Dear Ladies, I have recently become interested in the idea of God, although I grew up on Long Island in a totally secular family. Could God really exist? I am exploring my Judaism now, but the problem is I have to do it behind my family’s back. They are dead set against me becoming a ba’al teshuva. My mom has said she will “lose” me to “those cultists,” and I am torn between my curiosity/leanings and their hysteria. What should I do?
– Searching, Manhattan
How stifling that you have to take this path behind your family’s back! Not long ago an acquaintance’s child came out as transgender; his family lovingly and proudly posted this on social media. I can’t imagine families doing the same for a child revealing a new religious identity.
Here’s my take: If you plan to be based in Israel, you may need to think ahead. Where do you want to wind up on the religious spectrum? Know that in a highly polarized society, it’s challenging to be a religious Jew without a community. So, while you learn about Judaism, establish a sense of what different communities are like. Will they embrace your secular family? Will you be cut off from friendships, work environments and all that is familiar?
Jewish law pitted against family concern and sensitivity is little fun, but it’s sometimes difficult to embrace spiritual growth without alienating loved ones. To do so you need navigational wisdom. Beware of gratuitous “religious” stringencies marketed to you as “authentic” Judaism. The goal is not to flaunt stringent behaviors with secular loved ones – that’s where maturity and heart come into play.
I wish you luck on your journey. Two things: A Jew will encounter doubt – don’t view this as a threat but as an invitation to explore. If, along the way, you meet a rabbi who advises you to stop questioning, drop him faster than women lined up to accuse Kavanaugh.
Finally, know that Judaism is less concerned with proving God’s existence than enforcing the notion that religious deeds are what ultimately shape hearts, beliefs and actions.Danit Shemesh:
I asked my all-knowing daddy about God when I was four. I pointed at the sky and said, “Who colored it so beautifully?” Smiling, he explained the revolutions of the earth and sun.
I asked how my baby brother knew his mommy; Dad sat me on his loving lap and taught me about evolution.
I asked why people on the round earth don’t fall off; he explained gravity.
I asked: “Why marry?” He explained social order.
Years later, still sweating and shaking with elation after bearing my first child, I exclaimed, “There must be a God!”
Daddy checked my temperature and said, “You’re exhausted, we’ll discuss it tomorrow.”
When I pointed out that he had gifted me with untiring questioning, he was shocked. “I never meant you to turn to God, but to science!” he protested.
Gradually, I learned which subjects to avoid. I unwillingly became politically correct and careful. Dad, first my god, then my intellectual sparring partner, came to our first “proper” Shabbat. When he realized I’d koshered my kitchen, he said nothing, but his sad eyes spoke volumes. I knew he felt I’d rejected all his teachings: progression, curiosity, independent thinking. “You’re taking my granddaughter back hundreds of years,” his face sighed.
Yet, four children later, over a shared Shabbat dinner, Dad looked at the white table, the family smiles over steaming soup, and said, with moist eyes, “Danit, I’m proud of you!”
That’s when he became simply my daddy.
My advice: take your steps toward yourself. Be who you need to be. If you are earnest, your family will ultimately be proud of you.Pam Peled:
I’ve been so berated for claiming that I’d rather my daughters married non-Jews than haredim that I can’t face another slew of furious emails. But I empathize with your family.
I get how finding your way back to Grace enhances life enormously. Religiosity comes with a shul; shuls bring community, and structure, and friends to share life’s events. Being observant means living by rules. They include how to comfort mourners and celebrate births; interesting divrei Torah over dinners and joyous dancing at the drop of a (black) hat. It’s fulfilling, it’s fun, it feels fabulous to belong to something greater than yourself.
Our virtual world is so alienating that a safe space without phones or screens over Shabbat is more seductive than ever. Existential angst abates for a while; you feel part of a select club; you feel secure.
But there’s a cost, and it’s often family. I’ve seen too many friends struggle as kids abjure their cooking or refuse to drive to Seders. Family holidays become problematic as stricter members veto beach time lest boys spot bikinis. Shabbat meals are minefields as ex-officers defend their sons’ choice to study Torah forever instead of enlisting; dramas develop over opening a fridge without deactivating the bulb.
And it’s downright Buddha-like if your daddy can smile through it all while supporting more and more grandchildren whose own daddy doesn’t work.
My father taught us that everything is good in moderation; it’s a motto I try to live by. A healthy dose of ritual is always great; try not to go overboard, to avoid alienating your loved ones. Comments and questions: email@example.com, www.facebook.com/3ladies3lattes
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