Rising From the Ashes of Bad Orthodox Jewish Experiences

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I promised an essay about dealing with negative Jewish experiences. This is it.

Orthodox Judaism works for a lot of people. It’s vibrant, exciting, meaningful, and many are proud to live a life committed to Orthodox Judaism. Every version of Orthodox Judaism enjoys this success for the vast majority of its adherents. But every version also has its share of people who have bad experiences. The negative experience could be social, religious, theological, cultural, anything.

Of the people with negative associations towards Orthodoxy, there are two categories. One group will leave, the other will stay. What follows, is not written to convince people to stay. This is an attempt to help people who want to stay, or people who want to help those trying to stay.

I recommend a three part process that has been successful for some people.

1. Purge
2. Explore
3. Integrate

It begins with the purge. The relationship with religious life is heavily influenced by parents and teachers.1800184_490114091111077_2051755693_n So much so, that many people think they should practice religion for their parents and teachers. The commitment is totally external with zero personal connection. This leads to lax observance. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and resentment glom onto the cumulative religious memory and begin to cannibalize all other religious associations. Eventually, this person checks out of the religious experience entirely.

This is why it’s necessary to purge.

Subsequently, if this person does observe the religion, their experience is framed within the existing paradigm shaped by disappointed authority figures. The person feels hypocritical and uncomfortable, exponentially increasing the negativity associated with religion. Even though the commitment to observance is rejected, the worldview of those who taught the person about the commitment lives on.

This is why it’s necessary to purge.

Everything one knows about religion and tradition is on the table. Observance is not yet back on the table. First, one has to unlearn the philosophy and worldview that is causing the negative associations.

Broad themes that crop up in almost every situation and must be purged, include: Objectivity of religion, inducement by fear, crumbly proofs and arguments, hypocritical teachers or misplaced priorities, actual abuse, and cover-up of abuse. These are all false idols, yet they are an intimate part of Orthodox Judaism for many people. Religion and Judaism work much better without them. Destroy these idols. Slaughter these gods. Break whatever has to be broken.

One way to do this is to consciously and actively acknowledge the destruction these false idols have wrought. The power of acknowledgment is that it ends the internal conflict raging in one’s heart. It stops the war between one’s intuition that says those idols are wrong and one’s memory that is saying these idols are real. Don’t fight back against the intuition. It was correct all along.  The purge is over when the person gives their instincts permission to be victorious and Judaism can be approached without any baggage.

Next, the person is ready to explore. A newcomer to any religion must absorb new ideas and experiences on the fly. The mind may contain very loose associations connected to the experience, but they are so loose that the actual experience determines its own meaning. There are no biases or expectations for the experience. It can be anything.

Exploring means sampling religious experiences on their own terms. Instead of hosting the experience, the person should encounter the experience as a visitor, or a tourist. Take in the shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, thoughts, and connections like a human exploring a new planet. There are myriad ways to participate in rituals and traditions with an almost infinite number or sensory combinations that can craft the experience. The person should try as many as possible. If one was boring or terrible, sack it. Try it a different way later on.

Every experience is a completely voluntary exploration and personal discovery. Slowly, the person develops a taste for what they love, and eventually will be skilled enough to hybridize new personal flavors for their Judaism. This creates a subjective version of Orthodox Judaism that is deeply personal. It feels more like art than science. Interpretation and meaning should not be institutionalized. Religion is supposed to be art, not science.

Finally, integration is possible. In order to integrate any new experience into one’s life, it has to be worth it. The benefit of following prescriptions or proscriptions has to outweigh the benefit of not adhering to them. A person will not do things only because of obligation or prohibition. The only reason a person will voluntarily participate in religion is because his/her new perspective on the tradition is personal and makes them feel positive things.  Anyone would be eager to increase positive and meaningful experiences into their life. No one else has to know that the person is participating voluntarily. That’s private. To the observer, there is no difference other than the inevitable joy that accompanies great self-discovery.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a beautiful religious experience can emerge from the darkness. It begins with a death of sorts. Death is followed by a slow rebirth and the process of learning how to fly. It culminates with majestic flight that takes the phoenix soaring to the greatest heights.

I have seen this work in the field. We are able to excise the negative experiences from our hearts. We can discover subjective meaning in religion. We have the ability to incorporate positive experiences into our lives.

I am not saying this must be done. I am not arguing that people are obligated to give this process a shot. I am not confident that it works for everyone.

Far too many people want to enjoy Orthodox Judaism but lack the necessary tools and structure to create a personal Judaism. The principles in this essay are just a starting point to developing this powerful skill. There are additions and subtractions that can be made for each individual person. Everything here can be adjusted and adapted. It can be done.

If you want personal guidance to help you embark on this journey, please contact me directly.

Next essay in this series will deal with matters of faith in Orthodox Judaism.

  • MarkSoFla

    LOL! Were you attempting for some kind of irony (or some sort of hidden message) by comparing the phoenix (a mythical creature) with religious experiences?

    • No irony or message. Just symbolism.

  • JimChaplin

    I found this interesting, but are you suggesting that a person abandon Torah and Mitzvot and then try to re-approach it anew?

    • The assumption here is what they’ve already left.

      • JimChaplin

        OK, sorry for the misunderstanding.
        Would you suggest the same for someone who is Orthoprax, ie someone just going through the motions (the ranks of which seem to be growing)? Or since they are at least doing the mitzvot, suggesting they get away from that would be a negative, even if it leads to a positive?

        • Possibly. Would depend on the person and their situation.

        • Susan Barnes

          I am curious regarding why you think the ranks of the Orthoprax are growing. Is there any research to back this up?

          • JimChaplin

            That’s purely an assumption on my part, which could very well be clouded by my own station in life.

            • Tuvia

              I only trust orthoprax folks, if that helps.

              • JimChaplin

                You only trust orthoprax folks in general or in assuming there are more of us?

                • Tuvia

                  In general

  • Avigael

    Until the corruption in leadership is dealt with, this is all fairytales. There are massive problems in leadership unaddressed. We need a Sanhedrin to root out all the bad apples that destroy other peoples lives.