Skip to content

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

The Abandonment of the Soul: The Struggle of Dispirited Observant Jews

THERE ARE SOME SADLY CONSISTENT FINDINGS in clinical work with those who voice disenchantment with religion: religious observance does not guarantee a spiritual experience, spirituality is hard to define, we don’t talk about or teach spirituality. This can be a clinical and an existential issue for Orthodox Jews, of all backgrounds.

Disappointment may surface among those who have adopted the Torah lifestyle by choice, such as gerei tzedek (sincere converts), baalei teshuva, and chozrim b’teshuva (those who left observance, only to return). It seems more common among individuals from these groups whose original quest for religious affiliation centered on a search for spirituality. That is, among those who have run to Torah in search of existential meaning and fulfillment of a sense of numinous void, a familiar complaint is that strict practice of Judaism is dominated by a halachic emphasis. Halachichally-bound Judaism prioritizes a cognitive focus, which seldom promotes sensory, intuitive and affective experiences during religious practices (picture for example how people pull out their watches during tekias sofer to make sure the blast is timed precisely long enough for them to “hear it correctly”).

For those who have come to Torah running from personal conflicts, such as life stresses, or histories of poor interpersonal adaptation – where spirituality or lack of it has not been a significant prior concern – later disappointment with Judaism does not tend to center on complaints of experiential sterility or hypoactive spirituality. So, among those who are new to Orthodoxy, the degree of spiritual letdown is positively correlated with the poignancy of their original search for spiritual fulfillment.

There is an emerging element among long-term, religious “FFBs” (Frum from Birth) who also struggle with the recognition that they have become dispirited. In the 1970s, a popular bumper sticker proclaimed “I Found It!” Predictably, there were counter-stickers asserting, “I Never Lost It!” I had a neighbor back then who in turn stuck a bumper sticker on his car proclaiming “I Lost It.” There are those within the Orthodox world, once invested in the fervor of their traditions, and comfortable with their grasp of its theological tenets and mysteries, who report that they have noticed a diminution of spiritually-inspired practice. In contrast with the “Adults at Risk” whom some have identified as Orthodox Jews who grew up without any spiritual ties to their observant behavior, the Dispirited Observant (DO) are Jews who struggle to rediscover the now-absent passion and palpable faith which once directed their religious behavior. In the “War against Spiritual Attrition,” these are the “Walking Wounded.” They are still “on the derech.” They continue to conduct themselves along halachic and traditional guidelines, yet with the troubling recognition that their “observant behavior” is mediated by automatic pilot.

The DO finds him or herself drifting between two worlds. Propriety and avoiding prisha min ha’tzibur (separating from the community) demand that they maintain their level of ritual observance, for diminished practice means alienation of, and alienation by, their religious peers. At the same time, however, aligning themselves with a newly-inspired “baal teshuva” milieu can create its own discomforts. A DO can drift on the margin of both groups, knowing too much to fit in with the latter group, and “feeling” too little to identify with the former.

To ponder spiritual questions, to wonder aloud about the mystical meaning of various commonplace practices, to disclose a yearning for greater inspiration, to insist on long, focused davening in an effort to transcend the distractions of both secular preoccupations and congregational chatter when in shul, risks branding one as a “BT,” as alienating others or as veering from the norm. As the old joke goes, when does a baal teshuva know that he has finally made it in the frum world? When he talks during chazaras ha’shatz (repetition of the Amidah). The long-term religious often are not perceived by the neophytes as spiritually invested, and often do not perceive themselves as such.

Working with DO’s in both clinical and rabbinic practice, a common theme is that spirituality was never well defined and was never really talked about either at home or in yeshiva education. In my examination of the dispirited and disillusioned, I have noted that the large majority of DO’s – and most of the religious-by-habit – have not thought about, much less restructured, their “god concept” since childhood. Thus, the understanding one has about the Divine and His relationship with mortal man, including one’s subjective sense of personal interaction with the Above, is often frozen in the preconscious ice of early childhood when children first begin hearing about the notion that there is One Hashem in the heavens.

Consider this: In healthy development, our values, our moral sense, our ethical sense and our psychosocial standards mature over time with reflective contemplation, with experience, with study and with clarification of what we believe. Ideally, our spiritual development should do the same. If we do not contemplate our sense of the Sacred, if we do not peer into the nature of our beliefs, if we do not reflect on our experience of hashgachic (providential) encounter, and if we do not discuss our religious process with others – at least with those with whom we are close and with those who mentor us – then our spirit stagnates, fixated somewhere back in earlier life where holiness was amorphous, primitive and possibly predicated on an ignorantly pagan understanding. As the mind grows and the spirit is neglected, the resultant asymmetry leads to affective constriction, disenchantment and psychological atrophy of the soul.

Where do we turn to in our flailing efforts to find spiritual succor? In the yeshiva world, it may be the sifrei mussar (mussar books) and the shmuezin (talks) offered by luminary teachers. It may be the power-point presentations availed by one or another kiruv outfit. It might be sought out in English texts, moving CDs of religious-sounding music, niflaos haBorae (wonders of the Creator) nature walks, or as more than one rabbi has confided to me, by listening to evangelical broadcasts on the car radio. One may seek out spiritual arousal in pilgrimages to Berditchev, Uman or Auschwitz. Some look for it in Tzfas, at the Kosel or in Ponevezh. Some try meditating, some feel emotionally charged through various practices which may have nothing to do with spirituality, and some end up seeking a sense of connection through means which are decidedly antithetical to our Torah’s way of life. The Torah forecasts (Devarim 4:29) u’bikashtem mi-sham – once you find yourselves in exile, you will start seeking out G-d – and this has begun happening within our own ranks.

I have suggested in other articles that our best efforts to find spirituality must begin with our candid recognition that we do not necessarily possess it merely because we behave religiously. We need to look at our questions, we need to assess what we are missing internally – be it something emotional or something lacking in our formal education about our faith and practices – and then we can work on u’bikashtem mi-sham. We need to identify our needs and then seek guidance on where to search for answers.

Learning a mussar sefer is far more productive when one first hungers for a specific form of enlightenment. It is even more productive when the sefer selected actually addresses that aspect of spiritual enlightenment. That is, if I know that I want to broaden my grasp of the profound mystical resonance between my behavior and the heavenly spheres, I am better off studying Nefesh HaChaim than Orchos Tzadikim. If I seek to better sensitize myself to caring deeply about Jewish people, I might do better with Orchos Tzadikim than with Mesilas Yesharim. If I want to devise a system for internal cultivation of the soul, I might then study Mesilas Yesharim before Moreh HaNevuchim. Learning any mussar can be a catalyst for change, but is maximally helpful at a spiritual level when focused, directed and personalized. Like the light bulb in the therapist’s office, we have to want to change, and we must determine what kind of enduring change can be accomplished and how.

Cultivation of the spiritual senses also requires dialogue as well as monologue. If we allow our colloquial “baruch Hashem”s and “b’ezras Hashem”s to comprise our psycholinguistic efforts to talk about the Divine, we relegate our G-d sense into unmindful reflex. If you want to test this out, try saying “Blessed is G-d” or “With the helping will of the One Above” next time you speak with your Jewish brethren and you will find them puzzled, yet find yourself beginning to feel more faithful. You may be teased that you sound like a preacher, or asked if you are a baal teshuva. Choosing words that give us pause to take them seriously, to mean them, facilitates internal movement. We need to develop an internal monologue that puts Hashem in the forefront of our consciousness, and we need to share openly our feelings and thoughts about Him if He is to become for us a reality rather than a word.

We read about “small miracles,” we are “touched by a story,” and we are often swift to comment about the hashgacha or the yad Hashem (hand of G-d) implicit in some anecdote, whether our own or someone else’s. But do we let it stop there? If so, we are giving lip service to the orthopractical notion that when something works out – or doesn’t – it is not mere coincidence. However, that has as much spiritual impact as typing LOL when someone sends you a joke. You sidestep the potential experience of a moving encounter, whether humorous or numinous, by using a cliché in lieu of actually processing the experience mindfully. No one has actually laughed out loud before typing LOL. They are responding with the expected word formula in lieu of an actual experience.

When King Solomon speaks about mussar haskel (Mishlei 1:3), I believe that he intends this as “being moved internally through thorough processing of a lesson.” We need to move ourselves, and that requires mindful processing of our psycho-spiritual moments. I must confess that many years ago, I was invited to participate in a psycho-spiritual group of Jewish mental health professionals, to discuss ways to develop greater spiritual feelings in our personal and professional lives. The group limped along for about a year, with the dropouts complaining that discussing faith, trust, deep yearnings and transcendence was too “goyish” or it was “bitul Torah.” Others said that these are things you keep private. I believe that if we claim to keep them private, they may not actually exist. The Taoist saying that “he who knows does not tell; he who tells does not know” is not consistent with our outlook. Whereas one’s inner growth may involve tznius (privacy) and the concealing of some material, our professed beliefs are not a secret and belong in mindful dialogues with those who are similarly in search of religious meaning.

Kol Dodi Dofek. God In Search Of Man. The Strife of The Spirit. Jewish thinkers have long explored the neglected sense of the Sacred, perhaps in anticipation of the dead-end experience many in our camp have begun to encounter. Struggle is healthy. It is important. Wrestling with the malach (angel), including the internal malach, is part of being a person of faith. Conflict is also healthy, for it signifies a thinking and discerning person who has become self-aware and honest. We can help ourselves and our students by remaining honest and encouraging honesty about the phenomenological quest for a Torah-true spiritual experience. “Fortunate is one who finds strength in You, through different paths to the heart” (Tehillim 84:6). Surely this process belongs in the home and in the yeshiva, so that it is does not end up in the therapist’s office.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, a graduate school professor, and the rabbi of the Hashkama Minyan in Hancock Park. Some of the findings mentioned herein are discussed in Conversion Readiness Assessment (2006), the manual accompanying his screening instrument for those seeking an Orthodox lifestyle.

No comments yet

Comments are closed.