Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Journeys

On one cold winter evening in 2003, I sat in a small living room in Crown Heights. I was there talking to some young non-frum teenagers who had come from the Midwest to spend a weekend in New York, including a shabbos in Crown Heights.

After havdala, a young bochur from Hadar HaTorah entered the room carrying a large bag full of musical instruments, including a number of drums. We all sat in a circle, introduced ourselves, and listened as the bochur explained his very unique style of Jewish music and taught us a few songs.

Little did I know that within a year or two this young musician, Matisyahu, would transition from playing music in small living rooms to performing on large stages. His music, controversial yet refreshingly different, inspired thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. While I was too "frum" at the time to listen to his music, I have always been curious about the progress of the bochur who I met in that living room.

Several years ago when he left Chabad to explore another way of being chassidish, I heard plenty of talk and controversy. Given that I had doubts about Chabad from long before that time, I could totally relate to his decision. Now with the latest "scandal", his decision to shave his beard, I feel that I can relate to him once again.

The one thing that I can definitely relate to his all of the comments that people are saying about him and all of the assumptions that people are making. People tend to assume that those who "leave", whether they are leaving a particular derech or yiddishkiet as a whole, must not have been sincere to start with, not have learned enough, or been dragged away by outside influences. While for some people that certainly is the case, for many others, myself included, it most definitely is not.

Based on responses that I have received from people both in real life and on this blog, it seems that many people make those assumptions about me. So, just to clear the air and make room for more productive discussions, let me respond to each of those points.

My decision to become fully frum at fourteen was my decision and mine alone. I approached the local Chabad shliach, he did not look for me. I decided to switch to a frum high school and take on every chumrah that I took on throughout the years--no one imposed them on me. I was very sincere in my motivations, as those who know me well in person can verify, and sincerely wanted to serve Hashem in the best way possible.

In terms of my level of knowledge, some of the comments made by certain Modern Orthodox readers of this blog have been downright insulting. The fact that I was a charedi female, and a baalas teshuva at that, does not mean that I am ignorant of halacha. I can learn original sources "inside" and for years spent my free time reading both Hebrew and English halachic sefarim. My current knowledge of halacha surpasses that of most females who I have met, yes including Modern Orthodox ones, and quite a number of the males who I know. To this day, my husband still asks me questions about halacha, despite having semicha (admittedly Chabad semicha) himself and my not being frum. And, for the record, I always answer him honestly.

Similarly, I did not come to the point that I am at because I was swayed by outside sources. The college courses that I was taking before I stopped believing included no form of kefira, and that was by design. I deliberately avoided any course that would involve a violation of "lo sasuru" from learning kefira.

Rather than being pulled in from the outside, I felt pushed out from within. I could no longer live within the strict confines of the life that I was supposed to live, and started to question why I was doing so. This line of questioning has led me on a search for the best way to live an honest and meaningful life. Because I see little reason to believe that the Torah is true, this search has led me away from frumkiet. While I certainly cannot claim that my motivations are entirely intellectual, I am trying my best to be honest with myself and make the right decisions.

And that is exactly the mindset that I see in Matisyahu. The Matisyahu who I saw on the interview yesterday is the same Matisyahu that I saw in that living room years ago. He spoke with the same feeling and sincerity, and seems to be on the same search. I do not believe, as some others do, that this was a publicity stunt. I believe that he is on a journey that, much like mine, is quite unconventional.

I hope that he manages to get the most out of his journey.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Your Own Utopia

There is a famous chassidic story of a Chabad Chossid that went to the Tzemach Tzedek to ask for permission to move to Israel. The Rebbe replied that rather than moving to Israel, he should "מאך דא ארץ ישראל", make the place where he was living at the time, presumable Russia, into Israel.

This story has been on my mind quite a lot lately.

As the regular readers of my blog know, my current life-situation is somewhat unusual and difficult. Walking tenuously along the fence separating the charedi and secular worlds requires tremendous effort and results in many falls.

When I share my story with others, I often get asked why I stay. In other words, why don't I just jump off on the secular side of the fence and make a run for it? Why do I insist on staying in such a difficult scenario?

They are asking a good question. In fact, I often ask myself the exact same question. I look into the future and wonder how much longer I can  live a double life, how much longer can I remain on this fence without getting worn out? I am not a person who is comfortable with lying, nor am I a good liar, so this scenario is quite difficult for me.

However, at the same time as these thoughts enter my head, I can't help but think:

"מאך דא ארץ ישראל"

While the Tzemach Tzedek obviously did not intend for this phrase to be interpreted in the way that I am about to interpret it, it seems that this concept has a lot of merit for those of us living undercover in the frum world.

It is the tendency of human beings to search for utopia. To sit an imagine that if only one could live somewhere else, live with someone else, live in a different time, or live in a different way, one would be happy. This search for an elusive place where happiness and fulfillment can be achieved have led people on physical and spiritual journeys for centuries.

 Whether the utopia that one imagines is a messianic redemption, retirement on a tropical island, or an escape from a restrictive community, it often has the same effect. Focusing on the thought that life could be better "if only..." prevents one from living life to the fullest now.

Of course, the desire to move away from harmful surroundings can be beneficial. If one actually has the opportunity to improve ones life in a way that the benefits to oneself and others outweighs the cost, then it is self-evident that one should take advantage of the opportunity.

When this is not the case, however, the search for an elusive utopia that cannot be obtained, or at least cannot be obtained without causing significant harm, can be detrimental. While part of me feels ready to jump off the fence, it seems that doing so may well cause more harm than good.

Therefore, I need to find a way to "מאך דא ארץ ישראל".