We Need Jewish Nuns And Monks

Note that some names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

I have a thing about monastic communities: monks and nuns. A fantasy of their lives runs through my mind when I want to transcend my own life—the confusion, the focus on external success, the fear of what will happen in the future to someone like me, who never wanted a spouse or offspring.

The images I create are vague, except for the scene at a carved wooden table, windows open to receive a calming breeze. My fellow monastics and I are sitting in plush, comfortable chairs, teasing each other as we explore the biggest, most mind-bending questions: who we are; who we might become; how we fit into the larger scheme of truth and existence; phenomena or wisdom that might transcend us entirely, because they’re so far beyond our minds and hearts.

It’s deep but gloriously fun. We laugh often and pass around delicious morsels that we chew slowly as we think, enveloping ourselves in a rich, always-growing tapestry of ideas, flavors, and a true communion of souls.

Several years ago, my infatuation with the notion of a spiritual family who lives, learns, and seeks transcendent meaning together brought me to a community of cloistered Roman Catholic nuns in suburban Massachusetts. They host a biannual weekend event for women who are considering joining their group. Special programming introduces prospects to the rhythms of the life and gives the nuns a sense for these potential newcomers.

That February, four visitors joined me to check out monastery life. They ranged in age from mid-20s to late 30s and were surprisingly accomplished on the whole, including a teacher on leave from Stanford Law School and a young businesswoman from Japan. All were likeable and pleasant. They were doing just fine in “the world” by most people’s standards, but they were seeking something different. The 50 current sisters filled a full age spectrum from a few nonagenarians to several in their 30s and 40s. They were mostly white, with a sprinkling of East Asians, South Asians, and Latinas. Two women in their 20s were in an intermediate phase, living with the community to get a sense for fit.

Whatever I was expecting, these nuns were not it. There was no deep spiritual discussion; in fact, the sisters here were part of a silent order that shunned speaking except when necessary for work. And work they did: making chocolates that they sold but didn’t eat because they followed ascetic diets, tending their many acres of land and their animals, cooking, cleaning… somehow, I didn’t take their need to support themselves and maintain their grounds into account. Did I think they had gardeners, cooks, and cleaning staff so they could focus on their inner spiritual worlds? Not directly—my mind hadn’t reached that far. But what I saw certainly didn’t match my dreams.

Actually, the nuns didn’t do much physical work beyond cooking and cleaning that weekend; they were focused on us prospects. There was free talking all around—a treat for them—because they wanted to get to know their visitors. Many of the women I met were wonderful characters. The tall, blue-eyed, piercingly intelligent, 65-ish Mother Superior figured out my true story—that I was Jewish but curious about monastic life—as soon as I started fumbling with her questions about my Catholicism. To her amazing credit, she decided to let me stay and not take communion: I simply bowed to the priest as I passed by him, and he had been briefed about my presence.

At a workshop where the nuns shared their stories, the Mother Superior told us she would have loved to attend medical school but felt an “unavoidable call from God” to become a nun. “I kept trying to push it away, but it kept coming back, and finally I realized: I was stuck.”

Everyone but me laughed. I’d thought people became nuns because they wanted to, because it gave them a chance to pursue their spiritual passions with others who shared their vision. A few fit that bill, like the friendly, talkative Sister Madeline, now a nun in late middle age, once a party-loving immigrant to Boston from Ireland. “I found I had a way with God,” she explained: a way that brought her peace that had eluded her as she hung out in bars and danced, looking for fun and easy connection with others. She has never questioned her choice, which feels as natural as the moon coming out at night.

Janet was a similarly happy soul who told us, laughing: “One thing I always knew I didn’t want is a husband.” She spoke with deep warmth about her family of nuns and especially appreciated her unique role: she was not technically a nun and did not share the sisters’ living quarters, but she lived elsewhere on the monastery grounds and cared for the guesthouse as a lay associate. She was free to come and go as she pleased, which allowed her to shop and run errands for the group, and she felt an intimate connection with the sisters.

But most spoke of a “call”—unwanted but unrelenting—that forced them to give up career dreams and the chance for husbands and children. One sweet-faced middle-aged nun told me she was just coming out of a period of intense mourning for the offspring she’d never had: “I accept it now and know I made the right decision, but it was hard.”

These nuns certainly did spend time with spiritual pursuits—the part that drew me—but the nature of it did not speak to me at all. They pray together several times a day, beginning at 3:20 a.m., and follow a very particular liturgy. They sing a lot, but it’s subdued, and struck me as having an air of sadness.

When they’re not in organized prayer, they’re trying to contemplate the divine in more private ways. There was none of my favorite thing: unpacking spiritual ideas as a group, sharing individual takes on issues to help everyone grow. And there certainly wasn’t any of my real favorite thing, eating delicious treats, because the nuns’ diet is utilitarian and ascetic; they are not meant to savor their food. Our weekend was an exception—we were told many times that the tasty ziti and ice cream dinner and the bowls full of granola bars represented a major departure from the usual way. They do it as an act of hospitality: it’s holy to make guests feel comfortable.

The order I visited is particularly severe: cloistered and silent. Some Roman Catholic nuns and monks fit this mold, spending their days in organized prayer and chores, rarely speaking or leaving their property except to handle logistics. Others are much more open, with work out in “the world” and relatively free communication within the community and beyond it. Teaching and nursing are common fields for nuns from these orders.

Even so, I realized early on that no form of Catholic monastery life would speak to me. It was all so… Christian. I know that sounds nuts. Of course it was Christian; what did I expect? I guess I wasn’t engaging with the intensity of it, the fact that Jesus would literally be everywhere and everything—not just an interest, but life itself.

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When exiting the church, we passed by a large crucifix, and all the nuns and potential nuns would cross themselves with true feeling and a bit of flourish. I couldn’t bring myself to follow suit. That was a shock: I’m big on checking out all kinds of spiritual communities, participating as best I can—meditating, praying, chanting, whatever—so I can have the full experience. But crossing myself seemed to go beyond some kind of limit. I froze and kind of slunk by the crucifix, hoping no one was focusing on me. I like to see myself as a citizen of the universe, open to everything and anyone—but, in the end, in some key ways, I guess I’m a Jew.

In one of the workshops, we had a whole discussion about “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” It reminded me of a line people had chanted in church about turning your other cheek towards someone who hits you, letting him strike you again. Apparently, this was big in Catholic theology: the glory and worthiness of human suffering, which allows people to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ own pain. This seemed key to the monastic experience here: the sadness I often perceived, the sense many women had that they’d given up glorious dreams because a “call from God” had forced them here.

I left this experience feeling little connection to the underlying theology, but the basic concept of a group of adults living together, sharing spiritual ideas, and growing together still grabs me. I’d want it to be a center of happiness and pleasure. To me, that’s key to spirituality: basking in the joys of life and enthusiastically exploring the meaning within it.

Judaism would be an ideal underpinning for one of these communities. This wouldn’t be a place where those who would love to have a spouse and children feel a call and sadly give them up. Those who want those things and find them should have them. In my experience, Judaism does not extol asceticism, poverty, or suffering (except in small, temporary doses, like on fast days). It is, in large part, about loving life and reveling in intellectual pursuits.

When I lived among Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher Hasidim, my focus was the teenage girls who had grown up Hasidic. But since I hoped to make some friends my own age, I got to know some of the students at Machon Chana, a school for adult women from secular backgrounds who want to learn about Orthodox Judaism and Hasidic philosophy. The core group of them lived in a large house that had been converted into a dormitory. They studied together, enjoyed holiday parties together, and got into intense late-night discussions about God, the universe, themselves, and other intriguing tidbits.

I could see staying there forever—or, you know, as close to forever as possible. Turns out, though, that it’s only meant for students between the ages of 18 and 25 (older people can study there, but they can’t live in the dorm). Likewise the intense yeshiva and seminary experiences geared towards students from Orthodox Jewish backgrounds: students live and learn together for a time, and then they’re expected to move on.

Men can keep learning in community to some degree (women too, increasingly, though not nearly as deeply as the men in most cases). But that sense of a family-like band of spiritual journeyers is lost. People are expected to graduate and become adults—and adulthood is seen as having one universal path: marriage and children.

I know that Judaism places tremendous value on marriage and procreation. But, as I’ve discussed in a previous Hevria article, increasing numbers of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are remaining single. Perhaps communities like Machon Chana and residential yeshivas could spring up for adults of all ages. I do not advocate vows like in Roman Catholic communities. A person could leave any time for marriage, single life, whatever. I don’t imagine this option downgrading marriage as a choice—except for people who don’t actually want to marry. For them, how beautiful to have another possibility: one that might mesh more easily with their fundamental desires and vision for a fulfilling life than marriage and childrearing.

This would be a path for people who want it, for however long—and would include the chance to leave and then return. Personally, I can’t imagine residing in one of these communities throughout my life: I love living alone. But I could imagine staying there for periods, to recharge and experience some tight spiritual communion. Like many Roman Catholic communities that accept lay associates, Jewish monastic groups could embrace non-residential members who enjoy the group and want to contribute at a level that’s deep but not all-encompassing.

Needless to say, logistics would need to be ironed out. Maybe communities could support monastic homes financially, in exchange for certain services. When I lived in Crown Heights, I found that many of the teenagers were starved for interaction with adults who had time to listen and truly engage with their honest ideas and feelings. Their parents were often a bit overwhelmed since they had to juggle several children’s needs, and many teens didn’t feel comfortable with their teachers, who were swamped with large classes and other commitments. People in monastic groups could offer that service. They might also tutor community members in their areas of interest. There are many possibilities.

Perhaps Jewish monastics with relatively substantial financial resources (I am not advocating poverty here: I see no reason to empty personal financial coffers like Catholic religious communities) could pay rent instead of offering their services to the larger community; that would help support the monastic community economically. Some who are truly wealthy might well be willing to donate far beyond the level of rent: a few generous souls could make all the difference here. I could imagine some affluent retirees choosing this life, for instance—certainly not most, but a few quirky souls who have always sought but never found a true spiritual home.

By “monastic,” I simply mean: “person devoted to a spiritual family of adults who travel together on a religious path.” Specifics would probably vary depending on the community, but I’m picturing a situation where people are free to leave the grounds and go about town whenever they want, provided they’re home for key events and obligations. Some might maintain jobs outside of the community: that would certainly help the group financially. Practically speaking, it would make sense for these communities to be single sex: that would cut down on a host of potentially destabilizing factors. This would be necessary in strictly Orthodox communities. Beyond the Orthodox world, I’m open to anything that works for a given group of people.

Though the Roman Catholic monastic communities do not attract me, I enormously value and appreciate their presence. They suggest a powerful message: that there’s more than one road towards a spiritual life, and more than one definition of intimacy. When Orthodox Jews praise their lifestyle to others, they often focus on Judaism’s extolling of pleasure within marriage and the joys of childrearing. But some feel no attraction to that path, and others simply haven’t found their niche within it.

People are diverse, with a range of preferences and inclinations that could foster emotional health and spiritual passion if the right opportunities arise. A truly expansive and empathic religion can embrace some whose needs, desires, or sense of personal calling falls outside the typical roles. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and many others have been doing it for generations. Jews should do likewise, incorporating their own inclinations towards enjoyment, happiness, and embracing life experience.

When I lived in Crown Heights, I was researching a book, and the monolithic sense of adult life—marriage and children for everyone, and for those who don’t end up in that circumstance, a sense of empty marginalization—gave me a clear awareness that I would always remain an outsider. If there had been a monastic community in the sense I’ve described, I would have seen them as my people. When I think of all the single Orthodox Jews I’ve known—passionate, spiritual souls who keep seeking a comfortable niche—I know I’m not alone.