When I recently wrote my memoir of leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, I spent days ravaged by sobbing fits, debilitating chest pain, and migraines as I reencountered the trauma my 17-year-old self had experienced after I was pushed out of my yeshivish family for my rebellion.
Shaken, I was fearful that when I went even further back to confront my fervent 11-year-old yeshivish self, the experience would be far worse. For years, I had struggled to keep that powerful incarnation of myself at bay, afraid of her rage, afraid that she would demand, with all the fury of an abandoned child, that I return to yeshivish life.
To my surprise, when I finally immersed myself in recording the memories of that girl, there was none of that. Instead, the sweet love that girl had channeled toward her faith flowed, without judgment, into my battered heart. This gentle reconnection with the neglected religious piece of myself inspired me to try and reclaim the Judaism that had once defined me in a way that could please both my childish devotion and my adult atheistic and progressive values. The solution was clear: I would become a cultural Jew. The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
Every phenomenon is defined by what it is not, the contours of its negative space, and by what it is, the texture of its positive space. As Jews, we are not the gentile majority, a distinction that has had catastrophic consequences. I quickly embraced the way progressive Judaism taught me to approach this aspect of my Jewish identity: commemorating the Holocaust, empathizing with the suffering of other peoples, and championing a country that might help us stave off future tragedy (in stark contrast, within ultra-Orthodoxy this negative space seemed to have been poorly processed, paralyzing aspects of that community).
But although I enjoyed my explorations of Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox services, a lecture given by a Conservative rabbi, and essays by Reform rabbis, I was left unsatisfied by these approaches to defining our positive space as Jews.
Perhaps my nostalgia was getting in the way. In my yeshivish childhood, I had experienced a Judaism that would be hard to match in vibrancy. I wondered if the vitality of yeshivish culture was due to its fundamentalism, or if my community of origin had a different secret of substance that might be worth examining in my current life.
It seemed to me that yeshivish culture rested on four pillars: historical trauma, fundamentalism, God and Talmud. Progressive Judaism offered a healthier approach to the first, I disavowed the second, the third was irrelevant to me, and the fourth — well, there was the fourth. Talmud.