Although I described some of the challenges which I encountered as primarily intellectual in nature, it’s important to recognize that although the challenges were rooted in intellectual issues, they didn’t just affect me intellectually. Like any other seriously committed chareidi Jew, the ideas that I believed in were directly expressed in my behavior and psyche. When I subscribed to ideas such as the notion that secular studies held nothing of any lasting value, or that people who owned TV’s didn’t really care about halacha, or that people who interacted with the opposite sex were licentious and immoral, it wasn’t just an abstract notion of no practical relevance to real life. No, it was a very real and tangible concept that translated directly into how I acted, what I valued, what I believed, and how I thought about the world. For example, when my rabbeim explained how dressing stylishly was an obsequious attempt to fit in with the goyim, I stopped wearing any kind of brand name clothes, and even let myself dress kind of shabbily (which was the accepted style among the yeshivish crowd I was in at the time). I even lost much respect for people I previously admired, simply because by caring about dressing nicely, they had proven themselves to be too materialistic for me to emulate. These numerous ideological perspectives had direct effects on my actions and thought. But even more critical than my behavior and beliefs though, was how the ideas they taught me directly affected my emotional state. Because even though on the outside I might have been going along with all these new ideas and adopting all these strict new ways of behaving, inside, a part of me still felt some connection with all these now-forbidden practices. And this tension often caused me quite a bit of guilt:
That I still did in fact care about my appearance clearly demonstrated how, inside, I was just a vain and self-absorbed person. The fact that I would rather be studying math than learning gemara was a painful reminder of how I wasn’t really a true ben torah. That I tended to not be super careful with every little halacha was one more sign of how spiritually deficient I was. That I let myself sometimes sneak a little Entenmann's donuts despite my vow to only eat chalav yisrael just proved that in my heart I really was just another "oisvorf".
All my time in yeshiva, I sincerely did want to become what they taught me was the only kind of person who really mattered - a proper ben torah. But throughout it all, I knew that a part of me just wasn’t really trying as hard as it should. And despite the fact that in many ways I was truly striving to become that ideal person, the subconscious awareness that I was never really going to become that ben torah, that person who had any true worth, filled me with a deep unhappiness.
So when I started having the intellectual challenges that I described previously, the effect was not limited to a purely cerebral debate of how to reconcile an intellectual quandary. It disturbed me on a multitude of levels. Yes, it was a theoretical puzzler to me - how could something which all my rabbeim had told me was bad actually not be so? But more fundamentally, it raised extremely upsetting questions with more practical ramifications - if it really wasn’t bad, then couldn’t I have it in my life? And if I can have it in my life, then I didn’t have to feel bad about it! And if I didn’t have to feel bad about it, why had my life been shaped in a way which had caused me so much guilt?
The most fundamental example of this crisis was, unsurprisingly, in regards to the idea of learning torah. As I’ve mentioned here many times, I had been through many years of indoctrination where I was told that there is nothing more important in my life than learning torah; that learning torah should be the prime focus of my life; that learning torah is so great that it outweighs all the other mitzvos of the torah; that people who don’t devote their lives to torah are wasting their lives; that every spare moment of my life I should be trying to squeeze in another pasuk, another daf, another halacha, another Rashi. The messages were endless, and they were very effective - I knew what my life was supposed to be about and that I should desire nothing more than to be able to sit in the beis medrash for as long as possible and imbibe the wisdom of the sages. The only problem with this lofty goal was that I actually sucked at this learning thing. I didn’t have a clue how to do it right, and after years of banging my head in frustration, I absolutely abhorred gemara. (Truth is, I wasn’t too fond of the other yeshivish areas of study either (halacha, chumash, mussar, etc.), but those I could get through with a modicum of competency.) But the very notion that my ultimate purpose in life was meant to revolve around something that I could barely stand caused me a fair bit of cognitive dissonance.
As a loyal devotee of the yeshivish hashkafa, I fully believed that this message of torah learning primacy was the truth, yet I also couldn’t deny that it clearly wasn’t working for me. I lived with this tension for many years, struggling to succeed at what I knew to be my divine mission in life, but all along knowing that my heart wasn’t really into it. Somewhere along the way I resigned myself to the idea that I would never be the kind of person god really wanted me to. As difficult as this was to admit, I knew that I had no one else to blame but myself. After all, the gemara teaches "If a person doesn’t succeed, it’s because they haven’t tried" (Megillah 6b). I obviously hadn’t tried hard enough. Yeshiva lore was filled with tales of students who had overcome insurmountable obstacles through the sheer determination of their commitment. Despite my extra kavana when davening the words of, "v’sen chelkeinu b’sorasecha," I was quite clearly not meriting the divine blessing I so desperately needed. I knew that this didn’t make me a bad person, but I also knew that my place in heaven (and society) would never really amount to much, that I could never call myself a real ben torah, and that I would have to answer for my failure in the world to come.
So when I was first exposed to the idea that I actually didn’t have to devote my life to torah learning, aside from the disbelief that such a concept could actually be true, what hit me was a tremendous emotional upheaval: If I didn’t have to be a learner, then why had everyone told me I did? Why had so much of my energy been wasted in that objective? Why had people who were supposed to be bastions of truth lied to me about something so essential? Why had people who had claimed to act in my best interests discouraged me from succeeding in other areas? Most importantly, if this idea was true, then I didn’t have to feel that I was a failure; that my life didn’t have to focus on something I didn’t enjoy. If this was actually true, I didn’t have to feel ashamed for who I was.
The perspective of how to view torah learning is just one example, but so many more of the beliefs which were being challenged were not just abstract ideological principles, but concepts which had direct, practical consequences to how I viewed my life and myself:
- The idea that secular studies were of no value had always been difficult for me to swallow, considering that the only classes I ever did well at were in those subjects. They had, by negating the value of secular studies, in essence, deprived me of the one activity that could provide me a sense of accomplishment. If it was true what I was now discovering that secular studies indeed had value, then I could be proud of my accomplishments in those areas (instead of hiding that fact, as those of us who did well in secular studies were often mocked for focusing on such "worthless" activities). Maybe I didn’t have to feel like I was totally useless.
- If wanting to dress nicely wasn’t really so terrible, then I didn’t have to feel like I was betraying my heritage (by imitating the goyim!) when dressing more contemporarily.
- If being super medakdek about every single halachic issue was not absolutely crucial, then I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty for being resentful that God was making my life crazy with the endless halachic inanities invading my life.
- If not everything a gadol said had to be followed unquestioningly as the word of god, then...well, I couldn’t even bring myself to conceive of what that would mean.
And so, for the first time ever, I allowed myself to step off of the chareidi path I had been traveling upon all my adult life. I had begun to escape the restrictive mindset of my past and now understood that there were other legitimate ways to be a halachic Jew. But I had no inkling of just how significant this step would prove to my life down the road. Because even though this transition didn’t cause me to challenge the underlying foundations of Judaism, it had opened the door for me to question principles which I had previously thought unassailable. And once that door had been opened for me, nothing would ever be the same again.