusion because of the way it carved us up and kept us inwardly focused.  Israel is a place where a Jew can be the Jew he wants to be, the Jew he’s meant to be.

And the Jews like me and Shlomo who were inspired by this have become determined to bring this messianic taste in our mouths back to America.  And we’ve started with ourselves.

On Being A Neo-Something-Or-Other

By examining these similarities and more in Shlomo’s identity and mine, I realized that, yes, it was true: the writer of the “Neo-Hasid” article had tapped into one smal part of a larger story.  That of the Neo-Jew.  Or Neo-Modern-Orthodox-Jew.  Or Neo-Something.  Or Neo-Something-Or-Other.

The truth is that there is no name for it because it is not a movement, it is a reality.  It is a time in our history that marks a sea change: that of connection and openness.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone will arrive at the same destination or that insular communities won’t stay insular.  What it means is that the process by which one lives his Judaism is becoming reshaped.  Whereas I thought that it was the destination Shlomo and I had in common, it is actually the journey: one which is not marked by stagnancy or communities with no connection to the outside world, but by vibrancy, dynamism, and virtually limitless connections to the world beyond.

There is no movement because there is no specific destination.  It is the process by which we tap into our Jewish identity that has changed.  It is this very dynamic process that has allowed the baal teshuva movement to flourish, and flourish even more as time passes and the internet and Israel establish themselves as part of the Jewish identity.

This melding, this changing and growth will come with its difficulties, no doubt.  But these difficulties will be good for us, they are good for us, and I am so excited to see where we all go from here.

We are on a new, messianic, exciting path.  And we are all going on it together, whether we realize it or not.  Whether we identify as a “Neo-Hasid”, or Hasid, or an atheist, or Modern Orthodox Jew, or Reform Jew.

And the only one who clearly sees where it will lead is G-d.  But we can know one thing: the destination will be beautiful.

Image source: Gai Shtienberg