Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Writing to you here as someone who grew up strictly orthodox. Not only that, but was born in New York, also went to yeshiva for a full year in Israel. I also went to Yeshiva University where I had a double curriculum and had to learn Judaism from 9-1 pm every day in addition to college.
I was so religious when younger, I memorized the entire Siddur (prayer book) and read the Torah every weekend. My teacher in Israel said I should go into chinuch (become a rabbi). I mastered certain topics like Jewish philosophy and even was fluent in dikduk (laws of Hebrew grammar) learning from one of the top dikduk experts in my community. Now, I just ate a cheeseburger the other day. I’m probably the biggest 180 you’ll find out of anyone you know. I am, by definition, as far “off the derech” as they come.
I don’t wear tefilin anymore, and my mother is so incredibly pained by it. My parents suggest going to a rabbi to “help me” figure out where I really want to be in my life, i.e. Get more religious so you can get married like they did at 22. Why are you ruining your chances on such great girls? They want someone more religious. Girls that are religious have more depth. You want more depth. You need a religious girl.
I don’t believe any of it anymore, have my own apartment in New York City which I pay for with my job working for a prominent private equity firm. When I’m on my own, I barely do anything Jewish anymore. I don’t keep shabbat or kashrut, and haven’t been to synagogue. Although I do want to go.
But when I’m home with my family, somehow I always need to please them. I’ll only use my phone on Saturday behind closed doors, and I have to try and go to synagogue. I’ll sit for a Friday night dinner. But where does this end? I’m 25 years old. At what point do I stop doing this stuff out of respect and really have control over my life? I fight with my mother all the time about this. I ask her to please allow me to go my own way. She counters by asking if I’ll say Kaddish for her when she dies. Please help me find religious freedom in my tumultuous life.
I seldom “analyze” people, which means to guess what their inner feelings and motives are, because it’s just that, a guess, and errors are inevitable. But in some situations a person’s inner feelings and motives are the main thing they need to become clear on, more than sorting out which pragmatic solutions are the best to try. So please forgive me the errors that are inevitable in giving you my impressions of your feelings and motives. Whether I’m right or wrong, the point is to stimulate you to become clear about them, so you can take action and get unstuck.
You asked, “Where does this end? …help me find religious freedom in my tumultuous life.”
It ends exactly where you put your foot down, and not one step before. It ends exactly when you put an end to it, and not one minute before. You already have religious freedom in your tumultuous life; but it’s tumultuous because of two places where you are stuck: I think you are not yet free of your emotional attachment to some aspects of your religion, and you are allowing your mother to manipulate and control you.
You describe your educational and religious accomplishments in detail, and indeed they sound impressive. It shows that you are very intelligent, and it appears that you gain quite a lot of well-deserved self-esteem from those accomplishments. But you don’t believe any of it anymore. The field you studied seems to be no longer meaningful to you personally, or useful to you either for your work or the way you want to live your life. So you look on all that with a mixture of pride and chagrin, a sense of achievement and an equal sense of loss.
When you were still “on the derech,” you worked very hard and you were rewarded with praise and admiration. You were special. Now, you have taken your intelligence and diligence into the world of business and finance, and you have to start all over again to earn praise, admiration and specialness. This would be emotionally difficult for just about anyone, and might give them feelings of frustration, regret, or grief. Your feet are off the derech, but like Lot’s wife, you turn and look back wistfully. The last sentence of your fourth paragraph, “Although I do want to go,” illustrates this confused ambivalence. It’s an uncomfortable place that many people have been, but many have found their way out.
Focus on this idea: Nothing you have studied, learned, and achieved is entirely a waste, no matter how different your career and your lifestyle are now. All of your knowledge and experiences can and do enrich your present work, your relationships, and your intellectual and emotional life. Even the Hebrew you learned; every language is a unique window on the world offering special insights. You have skills, positive attitudes, good habits, and wisdom from your previous life that you are already applying in your present life, and many personal qualities that you developed and strengthened then are your mainstay virtues and assets now. The scene has changed, but they remain. Look for these positive threads running from your past life into your present life, and you’ll see them, and then you’ll start seeing even more. All, all of it enriches you now. Nothing is a waste if you can see its present value.
As you start to become less ambivalent and conflicted about your own life, you’ll begin to be more confident and imperturbable when responding to your mother:
If you’re still fighting with her over all these things, then you’re still accepting her invitations to the fight. You are cooperating and participating in this dance. You can calmly and lovingly decline the invitation:
“Mom, I love you, but I can’t show that by doing everything you want. I have to live my own life. We can keep loving each other just as much anyway, so let’s not fight.”
Keep calmly repeating something like this again and again, and if necessary, quietly and gently leave to stop any further attempts to draw you into a quarrel. If you start to fight, you have instantly lost. When you come back later, start over. Don’t ask her to “allow” you to go your own way; she doesn’t have that power to allow you or forbid you. That is in your hands. Tell her (gently) that the two of you can keep loving each other as you go your own way, and that is what you intend.
Somewhere in all that Judaism and Jewish philosophy you studied I’m sure there is something very wise about keeping your dignity and equanimity. Draw on it and use it.
Her Kaddish remark is an invitation to a guilt trip. Don’t buy the ticket. Either ignore it, or even better gently call her on it:
“Mom, whether you’re alive or dead, I still have to go my own way. When you die I will honor your memory and help the rest of the family to cope. If saying Kaddish is part of that, I will. But that will be for you and them, not for me. I love you. Let’s enjoy that now while we’re both alive.”
Again, repeat something like this as necessary. Paradoxically, the more peacefully you repeat it, the more powerful it will be.
Aaron, again please forgive my very imperfect mind reading. Take what fits, and use it to look at yourself with equal parts clarity and compassion. Discard what doesn’t fit. If some of your family simply cannot accept you as you are, that is a measure of their failing, and it is their loss. Keep your side of the door open, even if they close their side. I think you have all the wisdom and skill you need to find a way to live in peace with your family and still be your own person.
Ask Richard: Religious Blackmail Part 1 of 2: Emotional