I Used to Be Observant. Now I’m Rediscovering Judaism on My Own Terms.

Over the past five years, I’ve spent my time finding the pieces of my religion that work for me.

Fifteen years before I was born, my mother became religious. She met my father, started keeping Shabbat and kosher, married him and had nine children. I’m the eighth child, the baby girl. I grew up in a house where McDonald’s was never on the menu, where dairy products (even certified kosher ones) weren’t allowed unless a Jew had been present from the time the cow was milked until it was packaged. My family celebrated every Jewish holiday with lots of guests and even more food. We spent weeks preparing for Purim, making a little factory line in our kitchen to package snacks for our friends and teachers. We spent even longer preparing for Passover, using the extra kitchen in our basement to make desserts a month before the holiday. We kept a two handled cup of water in a bowl under our bed so we could ritually wash our hands before leaving our beds in the morning, and wrote on the corner of every paper an abbreviation for “with the help of heaven” before starting to write.

I knew what was allowed (friendships with girls, chocolates from Israel) and what was forbidden (TV, non-Jewish music, boys). This was all simply a part of life. Our Judaism came with very specific rules, and I — a precocious child who wanted everyone to like me — was more than happy to follow along.

When I was 18, I moved to Israel to study Torah with almost everyone I knew. I attended Michlalah, one of the most prestigious schools for women’s learning. In my journal I kept at that time I wrote: “Today we read about the necessity of learning new things and immediately dividing it into parts in our head, whether it is a principle, a detail, etc., which is important to me because I am always learning new things, and I need to think about how they fit into the big picture, for example, if something comes along to contradict it.” At Michlalah, I learned and practiced how to think.

While I was at Michlalah I took every course they offered on Jewish law, studying the texts in their original Hebrew. Once I read the text in black and white, there was no flexibility; I wanted to follow every law exactly. I began covering my legs, praying twice a day and not eating in the homes of anyone who didn’t keep Shabbat.

When anyone asked, I would say that I was religious for two reasons. First: Because God wanted me to be. I believed God had commanded the Jews to keep the laws in the Torah, and that meant I needed to keep every rule described within it. Second: I wanted to be a good person. I was convinced that practicing Torah law — essentially following a rule book — would help me achieve that goal.

But then something happened. In October of my second year in Israel, I started questioning my faith.

My older brother was visiting, and one afternoon we spent time learning together. We discovered that in the Talmud it says that the sun revolves around the earth, so even though science says the earth revolves around the sun, one day we are going to learn that the Talmud was right. Made sense to me.

A few days later, I was at my rabbi’s house, and to let him know how devout I was, I shared what my brother and I had learned. Immediately he jumped up and started looking for books in his library. “It actually isn’t the Talmud that says that,” he exclaimed, “it’s the Rambam!”  He started pulling books off his shelf, showing me where the Rambam had discussed philosophy and science, and showing me how rabbis contemporary to the Rambam opposed his views, some even burning his books.

I was reeling. The Rambam is one of the most important rabbis in Jewish history. He wrote the Mishneh Torah, a foundational book of Jewish law. There are religious Jews who use that as their primary text.

Things weren’t adding up: Fellow Jews do everything this man says, but his peers thought he was wrong? Is the rabbi I follow also wrong? Who is right? What is God asking of me? My first reason for being religious — an unwavering belief that it was God’s will and not to be questioned — was now, in fact, in question.

While I tried to make sense of my thoughts, I started looking for evidence of the second reason I was religious — to be a good person. I analyzed the religious leaders around me, and what I saw hurt me. They didn’t keep my confidences; they judged me harshly; they were inconsistent. They were regular people.

I realized I couldn’t simply follow Jewish law to a T in the hopes that it would connect me to God and make me a good person. A few months later, I stopped being religious.

At that time, I was a student at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. It felt like I was the only person in the 2000 person school that wasn’t religious. I wondered if I could continue to act religious to fit in — I mean, these were actions I had done my whole life. Why not just keep doing them, even if I didn’t believe anymore? But I was on a new path, and I had to follow it. I owed it to myself, even if it felt scary or lonely.

Practicing Judaism was once described to me as having a script that tells you how to respond in any situation. There are rules for everything, from how to cut your nails to how to shower to how to put on your shoes. When I rejected the script, suddenly things I had done my whole life were so hard. I didn’t want to wear long black skirts — but what should I wear? I wanted to get married — but who was eligible? I was driven to community — but who exactly were my people? I craved choice and free will, but I struggled with it, too.

I learned new ethical concepts. I cherished my intellectual freedom. I practiced thinking, this time deeply and fully for myself, and learned to tap my inner compass for directions rather than asking dead men in books to give me the answers. I did not feel connected to Judaism anymore.

Five years passed. I was living in Miami and working at a hedge fund, when a friend asked if I would host a Shabbat dinner for her. Impulsively, I decided to observe the laws of Shabbat as well as I could. I bought my favorite foods, put on my favorite dress, set the table and lit candles while whispering a prayer for my family’s health and happiness. I hadn’t done any of those things in years. But when I completed the required steps to welcome Shabbat, it was like I had used a magic key to unlock a wellspring that showered me with peace and joy. I realized I wanted to connect to Judaism again. Over the past five years, I’ve spent my time reengaging with Jewish texts, communities, rituals and beliefs to find the magic hidden in my heritage, to discover the pieces of my religion that feel good to me — but this time, I’m doing it on my own terms.

Read More