Religion & Beliefs

How To Deal With Your Weekly Theological Crisis

For a number of reasons I’m friends with a lot of people who are constantly being tormented by crises of faith. There are smart, educated, engaged Jews who are passionate about Judaism most days– until they find themselves rubbing up … Read More

By / July 6, 2007
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For a number of reasons I’m friends with a lot of people who are constantly being tormented by crises of faith. There are smart, educated, engaged Jews who are passionate about Judaism most days– until they find themselves rubbing up against the edges of acceptability within their own communities. Maybe they fall in love with someone who’s not Jewish. Maybe they become frustrated by a closed-minded understanding of Biblical criticism and archeology. Maybe they have a bad experience with a member of the clergy. Maybe chicken parmesan suddenly looks really appealing. Whatever the impetus, the crisis it brings on is intense and frustrating. Men and women who have devoted years of their lives to Jewish study and education, who are active members of a community, who regularly pray, give tzedakah, and are involved in various social justice programs, suddenly lose motivation, and feel alienated and angry. And for a few days, or a few weeks, or months, or years, they distance themselves from everything that they once used to identify themselves. Depending on their background, their families begin to freak out. Some of their friends edge away, suddenly uncomfortable with someone they’ve known for years. By all accounts and purposes, I should be one the people having a theological crisis at minimum once a week. The way I live, constantly negotiating between halachic rulings, contemporary moral imperatives, and my own ill-fated desires seems like it should be a religious nightmare in the making. But instead I’m the girl listening to everyone else’s trauma. I’m the one people call in the middle of the night when they’ve just slept with a goy for the first time, and they’re worried about going to Gehinnom. Against all odds, I’m the well balanced one. And because I’ve somehow been cast in this role as frum zen guru, I’ve come up with some tips for people going through a rocky patch with God. So whether you need them for yourself or for a friend I hope they’ll provide a little relief. 1. Don’t abandon your community Chances are, this crisis is a temporary thing. Though you’re feeling tormented today, by next Wednesday, or a month from now, or next year, you’ll be over it. You might not end up in exactly the same place as you have been, but just in case, it’s important to maintain a connection to your community—whether it’s a synagogue, an indie minyan, a group of friends from camp, or the Jews in your neighborhood. You want to keep these people around for practical reasons (you will, for instance, want their casseroles if someone n your family gets sick, or dies). They will feed and comfort you in times of crisis, and cheer you on when things are going swimmingly. Alienating them will only end up badly. If you really can’t stand to attend services anymore, or you’ve decided that camp ruined your like and you refuse to go back for a reunion, try to do something that keeps you in the loop—even if it means you’re consciously shifting yourself into a less public or involved position. Show up just for Kiddush. Go out to dinner with camp friends. Keep in mind that many of your friends have gone through similar ordeals, and they’re probably willing to be pretty tolerant of whatever you need to do or not do. As long as you don’t bring crab to a Shabbat dinner, there’s no reason you can’t maintain your position in the community. 2. Don’t join another community right away Hare Krishna is not a good idea. Neither are Jews for Jesus. Having a crisis on Shabbat afternoon and then leaving Saturday night to run off with the circus is probably not going to turn out well. Respect the speed of your own transition, and accept that you may need some space from any kind of theological community for awhile. 3. Don’t use this time to experiment with new substances Replacing a Judaism habit with a crack habit is probably not going to work out well for you. 4. Consider God For some reason, most of my friends who struggle with the pulls of halacha and modernity don’t consider their struggles to have much to do with God at all. And that confuses me, because it seems like God is at the center of Judaism, and if I’m having a problem with Judaism it’s because I’m having a problem with either my own or someone else’s interpretation of what God wants. Think about where God fits into your religious life, and think about allowing space for a God that trusts you to live your life the best way you can. Consider that you might let God down without being smited from the face of the earth with a bolt of lightening. Consider how much you care about letting God down—if at all. (I don’t mean this in a pretentious way. I frequently decide that I just can’t do whatever I think God would prefer. And I’m sorry about it, but I accept it, and move on, and hope that next time I’m more up to the challenge). If you don’t believe in God, try and pin down why, and whether or not you still want to be around/involved with people who don’t feel the same way. There’s no reason an atheist can’t be an active member of a Jewish community. 5. Work out Okay, this is kind of cheesy, but I find that going to the gym makes me feel calmer and more able to deal with my problems no matter what kind of crap is going down in my religious, academic or personal life. If you’re not too intimidated or annoyed by the idea of a yoga class, I highly recommend them. To find a yoga studio near you, try Om Pass. 6. State your needs I’m big on just asking for what you want instead of beating around the bush. I think it’s highly effective everywhere from the bedroom to the boardroom to the beit midrash. When your theology is falling apart, think about what you want from religion. Do you want a comforting picture of the afterlife? Do you want Jewish culture and no religion whatsoever? Do you want Jewish learning, but no sense of obligation to the commandments? Do you want the advantages of being a member of a tight-knit community? When you can state clearly what you really want from Judaism, and what you don’t want, too, then you can start looking for ways to maintain your identity as a Jew without ignoring the problems that brought you to the edge of your faith. 7. Stop worrying about being a hypocrite Everyone’s a hypocrite. You need to be honest and dignified with yourself, but it’s completely reasonable to say something along the lines of, “I think halacha is really important, and not something that I’m comfortable disregarding, but I’m all for gay rights, gay marriage, and gay pride.” Accepting that you’re going to struggle with something is a nice way of keeping your head from exploding. 8. Respect your own decisions, and everyone else’s, too You might decide that you can’t participate in a community because of its position on Israel, homosexuality, social justice, kashrut…whatever. Flaunting your new self in the faces of former friends and acquaintances is a quick and easy way to burn bridges and look like an idiot. Try to be cool with people whose journeys haven’t coincided with yours. If you need to, I recommend spewing hatred into a journal. Harmless, but highly effective. 9. Seriously, chill out It happens to the best of us.