You didn’t grow up religious?
As a kid, my family and teachers told me that I was a deep and passionate person. I didn’t know what these words really meant, but I liked them and felt that they said something about who I was. I liked the idea of being a “truth seeker” because I was always the one asking the difficult questions. My family told me that I was Jewish, but that felt essentially meaningless to me. Most of the “religious” people that I talked to didn’t give me satisfactory answers and led me to believe that organized religion was the source of all the problems in the world and had nothing to offer me.
I thought that religious people were arrogant. I knew that the possibilities in this world were infinite and scoffed at those who thought they could explain it all. I knew that there was something beyond words, beyond our capacity to understand. When asked if I believed in God, I answered “No. I believe in the infinite truth beyond a human being’s capacity to understand. Giving it a name and characteristics… no.” In truth, this hasn’t changed at all.
I was the family agnostic. Every family has one. I remember bulldozing guests with questions at the Passover table. When it was cited that “tradition” was important, I responded offensively, asking how doing things for the sake of tradition and following orders without understanding makes us any different from robots or nazis. (Needless to say, this comment was NOT appreciated.) I never dated anyone Jewish… when my parents suggested it I called them racist. I wouldn’t say that I was angry with Judaism. It wasn’t often that I was required to participate in something “Jewish” so I wrote it off as something that didn’t really affect me. My parents brought me up to live with integrity, and encouraged my need to question everything. Even though they didn’t agree with everything that I said or did, they acknowledged that it was logically sound.
In my early teens, my “religion” was music and science. Both of these things taught me about infinity. The fact that a single note at the beginning of a piece can be played in an infinite amount of ways proved to me that human beings could never know everything. Science (chemistry was my favourite!) taught me that even though we can never understand everything, that we must continue to stretch our minds and build our capacity to understand. I’ll never know everything, but I will know more than I knew yesterday.
Did I believe that every human being has a neshama/soul? No I didn’t. I knew the scientific law that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Schelomo haMelech puts it very well when he says that there is nothing new under the sun. So since I couldn’t see or quantify this thing called a soul, I didn’t believe in it.
My mom passed away when I was 16. For obvious reasons, this changed everything. I remember looking at her body and feeling NOTHING. I remember thinking, “this isn’t my mom… my mom is somewhere else.” This changed how I felt about a human soul/neshama. You see, I knew that whatever essence was my mom was not there in her dead body. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, there had to be something beyond what I could see and experience. Whatever made up my mom’s “essence” needed to be somewhere else, somewhere I couldn’t access anymore. Where did it go? You see, up until then I always believed that the physical and the infinite were separate. Aka what is finite cannot have any connection to what is beyond comprehension. Seeing the separation between my mom’s body and what made her my mom made me realize that there MUST be a connection between the finite and infinite when we are living in this world.
I studied philosophy the next year in highschool. The man teaching this class was incredible. I’ll never be able to properly thank him for what he has given me. I learned different theories, different ways of thinking. I stretched my mind to places that it had never gone before! This class ended with a big project in which the last question we had to answer was what we thought… what was MY philosophy? I remember struggling with this question, because I had found shreds of truth in every theory that I had read. Did I have to pick one? Did I have to make my own? I ended up calling myself an “existential monist” meaning that I believed that everything is separate yet everything is connected. I remember being argued with in class. “How can you believe in two theories that contradict? You can’t believe in both!” This really stressed me out. But I knew within the core of my being that these two opposing thoughts were both completely true. I didn’t know how they could coexist, yet they did.
In the next few years I worked on this idea of contradiction. I used to refer to myself as a “walking contradiction” and took pride in being able to hold to conflicting philosophies within myself. But I was lonely. To others as well as myself, I didn’t make logical sense. I learned to keep this part of myself quiet.
Oh yeah, I also didn’t believe in universal morality. I knew that if “right/wrong” existed, then it had to exist outside of what humans have created. Because how can I say what’s right or wrong when someone else with just as much importance as me might disagree completely? What makes my human opinion more important than his/her human opinion? Unless one was willing to believe in a non-human force that knows right from wrong, then there couldn’t be any universal morality. I didn’t like this one bit… but I remember passionately arguing with people about the fact that if they didn’t believe in God (or some outside governing force) then they couldn’t believe in morality. I know I hurt a lot of people with my ruthless logic. This kept me up at night, because I knew it wasn’t true… yet my love for logic made my arguments sound and I couldn’t deny them.
You know how when you’re a kid you build yourself a fantasy life and then try to become that fantasy? I always thought that I was smart and that I knew what I was doing. I worked hard and by the time I was mid-university I had become the person that I wanted to be. From the outside, I had everything… on the inside I was starting to realize that I didn’t know anything about what I wanted or what was good for me. My life was empty. The things that I wanted and had thought through so “deeply” weren’t fulfilling…
It took a lot of bravery to admit that to myself. When you’re always told how “deep, passionate, logical and truth-seeking” you are, you start to see yourself as being that way. So when you finally get everything that you “want” and aren’t happy, it takes a lot to remove yourself from those things. But I realized that I had to live up to those beautiful labels… if I was going to be happy, then maybe I was going to have to let go of everything that I had built up. When I realized that what I wanted wasn’t necessarily what I needed, I felt the most incredible freedom! I realized that I could be ANYTHING! But this feeling was also very scary…
So, in a nutshell, I reached a point in my life where I let go. I let go of everything I had been told, every bias that I had, everything I loved and everything I hated. I felt like I was falling while being lifted up at the same time.
I decided to face the things I had always hated. I won’t go into all the things that I explored because most of them lead to the same empty dead ends. I will say that when I let go of myself and opened up to what the world had to offer me, some incredible things started filtering in!
Many people ask me “what about you has changed?” The funny thing is, not much has changed. The things that I hated about religion? I still dislike them. I just decided to not let those issues get in the way of exploring and bringing it into my life in a way that was honest and true to myself. I let all the doubts come out… and eventually figured out that there is synergy in contradiction. I am so incredibly happy that I did. I give everyone reading this a blessing that you will be given the opportunities to stretch your capacities, and that you will have the bravery to look at your life and let go of everything that you want in order to find what you truly need.