When I was 14 I went on a retreat and had my first experience with Orthodox Judaism. I was mesmerized by one of the co-leaders. Ellen spoke softly; she wore corduroy jumpers in the summer, and she looked so dedicated and at peace when she prayed. We all spent four days dancing, telling stories, having classes and praying. I loved the passion, the sense of community, the music and the intellectual discussions. I disliked the sexism, the rigidity, the countless rules and the frightening Torah passages. I wondered why God needed constant praise. Couldn’t our prayers be broader and more applicable to life nowadays? Yet I was happy to be praying with all my friends — bowing and whispering in unison.
I went home hoping to keep kosher. My mother made pork chops and told me that it was out of the question.
Some people are “on the derech” (which means “on the path of Orthodoxy”), and others go “off the derech,” leaving behind the strictures of a devout community. Personally, I tiptoe alongside the derech.
Politically and philosophically, I am more closely aligned with Reform Jews. I am a feminist who believes women should be able to take part in Jewish rituals, and I find some of Orthodox Judaism’s positions to be sexist and homophobic. Conversely, I am also attracted to many things about Orthodox Jews, and have at several points in my life been immersed in Orthodox communities. Almost everyone who explores Orthodox Judaism either becomes observant or eventually walks away — except me, apparently. I’m still confused, a questioning Jew; I live in both the secular and the Orthodox worlds.
I have always seen being Jewish as a special gift. Even though I grew up in an extremely secular home and in an Italian Catholic neighborhood, I managed to get myself transferred to one of the most Jewish public high schools in Toronto after declaring my desire to learn Hebrew. I loved being part of the tribe, knowing that almost every one at the school didn’t celebrate Christmas. I was in awe of the collective history of my people and began to go to synagogue. But then there was the God issue.
When I was quite young, my mother told me about atheism. She explained that people may have invented God in order to feel safe. She told me she leaned toward that belief, while my father believed in God. I definitely got the impression that thinking people doubt God’s existence — especially people like me, who are natural skeptics and like to see visible and unwavering proof of everything.
In my early 20s I spent a couple of months in a yeshiva in Israel, where I tried to follow the laws as closely as my six Torah-observant roommates. The entire time I was there, I also questioned the rabbis about the existence of God. They had to pull out all their talmudic proofs. But somehow I was the one student who could never be totally convinced.
I came home and slowly stopped practicing, but I continued to surround myself with Orthodox friends and mentors.
By the time I got married and had my first child, I was feeling very marginalized by Orthodoxy. After I had my second son’s bris, our female mohel convinced us to join her Reform synagogue. I spent seven years there trying to feel connected. I liked having things read in English, and appreciated the commitment to social justice. I was very happy about the fact that God was referred to as simply “Hashem” — not with a male or female pronoun. Here, women could read from the Torah or even be rabbis.
But I never felt part of a community. Most people didn’t know my name. My family was never invited for a Sabbath meal. When I tried to invite someone, he said, “That’s the night when we watch hockey.” When it came time to plan my older son’s bar mitzvah, I couldn’t stomach the thought of having it among a group of people who didn’t care about us.
Somehow, I convinced my husband to join an Orthodox “outreach” community that was nearby, and we started walking to synagogue. By the time we had the bar mitzvah there, I had made many friends over leisurely Sabbath meals. We gained a real community, sharing sorrows and simchas. We made our home kosher; we attempted to keep the Sabbath, and I dressed more modestly. For most people, this would have been the end of the story. But even though it was my third time trying to become religious, I just couldn’t go all the way. I got used to the mechitzah, the barrier between the women’s and men’s sections, but never liked the feeling of being cut off from the “action.”
How did these people do it? All these Balai Teshuvah seemed to effortlessly change their dress and their eating habits. They followed constant rituals and prayers. I admired them, longed to be like them, but did not want to let go of having choices.
It would have been much easier if I had not been so attracted to Orthodoxy. Then I could have just walked away. But instead, I felt a sense of well-being and comfort with the hat-wearing, skirted women who were always getting ready for Shabbos, or planning for the next holiday.
I kept thinking, “We’ll have to fall off this fence on one side or the other.” But we didn’t, and we haven’t.
Orthodox Jews are some of the finest people I have ever met, even as I remain unsure about God’s existence, and if this is how He/She would want to see Judaism practiced.
However, I have finally reached the point of accepting that my place is to remain on this fence.
In the end, my Torah-observant friends offer me a great feeling of security and belonging. I feel uplifted by their desire to do what is right, and inspired by their unwavering trust that God will never let us down. If I can’t believe it myself, it is comforting to be next to people who can.
Neilia Sherman is a psychiatric social worker who lives in Thornhill, Ontario.