Can yoga ever really be ‘kosher’?
A few years’ back, on Emunaroma, I spent quite a while trying to bottom out whether yoga could really be ‘kosher’ for orthodox Jews. After a lot of digging around, the answer that crystallised was:
No, absolutely not!
Last week, a friend called me and asked me to re-post the yoga report on my new blog, as there is a 3 day ‘yoga retreat’ happening in Israel, and she was shocked that so many very orthodox women are spending a whole three days of their precious lives bowing to the modern baal that is yoga.
So, I’m reposting it below.
Can Yoga Really be Kosher?
For years’ now, I’ve been hearing from different people in the frum community about how ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’ yoga is. But because I’m a religious Jew, I’ve been very wary of getting into anything that seems so connected to idol worship and the Hindu religion (more on this in a moment).
‘But yoga can be kosher!’ I’ve been assured repeatedly, and I never pushed the issue very much because a) I still wanted to get Shabbat invitations, and b) I wasn’t really interested in doing it anyway.
When I started to develop an interest in alternative medicine, I made a point of seeking out a knowledgeable, well-respected orthodox Rabbi in Sanhedria, to ask him what was acceptable, halachically, and what wasn’t. He gave me guidelines that things like acupuncture and acupressure and even applied kinesiology – where everything is directly ‘hands-on’ and there’s no indirect, invisible ‘forces’ at play – are halachically OK.
But anything to do with chakras, or anything hands-off (like the type of healing that occurs with Reiki, for example,) was not.)
I did more research, and was told that a rabbinic research group had been put together a few years’ back by one of the ultra-orthodox organisations in Israel, to explore what was ok, Jewishly, and what wasn’t. The basic conclusion is that most of the things coming out of China were OK, but the practises coming out of India were NOT OK.
I also discovered that Rav Elyashiv had given a ruling about kisufim (the use of magic) in alternative medicine, that basically said that anything where it couldn’t be shown scientifically how it actually worked to help a person heal, should be considered kisufim and avoided by Jews.
In recent years, there have been many studies done to show that the body is made up of electrical impulses, that each cell is polarized with an electrical charge, and that the traditional acupuncture points of Chinese Medicine actually correspond to areas where the electrical ‘charge’ of the skin is much greater than in surrounding areas.
Long story short: Chinese Medicine now has a proven scientific basis for how and why it works, and is thus acceptable for orthodox Jews.
But the same can definitely NOT be said for the Indian healing tradition, which includes multiple references to energy centres (the chakras and the nadis) and working with the ‘astral’ body, i.e., a person’s soul. Yoga is part of the Indian healing tradition.
So, can it be ‘kosher’?
Yoga’s bad vibe
Let me start by explaining how I came to be researching this topic. A few weeks’ ago, I finally attended my first apparently ‘kosher’ yoga class. The teacher was a very lovely woman, but the spiritual ‘vibe’ I got from attending the class was so disturbing to me – despite the fact that all we seemed to be doing was some nice stretching exercises – that I decided to check things out properly, to see what’s really going on with ‘kosher yoga’.
I decided to buy a book on the history of yoga by yoga expert Georg Feuerstein, which would set everything out, and explain where yoga had come from. Immediately, the first red flag went up as I started to read some of the comments about yoga being the ‘midwife’ of at least four idolatrous religions; and how it was ‘impossible to separate yoga from Hinduism, just as it’s impossible to unscramble an egg.’
There was also a lot of talk about how it helps people to tap into to the ‘mythical energy of the serpent’, and a whole bunch of other stuff that frankly made my hair stand on end.
Let’s be clear that the people discussing yoga in this fashion were adepts and experts who really knew what they were talking about, and who didn’t have a vested interest about pretending that yoga was nothing to do with religion.
They stated very clearly that it was a religious, spiritual practice, associated with many of the world’s most idolatrous religions.
Things did not look very promising, initially, but I decided to wait and see what the book said, before really making up my mind.
Then, someone contacted me complaining that I should look at the ‘secular’ branch of yoga as taught by BKS Iyengar, and practiced in the West, which was all about health benefits and exercise, and nothing to do with religion at all.
There is no such thing as ‘secular’ yoga
I went to check out BKS Iyengar – and got to an official site that was dripping with idol worship and full of prayers offered up to the dead founders of yoga, who had now been officially deified (including by BKS Iyengar, himself).
(As a side note, whenever you do that ‘OM’ chant, the underlying intention is that you are praying to an idol.)
The more I was scratching the surface of yoga, even apparently ‘secular’ yoga, the more I was finding references and connections to idol worship – so much so, that I literally started to feel a little nauseous about the whole affair.
The next thing I did was go back to our halachic sources, to check what it says about idol worship.
The Torah gives us two very clear commandments in connection with the severe prohibition against idol worship (I’m quoting the notes to the Artscroll Tractate of Avodah Zarah, 11a):
- “And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
- “And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
On the face of it, even if yoga was ‘secular’ and ‘just exercises’, as is claimed by the kosher yoga crowd, and even if you got rid of the salutations to the sun and the chanting,
Jews are still forbidden to do it because yoga is indisputably a practice that’s specific to idolatrous peoples.
Trying to track down the halachic approval for yoga
So now, we hit the next stage of the process: trying to track down the rabbis who had apparently approved yoga as kosher, to hear from them how their rulings squared with the above Torah laws.
And this is where things have become very interesting!
I was put in touch with a yoga teacher who had apparently received the halachic OK from two well-known orthodox figures. When I asked for more details, she told me she’d been told verbally by one of them that yoga was OK if she just avoided the ‘salutations to the sun’ and the chanting stuff.
I have been trying to get hold of that person to speak to them, but so far they haven’t returned my emails. (If he does, I will update you.)
It turned out the other figure had never spoken to her directly, and to my source’s credit she was unwilling to name them or pass on what they’d said as she’d only heard it second-hand (and as I’m learning with this stuff, even the ‘first-hand’ approvals have to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.)
But she put me in touch with the ‘orthodox’ yoga teacher who’d trained her – and hundreds of others in the orthodox world – who she was sure could give me more details about the halachic backers of ‘kosher’ yoga.
This is an excerpt of our email exchange, after I’d asked the teacher (very politely) if she could please give me details of the Rabbinic backers who had certified her yoga courses for the orthodox Jewish world:
I would love to be part of this discussion however this is the craziest month for me with school ending, camp coming, Shavuot around the corner, and my program starts in a month so everyone is calling.
I can only tell you Rivka that I have done extensive research on this and there is a false understanding that the modern postural practice of yoga, which we westerners practice, is rooted in Hinduism. I am sending you this article to read which explains it all http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/not-as-old-as-you-think#page3. There are major Rabbanim that poskin that yoga is fine so long as it is done for health purposes and that it practiced as an exercise or a path to wellness and health.
Other than this I can’t get into a whole dialogue about it because of my time constraints but just know that the poses were influenced greatly by western fitness models and you don’t have to worry about it.
I took a look at the article, thanks, and it’s not at all clear. It’s obviously a very hot topic of debate within the yoga world itself about whether yoga can truly be cut off from its hindu origins, and the person who wrote the article appears to be a lone voice in the wilderness, saying that it can. Do you have any other references?
Also, I just looked up your teacher’s site (as per your info on your site) and was a little surprised that it said the following – the part about her system of ‘flow yoga’ being ‘rooted in the ancient system of Tantra’ etc. So clearly, her yoga DOES have a spiritual basis rooted in hindu tradition, as she herself is publicising on her site.
I’m curious if that’s the same style of flow yoga that you’re teaching and certifying via [YOUR YOGA COLLEGE]?
And if yes, I really do need the names of your halachic poskim.
(The ‘orthodox’ yoga teacher had apparently learned her completely ‘secular’ yoga practices from someone who studied directly from a tantric master, and who happily teachers her yoga in temples dedicated to ‘Lord Shriva’.)
This is what I got back:
Why are you inquiring about this? I don’t know of your intentions for why you are asking all these questions. Are you thinking of learning yoga. ? Do you want to teach it? Are you upset observant Jews are teaching yoga?
Let me ask you a question: Why are you being so reticent about giving me the names of your halachic poskim? What’s the big deal? If it’s ok, halachically, let me know who your rabbis are who have sanctioned it, and end of story.
My intention is this: I am trying to find out if yoga is halachically OK for Jews to do.
I am writing up my discoveries as I go along, and I’m sharing what I’m learning with others.
If you have halachic sanction from orthodox rabbis, please give me the names so I can contact them for further details. If you can’t do that, then it suggests that the issue is not as straightforward as you’re representing it to be.
I got this response back (peace ‘n love, man…)
It doesn’t suggest anything. I am straightforward. I have dealt with people like you in the past and frankly I don’t have the time of day to deal with it. We have 100% have called Poskin and got permission to practice yoga. Now it’s your turn to do the same. Call your Rabbis and speak to them about your particular situation. I am not interested in being scrutinized nor will I pass the name out of my Rabbis. Yoi have your own Rabbis, own community and own hashgafa so get ypur answera from your own community. It was rude of you to look up my teachers bio (who I learned with 20 years ago when I wasn’t frum) & question my authenticity based on her bio. Please don’t write me and go do your own research into the topic. Next time you have questions such as this try not to approach a person with such judgement and maybe you will learn something.
Well, learn something I certainly did….
Wikipedia to the rescue
The proponents of ‘kosher yoga’ like to say that it’s completely secular and just exercise. But even a cursory look at Wikipedia shows that yoga and idolatry are so tightly woven together, THEY CANNOT BE SEPERATED.
- Plug in ‘Hatha Yoga’ to Wikipedia and here’s what you’ll read, in the first two lines:
In the 20th century, hatha yoga, particularly asanas (the physical postures), became popular throughout the world as a form of physical exercise, and is now colloquially termed as simply “yoga”.”
- Plug in plain ‘Yoga’ to Wikipedia, and you’ll get this:
“In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise, it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhya philosophy.”
And a little later on, you get this, in the section called ‘The Goals of Yoga’:
“According to David Gordon White, from the 5th century CE onward, the core principles of “yoga” were more or less in place, and variations of these principles developed in various forms over time:
- Yoga, as an analysis of perception and cognition; illustration of this principle is found in Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gitaand Yogasutras, as well as a number of Buddhist Mahāyāna works;
- Yoga, as the rising and expansion of consciousness; these are discussed in sources such as Hinduism Epic Mahābhārata, Jainism Praśamaratiprakarana;
- Yoga, as a path to omniscience; examples are found in HinduismNyaya and Vaisesika school texts as well as Buddhism Mādhyamaka texts, but in different ways;
- Yoga, as a technique for entering into other bodies, generating multiple bodies, and the attainment of other supernatural accomplishments; these are described in Tantric literature of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the Buddhist Sāmaññaphalasutta.”
As these excerpts clearly and unequivocably show, the focus of yoga is NOT on exercise and physical health at all. The spiritual underpinnings of yoga, and its direct connections to idol worshipping religions are so obvious, it’s hard to believe that I’m even having to write this.
“If you do yoga just for your physical health, then it’s ok halachically”
So now, we come down to the crux of the ‘Kosher Yoga’ argument, which is that if you only do the exercises, and you have no connection whatsoever to the philosophical or religious associations, then it’s OK, halachically.
That appears to be the current argument of the people who are convinced that yoga can be koshered. But there are a number of serious problems with this approach.
- PROBLEM ONE: It doesn’t satisfy the Torah prohibitions we brought above, namely:
“And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
“And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
Who can deny that yoga is a practice that is specific to idolatrous peoples?
Who can claim that the exact same poses used in the worship of ‘Lord Shriva’ or some other idol are NOT ‘rituals that are used in idol worship’, even if the person doing them doesn’t have that specific intention?
So that’s the first, massive problem with this halachic approach, and I would love for the Rabbinic poskim who have apparently sanctioned yoga for orthodox Jews to come out of hiding, and openly explain how they have specifically addressed this issue, in their rulings.
- PROBLEM TWO: It doesn’t work, in practice.
Because as we’ve been learning, it’s impossible to disentangle the physical exercises from their spiritual and philosophical roots.
As soon as you call your exercise program ‘yoga’, you’ve connected it to the philosophy and spirituality of idol worship. (This is a good time to remind you that a leading branch of Hinduism is actually called ‘yoga’. If you’d be uncomfortable attending a class called ‘Xtian stretching’, then the same issue applies here.)
If you’re still not convinced that even the name is steeped in Hindu philosopy and idol-worshipping spirituality, I found the following on one of the official websites promoting Swami Vivekananda, the man credited with ‘secularising’ modern yoga for Western consumption a century ago:
“The word Yoga is FIRST defined by sage Patanjali in his book Patanjali Yoga Sutra. He summarized YOGA as CHITTA VRITHI NIRODHA.
CHITTA means MIND
VRITTI means VIBRATIONS
NIRODHA means STOPPAGE”
(As a side note, you should know that ‘sage Patanjali’ has been officially deified by many branches of the Hindu religion.)
Also, in order to qualify as an ‘official’ yoga teacher in the West (even via the apparently ‘kosher’ yoga colleges) you are still required to learn ‘yoga philosophy, lifestyle and ethics’, that are all clearly rooted in idolatrous beliefs and philosophy, as per the below which comes from the Yoga Alliance website for registered yoga schools:
Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle and Ethics for Yoga Teachers:
Minimum Contact Hours: 20 hours
Minimum Contact Hours w/ Lead Trainer(s): 0 hours
Special Requirements: A minimum of 2 of the above Contact Hours must be spent on ethics for yoga teachers
Topics in this category could include, but would not be limited to:
The study of yoga philosophies and traditional texts (such as the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Bhagavad Gita)
Yoga lifestyle, such as the precept of non-violence (ahimsa), and the concepts of dharma and karma
Ethics for yoga teachers, such as those involving teacher – student relationships and community
Understanding the value of teaching yoga as a service and being of service to others (seva)
Now, I’ve never heard of people having to immerse themselves in idolatrous texts for thirty hours just to be able to teach tennis, or a good aerobics class. Is there really anyone out there who still believes that yoga is ‘purely’ a form of exercise?
Yoga is not just an exercise, it’s a lifestyle choice
The last thing to say is that yoga, even the apparently ‘secular-just-for-exercise’ version is a complete lifestyle package. As soon as people get into yoga, they start wanting to learn more about it, and expand their knowledge of this amazing new ‘exercise’ their doing.
As soon as they do that – as soon as they read the information on Wikipedia, or on any other yoga site, for example – they’re connecting to the philosophy and spirituality behind the exercises, which makes it instantly forbidden to them to continue practicing yoga, even according to the halachic opinion quoted above, that it’s: ‘OK’ to do yoga if it’s completely divorced from spirituality or philosophy.
(And this is a good time to note, again, that the exercises CANNOT be divorced from the spiritual side of things, for all the reasons and more stated above.)
Where do we go from here?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about yoga-practicing Jews, even the ‘frum’ ones, it’s that they will defend their ‘exercise’ program religiously.
Again, the idol-worshipping connections to yoga are so obvious, that anyone who even researches this topic a little will quickly find stacks of information making it clear that yoga is off-limits for believing Jews.
So it comes down to this: For the God-fearing people in our midst who really want to avoid idol worship, and who are really concerned about doing what God wants, even when it involves some sort of self-sacrifice on their part, there is really no question:
Yoga is an idolatrous practice, and is forbidden. Engaging in this practice, even so-called ‘secular’ yoga will damage your soul and your connection to God and Yiddishkeit.
For the other people, who decided a long time ago that yoga was ‘kosher’ – regardless of the issues raised above – nothing I wrote here will change their mind, and they will continue to try to convince everyone else that you can really kosher a pig, and that they aren’t doing anything wrong!!!
And for the people in the middle?
Ask your ‘kosher yoga’ provider the name of the rabbi who certified their program – and don’t let them wiggle out of giving it you. Ask them how their apparently ‘secular’ style differs from the poses used in idol-worship (and then watch them squirm, because the whole point of certain schools of yoga is that the poses, or ‘asanas’ have to be done precisely, as taught by the (idol-worshiping) yogi masters.)
Ask them how can be sure that the 30 hours of instruction in idolatrous beliefs they had to do in order to even qualify as a teacher hasn’t seeped into the classes and exercises they’re giving over to their own students.
Go onto the internet and see for yourself how yoga is basically its own idolatrous religion.
And then you can decide which group you want to really be in: God-fearing Jews who care about their souls and their relationship to the Creator; OR Jews-for-yoga.
‘I believe I get health benefits from doing yoga. What can I do instead?’
This one is easy:
Do any stretching exercises you like that aren’t called ‘yoga’, or attached to idolatrous philosophies or religions!
That could be Pilates, the Alexander technique exercises, even just the ‘plain vanilla’ stretching exercises you can find in books like ‘Stretching for Dummies’. There are many different ways that you can stretch in a truly kosher way that have nothing to do with idolatrous faiths and practices.
A word to our Rabbis
Let’s end with a plea to the orthodox rabbis who are apparently certifying ‘kosher yoga’ (if they actually do exist…) Dear rabbis, I know you have a very hard job of trying to bring people closer to Yiddishkeit, and trying to accommodate the strange and superficial ideas about spirituality that so many modern people have.
I know it’s a very hard sell to get people to believe that body, mind and soul are really connected (which is why a Jew can’t just eat what they want, and why we go to mikva, and why we dress modestly, for example.)
But please don’t certify any more ‘kosher yoga’ programs until you’ve really done your homework about the idolatrous roots of this stuff, and the spiritual implications of ‘just doing the poses’.
Giving a hechsher to idol worshipping practices is hugely problematic, and should not be done lightly.
(Remember, in order to be a certified instructor, you have to have spent a minimum of 30 hours learning ‘philosophy, ethics and lifestyle’, as discussed above, which basically boils down to 30 hours of instruction in idolatrous ideas and philosophies).
If you decide it IS possible to make a form of ‘kosher’ yoga, then please publicize your rulings, and please give enough detailed explanation so the masses can also understand why doing even a ‘kosher’ form of yoga doesn’t infringe the serious Torah prohibitions against:
And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
May Hashem help us all to have the clarity to differentiate between good and bad, spiritual light and spiritual darkness, and the courage to act on our holy convictions, even when it’s very difficult for us.
You can download this whole post as a PDF here:
Orthodox holistic practitioner Efraim Geltman from Jerusalem Health sent along the following links from Rav Ginsburg, which makes the point even more sharply:
The last few weeks, I have to admit I’ve been struggling.
First I had that three weeks of ‘flu’, or whatever massive physical detox that actually was. Then, a lot of the things I’ve been working on the last little while started unraveling again, at least in my head.
I had issues on Sasson with a writer who was plagiarizing other people’s work, but didn’t seem to understand the problem when I explained it to them – repeatedly. Then, one by one the writers all seemed to get a little discouraged, and the creativity started drying up. I tried geeing it up with ‘themes’ and offers of monthly columns, but the people in the US really wanted to be paid to contribute regularly, and the people in Israel all got too busy with other stuff to be able to write.
Then, I had the issue with the pictures of women, which was the cue for someone who doesn’t even write for Sasson to send me a massively self-righteous email, knocking for me being so small-minded, judgmental and ‘anti-equality’.
So, my motivation to continue kind of sagged, because what’s the point?
Then, I spent two whole days trying to stick up the back posts from Emunaroma 2017 on to this site, and as I was reading through them, I started to feel like why did I waste so much of my time writing this stuff? What’s the point?
At the same time, one of my teens has been extremely challenging the last few weeks, as mentioned HERE. She wants a nice, clean, new house. She wants a different kitchen. She wants a different bathroom, and for the apartment to be in a different part of Jerusalem.
After everything that happened with the house, I sympathise with her a lot, but it’s still sometimes rubbing salt in the wound when she stomps around complaining about how old and yucky and moldy everything is.
Mold always shows up in old apartments in Israel when it rains. And sure enough, I’m catching it spread across whole walls, and popping up behind a bed in our room, and behind the shelves and bookcase in the girl’s room.
Ah, now I understand why the rent was so reasonable.
In the meantime, my heart kind of sank again, because if it was my house, I’d do my best to tackle the mold problem fundamentally. But as it isn’t, all I can do is keep returning every few days with some wipees and bleach. I know it’ll be back again in a week or two, so again I had that feeling what’s the point?
Then I started reading an absolutely awful book – with no less than three rabbinic approbations! – which basically claimed that living in Eretz Yisrael is a total waste of time, and even a ‘sin’, because the State of Israel was created by reshaim who were using the State to uproot and replace religion and Torah.
That last bit is correct, but the rest of the author’s ideas – about massive Tzaddikim who live here being ‘reshaim gemorim’, or that the Six Days War was totally not miraculous, or that a Jew can live a perfectly nice life in Lakewood (without the high taxes, army service and threat of a nuclear Iran) – and be a better Jew than someone who sacrificed so much to live in the Holy Land totally and utterly depressed me.
The book is 1500 pages long, and by the middle, I started to doubt my own sanity for believing in the geula and Moshiach.
My husband saw what was going on, and took the book away to throw it out. I should have guessed it was bad news, and it had a whole chapter devoted to the ‘Erev Rav’ (who of course, only live in Israel….), and was packed to the gills full of lashon hara, arrogance and anti-emuna statements.
I learnt some interesting stuff still, which I may write about another time, but only if it’s going to help bring Am Yisrael more together, not divide us.
But I started to see why so many of the ‘ultra-orthodox’ Jews in the US and UK have absolutely no desire to make aliya – and even think it’s a mitzvah to look down on people who did, and to disdain those of us who really do believe that you should be ready for Moshiach every day, every moment, even if it’s never going to happen in your own lifetime.
There have been a few more disappointments and disses going on too, behind the scenes, which meant by the time we got to yesterday, I was feeling like my whole life is a total waste of time.
Not just what’s the point of writing? But, what’s the point of me?
Yesterday, I tried to do an imperfect long chat to God about it all, and by the end of that, I was in floods of tears.
I just felt so low and worthless, like whatever I do just fails and is pointless.
I drove out to Ashdod to take a look at the sea, and I felt a bit better. But when I got home, it all came crashing back down on me.
You’re pointless, Rivka. Nothing you do is ever going to get anywhere. You’ve been living in fantasy world getting ready for geula and Moshiach for the last 13 years, when you could have just stayed in London and enjoyed yourself. What an idiot, that you gave up your career and your house and your social group for this.
Man, it was bad.
I was a gibbering wreck when my husband came home, and I couldn’t even tell him what the problem was for the first two hours, I was crying so much and feeling so pointless.
I went to have a shower (that often helps when you’re in the middle of a nervous breakdown, btw), and by the time I was done, I could explain the issue.
I’m worthless, and nothing I’ve done matters in any way, shape or form. I have totally wasted my life, the last few years.
He looked at me blankly.
Then, he started the fight back.
I’m doing a little better today, although I’m still pretty shaky.
I’m still struggling to believe that I’m worth something, even if I’m not earning money. And that I’m a good enough mum, even if we live in an apartment that’s covered with mold and that doesn’t have a lot of home-made cookies in the pantry. And that I’m a good enough Jew, even though I have been finding so many things difficult recently, and I’ve run out of spiritual energy on so many fronts.
Of course, it was only after my total freak-out that I realized it’s Rosh Chodesh Adar – uniformly the most challenging time of the year. Last year, I signed the contract on the awful apartment on Rosh Chodesh Adar, and we all know what a ‘blessing’ that turned into.
I know we’re taught Adar is when the happiness appears, but my experience is that usually, the lead up to Purim is the darkest time of the year, and it’s only on Purim day itself that the heaviness starts to lift, and the light starts to shine through again.
And this year, we have two Adars!
We need all the help we can get, to make it through to Pesach in one piece.
After I wrote this, I checked my emails and found that Mary in NY had sent me this clip, from Rav Ofer Erez.
It was exactly what I needed to hear, and it explains (with English subtitles in 3 1/2 minutes) why we’re all feeling the pressure right now.
Over to Rav Ofer:
Defining the role of the Baal Teshuva.
Recently, I had an email exchange with someone that inspired this post, that I’m calling the Baal Teshuva Manifesto. Baal Teshuvas, or BTs, have a crucial part to play in the unfolding redemption process, but where a lot of us seem to be getting stuck is that we think we have to be ‘carbon copies’ of the frum-from-birth crowd to be serving Hashem properly.
And this isn’t true!
God went to great lengths to stick us in whatever spiritual holes we found ourselves in before we realized we have a soul, and a much deeper spiritual purpose in life. What follows is going to explore this notion in much greater depth, but the basic idea is this:
The F-F-Bs have their own path, their own derech, and their own very important spiritual job to do in the world, which I’d sum up simplistically as:
Teaching Jews how to serve God with the yetzer tov, or good inclination.
By contrast, Baal Teshuvas also have their own path, derecho and spiritual job to do in the world, which I’ll sum up simplistically as:
Teaching Jews how to serve God with their yetzer hara, or evil inclination.
Most people in the FFB world didn’t grow up watching endless Disney, or having George Michael songs hardwired into their prepubescent heads, or spending pointless weeks on package holidays in places like Marbella or Cancun.
They don’t have those memories, they don’t have those challenges, they don’t have those issues and triggers.
When they go back to ‘home’, home is Torah, home is Shabbat, home is yiddishkeit, and unless they grew up in emotionally abusive, neglectful or otherwise disturbed homes, they will have very strong, happy childhood memories of these things. And those happy memories will reinforce the desire to do these things again, in their adult life.
By contrast, ‘home’ for many or even most of us Baal Teshuvas is linked to things that are the antithesis of yiddishkeit. Like movies, inappropriate dress, inappropriate behavior, Michael Jackson, God-less secular culture, and many modes of thinking and being that simply doesn’t go together with being a religious Jew.
And that’s usually the case even if the people in these homes were warm, wonderful, genuinely caring and giving. (Which these days, is clearly a big if). So part of the BT’s brain is literally hardwired to feel ‘at home’ in tumah, and in all the secular culture that so many of us kicked off and left behind, because we could see that it’s empty and destructive.
So now, let’s walk through the typical process of making teshuva to see what happens next:
- There’s a spiritual awakening of some kind, and the Baal Teshuva realizes they have a soul, and that God is requiring more of them than spending their life chasing after money or gratifying their ego and lusts.
- The Baal Teshuva starts to learn about keeping mitzvahs, and starts to learn more Torah.
- If they have a very strong desire to feel accepted, and to feel as though they ‘belong’ in their new community (which most of us have) they will try to dress the part as soon as possible, and will try to conform to as many of their new communities rules and regulations as quickly and as consistently as possible.
We’ve all been told that idea that the outside influences the inside, and it’s true to a great degree – but it’s also simplistic. Because sooner or later, there comes a time, there comes a place, where the ‘outside’s’ ability to really change the inside stops.
There’s a core of a person that is hardwired in childhood, and that will ‘pull’ the adult person, and catapult them towards certain things that are viewed as sources of tumah, or spiritual pollution, in the frum world.
Some examples from my own experience include:
- Secular reading material
- Being online
- Secular music and ‘culture’
- Nice clothing
- Working out / playing sports
- Nicely appointed homes
Now, it’s clear to us all that if a person can get through life happily and healthily without any of the above, that’s clearly 100% the best way to be for a frum Jew. But the problem is this:
Most of us Baal Teshuvas have some part of our brain that God has hardwired to feel ‘at home’ in the tumah.
And when we completely turn our backs on that tumah, that usually also means that we’re turning our backs on some integral part of ourselves. That part that has fond memories of watching Thriller. That part that really enjoyed reading A Little Princess. That part that actually wants to retrain to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or to go into business, instead of just sitting there learning Torah 24/7. That part that is dying, literally, to play a game of tennis, or shoot some hoops.
Not only that, because we’re fighting so hard to keep that ‘bad’ part of us in its box, that usually means that we can’t tolerate any whiff of anything or anyone that is going to entice us back to that tumahdik stuff, or put us in the place of having to admit that at least a bit of us is still drawn towards it.
So we stop talking to our old friends, and we stop attending family events, and we make all sorts of excuses why we no longer need to be in touch with people – our fellow Jews.
I’ve been through this process myself, and at this stage, this is what I think about it:
When you’re dealing with people who don’t respect your choice to live a religious life, and who are constantly trying to pull you back to the tumah¸ you have to put some big barriers up, and step away and go and work out who you really are and what you really want, without any sabotage from family members.
BUT – family members will only try to sabotage your process of self-discovery if the relationship is already dysfunctional. If the relationship is healthy, and if the lines of communication between child and parent, or husband and wife, or brother and sister, are working properly, you will still be able to navigate the changes together.
Disagreements will be ironed out, clashes will get resolved, problems will be solved with a lot of dialogue, mutual respect, and will to compromise to get the best possible outcomes for everyone involved.
Again, I think it’s fair to say that most Baal Teshuvas have experienced the ‘sabotage’ model over the ‘support’ model, and at least some of the reasons for this are obvious:
When God and Torah is out of the picture, self-development and working on our bad middot are also often out of the picture.
We are drawn to yiddishkeit in the first place, because we recognize something is lacking, something isn’t working so well, in our lives. We can see that having a relationship with God, and following His mitzvoth, is the path out of the emotional wilderness, and that’s why so many of us make a lot of self-sacrifice to try to change our lives around to give God what He wants.
And that motivation can keep us going for years.
This is the stage of the Baal Teshuva process where we’re learning to serve Hashem with our yetzer tov¸or our inclination for good, and it’s an absolutely crucial part of the process that can’t be skipped.
But that’s not where the process stops, and this is where many of the BTs I know, including me and my husband, kind of came unstuck. The FFB world could tell us all about making kugels, and singing zmirot, and having 400 people for Seder night, and selling our cars to pay for our kids’ tuition in yeshiva.
But it couldn’t teach us how to take that ‘hidden’ part of us, that part of us that’s hardwired to be at home in the world of tumah, and to make that part holy, too.
It’s obvious why not: FFBs don’t have that challenge, they don’t have that issue, they don’t have those problems. (Again, this is an over-simplification to make the point. There are massive middot issues in the FFB world too, I know. But for different reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.)
FFBs are serving God in a different way, and they have a different job to do in the world.
I have to choose my words very carefully here, because God forbid this should be misconstrued as saying the forbidden is permissible. That’s not at all what I’m saying here. The forbidden is still forbidden, but God has given Baal Teshuvas a job to do in the world, and we can only do it properly if we’re really being ‘us’, and not pretending to be ‘perfect frummers’.
Let’s see if I can explain what I’m really trying to say here, by framing things through my own experiences.
By profession, I’m a journalist and writer, a communicator, and I do it very well. When I was in London, I was a professional in the street, and a Jew in the home. I.e. my job was my job, and then I did my best to do things like keep Shabbat and kosher, and to pay tzedeka, too. My kids were sent to orthodox Jewish schools, we ate in a Succah on Succot etc etc.
But my Judaism didn’t really come past the door of my home, it didn’t really accompany me into my job working for Government ministers, or writing for papers.
Then I hit Israel, and over a year or two I came to understand I had a lot of work to do to make my Judaism consistent, and to be living a genuinely Jewish life.
I stopped working, I started covering my hair, I started dressing much more modestly, I only bought Badatz chickens, I threw away all my secular books and albums, and stopped watching movies… This is the ‘external’ part of the Baal Teshuva process, where we can get so machmir about the externals. You can sum this up in the phrase: the mitzvoth between man and God.
Then, thanks to Breslov and Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, especially his advice to talk to God for an hour a day, I started the real, internal part of the Baal Teshuva process, which is basically avodat hamiddot, or working on rectifying my negative character traits. You can sum this up as the mitzvoth between man and man.
This is still very much an ongoing process, and it will be until 120. It’s not fast work, it’s often extremely painful and difficult – but it’s also a crucial part of the teshuva process. And thank God, by trying to see everything that happens as some sort of message or prod from Hashem, and by talking to Him a lot about what’s going on, a lot of things have moved and improved.
One of the biggest blessings of trying to do this work on the mitzvoth between man and man, this avodat hamiddot, is that it transformed my relationship with my children.
Once I internalized that my children are just my mirrors, and that God is trying to show me something by way of my kids and their issues that I myself need to work on, a whole bunch of new paths and insights into the teshuva process started to open up.
Especially five years ago, when my oldest started listening to secular music, used her own money to buy a smartphone, and started wearing short sleeve T-shirts. Initially, I tried to use brute force to squash all this tumah down. We had such big shouting matches, such big disagreements, and this carried on for about a year and a half.
Then, she developed a weird health problem that I knew 100% was emotional, and somehow ‘mirroring’ me. I sent her off to my One Brain woman, and I got the clear message back that I had to let my daughter choose her own path in life, and stop trying to keep her ‘frum by force’ – or risk her getting ill, God forbid.
I did a big hitbodedut on it all, because I was so confused.
God wants us to dress tzniusly! He wants us to ditch the smartphones! I know this is true 100%. At the same time, the emuna rules were telling me something more, something extra, an additional nuance: God wants all that, for sure. But He wants people to choose it for themselves. You can’t just force your kids into towing the line. If you do that, they will either rebel or turn into unthinking, unfeeling, frum robots.
I got that message.
But now, I was stuck with a massive problem, because all the things that I’d thrown out of my life – like secular music, and jeans – was coming back into it. For the last 10 years, I’d dealt with my pull to this tumah by completely closing it out, and shutting the gates. But now if I did that, my daughter was going to be shut out with it, and caught on the other side, away from me.
And that was simply not something I was prepared to do.
But in the meantime, all my attempts to keep up with Cohens, and to look the part of the externally FFB family, were completely wrecked by these kids of mine, who resolutely insisted on being who they were.
They get that from me, and I can’t complain.
But it took me another year or so of constantly praying to try to find the right path through all the muddle to realise something amazing:
Tolerating my kids meant that I also started to tolerate myself much more, too.
That part of me that still liked secular stuff, and that still wanted to wear long jeans skirt and crazy, colorful hats, and that still wanted to interact with the secular world. But now, on completely different terms. Now, I didn’t want to write ‘secular’ stuff then go back to my home life as a believing Jew.
Now, I wanted my Jewish beliefs to infuse and inform everything I do in the secular world.
That’s when I started down this path of trying to combine secular knowledge and information with emuna and Torah, but with the emphasis firmly on the Torah being right, no matter what science or secular knowledge actually says.
Take the age of the world.
The old version of me was very happy with the ‘Science of God’ approach which seemed to marry modern science with the Torah, in a way that said ‘see, the Torah is not against what modern science is saying at all!’ That worked for me then, as my internal focus was still really secular.
But these days, my approach is completely different. These days, my internal focus is now much more Torah, so I’m looking at science with new eyes, with the fundamental understanding that if the Torah says the world is 5779 years old, that is the reality – and then, how does that stack up with modern science?
And this approach is what’s helping me to spot all the lies and flaws and propaganda inherent in so much of how modern science dates world events.
To put this another way, I see a lot of what I’m writing as a bridge between secular and holy, between night and day, between tahor and tamei.
And this brings me back around to why God made Baal Teshuvas, and why we’re missing the point when we stay stuck in stage 1 of the teshuva process, just trying to be carbon copies of the FFBs that we see around us.
God wants us Baal Teshuvas to be a connecting bridge in the Jewish world.
He knows that even if we’re currently living in Meah Shearim, and speaking Yiddish with our 15 children, and wearing our stripey dressing gowns, that we still have a totally secular family left behind in Chul.
And what connects that totally secular family to God, and to purity, and to Tzaddikim, and to Torah is us.
We are that bridge, we are that unifying substance. But only if we’re still in touch with the secular family. And now, do you see why God has hardwired some of that tumah into our souls, still, and why we have to actually acknowledge the reality of who we are, instead of pretending to be who we are really not, which causes us to act like ‘frum robots’?
Because that secular stuff is what greases the wheels of communication between us, and keeps the dialogue open, and helps us to see that we’re really not so different, after all.
Totally secular sister who’s married out is not going to be able to grasp in a million years a conversation about the Ramchal’s glosses, or the subtleties of not performing melacha on Shabbat. If that’s all you have to talk about, you can’t connect, you can’t discuss. The conversation will get more and more awkward until it finally dries up, and you just never speak anymore, and she doesn’t feel comfortable coming over any more, and her kids grow up knowing about the ‘crazy frum uncle’ who cut all his family out of his life.
So what does God do? He gives you a strange urge to listen to a Robbie Williams song, or to read an article about how fat he’s got – and now you have something to talk to secular sister about that she can really relate to. Is it tahor? Not at all! For an FFB, it’s completely tamei, completely inappropriate.
But for a Baal Teshuva with a bunch of secular relatives, who’s still trying to keep the lines of communication open, so that secular sister feels comfortable coming over for a meal on Shabbat, or joining in a seder on Pesach?
It’s just the ticket.
Do we want to be like secular sister and her family?
Of course not!
Do we want our kids to be like secular sister and her family?
Of course not!
And again, this is where maximum caution is advisable, because we can’t sacrifice our own family, our own yiddishkeit, just to try to keep on good terms with secular sister.
But we also can’t tell God lies about where we’re really holding, either.
As soon as our kids get to a certain age, as soon as our families get to a certain stage, where they have a strong base, a strong faith, and they know who they are and why they are doing things, religiously, we have to reach back out to our secular family members.
We have to try to connect to the more secular Jews in the world, and shine some of the Torah’s light into their lives, in a way they can really relate to it. That might mean knowing who the latest yucky celeb is, that might mean keeping up on the news, it might mean holding down a real job, it might mean tolerating the sight of female elbows at a seder table.
So much of this is completely inappropriate for a FFB, because they have a different job to do in the world. Half their family, half their experience, half their soul, isn’t caught up in that place of tumah, in that place of secularity, they have no reason to connect to that world.
But for us Baal Teshuvas? The picture is completely different.
So now, tachlis, how can we now what God is really expecting of us, and whether we have the balance right, and we’re really serving God in the capacity He intended for us, with both our yetzer hara and our yetzer tov, and whether we’re really being honest about where we’re actually holding?
Here’s a few questions to ask, to try to find out:
- Do you feel energized and happy about the life you’re leading, or miserable and resentful?
- Do you radiate happiness and contentment to other people, or do you give the impression that your life is a drag and that you’re full of anger and resentment?
- Do you have ‘secret vices’ that you like to pretend you don’t have – TVs in the airing cupboard, a secret addiction to YouTube videos, a penchant for Mills and Boon novels that you try to keep hidden under the bed, an urge to watch a baseball game, or to go and play some tennis or take a bike ride?
- Are you open about your issues and experiences and past (particularly with your immediate family members)?
- Do you feel empty, phoney, or like you’re pretending to be someone you really aren’t? (If the answer is ‘yes’, what do you usually try to do to fill that space?)
- Do you often catch yourself saying things you don’t really believe, or going along with things that you haven’t really bought into?
- Are you harshly judgmental about other Jews’ level of observance? (This one is often a big, red flag that there’s a big pot of jealousy bubbling away somewhere inside.)
- Do you have good relations with your less religious family members? If the answer is ‘no’, have you ever explored how your own bad middot, or your own issues, might be causing at least some of the problems?
- What do you see your children mirroring back at you? What parts of your hidden self are your children reflecting back at you?
- How can you use your ‘hidden’ self to put more of God’s light and love out into the world?
I have about another 50 questions I could add to this list, but let’s stop here for now.
I want to tell you the story of someone I knew way back when, who I used to learn with when I first got to Israel.
We were both from the same part of town back in the old country, and we knew some of the same people, except while I was ‘Modern Orthodox’ and then on the way to Breslov chassidut, she’d been totally immersed in secular culture, before making a 180 degree change to become ‘chareidi’.
We intersected when I was in Modiin, and she was in a chareidi city that was very black and white, and was dressing the part of the frum matron 100%.
She was so judgmental of my early attempts to (partially…) cover my hair with a beanie. She told me that I may as well not bother, if that was how I was going to do things. This sort of angry, harsh judgment used to come out of her a lot, and she really looked down her nose at her ‘secular’ relatives – even though some of them where actually paying to support her and her husband’s Torah lifestyle.
But she had a good sense of humor, and we had Terry Wogan to connect us, so I stayed in touch with her for a couple of years. Until we had the conversation about the tattoo and the kids.
Because yes, Mrs Perfect Chareidi had a big tattoo hidden away under her navy pinafore, part of her previous life when she attended raves and was living with a non-Jewish man. One time, I’d picked her up to drive us both down to the Kotel, and I happened to be playing some Breslov trance music that I’d picked up from the Chut Shel Chesed bookstore.
Five seconds into the ride, she completely wigged-out, and started ranting at me for listening to ‘traif’ music.
I told her I’d got the CD from Chut Shel Chessed – and the artist was a Breslov chassid with massive payot who was only singing about Rabbenu, God and Torah. I had no idea why she was reacting so badly.
She demanded I turn it off – which I reluctantly did. But me being me, I had to ask why.
Why are you going crazy about this music? What’s the real problem?
That’s when she told me about the raves she used to go to, and the tattoo, and the non-Jewish man she used to live with. The music had triggered her back into that past life, and she was obviously trying very hard to keep all that stuff firmly boxed-up and hidden from view.
So then I asked her, Do your children know about your past? Have you told them?
She said she hadn’t, and that her rebbetzin had told her that she never should, because it would only confuse them. When I heard this, I was momentarily speechless.
But if you haven’t told them you didn’t used to be religious, so then how do you explain your secular parents to them? How do you explain about your sister, who married out? They’ve met your mum and dad, they can see they aren’t at all religious. How are you explaining things to your kids?
The short answer: she wasn’t. She couldn’t. And they were small enough to not really know to ask awkward questions.
We lost touch shortly after this conversation, as I was finding her self-righteous, judgmental angry rants about other people (and myself…) increasingly hard to handle. But sometimes I wonder, how did her kids turn out?
When kids grow up in a house like that, that’s so full of secrets and lies, where so many topics are ‘off limits’, that causes them all sorts of spiritual, emotional and even physical issues.
From my own experiences, I’ve seen that when we try to deny, ignore or negate that ‘secret self’ of ours – often for the very best reasons – we pay a big price for it within our family unit.
God made us who we are.
God made it that we’re still drawn to things that aren’t ‘good’, however hard we try.
While we’re praying to be permanently freed from the clutches of tumah, we also need to look around, and to ask ourselves why God is putting us in those low places, still, and what good we can do there.
If we look around, most of us will clearly see that there are other Jews – other family members – who are also stuck down there, in the dark. And when we bring God’s light down into those low places, we are illuminating it for them, too.
But only if we’re really being us, really connecting to God, and really being honest about what’s going on, and why.
So let’s end this Baal Teshuva Manifesto with a call to truth:
Dear Baal Teshuva, please just be your real self, warts n’all!
God made you like this for a very important reason, because you have a job to do in the world, and a part to play in the forthcoming redemption. God wants all of His children to be redeemed, not just the frummies. And that’s where you come in, sweet BT, who will always feel caught between two worlds, and not really belonging to either.
You are a bridge, connecting the different sections of the Jewish community.
You are a unifier.
You are creating achdut every time you are just yourself, and every time you are trying to bring God down into those low places on YouTube, or into your Isrotel holiday, or into your terribly imperfect seder with secular relatives who keep muttering that none of this stuff every really happened.
Every time you manage to connect all that tumah back to God, and all those people who are lost in the world of tumah back to God, you make Him so very happy.
And you are doing the job that God created you to do.
So continue on!
And don’t feel bad that you’re not a ‘perfect frummer’.
You have a different role to play in the world, and when you start to accept that, and to really embrace it, you will feel so much happier and content.
And so will your kids.
You might also like these other articles:
Sassonmag.com is kicking off what we hope will be a grown-up discussion about the best way of educating our children in the orthodox Jewish world, going forward, because really?
It’s a huge mess.
There’s a number of articles with different viewpoints and ideas going up over the next few weeks, but I just wanted to bring your attention to this piece by Varda Branfman, which is one of the most eye-opening articles on education I’ve ever read.
It explains so much, about why modern education is so broken, why so many kids loathe school, and how the system is causing problems for everyone – both the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers.’
We’re very happy to get more input, and more ideas – in a grown-up, mutually-respectful way, natch. So, take a look here:
This is another oldy, but goody. From January 2016 – but still ever so relevant today.
Someone just kindly sent me a document that was signed by pretty much every Gadol Hador you care to mention from the last few years, decrying the emergence of ‘haredi’ news sites, and warning the frum public to stay away from them.
What’s wrong with ‘haredi’ news sites, you might ask?
Don’t we need to know what’s going on with all the Rebbes, and all the issues in our local schools and communities, and all the latest appointments being made in our institutions?
Here’s where we hit a huge, halachic reality check that most of us, maybe nearly all of us, would prefer to completely ignore and pretend it doesn’t exist: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘GOOD’ NEWS.
What do I mean by that? I mean that even the most ‘haredi’ news site is regularly reporting things that fall completely foul of even the most basic laws of lashon hara, or evil speech.
Remember, any negative information about a Jew, even if it’s true, still counts as lashon hara.
Sure, there are times when negative information about Jews has to be publicized toelet, for a good reason, such as in cases of abuse, or to avoid potential harm or danger. But the rules governing these instances are very specific and very exacting, and they’re being completely ignored by even the most ‘haredi’ news sites.
Worse, every news site, every blog, every facebook group has its own slant, bias and agenda, even if it’s just implicit. So the ‘news’ you’re getting from that site – or from any other place – is subjectively colored by the beliefs and the desires of the people putting that information together.
Even when people are Torah-observant and well-meaning, they still have any number of subconscious biases, grudges, and prejudices that will color how and what they write, often without being consciously aware of the problems at all.
If you ask that Ashkenazi Litvak guy why he loves running negative pieces about Sephardi poskim, he probably has no idea that on some level he’s trying to prove ‘his’ approach and worldview right, at someone else’s expense.
Or, if you ask the Chassidic writer why so many of his stories are focusing on the teens going off the derech in the non-chassidic communities, he’s not going to know that he’s still fighting a subconscious battle in print with his very difficult yekke parent.
There are hidden agendas going on all over the place with the media and the people who are putting the information together, both obvious and less so. The problems of lashon hara, and people slanting information occur even with very well-meaning and genuinely God-fearing people.
But when the people putting the news out are not well-meaning, not God-fearing (however ‘frum’ they look on the outside) and very emotionally-disturbed – well then Houston, we have a problem.
Because knowledge is power. Readership is power. Huge numbers of visitors reading your site is power. And power, as well all know only too well, is completely corrupting (and also hugely attractive to emotionally-disturbed people who crave attention and influence.)
I’ve been a journalist now for more than 20 years. I started off on a financial mag straight out of university, before going on to work at a Jewish weekly in London, then freelancing for the nationals in the UK, and then going into PR and speechwriting for the British government.
A big reason why I left journalism is because I once went to a class on lashon hara in Gateshead, where the Rabbi spelled out the more basic laws so well, that I immediately understood that most of the stories I was writing for my Jewish paper – even in a well-intentioned, God-fearing way – were lashon hara.
I asked that Rabbi what a Jewish journalist should do, to avoid transgressing the laws of lashon hara, and he answered very succinctly: “Quit!”
Because I’m (trying to be…) a God-fearing Jew, I took his advice seriously, and a few months’ later, I went into PR and speechwriting instead of journalism (which had its own issues, but that’s a story for another time.)
To put this another way: God-fearing people don’t write the news.
Even on ‘haredi’ sites, they don’t abide by the laws of lashon hara, and they’ll write whatever will get the most people flocking to their sites, even if it’s outrageously deceptive, morally corrupt and completely destructive.
If they were truly God-fearing, they’d quit.
Our generation has so very many tests to contend with, I know. Sometimes, the gap between what many of us know is correct, and what we see happening in our own lives and communities is so enormous, it can plunge us into the deepest pit of despair and apathy. In our modern world, how can we not follow the news? But Hashem’s laws haven’t changed, and the rules of lashon hara still apply today – probably even more so than previously.
After I realized just how morally corrupt and corrupting all the Jewish news sites really were, even the ‘haredi’ ones, after the whole debacle with Rav Berland a few weeks’ back, I went cold turkey on reading them.
Man, it was pretty hard going the first few weeks, as following the news is addictive (which is another sign that it’s spiritually ‘bad’, because no-one gets ‘addicted’ to saying Tehillim, or eating lettuce.) I decided I needed a proxy to help me wean off the toxic Jewish news, so I picked….BBC news!
BBC news is so biased, so PC in all the worst ways, and so blatantly manipulative and untruthful, I can’t bear to spend more than 5 seconds looking at it. My yetzer gets its ‘news’ fix, but I don’t believe a word of it, because I know what a filthy place it’s coming from.
I’m not claiming this is a perfect solution, but it’s a ‘real’ solution, and at some point soon, BH, I’ll stop checking that news site, too.
The last thing to say is that while I’ve been writing about news sites, this all clearly applies to things like blogs, newsletters and Facebook groups, too. I’ll cover Facebook in a separate post, but every time we read or write something online, the potential for contravening the laws of lashon hara are huge.
The Chofetz Chaim famously wrote that lashon hara is the sin that destroyed the last temple and caused the exile. When a person speaks negatively about another Jew, or reads something negative about another Jew, that causes hatred to blossom in their heart towards that other person.
There’s enough hatred in the world towards Jews already, without us adding more fuel to the flames.
It’s easy to serve God when things are going great. But how can we continue serving God on the down?
Four years’ ago, when I was going through the bleakest, most difficult period of my whole life, I was sitting in Uman, by Rebbe Nachman’s tomb, and pleading for some guidance and help on how I could actually continue serving God ‘on the down’.
I opened up a Likutey Moharan, and I got to the lesson where it was talking about how sometimes, you have to throw yourself into all types of mud and filth in your service of Hashem.
(I don’t remember what number that lesson was, sorry.)
Those words made a huge impact on me, because at that time I was neck-high in trying to clarify a number of very difficult issues in my own life and relationships, and it was very murky, yucky stuff.
A little while back, I was talking to someone about how easy it is to serve God ‘on the up’ – when we’re full of spiritual inspiration, and emuna, and mitzvot, and yearning to be a better Jew. And how difficult it is, conversely, to serve God ‘on the down’, when we’re fully of cynicism, and apathy, and questions, and yearnings to go and see the latest James Bond.
Yet, Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can’t have one without the other.
The up is ‘running’, and the down is ‘returning’, when we have to consolidate, hunker down and regain our strength for our next period of ‘running’.
Often, many of us make the mistake of thinking we can only serve Hashem ‘on the up’ – and that’s when we get into massive problems. Because when we aren’t honest about where we’re really holding, and the spiritual ‘downs’ that we’re really experiencing – every single one of us! – then we get stuck with a Hobson’s choice.
Either, we can continue to pretend, to ourselves and others, that we only ever experience spirituals ‘ups’ in life, or we end up having to leave our devotions, and our striving for spiritual growth and we sink back into materialism and spirituality, because we’re finding it so hard to accept the need to also serve God ‘on the downs’.
If we take the first route, we’ll end up becoming fake caricatures of ourselves, externally very pious looking and spouting all the right ideas, but internally completely disconnected from the reality of who we really are, and what we really need to be working on.
If we take the second route, we stagnate spiritually, and we never really attain inner peace, because we know that we took the short road that’s really the very long road, and that’s not leading us to where we need to be going in life.
So what’s the answer?
Rebbe Nachman explains very clearly:
You have to serve God on the downs with just as much enthusiasm as you serve Him on the ups.
Tachlis, if you have a bad habit of talking (or writing…) lashon hara, for example, then at least use that to serve Hashem. Know that at the level you’re really holding at spiritually, you’re going to be talking badly about someone. So at least, talk badly about the people who are genuinely rashaim (evildoers).
Ditto for talking to members of the opposite sex. If you’re going to act in such an untznius way in the first place – and tachlis you are, because that’s where you’re really holding right now – then at least talk about things like emuna, and serving Hashem.
I know, it all sounds so paradoxical, doesn’t it?
But from my own personal experiences, this seems to be the only way to not got sucked into huge feelings of despair about how imperfectly I’m actually serving God.
To say ‘don’t speak lashon hara EVER!!!!’ is clearly impossible, at least for people like me who are really not holding at that level. So then, I have to turn my ‘down’ towards the service of Hashem, somehow, and find some ‘good’ way of talking badly about other people, so that I’m still serving God on the down, too.
I know, it’s completely head-wrecking isn’t it?
But, it’s also the only way to keep serving Hashem at this point in creation, because wherever you look, whatever you do, you’re going to fall somehow. This person is going to fall into Facebook, that one into feeling jealous over someone else’s nicer house, that one into a big, fat pizza pie – what can we do? Except learn how to serve God on the down.
Except, at least make sure that the pizza is glatt kosher and heartily blessed. Or, that if we’re on Facebook we’re at least trying to share some Torah or chizzuk. (I still don’t know how to ‘raise up’ feeling jealous about other people’s nicer houses. Any ideas, wise readers?)
In the meantime, we’re wallowing around down here in the dirt and the muck, and it’s not such a nice feeling. But if we’re doing it for Hashem, somehow – or least, wanting to do it for Hashem – then maybe, that changes everything?
Maybe, that’s how we finally get to the stage of serving God from love, lishma, just for its own sake, and not just because we’re quaking in our boots from not doing the mitzvot right.
King David tells us, if he builds his home in the Heavens, there God is. And if he crashes down to the depths of gehinnom – there God still is.
We just have to open our eyes and see Him.
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Recently, I went back to the UK for a three day ‘whirlwind visit’ to stay with my husband’s family, in the North of the country.
The trip was pretty uneventful, even sometimes nice – which is why I really couldn’t understand why I came back feeling so awful.
The day we landed back in the Holy Land, I got into an extremely blue funk and found myself sniffling and feeling very sorry for myself a lot of the time. OKAYYYY, so I don’t own a house anymore; OKAYYY, I don’t really have a career (although I do have a full-time, mostly unpaid job writing all this stuff on my blogs and putting together amazing, useful books that really don’t sell very well…)
OKAYYY, life can still be a little challenging.
They’re still stabbing Jews to death, and shooting Jews up, in my Jerusalem neighbourhood right next to the Old City. But really? Why so down and glum for days and days?
If I’ve learnt one thing over the last few years, it’s that when these weird moods descend on me they are usually some sort of ‘blast from the past’ – either it’s something from childhood, or some sort of spiritual ‘tikkun’ or rectification that’s left over from a previous lifetime (or even, a previous relative) that God is now giving me the job of sorting out.
So I booked an appointment with my ‘One Brain’ lady, and a couple of days’ ago, I found out what was really underneath my massive attack of the blahs.
When I was nearly six years old, my mother was expecting one of my brothers and the pregnancy had been difficult, so she was put on strict bedrest. Me and my four year old brother were sent up to the North of the UK to stay with my grandparents for a few weeks, until after the birth.
Clearly, I must have found the whole thing incredibly traumatic, because until it came up in One Brain as the reason why I was feeling so yucky – like I was completely lost in the world, and didn’t have a ‘place’ anywhere, or anyone or anything I belonged to – I’d totally blanked it.
All I remembered about that stay with my grandparents is that I ate a lot of crisps.
But the barely six year-old me had been completely petrified that I’d somehow been ‘abandoned’ with my strict grandparents, and stuck in a strange new school where no-one spoke to me or gave me any sign that I even still existed.
If someone told me it was only going to be for three weeks, I didn’t remember that. It seemed to me I was going to be stuck in that horrible unfriendly school, with my cold, strict grandmother, for the rest of my six-year-old life.
All I remember is eating my bag of crisps in the playground, and feeling completely alone in the world.
That’s exactly the feeling I had when I returned from my three day trip staying in the North of the UK at my kids’ grandparents, where I’d also been eating a lot of crisps and doing particularly ‘British’ day out type things in the Summer drizzle.
Clearly, it triggered that whole lost memory from when I was six, and for a week I was an inconsolable basket case.
Thank God for One Brain!
I arrived at my session feeling SO down, and I left an hour later feeling put back together again, having been rescued from that 37 year old trauma that I’d somehow fallen back into.
But it really got me thinking: if something so short-lived, and relatively innocuous could still be exerting such an impact on me as a 43 year old woman, just imagine how many of us are suffering from our unresolved childhood traumas!
No-one was to ‘blame’ for what happened – my mother couldn’t look after us and follow doctor’s orders, and my elderly grandparents had to stick us in the local school to preserve their own sanity.
Yet the echo of what I felt then, at six, still managed to drag me straight down to the bottom of the emotional pit almost four decades later. It’s a bit mind-boggling, isn’t it?
The other thing I thought is that God clearly wants all these things addressed and sorted out now, which is He’s put things like ‘One Brain’ into the world. I do an hour of talking to God every day, BH, and that’s helped me get on top of so many of my bad middot and issues.
But sometimes, things are ‘under the radar’, and I just can’t get to them with my conscious mind, because either they happened to someone else, or I blanked them because they were too traumatic to deal with.
And that’s where One Brain comes in very nicely.
I’m not saying everyone needs to go find a One Brain person ASAP. Another thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that when God is in the picture, a whole variety of different therapies and approaches can help us cure our problems. There’s no ‘one correct way’ of doing anything, health-wise, and as long as we’re regularly talking to God and taking His cues about what areas we need to work on next, He’ll send us the right help, the right people, the right book, at the right time.
What I AM saying, though, is please just know that if you feel like you’re going crazy, or you got super emotional or down for no obvious reason (i.e. not just because you’re hanging out with obnoxious, abusive narcissists or you’re doing things that are mamash killing your soul) – then there could be a whole bunch of reasons why that’s happening.
Like, maybe you just got tripped into a traumatic ‘flashback’ from the past, that God now wants you to deal with.
I’m just saying.
And in the meantime, I’m off British-style ready salted crisps for a while.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’m having such a negative reaction to spending barely three, fairly OK, days in chutz l’aretz, and this is where I’ve got to with it all.
(Before I dive in, a story to set the scene:)
Britain has few culinary gifts to boast about, but it does excel at pastry and pies. The morning we flew out of Manchester airport (where me and my frum Jewish family got ‘patted down’ by a nice Muslim airport worker, to check we weren’t terrorists…) I took my girls to the one Kosher deli in town, and told them to pick whatever they wanted to eat for the flight.
We got some bagels, some fish, some cheese – and then the kids each picked a ‘typical’ British pastry. One of my kids has some fairly serious food allergies, especially to all nuts except almonds and sesame seeds. In Britain, her allergies were life-threatening and we had to carry an epipen.
In Israel, God somehow reduced them down to just annoying – in Israel, she just throws up now if she eats something she’s allergic to, and she’s got a ‘lick’ test which is usually very effective for spotting if something contains dodgy substances.
That kid bought what’s called a Bakewell Tart – a small pie with marzipan, jam and icing – which the nice serving lady assured us only had almonds. (The incidence of food allergies in the UK is so extreme, that most people are very careful to give accurate information about these things.)
After we’d got through the awful, OTT security procedures at Manchester Airport (which were enough to put me off from travelling again all by themselves) – this kid pulled out her Bakewell Tart in the departures lounge, taste tested it, then ate it.
At the last bite, her face went a funny colour, and she started to make a weird gasping / hiccoughing noise. An allergic reaction!
And a far more serious one than she’s had in years and years.
Thank God, she rushed off to the bathroom and immediately threw up, but her throat was hurting her, and she was knocked out for an hour afterwards. Me and my husband said a tikkun haklali for her, I silently asked God to just let us get out of Manchester in one piece, while I walked around the airport looking for the A+E room ‘just in case’ her reaction started to escalate and we needed an epipen again…
BH, the tikkun haklali kicked in, and the crisis abated.
Later, my kid said to me: “Ima, it was so weird! I licked it first and it didn’t tingle my tongue at all! Even when I was eating it, I didn’t feel any tingling – it’s only after I took the last bite that I’d felt like I’d just eaten a big nut.”
What a great allegory for chutz l’aretz!
All a person’s life, they can’t ‘feel’ the damage being done to their souls by living such a superficial, sweet-tasting, gashmius pie of a life in chutz l’aretz. After all, the Bakewell Tart is glatt kosher! They bought it from the kosher deli on the way back from morning prayers!
Even when they’re eating it, it just tastes so yummy and delicious. And then with the last bite before you’re about to step on the plane ‘out of there’ – it nearly kills you.
It’s a fact that allergies are profoundly connected to emotions, stress levels and a person’s soul. It’s clear to me that my daughter’s soul is far more ‘wound up’ and stressed-out in chutz l’aretz than in Israel (even with all our struggling, and terrorism, and obvious spiritual angst), which is why here her allergies are an inconvenience at most, whilst there, they are literally life-threatening.
I went to the local shul one of the mornings I was there, to do my hour of hitbodedut (talking to God). I guess I must have felt like I was missing some of the kedusha that you get when a group of Jews congregate together.
The Rav of the shul gave a small talk after prayers, literally five minutes, where he was explaining how to kosher a microwave, and why you can’t kosher ovens in the same way, or cook milky and meaty foods one after the other in the same oven.
In Israel, I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone talk about those topics.
Here, the focus (at least for the rabbis I listen to….) is always on improving your middot, developing more emuna, guarding your eyes, treating your kids and spouse more nicely, really trying to give God what He wants.
Of course, God also wants a kosher oven, but that’s so ‘basic’ as to be practically taken for granted. Then I got it:
In chutz l’aretz, a Jew struggles even to keep their ovens kosher. That’s why there’s no time for the real work of ‘koshering the soul’. When you have to drive 30 mins just to get a kosher challah, when you have to pay thousands of bucks just to have your kid in a ‘kosher’ school, you already felt like you did the work God sent you down to do.
That’s only the very, very beginning of the process.
The real job is koshering the soul – uprooting our arrogance, our obsessions with making millions, our predilection for spreading gossip and lashon hara about other Jews, for bigging ourselves up at other people’s expense.
And most of the Jews in chutz l’aretz – even the very best, and most ‘kosher’ Jews – never get anywhere near that work of spiritual rectification.
I know when I made aliya 12 years’ ago, I was broadly of the view that I was a completely fixed, rectified ‘good’ Jewish person who really had nothing more to do to get to the highest level of shemayim.
After all, I had two ovens! And two sinks! And two dish washers!!!!!
After I made aliya, it didn’t take long to realize just how much of the real work of koshering my soul I still have left to do.
And that’s the real difference between chutz l’aretz and Israel: The one place, you feel like you’re ‘complete’ and that you’ve got there spiritually, and that you’re serving Hashem amazingly even by just keeping a kosher home and going to shul on Shabbat. It’s only when you’re about to check out of life that you realize that sweet, superficial, Bakewell Tart of a comfort zone actually killed your neshama.
In the other place, the whole time it can feel like you’re just eating bitter herbs – for breakfast, lunch and supper. But at the end of that process, you finally realize what a life-affirming spiritual ‘cleanse’, what an amazing, deep, spiritual ‘detox’ you’ve just been through.
If you stick with God, you come out of this second process, finally, with a kosher soul.
But there’s no question that the ‘Bakewell Tart’ version of Jewish life looks so much yummier.
As you might have expected, trying to get The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife distributed to regular, orthodox Jewish bookstores is proving to be EXTREMELY difficult.
There’s two main problems going on:
1) Frum Jewish publishing is actually an enormous cartel operation.
Most of the book publishers expect authors to pay around $10,000 to cover all the costs of designing, printing and distributing their own books.
If an author is unwilling or unable to put up this sort of money – and they aren’t directly related to the Baba Sali, or a ‘Rock Star Rabbi / Rabbanit’ type themselves- then most of the Jewish publishers won’t touch them with a barge pole, no matter how interesting or appropriate their books may be for the frum audience.
The corollary to this is that so many of the books that you find on the shelves of orthodox book sellers are there because the person is connected or wealthy, as opposed to a good writer. (Yes, that starts to explain a lot doesn’t it?)
2) Frum Jewish publishing is pushing a distorted image of observant Jewish life.
This was kind of the problem I tripped over with the cover of the Secret Diary, because OFFICIALLY, all the people buying books in frum Jewish bookstores aren’t meant to be surfing the internet, watching movies, or owning i-Phones.
In reality – probably the vast majority of people who shop in frum Jewish bookstores, particularly in the English-speaking world, are doing all those things. But SHUSSSSHSH!!!! Don’t tell the orthodox Jewish publishers, because they still think that Jewish women are all called ‘Breindy’ and obsessed with making the perfect kugel!!!!
‘Breindy’ doesn’t have any problems, has perfect faith and has no need of books that realistically portray orthodox Jewish life, because ‘Breindy’ is a Jewish superwoman with 15 kids, two jobs, a husband in full-time learning, and a stunning 200 sqm home that she keeps immaculately stocked with 5 different types of homemade kugel!!!!
And if your life isn’t like ‘Breindy’s’ – then what on earth are you doing trying to find suitable reading material in a frum Jewish bookstore?!?!
Of course, the real reality is that even ‘Breindy’ is cracking at the seams in 2017, and has just upped her dosage of anti-depressants…but SHUSSSSSSH!!!! Let’s not talk of such things.
This ‘head in the sand’ approach to frum life means that while the shelves are full of inspiring stories from previous generations of women who could make one chicken stretch to generously feed 38 starving orphans with leftovers; and full of ‘uplifting’ Holocaust tales of every stripe (including wonderfully illustrated holocaust strip cartoons for the kiddies…); and full of ‘perfect kugel’ cookbooks and ‘frum’ fiction that I find terribly disturbing for SO many different reasons – they’re generally very empty of real books by real Jewish women, that portray the challenges and beauty of real Jewish life.
I.e., books like The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife (and pretty much anything else that I write).
Case in point:
I just emailed one of the frum book publishers to see if I could pay to get The Secret Diary distributed via them, and all they did was take a look at the cover, and then pointblank refuse. Even if I paid to print a thousand copies by them, they still won’t guarantee they’d distribute it.
So dear reader, not for the first time I find myself a little stuck between the familiar rock and the hard place.
For as long as the frum Jewish book world – and the out-of-touch people running it – refuse to carry books that are ‘real’ portrayals of orthodox Jewish life, albeit with a lot of God and emuna mixed in, frum people have little choice but to get their ‘real’ books about real problems and challenges from the secular world.
And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening. Even in the hallowed halls of Meah Shearim, people are turning to Tony Robbins and Dr Mercola for advice on how to solve their real problems and crises, because the frum world is still pretending that we’re all supermen and superwomen, with all emuna, all the time, and a never-ending obsession with creating the perfect kugel.
Frum women aren’t being given an authentic voice in our communities, and we are all paying the price for that in so many different ways. If they aren’t a ‘Breindy’, none of the men who are running the Jewish publishing business are remotely interested in what they have to say.
Dear reader, I am DEFINITELY not a Breindy, and my kugels normally suck, big time.
I can see I’m going to have to pray on this a lot, and ask God to show me how to get past this huge obstacle. I will keep you posted.