Not only was I raised in a “religious” home, but with my father serving for the last 50 years as the rabbi of our − at first fledging, and now, vibrant − Toronto community, I was given the endearing designation of being “the rabbi’s daughter.”
From an early age, I came to realize that this is how I was looked upon by members of our community − with all the expectations and implications that that entails. It was almost an unwritten rule that, no matter my age or that of my siblings, we would be seen as an example and product of the religious lifestyle that my father’s position represented. As such, from the outside at least, I think I always was conscious that our family life had to be viewed as the “idyllic” life associated with Torah observance.
After all, you wouldn’t want to go to a dentist whose teeth were crooked. Who would take lessons from a fitness instructor whose fatty cellulite bulged? Or, sessions with a marital therapist whose marriage you knew was in shambles, or a psychiatrist who couldn’t begin his day without this daily dose of tranquillizers!
And so, the rabbi who was “selling” a Jewish lifestyle that provided meaning, happiness and fulfillment, likewise needed to lead the perfect, ideal life − replete with model children (and teenagers) who obediently and respectfully followed his lead. He also had to have a blissful marriage of honeymoon quality. Otherwise, what subtle message was he sending about the Judaism that he was working so hard to promote?
I think a lot of us look at Judaism that way − as a means to provide us with the deeper − perhaps even the deepest − gratification, joy and purpose in our lives. We see it as a means to an end − much like daily exercise and healthful living. I’m willing to push myself, exercise and strain my muscles, and even deny myself some tasty pleasures − provided that I can visibly reap the benefits of a well-toned physique. With a religious lifestyle, though, we expect the benefits, like its many rules, to be all encompassing: fulfillment in every aspect of our emotional, spiritual and intellectual wellness.
Religious people, goes the assumption, don’t ever have any crisis of faith, any questions, or any doubts. They live placid, self-fulfilled lives, without any downs, devoid of any earth-shattering questions.
Despite its rigorous demands, who wouldn’t want to live even the most regimented life − as long as its promised return was happiness in every aspect of life: a meaningful communal life, harmonious family life and abundant personal fulfillment?
How peaceful. And how unrealistic.
Here’s a little confession. Ready? It’s not a perfect lifestyle.
Let me clarify, religious life does offer meaning and joy, close familial ties, improved relationships between parents and children, and so much more in so many areas of life.
But religious people also have questions. They too have crisis of faith, moments of feeling isolated and abandoned by G-d. Their lives are not a tranquil paradise, and to some degree they face some of the same issues of contemporary society.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I’ll bet that respected rabbi or lecturer that you’ve just heard who inspired you with his fiery passion, and ignited your soul with his powerful message, woke up this morning consumed with doubt as he faced some quandary in his own life. Yes, up there from the pulpit he sounds so confident, so full of faith, but behind the scenes, he deals with conflict and questions in his life too.
Does it make the rabbi, lecturer, (or author) a hypocrite? I don’t think so. I think, rather, it makes him a seeker; someone who thinks and someone who feels. And someone who is a seeker will not be satisfied with the status quo or with standard answers and beliefs, but will constantly be probing deeper and searching for more.
In fact, it is probably in his greatest moments of earnest searching and honesty that, that pulpit rabbi or inspirational lecturer or writer has come up with the ideas that you find so beautiful. Because he questioned. Because he felt disillusioned. Because he was angry at G-d and the society around him. And because he was alive with emotion. Not because he was comfortable with platitudes and accepted norms.
Non-thinkers, non-feelers and non-seekers, whether religious or not, will never have any questions or doubts, because they live one-dimensional lives. But Judaism is multi-dimensional and seekers will be bombarded with questions. They will question their level of commitment, their value system, their stereotypes, their realness, their goals, and the norms within their society. They will have questions about the suffering in our world – their own, their close ones and those around them.
So what then is the point of leading a religious lifestyle if it won’t stifle the onslaught of questions, the crisis of faith? If it will not squelch the soul’s tugging and yearnings? If it won’t provide me with a serene, self-righteous lifestyle? With a harmonious family life and with children who obediently follow my lead? In short, with easy, one-dimensional answers?
Imagine a woman in difficult childbirth saying, “I can’t wait for this to be over, so that I can finally relax again!” You would undoubtedly think that little did she know but her new experience would be full of everything but relaxation. Her nights would be filled with round-the-clock feedings; and her days consumed with caring for this little one. And of course, as her child grows older, the physical exertion would just grow to bigger, emotionally draining problems. Relaxation? Not as a parent!
A religious lifestyle similarly doesn’t afford us with the triteness of Great! Now I can finally relax! Becoming accustomed with the laws, making them a habitual part of your life, and even immersing yourself in its intellectual depths, also doesn’t ensure that from here on in, your life will run idyllically, all pain and conflicts erased.
Living a Torah life is about far more than ensuring the means to your greatest pleasure.
It is about being given the instruction to live a life that G-d wants of you. It is about being given the tools, the venue, the building blocks to search deeply within, to probe intensely, in order to deal with whatever crises or conflict you face.
It’s not about immediate gratification, or about experiencing the unruffled life of non-thinkers, non-feelers and non-seekers.
It is about seeking your potential and searching further yet − and those moments can be demanding, agonizing and anything but gratifying.
But ultimately, it is about knowing that there are answers.
And moreover, that there is a Knower.
Chana Weisberg is the author of four books including the best-selling Divine Whispers and the newly released Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman. She is associate editor for www.chabad.org, and an international lecturer on a wide array of issues. To date, she has lectured on three continents and in over fifty cities throughout the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.