Existential Crisis

In our 5th year, Mavar is publishing a series of blogs from members and the volunteers who support them, to open a window onto their relationship from both perspectives, as well as the ongoing journeys the members face. Here’s, a fascinating blog from a Mavar member.

“I was brought up in a community that was separated from the outside world, but not entirely cut-off. For as long as I could remember, I had always been satisfied and happy with my way of life. Strick adherence to Halacha imbued my daily routine with structure and purpose. I loved learning Gemara, and I was considered a “top bachur” in yeshiva. I had the most wonderful family and circle of friends. I could never have imagined considering leaving my community, as there was simply no reason to!

Despite being very content, I was always one to be interested in the philosophical and intellectual aspects of religion. I did not like to simply accept the norms of the Charedi community without justification. During my younger years, this tendency manifested itself only as a need to find considered, detailed explanations behind how I was taught to act.

Belz tisch. leaving charedi judaism
A Belz Tisch

However, as I grew older, I began to question things more seriously – everything from specific characteristics of the Charedi community, to the basic principles of Orthodox faith. There was no single breaking point, but gradually I became very dissatisfied with the classic explanations I’d learnt. I began to branch outwards; browsing online for alternative view-points, and reading books of secular philosophy, biblical criticism and history.

I continued in yeshiva, living life as I had done up until then while concealing my doubts. Slowly, I came to the realisation that I no longer truly believed in the lifestyle I practiced and cherished. This realisation shook me. I felt lost and confused.

Feelings of Rejection and Isolation

I reached out to Mavar because I was in desperate need of somebody to talk to. Over my years in school and Yeshiva, I had built up close relationships with a number of rabbis. Over the previous few months, I had approached three rabbis and attempted to discuss the questions I’d been struggling with. One rabbi was understanding and non-judgemental, but he simply said that he was not equipped to deal with the philosophical aspects of religion, and he preferred not to engage in discussion with me at all (which, I felt, was fair enough).

Unfortunately, the other rabbis I approached took a very different slant. They told me I was at fault for not concentrating on my Gemara studies. I was told that there are no intellectual issues with Judaism and Orthodoxy; all “questions” are just excuses and pretences. The truth of Judaism was clear and obvious; I was simply blinded my Yetzer Hara.

Regrettably, I found such an approach to be widespread in the Charedi community. There is a naïve certainty in their beliefs and opinions. There is no willingness to even consider the possibility that they may be mistaken. There is little room for doubt, and certainly no room to assert that traditional positions may be incorrect. I felt that I was being told that if I wanted to part of the community, I had to relinquish all critical thought.

I am grateful that what these rabbis said did not have a major impact on me. I did not feel guilty about my doubts and my questions. I knew that I wasn’t looking for excuses, and that I was genuinely interested in pursuing truth. Nonetheless, it was infuriating not having anyone to talk to. I needed someone with whom I could be completely open and honest about what I was thinking and feeling, and who could relate to what I was going through.

It took many weeks from when I first considered calling Mavar until I actually picked up the phone. In the Charedi community, organisations like Mavar are thought of extremely negatively; almost as evil (!) people who have a goal of destroying religion. To my mind, calling Mavar represented a point of no return. It felt like a final resolution to abandon my religion. I was not ready for this; at this early stage, I was not capable of deciding how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I was not looking to be encouraged to go “off the Derech” – I simply needed somebody to talk to!

Emotional Anguish and Existential Crisis

Eventually, I got to a place of such desperation that I realised I had to reach out to someone. I was unable to come to terms with the crisis of faith I was undergoing. On an intellectual level, I had simply lost my certainty and religious conviction. But on an emotional level, I had lost so much more.

As a teenager, I had huge conviction in the veracity of my religious beliefs. I had been taught my whole life that Judaism (specifically; Charedi Judaism) was the absolute truth. My persuasion was unqualified. In my naivety, I thought that my sole motivation for the way I lead my life was my certainty that this was the will of God. I was in no doubt that if I were to lose this conviction, I would no longer have any desire to continue living this way.

Thus, when I did begin to seriously question my beliefs, I was completely unprepared for the emotional turmoil that accompanied the idea of giving up my way of life. The reality is that few people maintain a religious lifestyle primarily out of a conviction that God dictated it. People follow laws and traditions for much more complex reasons. I was no exception. My lifestyle conformed with my attitudes and aspirations. Religion provided me with a sense of joy and fulfillment. I loved the fact that I could identify with, and feel part of, a close-knit community. Now, I felt disoriented and torn. I had lost my conviction, yet I was still deeply attached to my religious lifestyle.

My emotional unrest ran deeper still. In my earlier mindset, life on this world had value only insofar as it lead to eternal reward in the World to Come. I used to think that if I were a goy, I would commit suicide! I was not psychologically imbalanced; I simply had been educated to see zero point in a life without religion or an afterlife. Questioning my beliefs lead to a major existential crisis. I felt that I was losing my whole purpose in life.

New Beginnings

After I eventually called Mavar, it quickly became clear to me that my original concerns were totally unfounded. The people I spoke to were only interested in helping me with my personal choices. No one ever tried to persuade me to leave the Charedi or religious community.

Mavar assigned me a mentor who had gone through a similar journey to my own. It was amazing to finally be able to speak openly and offload everything I was struggling with. I remember vividly the tremendous relief I felt at the end of our first session. I strongly regretted not picking up the phone months earlier!

I found the simple process of talking to be hugely cathartic and beneficial. It enabled me to come terms with the internal changes I had undergone. My mentor validated the struggle I was experiencing, and was able to offer me the reassurance that, in time, I would feel more comfortable with my beliefs and more confident with how I wanted to live life. He was also able to offer me relevant, practical advice at every stage of my journey. Above all, I was overwhelmed by his generosity of time and by his willingness to listen and help!

The months moved on, and I continued to explore my thoughts and emotions with my mentor at Mavar. As he had assured me, I became more and more comfortable and confident in myself. I now cared a lot less about what people in the Charedi community thought about me.

I used my time to read a lot of philosophy, psychology, history and literature. After feeling like my whole world, my entire raison d’etre had been destroyed, I began to regain my sense of purpose in life. I reconsidered my goals and aspiration. I began to think about religion in a much more balanced and nuanced manner, and to carefully consider what role I wanted religion and my traditions to play in my life. I’m certainly yet to reach the end of my journey, but I am much further along the path than when I first reached out to Mavar.

Educational Guidance and University

I decided that my next step should be to leave yeshiva, and I was very keen to go to university. Thankfully, I had received a relatively high level of secular education prior to attending yeshiva, so I did not need to do additional studying prior to applying.

Choosing what subject I wanted to study was not an easy task. For as long as I could remember, I had planned to become a rabbi or a maggid shiur, so when it came to suddenly deciding on a new career path, I felt overwhelmed. Mavar put me in contact with an educational advisor, and her guidance was invaluable. She talked me through many different study options, and answered all of my questions with endless patience.

Starting university was a major turning point. I found myself in a new social setting, with opportunities to meet a lot of new people from the wider world. This was my first opportunity to explore real life outside the Charedi community. At the same time, and with the encouragement of my mentor at Mavar, I made an effort to maintain relationships with my Charedi friends and family. I saw no reason to sever these relationships, even though I knew many of my friends may have been quite judgmental of my decisions.

Thank You Mavar!

Mavar was there when I felt that I had no one else I could talk to. My journey would have been infinitely more difficult if I did not have their help and encouragement. I am still very much in the process of exploring life outside the Charedi community. Nevertheless, I feel like I have gone a considerable distance in a relatively short time, and a huge part of that is certainly down the support I received from Mavar. Thank you to everyone involved at Mavar for all your amazing work!”