How Taoism Taught Me To Love Torah. Twice.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a politician. I had been the president of my debate team in high school, had won a trophy in every single competition we had gone to senior year, and had a huge ego.

When I was even younger, reading Ender’s Game so deeply inspired me that I had a thought: what if I could take over the world?

I literally read books that I thought would help me do that.  I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I read biographies of great leaders like Theodore Roosevelt.  I wanted to be Violet much more than Ender, because Violet had a dream of creating a better world and through her intelligence alone was able to use an alter-ego to create so much power that she did just that.

And then I went to college, with the goal to be a politician, because those dreams of taking over the world, those grandiose delusions, had turned into whatever the hell I thought being a politician meant.  I wasn’t really sure exactly what they did mean, all I knew was that I felt really deeply about many issues and that I wanted to make a huge impact.

And then I read this book in a class I was taking.  It was called The Human Event.  It was a grand class for honors students, perfectly designed for our grandiose dreams, and the idea was to imagine humanity as this overarching dream, a creation that we had created ourselves, and looking at it from the beginning to today.  A whole year of seeing the Human Event come to life.

The book that I read was one of the earlier ones.  One of the ancient ones.  It was called the Tao te Ching.  Most people estimate that it was written around 500 BCE.  We assume that they were written by a man named Lao Tzu, but it is impossible to truly know its origins.  All we know is that this little pamphlet of collected poems was the foundation for an entire philosophy of life and reality that is still studied today.

At the time, I had been indoctrinated and excited by, what I realized later, was a western mindset.  One that saw the world as something meant to be conquered.  Something where we are in separation from the reality outside of us, and are thus empowered to break it, change it, turn it into what we want to make it into.

It was what many people tend to describe as a secular mindset, but the truth is that it is just as real, perhaps more real, in Christian thinking, Muslim thinking, and, it could be argued, modern Jewish thinking.  Some people believe its roots lay in Greek and Roman philosophy and culture, approaches to life that were built off of the potential greatness of man.

The Tao te Ching was like a bomb going off in my life.  It was the first time I had ever experienced a mindset that was radically different than my own.  For so long (at that time it was my entire life), I thought that the way I was thinking, the things I had learned, were all there was to the world.  It’s hard to imagine a different reality when you are only fed one.  And like most cultures, the Western world tends to think it is all there is, and so it takes something ancient and beautiful and outside to shatter that reality.  At least, for me that’s what did it.

The Tao te Ching teaches that nothing is not meant to be, and that our job is not to subjugate the world but to live in harmony with its reality.  It teaches that opposites are not in opposition (as our language almost explicitly tells us), but are rather two halves of an equally contained reality.  To try to destroy one half would mean to destroy the other.  You can’t have light without dark.  You can’t have life without death.  You can’t have something without nothing.

And so, when we choose to subjugate or change through force, or erase that which surrounds us, we are actually just living in disharmony.  We are not so strong.  We are not so great.  We are great only because we are attached to all that is.  We are not separate from reality, and so are unable to subjugate it.  Rather, we are one with it, and so must learn how to look inwards and adapt ourselves to it so that whatever we do shape or create comes from the totality of reality.

Reading these ideas was like taking a drug, but one that lasted forever.  One moment life is what we think it is. Then it something completely different.

I had never been into religion, even though I had always been obsessed with spiritual ideas.  When I was young, I was scared out of my mind about death. I would run out of my room at night because I had panic attacks imagining what non-being would be like.  I would ask my parents to help, but they didn’t have many answers (who really does?).

I was curious what eternity really looked like. I was curious how the universe could even exist. Existence made no sense at all to me.  And nothing seemed to have any answers.

Then I read this little book. And everything changed.

Suddenly, I was reading this idea that nothingness is one with existence, because how could you have one without the other?  And that death was as natural as life.

It didn’t give me complete solace, but it was the first time in my life that I found answers that actually made sense.  To find ideas that actually make sense regarding death and existence is no small feat for anyone, let alone a person who has spent most of his life unable to sleep because these questions caused him such severe anxiety that he would often jump out of bed because he couldn’t breathe.

It was, thus, the road that led me towards realizing that spirituality is, perhaps, the only true path to discovering the answers to life’s most pressing questions.  The kinds that are so big that science will never discover since science itself exists within the systems of reality that spirituality rises above.  The kinds that are so beyond logic that Western philosophy, for all its deep awe-inspiring thinking, cannot and will not wrap its logic around.

It was Eastern religion, then, that opened the spiritual side of myself.  It was what led me to, years later, pick up a book called “Jewish Mysticism for Dummies” that made me realize Judaism itself shared a lot of the same ideas that Taoism and other Eastern religions hold.  It was what led me to walk into a Chabad house and hear how the rabbi’s ideas were deeper than I had ever imagined Judaism to be.  It was the reason I trusted that there was a plan for me when I decided to put aside my plans and move to Israel to study Judaism at a yeshiva.

And it is the reason I chose to become an orthodox Jew.

——

It’s more than a decade since I walked into the Chabad house that changed my life and started me on the road to orthodoxy.

So much has happened in the meantime.  I got married. I had kids. I moved to Israel. I moved to New York. I started a career.  I became a writer. I tried hard to fit into my community in Brooklyn. I failed. I created a new identity as a mix between modern orthodox and Hasidic.  I started a creative community.  I joined an activist group.

And somewhere along the way, I became traumatized.  It was that clash of religion and culture, that pain of realizing that the community I had been sold didn’t exist.

I’m talking to my wife, Rivka, and I’m telling her about all this, about the trauma, and how I have begun to realize that there is a sort of collateral damage that has come with it.

“I just… I thought I wasn’t studying Torah because there was something wrong with me, because I was too lazy or wasn’t excited enough about it or something.”

She nods.  She knows what this is like because she’s had her own issues since our painful experiences in our community.  She seems to know what’s coming.

“Ever since I named this idea of trauma, I feel like something has opened up for me,” I say.

And it’s true.  Just two months ago, I had finally admitted to myself that one experience in my community in particular was traumatic, and it seems like since then so much has come out.  I’ve started to understand why I’ve stopped crying (and, mercifully, this has opened me up to more moments of crying), how anger was a defense mechanism I was clinging to, and so much more.  All in two months.  The power of admitting to trauma is unbelievable.

But this latest one is the latest revelation, and it feels big.

“I’m pretty sure that part of the reason I’ve been having trouble studying Torah is the trauma.  I can’t pick up a book without feeling some level of frustration or anger or, even if I’m interested, I can’t help but examine it distrustfully, like it’s suspicious.”

Rivka nods.  She reminds me of how she has struggled with simply walking on Kingston Avenue, the main street in the Hasidic neighborhood we live in.  

“I guess I just didn’t want to admit it.  I didn’t want to think that people could have power over my interest in or live for Torah.  Jews, not Judaism, right?  But I guess with this sort of thing, it’s not always logical.  Or, maybe there’s a sort of painful logic: if I can’t trust them, then how can I trust the Torah that they think is so great?”

Again, she nods sympathetically, quiet for the most part.  She listens more to my thoughts, and then after I have unloaded everything, and I’m feeling better but also lost, because what do I do with this information? she finally just says a few words.  But as is usual for her, they contain so much.

“When was the last time you read something about Taoism?”

I look up in surprise.  My wife, who is so passionate about Judaism, and who mainly just knows about my past love for Eastern religion is suddenly suggesting Taoism as a way to address my issues with Torah study?

Finally, I answer, “Wow. I don’t know. Maybe since I became orthodox.”

“Well, think about it,” she says, “Don’t you think it makes sense to tap back into that? It’s why you became religious. And it doesn’t’ have all the baggage Torah does.  None of the painful associations.  Maybe it’ll help you.”

And suddenly, a door that had been shut flew wide open.

——

I ordered the Tao te Ching right after talking with Rivka.  I added a book by Alan Watts, my favorite spiritual teacher before I walked down the orthodox road.  It had been so long since I had read these books that the only copies I owned were still in my parents’ home.

When they arrived, I opened the Tao te Ching tentatively.  I was afraid about what I would find. Would all the other Jewish learning I had done make it seem elementary?  What if I liked it more than my Jewish studies?  What if, worst of all, it made me feel nothing and my spirituality was truly dead?

The concerns of a spiritually blocked soul, one who has been thirsting for meaning and identity and connection to something higher and deeper than himself.

And so, of course, none of these things happened.

What did happen was what I can only describe as a spiritual bath.  Like letting myself sink into the warm pool of beauty, truth, and unspeakable depths of reality that I had so missed.

The power of Judaism is that it tries to take everything it believes and turn it into a way of life.  It pervades everything.  How you eat, dress, think, speak, the friends you make, where your kids go to school, how you create art, what you do for 24 hours every week, where you live.

To do this is beyond words in its power.  It turns the things we believe into action, into life.

It is this all-encompassing power, though, that can make the reality we hold in our hands so hard to see sometimes, especially when things like trauma or just pain start to trickle in through the pores of this organism.  It is all one, and so when one area of the body is infected, every part feels it.

Studying Taoism, then, was an opportunity for me to step outside of that system and see why I had cared to invest so much of myself in the first place.  Or at the very least, why I had bothered to even start believing in anything beyond agnosticism.

It was like I had removed the static of life, and was able to finally focus on the one reality that Taoism had first connected me to, the one that had nothing to do with whether my community accepted me, or how much I can make science fit with Torah, or politics, or abusers, or or or or…

It was, quite simply, that there is something more.  Something beyond what I see, what I hear, what I think, what I feel.

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image with an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can’t know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.”

(Tao te Ching, Chapter 14)

In other words, this thing that used to keep me up all night, the thing that I cared about before ever concerning myself with communal issues and discussions, the thing that, as much it is infused in all of our lives, is also apart from them, above them, beyond them.

A depth of truth that was unsullied by even the deepest evil.  Even the worst hypocrisy.  A reality that can’t be tarnished because it is beyond evil and hypocrisy.

This.  This was what I had been looking for when I was young, when death gave me panic attacks and I thought my job was to conquer the world.

And now, older, looking back on a world that was conquering me to the point where I could not even the holy words of its originators, I realized I needed that again.

——

It’s a few weeks later.  I’m sitting in my living room, laying down on my couch after Shabbat lunch.  I’m reading a science fiction novel, my favorite thing to read on Shabbat, which has its own ability to take me into existential realms I could not exist in otherwise.

But I am a bit bored.  It’s been an hour or two.  I want something else.

I look lazily at the bookcase.

Something catches my eye.

The translated works of Rav Kook.

I take it out.  I open it up.  I start reading.

And I love it.

For the first time in years, I am reading Torah without the doubts, the ravaging frustration and anger, the suspicion.  Just seeing the words, without the distractions.

Feeling the unfeelable. Seeing the unseen. Hearing the unheard.

God. The Tao. Meaning. Reality.

Whatever it is, the unknowable.

All thanks to Rivka.  All thanks to her being able to see beyond the doubts others would put in my head, the guilt they’d throw at me, the judgment.  Just a pure ability to see what I needed.

I was back.

And it was beautiful.