I stand at a crossroads in terms of my spiritual life, and I have put off addressing it enough. I’ve thought long about this, I’ve struggled with it, I’ve given myself headaches and heartaches, I’ve shed tears over this. I’ve been standing at this crossroads for over a year, only coming to terms with where I am somewhat recently. Doing so has allowed me to be honest with myself, make a decision, and choose my path henceforth.
[Hillel] would also say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirke Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
The quote by Rabbi Hillel, above, is one of the hardest to understand in the book Ethics of the Fathers, as it is so succinct as to be almost too vague. But once you get it, once you break it down, unpack it, and get the meaning of the rabbi’s words, you realize it is a powerful call to action. Hillel tells us that our lives are in our hands and we must make the most of them ourselves. Others cannot live our lives for us, and while we may learn from others, ultimately our lives are our own responsibility. That said, we cannot live only for ourselves; we must strive to be of service to others, to the world, and not be selfish recluses who shy away from everything and everyone. Then, once you have figured this out, start putting it into practice right this second, because life is precious, and every moment is to be treasured and used to its fullest. So, in my humble summary: Take control of your life because others cannot live it for you; be of service to others and to the world around you; the moment is now, make every minute count. This is what I am doing.
I have decided to leave Judaism behind, to stop practicing the Jewish religion.
In truth, all I’m doing with that statement is acknowledging to myself and the world what has been the case for the past three years. During that time I have been engaging in some Jewish religious practices, yes, but they have dwindled considerably with each passing day. I barely attend Shabbat services anymore, and when I do I fail to connect both individually and in community. I ceased to keep kosher and keep Shabbat right after my divorce, and I have never looked back on those decisions. I kept the major holidays, but even those were kept to the bare minimum of observance, while the less-known holidays simply fell by the wayside. This year I went to the first day of Rosh Hashanah services only, and when I couldn’t shake the feeling of being out of place, I did my prayers silently and left. This year for the first time since my conversion in 2002 I didn’t attend Yom Kippur services. I felt it would be hypocritical of me to show up on this one day expecting it would make everything okay. It wasn’t a decision I reached lightly–after all, forsaking Yom Kippur brings the punishment of kareth, being cut off from the people, from Israel–but it was the right one for me.
Through this process, however, the one constant that kept me afloat, centered, and moving forward was that I still felt a deep connection to God. Even if prayer services were not satisfactory, a moment praying silently by the ark brought me peace. I could thank Him for my life, pour out my heart and confusion, ask for His guidance, feel His love. Those moments are what kept me going.
When I converted to Judaism, I converted into the religion. To me, my conversion has always been about the religion of Judaism, period. Things are a bit tricky when it comes to Jews, however, because Jews are both those who practice the religion, but also a people with a specific culture and heritage. By converting into the religion, I also gained access to the people. Over the years this has created not a small amount of identity issues for me, as I’ve struggled to understand who I am in light of my ethnic background, my cultural heritage, and my adoptive religion/culture. For some people, being a Jew is all about their cultural and ethnic heritage, which may or may not include religious practices, or even belief in God at all. And that is perfectly fine for them, but not for me. I didn’t set out to join a people, I set out to join a religion that would teach me a way to connect with God. What happens, then, when that religion doesn’t provide the connection to God anymore? It is this fact that has fueled my biggest identity struggle for the past few years.
Judaism is also meant to be practiced as a family, and with my divorce, I ceased to have a Jewish family as well. For the past three years I have practiced Judaism alone, and while I have been taken in and adopted by wonderful, loving people at some points in my journey, the truth remains that I am the only Jew in my entire family. I stand alone, and Judaism isn’t meant to be done alone.
I held on to me being Jewish all this time, even as in practice I kept moving away from it, out of fear of the unknown. Being Jewish is all I’ve known for the past 14 years, practically my entire adult life. If I’m not Jewish, then what am I? And if I’m not Jewish, what would the Jews in my life say? How would they feel? I know reading this will come as a shock to them, surprise them, confound them, hurt them. I hope they understand my side. I can continue being Jewish without practicing forever, pretending that I belong, attending a service here and there so I can punch the clock and keep my membership active, so to speak. But that would be dishonest, a farce. I love God, fiercely, but the road of Judaism that once worked for me to reach Him doesn’t work anymore.
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
So here I am, being for myself.
I’m leaving Judaism behind.
Am I still a Jew? The conversion papers I have say that yes, I am, forever. I suppose I will always have a connection to the Jewish people, regardless of whether I practice Judaism or not. I may feel that my conversion was strictly a religious event, but the reality is that religion and lifestyle are inseparably woven when it comes to the Jewish people. To a Jew, I will always be a Jew. Part of me will always be Jewish; I carry it as part of who and what Daniel is until the day I die.
Now it’s time to finally leave the crossroads, and start going down a new road to see what God has in store for me.