Title: What Do You Really Want
By Rabbanit Shayna Goldberg
Published by Maggid, 180 pages
My first exposure to this book was from a student. She had been back and forth over the course of a year regarding a major life decision. As she started reading the book, she realized that she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
This vignette encapsules the strength of Rabbanit Shayna Goldberg’s book, What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life’s Crossroads and in Everyday Living. It contains a tremendous message that young people so rarely hear today: Listen to the voice inside yourself. While on the surface this may seem simplistic or self-evident, it is not. Those coming of age (as well as those older) are inundated with a cacophony of voices, as is explained in Part 1 (“The role of trust in personal decision making”). The key to decision making, the author explains, is to learn to clear away the external noise and static and hone in on one’s own authentic desires. This can only be done when we learn to trust ourselves: “When people are taught to trust themselves and their deepest and truest instincts…they almost always make better decisions and end up happier and more satisfied and fulfilled as a result.” In an age of social media, when so many think about how things will look and/or be perceived by others, the message of trusting oneself and accepting imperfection is a critical one.
In Part 2 (“Decision-making case scenarios”) Rabbanit Goldberg carries this idea into all stages of life. Using anecdotal examples from her own life as well as that of her students and friends, she explains how these principles can manifest when it comes to school choices, career options, aliyah, use of time, personal finance, therapy, religious observance, dating and more. I particularly enjoyed her treatment of dating and relationships. Her point that “part of deciding whom to marry is deciding which flaws we are willing to live with, which things on ‘the list’ we can compromise on, and which things we are okay giving up completely” is a critical one, especially today. Some will love the anecdotal style, while others may wish to hear only Rabbanit Goldberg’s voice.
Parts three and four, “Employing trust in everyday living” and “After the decision… now what?” are about feeling confident in our decisions and moving forward knowing we made the best decision we could. The focus is again on self-trust; if you know that you analyzed the available information and listened to your internal voice, then there is no need to regret, even if the outcome was not as desired. This is especially important, as she does not guarantee that “everything will work out.” She encourages, rather, accepting that life decisions involve risk and owning that the choices we make. Overall, she urges us to live with tension and even a dose of discomfort without fear. We can accept that life is complicated, even confusing, and that there are competing values that clash with each other and can’t always be mutually satisfied. We can trust ourselves to be capable of owning the decision that we make and of explaining them to ourselves, rather than fear confronting what they might reveal about who we really are.
Several elements of the book deserve mention. I love the unstated hashkafa underlying the book. At a time when some communities are turning more toward rabbinic guidance as all encompassing, a voice urging autonomy is a wonderful call and is a true reflection of a modern hashkafa. This does not detract from Rabbanit Goldberg’s clear support for seeking halachic guidance where needed but she considers that guidance as less all encompassing in personal, non-halachic matters.
Similarly, Rabbanit Goldberg models how she herself has dealt with many of the issues she discusses. In being vulnerable to her readers, she is showing that certainty does not exist even among those we hold up as leaders and role models. Although unstated, I think this is a key lesson I would hope readers would glean from the book. All too often, we assume everyone else has it together and knows the answers; the reality is everyone has to struggle, and all decisions involve pros and cons.
Finally, she is also very open about the fact that readers may feel they need to compromise in some areas, and encourages them to be mindful in making such compromises. She feels that “halacha is not monolithic,” and sometimes a less stringent path may lead to better long term halachic observance. For example, when discussing head covering, she acknowledges the social and emotional complexity of the issue and feels that stringent observance due to cultural expectations may be unsustainable, and counterproductive in the long run.
I do think there are people who will actualizing the ideas in the book to be difficult. I have met many young (and not so young) adults who struggle to know who they are and what they want. Trusting yourself pre-supposes a level of self awareness that some lack. Perhaps exercises aimed at self-discovery would be helpful.
Overall I found this to be an engaging and important book. It reminds us to center our thoughts, needs and feelings, and reflects an outlook that is not commonly written about. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is facing life decisions.