Why I Stayed Orthodox

The Magician

It was like magic being in that class.

The rabbi was the magician, and we were the audience rapt in attention, wondering whether it was all a trick or if what we were seeing was actually real.

He was one of the many kiruv rabbis in in Jerusalem who were, in their own ways, celebrities.  For those of us who had come to Jerusalem looking specifically for spiritual answers, going to classes like his was like drinking from a cool, clear spring after years of walking through a desert.  We had come to Jerusalem on our own pilgrimages, each with our own stories, but all looking for that spring.  All coming from places that were parched for more of God and less of the secular world that had been missing what we had spent our lives searching for.

I know that was my story.  One where I had always hoped to actually find a place where people didn’t just talk about spirituality deeply, but who had answers that resonated as truth.  Too often, religion in America had felt like a trap for the un-thinking whereas we were specifically looking for people who could force us to think, force us to evaluate life and death and the meaning of it all.

That was this teacher.  He offered it all to us.  Offered the answers, clearly and beautifully laid out.  Done with charisma and a level of engagement most of us had never experienced in our lives of academic learning.

We’d spend hours in those classes.  And even when they were over, we’d want to stay longer.  And when we did finally walk out, it would be in a daze.

Since then, I’ve often told people that this person was the reason I chose to become orthodox.  And it was true: it was going to that class that had pushed me from saying I was just going on a grand adventure to explore spirituality to saying, “My God, this is truth.”

It was the way he made it sound almost inarguable.  The way things like Gematria (a numerology system that uses the Hebrew letters of the Torah to correspond with numbers and then reveal truths hidden within it) worked out so perfectly.  The way each Torah lesson was something that deeply resonated on a personal level, one that felt deeper than any lessons I had ever learned before.

It was also something about the timing.  I had arrived to Israel a bit early, during the summer break of my yeshiva, since I had used Birthright also as a method to get a free flight to Israel.  So I had a lot of time to go to this class that took up hours of my life.  I was beyond grateful, and it felt like God had intervened in my life to make sure that I would enter yeshiva with a commitment to becoming orthodox.

And then his class ended, and yeshiva began.

Yeshiva

Yeshiva took me time to adjust to.  I was deeply unsure if I wanted to be going to a place to so emphasized a Chabad perspective, and was concerned I’d miss out on the other Jewish disciplines, especially since I had seen how much beauty there existed beyond Chabad.

But slowly, and after checking out other yeshivas that scared me more than excited me (One yeshiva told me they’d try and get me married as soon as possible. Another seemed exciting until they asked me to wait for the rosh yeshiva on their terrace, where I overheard a conversation where a teacher was telling a student, with a voice that sounded gleeful, that when the Messiah comes, the gentiles will be hanging off the tztitis strings of Jews and be their slaves. I walked out without saying a word.),  I decided to just try and stick with my yeshiva.  It taught Chassidus, and that was why I had flown across the world.  It was also why I had chosen to become orthodox.

But this learning was, while beautiful and amazing, not magical.  It excited and interested me, and it reminded me of why I had chosen this path, but it couldn’t match the summer class I had taken.

Even worse was the Gemora (Talmud) learning.  So dry, so boring.  And Halacha (Jewish law), while useful, was as dry as I imagined law school would have been.  I rebelled against my parents wishes for me to go to a place like law school only to end up doing it anyway.

But there were things that still excited and interested me.  The farbrengens, Hasidic gatherings where we’d eat and drink ourselves into a drunken tizzy as we spoke about deep concepts, momentarily reminded me why this was all worth it, why it was so fun, and ultimately where I wanted to take my life.

But ultimately, I was not a great student.  I had hoped for more magic, and so when they didn’t deliver, I tended to stick with the classes that excited me, and spent the rest of the time either going off on writing adventures for my first gig as a journalist or watching Lost.

And yet, despite all these issues, I found myself slowly taking on more and more of the actual orthodox lifestyle.  I started wearing tzitzis (the ritual cloth with fringes that you see waving around from the waist of most orthodox men), studying Hasidus in my free time, wearing a kippah, and even eventually cutting off my dreadlocks.

Soon, even my writing was starting to be more and more about the Jewish concepts I was learning, and I couldn’t help but watch Lost without thinking about how it connected to Hasidus and Kaballah.

All of this was less a conscious decision and more a natural outcome of the experience of yeshiva.  As much as I had to drag myself to each class, I found myself drawn more and more to the truth I felt I was discovering in them.  And as much as the drier classes bored me to tears, I’d always come away with a new practical application of what it meant to live this orthodox life (you can move electrical appliances on Shabbat if you need to, here’s how to buy the things you need for Sukkot, here’s the prayer you say after you ummm, go to the bathroom).

And then there were the teachers themselves.  In them, I could see how the practical application of halacha (Jewish law) combined with the beautiful mystical ideas I so loved.  The way they treated us with such care and dignity.  The way each one was unique, different in their own ways (One strict, pushing us always to focus to “read the words!” instead of throwing in our own interpretations; another hilarious, turning his class into half improv comedy, half joyous learning; another sweet and thoughtful, always willing to have a private chat about personal struggles, guiding us with empathy), but still all somehow motivated by this same philosophy. 

And then yeshiva ended, and life began.

Life

Life afterwards was a messy affair.  A rush to get married.  A move to Israel.  A child.  A job fours away by bus so we and our baby wouldn’t go hungry.  A move back to America, to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where we ended up living in our first real diaspora Jewish community.

And while there were immense bumps along the way, it was only when we had to deal with a community that we truly faced a test of our faith.  The way it turned on us when we didn’t abide by its standards.  The way we felt like a mutual breakup was happening as we spoke out about politics.

But it wasn’t just that.  It was that having these problems exposed us to deeper issues that concerned us.  And soon, I found myself questioning everything, even the magician.

The more I thought about it, and the more I digested my time afterwards with him, the more I realized that as true as any of the experiences I may have had with him may have been, he reminded me far too much of the dangerous “guru” leaders I had seen in my community.  The kinds who created an aura around themselves. Who, purposefully or not, tried to send the message that they had a special access to the divine, and without them, we were lost.  And if we dared question them, we’d have them and their fanatic followers to deal with.

I had seen it up close, and in retrospect I realized that I had once been one of those followers as well.

And so, along with life came a breakage with the magician, and a choice to move on towards a Judaism that did not depend on the shaky foundations of one fallible man.

And then one life ended, and another began.

Staying Orthodox

The question has stayed with me since that day I decided to move on: was staying orthodox, then, a mistake?  Was it a choice made out of a fear of breaking outside of the shell of the life I had created?

In other words, if the man who had convinced me that orthodoxy was “true” was no longer someone I trusted, then why on earth would I stay orthodox?

And yet, somehow, this question has never really been an issue for me.  Not when it comes to communal issues, or heroes of mine falling.  The times I had crises of faith had nothing to do with the people around me, and everything to do with questions about the particular path of Judaism I had chosen, which, for example, rejected scientifically proven truths when they were in conflict with traditional interpretations of Jewish scripture.  That sort of crisis led me to embracing a different form of orthodoxy, but it didn’t lead me to leaving orthodoxy.  In fact, it ultimately led to my feeling even more grounded, even more committed to orthodoxy, since it had become my orthodoxy.  My beliefs, but founded on the larger truths that I felt connected all forms of Judaism.

Why, why did the magician not have the hold he had on me in Jerusalem?  Why had my loss of trust in him not have any effect on my connection to Judaism?  It still requires a huge leap of faith to jump into orthodoxy.  There is no proof, no evidence that will truly convince anyone.  The magician’s classes were what caused my leap.  But if they were, then wouldn’t that mean that I had leaped in the wrong direction?

Every time I ask myself this question, the answer comes to my mind as quickly as the question itself.

The magician may have convinced me to be orthodox in a moment.  But it was the slow, unsteady, confusing, and difficult year of yeshiva that kept me invested in my beliefs.

It was the learning.  The way we weren’t told to just accept something from on high, but to struggle with our questions, to challenge our rabbis, to think for ourselves.  To work those questions so deep into our minds that eventually their answers would live with us as deeply as the questions themselves.  That ability to focus on questions deeply, then, is what allowed me the skills, and the permission, to then look at other forms of orthodoxy when I could no longer accept some of the things I once took for granted as a believer.

It was the rabbis.  The way they lived as examples of orthodoxy.  Not dazzling us, or at least not trying to dazzle us, but to show what it meant to live a humble, committed life of religious observance.  They were not magicians: they were people.  People who may have seemed larger than life in their own ways, but who held out the promise that if we committed ourselves to learning and self-growth, we could rise even higher than them.

It was the practical.  It was the mystical.  It was the way the two intertwined.  The way I was moved not to just be inspired and moved by what was around me, but to learn that wearing something, eating differently, saying a few words before and after I ate, and all the other practical changes I was going through were mixed up with, were the living expression of, all the powerful and mystical experiences I had in my life.  That there was a connection between the two was very hard for me to see, but the more I embraced the practical, the easier it became.  It was in the living of it that I saw it.

In the context of all these reasons for staying orthodox, the reason I chose orthodox Judaism as a path suddenly feels virtually inconsequential.  A blip in a much bigger story that was likely heading in that direction anyway.  What “made me orthodox,” that one moment when I told myself, “Okay, this is truth, this is the life I want to live,” matters, ultimately, much less than why we choose to stay the course.  The story of staying orthodox is where the truth lies for those who are pursuing this path, and for those who think it their duty to inculcate others with the belief.

Unfortunately, our world expects stories of flashes of inspiration, moments where, bam, everything changed for us.  Maybe because we hope inside of ourselves that this means we could change that quickly, that easily.  Maybe because it seems more dramatic.  Maybe because people think in black and white instead of grays, hoping for full transformation instead of gradual growth.

Either way, these narratives may fill some sort of hole in our hearts, but the hole will ultimately leak.  Because the answers don’t lie with magicians. They lie with those who teach us how to bring the magic out from within ourselves.