journeys in the wilderness of judaism

It all started when I took over my wife’s position teaching Hebrew school on Sundays. In order to teach the kids the parsha I began studying it daily again like I used to in the morning while waking over coffee. Slowly it worked on my mind. The daily study drew me back into the mytho-poetic world of Torah, prodding me with ethical questions and moral demands, opening strange vistas of history.

Then there were the kiruv Rabbis and Rebbetzins. The liberal minded Litvak with the constant Shabbat and Torah class invitations. The warm hearted Chabad shliach with the promise of tefillin to replace my lost pair if I promised to don them and say the Sh’ma every morning. This probably sounds familiar to some of you. The pull of the tribe, the sweetness of communal life, the intellectual euphoria of Torah study, the satisfying grounding of meaning, purpose and place.

Yet as I began to wear tzitzit again and strategized to kasher my kitchen, as I read Heschel and the phenomenal world came alight with the promise that it hid and yet revealed an ineffable mystery, conflict grew.

Externally, oppositions between my own understanding of Jewish moral and spiritual commitments and the understanding of others came into relief. The bifurcation between the different world of an observant Jew and the gentile populace began to take shape. The open field of one universe with many equal peoples and people began to separate more into boundaries and positions. Should I attend a henotheistic or transpolytheistic Yoga  chanting event when Jews are covenanted to represent radical monotheism? I did attend but was uncomfortable and uncertain about being there. I attended a Zen retreat wearing my kippah and held aloof from the Buddhist services (I was greeted warmly and allowances were made).

Internally conflict took the shape of doubt. As I took up the yoke of halacha again I began to spend hours attempting to learn Jewish law with intellectual honesty so I could follow a halacha with integrity, not one of blind custom. Questions about Rabbinic authority, legal logic, textual integrity, swirled in my head in addition to the demands of daily life both sacred and mundane. They filed in like loud and earnest dinner guests newly arrived on an already crowded family dinner whose voices come to drown out the conversation of those already there.

I had been down this road before. I tried to be moderate and relaxed. I tried to take my time and allow for uncertainty, imperfection, slow growth. Unburdened by fundamentalist beliefs about the Torah and Talmud I felt fairly comfortable in a somewhat blurry mental landscape, where theological and legal commitments and beliefs were not completely clear.

What motivated me? Two things: one the list of qualities I mentioned above: sweetness, familiarity, intellectual euphoria, discipline, meaning, groundedness. Two I had found again, or maybe for the first time, a sense of God. Aided by my medical studies over the past two years my own innate sense of wonder had come to be coupled with an amazement at the ingenious designs of biology and botany. I was entertaining the real possibility that there is an awesome Creator whose gift of life infinitely obligates us to ethical ascension and service of others. This was quite a sea-change. Despite having a sense of God and divinity as a child, and an aborted attempt at becoming a ba’al teshuva (convert to orthodox Judaism) in my late 20’s, I have spent most of adult life as an atheist and much of my spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Then it began to unravel. As I became more observant I also felt more tension in my marriage and in my daily life. The details were surface problems over the deep troubles.

The deep troubles are manifold. I accept in principle the idea of the Jewish tribe unified by a body of sacred law. I do not believe that Rabbinic law carries the weight of divine law. I am horrified by lives ruined by Rabbinic enactments- man made misery masquerading as casualties to a divine plan.

Deeper, I do not believe the Torah can be trusted as anything like a verbatim account of a revelation at Sinai, if such a thing occurred. The evidence strongly suggests that the Torah was compiled by scribes over the course of centuries. The scribes must have redacted texts based on oral traditions, traditions that were themselves probably manifold, varying by region and elaborated and filtered by the elders and teachers who preserved it. The texts themselves, once written down, were further expanded, edited, and spliced together. Although the Torah as a whole records a grand spiritual and moral vision it cannot be trusted on the details: details that Orthodox Jews run their lives by. I cannot order my life and certainly cannot abrogate my conscience or reason in any way on the basis of legal details grounded in such nebulous claims to divine authority.

Deeper, who knows what really happened in the depths of Israelite history? The story of the Jewish people is awesome strange and the vision of the Torah singular and sublime in its context. But I cannot ground my life commitments in soil where I am, in the honest depths of my soul, agnostic. There are noble and transformative spiritual practices which do not require such existential and intellectual risks of delusion and dishonesty.

What was the spiritual core of my attraction to Judaism? It was my awe at the fact that anything exists at all. Add to that the order of nature and Jewish claims of “ethical monotheism” begin to seem compelling. But nature, as well as beautiful and ordered, is also brutal and heartless. Human suffering seems infinite and dreams of spiritual justification for earthly tragedy remain just that- dreams. Theists claim that God counts every strand of hair and numbers every  fallen sparrow. Does he also number the hours of a child locked in a dryer machine while its parents go to the bar? Does he count the African women raped and mutilated in the hundreds of thousands? Does he mark their screams while being vaginally penetrated by knives before having their throats cut? Does he record the heartbeats of the chronically depressed or the long hours of dark anxiety in schizophrenic brains?

To move beyond suffering mediated by human illness and evil, did the Creator really find it wise to have wasps hatch their larvae in the bodies of living caterpillars or predators eat their prey alive? For that matter, why design a universe where animals survive by eating each other? Who thought up that macabre idea?

I would not argue for a moment that these questions disprove God’s existence. They do, however, remove the ground for easy faith. Ultimately, with their menacing faces before me, I cannot ground my life’s rhythms and reasons on monotheism. Life is an amazing gift, even with its suffering. Wonder, obligation, and compassion seem real and true, maybe the most true things. Beyond that I cannot go.

What then is my current relationship to Judaism?

Well, I do love it despite its real flaws. Many of its intuitions move me. I feel a part of the community and I enjoy that belonging and celebrate what I think is wise and good in our heritage as I think all communities should. I respect our customs. I want to preserve our wisdom and be an informed critic of our mistakes.

In some ways the stance I’m articulating here is disappointingly boring. I am re-joining the hordes of agnostic, unaffiliated Jews again. I have never wanted to be boring, but my conscience does not permit me to make the bolder and more interesting choice of joining the ranks of ba’alei teshuvah. Perhaps time will reveal the truth. Perhaps it won’t. How do we live in such a universe? That is the question.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

6 thoughts on “journeys in the wilderness of judaism”

  1. This is a great post! I know exactly how you feel. It is a very difficult thing to wrestle with your faith, and as Jews, that is a prime necessity!
    I personally have traveled a strange path, one that would (and absolutely does!) look strange to outsiders (outsiders being people who are not me!). Learning more about halacha and attempting to fulfill more mitzvot nearly caused a problem in my marriage. I think that there is nothing wrong, or boring, about “re-joining the hordes of agnostic, unaffiliated Jews”. It shows an intellectual integrity and a willingness to trust Truth and not truth. There’s that old Buddhist saying about if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him! I would argue the same about God! We have to be able to destroy the false idols we place on pedestals that we THINK are God, and come to a more grown up understanding, that some people don’t need their hands held, they won’t swallow everything without question, and for this they should be applauded.
    My own two cents.
    May God lead you to where you need to be.
    Shalom Aleichem.

    1. Namaste Mikhail
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree with you more about the danger of religion itself becoming idolatry. Here’s to strange paths!

  2. i believe the universe we think we see and know is largely self generated. The various religions and dogmas that brain wash us into their point of view simply create the illusion that we are all permanently stuck in a place of “others” who don’t feel as we do or think and act as we do. This is simply untrue. Every helix of DNA dances in an infinite field of an unknown energy. We can’t see it or know how it works but i believe it is the field of love. The one thing we crave, the thing that heals us, keeps us alive, and keeps us wondering how such an amazing rush is free and there for everyone at any time they choose to access it. There is far too much beauty and incredible symmetry. Our immune system alone is a loving well constructed system. Why?
    It’s time for a poem:
    A Wnter’s Day
    the bridge over the creek
    a union of man and nature
    children all shapes and sizes
    screaming in delight
    as they twist and turn
    on their newly bought skates
    their dogs look on
    tails beating out a rhythm to a tune few will ever hear

    the music of the universe
    the lullaby that the bare trees sleep to
    as they bend arms outstretched
    tired but loving over the joyous creek
    the youngest daughter

    an old man
    his cane clacking up against the ice in metronome fashion
    as he methodically contemplates the bridge
    on this Sunday morning

    the cycles
    they go round and round containing all
    all is everything
    and everyone turns in a different circle of their own
    but they all turn as do the notes in a vast concerto

    a piece of music that plays this day and every day
    a piece of music with no beginning and no end.

  3. I lived a life agnostic for most of my life, although finding spiritual expression through multiplicit interests ranging from existentialism to beat literature to Western Esoteric traditions. When I was finally (for lack of a better expression) “touched by G-d” – the experience was both profound yet mundane. It was life-changing in that I could not return to my previous agnosticism – it called for me to find a path making sense of the experience. At the same time, it’s central message was “some things you will retain, others you will let go”. This all happened in a non-descript hallway at New College at the University of Edinburgh in October 2000, as I was reading a bulletin board about upcoming lectures. I’ve deconstructed the moment over and over again in my mind, trying to find an angle that perhaps the experience was illusory or delusion, but it never works out. I think that the experience occurred in such a circumstance, rather than at a spiritual retreat or amidst vast nature, makes it more real. There’s no pretext. Can there ever be a pretext for G-d?

    In light of this -I too wrestle with the tradition and why I’ve taken on the yoke. When I first started my conversion journey in 2005, I never thought about the yoke. My lens was Genesis 17:1 (“Walk in my ways and be blameless”) and an existential perspective of Torah as a human response to revelation, not a direct product of it. This is still my universal view, however I see value in the yoke now.

    Holding that everything is G-d, being blessed with Divine Presence is a matter of drawing that consciousness down. It’s like we’re all cells in a single organism, and we all have the potential to come under the unity’s gaze – much like I can focus my thoughts to the tactile sensation of my fingers upon this keyboard, sinews tensing, blood rushing with each movement. The yoke of mitzvot is in my view a process of generating opportunities or the equivalent of sensation upon which the consciousness of G-d may focus its gaze. At the same time, we are fulfilling our function as we were meant to within that organism.

    The question is, of course, what part of the protocol is human, and what part Divine? No human can lay claim to how the mechanics of all of this works. So we are left to balance everything we can do for our own unique role in the organism with an effort to help those around us in fulfilling their own roles (including those beyond the Covenant), whatever they may be.

    I am blessed to have chevre with such poignant expression as you’ve laid down in this post to help me along the way. Todah rabah.

    1. Many thanks for your post Achi. I tend to cycle closer and farther away from Torah, God and Yiddishkeit. This piece was written after I had cycled too close for comfort and was about to go away for awhile.
      Since then my perspective has continued to change, although this article represents my struggle with core Jewish beliefs well.
      I appreciated reading your description of being touched by G-d and your view of Torah and mitzvot, both of which are thought provoking and emotionally resonant for me.
      L’shalom, and Todah Rabbah to you as well.

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