“cogito, ergo…”: The Sum of Who I Am?

24 09 2006

Inspired by a great couple of posts over at Bilbulatsia, I decided that it was high time that I actually write a little bit about who I really am.

Well.

My family is not religiously observant. My father always wanted me to be a Rabbi, but this was moreso because he perceived me as being genuinely interested in Judaism and he felt that I would make a good one. It is perhaps a testament to his open-mindedness that he could even advocate such a thing for his son, he not being a particularly religious man himself. We always attended synagogue services for Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim, and even went through a faze when I needed to go with my father a few times a week on the lead-up to my bar-mitzvah. When I look back at it, those were very pleasant experiences, and the synagogue seemed a pleasing place for me, and a provocative one.

My interests may have all but died there, for I never pursued any degree of religiosity while still attending school. It was while I was undertaking a degree in Communication that I first began to develop a stronger interest, and it manifested itself in the form of a zeal for Qabbalah. I began reading widely (and purchasing ever more widely), but was deterred by the fact that I had no background in any of the ‘more necessary’ material. I had always felt attracted to the Bible, for reasons that I had never been able to put into words, but was now also feeling myself drawn towards Talmud and Halakha. I started taking classes.

The classes that I took were run by Chabad Rabbis in Sydney, and they generally continued on into farbrengens: the Yiddish term used to denote gatherings of Hassidim for the purposes of spiritual encouragement. These functions consistently had a high quantity of alcohol, but my extreme enthusiasm for the words of the Rabbi presiding over the event always ended up precluding me from actually doing much drinking. I do not even remember being dismayed by the quantity drunk by others.

I started attending synagogue services – Friday nights only at first, but I soon started going on Shabbat as well – and before long I was opting to wear a kippah. My Communication degree was actually combined at the time with International Studies, and I was to be spending 2002 in St Petersburg before returning and completing my degree in Sydney, 2003. I altered my degree, curtailed my plans and, after a brief and motivating visit to New Zealand (where I had a good friend who was also becoming very fascinated with Judaism and who was highly receptive to my wearing of a kippah), I left for Israel.

I spent six months between learning Hebrew on a kibbutz in the north and volunteering on an ambulance in Tel-Aviv before I finally entered the environment for which I had moved to Israel in the first place: yeshiva. It was a Chabad yeshiva and, within a very short space of time, I thoroughly looked the part. I grew my beard, donned the thickest and longest tzitzit that I could find, embraced wholeheartedly the Ashkenazi pronounciation employed by Lubavitchers, and bought myself a hat. By the time that my ten months were up, I had made my way through the factory and had finally come out the other end. The only things still my own were my opinions, and it was for their sake that I left.

I had become increasingly frustrated with Lubavitch Messianism¹, and fully cognizant of the fact that there was no such thing as a Lubavitcher who did not believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. I was fed up with the amount of alcohol abuse that was going on in my so-called “yeshiva”, and the fact that there were very few students there who were actually spending their time learning anything, rather than hanging out on street corners all afternoon and pestering passers-by with tefillin. I left, and I chose a Haredi yeshiva for its seriousness. I wanted Talmud, undiluted by Chassidut.

I was in for the surprise of my life. I had always learned that Lubavitchers were renowned for studying Chassidut as though it were Talmud, but I came to realise that they had only ever studied Talmud as though it were Chassidut. The real deal, as offered to my by (what I considered to finally be) a real yeshiva was infinitely more complex and conceptual. My life was becoming thoroughly cerebral, and I found myself vowing never to leave.

Life was good. For a time. It didn’t take long before I realised that my opinions were as black-and-white as the clothes that I was wearing every day. I was harbouring racist thoughts about non-Jews, sexist thoughts about women, and downright disgusting thoughts about homosexuals. I was becoming one of them, and I did not like it. Every now and then, alarm bells would ring in my head, warning me of how I was behaving. I started on the road towards deciding to leave.

This was a difficult time for me, but only because of the successive psychological barriers that I had erected for myself. It was so easy to adopt a new practise, but so incredibly difficult to take one away. I had come to yeshiva in order to learn, but I was rapidly heading down the path of eradicating my entire life in order to be a part of a system to which I did not need to belong. This was not the life that I wanted to lead, but I didn’t know how to leave it.

The final straw came when my mother visited me. I had not seen her in two years, and should have been very excited. Instead, I found myself feeling embarrassed by her secularism. She was not covering her hair, her dress should have been longer, her make-up was immodest. Immodest! My mother! I left the yeshiva. Although I joked afterwards to friends that I had done so “at the drop of a hat”, I knew that it was a lot more complicated than that, and I suffered a lot of anxiety at the time. I didn’t know who I was anymore without the elaborate mindset that I had built up for myself, and was not sure where I was going to find myself in Australia. One thing that I knew for sure: I wanted to keep studying.

To that end, I enrolled in a couple of Diplomas at Sydney University with the intention of working towards a PhD in Biblical Studies. A main part of the attraction was the excitement that was due to come with ‘un-learning’ everything that I had been taught to believe, and the certainty that should be provided by establishing some degree of bedrock on which my new lifestyle would be able to rest. Little did I know just how much these studies would mean to me.

It turns out that, as much as I love the Bible and as passionate as I am about Judaism, my chief interests are philological. The classes that I was encouraged to take (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac in my first year) quite literally blew my mind. The classes that I took in the Hebrew Bible left me astounded. This was the real deal, and it was something that no ultra-Orthodox yeshiva could ever have given me. This was real. This was a means of studying the texts themselves, not just buying into the literal truth of what their authors were saying.

I lost the kippah and I abandoned my observance of the mitzvot. There are times when I consider adopting these practises again, but I am no longer searching with the same degree of zeal with which I had once searched before. I have swum in the deep end and, while I did not drown, I knew when to leave the water and go back home. I am now taking a combined Honours program in both of my Diplomas and am thoroughly loving it. Next year will hopefully see the start of a PhD.

There is no end to this story, at least not yet. I have never regretted any of the things that I did, and I got an incredible amount out of my time in yeshiva. I am thankful every day for the fact that I went there, but I am equally thankful for the fact that I left. Fourteen months was quite long enough for me, but I look forward to the other places that my life may lead me.

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]
¹ For those of you who are unaware, Chabad and Lubavitch are two names for the same phenomenon. Chabad is the name of the ideology, Lubavitch the name of the group.

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