Rabbi Rant: Struggling with Spirituality

by Aaron Potek / June 7, 2017

I got trolled last week.

I’m not sharing this news because I want your pity. (If anything, I’m bragging about it – if you’re getting trolled you must be doing something right.)

I’m sharing this because it led me to an important realization.

The troll was reacting to a story I told about six months ago (as the saying goes: “better troll late than never”) where I questioned my own relationship with keeping kosher. I struggle with the costs of adhering to such a strict eating practice, and wondered aloud whether this is really what God intended.

The troll responded with his own question: “While we should support all those who are struggling spiritually, is this the type of behavior we expect from our Orthodox spiritual leaders?”  I know this was intended rhetorically, but I think it’s actually a legitimate question.

Is there no room for religious leaders to struggle spiritually? Do rabbis need to have it all figured out?

For many Jews, the answer seems to be: yes. While the standards and expectations differ, Jews across denominations want their rabbis to be “more Jewish” than they are, to uphold the most ideal version of their type of Judaism.

This desire is symptomatic of what happens when we outsource Judaism (and of the problematic ways we understand what it means to be “more Jewish”). We don’t want Judaism to die, but we’re also not going to live our own lives in a way that ensures its survival. To assuage ourselves of the guilt of not living out a sustainable Judaism, we look to the rabbi with a sigh of relief. “Phew. At least someone is making sure Judaism continues.”

And we don’t only do this with rabbis. Less observant Jews often do this with Orthodox Jews, too. “I don’t want to keep all these rules, but I’m glad someone is doing it to keep Judaism going.”

I’m the last person to lay on the guilt of Jewish continuity; I think emphasizing Jewish survival is the best way to guarantee that the Judaism that survives will be completely uninspired.

But I do think outsourcing Judaism creates a double standard that prevents us from asking ourselves the hard questions about our own relationship with Judaism. If you think your rabbi should believe in God, why don’t you think you should believe in God? If you think Jared Kushner shouldn’t fly on a plane on shabbat, why can you?

When we can finally begin to hold ourselves to the same standards as those to whom we outsource our Judaism, we might realize just how arbitrary or irrelevant those external standards are. Instead of hoping that someone somewhere else perpetuates a Judaism that you don’t connect to, try to find the things about Judaism you do connect to personally. The best way to keep Judaism alive is to keep it alive within you.

I know many people want me, as a rabbi, to have the answers. Or at least to act like I do. But I don’t. So I’m going to continue to model authentic wrestling with my Judaism. I hope that wrestling inspires others to live a more dynamic religious life. Afterall, it’s what I seek for myself. Trolls and all.