I Might Go Off The Derech

2 Years Ago

I’m paralyzed.  Anxiety flowing through my chest, into my arms, my whole body.

Across from me is my wife.  I’ve asked her if we can speak, because I can’t handle this feeling anymore.  It’s too much, and it’s taking over my life.

She looks at me with a slight indication of worry, her hands clasped but tightly, the way she does when she doesn’t want to show it.  I can hardly bring myself to look in her eyes, so I focus on her hands.

Finally, like pulling open a vise, I force my mouth to move.  Just say it.

“I… think I might… be going off the derech.”

Her hands tighten slightly.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well… I’ve been having this issue…” I say.

And as I talk, the vise loosens, and it comes pouring out.  All the thoughts I’ve been having about science and religion.  Noah’s Ark, evolution, the age of the universe… all the doubts about my beliefs that have haunted me over the last year or so.  Doubts that started as small tiny questions shoved back down into my subconscious.  The harder I pushed, though, the more energy they seemed to generate, like springs, ready to jump the moment pressure is released.

And now, in front of my wife, they are bouncing all over, out of my head, out of my mouth, and into the world.  Finally.

I finish.  She looks at me, and I see her hands are looser.  Her face calmer.  I have no idea why.

“Elad… have you read anything about this?”

“I mean… yeah.  The Rebbe’s letters about it, and everything by Chabad writers I could get my hands on.  It didn’t work.”

“What about things that aren’t from Chabad’s perspective?”

“Well…”

And for some reason I had this strong resistance in me.  Why go that route?  The whole way I came was through Chabad.  Any other route would be just like going off the derech because it would mean leaving the route I had started upon.  How was that any different than going off the derech?

“You can’t say you’re leaving your faith if you haven’t studied your faith.  Especially the issues that trouble you.”

Those words hit me very hard.  A deeper truth lies beneath them.

But for now, I simply realized that she was right: How was I so open to making such a leap without really examining belief system inside and out?

A Few Days Later

I’m walking by the bookcase.  I point to a book I haven’t noticed before.

“Rivka, what is this book?  Torah Umadda?  I’ve never noticed it before.”

My wife looks at me with excitement.

“My brother left that with us years ago.  This is about exactly what’s bothering you.  You should read it.”

So I pick it up, I lay down on the couch, and open it up.

And I realize that God put this book in my hands.

A Year Later

“My rabbi thinks you’re going off the derech.”

I’m talking to a friend of mine who has also been a fan of my writing for a while.  He’s gone through a lot of the same stuff as me.  Chabad yeshiva, moving to Crown Heights, questioning it all but sticking to it.

This friend has been in touch with me about my writing.  He has been inspired by the struggle I had been addressing regarding science and Judaism.  On that has led me to a larger change than I expected, one that completely shifted the paradigm by which I approached my beliefs.

Torah Umadda isn’t just about science, it is about an approach within Judaism that was vastly different than the one I had been taught earlier: one where Torah is informed by the world’s rich knowledge and vice versa.

In the past, I had been taught such mantras as “Science is true, but Torah is truth.”  And while I respect that vision, and sympathize with those who believe in it, the vision of Torah Umadda speaks more directly to my soul and mind.

In one short year, I have found myself publicly disagreeing with people and leaders in the Jewish world who I have never expected to in the past.

And, perhaps most importantly, I found myself encouraging others to deeply examine their Jewish beliefs as I had.  I had seen the dark road that ignoring our subconscious doubts can take us down.  I didn’t want anyone else to have that experience.

And that, I believe, is what has led my friend’s rabbi to think I was going off the path.

“Well, he just sees a progression. He sees you going from solid belief to a more porous one.  So he thinks the next step is to leave Judaism.”

I can’t help but laugh to myself a bit.  This belief of mine feels more real, alive, and logical than it ever had.

But there is something in what this rabbi said to my friend that sticks inside me.  Something I can’t shake, despite my laughter and confidence.

There is a truth, a kernel of reality, in his words that I can’t ignore.

Present Day

It hits me.

It’s a year later, and this road has gone from one that was simply inspiring and exciting (just as when I started my road to baal teshuva-dom), to normal and part of every day life.

I’m not sure where it hit me from.  There is no story other than my subconscious suddenly talking to me consciously.  I’m sure it has something to do with my choice to start surrounding myself with similar Jews, and my increased interactions with Jews who don’t fit in in their own ways.  I’m sure it’s also the rising voices about how “dangerous” my writing has become.

And, maybe, also that things have been harder in some ways I didn’t expect.

There are so many ingredients that lead to our subconscious finally speaking to us.  What matters more is that we listen.

Here’s what it told me: “You might go off the derech.”

It was a whisper when it came out, but it hit me like a storm.  As true a statement as I had ever heard from myself.

I might go off the derech.  Yes.

My mind immediately drifted to a passage I had read in Torah Umadda, one that had left an indelible mark on my vision of Judaism since the moment it inhabited my thoughts.

In it, the writer, Rabbi Norman Lamm, refers to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, father of the “Torah Im Derech Eretz” movement (a precursor to modern-day Torah Umadda), as well as Rav Kook, who had a mystical take on Torah Umadda.  But they both shared something very essential, he tells us:

“Hirsch’s coexistence of Torah and [modern] Wisdom is not easily attained, Kook’s even less so. Tension is an indispensable concomitant of the interface between two disparate cultures of any variety.  Anxiety and doubt and perplexity are necessary side-reactions of the encounter.  Both Hirsch and Kook recognized this phenomenon, and both thought the benefits worth the mental anguish…”

Lamm continues:

“He who enters into this dialogue of Torah and Wisdom must tremble at the risks inherent in it, even while acknowledging that it is his duty to undertake it.  Many religious casualties have already resulted from this historic program of Torah Umadda, and there are more yet to come.”

No words in any book have expressed my experience over the last two years more accurately.

But what moves me now, as I reread the words, is not so much their description of my current state, but the way they freed me from my inner shackles when I first read them two years ago.

Two Years Ago: Revisited

I’m reading the words, and a wave of relief flows over me.  I have permission.  Permission to not believe.

Until this moment, I’ve been terrified.  Terrified that I would lose my religion… it scared me so much to even think of it.

And so, ironically, I didn’t examine it.  Because examining it might lead to me discovering that I was right… that my religion was false… that I had been fooled all this time.  This terror had gripped me so strongly that holding Judaism in my grasp had become more important than honestly engaging with it.

And now, this book – this passage – it’s saying something much deeper than even its own philosophy.  Something that goes beyond Torah Umadda, beyond Judaism, beyond terror.

It’s saying that a commitment to inner truth, the voice of God whispering within, is more important than anything.  And when our religion becomes more important than truth, it means that our religion has become more important than God.

And part of that is saying, “Yes, explorations into truth, into questioning my own reality, into challenging those above me and around me, will increase my chances of leaving this religion.  But that is the price of commitment to truth.  Of commitment to God.  One does not discover treasure without risking his life.”

In those passages, Norman Lamm hasn’t chided me for questioning… he is encouraging me.  And more than any of the philosophy of the book, I know that this encouragement has changed me.

I know that from now on, I will always allow myself the possibility of leaving.  Because I know, deep inside me, that it was this terror of leaving that had actually led me down this dark road of inner denial.  Denial of myself.  Denial of God.

I might go off the derech.  But if I do, it will be because I am more committed to God, not less.

Back To The Present

I look around now at Jewish publications wringing their hands over continuity.  I look at parents whose priority is making sure their kids don’t leave the (their) derech.  I look at others I know who have gone on my journey but have either chosen to dig deeper into their fears, or to leave altogether.  I look at the rabbi my friend had spoken to, so convinced I was less committed to my religion, so unknowing about my commitment to God.

All of these people, in my opinion, have one thing in common: the terror.  The denial of inner truth.

There are things that such people have in common: a defensiveness when their religious views are questioned by others, seeing people like me that openly struggle with our beliefs as a threat, an emotional insistence that there must only be one true derech in Judaism despite all evidence to the contrary… and much more.

(It is such people that even came up with an idea of “the derech,” as if a belief system as complex as Judaism could be so simplistic to have one path that we all follow.)

None of this has to do with the path a person has chosen.  It invades the minds of Chabadniks just as much as Satmars, Modern Orthodox, Reform, and even nonbelievers.

What unites them isn’t their outward appearance or their conscious beliefs. It is their subconscious terror of losing their religion.

This is how quantitative Judaism has trumped qualitative Judaism, where we measure our success as a people by numbers instead of experience.

The irony, and the tragedy, of all this is that it will have the same effect it had on me, but on a larger scale: a digging in of the heels until some break, or the joy of Judaism is so squashed that future generations will find a way to escape.

The answer is in Lamm’s eternally true words.  We must welcome “anxiety and doubt and perplexity” into our spiritual world.  Instead of trying to rid ourselves of it, as if Moshiach has come, we must embrace our fear of losing Judaism.  It should be an inherent part of our belief system, not something to be squashed but something to indicate how far we are willing to plumb the depths of our subconscious doubts in order to come out with a consciously lived belief system.

God comes first, religion second.  Terror of losing religion is much worse than fear of losing God.

This is how our culture will break free from its sectarianism.  It’s how parents will be able to create a Judaism that their children will not feel beholden to but embraced by.  It’s how we will build a vibrant, beautiful future.

What is this “how” I’m referring to specifically?

Saying, “I might go off the derech.”

And being proud of it.

Because you know it means a commitment that transcends culture and enters into our very souls, straight up to the eternal light of God’s truth.

 

“Do not think our time so dark and helpless, friend; it is only nervous and uncertain, as a woman in childbirth. But better the anxiety that prevails in the house of a woman about to give birth, than the freedom from anxiety, but also from hope and joy, in the house of the barren one.”

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch